Last week, David Henry
told us all about his work with the Audio Team that is creating the noise that will fill Bungie’s new universe. As you’re about to find out, he’s not a one-man band. The events depicted in our next game happen in a noisy place, and we’ll need entire orchestra of artists to provide the sounds you’ll hear when you play. Let’s collect them all…
Who are you, and what do you do at Bungie?
My name’s Stephen Hodde. I’m a Senior Audio Designer here at the Bungie. I design sound effects for a bunch of different aspects of the game. My favorite part of the job is recording original sounds, whether it’s out in the field or here in our Foley studio. I like giving players a world of sounds they’ve never heard before, even if they’re small and easy to miss. It all adds up to the feeling that you’re experiencing something new and exciting.
To me it just sounds like a bunch of junk. How do you spend your time when you are not filling our game with garbage?
I enjoy Muay Thai kickboxing, reading, eating good vegan food, and spending time with my wife and dog. Lately I’ve been playing a lot of Magic: The Gathering and Skyrim.
Knowing these personal details about your life reminds me that you’re a person, which leaves me regretting that garbage remark. Let’s start this whole thing over by going back to beginning. How did this career as a Sound Designer for video games develop?
Sound design was something I just fell into. I thought I wanted to be a composer or a music producer of some kind. After college, I took a job at an interactive design studio writing music and creating sound effects for Flash games and ads. That’s where I started to fall in love with sound effects. The technical side of game sound implementation also satisfied an aspect of my personality that other traditional media couldn’t.
At some point, I decided I wanted to be working in games, and made it a 2-year project to get a job somewhere in the industry. The first thing I did was start reaching out to sound designers of games I loved, and asked for their stories. The one person that kept in touch and gave me some really thoughtful insight was Emily Ridgway (Bioshock, Brutal Legend). She recommended I strip sound from a trailer or some other gameplay footage and replace it with my own. Tim Prebble (Music of Sound Blog) gave me mixing critiques once I had finished editing my own work into the trailer.
Very ambitious. How did you go about getting feedback from other people to push you further down that path of self-teaching?
I was fortunate to have my trailer critiqued at the GDC demo derby by Emily, Paul Lipson, Gene Semmel, and Scott Gershin. There I saw a young woman present a modification of Unreal Tournament where she replaced the sound. Everyone on the panel responded to her demo so favorably that I decided to start working on a mod of Crysis.
I knew I needed to do something that was completely different from what anyone else was doing that was applying for jobs, so I decided I would record all my own sound effects for the mod. I got in touch with Charles Maynes (Letters from Iwo Jima, Resident Evil 5, Killzone 3) to record a gun shoot in San Diego, CA. I recorded and mastered those weapons, and used FMOD and the Crysis Mod SDK to put those effects into the game. I captured in-engine video and edited it together to make my new demo reel.
Three years later, I’m here. I was lucky enough to get some incredible experience at Volition working on Saints Row: The Third, Red Faction: Armageddon, and a few other unannounced/unreleased projects.
Good Games! Let’s go back even further and talk about what inspired that two-year personal mission to break into this industry? Was making games a life-long goal for you?
That question didn’t really enter my brain until I was about 12. I loved computers and playing games - that’s all I really wanted to do. Marathon was kind of a watershed game for me; I didn’t know games could elicit that kind of emotion. I still walk by the Marathon game boxes in a display case downstairs and get a little choked up. The amount of cosmic weirdness that needed to happen to get me from playing Marathon in my bedroom in Charlotte, NC in 1994 to here and now is incomprehensible.
My mom is a musician and she nurtured my musical aspirations and interests. I started playing guitar around the time I was 12 and almost immediately began writing and recording songs. I didn’t seek out music theory or practicing like real musicians do, I just liked the act of capturing something and turning it into something new. Using an earlier version Adobe Premiere or Deck II, I started slowing down the guitar recordings, speeding them up, playing them in reverse, processing flange and chorus effects, and so on.
It’s clear to me now that I wanted to be a sound designer. I thought I wanted to be a composer or musician when I was a kid, but sound design was something I just didn’t know existed.
We never know where the skills we develop might take us. How did your musical education prepare you to end up with Bungie?
I wouldn’t be here at Bungie if not for the teachers that took a personal interest in me, encouraged me when I needed it, and pushed me when I got lazy. My mom was my first champion in all my childhood creative endeavors. She is an incredible pianist and I grew up listening to her practice and teach others.
So much of sound design is happy accidents, trial and error, and black magic. I think most sound designers will tell you they are self-taught in the skills they use, but really it’s an amalgamation of everything. The best audio designers - Ben Burtt, Walter Murch, Randy Thom - are all well-rounded individuals with passion and knowledge outside their field. What shapes their craft and grows them as artists comes from everywhere.
Beyond musical theory and basic enthusiasm, how were you able to take all that passion and translate it into actual working knowledge that would make you employable?
I didn’t have any formal training in sound design or implementation. Mrs. Bucy, my 6th grade music teacher, got me my first internship at age 15 for a recording studio in Charlotte, NC. I spent as much time as I could there, learning basic microphone technique, signal flow, soldering, tape machine maintenance, acoustics, and most importantly dedication.
I went to New York University to study Music Technology, where I earned a Bachelor of Music. In college, I worked with a producer in Brooklyn and helped him construct a recording studio, and continued to record throughout my years at NYU in their Music Tech studios.
Do you ever find yourself recalling the things you did to earn your degree? Or was your education more of a rite of passage?
A lot of what I learned from those years I still use today in some form. Orchestration and creating a sound effect are very similar. Beyond the core content, whatever’s at the heart of the music piece or sound effect, you’re thinking about texture, tone, and how to fill out the frequency space over time. The same critique of classical music recording can be applied to a game mix; its width in the stereo space, the sound’s stage depth, how well can you localize a specific instrument or sound within the image, the mix volume dynamic, and so on.
The implementation aspect of the job can be difficult at first, but there have been a lot of developments with middleware that have lowered the technical bar for entry. I took a Computer Science class in high school that has given me most of the basic vocabulary I need to communicate with developers effectively. Learning FMOD and Wwise was something I picked up in my free time.
You have an impressive story about how you learned to do what you do. How did you entice Bungie to listen to it?
I had met Senior Audio Lead Jay Weinland several years prior at an Audio Engineering Society conference. We both delivered presentations on a physics-driven audio systems panel. Getting to know him in a casual environment without work pressure definitely helped get my foot in the door.
Once they decided to give me a chance, I tried to pull out all the stops, to act as if this was the only interview I’d ever have. I worked through Christmas vacation non-stop on my sound design test, and tried to think of any way I could stand out. Bungie gives its audio applicants a radio play script to edit together a short piece without visuals. I went off that script, and it was something that left an impression with them. I knew it was a risk. Gimmicks or novelties can be really off-putting to employers. I wanted to show them who I was at my core, and ultimately they liked what they saw.
And that’s just the first step into a larger world. Next comes the fearsome trials of the interview loop. What was the hardest part about yours?
The waiting. Oh, and the food poisoning I got at lunch. Luckily it didn’t kick in until I was back at the hotel. I’ve done enough interviews and public speaking to learn to just be myself, so I didn’t have to reach too deep and manufacture some kind of special, better version of me. I knew Bungie’s standards are very high, and I wanted the job really bad, so the hardest part was letting go of all that to just relax and be me. I struggled with crippling self-doubt for many years, so the hardest work went in well before the interview.
Have we provided you with rewards that make up for the agony you endured after your interview lunch?
I am so fortunate to have a steady job in a creative field, that in and of itself is reward enough. At this point I’ve been at Bungie for less than 6 months and I’ve experienced the biggest creative growth of my life. I look forward to coming in to work every day, and I think often about how I’m probably one of the few people on earth that can say that. Sometimes it takes a bit of courage because the caliber of talent here is so high, but there’s also a comforting atmosphere of mutual respect.
You have a long history of expanding your own skillset with personal projects and elective exploration. How do you continue that self-education as a member of the Bungie team?
I’m always listening critically to movies, games, and TV shows that give me some kind of inspiration. I will still make A-B comparisons of my work to other games and films. That back-to-back comparison can yield a lot of insight. Mostly I spend free time with tools or techniques I’ve never used. Occasionally I’ll do a freelance project like an independent film to switch things up.
The guys I work with here have incredible ears and their input has been the biggest factor for my growth. Getting my work into the hands of better sound designers that can give me criticism has been the single greatest educational method in my arsenal.
And it’s not just about the creative skill, it’s how you handle that criticism that determines whether or not you can move forward.
You’ve provided aspiring sound designers with a wealth of ideas for how they can explore what you do on their own. Is there any other advice you would heap onto this mountain?
Patience. I suppose if you put it all together, it was 5 years ago when my wife and I decided to move from Brooklyn, NY and I was able to begin my game audio job hunt in earnest - and by that time I had already worked as a professional sound designer for a few years.
Find your own way to stand out. Again, don’t be gimmicky. It still needs to be tasteful and professional. Put that above-and-beyond attitude into everything, cover letter, your demo reel, website, business cards, or resume. It has to come from a genuine place, because people smell -blam- pretty easy. And it smells bad.
I don’t think we’ve ever talked to a subject who had so much to say about how one can join this world we inhabit. I feel like I just passed a course myself. Before we dismiss this class, rank these elements in order of importance to your role: Experience, Work Ethic, and Talent.
Work ethic, experience. I would probably strike Talent from the list. I don’t know if I was really ever “talented,” I’ve just spent a lot of time doing what I do. I was lucky enough to find something I really liked to do early in life and then I just kept doing it.
And with that, this class is dismissed. If you’re finding yourself wanting to join Stephen in our pit, he has provided a whole volume of sheet music for you to follow. If you’re not musically inclined, but you still dream of making games, don’t lose heart. We need all sorts of artists to make a game. You can learn about all of them in the Breaking In