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Starting your career as a composer-sound designer (FAQ and answers)

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#1 nsmadsen   Moderators   -  Reputation: 3791

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Posted 25 July 2008 - 01:49 PM

Hey guys, Here are some FAQs and my answers. I hope those interested in working in audio and media find this post helpful. I'll try to post more questions and answers as I get more time. Of course, I'll be more than happy to answer any questions posted in response to this thread. For those that don't know me: I'm Nathan.... and an alcoholic. smile.png Seriously, I'm a professional composer-sound designer who has worked in this industry for nearly 3 years now. My credits number 138 and include work on films, commercials, DVD menus, trailers (seen online, on TV and in theaters), stage productions (mostly choral based), Nintendo DS-Sony PSP-PC video games as well as websites. I've directed voice actors, produce voice overs and done some voice acting myself as well. I'm living proof that you can make the transition from amateur composer to free lancer and then finally full time professional. One the side I'm a published author, lecturer and have taught college audio courses. I also love to encourage, teach and help others chasing the same dream! So here goes:

 

Quote: Are there any industry certifications, and if so, does any online training exist for one to go to learn how to write in this industry?
 

No, there isn't any required, official certification to work with audio. Sure, there are audio programs (2 and 4 years) but they're not required. Can it help you get your foot in the door? Sure! But I know plenty of other pros that don't have certificates or degrees from these kinds of schools or programs. I have a bachelors in music education with a minor in comp, then a masters in saxophone performance with an emphasis on composition. The main criteria is how good your audio work is.

 

Quote: What was your VERY FIRST step in getting into the business? Demo CD? Meeting someone? Buying equipment? What was the very first thing you did?
 

Well this is tricky because I took my first steps before I realized what I wanted to do. I got the equipment first, which is a logical step. Without the hardware and software- you can't really create digital audio. I started in college and just made stupid songs for my roommates (like "I've got to take a crap" and such). You know, real high brow stuff. It was just fun at first- but then I started getting better and better at it. My focus changed from just having fun and making songs to what is the best audio I can create. You must have the equipment first- but it doesn't have to be super high end. I had middle level stuff. For most, the high end stuff will just be too expensive at the start. Save that for later when you've built up some clients and funds. From there I would create a demo and put it online then begin to network. In this business you have to be able to show off actual work. Talk is extremely cheap and the experience vets can spot a big talker from a mile away. Let your work do the talking.

 

Quote: I know you can score for film and tv, songwriter, and self-produce your own albums. What else is out there? What am I missing?
 

Websites, corporate functions and media. Also stage productions (I've done two of them and they're pretty fun.) Podcasts and radio is also a possibility.

 

Quote: I have a degree in music composition. I've taken theory and I've written some concert works. Do I need to go back to school for more education or am I on the right track at all for a career in video games and films?
 

Having a degree in music will never hurt you! Trust me, it becomes highly apparent who has training and who doesn't when working with other composers. What I've seen is those that are better trained tend to work faster. It tends to take longer for those with less training to create a pro level sounding song. Is it possible? Sure! Is this true for everyone? Of course not. I've also met some highly talented (and rare) composers that have practically no training- just a severe level of talent. I kill them on sight. smile.png Only kidding! If you can write good music, then you don't need to go back to school. In fact even if you feel you're music should get better- I wouldn't go back for more musical training. You can improve yourself outside of school if your foundation is good enough. I would focus on learning about audio, mastering audio, working with virtual instruments, sound design and all of the ins and outs related to all of this. Depending on your aptitude, you can either do this on your own or back at school. I did it on my own- but started back in 2000 during college.

 

Quote: Are there actual contracts I could eventually expect with, say, a record label or production studio to be a professional songwriter or queue composer?
 

I know the record industry has composers on hand to write music- but I would imagine these are far and few. The competition to land something like this would be very, very high and I would imagine there is a large number of other composers already in line. Not to be discouraging, but the odds are hard for that kind of position. I would imagine the ones that land those kinds of positions already work as studio musicians on many professional CDs and begin to get to know the artists, producers and record execs. Something like that will take time.

 

Quote: Basically, if there's a good book I could buy that's worth a good read or a good place to go to fill in all the holes (think of my knowledge as like, SWISS CHEESE), that would be perfect. I've learned pieces of information over the years, but I've just never gotten a great overall picture of what's out there. I was too busy fighting the good fight in academia just to learn what I don't need to know so I can get down to learning what I DO need to know.
 

Yes, there are several books. 1) Aaron Marks: The Complete Guide to Game Audio This book is a VERY good read and will teach you a great deal about the business side of game audio. (Rest assured many of the lessons and topics can carry over to film work as well as other contract work.) What this book will not teach you is a step by step method of working with a particular sound program. This makes sense because there are simply so many out there- it would make the book 10 times longer. 2) George "The Fatman" Sanger: The Fatman on Game Audio This book is more fun than straight informative- but it still provides a good deal of insight into the industry and some of it's history. The Fatman provides some great advice on how to structure your studio and how to organize all of your files. 3) Bob Katz: Mastering Audio This is a FANTASTIC book that will go very in-depth about audio. It will teach you about the CD production process (the Mother and Father discs, the clean room) as well as almost anything you could ever want to know about the nuts and bolts of audio production. It isn't the easiest read- simply because he uses a great deal of industry lingo without explaining some of it first. I'd often sit by the computer and google terms so I can fully understand what he meant. Aside from books, getting your hands (and ears) dirty with the tools and practice of creating digital audio media is probably the most important step to growing and maturing into a professional composer-sound designer. I know that it is expensive, but I'd also recommend learning several programs instead of just one. The programs I use in my home and at work routinely are: ProTools 7 Sonar Producer 7 Sound Forge 8 Pro Digital Performer 5 Logic 8 Pro Cool Edit Pro 2 Reason 4 Finale 2006 Various VSTi plugins Various Audio Signal Processing plugins Proficient at both Mac (OSX Leopard) and PC (Win XP) set ups Knowing one or even two programs can limit how marketable you are to clients (especially those with in-house set ups).

 

Quote: Do I need to know much about sound design or just music composition?
 

Many composers get "pushed" into doing sound design if trying to work full time in the digital audio scene. Why? Because it adds another niche and slew of paying clients. I started with composing, but then eased into sound design work. When I took my first full time gig (at FUNimation Productions) I was exposed to a whole other level of sound design. It was there that I learned how deep it goes. We all can respect and understand how deep composition can go- well sound design goes just as deep. Many folks seem to short change sound design thinking it is just a matter of "inserting a gun shot here." That isn't sound design. Wait. Let me rephrase that: it's crappy sound design. Professional level sound design can involve a much deeper approach and really get into the nuts and bolts of audio physics and processing. It can also be a great deal of fun! The best way to learn about sound design is to: 1) Read up on it with various books and articles. 2) Train your ear to be able to pick out what individual sounds were made to create a new sound effect. We train our ears to learn harmonic progressions, solfege and melodic dictation in music schools. Why not apply the same practices to sounds? 3) Try to make a sound out of other sounds completely unrelated to it. For example: make a car crash sound using no metal or smashing sounds at all. See how you can use various plugins and processing to create a synthetic sound that will sound like a car crash. Sound design is an art that takes just as much attention, practice and focus as music composition does.

 

I hope that helps! Thanks, Nathan


Edited by jbadams, 04 January 2013 - 06:33 AM.

Nathan Madsen
Composer-Sound Designer
Madsen Studios

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#2 CitizenJames   Members   -  Reputation: 108

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Posted 25 July 2008 - 11:33 PM

Awesome post nate! Ya know, i had an alcoholic friend named nathan that i used to record "i have to take a crap" songs with. I used to do a segment on a radio show where i take ideas for a stupid song and i write and record it to play on the next week. My favorite song was called "strip go-fish". so i know exactly you come from.

#3 nsmadsen   Moderators   -  Reputation: 3791

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Posted 27 July 2008 - 05:32 AM

Hahaha, well actually I'm not an alcoholic, but I did write silly, stupid songs at my start. :) Glad you liked the post!

Nate
Nathan Madsen
Composer-Sound Designer
Madsen Studios

#4 JimWelch   Members   -  Reputation: 106

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Posted 27 July 2008 - 09:29 AM

another helpful article, glad you are so willing to spend your time helping those in the beginning like myself!

#5 SeanGilleece   Members   -  Reputation: 130

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Posted 27 July 2008 - 11:10 PM

That was brilliant, I can't say enough about how grateful I am for that post.

That will help me alot, I am looking up about The Complete Guide to Game Audio now.

I will also begin to focus on sound effects a bit more also, and perhaps incorporate them into my composing also.

Thanks again, if I run into any questions I will post them here as your answers are much more clear and straight forward then alot I have came across on the internet.

#6 Dannthr   Members   -  Reputation: 286

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Posted 29 July 2008 - 05:46 AM

Quote:
Having a degree in music will never hurt you! Trust me, it becomes highly apparent who has training and who doesn't when working with other composers. What I've seen is those that are better trained tend to work faster. It tends to take longer for those with less training to create a pro level sounding song. Is it possible? Sure! Is this true for everyone? Of course not. I've also met some highly talented (and rare) composers that have practically no training- just a severe level of talent. I kill them on sight. :) Only kidding! If you can write good music, then you don't need to go back to school. In fact even if you feel you're music should get better- I wouldn't go back for more musical training. You can improve yourself outside of school if your foundation is good enough. I would focus on learning about audio, mastering audio, working with virtual instruments, sound design and all of the ins and outs related to all of this. Depending on your aptitude, you can either do this on your own or back at school. I did it on my own- but started back in 2000 during college.


Also don't forget that experience is in and of itself training. Most of what you'll gain in school that will help you write faster is, actually, experience.

For those of you who are just entering school for the first time, please, please, please don't be afraid to explore OTHER artistic mediums to suppliment your understanding of aesthetics and to bring something extra to the table. There's more to music than music.

Finally, there isn't anything you can learn in school that can't be read in a book between 50 and 300 years old (unless it's a music tech program) and many music tech programs are behind the curve when it comes to technology unless they just upgraded that year (usually their equipment is 5+ years old).

And just as a last little bit:

Listening should be an active part of your life. When you play some music, LISTEN ACTIVELY, analyze, break it apart, look at sound as closely and deeply as you can, never stop trying to understand how a song or soundscape you like works. Imagine how you would construct that, always ask yourself, "how can I do that?"

When you actively listen on principle, you will eventually be able to write what you hear and hopefully learn to write anything you hear (in your head).

What's the deal with actively listening? Going to school can be good, you can learn a lot of techniques and brush up on your speed transposing--but school isn't worth CRAP unless you take school with you when you leave.

That means always being a critical thinker, in craft as much as in life.



#7 nsmadsen   Moderators   -  Reputation: 3791

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Posted 29 July 2008 - 05:05 PM

Danthr is exactly right: Listen listen listen!!! Thanks for chiming in bud! To follow up on what he said- experience is training in itself. I tell music students in college to take part in as many musical ensembles as possible. When I was in college I was in:

*All Male Chorus (TTBB)
*Mixed Choir (SATB)
*Band (Symphonic and Wind Symphony)
*Jazz Combo
*Jazz Band
*Saxophone Quartet
*Cover Band (student led)

I've also helped out with orchestras in the past- but not as much as I'd like. Because of this I was exposed to a wide range of ensembles and literature. I was in almost as many groups during graduate school too. I was also really into all kinds of music just for listening purposes and really liked films (US and international) so I paid close attention to alot of film music. I use these experiences in my pieces daily.
Nathan Madsen
Composer-Sound Designer
Madsen Studios

#8 Matt2East2007   Members   -  Reputation: 130

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Posted 30 July 2008 - 04:25 PM

Cool Edit Pro, represent!

#9 Matt2East2007   Members   -  Reputation: 130

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Posted 30 July 2008 - 04:26 PM

I just figured out that my MBox does multitrack editing, in addition to being a great beverage coaster.

#10 nsmadsen   Moderators   -  Reputation: 3791

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Posted 05 August 2008 - 06:47 AM

Quote:
Original post by Matt2East2007
I just figured out that my MBox does multitrack editing, in addition to being a great beverage coaster.


It's also a great paper weight! ;)
Nathan Madsen
Composer-Sound Designer
Madsen Studios

#11 nsmadsen   Moderators   -  Reputation: 3791

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Posted 06 August 2008 - 03:28 AM

Here is another question. Some of this may overlap with my previous answers, but I thought some of this might be helpful.

Quote:
How did you get started when you were at the same stage as me? I'm finding it pretty hard at the mo. No freeware people will pay me for work and I can't find commercial people who are interested. And with the freeware stuff I find it hard to tell between the projects that are just for fun and the serious ones that will actually go somewhere!


Back in 2005 I was an elementary school music teacher. That was it. I had no contacts or ins with the video game industry. I also had no experience making games. What I did have was a severe passion for games and music. I had been creating music on the computer since 2000. I had been a part of performing groups (like choir, playing violin, recorder, band, jazz band and rock groups) since I was in first grade. When I first started out I read some books by composer-sound designers that I admired. This game me a good understanding of the process, the business side and where I could start finding clients. I started this search on gamedev.net (which was one of the sites listed in these books). After a while I extended my search to other websites and communities. Put yourself out there as much as possible!

At first I didn't land too many paying gigs. I was extremely lucky and did land a Nintendo DS project for my 3rd project and that was paying. I basically took on as much work as I could and did some PR and exposure-related stuff every day. Literally. I've been very lucky to get all of the clients I got. With my demo reel, I was able to impress paying clients and took on many projects that I found speckled all over the web.

My biggest break came when I was hired on at FUNimation Productions. I was a full time composer-sound designer for their trailer and promo dept. I was able to work on many A-list shows like Dragon Ball, Dragon Ball Z, Full Metal Alchemist and many others. I also learned a great deal about sound design and how to work on high-end equipment there. This also upped my industry standing and attracted even higher profile clients.

My second big break came with NetDevil hired me as their lead audio composer-sound designer. Now I'm working on Lego Universe, Jumpgate Evolution and other triple A titles.

It can be very, very hard to find work (especially paying work) when just started out. My best advice to you is to continue pushing forward. There were times I felt I'd never make it to a full time gig. However, the more projects I took on and the more pros that I networked with, the easier it became. Another great thing is if you can find a job that gives you a steady income while chasing this dream job on the side. Teaching did that for me (especially during the summers). While I didn't love teaching that much, it gave me the flexibility to continue to freelance and eventually make it into the full time work.

Now to your question about how do you know if a game is going to be going somewhere or not. This can be hard to tell. Here are some things I pay attention to:

*Team structure: How organized are they? What role(s) do the management play?

*Prior experience: Do they have a proven record? Have they completed any games before? What level(s) of education do they have?

*Any funding: Having secured funding can always help, but I've also run into teams that mismanaged money very badly. Ask to see a business plan, if they have one drafted up.

*Pictures or Concepts: If they have a decent amount of great looking concepts and pictures, this is always very encouraging. If they have noting to show you, then at look over their design doc. If they don't have that either.... then they're probably not ready to recruit freelancers.

*Contracts: If a team is structured enough to have set up contracts and NDA forms, then this shows a level of seriousness and planning.

Even the most structured teams that have all of these assets can fall apart. Heck, it even happens to studios with 10 published games and large budgets. This is an important lesson for everyone to learn. This business is very up and down. A studio that is top dog for years can fall flat on it's face, then be back on top several years later. Try your best to get to know the people behind the team. Some folks are really big talkers, so if you can learn to spot these folks then it can save you some trouble. Some folks get way to excited and exaggerate how things are progressing. Early on I learned to not get excited about something until I had a signed contract in my hand and a check (that didn't bounce from a client.)

Thanks,

Nathan

[Edited by - nsmadsen on January 4, 2009 10:28:55 PM]
Nathan Madsen
Composer-Sound Designer
Madsen Studios

#12 Jaap1978   Members   -  Reputation: 252

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Posted 03 September 2008 - 08:34 AM

Fantastic topic Nathan and this deserves a bump to be read again :) I will soon post also some thoughts if that could help :)
-----------Jaap VisserComposer/Sound DesignerJaap Visser Music Productions3 Peak Audio

#13 nsmadsen   Moderators   -  Reputation: 3791

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Posted 03 September 2008 - 10:21 AM

Thanks Jaap! Any thoughts that you can share are more than welcome!!
Nathan Madsen
Composer-Sound Designer
Madsen Studios

#14 Rain 7   Members   -  Reputation: 100

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Posted 09 September 2008 - 12:05 PM

Nathan, KILLER thread. Great info.

Is there anyway you could stickie this thread? It certainly deserves it as the information inside is absolutely essential to composers starting out, getting going and staying on top of things.

Thanks for the in-depth information.

#15 nsmadsen   Moderators   -  Reputation: 3791

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Posted 09 September 2008 - 03:18 PM

Glad you liked it Rain! I don't think I have the ability to sticky a thread as a floating mod. I'll see if another mod could do it.
Nathan Madsen
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Madsen Studios

#16 Rain 7   Members   -  Reputation: 100

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Posted 09 September 2008 - 04:22 PM

Hey man, no problem! It's clear you have a lot of insight into music-making and getting your foot in the door for music making opportunities. I find that kind of information a lot more relevant to composers than a stickied thread that hasn't been updated, literally, in years. ;)

I just don't want this thread to disappear into internet limbo.



#17 ndatxcod   Members   -  Reputation: 100

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Posted 09 September 2008 - 05:04 PM

Great tips, I was wondering which books about composing/arranging theory you would recommend.

I think composers at first should be willing to work for free on projects to get experience and to put their name out there so you can point and say "there I made the music of that game".

Having said that I'm looking for some music for my project [grin] <evil laugh>.

#18 Kaiyoti   Members   -  Reputation: 130

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Posted 10 September 2008 - 01:00 AM

Quote:
Original post by ndatxcod
Great tips, I was wondering which books about composing/arranging theory you would recommend.

I think composers at first should be willing to work for free on projects to get experience and to put their name out there so you can point and say "there I made the music of that game".

Having said that I'm looking for some music for my project [grin] <evil laugh>.


These are great tips, however, I do think that the common fallacy that most music composers is that as soon as they think they have the ability to make music, they want to be in the industries. Hopefully I don't offend anyone, but there are people with years of professional experience but still create terrible material. Experience doesn't mean everything. Even before trying to "work for free", composers should really spend some time just learning and building that custom trademark sound. Really, I'd hate to see good games with low budgets ruined with poor music production values. Most established composers today (people like... Jeremy Soule, Jesper Kyd, Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, Trevor Rabin, etc) have their signature style. Unless you're just doing it for the money, then disregard that point.

I'm not remotely a professional music arranger (I refrain from calling myself a composer because I believe that's only reserved for the people who are the real deal) but so far, I've never really had to sell myself, if you have some sort of profile up somewhere (soundclick, ctgmusic, myspace, etc...) people will generally discover you. I've had quite a bit of people requesting music for various projects. What have I learned from this? I prefer making my personal music tracks... because it's more flexible and creative, and you learn better. Most projects have certain requirements on the type of music you create, which limits you to that freedom. If I can work with a project, it's great, but I prefer ones without the tight deadlines. I like to think that ever track I do, I'm making progress towards my custom sound.

People are usually worried about building up those "credits" section in their portfolio or resume and just getting their names in projects as opposed to actually making some good music. If you're a director for a movie or game, and you're looking to hire some musician, you'll probably be more concerned about the person's style rather than what the person "can" do. For instance, I certainly don't think someone like Hans Zimmer would ever do a space sci-fi movie or a western cowboy film (although those would be interesting).

Composers probably won't like my post very much since my opinion may insult or challenge people's abilities... but to my defense, this is simply a matter of opinion. I have no intention of becoming a full-time composer (not anytime soon anyway) so my ideals probably only work for me.

[Edited by - Kaiyoti on September 10, 2008 7:00:11 AM]
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#19 nsmadsen   Moderators   -  Reputation: 3791

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Posted 10 September 2008 - 02:27 AM

Kaiyoti- VERY good point! I should stress that before I even made my first sound for a game I went through this music training:

*Choir- was a singing in choir (both church and school) from 1st grade through Senior year in college.

*Band- played in a band from 6th grade through my first year of graduate school.

*Jazz Band- played in a jazz band from 7th grade through my last year of graduate school.

*Marching Band- played in one my entire HS career.

*Taught trombone, percussion, clarinet, flute, saxophone and piano. (Teaching is one of the best ways to strengthen your own understanding.)

*Taught K through 12th grade music (choir and band). Directing an ensemble yourself really stretches you as you attempt to educate and rehearse others on a piece of music.

Also was a music major for both undergraduate and graduate degrees. So, inherently, I had a ton of musical experience and training before even trying to score for video games. Each person is different, but Kaiyoti is right. It takes most years to develop the musical knowledge and skills to create superior music, then even after that you need to have the ears and instincts to produce your work at a high level. So finally:

I messed around with Sonar (and other software) for five full years before even starting music or sound for video games. Before that, it was just for my (and friends and family) own enjoyment.

Some people are so severely talented that they can start up something like this and be very professional soon after. Others take longer. You may need as much prior experience as me, or might need less. Each person is different. A great exercise is to:

Select some audio from one of your favorite games, TV shows, commercials or films. Compare and contrast your music and sound production to those assets. Are you on par? Below? Above the audio that is already out there? If so, you're ready. If not, you need more work.

Final note on this topic: Don't let this discourage you. I'm constantly learning new aspects and techniques in audio. Becoming an audio doesn't mean you know everything about audio. But it does mean you need to produce at a certain level.

Quote:
I think composers at first should be willing to work for free on projects to get experience and to put their name out there so you can point and say "there I made the music of that game".


The problem with this is it becomes perpetual. Let's face it, most folks with take something free over paying for it any day of the week and twice on Sunday. It's just human nature. I understand most young projects have little to no money, but working for free makes it hard for both the composer and the developer to break away. The developer will likely either want to keep using the composer on the next projects at a free rate, or move on to the next free composer. Meanwhile, composers that work for free face resistance from developers once they start charging. It brings down the entire music-composition realm. People argue that what a "noob" does shouldn't influence or affect me or other pros at all. It does. Sometimes indirectly, other times directly. I've been told that my music is spot on and perfect but they didn't want to pay for it. So I don't get used and the developer scopes out another composer starving for credits but not requiring payment.

My point is make your services worth something. Set up an exchange of services. Charge a realistic but cheap amount when first starting up. Note: this goes for mainly indie teams seeking a commercial release of their game. Pure hobbyists should remain out of the commercial realm and working for free with them is okay. The problem is, and I've already stated this somewhere in previous posts, most proclaimed "hobbyists" on GD.net express some kind of commercial aspirations for their product. The short and simple version: If anyone stands to get paid, then all should get paid. Sometimes they leave the composer out of this and say "well you got the industry credit." However, we all know not all credits are worth the same thing. What are credits anyway? References of your work. Many in the industry put more stock or weight on credits for established systems, game series or production houses. Why? Because it is a reference that is known. "Oh wow, that game had great audio! You DID this?" If it is a game that very few folks (globally speaking) have heard of or played, then they tend to skip over it. Sure it shows some experience, but since the reference is not known by most, it doesn't get as much respect. It doesn't impress or disappoint them. It just doesn't register that much. (I've been told this first hand by several HR folks at large video game companies) Harsh but true. For this reason, I don't feel that young composers should be willing to work for free on retail-aspiring projects.

[Edited by - nsmadsen on September 10, 2008 8:27:51 AM]
Nathan Madsen
Composer-Sound Designer
Madsen Studios

#20 jbadams   Senior Staff   -  Reputation: 17771

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Posted 10 September 2008 - 03:15 AM

Quote:
Original post by nsmadsen
I don't think I have the ability to sticky a thread as a floating mod. I'll see if another mod could do it.
[looksaround]







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