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nsmadsen

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

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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]

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Fantastic topic Nathan and this deserves a bump to be read again :) I will soon post also some thoughts if that could help :)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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>.

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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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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]

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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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