“Like the ’99 Summer Jam”
Caleb, so good to talk with you!
“Great to talk with you! It’s been too long!”
If I remember correctly, when I first met you, you were employed at Harmonix. I was working at Backbone on Rock Band or Dance Central. I can’t remember. Where are you working now?
“So, I’ve made a couple of moves since my Harmonix days. About 4 years ago, I came west, to EA, and worked at a small studio that was formed on the Redwood Shores campus, called Waystone Games. About 4 months ago, I left EA and joined some ex-Waystone folks at a new venture called Spiritwalk Games.”
The Dawngate team?
“Exactly. We were put together specifically to make Dawngate, I was the Audio Director on that game, my first gig running the audio show for a game, so I was pretty crushed when it was canceled. I’ve had some time to process though.”
“Well, we’re doing the whole flat structure thing at Spiritwalk, so I’m just a person who is on the team. For all intents and purposes though, I’m still Audio Directing”
So, with most startups the flat structure means you have an area of focus, but you need to wear different hats. Can you give us some insight into your current responsibilities? What is your typical workday like?
“Sure, there’s still a lot of baseline setup for audio stuff that the game needs, so I’m doing a bunch of audio work right now, but I’m also helping out with design, marketing strategy, building things, basically, whatever needs doing. The startup life is really all about asking yourself ‘What would be the most helpful thing for all of us right now?’; And if that’s hanging a TV on the wall, you hang a TV on the wall. I worked at a place that sold TV mounts right after college so I know way too much about TV mounts.”
Right, it’s about what work needs to be done. Are you capable of doing it? Then jump in.
“Exactly. After Dawngate was cancelled I was really fortunate to bounce over to do some work on the mobile side of EA, and I worked under a tremendous designer named Ian Hetu, who just let me pick up whatever I wanted to help with, he was down to mentor me in design stuff, so I did some design. I picked up shuriken, unity’s particle effects system (we were prototyping in unity) and did some VFX work. It was a great time to do a lot of learning and just be curious and expand my skillset.”
So, you got a crash course in several new disciplines.
“Right. Part of why I love making games is that there’s always interesting problems to solve. I always try to be ‘conversant’ in as many disciplines as possible so that I can work better with my colleagues who are super skilled in those areas. Also, if I ever go out and try to make my solo magnum opus, I’ll be better prepared.” [Smiles]
Yes. You must be willing to learn a lot of different things to be able to be a one man shop. So, you’ve contributed to several games, not just in an audio capacity, but in many other areas. Can you list a few of the games you’ve worked on in your career?
“Sure, it’s not a terribly diverse list so far! I’ve worked on Rock Band 2, 3, Beatles Rock Band, Lego Rock Band, Green Day Rock Band, Dance Central 1 and a little bit on 2, Rock Band Blitz, and I did some early work on Fantasia: Music Evolved. After that was Dawngate, and after that it’s all unannounced things.”
“The startup life is really all about asking yourself ‘What would be the most helpful thing for all of us right now?’”
Working at Harmonix, was probably a dream come true for an audiophile. I assume it was your first job? If so, how did you get that job?
“It was through college connections. I used to DJ at parties when I was an undergrad at Harvard. I closed out a party one night, playing after a band called The Blanks, which was full of guys who went on to Harmonix: John Drake, who’s now at Sony, Jon Carter, who was on stage at the Apple TV press conference recently, and Matt Boch, who’s now teaching at NYU while still working at Harmonix. After I finished up my Masters degree out north of LA at CalArts, I gave Matt a call and he got me an interview at Harmonix. I’m afraid that my story really does corroborate the whole ‘it’s who you know’ thing.”
It’s very true. Connections help you get ahead and in the door at most game companies. So, you went to Harvard and CalArts? What did you get your degrees in?
“My undergrad degree is in Afro-American Studies, and my graduate degree is in Experimental Sound Practices… not the most likely combo.”
“I knew I wanted to make sounds (be it sound design or music) after I was invited to sit in on a workshop led by a couple of electronic musicians who collectively go by Matmos. Another electronic musician named Keith Fullerton Whitman was also there. They talked about their process, and how they worked with sounds and samples and I was really intrigued. At that point I had been messing around with making hip-hop beats on my computer a bit, mostly using a program called Reason, which is still going strong today. Seeing what those guys were doing though, made me realize there was so much more I could be doing than just messing around with an emulated TR-808. At about the same time, I had decided that I wanted to get back into acting in theatre productions (which I had done in high school) and I landed a part in a super experimental play both as an actor, but also as the sound designer/composer. I wrote a CRAZY weird score for that show.”
Did this happen before or after Harvard?
“This was while I was there, my senior year. After that first show I kept on doing theatrical sound design until I headed off to LA for grad school.”
So, what is Experimental Sound Practices?
“It’s what CalArts calls its electronic music program. It’s been going for quite some time.”
Where did you grow up?
“Just outside of Harvard square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was a university brat, my dad worked at Harvard, and my mom worked at Suffolk University, which is in downtown Boston.”
Upon getting the masters degree, did you want to get into games? Or was it just a possible opportunity? Did you consider other fields?
“Not really, well, I had this ‘plan’ that I was going to become an A&R guy for a record label, and be the suit in the back of the room that discovers bands, but that was before I decided to head to grad school. At that point I was really focused on being an artist first, maybe being some mix of a rapper/producer and a contemporary artist. My first year in grad school though, one of the guys who was doing audio for the PS3 reboot of Warhawk came by and gave a talk about his job. I had always been a very devoted gamer, I think I was in the middle of replaying Chrono Trigger for like the 3rd time when he came by for that talk. Seeing how interesting the technical challenges were in order to ship a game, it made me realize that I could merge my vocation and avocation and find a career that could satisfy both. At that point I was dead set on working in games. Even though my advisor at CalArts looked down on it. He thought I would be selling out.”
It’s hard for some people to see the industry as a viable career with real growth and creativity.
“Yeah, I think some people just don’t see games as a viable form of media. I mean, it’s true that games are an intersection of art and product, so to some extent the purity of artistic expression can be compromised there, but there’s just SO MUCH potential in this medium. It’s so exciting to be a part of figuring this out.”
How long have you been in the game industry?
“It’s been about 8 years now. It’s kinda flown by. Constantly shipping games helps with that I guess.”
Have you seen techniques in game audio implementation change in significant ways? Are there any trends you see developing? Anything new that interests you?
“Totally. I mean, there are a bunch of different threads you can follow there. There are aesthetic trends, like Battlefield 3 came out and everyone was all about DISTORTION for a bit (me included) and then there are technical trends, you have the rise of the use of middleware like Wwise and FMOD, which are bring some great workflow improvements and controls to making game audio, also, not to lean too heavily on DICE here, but you have the development of HDR (High Dynamic Range) Audio, which came out of the Bad Company series, and that’s changed how games are mixed in a big way. Now everyone is trying to figure out audio techniques and best practices for VR, which is an interesting challenge, not one I’m currently picking at, but it’s nice to participate in the #gameaudio discourse and try to help with big problems like that.”
How do you stay up on the latest developments? Books, websites,… Twitter?
“There’s a pretty strong game audio twitter community, and we now have a slack channel where folks hang out and swap ideas. GDC is great, and the game audio community there is really strong and very welcoming. Also, there’s some great game audio podcasts: Tonebenders, the Game Audio Podcast, the Game audio Hour. Between all of those, plus designingsound.com and createdigitalmusic.com most of the info is out there to stay up to date.”
What skills or traits are important to a successful career in game audio?
“There’s a baseline of skill that’s necessary; You need a good ear, and you need to know your way around a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) but I think the most important thing that’s often overlooked is that you need to be a really strong collaborator and have excellent interpersonal skills. It’s very important to try to reach outside your discipline wherever possible; to be conversant enough in code to know how best to ask your engineering partners for the help of hookups that you need, and to work closely with the artists whose work you’re in an artistic dialogue with.
Interpersonal relationships are also how you advance your career. Without a group of friends and allies who are happy to help you succeed, it’s hard to make your way. It can’t be done by pure skill alone.”
Collaboration is the backbone to a successful project. Collaboration and patience.
“Also massive amounts of caffeine.”
“…that doesn’t really touch upon the need for other types of stories, there are still a vast number of very personal stories to be told.”
Yes, the appropriate amount of “go juice” is needed. Are there any tools or programs you like to use on the job? What are your most used/favorite programs?
“I use a program called REAPER as the backbone of my audio workflow. I started using it when I was setting up the process for RBN (Rock Band’s user generated content initiative). This project is the first time I’ve given up the ‘industry standard’ DAWs in favor of a REAPER only setup. I also started using a set of standard VST plugins called uhbik not that long ago. If someone wanted to get started in sound design, I’d point them at those two sets of software. Also, every sound designer has to have a portable field recorder, I carry a Sony PCM M-10 around with me pretty much all the time. For this latest project, I’ve started down the horrible rabbit hole of hardware eurorack synthesizer modules, which is a dangerous place to go for one’s budget, but you can make some really unique sounds with that stuff.”
Looking back over your career. Is there anything you would do differently? Anything you wish you knew before encountering it?
“Hmmm, I think if I could do it again, I would’ve taken some time for an indie project. The Afro-American studies side of my brain has a lot of game ideas that I’d love to take a crack at at some point. But it’s hard to pour your passion into one game during the day, be a good and involved father, AND make another game on the side. There’s always time though, life is long.”
“Agreed. I think there’s a really large array of experiences that aren’t yet being captured by games. While I do think that there are some that deal with the experience of otherness, which black folks experience as part of daily life, there aren’t many that really get specific. I think that there have been big changes within the industry in terms of how we collectively think about race, and exactly who we’re telling stories for. I think that Manveer Heir’s GDC talks helped to get the conversation started around inclusion, around letting everyone feel like they can participate, but that doesn’t really touch upon the need for other types of stories, there are still a vast number of very personal stories to be told.”
Yes, a personal experience in the vein of Gone Home would be a great story and perspective. Historical fiction is also good, like the Assassin’s Creed game. I think the book/film The Spook Who Sat by the Door would be great material.
“Definitely! I’ve always wanted to take a crack at Black Skin White Masks by Franz Fannon. It’s a bit of beating a dead horse at this point, but I think there was something really profound about the racial passing gameplay in Assassin’s Creed: Liberation.”
YES! Such a great mechanic!
“And so well tied into that experience as well. Folks hold up Braid as an excellent example of a tight integration between mechanic and narrative, and that being where games are at their best. I think that passing mechanic hits that mark as well. I got the same feeling playing that as when I get uncomfortable about code switching.”
Code switching. A unique personal experience in race.
“Exactly. Especially for me, being A) mixed race and B) working in a predominantly white, highly technical industry. That really hit home.”
If you could give advice to someone who wants to break into game audio, what advice would you give them?
“I think now is a really good time to break in. There are so many indie projects popping up at any given time, there’s a ton of opportunity to get familiar with game audio by doing it. It’s also not that hard to get involved in the community and start working on building connections to the people who will be in the know to let you know about what will be your first gig. Being the ‘person trying to break into the industry’ is a hard social role to play well though, it’s very easy to be too pushy or too eager. I did the exact same thing when I was younger, passing out burned CDs of my hip-hop beats to anyone who would take them. In the end though, I got into the industry through regular friendships that I developed with my peers. Just be nice and be involved, and with some luck, opportunities will come along. Also, it doesn’t hurt to have a sick demo reel. That being said, I think most people will hire the nice person with a good reel over a jerk with an amazing reel. The key is to be the nice person with the amazing reel!”
That is great advice. Everything you’ve shared is good knowledge to know. I hope many will find it helpful. If people wanted to find you, how could they do that?
“I’m @Neccobus on Twitter.”
Thank you for chatting with me.
“It was a pleasure.”