Steffen and I were colleagues for only two weeks. Unfortunately—because he is a pro when it comes to audio localization and I would have loved to learn more about these procedures. Luckily, he agreed to answer some questions I've had for a long time. And he does so very bluntly.
Marianna: Steffen, thank you for agreeing to do this interview. How did you end up in the video game industry?
Steffen: Actually it kind of happened by accident. ;-) Almost all my life I was working as a freelance audio, music and media designer and director in the TV, advertising and music industry. On top of that, I translated and edited about 250 TV shows. When my second child was about to hit school I felt like I’d need more stability for my family. A steady job seemed to be the solution since I was just kind of sick of all the ups and downs in the freelance-industry. So I started looking around for matching jobs and stumbled upon an offer as an audio lead in the video game industry. That’s how I jumped into the pit.
M: How does a typical workday look like as an audio lead?
S: That depends on the stage a project is in on that particular day.
The different stages are:
- repartition and quoting
- pre-production and booking
- recording and post-production
- QA and sendout
For repartition and quoting I work with one of the in-house project managers (PM) on the amount of audio work that is required for a project: its script, the different characters in the game and how many voice actors will be needed. Are there sound effects or other special needs? From there on, we fix the budget for a project and the PM finalizes the deal with the client. Then I take care of the voice actor casting for the project: finding the right voices for the characters, making sure that the actors are available in that particular time frame.
When our client is happy with my casting and has confirmed the budget, I start booking the actors to get the recording done in our estimated time frame, while at the same time my sound engineers start to prepare the recording sessions (compiling the original audio reference files of each character which will later be matched with our recorded audio files). A lot of telephoning and mailing is going on in this stage of the project, since it may contain from 1-100 or more actors and you kind of feel like a trader on Wall Street. A typical phone call sounds something like this:
“—Ok, you can get actor A on Thursday from 9 to 11 am only if I get an ok for actor B and C for Wednesday 10 and 12, each for an hour, ok? No, but if you need actor D on Monday night, then I got to go with actor E and A on Tuesday. No. But there’s no way, because her agent told me she’s got to pick up her son from school on Wednesday and Friday. No, she’s confirmed and leading character, so I have to record her on Tuesday. Have to, you know? Ok, ok. Then you’ll take D and F on Monday and Wednesday, I’ll stick with A and E on Tuesday and we’ll take from there, ok? Yes, because his agent told me so and he’ll be on Orange is the New Black on Thursday and will be synchronizing Game of Thrones on Friday. Alright, awesome. Still have to check with Audio Lead C, D, E, F, G, and H though. I’m gonna call them right now. Anyway, talk to you later.”
It can be very stressful, because after the 80th phone call of that kind your head starts to spin a little. But at the same time it can be insanely rewarding when everything’s working out as planned and everybody involved is happy.
Then it’s finally time to start the recording sessions, and that’s the best part of the job, seeing and hearing the characters of the game finally come to life! It’s awesome every time. When I have the time, I love doing the artistic direction myself. But unfortunately most of the time I’m too busy for that, because the further booking of actors for the next days is quite demanding.
Finally there’s post-production, the quality assurance of the finalized audio material and the sendout of the files to the client. As the audio lead I have the responsibility of making sure that every single file sounds great, has the right name, format and length and is delivered to the client on time.
Wow, that was a friggin’ long answer, but hey: you asked me! ;-)
M: That was a long answer, but I really wanted to know :-)
Which skills should someone have to be a successful audio lead?
S: Sure, everybody needs particular “skills” to be able to give the best in his job, whether they're a carpenter, a piano player, a teacher or an audio lead. As an audio lead that would be knowledge about different audio software and hardware, recording processes in general, video game content and experience as a sound engineer and artistic director, which includes working with people and artists in a studio environment.
But at the end of the day I think you have to be really passionate about the things you deal with on a daily basis. And in my case it’s everything to do with sound: voices, music, noises, sound effects, everything. If you love it and if you are passionate about it, you develop a feel for what sounds good and fits the scene and what is crap, what is necessary and what can be left out.
Another big plus is to be good with people. You are—in a way—the figurehead of a company, because you are the one dealing with a lot of externals like actors, directors, sound engineers, production companies, studios, other audio leads, and what not.
It’s as simple as that: if you are a prick, nobody wants to work with you or your company again. That easy.
“Hey, I want to ask the xyz company for a quote.”
“Fuck them! Their audio lead is an asshole! Don’t ask them for a quote again! NEVER!”
It can get really personal from time to time… ;-)
If you want the project to be a success and you want your company to prosper you have to take care of a good working environment and make sure everybody involved has a good vibe doing her or his thing. I think that’s the key, no matter what business you work in.
M: What are the typical challenges in audio localization?
S: The fact that you face a constant time pressure is really the biggest challenge. That and budget. It always has been an issue in the business that the audio work comes last in the long chain of steps during production. That’s the same in video gaming as in TV as in advertising, etc. It’s always a real bummer when you notice that the client didn’t properly calculate the time frames and the budget for the audio production. So during production the pressure is on all the time.
M: I know what you mean—I also wish developers would plan for localization a bit better. It would make the localizers' jobs easier and result in better game quality...
What do you enjoy most about your work?
S: Finding the right voices for the characters and listening to the recorded lines afterwards. When they turn out to sound as you imagined them to sound…that’s just great.
M: I noticed that especially in German movies, subtitles and sound often differ greatly. How is it in video games—should game subtitles be exactly like the audio? If no, why not?
S: You know what? I have to admit that I never really pay attention to the subtitles. But, to answer your question: No, the subtitles have to be shorter than the the audio. It’s important that the message come across to the player as simple and easy as possible.
M: You regularly work with voice actors. What traits do your favorite voice talents have? What are you looking for?
S: The biggest trait would be that actor’s “core voice” (as I call it) is a great voice by itself without being digitally polished or acted dissembled. Disguised voices can be nice, but to have a great core voice is the key, no matter if it’s low, high, smooth or raspy. Sometimes you can’t even really tell a great voice until the guy is in the booth in front of that mic and lets his voice go. And baaam, there’s the magic…
The second thing for a voice talent would be the ability to really act out a scene. Just having experience doing commercials is not enough for video games. Same as for the synchronization work for TV or the movies. You must be able to act.
Third and last: If some voice actor turns out be a real “Diva” during the production, it’s the last time I work with him/her. I really don’t waste my time with assholes. I don’t need them.
M: What are the conditions for selecting your cast? Do you, for example, try to stick as much to the original as possible? Do developers have a clear idea what they want?
S: To be honest, most of the time it’s due to time pressure that you have to rely on the original or the first adapted version (for example: the original is Korean, then you go with the Korean. Or: the first adaption of the original Korean is in US English, so we go with that, because of the cultural similarities). And most of the time, you don’t even have pictures or videos of the characters. But either way: in a perfect world you would have the time to really look at each single character to find his or her perfect tone and voice. But most of the time you listen the US or KO reference file and try to match it. Worst case: you finally get the videos or pictures of characters you already finished the recordings for and you find out that the voice just doesn’t fit the character at all. Because if you relied on the US ref, and the US studio screwed up the casting in the first place, you might be screwed yourself…
M: Can you share 3 pieces of advice for people who are looking to become an audio lead?
S: 1. You have to have experience with a studio environment and the different people working there (engineers, actors, directors). Some are awesome, some are divas, some are dicks, some are whatever. You should be able to deal with all different kind of people and circumstances and always make the best of it.
2. Always keep a good vibe among the people you work with. Always. Treat everybody equally, no matter whether he or she is an intern, the CEO, or the pope.
3. Keep it real and don’t let the system(s) get you down. After all it’s all about us humans. ;-)
M: If you were a video game character, who would you be?
S: “Sonic the Hedgehog”. Fast, blue, and I really had the funniest gaming nights ever with Sonic at a friend’s place 20 years ago…
M: Do you have any side projects, game-related or not?
S: Don’t have too much time for projects, but I might be getting back into forming a band. It’s really about time. ;-) Don’t know exactly when, what or with whom, but it’s gonna be good! Besides that, whenever I have the time, I write a lot. Let’s see where that ends…
M: Anything else you would like to share with us?
S: Actually I do. Since I am kind of the silverback among all the young dudes in the audio business I feel the need of blowing out some advice to work by (and live by as well if you like). I don’t want to be an old smart ass or something, but I just feel the need to tell you, because life is short and there’s no time to waste. Especially not at work, believe me. So here we go:
- Trust your gut.
- Quality is always better than quantity. Leave your mark.
- Simplify. Everything. Always.
- Don’t compare yourself to others; do your own stuff. Even if it sucks at first.
- Never judge people in an instant. You gotta realize that everybody carries a load of shit around and you don’t know what that might be. Maybe there’s family trouble, maybe heartache, maybe sickness, whatever. You will recognize a real asshole soon enough, don’t worry.
- Don’t be a wanker. Treat others nicely. Be good.
- In fact be the person you feel you needed when you were a kid; that sure should be an awesome guy!
- Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Eventually they become experiences.
- Communicate well. Always.
- Don’t take any shit from anybody. Never.
Alright, enough already. Now have some fun and go figure out the rest by yourself. ;-)
M: Thank you so much, Steffen! This was an insightful chat. I agree that being a wanker is just wanky :-)
Profession: Audio Production Wizard
Boost: Black coffee and good food
Special Moves: Music and Words and Cooking
Best game ever played: Gran Turismo 2
(driving the light green metallic painted Nissan Micra)
Currently playing: FIFA 16. Nothing else, because there’s just no time.
How did you like this interview? Have you learned something? Are you used to different procedures? If you enjoyed it, please leave a comment so that I can see that our efforts are not completely in vain :)