My Story – How I Became A Sound Designer

Growing up, I have always had an affinity for things that made noises. When I was a kid, my dad would take me to school and I loved the sound of his car blinkers. I would imitate that sound with my mouth and my dad thought it sounded so close to it that sometimes he would get confused as to whether it was his car or me making the sounds.  In combination with this,  I took piano and vocal lessons at a young age, and like most people,  I never practiced as much as I should have. I am thankful for my wonderful teachers who have sowed the seeds of interest in music in me at a young age. I was a very shy girl and this became a way to express myself.


High School 

Things were stressful as a high school student; I needed an outlet and found myself often just randomly playing the piano in Mr. Rhodes’ (my high school choir teacher’s) room during lunch (Mr. Rhodes was really kind to let us choir kids hang out in his room).  These little musical thoughts weaved themselves into songs. Mr. Rhodes encouraged me to pursue my music and to start taking composition lessons, so I started studying composition under Dr. Mark Carlson.  Initially, it was super hard and I had no idea what was going on. It was very mathematical and all about music theory and music analysis. I was not used to that as previously all I did was just play out whatever I felt at the moment on the piano. It was here though that I really started learning the nitty gritty fundamentals and Dr. Carlson really helped solidify that for me.
UCLA – Classical Composition

I ended up studying composition at UCLA afterwards in college, where Dr. Carlson was a professor. The program was not an easy one – I remember calling my mom and crying after many of the classes thinking I wasn’t cut out for this. The ear training tests with harmonic, melodic, rhythmic dictations or dictations involving playing a recording and writing down the notes were quite challenging. The TA would go down the line in the classroom and each person would have to provide the answer for whatever the teacher had just played, so if you didn’t know it, everyone would know you didn’t know the answer. This was very different from what I was accustomed to with normal tests, where if you did poorly, at least only you would know about it.  A lot of the tests were catered in a way where if you had perfect pitch, it wasn’t straight forward either and you would have to transpose things in your head. Anyways, I stuck it out and braved through everything, constantly visiting office hours until I felt comfortable with the material being taught.

At my college graduation, I was proud to say that I was the Chancellor’s Marshall for the Music Department (equivalent to the valedictorian for a high school graduation).
USC – Film scoring

So what came next? It was super cool learning the art of classical music composition, but I wanted to write music that everyone could understand and appreciate. What better way to do that than to write music for films and TV, where music can help communicate emotions and feelings that was universally understood. Excitedly, I went to tackle my new mission. I applied and got into USC’s prestigious Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television program. This was an intensive one year program that often times led to only sleeping 3 hours a day and long nights at Kinko’s. I learned so much – how to orchestrate for film, how to record and conduct live orchestral sessions with top musicians who played for John Williams, helping out with episodes of the TV show “Lost,”how to write music quickly and efficiently, how to run and conduct live sessions,  how to be a copyist, music business, how to network.. the list goes on and on.

However, one of the things that had the most impact on me was my collaboration with the video game department on campus. I met Prof. Mike Zyda, the head of USC’s Gamepipe Laboratory, where many innovative student games were developed; many of them won awards at IGF (an indie game competition at GDC, the Game Developers’ Conference). I was fascinated by the idea of writing music and making sounds for video games and ended up spending a huge chunk of my time there. After about a year, I had worked on around 30 student games and was able to build a great portfolio of work for someone just starting out in game audio. Many of the students I collaborated with are currently industry veterans and it’s awesome to see where everyone has gone in their life paths. I eventually started contracting with some startups in the Bay Area and getting my hands dirty, gaining real world experience. As I kept on working, I realized that what I was lacking in my technical chops. I looked up places where I could improve upon this and found the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences (CRAS). It seemed like a short program, less than a year, that was within budget for me to sharpen my audio engineering skills.


CRAS – Audio engineering

I shared this idea with my parents and they were like haven’t you had enough schooling? And you want to go to Arizona?? Why can’t you just stay in California and find a job? It was hard explaining this in a way that they could understand. I kept contracting with various startups and saving up money. I attended GDC, went to every party with business cards ready, and forced myself, no matter how shy of a person I was or how uncomfortable it felt, to first make eye contact with strangers, and then just introduce myself and give my card to them. At GDC, Comic-con, E3, and all of those types of events, I would put myself out there and try to meet people. It was a lot of hustling and for anyone who knows me, this is totally unlike my personality and was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Eventually I grew my client base; word of mouth spread that I was a great resource for audio. I finally saved up to a point where I felt like I could make it in Arizona by myself. I told my parents I was going for it and there was no stopping me because I could just pay for tuition and housing myself. They were sad about it but knew there was nothing they could say to change my mind. Fast forward, CRAS ended up being one of the best experiences of my life. It was a constant overflow of information but I learned so much, got certified in everything I possibly could, gained experience recording bands on SSL’s, APIs, both with analog tape as well as digitally with Pro Tools, was introduced to live sound (thanks to Keith Morris!) and game audio middleware softwares, etc. After I finished the curriculum, I felt way stronger from a technical standpoint, and was able to land a sound designer role at Electronic Arts shortly after.


EA 

The application process was quite difficult. I actually thought the job was in Los Angeles, where I currently was living at the time, but it ended up being in the Bay Area. The interview process was about 2.5 months long with what I found out later to be 900 other applicants. I am grateful that my boss at the time, Caleb Epps, saw potential in me and chose me out of everyone. I ended up working on one of the coolest games made by Electronic Arts called Dawngate (rip), which is a story for its own time. And that is how I ended up on the path I am today as a sound designer in the games industry.

My Best Advice

For those of you still trying to figure out what career path you want to take in life, don’t be afraid to try new things! Just because it wasn’t what you started off studying, it doesn’t mean that it won’t be the right fit for you. Many people currently are doing something completely different from what they studied in school. It’s better late than never doing it and regretting not having pursued something.

People interested in audio who are just starting out have often asked me what is the best advice I can give them. Based on my experience, my best advice is this:

  1. Improve your technical chops and be comfortable with your middleware/DAWs.
  2. Work on as many projects as you can to build a portfolio.
  3. Put yourself out there even if it’s uncomfortable and network! If I can do it, you definitely can 🙂
  4. Never give up. If there’s a a will, there’s always a way.

 

Questions for you as a reader 

  1. Having read my story, can you relate (even if you have a completely different type of job)? Or have you had different insights and experiences?
  2. What did you find to be the most helpful advice for navigating to where you want to be?
  3. Is your career what you studied in school or what you always imagined you would be doing?

I’d love to hear from anyone who wants to share their thoughts as well 🙂


Final thoughts 

Looking at a lot of the accomplished people I know, I hear many people often call these people “lucky.” While luck does play a little role in things, I think this is a misrepresentation and an undervaluing of all the hard work and effort that goes behind these people’s success. There are obviously exceptions, but in general, if you want to end up at a place you want to be, it takes many years of practicing your craft and getting good at what you do, and failing many times before succeeding. People often only see the successes but not everything before that that led to it. Just think, Pokemon Go, was the “Overnight Success” game that only took 20 years to succeed.  There will be many times you fail, but failure comes not from falling, but from not getting up. So I encourage all of you, go pursue your dreams and don’t let anything stop you! 🙂

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4 thoughts on “My Story – How I Became A Sound Designer”

  1. Thanks Watson! I think a lot of times it’s a mental/psychological battle and learning to navigate through that first. It’s never easy but I think it’s good to know that we’re not alone in this crazy career path, which is why I wanted to share my story 🙂

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  2. This is an awesome read. Came here from Reddit.

    I relate very well to your story. I studied Marine Biology at Uni. My first job out of school two years ago and still my current job, was working as an Audio Technician at Broadcast Production company. I started as an A2 and since then have had the opportunity to work on some major jobs both here at home and abroad. I’ve learned a lot and this has motivated me to develop my skills more. I’ve started teaching myself how to edit audio and I’ve recently become involved in a small project.

    You really have no clue what life has in store for you when you leave school. I’m glad you found your path and it’s taken you to where you are now. I wish you all the best in all your further endeavors.

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    1. Hi jb, thanks so much for your comment and for sharing your story. I applaud you for pursuing your passion for audio even though it’s a very different field from Marine Biology! Working in Broadcast must be exciting. Is it fast-paced? I think a lot of what happens after school is what you make of it and everyone has a different way of finding their path, so it’s cool to hear how everyone gets to where they are 🙂 It’s awesome that you’re getting hands-on experience working on your own projects. Those are always the best ways to learn and sharpen your skills. Hope you keep at it. We are so lucky to have the internet at our disposal with so many great resources that we can learn from in this day and age.

      Didn’t know that my blog post had made it onto reddit lol. Out of curiosity, do you have the link for that?

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