Music, Sound Design, or Both? How to Choose Which One to Do
Did you know that, before 1827, no one said "hello"?
Well, at least, no one actually said it as a way of greeting someone. In fact, it was used mainly as a way of expressing surprise. It wasn't officially used as a way to greet people until the first telephone was invented - at which point, Thomas Edison himself insisted people answer the phone with "hello?"
But what did these old-timey people say before "hello?" Well, they said "ahoy", of course. Yes, just like a peg-legged pirate. In fact, the inventor of the telephone himself, Alexander Graham Bell, often answered the phone with "ahoy" "ahoy ahoy!" or Mr. Burns' favorite "ahoy-hoy."
Alexander Graham Bell himself was staunchly opposed to the word "hello", and used ahoy for the rest of his life. Everyone else, though, had a choice to make: stick with a word they already knew, or move on with the times and use a new-fangled made up word like "hello" to talk on the phone.
They made their choice, and they chose poorly.
And, as audio designers for games, we're often faced with a similarly dire choice: to work in music, or sound design? Can we work in both? Do we HAVE to work in both? What if we hate one and love the other? What should we do?
Well let's dive in and cover exactly that!
Here's what we're covering today
Part 1: Should we start out doing both music and sound?
Part 2: Does every game audio professional need to do both music and sound?
Part 3: What if we want to focus on one?
If you're newer to the world of game audio
You may have run into the idea that some games (especially smaller indies) are looking for someone who can do both music and sound design for their project.
Considering these two skills are different, but related, it makes sense for one audio person to handle both. This is especially true on projects where budgets and audio needs aren't quite big enough to warrant hiring two separate audio people.
Even if you're primarily a composer, it may not be a bad idea to try your hand at sound design for a bit, especially to see if you like it. This will also give you an idea on how it works so you can communicate with sound designers better later on.
So, considering you may be seeing tons of projects that require you to be both a composer AND sound designer, you may be wondering if you're going to have to start learning an entirely new skill just to survive in game audio.
Yes, it's wise to learn at least a little about both fields, and for those of you who want to get better at sound design, I have a course coming out soon to help out.
But, do you need to do music AND sound forever?
In a word, no.
You sure can, if you want to. But, you'll find that the higher you climb in the industry, the more and more specialized you'll need to be. Very few people on higher-end projects have the time, inclination, skill, or desire to do both music and sound at a top-tier level.
Yes, there are exceptions, but more often than not, you'll eventually find that you'll be asked to do just one over the other, especially in AAA games.
And many people just want to focus on one over the other
Especially the composers among us.
If you're just starting out, especially wanting to do only music work, you'll find that sound design jobs are infinitely more common. It's a far more in-demand skill, and as you're beginning your career, you'll find that you're asked to do both sound and music all the time.
But that doesn't mean you have to.
Which is why I suggest partnering with someone else to help you out
The people inside my Game Industry Pro course, for example, help each other out on paying projects all the time - one person handling music, while the other handles sound. I've even hired people out of that group before for the exact same purpose.
Whether you're a part of my communities, or any others, it's worth taking the time to find others to collaborate with.
If you're a composer who doesn't want to do sound design, pair up with a sound designer and bring them on to all of the projects you find and vice versa. Pay them a chunk of your fee to do the sound, so you can just focus on the thing you want to do.
The more advanced you become, the more important it is to get help. And, you'll notice that doing less ironically gets you paid a lot more after a certain point.
"But Akash, you 100-layer blueberry lemon cheesecake" you ask "what if I want to do both forever?!"
That's definitely doable! Eventually, though, you're going to need to hire some people to help you out on larger projects.
Nick Arundel over at Rocksteady (developer of the Batman Arkham games) is a famous example of someone who is both a phenomenal sound designer and composer. While he does handle the majority of the music and is the studio's audio lead, there are still other amazing audio people on the team as well.
It gets tougher and tougher to "do it all" as project sizes and budgets increase, so getting help from others is just a part of the process.
And speaking of "doing it all"
The idea that we need to be all things to all people tends to mess up a lot of AAA job applications.
You've probably noticed that AAA companies regularly post job openings for sound designers, and because audio people are vultures descending upon the fat carcass that is "work", they get hundreds - if not thousands, of resumes.
Unfortunately, many of those applications are from composers looking to sneak their way into a game company by posing as a sound designer. They submit their resume and their profile as a "composer/sound designer"
Don't do this.
Most AAA companies want specialists, not generalists, when it comes to their audio departments. Don't put "composer/sound designer" on your resume unless that's what the studio is specifically asking for.
If you're applying for a AAA job, be sure to show them how you're a good fit for that specific role.
So, let's go over what we covered today
If you're new to the world of game audio, then go ahead and learn at least a little bit about both music and sound design.
You don't need to be a master of both fields, and you don't need to do both forever, but many entry-level indie projects will often require you to do both music and sound.
If you want to do both long-term, go right ahead! Nothing wrong with that. You'll still eventually need to hire some extra people to help out as projects grow.
And if you want to focus on just one of the two, that's great. Find a few people you can hire on your projects to help take care of the parts you don't want to work on.
If you're applying for a job at a AAA company, tailor your application specifically for them. If they want a sound designer, show them your sound design skills. Make sure your resume is all about sound design, and don't put "composer/sound designer" on there. That'll get you ignored real fast.
I'm bringing "ahoy-hoy" back, so help me. This is my life's purpose.
So while most have already chosen to use "hello" over the objectively superior "ahoy-hoy"
The choices we get to make between music and sound design are a lot more flexible. You're not nearly as locked-down as it may seem at first glance.
And for those of you who are interested in upping your sound design skills
Be sure to be on my newsletter.
I have a course on exactly that, designed specifically for beginner and intermediate sound designers coming soon. This is for people who already know how to make sound, but need that extra boost to fill in their knowledge gaps, and actually want to feel confident throughout the process.
This first round will cost $20, and will only have 20 copies available at first. It's going to sell out as fast as a batch of PS5s, so I'll keep you posted on when it's coming out!
Only people on my newsletter are ever allowed to join my courses, so be sure to be on there, otherwise it'll pass right on by!