The game industry, much like Hollywood, is a wonderful melting pot of influences, creativity and talent. Just like film, inspiration to embark on a career in games typically finds its origin in a passionate appreciation for the work of veteran talent that came before you. Such is the case for Aaron Walz, co-founder, composer and sound designer at Game Audio Alliance. His work now spans close to 100 games – largely centered on the mobile, social and casual games space.
Getting Started Early
Aaron originally embraced composing game music at the tender age of 10, when he combined structured piano lessons with a love for game melodies: notably the work of classic Japanese game composers on the NES and Gameboy. He would meticulously learn the tunes by ear and teach himself the basics of MIDI sequencing in the years ahead. Although passionate and ever-expanding his skills, it wasn’t until college that Aaron truly seized upon the notion of making a living out of game music composition.
“I started composing as a freelancer for games while in college, around 1997-1998. I had made a website where I posted game tunes that I sequenced in MIDI by ear, as well as my own original game songs, and some indie companies started hiring me for work,” Aaron tells Gamesauce.
Regarding his transition into the casual games space, Aaron essentially moved with the industry as it matured through the years – carving out his own niche in the process. “Back then there were no Casual Games or Mobile games, so it was PC and Mac retail, or freeware and shareware. I followed the industry as it became Casual, Downloadable, Social, and Mobile. As far as transitioning, it’s all about the contacts and reputation you acquire along the way, and having constant marketing, web and social media presence, or public speaking and interviews.”
Always strive to better yourself
This spirit of creativity and entrepreneurship has clearly been a driving force for Aaron, but he’s also a firm believer in hard work, industry awareness, and mastering the tools of the trade. For sound design and audio engineering students on the cusp of launching a career in the field, Aaron outlines some very specific “self-help” tips and goals for aspiring pros.
“Knowing how to be a recording engineer, reading lots of industry books and articles, playing with new samples all the time, knowing your music theory, performing music – these are all general and vital. All-around computer chops are also a must. Your role as sound designer won’t involve much programming, though, not these days in this space. Of course Protools, and being familiar with Sonar, Cubase, etcetera, helps, and playing lots of games for all sorts of platforms, keeping up on the game charts, owning lots of devices – and knowing them well.”
As Aaron knows all too well, however, a winning personality is just as crucial to success in this industry as the most rigorous of formal education and training. Thanks to his previous work as a Human Resources Director and the associated expertise in leadership training and business law, Aaron is able to evoke a truly collaborative work ethic and company culture when managing relationships at Walz Music & Sound, and most recently at Game Audio Alliance.
Be creative, but stay true to yourself
Aaron values the versatility of an artist and their ability to remain open, fluid, and flexible in all stages of the development process, yet it’s also essential for a budding sound designer or composer to stay true to themselves when seeking employment opportunities in game audio – especially when pushing their own demo reels.
“You should always be yourself. Don’t submit something that isn’t who you are and what you can do. That being said, don’t limit yourself by thinking you can’t learn how to write in other styles as well. Do the work, practice, and produce something different that is quality. If you can’t do that, then don’t put sub-par stuff on your demo. It won’t pay off, and it isn’t representative of your sound.”
Aaron continues: “Keeping that unique sound that is yours is important, and I wouldn’t put anything non-game style on there. As far as foley and sound design, that’s most useful with images, otherwise don’t waste your audio time with much of it unless it is amazing and very much your strong suit. The same applies to voiceover demos.”
The allure of trendy gear
Historically, aspiring audio pros have never had as much access to affordable sound production software and gear as one can find now. The occasional pitfall of today’s splendid access to sound design tools is that new audio people sometimes surround themselves with stacks of trendy gear and devices without necessarily mastering any one of them. Would a hopeful audio professional be better off dabbling in a wide spectrum of tools, or isolating and mastering just a select handful?
“Both? The better you know gear, software and samplers, the more you can pull out of it, and the more quickly you can create work,” Aaron contends.
But I would not say to force yourself to learn tools you don’t like. Master the ones you love to use, and play with new ones all the time – don’t get stuck using the same ones over and over again.
“You don’t have to have the most expensive and most trendy gear to make something amazing. But that isn’t a reason not to try it and upgrade from time to time.”
The importance of open dialogue and peer feedback
At this year’s Casual Connect conference in Seattle, Aaron provided an interesting revelation about the submission process at Game Audio Alliance: Aaron and his team will frequently work with composers who are wonderfully talented from a creative perspective, but may be – comparatively – lacking in proficiency when it comes to the nuts and bolts of polished end production. As opposed to “silently” repairing their work, perhaps avoiding confrontation with the artist, the GAA team is instead all about open dialogue, peer feedback, and helping to improve the all-around skillset of their artists.
“The Game Audio Alliance is always interested in bettering people who work with us, and educating the gaming and music community at large,” says Aaron. “We’d much rather work with people while watching them grow and empowering them, than keeping them down. I’d suggest you always try to work with that kind of person, because I’ve certainly encountered a lot of the opposite, which is why we have structured GAA the way we have!”
Backbone and humility often go hand-in-hand in the games business. “I can’t imagine that anyone should be offended by critique in this industry. If you are, you are not in the right industry. Turn off your ego. Seriously,” says Aaron.
No one wants to work with a big ego, and it will stop you from being as good as you can be.
The importance of maintaining a balance between quality and budget
The team at GAA currently produces almost all of its composition and production work internally in the interest of maintaining a high quality level, but Aaron is quick to note that they “always accept resumes and demos.” The intention is to engage in a bit more contract work and eventually “bring a couple more individuals into the fold” going forward. As is par for the course with any game audio shop, Game Audio Alliance also regularly contracts outside voiceover talent and hires skilled instrumentalists and vocalists whenever a project demands it.
A key differentiator in the GAA pipeline is the company’s current focus on the casual and mobile game space. Compared to work in the “core” or “AAA” game space, there are specific development conditions and mandates to consider when entering this region of the industry – and it’s a decidedly smokin’ hot area of growth right now.
“The audio footprint can be a lot smaller here, and keeping the quality high can be a challenge because the budgets are far lower than core games. The development cycle is also much faster, but it’s rewarding and fun to hear your work in a casual mobile game so quickly after starting work on a project, unlike a year later with other traditional cycles,” Aaron describes.
The appeal of casual games
That compression of sound and time, both literal and esoteric, draws a fairly profound line in the sand between the world of large-scale game development, working with teams of dozens or hundreds, and the more intimate universe of sound design for smaller social and mobile titles. Aaron doesn’t necessarily seek to champion one tier of game audio work versus another, but he appreciates the nature of his current workflow.
“For me, I like being a big part of the process. There is more and more red tape and barriers the more people you add to it, yes, but usually the end product is more amazing too. Most casual, social, and mobile games, they don’t really involve that many people, and usually only one or just a couple of audio people,” he notes.
When is work becomes fun and fun becomes work
A career in pro audio within the entertainment industry is a dream for many aspiring musicians, and training for this role inevitably involves critical listening in a wide spectrum of different genres, eras, and styles of music. But is it still possible to listen to music for purely recreational purposes, to separate from one’s professionally-tuned ears and simply enjoy for the sake of enjoyment? For Aaron, it’s a dual-edged blade: inescapable critical analysis often trumps raw listening pleasure.
“When I listen to music, all I do is analyze chords, listen to production, editing, levels, mixing, panning, the quality of the players, etcetera – so it’s hard for me to enjoy music in a removed way,” he laments.
Thus, for enjoyment Aaron tends to seek music outside his realm of expertise. “I love world music because of this: I don’t know it as well, so African, Cuban, Greek, Arabic, Indian, and Brazilian Jazz are often played at my house for enjoyment. I do also like simple music with a nice beat for doing chores or working out. These sorts of pieces – like dance music – are very simple, so analyzing them really doesn’t take a lot away from enjoyment.”
Aaron Walz doesn’t have a great deal of free time these days, period, but it seems like he wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s always available – and often booked – to talk about the industry, give helpful advice to aspiring talent, accept and critique demos, and carefully listen to the opinion of other game industry professionals. He also makes time for a great interview, for which we kindly thank him.
If you’re curious about Aaron’s work or what goes on at Game Audio Alliance, feel free to email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Veteran game industry writer and consultant.