In these 3 interviews, you'll hear what it takes to get started and succeed in UI/UX sound design from Henry Daw, ADR recording from Emma Butt, and Audio Programming from Adam Croft.
By Jennifer Walden and Asbjoern Andersen. Images courtesy of Henry Daw, Emma Butt, and Adam Croft.
• How to succeed in sound design for Film, Documentaries, and Trailers – with Nia Hansen, Peter Albrechtsen, & Karél Psota
• How to succeed in Sound Editing, Sound for Advertising, and Production Sound – with Lucy J Mitchell, Chris Pinkerton and Irin Strauss:
• How to succeed in sound design for Games, Animation, and Television – with Anne-Sophie Mongeau, Jeff Shiffman, Kate Finan, & Peter D. Lago
• How to succeed in Audio Branding, Music Editing, and sound for VR – with Steve Keller, Steven Saltzman, Helena McGill & Anna Woźniewicz
UX/UI Sound Design – insights from Henry Daw:
• What working in UX/UI sound design entails:
UX/UI sound design is highly focused and detailed sound design, a crucial part of the user experience for the technology of today — think of advanced wearables, smart home devices, medical devices, or mobiles and tablets.
If we break it down, UI sound design can be defined as audio feedback within a digital user interface. When we talk about UX/UI sound design, we’re simply talking about UI sound design as part of a product user experience. UI sound design isn’t a standalone entity; it’s a vital part of the user experience, and should undergo the same level of focus and scrutiny as any other product design element (for example: UI, Interaction, or Motion Design).
• What it takes in terms of skills and gear:
Creating UI sounds is a very specialist expertise. It involves designing user feedback sound to the finest detail. It takes a very meticulous mind-set and it’s absolutely crucial that you don’t over design, considering the function and user at all times. In most cases you will need to go as minimal as you can, only drawing as much attention to the sound as is needed. This is actually a lot more challenging than you might think.
In most cases you will need to go as minimal as you can, only drawing as much attention to the sound as is needed. This is actually a lot more challenging than you might think.
In terms of gear, apart from a good DAW setup you’re likely to need some suitable devices to test your sounds on. UI sounds are commonly for small speakers, so you can’t just produce sounds using your headphones or large monitor speakers and hope for the best.
The sounds would need to work optimally with a lot less bandwidth. If it’s not possible to test on the actual device they are intended for, then laptop speakers are usually a good first test, followed by a variety of mobile speakers.
• How to learn it:
Through experience you will learn what type of sounds and tonalities work well as a UI sound, considering the small speaker context especially. As a creative and sound designer, there will always be a desire to learn, so even after you’ve been in the industry as long as I have, it’s important to continually look for new tools, seek new source material, or master a new technique. On the other hand, when you discover sounds and techniques that work really well, don’t be afraid to keep re-using them. In most cases, UI sounds simply need to do their job and blend beautifully into the UX, so it’s wrong to think you need to continually make big and unique statements with UI sounds.
Good learning can also come from simply listening out for good and bad examples of UI sound. For example, are the sounds you hear demanding the appropriate amount of attention? Can the sounds be designed differently/more effectively? I find myself doing this almost daily, living in the cauldron of noise that is London.
• How to find work:
The larger tech companies may advertise for jobs that demand expertise in this area, even though the job title might be called something else (i.e. Interaction Sound Designer, UX Sound Designer, or Product Sound Designer). It’s worth keeping a look out, using the resources on this website as a starting point.
At the other end of the scale, it might be worth networking in the tech start-up community. The smaller companies will often have a need for UI sound design, although you may have to convince them to invest.
• Essential advice for working and making it in UX/UI sound design:
As with every facet of sound design work, it’s important to build up a portfolio and highlight your skills. In this case you need to showcase the meticulous touch required to create product UI sounds. If you have a gaming background, then you can highlight some UI work there, but be careful not to present over-the-top or ‘showy’ sounds. In most cases this is the antithesis of what UX/UI sound design should be.
In these technology-saturated days, great design goes far beyond how something looks. It should stand for how we interact with a product, and how it makes us feel. Expertly crafted sound design can play a massive role in these factors, enhancing the user experience and improving the usability
Besides this, I’d say it’s important to have a genuine passion for great design. World-class design can come down to the finest details, embodying a sophisticated, refined, and modern approach — three principles that should be firmly etched into the work of a UX/UI sound designer. In these technology-saturated days, great design goes far beyond how something looks. It should stand for how we interact with a product, and how it makes us feel. Expertly crafted sound design can play a massive role in these factors, enhancing the user experience and improving the usability. If you feel passionately about this, it should come through in your work.
• Further reading and resources:
The existing reading material on UX/UI sound design is fairly scarce. However one author to look out for is Amber Case. Her first book ‘Calm Technology’ highlights good practice for UI sound design and notifications in general. Case has recently published her follow-up book, ‘Designing With Sound’, in collaboration with Aaron Day. The book focuses on how products and services can improve their sound. It comes at a very relevant time and I expect it to further elevate our industry. I’d also recommend looking for online articles, which highlight existing case studies or cover the field as a whole. One example is an article I wrote for the awwwards.com website, ‘Being Smart with Sound’. Another useful resource is my keynote talk from The Next Web 2017 conference, ‘The Small Sounds That Make a Big Difference’. In the talk I highlight principles for successful UI sound design, as well as make the point that the field of UX/UI Sound Design is relatively new. Hopefully there will be a few people here who can help it grow!
About Henry Daw:
Henry Daw is a London-based sound designer and audio branding consultant. He’s created sounds for billions of devices worldwide, including the most recent versions of the infamous Nokia Tune and the Microsoft Lumia Default ringtone. Henry worked for 13 years as an in-house sound designer for Nokia and Microsoft before setting up his own company Oblique Sound in 2015.
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ADR Recordist – insights from Emma Butt:
• What working as an ADR recordist entails:
An ADR recordist is there to look after the technical side of recording the lines. We need to make sure that the boom mic is placed at the correct distance from the actor so the takes don’t sound like voice over but also don’t pick up too much “room” sound, and that the clip mic (lav mic) is placed correctly on the actor so we can hear the lines clearly but don’t pick up any cloth rustle from his or her clothes. We also handle playing back the takes and “selling” the lines to the client.
Once a take has been recorded that the director, actor, and dialogue supervisor are happy with — depending on if you are working on a one person or two person setup, the ADR recordist will have to quickly edit and fit the take, roughly EQ the line to so that it matches the previous and following lines of on-set dialogue and add a small amount of reverb to help the line sit in. We then play this all back with the guide tracks provided and hope that the line not only syncs up well but that the actor’s tone, pitch and performance match what was done on the day on-set.
It is not the recordist place to make comments about performance but we do need to speak up if the actor is not giving enough projection, or if more movement needs to be put into the line, or if the speed of the line isn’t quite right.
• What it takes in terms of skills and gear:
Gear-wise, having the correct mics and a good-sized room are the most important things from a ADR recordist perspective. Ideally, before a session we will always ask what mics were used on the day on-set and try to use the same ones so that the recordings have a better chance of matching. Generally the mics requested are the Sennheiser MKH 50 boom or their 416 Boom, the Sanken COS-11 mic or the DPA 4060. If the ADR is more like voiceover then generally a Neumann U87 is requested.
Whether you are using an open plan room to record — where everyone (director, recordist, actor and dialogue supervisor) are in the same space, or a separate booth and control room, the room needs to have a high ceiling and be a decent size. If the room is too small or the ceiling too low, not enough air will circulate around the mic and so the takes will be harder to match. If it’s an open plan room it needs to be quiet; you don’t want to have the sound of the air con, projector or any equipment being picked up on the mic.
You must know your shortcuts and be able to work quick and efficiently. A client will not have the patience to sit and wait around any longer than 5 minutes for you to fit, EQ and add reverb to a take for playback
Skill-wise, good knowledge of ProTools is key (or whatever software the studio you are using currently has). You must know your shortcuts and be able to work quick and efficiently. A client will not have the patience to sit and wait around any longer than 5 minutes for you to fit, EQ and add reverb to a take for playback. In fact 5 minutes is probably too generous a number.
You also need to know how to use programs like Ediprompt, Colin Broad system, Source Connect, Skype and the basics of an ISDN box as these are all things that might be required for a session.
Personality is a big thing in our job. If you are recording ADR for a long project and could be working with the director and dialogue supervisor for a week, they want someone that they can feel relaxed and comfortable around. ADR can be a really stressful experience for an actor too, and it’s our job to create a comfortable and relaxed space they can walk into and feel at ease.
• How to learn it:
Realistically this isn’t something you can learn at home yourself. ADR needs to be learned from hands-on practice and someone training you. I had a more experienced engineer sit behind me for all of my first few sessions in case anything might go wrong. When you introduce added complications, like ISDN or Source Connect, into a session chances are the first time you use it something will go wrong and only through having the practical experience will you learn how to troubleshoot issues that might arise.
• How to find work:
If you have no experience as an ADR recordist already then it’s possible you won’t get hired short term for a job as it is a specialized skill that is completely different to voice over recording.
Post houses which offer ADR services are the best place to start looking when trying to get a job. Make sure to sit and learn from any of the engineers who currently record ADR there and if a project comes in that might have a low budget or even be a student short film, ask to take it on with the more experienced engineer present. Doing smaller projects first with someone else present will help build your confidence as an ADR mixer while also helping to improve your skills and speed.
• Essential advice for working and making it as an ADR recordist:
Get to know the software! Ediprompt is commonly used as a cueing system in most studios and you can download a free trial version for 3 days from their site. I would encourage anyone starting out to do this and learn the software inside out. They have brilliant YouTube videos explaining how it all works and talks you through the process step by step.
Research studios near you that record ADR and ask to speak to one of the engineers to see if you can sit in on a session. A lot of ADR projects are NDA’d so sitting in sometimes just isn’t possible for practical reasons but projects do arise that might be independent films with no NDA’s and they would be the best to learn on.
As an ADR recordist you are constantly working with new and different people from one day to the next, and you need to be comfortable chatting to a complete stranger within a few minutes of them walking through the door.
Research and learn about the different mics used on-set. Get to know a reverb plug-in really well so that if you are on an ADR session you can quickly pull up a reverb you know will work within a scene.
If you hate networking go out and network. This seems like odd advice, but remember, as an ADR recordist you are constantly working with new and different people from one day to the next, and you need to be comfortable chatting to a complete stranger within a few minutes of them walking through the door.
If you get a job as an ADR recordist in-house in a post facility get to know your room. If I get the opportunity before starting to work in a new room I will set up the mics and record myself in different places within the room at different projection levels and listen back to the recordings to see where the mics get the best sound and if any particular spots pick up some odd frequencies or hums.
• Further reading and resources:
Tonebenders have a great podcast episode with Patrick Christensen and Chris Navarro who are two amazing ADR mixers for the States that I’d highly recommend and talks through the process of how they record. Here it is:
Chris Roberts also wrote a brilliant series of articles on ADR from different perspectives which is on the Resurface website and gives you an insight into the actor, dialogue supervisor and ADR mixer’s perspectives during a session.
About Emma Butt:
Emma is a Freelance Dubbing Mixer, ADR Recordist and Sound Editor with over 11 years experience in post production sound. She’s done everything from sound editing and mixing documentaries and entertainment shows, commercials, short films and animations to ADR recording for dramas and feature films. She’s also a mentor with the Media Trust, helping to support the next generation of filmmakers and creative talent and she’s on the council of Association of Motion Picture Sound Engineers.
Audio Programming – insights from Adam Croft:
• What working in audio programming entails:
Audio Programming — which is not necessarily game audio programming — is, in my opinion, ridiculously broad in scope.
Here’s a small subset of things you can learn to do:
• Make simple stand-alone applications, like a file converter, or a “media” player
• Make your own cross-platform audio apps
• Make a DAW plug-in
• Write custom utilities that extend your favorite software (Reaper scripting, for example) or help your team
• Write frameworks that ease the use of existing audio APIs
• Make or modify web and mobile apps using Web Audio or other, native APIs
• Make programmed music, or use programming tools as instruments
• Program artistic and creative projects with UE4, or other game/audio engines
• Write your own, or modify and customize existing audio engines to create entirely new systems (like, obstruction and occlusion or spatialization)
You are only truly limited by your own imagination with what you can do.
Regarding jobs, an extremely large number of audio programming jobs posted on job boards require C++ programming and Digital Signal Processing experience. This is because anything utilizing heavy DSP, multi-threading, mixing, etc. usually requires low-level programming expertise.
The reward for those willing to do work on their own to learn, or go through school, can be extremely high.
That means that the barrier of entry for a traditional job is extremely high compared to something like, say, web development. There is no such thing as an “audio programming bootcamp” where you can go learn the skills in a few weeks or months and get a six-figure job. But the reward for those willing to do work on their own to learn, or go through school, can be extremely high.
The job market for game audio programmers, for example, is currently inverse that of sound designers. There are more positions available than there are qualified people. While that may sound enticing — also realize that there’s a reason for that — the road isn’t exactly easy for most.
• What it takes in terms of skills and gear:
The required “gear” depends entirely on what you’re intending to do. If you’re working with a game engine, you’re going to need a Windows-based computer powerful enough to run the game engine. If you’re looking to build cross-platform applications, you’re either going to need a machine to test each platform, or something powerful enough to run a virtual machine setup. Thankfully, audio programming doesn’t require nearly the amount of gear sound design can rack up. So, go grab that mouse and keyboard that doesn’t give you carpal tunnel!
Learning how to interact with things like WASAPI, XAudio2, PortAudio, or even just JUCE are going to put you in the position to be qualified for hire very quickly
Traditionally speaking, you need to learn C++ and start utilizing audio-based tool sets to get an understanding of how audio works at lower levels of programming. Learning how to interact with things like WASAPI, XAudio2, PortAudio, or even just JUCE are going to put you in the position to be qualified for hire very quickly. In fact, as of this writing, most job applications I’ve looked at reference multiple years of C++ programming and knowledge of a framework like JUCE as a requirement.
• How to learn it:
There are numerous areas you can invest your time in that will pay off with good results. Learning C++ programming is a good idea, as is Digital Signal Processing. How you go about learning these things is a completely different subject.
You can get a degree in computer science to learn programming skills, and it would be a great thing to have on your resume. However, numerous Bachelor’s-level CS programs don’t have a C++ component. Electrical Engineering is a great degree that will usually teach you signal processing — but this can lack any interaction with programming. Another degree to look into is Music Technology — but again there’s no clear “standard” curriculum for this, and it is a less useful degree for fallback opportunities.
There are a few “game audio programming” courses and degrees opening, notably at Digipen. But many true “audio programmers” that I know have a computer science background and explored the audio topics they were interested in largely on their own.
There are a number of fantastic books available – the Game Audio Programming series by Guy Somberg has a large number of contributions from industry veterans. Will Pirkle’s programming books are where I started plucking away at the topic.
There are also several other great resources online including Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, Kadenze.com, and the Audio Developer’s Conference (which posts its talks free on YouTube). There’s even a free online DSP book at dspguide.com if you can get through it!
You need to decide what you’re interested in and combine multiple areas of knowledge
I find that the biggest hurdle most people encounter is they want one definitive course or book — maybe two resources at max where they can learn everything. That doesn’t really exist. Instead you need to decide what you’re interested in and combine multiple areas of knowledge.
To me, that is one of the most fun parts about programming audio-related projects. There are so many different applications of audio within programming, that it’s kind of hard to even have it all covered in one book or course!
• How to find work:
All sorts of jobs seem to be available — and this is one of the most frustrating topics to me when it comes to individuals who work in games who want to do “audio programming.”
Game audio programmers usually work on game engines — whether a proprietary sound engine, modifying and customizing middleware, or even a stock engine’s audio system. There are audio programmers who create each of these audio engines — there are a handful of individuals who work on UE4’s audio system, for example.
I’m sure I’m not even covering most of the opportunities that have to do with programming and audio. Not all of them are just working on a game engine. Nothing against those who do work on game engines — I envy their level of knowledge!
I’ve found that, much like audio in general, the more interesting and awesome projects you do, the more you attract eyeballs, and attract people who want to work with you
Regarding where to find these jobs, I’ve found listings in the usual job boards (i.e., LinkedIn). Also, it seems to pay off to create your own projects, share them online, and maybe even have a public project or two in GitHub. I’ve found that, much like audio in general, the more interesting and awesome projects you do, the more you attract eyeballs, and attract people who want to work with you.
• Essential advice for working and making it in audio programming:
Just get started. Like anything else. There are many reasons why audio programming seems to have more jobs available than employees available — one of the reasons being it isn’t easy for someone to learn this engineering from scratch on their own.
The discipline also seems to sit in an interesting middle ground where developers who have solid educational backgrounds in computer science can get paid more if they do something other than audio.
But there’s plenty of opportunity. You just need to decide what you want to do at first, start, and keep going.
• Further reading and resources:
• Game Audio Programming series (currently 2 books) by Guy Somberg
• DSP Guide by Steven W. Smith Ph.D.
• The many courses at Kadenze.com
• The website for Standford’s CCRMA group and Julius O. Smith’s page
• Will Pirkle’s Designing Audio Effect Plug-ins and Designing Software Synthesizer Plug-Ins books
• The many YouTube videos on frameworks like JUCE, SDL2, OpenFrameworks, Cinder, the new UE4 audio engine, and the Audio Developer’s Conference
• You can also get a 12-page resource guide if you sign up for the email list on my website: adamtcroft.com.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the guidance of Aaron McLeran at Epic and Nick Bygrave of 343 Industries as well. They have turned me and a number of others onto many of these resources initially. In no way have I come across all this on my own.
About Adam Croft:
Adam T. Croft is a zealous audio and software professional out of Seattle, WA. He’s helped bring ideas to life with PopCap Games, 343 Industries, Turn 10 Studios, and Bungie. Adam could be described as a BBQ snob and commits to making ridiculous ideas a reality. You can find his rants, books, courses, and software products at adamtcroft.com
A big thanks to Henry Daw, Emma Butt, and Adam Croft for sharing with us their valuable insights!
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