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Game Sound Design Interviews Vance Dylan

Interview by George Spanos

Game Sound Design: This month Game Sound Design interviews Vance Dylan. Vance has worked on many triple-A game titles including Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age: Origins, and Sonic Chronicles. Let's start off with the ubiquitous question: when did you decide to pursue a career in sound?

Vance Dylan: I was inspired by my Uncle Eddie who was a singer/songwriter who would often open for Bill Haley and the Comets way back in the day. My dad was also a great closet musician who never did pursue his dream but damn he was a sweet guitar player.

I tried a few things, became a decent drummer, tried to write songs but sucked at it but the whole time I was very interested in hooking up gear and messing around with recording things. I think my first recording was that of my sister playing her recorder back in the 70's using a Candle cassette recorder.

GSD: You have had a wide ranging career that includes audio engineering, production, and live sound credits. What made you decide to make the switch to sound design for games?

VD: I had been in the music biz for about 20 years and had decided for a change, I had done a lot of other gigs in audio from producer and engineer to going on the road to corporate gigs, radio, television and film... you name it. But audio for games was something I never explored so I closed my studio down and spent two years teaching myself the art of audio for games.

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GSD:With the success of the first Mass Effect, where there any sound implementation changes that were necessary for Mass Effect 2?

VD: There were massive changes in audio from Mass Effect to Mass Effect 2. We used the (Creative Labs') Isact audio engine on the first one which limited what we could do, we are now using Wwise which in my opinion is the best audio engine on the market today. We also had a big shift in our team as we brought in Rob Blake as the audio lead and added more team members to handle the load. I think we had 10 guys working on ME2 at one point. As far as implementation, it was a whole new ball game using Wwise. For example in ME2, I was responsible for all the vehicles in game and in cutscenes and all that and we were able to do stuff like making sound more intimidating if you were more paragon. The idea being if you were more renegade then you wouldn't be as scared or the sound wouldn't be as scary to you. Things like that took only a few minutes to set up using Wwise where before it just wasn't possible at all.

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GSD: Is there any audio implementation process that you use in game that you are particularly proud of?

VD: I'm really happy with a little system I came up with for creating vehicles. Traditionally what was done is that you make all the elements for a vehicle in Digidesign Protools or something and you had to go back into that session and make new edits and mixes for something particular like game play or a cinemantic. This time what I did was make a few elements in Protools and then rig them up to a vehicle. I then had one of the tech designers make me an area I called the Sound Stage where I could attach the sound to the vehicle and make my own flight paths with varying speed and so forth and then sit there and record in Sound Forge a huge sound set of fly bys, hovers, attacks and what not so you would ensure the audio in a cutscene was the same exact audio during gameplay. The process was very quick to do and worked out great.

GSD: What would you say is the part of sound design that you enjoy the most... recording sounds, the sound design, or the implementation?

VD: I still love field recording although we haven't had a chance to do that here in many years, I still do it in my spare time but outside of that I really enjoy the implementation aspect, especially when using Wwise.

GSD: Do you have a "secret audio weapon" that you find you cannot live without?

VD: Hmmm... tough one. My secret weapons change from project to project. On Dragon Age I used an Eventide Eclipse Harmonizer with my own voice to get the sound sets for the Genlocks, Hurlocks and Ogre. On ME2 I used some samplers like Ableton and Alchemy. Those two really yielded some great results for ME2.

GSD: With the current generation of consoles soon coming to their peak, what would you really like to see console manufacturers do to raise the bar for the next generation of consoles?

VD: I'd like them to stop stripping away audio features... lol. The original Xbox was able to hook up to a digital mixer for instance and you could mix the game in real time. I'd like to see something like that.

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GSD: When working on a project, what type of sounds do you enjoy creating the most?

VD: I really like working on my weakest aspects. I find it a challenge to overcome those hurtles and break out of your comfort zone. For instance I had never really worked on a D&D style game like Dragon Age before I got to Bioware and I was given the task to design the audio system and assets for the spells and abilities. There's almost 900 VFX in that game all using less than 75 audio assets, I was happy with the results and it gave me a chance to do something I hadn't tackled before.

GSD: A lot of the games you have worked on are for the Xbox 360 with a few for the PS3. Do you find that there is a pretty even parity between the sound of one console over the other?

VD: There were big differences before as reverbs, EQ's and attenuation all sounded a bit different from console to console but again, Wwise helps keep the consistency now and it's really now a matter of how many assets and the compression quality between them.

GSD: We've all had those times when trying to create a sound and it just isn't working. What do you find helps you overcome that sort of "writer's block"?

VD: Writers block or as I call it Creative Crunch is hard to deal with. You're expected to be creative on demand when some days you just don't feel like making any damn sounds at all... lol. Usually what I do is walk away from it for a few hours and find myself come up with the answer later when I'm home and in a different atmosphere in my own space. I have a studio in my home so I usually go in and work things out and bring the solution back to work the next day.

Our audio team is the best in the biz and I talk with the guys often if I am hitting the creative wall, they are great to get advice, inspiration and morale from.

GSD: Can you name a few games that have been released in the past year that have inspired you?

VD:Deadspace... sonically that game had me at the edge of my seat. Ironically I try not to play too many video games outside of work. I don't want to subconsciously lift any ideas from something I've heard.

GSD: Outside of audio, what hobbies and activities do you find help to influence your sound design?

VD: My hobbies are mostly aviation influenced and it came in handy when designing the audio for vehicles in ME2. I'm an active flight sim nerd and am also in the midst of getting my private pilots license and have spent a lot of time recording aircraft, it's those little things that helped me when it came time to do things like the Merc Gunship for ME2.

GSD: Do you have any special "nuggets of advice" for people hoping to break into the industry?

VD: A nugget of advice for people trying to bust in... it's a tough industry and showing a potential employer you have the right stuff is a hard sell. My advice would be to take the approach of "what do I have to offer to these guys that no one else has". Making yourself stand out is the key I think.

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Vance has been in the music biz for the last 20 years producing and engineering records all over North America. He also spent some time doing live shows working on the road. Founded Sonic Valley Productions in 1999 as a music studio. In 2005 he switched the studio to custom audio for games business.

After spending 2 years teaching himself audio for games he is now working at Bioware as a sound designer. Some game titles he's worked on include Mass Effect for Xbox 360 and the post release content, Bring Down The Sky & Pinnacle Station, Sonic Chronicles - The Dark Brotherhood, Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age: Awakenings (expansion pack) and Mass Effect 2.

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