Although these days he’s the CEO and creative director of his own studio. Dream Harvest, Justin French still wears his hat as an audio director.
French has worked in audio engineering in games for the past 15 years, including stints at games recording studios like SIDE and OMUK, after beginning his career in the music industry working with bands like Enter Shikari.
But just focusing on the audio side is still what he refers to as very “multifaceted,” whether that’s in sound design, composing, dialogue editing, and all other kinds of implementation. We sat down with Justin to find out what kind of skills game companies are looking for when recruiting for audio engineers to work in video games.
As an audio director, what does your typical day involve?
I'm looking at all aspects of audio within the game - what kind of software are we using for implementation? What are the limitations? What are we trying to achieve? Are we going to have interactive music or is it going to be non-interactive music? From a sound design perspective, what are all the sounds, what are the memory budgets?
Then it goes down to making the sounds, writing the music, implementing, mixing, and doing stuff for trailers as well, which is very much linear material. I'm jumping between different bits of software, depending on what I'm doing. The audio director holds the audio vision for the project and obviously sets the standard for quality.
What qualifications do you have?
I started my own recording studio when I was 17, so initially, I was self-taught. Then I ended up going to a specialist school called the School of Audio Engineering, where I did a one-year accelerated BA/BSC (Hons) degree in Audio Engineering, which was very hands on.
What exactly is audio engineering and how does it differ to composing or audio programming?
Audio engineering is a technical field. It combines acoustics, psycho-acoustics, electronics, mathematics - they are a fundamental set of skills you need to deal with the technical aspects of audio. So audio engineers are sound designers, dialogue editors, music editors, or become composers.
Not all composers are audio engineers, though. A lot of composers are traditional and have studied music, but the recording process they'll actually hand off to an audio engineer.
Audio programming is effectively programming. You're creating tools like plugins that an audio team might use, or you might find a way to compress the audio in a more effective way while retaining the audio quality. The job of an audio programmer is to work with the rest of the audio team to provide tools and features for the audio team easier and better.
What common misconceptions are there around audio engineering?
At a game studio, you're often jumping between very creative tasks, but then also doing a lot of administrative tasks as well. I think maybe a lot of many younger audio engineers trying to get into the games industry might think they're going to be spending all day just making sounds or spend all day just writing music. That wouldn't be the case.
Often, you're in and out of meetings, you're trying to understand from a technical perspective, how are we going to achieve this? So it's a lot of collaboration with fellow sound designers and the audio director. And then there's a lot of documentation as well. The job is very much multifaceted, and it goes beyond just the creative aspect.
What tools should audio engineers be learning?
Engines like Unreal and Unity have their own built-in tools, but they’re not quite as flexible. Generally, for recording, you’re using Pro Tools, Logic, Nuendo, Cubase, Reaper - each has slightly different working methodologies.
Every engineer is different and uses a different set of tools. For me, I use Nuendo for trailer work or final mixes, Ableton Live for dialogue editing, Reaper for sound design, and Bitwig for music writing - I'm jumping between the software.
There's plenty of tutorials out there for people to learn on their own but there doesn't seem to be any kind of official education around audio implementation tools, which means that a lot of sound designers coming from outside of the games industry trying to get in have a massive learning curve. Some universities and specialist audio schools are starting to teach these tools as part of their curriculum, but when I entered the industry, there was literally nothing.
What other important skills should an audio engineer have?
When I was at university, we started every morning by doing critical listening, effectively listening to white noise that had been peaked at different frequencies, and we had to guess what the frequency was. It's all about ear training, your ability to understand the whole frequency spectrum, which then trains your ears to be able to then spot things when you're listening to music and listening to sounds and knowing how to treat those sounds. I think that is the most critical skill to have. It's not easy, but it can be learned over time.
What should aspiring audio engineers do after university if they want a career in games?
They need to work on projects. You cannot get into this industry without having at least one or two projects in your portfolio. It's better to see projects where you've worked with other people, which is why a lot of university games courses get students to work as a team for their final project.
The reality is that as an industry we work very fast and hiring graduates have always been very high risk because the time needed to really get them up to speed and get them working at the same speed as the rest of the team is a very expensive endeavour, so we need people who have got at least some experience and understand the full game development pipeline before they join a studio.
And what should people who didn't go to university do to improve their chances of getting into audio in games?
It’s the same really. Projects with friends, game jams - all of that stuff is valuable. The more project experience you get before you start applying, the more valuable you become to a studio. If someone applies with just sound design examples and some implementation examples, generally that won't be enough. We would need to see a full project from start to finish.
The proof is in the pudding, really; if you've got projects that you've created, if you've got examples of a full development lifecycle, and you haven't gone to uni, that's usually enough. I look at portfolios before I look at CVs. For me, the portfolio is everything, while the personality of the person is the next thing.
What kind of personality should an audio engineer have to be working in games?
Most audio engineers that I've come across over the years are generally quite introverted. But I think the most important thing is that you're willing to take criticism and grow from it. That's one of the big issues I found in the music industry, especially live sound engineers especially hate hearing criticism, and they generally wouldn't be a good fit at a game studio because they're very protective of their processes.
It's really important that people are open to learning new methodologies and realising there's always more to learn and experiment with. Also focusing not just audio but learning about the other disciplines at a studio; the more that you learn about what your other fellow game devs are doing, the better you become at your own job. You get to learn about all the other pipelines and you learn to appreciate the work that goes into every aspect of development.
What’s the best part of your job?
For me, personally it is the blend of the creative and the technical, and video games are at the forefront of technology. We are trying to really push the envelope in terms of what is possible.
I describe the games industry as like the music industry, but without the ego. Everyone is super friendly, everyone is willing to share information, share knowledge, and help each other and I think that's my favourite aspects of the job: the collaborative nature of it. The fact that we're bringing together so many different creative and technical fields to create something amazing.
What would you say is the most challenging or surprising aspect of the job?
I would say the sheer amount of sounds that you have to create for a video game compared to linear material is a massive thing to realise. The game we're launching very soon is a very small game and that has over 12,000 individual sounds, which is just ridiculous.
Then from an audio mixing view, where traditionally you would mix all your music in a DAW, in games you're doing it in real time, so you're creating stems of the different aspects of the music. But then you're having to mix them using code, which is kind of strange. There's all sorts of different weirdness that I think a lot of traditional media or audio engineers and sound designers don't realise when you jump into games is like a whole other level of complexity compared to the traditional industries.
Any final words on anything we haven’t covered?
Just pick up the tools, learn the tools, start building stuff and experimenting as soon as possible. Then try to meet some people, small indie studios, or other students and graduates wanting to make a game and build something small, and just keep building small little projects, where you can experiment and test your skills. Some amazing things have come out of student teams, very surprising projects that are way more polished than some professional teams have released. So don't be afraid to meet other people who want to make games and try to build something.
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