Raising the Volume on Sound Design with Joe Thomas Cavers

Joe Thomas CaversSound Design is an integral part of creating a video game. From the sounds of walking through a field to the satisfying click of a magazine entering our weapon, our gaming experience is solidified through effective use of sound. In an effort to learn a bit more about the subject, we contacted Joe Thomas Cavers, a Junior Sound Designer at Traveler’s Tales. Cavers is relatively new to the industry but has worked on sound in LEGO Harry Potter Years 5-7 and the upcoming title LEGO Batman 2: DC Superheroes. 

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You cite your love of guitar and video games at a young age for your decision to pursue a career in the field, what video games inspired you?

Oddly, the decision to go into games as a career came quite late despite the fact I’d thoroughly enjoyed games my entire life. I’d always loved sound and assumed my career path would be involved with it somehow, but it took me quite a while to realise I could combine these two loves! However, I’m sure the games I was playing were inspiring me further down the road. I have strong memories of playing Super Mario World, Donkey Kong AND Zelda on SNES and have always loved the audio of those games. A special mention would also have to go out to Final Fantasy VII. Looking back now, the audio may sound dated (MIDI soundtrack, etc) but I think they did something really incredible back then with what I can imagine were incredibly difficult limitations! I think when I was younger, I probably didn’t have any real conception of sound as opposed to music, but I like to think that subconsciously I was soaking in the auditory world of these games.

You’re currently a Junior Sound Designer at Traveler’s Tales but you didn’t start out there. What kind of freelance work have you done and how did you get yourself noticed?

Before working at Traveler’s Tales, I was trying to get basically any work I could! Just something to get my foot on the ladder, and give me some real game experience versus linear media experience (movies, trailers, etc.) because as I understood it back then, one of the most important parts of games was how the sounds were implemented, not just what the sounds were. I worked on a few flash games, as well as a couple of iPhone games, a PC game, and somewhat strangely, did sounds for an Instant Messaging app. Although I was working towards hopefully snagging that one big gig that would get me somewhere, I think it was probably my networking at games/audio conferences and my online presence that got me known at any level in the game audio community.

What are some great examples of sound design done right?

I feel that sound design is a strange one in that, if it’s doing it’s job properly, it should contribute to the overall feel and immersion of the game and virtual world that you’re in rather than stand out as notable on it’s own. With that in mind, I should probably say that I’m terrible for letting myself stop to think about what the audio is doing if I’m enjoying a game! There are however definitely a few titles that left a strong impression on me.

I was completely blown away by Limbo. To me, it felt that the line between music and sound design were blurred in that game to incredible effect, and contributed heavily to the highly effective art style. On a similar note, Flower is one of my favourite games, for the simple reason that despite the lack of any explicit narrative, the audio and visuals come together so intricately well that by the last level, the player feels like they’re saving the world. I’d also have to mention Battlefield 3, because whatever the guys at DICE are doing with their audio tech is outstanding. It really makes the player feel like they’re in a warzone better than any other FPS I’ve ever played. Finally, I’d say Arkham City, ]because the audio design contributed massively to you feeling like a complete bad-ass when you’re kicking down a group of 20 thugs, zip-lining across a furnace or gliding across the broken city, which is of course, what you want when you’re playing as Batman.

What would be an example of something you think more work could’ve been put into?

I don’t feel comfortable naming names because I’m so new to the industry, I have so much to learn and also, you never know what the circumstances a game was made under were like. However, there was a game I played recently, a little older but a title that sold pretty well and a lot of people loved. Sound designers frequently make use of library sounds in lieu of time or budget to go out and record the actual things they need, so it’s not uncommon to hear the occasional sound that, as a sound designer you recognise used in games. This one title, I stumbled onto the highest concentration of library sounds I’ve ever heard in a game. I’m sure that most people probably don’t even notice this, but as a sound designer, stumbling onto this large volume of sounds I’d heard in countless other movies and games was a little disheartening. But as I said, I have no idea the circumstances they were dealing with, maybe the sound designer was outsourced, or maybe there were huge time constraints. You never know.

How much of your own personal time do you spend researching and keeping up with new techniques or trends?

As much as humanly possible! My work truly is my life, I enjoy nothing more. I live with one of the other sound designers from Traveler’s Tales and we spend a fair amount of time playing games and watching movies in 5.1, listening to what’s going on. He’s more experienced than me too, so I usually end up learning a fair bit from him. Part of my junior status in this discipline is that, sometimes if I hear or play something that’s incredibly effective, I can’t always work out what’s made it have such an impact. However I’ll always do my best to try and work it out or discuss it with someone else, in the hope of learning something that I can apply to my own work. The online community is great in that respect and I’m lucky to be in contact with some tremendously talented and accomplished people.

Downtime is important too though, or I’d burn myself out, so I read a fair bit, and also play games without trying to study the audio, usually titles I’ve already played through.

Do you think media outlets tend to overlook the work that’s put into sound design?

It seems to me a lot of the time that people don’t necessarily understand what we do. Ariel Gross from Volition has been posting some great stuff over at AltDevBlogADay explaining some of that, which is fantastic. I think this combined with the point I made earlier about sound design being part of the overall effect of a film or game, means that it’s quite probable that sound design is overlooked. This needs to change however.

Is there anything you’d like to add that I haven’t asked?

Since I have the opportunity, I’d like to recommend that anyone from the industry, especially those from a non-audio discipline, read Rob Bridgett’s “From The Shadows of Film Sound”. It’d also be cool to thank the people who got me where I am (they know who they are). I am incredibly lucky to be doing what I’m doing on a day-to-day basis, and wouldn’t be doing so if it hadn’t been for the advice and encouragement of those people, so thank you to all of you!

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Thanks again to Joe Thomas Cavers for making time for us in his busy schedule! For more on Joe, visit his website or follow him on Twitter!

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About Anthony Chanza

Co-Founder & Editor-in-chief of Kabooooom. Avid Gamer and all around Geek. Gamertag: Chewbanza Twitter Acct. - @Chewbanza

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