Invisible Art: The Power of Good Sound Engineering

Games are a collaborative medium but the same contributors are rewarded with recognition. We all know about famous designers, producers, art directors and voice actors. During the past five years even writers have been given their day in the sun – many have followings of their own.

Yet some of the more fascinating players are in the background – their stories, depressingly, are never told but their contributions are paramount.

Earlier this year during the Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco, an hour outside the city in a green, quiet corner of the state, I heard one of those stories.

Jory Prum is a name you've never heard of, but he's had a hand in two of the most popular franchises of the past few years, and then many beyond that. As the favoured sound engineer for Telltale's Walking Dead and Wolf Among Us series, along with several of LucasArt's key titles in the 1990s including Knights of the Old Republic in 2003, he's well-connected and respected. Jory has worked on Academy Award winning projects.

He also failed his entrance test to LucasArts in 1998.

Twice.

"I completely and utterly failed," he says. "Then they took me to lunch and grilled me the whole way about why I didn't pass the test."

"Then a week or two later they offered me the job."

Audio engineering sounds boring. Whenever you see sound mixers working, in the background of a documentary, perhaps, they look intensely focused on dozens of switches and knobs. As far as exciting jobs go in production anything sounds better on the face of it. Bug testing might even have some variety.

But Prum's passion for sound is infectious. As he shows me around his small studio, buzzing about various pieces of equipment, (I nod as if I know what he's talking about), his joy is overwhelming.

One doesn't need to know a lot about sound to know good engineering when you hear it. The pings and pops of ricocheting bullets in Battlefield 3 only work if tweaked to the right settings, and when voice acting is bad, it's terrible. Gearbox found this out the hard way this year when even Peter Dinklage, who has won an Emmy, for goodness' sake, for his Game of Thrones work, uttered a line so tepidly it became a meme.

I asked Cissy Jones, a voice actor who's worked in a number of Telltale games including The Walking Dead, about the engineers' role in this process. Her response was clear – a bad sound engineer equals bad voice acting.

"If there's one thing I've learned in this business, it's that a good engineer will either make or break you in a session.  They're the equivalent of the lighting guys in the on-camera world.  They know their stuff, and they know how to make you sound great."

"Jory is one of the best."

Prum, who's pushing 40 but carries a childlike smile, is serious when it comes to the relationship between himself and whoever's on the other side of the microphone. So much so, he points me around the room, showing the different equipment and microphones that can create the sound a director wants.

After all, he says, it’s the player in the end who matters – if they detect that a piece of dialogue doesn’t sound natural, it’s on the sound editor, even if the player doesn’t know their name.

“My job is to allow whatever’s happening in there to sound completely neutral and natural,” he says. “People get really attached to the characters because they don’t hear the room the dialogue is recorded in. It feels completely natural.”

If he’s done his job correctly, Prum insists, the players won’t even know he’s there.

“If I’m invisible I don’t care.”

This is an attitude seen among many developers – artists, animators and so forth – that it’s okay if they’re not seen. But it can be depressing to know you’re only one of multiple credits on a game whom many people won’t even identify. The brand names of the gaming industry carry all the attention, (although they’d be the first to admit they’re only the precipice of an extremely tall and wide mountain of talent).

For Jory, he’s happy to find his place helping others stand on their own two feet.

“There’s an intimate relationship between me and whoever is on the other side of that glass,” he says. “The relationship between the sound engineer and the actor is very close.”

He tells me one story about a young woman who needed to record some music for demo tapes for a college audition. She was too nervous and wasn’t playing well. Prum recommended she go home, and come back the next day.

“I’ve got an audience for you,” he told her when she arrived – sending her into panic mode. No need. Prum had arranged dozens of stuffed animals, circling the microphone – ready to hear some music.

Many gamers may not realise just how delicate the sound recording process can be. For voice actors, who rely on a steady stream of small, bite-sized roles, it can be nerve wracking to record dialogue for a scene you know hasn’t been animated yet. It’s one thing to be recording hours for a Disney film, which can afford multiple takes and the ability to experiment. For many actors who provide dialogue for games like Telltale’s, this is often a big get for them. They can’t afford to screw it up.

“I need to create a comfortable environment for the actors to work in,” he says. “If they’re happy, then we’re all happy.”

“All this talk of microphones and so on, it’s a science, but there’s really an art to it. There’s an art to getting it correct and making it sound natural,” he says.

“Yeah. It’s invisible art.”

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