This week’s “Breaking Into The Industry” turns an ear to the topic of video game sound design. Join us as we speak to Audio Director Elise Baldwin about her work on The Sims, her mixed media background, and her passion for creating pitch-perfect aural landscapes.
First, can you tell me your name and job title?
My name is Elise Baldwin and I’m an Audio Director for The Sims.
Did you grow up wanting to work on game audio or did it just happen?
I always had a strong attraction to sound and music. I also demonstrated a love of gear pretty early on, which I'm sure a lot of audio professionals would say. I remember – this was in the ‘70s – my mother had one of those now ridiculously enormous-seeming “portable” cassette recorders. My brother and I would sneak it out of her office and spend afternoons making radio plays surreptitiously. We would play all of the characters, and I would play the score using a piano and whatever was at hand to do the sound effects.
The gaming part came later. I have always been interested in combining mediums. Most of my academic life in film and music, my personal artistic life, and my career have all been focused around what happens when mediums are combined. I've done a lot of theatrical production, gone through a film program, and am an inter-media artist, all of which I believe point toward this proclivity to combine sound, image, text, character, music, lighting, etc.
Where did you go to college and what did you study?
I went to UC Santa Cruz for my BA in Film and Video Production. At the time, my major was part of the theater department, so I had to do all the required theater classes first. I fell in love with production during this program. A decade later, I went to Mills College in Oakland to do their Electronic Music and Recording Media MFA. By then, I had been working as an audio professional for quite some time.
Can you talk a little about some of the jobs you had before you came to EA?
After my BA program I started working as a video editor, but quickly switched over to being an audio post-production specialist. I was doing a lot of sound design for live theater at the time, and I started getting asked to design sound for CD-ROM projects and games.
I worked on some titles for a group called Live Oak Multimedia, and then I was the Sound Design Director for the company that developed the first video games designed specifically for girls between the ages of seven and 12: Purple Moon. Purple Moon was run by Brenda Lauren and backed by Interval Research, which was a Paul Allen project, so it was a very interesting project to be on in terms of looking at young girls, how they play games, what they like, and how social their play patterns are.
I went on to become an audio director for an online division of MTV Networks that did custom internet radio content and music journalism.
"Music journalism." What does that mean?
Music journalism involves reporting on music news, covering festivals and events, doing artist interviews, and recording performances.
That sounds like fun.
Most of what I did was in-studio audio production and live recording support for our field reporters. I once got sent to Verbier in the Swiss Alps for two weeks, where I met some of the most important contemporary composers and players in classical music. It was amazing. But maybe not as much fun as making games.
Seems like you spent your entire career in the Bay Area. Were you born here?
My family moved here from rural Idaho when I was a teenager. I spent my earlier childhood on a farm. A bit of culture shock moving to the Bay Area! But yes, I went to high school right here in Redwood City.
How did you end up at EA?
Through an internship at my MFA program at Mills. Robi Kauker, the head Audio Director for The Sims, has strong university relations with Mills. He had gone through the same program I did several years earlier. So, they recommended me to him, I interviewed and came to spend my summer with The Sims audio group, and never really left. I came in to help out with production on The Sims 2 as an intern, and then got hired as a contractor on several subsequent console titles before succumbing to a full time position.
What did you do as an intern?
As an intern, I did a fair amount of everything – a little sound design, a little audio asset tracking and implementation, a little voice recording, and some foley work.
And now to the present. What does your current role entail?
It depends very much on which title I am working on and what that title needs, as well as the stage of production we’re in. The Sims Medieval was an enormous amount of fun and probably pretty representative of the range of what I do.
I worked with my team to redefine what Aulde Simlish should sound like, riffing off of the contemporary Simlish (the language that Sims speak) that we employ in our games. We auditioned and cast actors accordingly, coming up with a great-sounding cast that had enormous range and wonderful vocal archetypes. We developed an outfit foley system to accommodate the complexity of the various armor and other types of outfits characters would wear in the game. I worked closely with Worldwide Music and composer John Debney to develop a gorgeous score for the game, as well as getting to work with renaissance lutenist Josef Van Wissem to record some exquisite tunes for the Bard character to play in-game. Our vocal director Bill Cameron crafted lyrics and two of our actors sang the songs beautifully. It was really magic when those songs were all done and in-game – completely transporting for the player.
For me, the craft is really about creating an emotional experience of time and place that contextualizes everything that happens for the player in the game. So it is approached from many angles with regard to sound – music, dialogue, ambience, sound design, audio game mechanics, etc.
Do you manage a team of audio specialists?
I do. The individuals who report to me vary depending on the project. Audio is a centralized resource within The Sims group, so we all sort of work on everything and everyone moves around a lot. For example, in FY2011 I think I worked on four or five titles, contributing far more on some than others.
Is there anything about game audio really gets you particularly excited?
So many things! I really like creating strong emotional experiences for the player. I love creating environmental sound design and providing rich and diverse experiences of place within the game world. I love the daily challenge of trying to make a 3D game sound like the world sounds to us, because the science and mechanics of how we hear what we hear are so incredibly complex and difficult to articulate; they’re entirely experiential and beyond language for most people. And I mostly love the opportunity to work with dialogue that is not a literal language.
What advice do you have for people aspiring to do audio for games?
Audio can be a hard field to break in to, but there is no one way to get in, which is great news. My strongest advice would be to keep honing your craft and to learn not just one aspect of sound production but many. Be adaptive, resourceful, and ready to work your butt off when the call comes. Although individuals do have specialized roles within the context of an audio team (sound effects, dialogue, music mixer, etc.), every game is complex and one has to be able to think not only about the aspect they are working on, but about how it interacts with every other audio element and system within the game to create a unified player experience.
Also, be persistent and tenacious. Do not become discouraged by an apparent dearth of audio jobs at any given time; in the entertainment industry, project needs change quickly. The work is often freelance, but I cannot tell you how many times I have had the experience of being in the right place at the right time and getting a really amazing project to work on.
Is it important to have a college degree in some kind of music field?
I think a degree in Music or Audio Production is useful in terms of training one how to listen critically, and it can sometimes help you get your foot in the door. But I wouldn't say it is a requirement.
Do you think you need to be a big gamer to work as an Audio Director in the game industry?
I don’t know that one has to be a big gamer per se, but I do think it’s essential to possess an understanding of two things in the current industry: audience/marketplace expectations and development technologies. I get inspired by looking at other games and linear media, such as film, and seeing how others in my field are innovating, both in terms of designing amazing content and in-game audio mechanics/development tools.
Most people pay a lot of attention to the graphics in a game when describing how good it is. Due to your background, are you more drawn to good audio in a game?
I am more critical and/or appreciative with regard to audio, certainly – in part because I have the vocabulary to articulate more clearly what I like and don’t like. For me, quality graphics and sound are essential partners in the overall game experience, but they inform it in different ways. Graphics tell the player a lot about an environment, a character, an object, or a mood. Audio and music can tell the player not only what they are experiencing in the moment, but also what has happened or is about to happen, and what the emotional content of that is. Foreshadowing and recall/nostalgia are examples of time-based narrative techniques that audio can communicate especially well.
EA's ongoing and deep commitment to quality audio is one of the reasons I personally feel so lucky to practice my craft here; there is a historic company commitment to the value of excellent audio and music within video games. EA has been an industry leader for many years and a fundamental contributor in establishing audio standards that can absolutely be favorably compared to motion picture.
I’m curious, what kind of music do you like? Any particular genres, composers, artists, or musicians you like?
That really depends on my mood. I confess to having a late ‘80s post-punk/industrial streak about a mile wide, but I will listen to and find something I like in just about any genre. I listen to a lot of contemporary experimental music, I love old-timey bluegrass, electro, early devotional music, the DC go-go scene, classic metal, new wave, contemporary R&B, Balinese gamelan… the list could go on for quite some time and would span centuries of music history. My iTunes library is a ridiculous mosh-pit of musical eras, genres, and stylings, but everything I like makes sense to me as an emotional expression, which is really how I relate to music.
It's pretty common for me to listen to Top 40 radio on my drive to work, because (although I love to complain about how bad I think some of it is) I believe it behooves me professionally to be fluent in what is current. This habit emerged during a prior job, where I bored myself (and my colleagues, I'm certain) to tears with my unflagging belief that any hugely commercially successful music must, by definition, be inferior. Fortunately, no one took me seriously and eventually my punk-rock iconoclasm rubbed off. I learned an enormous amount at this job about how to use different types of music effectively for different types of production, which has since proved invaluable to me as a music director and editor.
I have to mention that sometimes, I find silence is the best music. I listen for a living and often don't have the ability to filter out what most people think of as "background noise" as I move through my day. I get aurally fatigued easily, especially if I’ve been mixing all day, so sometimes I really appreciate a minimal sonic environment. I'm talking like hum-of-my-refrigerator minimal.
Would you consider yourself an audiophile?
I appreciate high-quality audio and high-quality listening environments, being somewhat obsessed with production values. That said, I am also an experimental musician and sound artist, so I have a deep appreciation for sounds that might not be conventionally thought of as “musical” or even in the “pleasant to listen to” category for your average bear. I imagine a lot of audio professionals would express a similar predilection towards unconventional beauty in the sonic realm.
Thank you! Tickled to be asked.
Is there a specific video game job you’d like to know more about? Let us know in the comments! Plus, check out last week’s interview with Blade Olson for more insight into the industry.