Capcom Vancouver Sound Designer – Jesse Lyon

Capcom has been around for 30+ years, and created some of the most iconic video game franchises in history, from Mega Man, Monster Hunter, and Resident Evil to Devil May Cry and Street Fighter. So when I attended the recent Game Developers Conference, they were one of the booths I made a bee-line for, which was being manned by their Vancouver branch.  Naturally, it would have been a shame to not ask for an interview with their audio department, and I were stoked that one of their sound designers, Jesse Lyon, was willing to fill us in on some of his work.

Hi Jesse. Can I ask how you came to work for Capcom Vancouver? Did you have experience in the world of video game audio prior to working where you are now?

I actually started in the Film Post Production industry in the late 90’s, working as an assistant editor and mix engineer for a local Vancouver studio (Western Post Productions) on various movies and TV series. A friend of mine landed a job at EA Sports in 2002, and mentioned there was an opening for a Sound Designer on FIFA. I had a few friends in the game audio industry at the time, but really knew nothing about it. My interview consisted of a pizza lunch with the Audio Director, Chris Taylor, and talking about the Vancouver music industry (he played drums in the 80’s pop/rock band, The Payolas, with famed Metallica producer Bob Rock). Chris had also worked with engineer/studio owner (and my boss at the time), Roger Monk. I’m pretty sure that’s what clinched the deal, as I wasn’t even required to come back in for a formal interview; they just called a few days later and offered me the gig. Roger wasn’t too happy when he learned I was leaving his studio to work for Chris at EA, but I think he’s over that now.

After five years on FIFA, and being a total car nut, I moved over to work on Need For Speed as the lead vehicle audio designer. After another five years on that series, I was again in need of a change (I seem to be on some weird five year cycle). When I learned there was an opening at Capcom, I called the Audio Director, Dieter Piltz, who I knew from his time at EA. One thing led to another, and I was hired as a Sr. Sound Designer on the “Dead Rising 3″ game. So to sum things up, it seems like it’s roughly 60% who you know, and 40% what you know.

What do you think were the requisites that you had fulfilled which led to you being given the job? Were Capcom looking for anything in particular?

Other than having some really good connections, I believe it was my background in vehicle audio, from working on the NFS franchise, which clinched the gig at Capcom. Combo Vehicles were slated as a lead feature in Dead Rising, so I fit right in.

Do your current work tasks differ from when you first started working at Capcom? Did your responsibilities/duties evolve as you gained more experience at the company?

I was hired to work primarily on vehicles in the beginning, but that changed pretty quickly. Shortly after being hired, they added a second game, which split our team in half. This opened up a position for an Audio Lead on “Dead Rising 3″, which they gave to me. I continued to work on vehicles, but was then also tasked with overseeing cinematic audio, music implementation, bug triage, attending lots and lots of Lead meetings, and then providing that feedback to the rest of the audio team to follow up on and fix bugs. So to answer the question, yes, it evolved very quickly!


(Above: Jesse Lyon)

As a sound designer, what would you say are the most useful skills to have from a technical viewpoint? Should aspiring sound designers have particular abilities nailed down before handing out cards and resumes?

Obviously a good demo reel is a must have. If you don’t yet have any real world working experience, grab some cool looking game footage or trailer, and post it up with your own sounds. The more non-commercial library sounds you can use, the better. Showing knowledge of interactive audio systems is a definite plus too. Fmod and Wwise are both free to download. Setup a demo to show you understand how game events and parameters work, and how one might design an audio logic system for dialog, sound effects, or interactive music.

Given the stature of a company like Capcom, can you tell me about some of the resources that are available to the audio team at Capcom Vancouver, when you’re doing your work? Do you benefit in any tangible way from being an extension of such a brand?

We’re all really proud to work for such a recognized brand like Capcom. It was also great to partner with Microsoft as an exclusive launch title on Xbox One. Between these two industry giants, we have a lot of firepower, which enables us to do a lot of cool things. We develop our own game engine and tools in house, and they are very willing to stand behind us and give us what we need to succeed.

Can you tell me a bit about what the rest of the audio team at Capcom Vancouver looks like? Do you have a large staff that you work with?

We currently have 7 Audio Artists and 4 Audio Software Engineers on our team, spread across two main titles, as well as our DLC (Downloadable Content) teams. We’re hoping to add some more headcount once we get into full production on both upcoming titles.

What kind of relationship does Capcom Vancouver have with other Capcom subsidiaries and branches like Capcom USA or Mobile? Do the sound teams work with each other across those boundaries, or does “in-house” really mean “in-house”?

We’re actually pretty self-sufficient here at Capcom Vancouver. We have quarterly video conference check in’s with our audio partners in Japan, where we discuss common issues and solutions, but there’s really not much in the way of tech or asset sharing between studios. It’s kinda tricky and time consuming with the language barrier, as you have to wait for each question and answer to be translated. I actually got to meet one of the Capcom Japan Sound Designers face to face at GDC last week. It was cool to talk shop, and it showed how even though our studios and titles are so different, we deal with a lot of the same issues. I’ve never had the chance to speak to anyone at Capcom USA or Mobile, but now that you mention it, we should probably reach out there as well.

What were some challenges for you in working on “Dead Rising 3″?

One of the major challenges I found was going back to a looping engine audio format. Back at EA, we used a granular-based model for our vehicle engines, which means we sampled a full RPM band acceleration and deceleration ramp, and then the game would play back the content real time as you ran through the gears. This kind of engine model only requires a few audio samples, is very easy to record, process, and implement. It’s extremely easy to tune and takes little to no effort in order to sound good in the game. Unfortunately, we don’t yet own or develop that tech here at Capcom, so we had to revert to a more old school loop based model. This method takes a lot longer, as you need to capture steady sections of content at various load/throttle positions, then process and loop these in your editor (Pro Tools), implement and tune in the game tools, and then tune in game. After all this, it still didn’t sound ideal to me, although I’m very happy with it regardless.

I’m hoping that we can develop in-house granular based tech for future games, or look at licensing middleware such as REV, which some good friends of mine have been developing. Of course, there are always the same old challenges related to production schedule, new hardware, and feature changes that you go through on every project.

As a sound designer, what kind of working relationship do you have with composers on game projects like Dead Rising? Do you have to work in tandem with them, or is your job as a sound designer confined to your internal team?

Most game studios outsource all their music content, but we’re very lucky here to have a talented in house Music Director/Composer, Oleksa Lozowchuk. Oleksa and I worked closely on the music design and implementation. We had different systems for mission flow, boss battles, and adaptive threat-based music. He was mostly focused on the content creation and working with many great composers, whereas I focused more on the in-game implementation and mix.

The adaptive music was probably the trickiest part to implement and tune. We had developed a Zombie Threat Level system that took various inputs from the game, and played back sets of drones and pulses that matched the relative intensity. This design also really fit well with the 80’s minimalist horror theme, and added a kind of subliminal excitement factor to the zombie horde encounters.

What are some of the tools that you found yourself turning to for the Dead Rising 3 game, from a software and hardware perspective? Any preferred plugins or gear that you used a lot?

Apart from Pro Tools and our proprietary game toolset, I tend to use a lot of the Waves plug-ins (Morphoder, Z-Noise, MondoMod, RBass), as well as Serato Pitch’n’Time, and of course Audio Ease’s Altiverb and Speakerphone. We also have a bundle from Antares called the Avox Vocal Toolkit, that’s great for making weird creature sounds. Out in the field, we use a Sound Devices 744t, and a range of Sennheiser and Neumann mics. I’m also a big fan of using lavs and boundary mics to get into tight spaces when recording cars. Watch out for hot and moving parts though! They will fry/cut through a mic cable pretty quick. In my edit room, I monitor on a 5.1 set of Genelec 8030A speakers with a 7060B sub.

Is there a swiss army knife-type tool or technique that you would recommend every aspiring sound designer arm himself with? Something that you find yourself using for your work a lot that saves you a ton of trouble?

The Manfrotto Magic Arm is awesome for recording vehicles! It’s designed for mounting cameras for live film production, but also works great for mounting mics on moving cars.

Pitch ‘n Time Pro is a great plug in for giving boring sounds that extra bit of pitch/intensity. Avox Warm is great for giving some crunch/analogue distortion to boring sounding vehicles. QicKeys for Mac, and the built in macro functionality in Windows 7 are your best friends for repetitive tasks. I couldn’t edit dialog without them.

How big a role would you say that events like the Game Developers Conference play in how game companies connect with their potential staff and fans? Is that something the audio department thinks about?

We had a group of about 10 developers at this year’s GDC. It was a great experience for all of us, attending the conference sessions, talking to other developers, and checking out all the latest tech on the Expo floor. We had a steady flood of people at our recruiting booth, which was great. Most of them were students though, and there is a Canadian law that prohibits us from hiring full-time workers unless you have at least three years of experience in the industry. It seems like there are a lot more entry level people out there looking work then there are positions available, so it really takes a great demo reel/portfolio, and a great attitude to make you stand out from the crowd. I met a lot of awesome potential hires this year at GDC, and hoping we can get some new positions opened up on our audio team soon.

How does the legacy of Capcom’s video game franchises like Mega Man and Street Fighter weigh in on the work that you guys do in Vancouver? Has your sole focus on Dead Rising disconnected you guys from that, or is there a pressure to make something equally epic?

We have been fairly disconnected from those games here in the past, but judging from GDC and PAX this year, there are some very hardcore fans of those franchises out there. I would love to somehow incorporate those iconic games/characters into one of our titles here at CV.

What’s in store for the future? Anything you can share with me about Capcom’s going-ons?

We are hiring designers, artists, engineers, and producers like crazy right now! Make sure you head over to our website and check out the job boards. I’m hoping we’ll announce our new projects soon, as well as get some new audio positions opened up in the very near future, so keep your ears and eyes open!

I’ll certainly be directing everyone to Capcom Vancouver’s website, and hope that you get some good applications as a result! Thanks for talking to me.