Interview: SourceSound – Charles Deenen & Tim Gedemer

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Tim CharlesUnless you live under a rock, cut off from the kind of media that billions of people consume daily, you will have been exposed to both Charles Deenen’s (above right) and Tim Gedemer’s work (above left), though perhaps unknowingly. From blockbuster movies like Fast And Furious, to hundreds of film trailers, to music videos for Jay-Z, Beyonce and Britney Spears, to game audio for the Need For Speed and Call Of Duty series, their audio expertise is being showcased across a multitude of popular franchises and box offices success. Check out my interview below with them, which digs into their work, thoughts and experience in the media industry, which spans over two and a half decades.

*Source Sound has provided audio finishing services to the theatrical trailer clips below

Hi guys. Thanks for sitting down with me to talk about your company and work. Tell me about Source Sound, as a starting point.

Charles: Tim and I have known each since the early 90’s. He started the company 12 years ago along with another gentleman. Since that time, I worked freelance for Tim a lot on trailers and films. At one point, when I was still working at EA, we decided to expand our co-operations together. So after working at EA for 9 years, we opened up a game wing to Source Sound. That’s what we’ve been doing for the last year and a half, since 2013. Tim still works on all the feature film trailers, and I’ll deal with the game ones. Lately, we’ve been doing a lot of game cinematics as well.

Do you still work for EA, Charles?

Charles: I still work for them on a freelance basis. For example, we worked on the marketing videos for "Battlefield" and "Star Wars" for this year’s E3 conference, and are continuing to work on the "Battlefield Hardline" videos and more.

I see. And what background do you have in the audio business, Tim?

Tim: After going to school in Miami, I started out doing music in Los Angeles back in 1985 for several years. During that time a friend of mine introduced me to people who were doing sound for film. That looked interesting to me, and I wasn’t making much money as a music artist, so I taught myself how to use a Synclavier and worked for a company for 5 years doing mostly feature film work. I went independent in 1994, started doing game work with Charles in addition to the film work, and then started Source Sound in 2002. The number of people in today’s audio industry has increased significantly due to technology having lowered the barrier of entry into the field.

Considering this, as well as the fact that music consumers tend to download music for free, thus reshaping the music industry landscape, do people like you feel the effect of today’s changes, or is demand for your services unchanged, given that the game and film industries will always need to procure music through legal avenues?

Charles: That’s a good question. When I was still at EA, we felt a positive impact of today’s developments, because games were one way for artists to still promote themselves without needing a massive marketing engine. It put us in a position to give them a new avenue of music promotion. It was good for them since they got exposure to tens of millions of people. They got paid for it and their music wouldn’t get pirated, since it was programmed into the game. But do we feel the effect otherwise? I don’t think so.

Tim: Most projects I work on are large-scale studio-based endeavors that play by the rules. So those companies always pay for music. Sometimes they pay a little, and other times a lot, depending on the type of music and the artist. Our side of the industry is one of the last bastions where musicians can actually make money. Instead of selling CDs, they’re thinking about how to license their material. In the past, you could be a purist and only sell records and tour, and tell the commercial entities to get lost when they came asking for your music. But these days, almost all the new artists I know of embrace the idea of having their music put into media, which flips everything on its head.

Considering that you don’t feel many negative effects of the changing music industry, would you say the same about having to compete with the sea of younger and cheaper sound designers who are entering the market, or might your veteran status in the industry secure your places?

Charles: As games increase in size, they involve bigger risks, deadlines, money and stockholders. So the companies making them can’t really risk going with someone new as a composer or sound designer. The numerous indie and mobile games that are popping up can risk those things because they don’t have stockholders to deal with. So they can go with composers/designers that are inexpensive, but who may also not always deliver on time or might deliver “less than optimum” quality.

Are we finding that there’s more competition for us? Not really, as we’re providing services mostly to a smaller market segment. We cater to AAA games that can’t risk to ship late, and have a few months to deliver all their cinematic content, and they can’t go back and forth. They say "Do it, do it well, and you better do it right". That’s where we have to deliver, and they trust us to do it well. Having been on the developer side for 20 some years, it exposed me to all the issues they run into. We solve those issues for them ahead of time, or make them aware, making for a much smoother process. We’re also much more in tune with the cost structures, and we adapt to how we know a game company runs.

Luckily for us, there might be only a handful of companies who do what we do, whereas there could be hundreds that contribute to the iPhone or Kickstarter markets. That doesn’t mean that we don’t do those indie games at times. We might get involved in something that looks fun to do as long as clients cover our base costs. We’ve done TV commercials that weren’t high-paying, but were fun. In such cases, yes, we would be competing with indie sound designers; but we offer the benefit of trust and professionalism to our clients, and they know that we’ll deliver on time and with quality. However, it often doesn’t even have to do with quality, but rather trustworthiness that they won’t have to spend time holding our hands. For AAA game developers, their time is more valuable than having to save a few hundred or thousand dollars. They have to finish their game, and the last thing they want to do is to have to review the audio multiple times. They just want to know that it will get done to the level of quality they expect.

Tim: To add to that, the amount of content that’s being created now compared to 20 years ago has increased exponentially. That alone gives a lot more opportunity for people to enter into this business without competing with us. We can’t handle the tiniest little smidgen of the market, because it’s so gigantic. So I think that the fact that it’s become easier to enter has been met with the same exponential growth of media and visual effects, as well as the need for people to create new things to accompany that.

Audio tends to be one of the most overlooked aspects of game and film reviews/conversation. Many people don’t notice how good the audio, which in part is due to the audio’s task of supporting the gaming/film experience without getting in the way. As a result, consumers tend to talk more about game graphics and film aesthetics. How do you feel about the fact that your work doesn’t receive the same spotlight as visuals do?

Charles: There are times when you do get recognition for it. Like when we worked on the "Need For Speed" games, and we had just created new technology to make great car sounds. We knew that we had made something special. The very first review was "You have to hear this game! It is the best sounding car game you’ll ever hear!". From that point on, you don’t need any more praise for a few years, because you know that you’re on the right path. It’s the same thing for Tim, and he does 150+ trailers a year. For us the praise is behind the scenes, when people really like the story, or the feel, but don’t know why, until they turn off the audio and “get” that it was the audio that made them feel that way.

Tim: Will people praise audio much? Nope. In feature film work, it’s true that you’re not recognized publicly very often for your work unless you work on a film that is nominated for an award or is culturally popular. Of course that doesn’t at all mean that great sound work isn’t being done. What you find is that sound professionals are typically working in sound because they love it, and not for an accolade. They might work their way through their careers, keeping an eye out for those marque films or projects that they know won’t come across their path everyday, and maybe even put some extra time investment into those. We’re behind-the-scenes people - we’re not looking for the spotlight, or we wouldn’t be here.

Charles: It bugs me more when people get distracted by bad visuals. In 2001, we arrived at a technology hurdle which affected graphics. The technology for making games had been maxed out and the code had gotten as advanced as it could, but there was one thing missing: emotional attachment in the graphics. We couldn’t get there because the technology couldn’t get us there (yet). So I left the game industry for a bit, before getting called back in by EA in 2003. But the technology maxed out again in the late 2000s, and we couldn’t perfect the emotional aspect of graphics, thereby hampering the maximum impact that audio can have, as the two go hand in hand. It’s going to take another few years with the PS4 and Xbox One to get to the next hurdle. So around 2018, the emotional connection between audio and visuals will probably be more mature enough that it can rival cinematic experiences.

Visuals have gotten to the point where they look real, and yet they still don’t look real, so it actually looks a lot worse. A wise man at EA called it the “Pacman effect”. Pacman looks real to people, in the sense that it looks the way it’s supposed to. It’s really lo-fi, but people don’t question the reality of it. But now with home consoles, we’ve gotten to the point were we’ve entered into the realm of making characters look like real people, but their eyes don’t look right or they don’t move their necks quite right. Even when you look at the latest Xbox One games, they don’t move right (yet). So you don’t really believe it, which hinders the engagement. So until that hurdle is overcome, audio can only enhance the experience so far. It’s frustrating to get to a point where the audio can be awesome, but it’s now the graphics that are holding it back.

I did a test some time back at a conference, where I took the cut-scenes from a popular war game and a war movie which were very similar, and I exchanged their soundtracks and audio. Then I asked people which one they like the best, and they chose the movie. But the movie actually had the game audio attached to it, yet the realistic visuals made it cooler than the game. In fact, people were actually very critical of the game, which had an Academy Award-winning movie soundtrack playing to it. So I swapped them back, and people still said the movie was the better one. It was the visuals that were enhancing the audio. So visuals have to make the right first impression in order for the audio to follow through and take things to the next level.

Though Charles is saying that visuals of today still need time to catch up to reality, do you think audio also can reach a limit in terms of what it contributes to making media more believable?

Tim: There’s a certain amount of that happening already. Audio for media is very deadline driven. That can have the adverse effect of making things sound similar from project to project. If we were given more time to do our jobs, I think you’d see a little more creativity out there, and a deeper exploitation of the technology. It might seem like there could be a technology wall for audio, but I think if anything it’s a time wall that’s forcing us to not exploit the technology to it’s fullest. Charles and I both struggle to find  time to learn new things. There are people and products who are continually advancing the role of audio, like the way Dolby Atmos Cinema Sound is starting to take hold in theaters. That technology is making it’s way into games soon as well, but from a creative standpoint, I get what you’re saying. You might be able to point to a dozen or two projects every year that are truly moving things forward. For the rest of the hundreds of other projects, maybe not so much.

Charles: For games, there’s definitely a tech hurdle, even now. There are games that I’m working on at the moment, and I’m looking at them thinking, “this is 2006 technology that’s still being used, and nobody is taking the time to get it up to par“. So as a result, the game audio ends up to be soncially lacking. It can never be as immersive because the technology became a problem in those cases. It’d be similar to having a non-automated console to do a movie sound track in modern times.

One of the things we explored while I was still at EA was called “predictive audioscapes”. So the game would try to predict what the player was going to do, or wanted to,  or look at what had been done in the past and averaged that out for the future. It was all about subjective analysis in order to play the kind of audio that the player would want to hear. So they might not notice that audio swells up as a creature approaches, or that they walked in the same spot twice, so the second time the audio isn’t as loud. We also worked on solving simple problems: you could have 700 sounds playing, but how do you clear that up so that only the 3 or 4 that matter the most are playing? The Frostbite game engine can be used really well for that, by pinpointing the sounds that are most important. So if you have a sniper in the distance that’s targeting you, all other sounds might get blocked out, since he would be your main priority. But if a game company insists on  technology that was being used in 2008, they’ll end up struggling to make the audio play well, and that makes things messy quickly. As a result, we have to remove audio based on content versus usage, and that’s a tough pill to swallow for all involved.

I remember when we compared two different war games that had just come out. One was bombastic and loud, with lots of noise, and the other had very clean and pristine audio. We thought the latter one was better, hands down. But then when we created a focus group and asked for people’s opinions, they picked the former. The perception for the last 5 years was that war games sounded “noisy” like that, so consumers were focused towards that target. Sometimes audio’s perceived quality change requires consumer perception change. We encountered another interesting perception when we worked on "Need For Speed: Shift". We were always under the assumption that cars in games should sound like “enhanced” real cars, and that we shouldn’t deviate from that. But there was a new development team we were working with who said "We like it distorted". I was like "We can’t distort the car sounds. It’s too unrealistic".  Turned out the development team was right. The perception for most people in the world was that this was what a car sounded like, because they were accustomed to hearing clipped audio on Youtube. So we did another focus group, and asked people which one they preferred: clean, normal car sounds or clipped ones from Youtube. All nine people said “Youtube”. We were like “oookay…“. Perception is now being created by Youtube, instead of the real world. So we have to deal with that on the trailer side as well. You can’t use a gun sound just because it’s “real”. You need a gun sound that sells the necessary emotion as learned by the consumer.

Tim: It’s a similar situation for me in my trailer work. A film trailer has to sell small moments that have been strung together. In the film you might have 4 or 5 seconds to sell that moment, but in the trailer you only get half a second, so the sound has to be processed by your brain before the next moment hits.

Charles: This shows how visuals and audio complement each other. Visuals can give an instant impression of an explosion in only 10 frames, but if you play 10 frames of audio from the same explosion, it would just sound like noise. So in trailers, you address that by quickly showing you what you need, and letting audio carry the rest through.

Charles talked about that trying to create realistic visuals can create hurdles for big budget game projects and Tim mentioned how the strict deadlines associated with AAA projects can hinder creativity. Do you see the potential for being more expressive with indie or big-budget project?

Charles: What I’m finding is that because the indie projects have less of a budget, they’re a lot more worried about failure. They also worry about not getting exactly what they want when they hire us. Due to the lower budget they feel  the need to hold your hand, which is fine, though it might limit the creativity. But the bigger companies are more likely to leave you alone because they know that you’re going to bring something to the table that they otherwise wouldn’t have.

Tim: It’s not that often that you get people who are really experienced in their fields doing really low-budget things. So we’ll run into clients on the indie side with little experience, and they’ll come to us because they’re looking for someone to have a vision for what to do… mainly because they don’t have one. When we’re working on an indie film, it’s usually coming from someone who wants high quality, but doesn’t  know how to get it. They just say, “We’ve seen your work, and we want you to take care of our project. Convince us of a direction for our audio that we can believe in”. On my side of things, working on indie projects generally doesn’t afford me much creativity. I would take on those projects more as a means to help young people who are trying to get their projects out there, and to give my editors opportunity for more experience.

Charles: And then there are times when you get call about a project that feels very indie but isn’t. We got a call a few months ago and the guy was like “We’re working on this project and we want you guys do the sound for it“.  It was a very casual call, “Let me send you a clip from the video“. And it turns out to be the Jay Z and BeyonceOn the Run” fake movie trailer …. So we don’t say “no” upfront to projects, because you never know what it actually is. There are times when I’ve been asked to work on a game trailer, and I’ve never heard of the game or the development team. But that doesn’t mean anything anymore. I’ve said “no” to a trailer once which felt very “indie low budget”, and I showed up at E3 a few weeks later to see their 100 * 200 booth, and I was stunned. There are so many new companies springing up now, and some get massive funding in a short period of time, and all of a sudden the little game that was being made by a tiny company is now a big company, competing directly with Activision and EA.

When you do get contracted to work on a client’s project, and accept the job, I’m assuming that there are certain motions and processes that tend to be customary for all jobs, from discussing the project to sound design, getting your work approved, etc. What’s the hardest part of freelancing as sound designers and musicians when it comes to that?

Charles: The hardest part with some new teams is getting consensus. When you work for high-caliber clients, you also have to deal with the opinions of their producers, audio directors, marketing guys and maybe even another music guy they hired. So all of a sudden it’s hard to have a consensus of their wishes. That can be tricky  So what I’ll do is create a statement upfront which defines boundaries to their feedback space. This has helped many developers get to solutions better and quicker.  Honestly, 90% of our clients will have minor objections about details that matter most to them, which we’re totally fine with. But if you find a client that can’t arrive at a consensus, you’re going to be stuck in the middle of their indecision.  That can be difficult with a new dev team, because they’re not an oiled machine yet. Someone in that team might say "Even though person X said to change this, I don’t want it changed". And then I might remind them that "person X  contracted me, so I’m sorry but please work your feedback through person X ". It’s hard to give that info to people, but in the end, one voice has to speak and have the final say.

Tim: On the film trailer side, it’s a more established business than the game industry, since it’s been around longer. So the routine is more established. There’s a marketing person who is responsible for overseeing the work, and he has the final word. If the feature film directors are involved, then it’s typically a joint decision between the marketing creative and the film director.

The difference between how Charles gets his consensus and how I get mine is that I have everyone who needs to weigh in on the audio in the room at the same time. We hardly ever approve anything over the internet. We’re physically present in the same space when the decisions are made. The process can take anywhere from a few minutes, if they love the audio, to many hours if they don’t, in which case we work on the audio until everyone in the room is satisfied.

I see. So the difficulties that arise in your work have less to do with you doubting your own skills or lacking ability, and is more about the dynamic of the teamwork?

Charles: We can’t have doubt, or we’d end up questioning ourselves, and that would lead to time being wasted. That’s time the client pays for that they don’t want to pay for. But don’t get me wrong, there can be some level of doubt. I’ve had many times where I worked on a game trailer, and went "I don’t like this", and started freaking out. But it still had to be delivered at 9am the next morning. I’m my own worst judge, and my clients generally know that by the time I deliver the tracks,  I’ve beaten myself up about it enough for the both of us.  I would never send anything out that I couldn’t stand by.

There was one TV ad that we did for "Battlefield" that should have taken one day, and it ended up taking 30 hours straight with multiple people getting involved in order to get the one particular sonic style that I had in mind. In the end we got 95% there, but we still had to ship it. Will anyone notice? Nope. Will I? Yes. But the client was happy, so it wasn’t even an issue.

In a previous interview Charles gave, he mentioned that when working on film projects, the tendency is for him to be brought in near the end of the project to do his audio work. When that happens, what does your process of contribution to the film look like?

Tim: It depends on what we get hired to do. Our job could be to handle the entire project, meaning all post-production audio. But if we’re hired as independent sound designers, then we’re given specific tasks throughout the film that we’re responsible for. So we’ll have a meeting with the sound supervisor and the film director to better understand what they want, and that will set in motion however many weeks it will take to execute it.

Charles: But that would all happen after the movie has been shot. In addition, they might provide us with some sounds to get creative with. On the game side, things are a bit different. I find that people are open to trying new things, and they might say "We want to make something new. Can you throw us some sounds that are interesting that we can get creative with on the visual side?". They often come back with very interesting and unexpected things. I find that cool, because then you’re involved form the beginning. During my last few years at EA, I oversaw a lot of trailers, so I was always involved from the beginning. I made it a point to tell my sound designers that they were part creators of an experience, and that they had to think about audio in advance, instead of being given pictures to put sound to.

Tim: The idea of having audio influence the visuals is an agenda we want to push. Traditionally, our clients think the reverse. But a lot of times, we want them to understand that audio can influence the visuals just as much as the opposite. So let’s explore that and see what aspects of this piece where the audio can have some relevant influence.

Charles: I have a primary example of that: When we were working on "Need for Speed Shift", there were a whole series of commercials and ads that were being done. One of them was a documentary about different types of drivers from drift racing to Formula 1. They came across pretty “boring”. The editor put some music on it, along with a guy talking on top, and it was like, “bla bla bla”. So the executive producer said "This isn’t working. It needs to feel exciting".  So in talking with him and the editor I asked "Want us to try something new? Let us make the audio for you, and the video guys can edit to it, like a song, but instead using a lot of designey beds". They were open to try it, and we gave them a few segments that were very sound design driven. Two days later, one of the video editors came back and said "Why haven’t we always been doing this? This is awesome". So those videos got approved very quickly because they were exciting and race-focused, since the soundscape reflected that. It was due to audio's initial inspiration path that they came to this result.

Of the projects that you’ve been involved in over the last few years, which would you say afforded you the chance to learn new things and broaden your experiences the most?

Charles: One of the great projects in the last few years, which was also my first big project as an independent freelancer with Source Sound, was "Call Of Duty: Ghosts". I was like "Ok, I’ll take on this project. It’s going to be the #1 selling game of the year. I better not mess up. No pressure…". I’ve always worked from the internal side of the game industry, so the biggest thing I learned was to take those internal experiences, and apply them from the outside, without being overbearing - to still guide people if they make mistakes without enforcing them to do so. During my time at EA, if needed I was able to say "This is broken. Fix it like this please", and the good folks would execute. Now I can’t say that anymore. Because of that, I have to adapt my style of working to other people’s style. During these first projects, it was a great learning experience to adapt to my new role.

Tim: The feature film trailer music making world traditionally is slow moving creatively, to the point of parody and cliche sometimes. Editors use the same type of elements and music over and over, to the point where it starts to sound generic. I think if I had a challenge, it would be to try and inject some more creativity into it all and have the executive at the studio still enjoy it. If we stray too far from what they’re used to, they typically bring it back to us and say "We can’t do that. It sounds too out-of-the-box". It was a surprise to me when I first entered the trailer business that it was fundamentally conservative. I thought it would be more of a creative arena, but from a structure standpoint, it’s very formulaic and has been for a long time. So we’re often challenged with finding new ways to make the sound more engaging within the context of that structure.

Let’s talk some technical things before wrapping up. What do your studios look like and what do you use there?

Charles: For hardware, we use Pro Tools HD, HD2 or Pro Tools Native. With that I use an Avid S6 mix controller, and other rooms have the Avid Artist series. Some of our plugins are McDsp ML4000  limiters, Oxford limiters, Phoenixverb for small rooms and Altiverb. A lot of Waves stuff too. The Izotope RX pack is great for de-noising stuff.

A lot of my sound design is being done in SoundMiner.

What about Universal Audio plugins? Do you use those?

Charles: I don’t use UAD plugins. You have to buy their hardware to use it, and you can’t do real-time offline bounces in Pro Tools 11 with it, as far as I know. For Pro Tools and speedy workflow, UAD came to the end of the road for us. Unless they release it in true AAX format. Let me explain why offline bounces are important: Imagine having 100 cut-scenes in a game; imagine 12 languages of that. That would mean 1200 re-records. You can’t sit in the studio and wait for 1200 re-records to bounce. It has to be able to bounce offline. So as much as I’d love to use UAD stuff, I can’t. Time won’t allow me to do so.

Sourcesound

What speakers do you use for monitoring in the studio?

Tim: On the film side, we’re always mixing in theater-sized, 5.1, 7.1 or Atmos rooms down in Hollywood or in Burbank with various theater based speaker systems.

Charles:  In our studios we use JBL monitoring as well as Adam speakers. In the end though, monitoring really isn’t that critical anymore, as long as you know your speakers. However, I do keep my trusty 1-inch $100 speakers at hand. If I can make it sound big on that, it’ll sound massive everywhere else. They’re like my Yamaha NS 10s for people who listen to music on laptops or TVs.

Aside from doing sound design, mixing your music is also a part of what you guys do. Does mixing for games differ from normal music?

Charles: It’s completely different. Mixes for an in-game project don’t have the concept of linear sounds that interact with other linear sounds. They all have to work together in ways that one knows of the existence of the other. If one doesn’t know that the other plays, they’ll most likely clash. So it’s very technology driven, and if that technology isn’t optimally created around the audio, it’ll fall flat. With something like “Battlefield” or “Call of Duty” the content is very hard hitting. So if you want to hear both running footsteps and explosions, you can’t say "let’s play the explosion 50db louder so that Joe Smith who has a little TV can hear it". The technology needs to tame that large dynamic range in a smart way and give it it’s own space. Once the technology has done it’s job, then you can do a traditional mix for emotion and story telling.
Also, you deal with very broad frequency ranges when mixing for games. So you might put more focus for gun sounds between 500Hz and 1500Hz and all the ambiences from 1500Hz to 5KHz. This way you know which layers won’t compete with each other.

That should come in handy for a lot of people. Well, I’m just about done with all my questions. What do you guys have in the works currently, and how will you be moving forward with Source Sound? Are there any aspirations of branching new territories of media or maybe creating your own?

Tim: The overall trajectory of our company is to create the infrastructure to grow in the areas we already work in. So we’ll be continuing to do that.

Charles: We’ll keep doing games, trailers, commercials and films. You’ll have heard quite a few of them by Christmas. But it’s all about what clients want. Currently they want AAA-Class audio for trailers and games. When they ask for something else, we can explore that. But to jump into an industry blindly, especially one you haven’t been asked to participate in can be tricky. If that happens, you never know what we’ll do. Of course, it doesn’t rule out that we might just invite ourselves into those spaces, haha.

SamInterview: SourceSound – Charles Deenen & Tim Gedemer

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