Success and double-sided tape

John Broomhall explains why possessing personal as well as technical qualities is key to progress in this business.

Silverstone racetrack, nine o’clock in the morning and I arrive bright-eyed and hyped with five potential recording rigs for my hosts, the erstwhile Arrows Formula One team, to evaluate. As audio producer for Geoff Crammond’s hugely successful F1 GP simulation game series, it’s my weighty responsibility to undertake onboard recordings of an F1 car over three days of testing. There’s been no time for discussion prior to the visit; time is tight, the pressure is on – it’s now or never.

Trying to ignore the ‘I don’t suffer fools gladly’ tattoo on the comms guy’s forehead, I gingerly lay out my five carefully-considered gear options on a trestle table at the back of the garage as instructed and he walks the line passing judgement on each set-up: “1) No. 2) No. 3) No way. 4) Good idea… but no.” He picks up number 5. Dramatic pause. “M-a-y-b-e (phew) – but you’ll need some double-sided tape” (gulp). Apparently I’d not thought of everything and mentally thrashing around for a solution for what seemed an eternity, was forced to come to the embarrassing conclusion that there wasn’t one.

The ensuing life lesson was one I’ve never forgotten as politely frogmarching me into the clinically-clean space-age white interior of an Arrows Pantechnicon, the uber-prepared Arrows professional nonchalantly threw open one of a myriad drawers – not just any old drawer, you understand. No, this was the ‘Double-sided Tape Drawer’ seemingly offering in pristine glory every single kind of double-sided tape known to mankind. And as the old platitude goes – ‘prior preparation prevents piss-poor performance’.

I’m over it now but this sorry little saga has since served very nicely as a useful example when attempting to answer the inevitable ‘what makes a person successful in game audio (and the wider creative industries)?’ type of questions I often encounter from university/college students when guest lecturing. Clearly, you’ve got to have the ‘chops’ – for instance the innate and/or schooled ability to craft sound elements and combine them to produce a credible, compelling soundscape. You need to understand how sound will work with music and dialogue content together with the creative opportunities of using real-time DSP and dynamic mixing. You’ll need some light on why you will do this – say, to help tell the story or sell a scene or create a specific atmosphere. And, naturally, you’ll need the technical know-how on how to deliver all that with today’s game audio middleware. But beyond those rather obvious requirements, what characteristics tend to mark out those who enjoy enduring success whether working in-house or freelance?

Setting the standard

Insignificant as they might sound, I’ve found the following extra personal qualities invariably turn out to be of profound importance to an employer. So yes, in my experience, consistently successful audio folks are certainly well prepared, and they’re responsive and organised. They’re pro-active, working on their own initiative to bring the boss solutions, not just problems. They think it through, are inclined to sweat the small stuff and inevitably turn up to the gig either bang on time or more likely, early. Generally speaking, they have good communication skills (both written and oral) and moreover, are able to articulate ideas about sound and music to the ubiquitous non-audio-literate client or stakeholder while managing to keep a straight face in response to those inane questions like ‘can you make it a bit more orangey’ or ‘I’m not sure about the saxophone’ (when there actually isn’t one), before being able to come up with intelligent ways to cover off the real sonic issue at hand. They keep their priorities straight and have realistic expectations of their own talents; they’re not mercurial, they don’t believe the world owes them a living, and however sparkly their career, maintain enough humility to appreciate how fortunate they are to get paid for doing something they love.

From a practical point of view, they’ve learned to analyse large tasks down to manageable chunks and can schedule themselves realistically allowing appropriately for contingencies and dependencies. They give honest assessments of status and provide fallbacks and accompanying risk assessments of each option ?before the question even arises. Such people aim to under-promise and over-deliver, and persevere through knock-backs, rejections of their creative work and even the disappointing cancelled project.

Having worked around recording studios and game development, as well as interviewed many an audio denizen over many years, it seems to me that being successful is as much about what you’re like as a person as it is about your creative and technical skills. You’ve obviously got to have those skills but no question, there’s more to the equation. People like to work with people who are sociable, friendly, tenacious, smart, cool-headed in a crisis, reliable, predictable and don’t take themselves too seriously. And if they remember the double-sided tape too, so much the better.

John Broomhall has worked variously as a music writer, sound effects designer, producer, music supervisor and head of audio on more than 40 video games including ‘Formula One Grand Prix’, ‘Guitar Hero’, ‘American Idol’, ‘Forza Motorsport’, ‘XCOM’ and ‘Transport Tycoon’. He is a leading commentator on game audio, co-founder of Game Music Connect and plays a lot of jazz piano.