I've been the Audio Director at Raven Software for about two years now. At 32, with about 7 years of experience in the industry, I'm one of the youngest Audio Directors I know. Prior to my position here I'd been in an audio lead position on a project before, but "lead" really meant "only person." I was never managing a team.
So I've been making it up as I go along: absorbing ideas I see in books, getting tips from other department directors and Audio Directors at other studios, and generally just trying to follow my instincts. Earlier this year I presented some of this to an internal Activision audio summit, and the reception was positive. That inspired me to put more of my ideas into a document, and from that this blog post was born.
I am not the grizzled veteran Audio Director with two decades behind me, so I’m sure there are other perspectives and better ways out there. If you have feedback, suggestions, or think I’m crazy, hit the comments. I love learning from others. This is the best I've come up with in two years and, knock on wood, it seems to be working. But, as always, YMMV.
HIRING WELL IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE UNIVERSE
I'm ripping a quote from the leaked Valve handbook. They said it well, and it's true. You should have a very clear idea of what you're looking for in potential employees, and you should aggressively filter for it.
The last time we hunted for an audio person, we whittled around 60 candidates down to five phone interviews, from there to two on-site interviews, and we hired one person. It took us 3-4 months to pick someone (longer to actually hire them and move them here), and we felt like it happened faster than we thought it would.
In Raven Audio, there are a handful of traits we seek:
You possess exceptional sound design or sound implementation skill. Preferably you’re exceptional at both.
You can do everything. You can carry an asset from concept to final product in the build. You can make noise, you can get the asset into the build, you can hook it up to gameplay script, animations, whatever.
You have some special sauce. There’s something at which you’re exceptional, your “super power,” and it’s something we don’t have.
You are a mid-to-senior level talent. We're a very small team with no time to support the needs of juniors.
You are driven, a self-starter. I work in the build too, and I don’t have time to hold your hand. You will be given ownership of something, and you should be able to figure out what needs to be done and execute it.
You embrace criticism. Everyone criticizes everyone in this department, no one is above it (not even me), so you need to be able to handle it in stride and grow from it, and be willing to criticize everyone else (even me).
You have zero ego. There is no place in our team for delicate egos, easily offended/sensitive people, temper tantrums, etc. This is a golden rule for us.
No political BS. We simply don’t put up with it. We’re a team, we fight together, we succeed together and we fail together. In order to do all of this, we must trust each other.
KNOW YOUR ACTUAL WORTH
The most amazing manager in the world is nothing without a talented team.
Let me say that again, in bold: the most amazing manager in the world is nothing without a talented team.
It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking you're the critical gear that makes the machine work. If you believe that you're doing your team, yourself and your project a disservice. I'm not saying you need to bend to your team's every wish (down that path, madness lies), but do understand their worth relative to yours and understand that a general with no army is just a guy in a nice coat with pins.
MANAGEMENT IS NOT ABOUT CONTROL
When I visualize or describe the hierarchy of this department, I don’t generally view myself at the top. I view myself at the bottom, supporting the team, lifting them up. Making sure the team members have what they need to get their job done is a big part of my job, so it’s partially a support role.
I also don’t view myself as an autocrat. I don’t make every decision for this department; often, we reach consensus together. If we’re not doing it fast enough, or we’re about to make a decision I know is poor or not aligned with the goals of the project, I will exercise authority and make a change. But this happens VERY rarely. Again, hiring well is the most important thing ever, and good people generally make good decisions. Everyone feels invested in the path we follow because everyone had a voice in making the decision.
SUCCESS IS THEIRS, FAILURE IS YOURS
This is a tough one for many to swallow, but it’s important: When your team succeeds, they deserve the credit. When your team fails, it’s your fault.
If you’re doing your job in hiring well, keeping your team informed and their roadblocks cleared, they will succeed. And when one or more of them knock something out of the park and others take notice, you should pipe up and say “Yeah, Andy kicked ass on that. We’re really happy with the result.”
If your team are not kicking ass, then you’ve either failed to keep then informed, to keep their obstacles clear, to set them up for success, or you’ve simply failed to hire solid people. Whatever it is, you failed.
Some of the worst managers in the world are those who shirk responsibility and hog credit. You’ve worked for them at some point in your career, so you know what I’m talking about. Good managers are willing to fall on the sword because they know it’s theirs.
KEEP YOUR CUSTOMERS HAPPY
As Audio Director, I have several “customers” within the company: project leads/creative directors, team leads (we use small strike teams to focus on different areas of the game) and, of course, the studio head to whom I directly report.
I have to keep these people happy, and so that’s something on which I spend a lot of time. Being Audio Director does not mean I get to further the interests of audio and screw everyone else. We’re making a game, and while I’d love to believe audio is the most important piece of it, it simply isn’t. We’re one piece of a larger puzzle.
It’s my customer’s job to put the pieces of that puzzle together. I focus on giving them the best puzzle piece I can, and if I can adjust the sides of it to fit the rest of the puzzle a little better (or recommend ways that other puzzle pieces can be modified), I do that.
I strike a balance between meeting the needs of my customers and making sure my team is set up for success. It’s not always easy to balance this, but it’s the job.
OWN YOUR MISTAKES AND LIMITATIONS
This, in my opinion, is one of the strongest signs of leadership ability. If you cannot admit and own your mistakes, or if you're the person who has to be right about everything even when you're not, you don't have what it takes to be a leader.
Everyone screws up, even me, even you. There is no shame in it. You've only actually failed if you've learned nothing from the screw up. Good leaders embrace their mistakes, own them and learn from them. The people working for them will see this humility and respect them more for it.
The same goes for discovering things you don't know. I learn from my team all the time. I'm not ashamed of that. If they come to me and say "Hey Mark, you're doing this wrong," I embrace the opportunity to learn. I don't ignore them or react rudely to it.
THE TRUTH IS A GOOD THING
I’m a big fan of Gordon Ramsay, a television chef known for his abrasive temperament and willingness to call a spade a spade. Minus the abusive language he sometimes uses, I feel it’s a very useful trait in a leader.
Sugar coating the truth only leads to more failure. The truth can be tough to deal with, but you need to suck it up and deal with it, and you need to hire people who can deal with it. The sooner everyone accepts the reality of any given situation, the sooner they’ll be able to do something about it. Positive results are far more important to the company, the project and the individual’s self-esteem than ego stroking and bush beating.
This goes in both directions. Don’t create a situation where your team are afraid to criticize you. If they’re not criticizing you enough, call them on it. Demand they criticize you. Everyone in Raven Audio is welcome to come into my office and say “Hey Mark, you checked something in last night and it sounds $#&@ing terrible for reasons X, Y and Z. Here’s what I think you should do to fix it.” We can then have a very constructive discussion about how to move forward.
Note that this doesn’t mean tolerating BS criticisms for political or personal reasons. If you criticize, you’d better be ready to back it up with an intelligent discussion. If you can’t, you’ll find yourself on the street.
We’re thick skinned around here, and we have little respect or tolerance for those who don’t share this trait.
BREAK DOWN WALLS
When things get in the way of your team's productivity, kill them. Whether they be poor processes, outside meddling, bad tools and pipeline, whatever. Kill them with fire
Creative people need to be in their creative "zone" and not have it interrupted. The best thing you can do to help them along is to destroy anything that threatens that creative zone. As a manager, that's your job.
When my guys are dealing with bad tools, broken pipelines, a buggy Sound Forge update (RAGE!), whatever it is, they come to me and ask me to fix it. And I do. With a steamroller.
I want my team operating as creatively and efficiently as possible. They need to be fast, they need to have their protected creative space, and these two goals align with the goals of the project. The faster they are, the faster they can hit project goals and the more polish they can apply. The more creative they can be, the better the end result.
GIVE PEOPLE RESPONSIBILITIES, NOT ORDERS
The best way to get positive results out of creative people is to give them a goal and give them the freedom to accomplish it in a creative way. Give them ownership, not a super-granulized task list or specific instructions on how they must achieve that goal.
When I give my team responsibilities, I’m not focused on how they accomplish their goals, just that they accomplish them without negatively impacting others. I’m far more interested in what I hear coming out of the speakers when I play the game than how they did what they did (although if they did something cool under the hood, I’m always interested to learn about it). Results matter, the rest isn’t that important at the end of the day.
PLAN ONLY AS MUCH AS NECESSARY
It's easy to get lost in planning, granulizing every little detail of a project until you've got a ten-tab XLS with every minute of every employee's day for the next two years booked up. This is counterproductive. Plan things out only as much as necessary to get the job done efficiently. There's a sweet spot between too little planning and too much, and that's what you need to aim for.
As an example, we work on first person shooters. Guns are important to the sound of the game. Each gun has various audio pieces: reloads, dry fires, alt fires, handling foley, fires, tails, etc. When I break out a list of guns to plan for audio production, I don't make a task of each of those things. It's messy and overwhelming.
Each gun is a task. First person version, third person version, all component pieces, all rolled into one. We've done enough of them that we know it takes roughly 5 days to take one from source recording to asset in game. So it's a single task that takes 5 days, and we leave it at that.
ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
When one of our creative directors comes to me and says "Hey, can you turn thing X up?," I don't turn thing X up. I used to, then I'd get frustrated. The lesson I've learned is to instead ask him what he feels is missing. Sometimes he wants thing X to be more noticeable, sometimes he wants thing X to feel more powerful, sometimes he thinks the asset isn't quite right but he doesn't necessarily understand how to articulate that.
It's not a fault of his, he's not an audio guy. It's my responsibility to get that issue out of his head and onto my team's to do list, to decipher what's bothering him about it and more quickly get to the end result. With one creative director in particular I found I had a lot of frustration over this issue until I realized I wasn't approaching our conversations in the correct way. Now that I am, we're both much happier.
BACK YOUR TEAM
Do not ever hang your team members out to dry. Always start by giving them the benefit of the doubt. If someone from outside your team comes to you and accuses one of your team members of dropping the ball, your response should not immediately be "Yeah, person X screwed up, I'll deal with it."
I'm not saying your team are infallible. If they screwed up, they should own the mistake and correct it. But always do the diligence of checking out the situation and hearing both sides. Be fair in how you handle it. Don't disparage any of your people privately, or throw them under the bus. If they were wrong, correct the situation and speak with them about it.
If they didn't do anything wrong, defend them. Don't let them suffer blame that's not theirs.
If you take good care of a team of talented people, they will take good care of you.
And here are some audio-specific things I've learned:
KEEP THE MIX UNDER CONTROL AT ALL TIMES
The mix is the lens through which your game’s audio will be perceived. Figure it out as quickly as possible (by vertical slice you should be very close to nailing down a direction for your mix), and defend it violently. Volume creep and meddling in general from other departments will constantly attempt to derail you from the ultimate goal (a polished, powerful mix), so be vigilant.
DO NOT allow non-audio people to tweak asset, event or bus volumes, falloffs, falloff curves, mixer snapshots, filtering or EQs, bus assignments, or any other piece of your mixing system. These should remain in full control of the audio department at all times.
DO NOT allow non-audio people to toy with ducking. They’ll abuse it. They always do. And while we’re at it, don’t be fooled into believing that ducking is mixing. It’s a last-resort tool for when mixing just can’t solve a problem.
DO leave your door open, and encourage non-audio people to provide feedback as often as possible. Remember that audio is a service department, supporting the design team. So encourage them to talk to you.
If anyone within your development team violates any of the above items, I recommend kneecapping and/or finger removal. Cigar cutters work well. :)
We don't mandate audio tools. Everyone in Raven audio uses what they're most comfortable/fastest with. I’ve worked for studios that mandate a toolset but I’ve never understood it. The argument is generally something about the need to trade sessions around, but I’ve seen that happen so rarely in practice that I simply don’t agree that it’s worth the sacrifice of making creative people conform to processes or tools they don’t find intuitive.
This speaks to a greater point: be flexible. If you find yourself resisting some process or tool, ask yourself why you’re resisting and make sure you’ve got a REALLY good reason. If you do, by all means resist, but don’t resist change just because you like the way you’ve done things in the past. Those who fail to adapt will die
IMPLEMENT YOUR OWN SOUNDS
A good friend and mentor recently said on this topic: "Ceding authority over your work is the first refuge of the incompetent." This rarely more true than in the case of sound implementation.
Sound implementation is easily 50% of the creative process of game audio these days. And it's not just the creation of sound events and the tweaking of volumes, it's how you actually attach sounds to objects in the world, how you trigger them from script, making mix changes based on dynamic gameplay variables, etc. There is such tremendous creative opportunity in how sounds are triggered and how game data can drive parameters of sound playback that it would be mad to ignore it.
This can also be useful in a defensive context. I've seen situations where designers have triggered sounds multiple times to make it louder, or have passed inappropriate volume multipliers (ex. 994372374) from script in order to boost sounds like crazy because they can't hear it well on their little TVs. Non-audio people implementing sound can create a number of issues and bugs, and it's a waste of your time to chase down those issues.
There's a reason the best audio teams in the world are adamant about implementing their own sounds. The awards on their shelves are testament to their methods.
NEVER STOP MOVING FORWARD
Game audio has a long way to go. If you think you’ve achieved all there is to do in this field, that you’re at the top of your game, you’ve failed. Go home. We have so much ground yet to cover that I could not possibly write it all down. It feels overwhelming.
So always be moving forward. Always be reinventing your processes, rethinking your approach, rebuilding your content. Always be searching for the next way to push the medium forward.