So you’re a game developer and you need some cool sound effects for your game. Hopefully, you aren’t the type that will reach for a sound pack on the Unity Store and call it a day (oh, the horror). Fortunately, because of the proliferation of sound professionals in the open market, finding a contractor is now easier than ever. From entry level sound designers trying to get their foot in the door to AAA audio professionals at the top of their field, there’s a range of contractors at every price point eager to help out on your project. It’s a win-win for everyone.
So how exactly does one go about finding a sound contractor?
Overall, it can broken down to these six simple steps:
- Establish your timeframe
- Estimate your needs
- Talk to sound contractors
- Evaluate your choices
- Get and negotiate bids
- Finalize an agreement
1. ESTABLISH YOUR TIMEFRAME
Start off by asking yourself a few questions. What deadlines are you trying to hit? Is there a 1st playable you need sounds for? When is your ship date? All of these should factor into when you’ll want to bring in a contractor.
Now I’ll save you some time and share a secret with you: it’s never too early to hire a sound contractor.
In fact, having a sound professional at the beginning of your production process can actually help you save money.
Case in point: if you think of audio award-winning titles such as the Battlefield series, they all have one thing in common. They all had an audio professional involved from the very beginning in their planning process. Getting involved early allowed these teams to establish their audio tech and content needs from the get go. Waiting until the end to cram in your sound design is expensive (think rush fees) and making last-minute changes to your codebase to implement new systems almost always takes more time and ends up costing you more.
Furthermore, having an audio professional there from the beginning will make for a better game. Think of the dynamic mixing system from Overwatch and how tightly it’s integrated with their gameplay. Do you think that got implemented at the end of the project? Integration between audio and gameplay is an iterative process that takes time and the best teams understand this by having audio involved in their discussions from the very beginning.
You may think all this sounds cost prohibitive, but all that’s really needed is a few hours a month of a contractor's time during the early stages. Most sound designers would be ecstatic to be involved and may even offer a reduced rate to take part in creating an audio design doc. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.
If you take away just one thing from this article, it’s this. Get your sound person involved early!
2. ESTIMATE YOUR NEEDS
Now that you’re ready to start your search, what next?
If you’ve never hired a sound designer before, it can feel a bit like traveling to some distant, exotic land. Sound design is a black art to most people and there is only scattered information online about how much effort actually goes into creating a sound effect. The best thing you can do therefore is to be prepared. Start by creating a rough list of what you’ll need for your game and from there you’ll be able to estimate how much work needs to be done.
Your asset list might look something like this, broken down into various categories in a spreadsheet:
|Forest loop||Ambience||Forest ambient bed||2||30|
|Bird chirps||Ambience||Bird chirps, sparrow, oneshots||5||2-3|
|Building destruction||Level Event||End of level destruction sequence||1||15|
|Player Character Sounds|
|Weapon fire, M4 Carbine||Player Weapon||M4 weapon fire, oneshots||8||1|
|Footsteps, dirt||Player Footsteps||Dirt footsteps, leather boots||12||1|
|Main menu UI||UI||Menu interface sounds||10||1-2|
This list doesn’t need to be final. I would actually expect it to change especially after your prospective contractors have had a chance to review it. However, by creating this list ahead of time as accurately as you can, you can get a sense of how much work is involved. It can even give you a rough idea of how many man hours it will take to complete with this simple formula:
1 sfx = 2 hours of creation time
I should emphasize that this is simply an average as some sounds will take longer than others. A sound designer can easily spend a day crafting a single weapon firing sound while the sound of a cricket chirping can take just a few minutes. Consider the two hours per sound effect guideline simply as a starting point. An experienced sound professional can come up with more precise estimates based on your game and the type of assets involved.
3. TALK TO SOUND CONTRACTORS
Once you have your asset list prepared, where can you go to find a sound contractor that fits your needs?
For starters, I’ll say that I’m a big advocate of working locally and spending face time with others. In this era of remote workers and teleconferencing, nothing beats face-to-face communication with the team you’re working with. Communication is one of the pillars of teamwork that often gets lost in the rush to hit deadlines and being able to spend time in the same room with your contractor, even if it’s just once a week or once a month, will benefit your project in a myriad of different ways. I think there’s also something to be said about working with local talent and building communities. However, every situation is unique. There may be times when working remotely can make more sense such as when you need someone with access to voice talent in a metropolitan area.
That being said, here are various avenues to try:
- Referrals: Nothing beats word-of-mouth and a positive referral from a fellow game developer. Ask around your game dev community and see if anyone has worked with a local sound contractor that they can recommend. There’s no better acid test to seeing if a contractor can deliver on what they say they can than a fellow developer’s experience.
- Meetups: There are game development communities in just about every major corner of the world now. See if there are any game dev meetups in your area and get involved! There are usually a handful of audio professionals hanging about. This approach requires a greater commitment than sitting at your desk and sending e-mails to random people but consider it an investment in your social circle. Being able to meet prospective contractors face-to-face is a good way to get a feel for what it will be like to work with them. Even if they’re not a right fit, you just made a new connection and chances are they can introduce you to other audio contractors in the community.
- GDC - If you’re lucky enough to be able to attend, there are always a huge number of sound professionals who attend. The chances that you’ll need to work remotely with the people you meet increase but you still get the benefit of spending face time with that person. At any number of game audio gatherings you can meet more sound professionals in one room than you could ever hope to meet otherwise. At GDC, the annual IASIG party and GANG awards show are always sure bets to meet audio folks.
- Previous titles: Maybe there are some cool sounding games out there that you’re a fan of. Find out who did the sound on that title and reach out to them. This is a great way to narrow your search based on your aesthetic needs but can be a crapshoot in terms of location and availability.
- Twitter - Using the hashtag #gameaudio you can tweet your needs to a large audience but be prepared to get inundated with dozens of inquiries. You can try limiting the number of responses by being clear with your requirements upfront but some people will ignore them anyway. Mentioning a preference for hiring someone local can help.
- Facebook - There are a number of groups catering to sound professionals that you can reach out to. Again, you can expect to be flooded with inquiries so be clear about your requirements. These groups can be good places to try:
- Video Games Composers & Sound Designers
- Audio Jobs
- LinkedIn - This is the equivalent of picking names from a hat but by doing a search for “Sound Designer” along with your location, you can usually get some hits this way. Someone once hired for me a gig this way so you never know.
- Google - A local google search can net results but often at the expense of those who don’t have as strong an online presence.
- Forums - r/GameAudio, indieDB/jobs, etc. You might be able to find some entry level contractors this way but most experienced sound professionals simply don’t have the time to hang around on the forums looking for gigs.
4. EVALUATE YOUR CHOICES
Now that you’ve reached out and found some prospective contractors, the next thing you want to do is to narrow down your choices using the following criteria:
Budget - What is the budget that you have allocated and what is the rate of the person you’re talking to? If you’re unsure of your budget, a quick and dirty calculation is to take the two hour per sound effect average from before and multiply that times an hourly rate. An average mid-level sound designer will charge around $40-50/hr. Some sound contractors may be reluctant to quote an hourly figure right away, but they all have a general idea of what they need to charge in order to make it worth their while. Try asking them instead for a range as a starting point. Also, unless they’re in a considerably higher price bracket, be wary of discounting someone entirely because of any preliminary numbers. The only accurate way to get someone’s true cost is to have them evaluate your project and give you a bid. In addition, a contractor will very often offer discounts based on bundled services especially if your project is larger in scope.
Experience - How experienced is the individual vs what you actually need? More experienced contractors will ensure that things get done right the first time and help avoid headaches along the way. You get what you pay for and if your project is ambitious in scope, someone experienced will be worth their weight in gold. However, if your game is a simple title with just a handful of assets, an entry level contractor can probably be adequate for your needs and save you money in the process. Let intuition be your guide and try not to let money be the only factor in your decision.
Portfolio Reel - A quick look at a sound professional’s portfolio should give you a good idea of where their skills lie. Some people may excel at doing synth-based sci-fi sounds while others may be better at creating soundscapes for VR. Don’t assume that just because someone calls themselves a sound designer that they can whip up any kind of sound at the drop of a hat. Making unique, creative sounds is hard work and they all have their particular strengths. If you don’t see a specific genre in someone’s reel but like their work, ask them if they’ve done anything in that style. Sometimes sound designers aren’t able to show certain things publicly in a portfolio reel for legal reasons. You can also try asking if the contractor is open to doing spec work. This can be a short 15-20s clip demonstrating their skills in the style that you’re looking for.
Skills - This should be obvious but be sure to ask about a potential hire’s skills in the tools/platforms you are developing on. Software certifications are nice but they should also be taken with a grain of salt. Nothing beats actual hands-on development experience.
Equipment/facilities - Nowadays in the era of the bedroom producer, it’s not uncommon to come across audio professionals working from their bedroom with not much more than a laptop and a pair of headphones. If you wish to work with someone with whom you can be present during final mixes, last-minute approvals, etc. be upfront about this. Not everyone is comfortable with having clients in their living space. Along with experience, a contractor’s equipment and facilities are part of what you are paying for. Again, you get what you pay for.
Soft skills - Some people communicate and relate to others better than others. How responsive is the person you’re talking to? Do they communicate well in their e-mails? Do they seem reliable and can you count on this person to deliver in the 11th hour? Your intuition should be your guide here.
Using these general criteria, you'll be able to whittle down the field to a handful that fit your needs.
5. GET AND NEGOTIATE BIDS
Once you’ve narrowed your search, it’s time to start the nitty gritty of getting bids. You’ll want to begin by presenting your asset list along with any relevant materials (i.e. NDA, gameplay videos, design docs, etc) to get the bid process started.
Whether it’s an hourly or daily rate, a fixed cost per asset, or a bid for the entire project, there are different ways to skin the cat and you should mention your preference to prospective contractors. There are advantages and disadvantages to each although you can generally save money with a fixed bid approach. This is what I most often recommend as it puts a fixed cap on your costs with no worries of going over budget when something takes longer than it should. It also clearly defines the scope of the work to be performed which benefits both parties.
A good contractor will be able to expand upon your initial asset list, estimate the number of man hours that are needed to complete the project, and provide a bid, be it an hourly/daily rate, or fixed cost. If a bid comes in higher than what you wish to spend, keep in mind that these numbers are usually negotiable. Perhaps the contractor can reduce the number of man hours on the project by doing fewer revisions or by reducing the number of field recording sessions. Or maybe they can give you a discount for being a first-time client. It never hurts to ask.
6. FINALIZE AN AGREEMENT
Once you’ve compared bids and chosen a contractor that fits your needs, you’ll want to get something in writing to make things official. Contracts are beyond the scope of this article (perhaps the subject of a future topic) but you’ll want to get everything in writing so that everyone is on the same page. Being as thorough here as you can will help avoid any potential disputes in the future. If you lack the resources to create an official legal document, most audio professionals can provide their own contract template as a starting point.
After your agreement is signed, this is where real fun begins! If you’ve followed the steps in this article, you'll have a great sound contractor to work with and your game’s audio will be primed for success. Good luck!