Conceiving Soundscapes

Interviewed by Melvin Tan • Edited by Samantha Yap • Photography by Sam Chin

 

Sound design is an integral aspect of the media we consume today but for most, its extent still remains quite nebulous – what exactly does it entail? We speak to Jeremy Goh on his sound design studio IMBA Interactive and his creative processes.


School
NTU School of Art,
Design & Media

Field of study
Interactive Media

Graduating year
2011

Place of work
IMBA Interactive

Practice
Entrepeneurship
Sound Design

What led you to co-found IMBA?
I graduated in 2011 from ADM’s Interactive Media major, so it's been six years. IMBA Interactive has been in business for four years now. My journey into game audio started from a summer internship in 2010 at Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. In fact, the 3 co-founders of IMBA Interactive (Guo Yuan, Sharon and myself) are all alumni of the program that ran for six years between 2007 to 2012. Upon graduation, I did not immediately start my career in game audio but worked in audio post for TV. I later did freelance work before I met Sharon and Gwen (again) in late 2012, where we were all at crossroads in our careers. The rest, as they say, is history!

Would you consider collaboration to be a key part of IMBA's processes? How has it been like?
Collaboration is what we strive for in all of our projects. We try to be as “in-house” as possible despite being technically contracted as “outsource” most of the time. The last thing we want is for clients to engage us and expect us to be the “last minute elixir” for their projects. That would also be a total misconception of how creative work is like, because it almost never works that way, regardless of discipline. A lot of communication and iterations occur before we arrive at the final product. That’s what makes every project different and interesting, even if they are coming from the same client. Most of our clients become our friends, and that is the most rewarding part.

With such a competitive market, how do you see collaborative work (and maybe even, the sharing economy) as benefiting the creative industry?
Simply, it just benefits the creative industry on the whole. I’m sure we’ve heard many times the aphorism of "a rising tide lifts all boats”, and I strongly believe in that. Ultimately, we want to see more collaboration and resource aggregation, instead of hoarding of resources and knowledge. This is what we feel will help all of us in the industry grow quicker and create better work.

Also, in a competitive market, by being collaborative and still sharing in nature with your competitors, it makes sure that we compete with each other in the aspects that matter, such as work quality, creative concepts and efficiency, rather than lose-lose ways of competition such as price cutting. Of course, this can get tricky at times but I believe with the right communities and facilitation, we can get there.

Unfortunately, there will be clients that expect the sound designers to "get it right" in a first draft. I mean, we wish we could too, but in the real world, this is hardly practical. Sometimes, clients have a certain type of sound in their mind but may have failed to convey it in the first round of briefs, and we totally understand that. In short, if we all understand that we are all "only human" and respect professional practices, the whole development process for everyone will be a fulfilling one.

 
It wasn’t an overnight thing where I decide, ‘OK I’m going to start going pro tomorrow!’ but rather a more gradual process where you kept testing the waters and pushing boundaries with each project, and of course seeking a lot of validation in the beginning before you decide that, OK. I’m now officially ‘in the game’.
 

Besides designing sound, you're also a drummer and percussionist. How did music came to be something that you love and consequently, how did it become "work"?
What I rarely talk about is how I began violin lessons from the age of 7; but I never did enjoy it (sorry Mum!). But I more than made up for those “lost years” when I dropped the string instrument for percussion and drums, which has been my main instrument for over 17 years now. From jamming with friends, it evolved to arranging and producing demos for friend’s songs, to writing my own music, to scoring and sound designing for my peers’ visual works. Being the “sound guy” or “music guy” around peers also pushed me towards trying out new technical aspects of music and sound creation. A lot of my technical knowledge is actually self-taught, reading manuals from cover to cover (before YouTube was the go-to place for tutorials and whatnot), and “getting my hands dirty” with new hardware and software. Once I knew that this was going to be an ever-rewarding journey, it was time to start “going pro” so to speak.

We all know that in the industry, it's more about portfolio when you start out, and less regard given to the certification you have. So in that sense, self-taught or not, I never really saw a distinction. You simply keep going at what you want to achieve until you are satisfied. That said, it wasn't an overnight thing where I decide, "OK I'm going to start going pro tomorrow!" but rather a more gradual process where you kept testing the waters and pushing boundaries with each project, and of course seeking a lot of validation in the beginning before you decide that, OK. I'm now officially "in the game".

I can think of the amazing scores by sound composer Nobuo Uematsu for Final Fantasy and the work of sound designer/composer Stafford Bawler for Monument Valley. What is the difference between a sound designer and a composer?
Even though sound designers and composers ultimately contribute towards the aural experience of games, they usually cover different dimensions of the world or story in a piece of work. Music tends to provide a general mood and belongs in the “background”, while sound design tends to follow the events on screen but can similarly be abstract. These days, the lines are blurring, especially in games, where composers and sound designers challenge the “classical" definition of what music and sound design can be.

Generally speaking, “composer" is a title given to the person who would write the music score in any give work, while the “sound designer” would cover everything else sound-related such as sound effects, ambiences, voices and the overall soundscape implementation. Of course these are still very broad terms and there are many sub-roles (especially in bigger teams) such as music arranger, orchestrator, producer, as well as foley artist, dialogue editors, mix engineer etc.

For sound designers, if we can reach that level where the general audience perceives the sound to be natural and belonging to the time and world of the visuals, then we’ve done our job right.

What are some misconceptions people have about sound design?
Especially in film and video, many audiences assume that the sound they hear was recorded in production, but that is usually so far from the truth. This works similarly for lighting designers or cinematographers too. For sound designers, if we can reach that level where the general audience perceives the sound to be natural and belonging to the time and world of the visuals, then we’ve done our job right.

Sound design can also be a very open-ended creative process. For example, in animation and games, the visuals are never objects or characters that create sound on their own, so it’s really up to the sound designers on how abstract or literal a sound needs to be, in order to elicit an appropriate response from the viewer or player.

Is there a "style" or an "aesthetic" for sound designers? Do you have one and is it something important to possess?  
The “style” for each project should vary. Ultimately, we should serve the work and/or the director’s vision. Occasionally, we might get hired for a style or aesthetic that we are known to have pulled off in a previous project. However, as sound designers, it’s important to be versatile than to be too specialised. That said, we do have different styles in our sound creation process. For example, some may prefer to make use of originally recorded sounds, some choose to do heavy editing with pre-existing sounds, some may like to layer multiple sounds together instead of modifying the original sounds too much etc. It’s never one way or the other, but the key is to never stop experimenting. Pretty much the same for all other creative work.

When faced with new game visuals to sound design for, what are your processes?
One interesting sound we needed to recreate for a game was the slicing of Uni (Sea Urchin). Obviously we weren’t going to get a real one just to slice it open. We ended up using Luo Han Guo, which worked perfectly! We did actually live-stream the process while we were recording source sounds for the game.

The most straightforward way is to look for existing references, such as pieces of music from other games or films and pointing out aspects of what would work; perhaps a certain instrument or melody, the tempo, or even the emotions that are evoked. It’s like a "mood board" for sound. Finding the “voice" of the game is truly important. Once we have an anchor point, it’s much easier to fill up the rest of the space. The next step is usually creating an original soundscape, or a first draft, for a small portion of the game. We will fine tune it until it’s really close to what both sides (the clients and our team) are happy with before proceeding to production for the entire game.

Do you think that our evaluation of sound is based on intuition and feelings?
Sound (and music) is abstract in nature. Whereas, visuals, in many other ways tend to be more literal in immediate perception to most people. (Like how people often say: "I'll believe it when I see it." Not when you "hear" it!) In sound design, indeed we always think about what emotions a certain sound would evoke and we use that very purposefully in our work.

Izyanti Asaari