This Sound Designer Behind Night in the Woods Reveals What Sound Design Is All About

How do video games get their sound effects?

Video game sound designer Em Halberstadt knows a thing or two about the subject. She did work on the critically acclaimed Night in the Woods and is currently working on an awesome musical indie title called Wandersong.

Em was kind enough to chat with us all about sound design and games, from how she got into the business to what it's all about and how sound brings games to life. If you've got a question, keep reading to find your answer.

Em Halberstadt recording sound outdoors

(Courtesy of Em Halberstadt)

Sweety High: How did you get into sound design for video games? 

Em Halberstadt: I got into sound design for games pretty unconventionally. I don't have a background in music and I was never a huge gamer—I never owned a console growing up. I've always loved games, but more in the broad sense of having a love for play. I went to university for "new media" where I did a bunch of installation art and ended up making soundscapes and doing a lot of video editing.

A year after graduating I read about Vancouver Film School's game audio program and the idea of doing interactive sound for a living struck. I spent a year at VFS learning everything technical about sound, and then half a year in a film sound studio before I was hired at A Shell in the Pit Audio, which was what I had really wanted. Basically, I just kept following what I was passionate about and it led me to the right place.


SH: When you were younger, did you ever see sound in games as a potential career opportunity?

EH: Not at all. Funnily enough, I was more into visual art. I guess when I thought of sound careers I just thought of film, which I wasn't as passionate about. The field was also pretty intimidating because it seemed so technical, and maybe because of the gender gap, though if that was a reason it wasn't conscious. All I knew was that I wanted to tell stories, but I didn't figure out that it was in games until five years after high school. The progression to get here has felt pretty slow and natural.


SH: What exactly does your job as a sound designer for games entail?

EH:  In short, being weird. I start by playing the game a lot and listing out all the sounds that are needed. I then forget that list exists and start creating sounds, sometimes by recording them—often with my voice—and sometimes by using sounds purchased in a library.

The different kinds of sounds I'll have to make are foley, recording footsteps and movements for all the different surfaces and characters, ambiances, the background sounds for all the different environments in the game, and then all the UI [user interface] menu sounds, voice and various sound effects that come up. Then, I have to implement them into the game, which means organizing and randomizing everything and testing many many times using software like FMOD Studio.

Em Halberstadt Artist rendering

(Courtesy of Em Halberstadt)

SH: How do you typically get involved in game projects? 

EH: As a company, A Shell in the Pit Audio is always looking for cool new projects, and generally we'll approach the developers to let them know we're interested and give them our reel. We do indie games because we love them. For me, they're far more creative, adventurous and fun than the big expensive games.


SH: How does sound design on a musical game like Wandersong differ from a standard game? 

EH: It involves a lot more variation in the sound design, and a lot more content in general. For musical sound effects instead of just a few variations I'll have to create the entire scale the music is in. I'll usually do that through a program called Kontakt, on a keyboard.

Wandersong singing screenshot

(via Greg Lobanov)

SH: What's your role as a principal creative on Wandersong, and what were your most important tools for the job?

EH: I do all the sound effects, and Gordon McGladdery, who runs A Shell in the Pit Audio does the music.

My most important tool is my DAW [Digital Audio Workstation] Reaper. I highly recommend it to anyone who is thinking of starting out in sound design. It's basically what I do all my editing in. Next is my microphone, because I do so much of my work by recording things. I don't actually use too many fancy plugins. For reverb I use something called Fog Convolver, and I have a delay by Izotope that I'm quite fond of.

SH: How was working on Night in the Woods? Different from your experience on Wandersong

EH: Night in the Woods was different in the process because when I came on as a sound designer they'd already been working on it for quite a while. With Wandersong, we came on right at the beginning, so we've been able to collaborate more. Sound does play different roles in both games as well. In Night in the Woods I focused heavily on the ambiances and foley because the world is based so much around the location. With Wandersong it's more about the music, and we'll also be doing character voices, which is a pretty big undertaking.

Night in the Woods screenshot

(via Finji)

SH: Any advice for anyone who wants to get into sound design?

EH: My biggest advice is to get out and meet people in games and in the sound industry. For the most part, jobs are passed around through word of mouth, so the more friends you have, the easier getting your foot in the door will be. Having a good ear is important, but that can be trained if you have a good work ethic.

Also, the first thing you should do is buy a recorder and start building your sound effects library. It's the most valuable thing you'll own as a sound designer. If you're looking for ideas of what to record, check out some crowdsourced sound effects libraries.

If you're a woman looking to get into sound it can be intimidating that it's so male-dominated, but don't give up on your passion! The community is incredibly supportive, especially once you get past the more immature side of audio school, which isn't even always necessary.

We also have a big community of women in the industry who are there for each other on Slack. If you're in Vancouver, we also have a meetup group!


You can also follow Halberstadt on Twitter @emaudible.


Want to learn even more about how video games get made? Click HERE to read our interview with Double Fine senior gameplay programmer Anna Kipnis.