It’s rare that you can go into any game from a single developer knowing that certain elements are always going to have the same consistent high quality. In the case of Telltale Games, you can be sure that their audio – whether it be the music, voice or sound – is always going to be top notch. Providing this often overlooked feature is Bay Area Sound, an audio production company with over fifteen years of experience under their belt.
I had the pleasure to quiz Julian Kwasneski and Jared Emerson-Johnson from the company about their involvement in Sam & Max and their work as a whole. Read on for the goods.
Hey guys! Please could you introduce yourselves and your role at Bay Area Sound.
JULIAN: I am Julian Kwasneski, owner and audio director. My chief roles are sound designer and voice director, but so much of that involves other skills that it’s silly to say that’s all I do. A great deal of my time is spent managing projects, contractors and interfacing with clients. I am also responsible for the business dealings of the company…. fun.
JARED: Hi everybody, I’m Jared Emerson-Johnson. I’m most commonly known as the music face of the company, but like Julian I wear many hats. I’m primarily split three ways: between music composition/production and editing, sound design/editing, and voice direction. I also do a fair amount of audio implementation for some of our projects, and I’ve been known to get behind the mic and do some voice acting from time to time, as well.
What made you both want to work at Bay Area Sound? Why did you decide to enter that industry?
JULIAN: I left LucasArts in 2000 for a start-up company in Sunnyvale called iBeam Broadcasting. After a year of some heavy internet audio tech development, I missed game audio and joined another former LucasArts veteran (Clint Bajakian) in his newly-formed company “CB Studios”. We soon changed the name the The Sound Department, but our lawyer found a company in Germany with the same name so we changed it so the Bay Area Sound Department. That was too long and lame-sounding so it eventually landed as Bay Area Sound. Whew!
JARED: My interest in music and drama started at a very young age, but wasn’t until the middle of my undergraduate studies that composition became my primary focus. It quickly eclipsed most of my other musical interests, and I became quite curious to see if I could somehow make a living with it. I knew I wasn’t interested in a career in academia, so the main other option that presented itself to me was entertainment scoring.
As a way of testing the waters I sent out a few e-mails to Clint Bajakian, Peter McConnell, and Michael Land—game composers whose work I knew well and who I admired—to see if any of them needed a summer intern. Clint wrote back saying he had just started production on Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb, and that he’d been needing some help with the preparation for the orchestral recordings at the end of the summer. So I spent a couple months working with Clint in his studio, and at the end of the summer I was convinced that game composition was a path that I would enjoy, and that I could do well. That was a little over eight years ago, so: “so far so good!”
What are a few things you’re listening to at the moment?
JULIAN: I am listening to the clock tick and the crickets in my back yard. Since you probably mean musically, I am listening to the new Tom Petty, Goldfrapp, Arcade Fire… along with all the other things I’ve been listening to for the past 43 years.
JARED: I’ve been on a pretty big Grateful Dead bender all summer long, but they’re a perennial favorite of mine. I’ve also been listening back to some of the late 90s, early 00s techno and electronic music like The Chemical Brothers and dudes like Ferry Corsten and etc. Oh so retro, I know! Tom Waits is always in my list of “recently played” artists, as is Frank Zappa.
There is a local band that I’ve been going to see quite a bit in the last year or so called Djiin; they’re sort of an Acoustic/Flamenco/French/Gypsy/Funk kind of group. I’ve also been enjoying the shows of a band called the Eldorado Syncopators which is led by a local music colleague of mine. They do a sort of New Orleans/Jug Band style arrangements (as well as some extremely authentic renditions) of classic tin pan alley tunes, and somewhat obscure hits from the 20s and 30s.
I’ve also been going to the opera a ton and am currently weighing the pros and cons of springing for tickets to see Wagner’s complete Ring cycle next summer (in all, about 16 1/2 hours of mythic epicness). I’ve also been listening to Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène quite a bit, since I’m going to be music directing a youth production of that next spring.
Oh, and I just re-watched The American Astronaut a few weeks back, and have been rediscovering my love of Cory McAbee and The Billy Nayer Show.
How did you get involved with the Sam & Max series?
JULIAN: We were already connected at the hip with Telltale after having completed the two Bone series games and just flowed into it. It was a very exciting time, the three seasons have been a great growing experience for us.
What is the process for creating the sound effects?
JULIAN: When we have our initial meeting with the designers we go over high level information… what is the gist of the story, what locations will the player visit, etc. As the game comes together we usually get to work on the ambient backgrounds first (since they don’t require a lot of art be present, nor do they require much tech). This is usually followed by getting the footsteps wired in. All of this sets the areas up and the game begins to feel like a real space. From there it’s a fine blend of custom libraries we’ve created for the series along with field recordings and a little bit of chaos.
JARED: Yep, Julian summed it up quite nicely. I’d just add that the one aspect of scoring Telltale’s games that somewhat different from many of the other projects we work on is the fact that such a huge amount of the story is conveyed in long cutscenes and cinematic moments. These “movie moments” require a level of linear detail that doesn’t often come into play to the same degree for many other projects. Oftentimes there is an event, for example, which requires a unique sound that never recurs anywhere else in the series, whereas many other games rely on at least some reuse. To sum it up, I’d say that a typical game has maybe 90% of the sound design is for the in-game sfx suites and in interactive detail and tech, with only 10% or so going into the cutscenes. With Telltale’s games I’d say those numbers are reversed: probably more like 95% cutscenes and 5% for the in-game sound.
How do you capture the essence of the series and games and put humour across through sound?
JULIAN: This being the third season now, we have amassed a fairly large library of custom sound effects, all that lend a hand to creating the Sam and Max feel. The real fun is in the details though and we often look at scenes a few different ways before settling on a direction to go. With Sam and Max, you can’t go too cartoony or too real. There is a balance we try to strike in the middle… but often the visuals are just screaming out for something specific—like the classic sci-fi teleportation sounds in the third season.
JARED: Absolutely, the main thing for me is always deciding when to play a given moment straight, and when to go more zany. The possibly counterintuitive truth of the matter is that oftentimes playing a moment straight in the audio will actually lend a much funnier result than going nuts with really cartoony scoring, but that is certainly not always the case. It’s all about figuring out what the best choice for each individual moment will be, and trusting that the finished result will gel together.
How many takes do you record of each line, or is it usually nailed on the first attempt?
JULIAN: We’re usually pretty pressed for time and I liken the production style to that of a television show (we are working on the next episode as we’re polishing the last). Most of the actors we work with are well-versed in our method and quite familiar with the characters they play. Still, back to your question, we usually record an average of about 3 takes per line. That said, we’ve done some sessions with one take per line and some with as many as 20ish takes (those are not fun).
JARED: Yeah, the method varies quite a bit depending on the actor, but it always averages to around 3 takes per line. Quite often the actors do nail it on the first attempt, but it’s always nice to have a few other choices. There are often several “correct” possible reads of any given line, and the goal is to capture the BEST correct read.
Do you ever experience compatibility issues between voice actors and their lines? How do these get resolved?
JULIAN: Fortunately the writers are quite good and by the time the text is in front of an actor a lot of these issues have been worked out. That said, we occasionally find instances of horrid grammar or “what were they thinking” moments… of course, I like to have the writer in the studio with me. If there is any question I just turn to them and say “what WERE you thinking?”. Of course, in some cases we do quick re-writes on the spot, or the actor ad-libs.
Does every voice actor record individually, or are there sometimes group recording sessions?
JULIAN: We have never had a need to have more than one actor at a time. I know some people who do it otherwise, but for our purposes having one actor works just fine. We provide context and I am constantly reading feeding lines to make sure the dialogue is always conversational. We’ve come up with a very good production method and toolset for producing voice over and have had the opportunity to refine it over the years. Telltale’s projects have put it to the test, that’s for sure.
It must be fairly hectic producing for an episodic game. What sort of schedule do you operate on?
JULIAN: As I mentioned in an earlier response, I liken the production to a television show where you have several episodes over the course of a season. We start out knowing the general idea for the whole season but then descend into the details of each episode as they come. At the point where things are just heating up with sound and music recordings, we are casting for the next episode and those voice over sessions start. There are always a few weeks of overlap where the juggling act is fierce. There’s never a dull moment and we need to rely heavily on our internal production pipeline.
JARED: Yes, it is definitely extremely hectic, but Julian and I have intricate and detailed internal schedules (internal to Bay Area Sound) that make it all possible. At this point when a new season starts up I pretty much trust that I won’t be getting enough sleep, and that I’ll likely be stuck in my production chair for 12-18 hours a day for the following six to nine months.
Are there any interesting or funny behind-the-scenes moments that you could share?
JULIAN: Hmmmm… well, bloopers are always fun. If you could only hear the things we hear! The online chat banter is a good barometer of how everyone is feeling… venting one day, rejoicing the next. Oh and the music sessions, those guys probably have the most “fun” despite the incredible time pressure they are under. The Tourist voiceover session was hilarious, Majus did a great job and that voice is crazy. I’m drawing a blank… or I am protecting the guilty.
JARED: There was a music session on Wallace [& Gromit] where a flute literally broke into pieces in the middle of recording—that was not so much funny or interesting as it was extremely memorable! The music sessions are stressful and always rushed because of the schedule and budgets, but they are certainly rewarding for me, since they’re usually the culmination of several weeks of intense work leading into them.
Do you have a favourite part of your job?
JULIAN: Honestly I enjoy all parts. In this business, you either enjoy it or you are not in it… no one would choose this for themselves otherwise! I forget who came up with this quote, but we were on a conference call (a lengthy one) and were discussing all kinds of miserable developments when someone said “this is the industry we have chosen for ourselves”. I thought that was hilarious. Or we’ll get ridiculous emails or become involved in situations where Jared and I just look at each other and say “Ahhhh games”. I love my job.
JARED: For me it’s the variety. I love being able to wake up, write some horror music for a game like Puzzle Agent, go to the voice recording studio, direct some actors for a few hours, then return to my studio to record and edit some sound effects, and then spend the late afternoon and evening preparing instrumental parts for a Sam and Max music session later in the week. My least favorite part is having to deal with computer and machine problems. It’s absolutely the worst, but it comes with the gig, so we all have to grit out teeth and bear it.
Thanks for the interview, Julian and Jared!