David Nowlin has voiced Sam across every single Telltale episode of Sam & Max and also tried his hands at cards in Poker Night 2. That's a lot of Sam! This man knows the character inside out. As such, it was an absolute treat to be able to interview him about his career and his time voicing our favourite canine.
Read on to hear from Dave himself as we talk about his early work with The Learning Company, his love for all things audio-related, and how he nearly came to voice both Sam and Max.
Hey, Dave! In your early career you worked for companies like The Learning Company and Broderbund as a sound designer and composer. I loved their games as a kid, so it’s great to hear you had a part in them. How did you get involved in the audio industry?
I’ve always been fascinated with recording. My dad had a couple of old machines that I kind of took over when I was kid, and mostly recorded myself playing guitar, imaginary radio shows with my buddies, school projects, messing around with sound effects – stuff like that. When I started doing session work, I was really intrigued by the big-boy gear that the studios had, and always seemed like wizardry, what the engineers could do. So, I started engineering a lot of my own demos, because I didn’t have any budget to go into a studio, and just had to figure it out. After all these years, I’m still figuring it out!
Your recent career has seen you move into marketing and video production roles for technology companies like Symantec and ServiceNow. How did your career take this path?
After The Learning Company was sold in 2002, they stripped down the audio department to only one person essentially managing projects, so the rest of us were casualties. I started contracting on various projects – freelance composing for other video game titles, radio spots, all sorts of stuff. A friend of mine was getting married and needed someone to cover for him doing some audio for TV production – which I had never done before, but couldn’t afford to say “No” to anything. So I just jumped in and never looked back.
I found the whole TV and video production process to be, again, something like wizardry. Eventually, I was producing video projects as well as audio, and had observed enough of the process, but wanted to understand more about the hands-on aspect of it, so I started messing around with shooting and editing.
It was couple years later that one of the companies I was working with wanted to get into the brave new world of live streaming on the internet. They asked if I was interested in doing that, and, of course, since I could never say “No,” jumped right in. It two a couple of 16-space rolling racks to do what you can do with a backpack nowadays – but it launched me into a whole other area I wouldn’t have considered otherwise.
You’ve been a professional voice actor since 2004, alongside these other jobs. How did you begin as a voice actor?
That’s was a pretty roundabout thing, actually. I had an old car that had died in a parking lot a couple miles from my home on the way back from a gig. I knew the drummer in our band knew some guys in the automotive business, and one of his connections owned an auto glass place, and that guy had a mutual back-scratching relationship with a mechanic. Well, the auto glass guy made sure the mechanic fixed my car, and rather than pay him in cash, I did some session work for trade in a studio he had where worked on side projects when he wasn’t at the glass shop. He had a couple radio spots that needed some character voices, and that was something I’d always messed around with since I was a kid, and said, ”Hey, I’ll take a crack at it!”
So I went on to do a bunch of stuff for him, composing music, audio editing – that’s where I learned about MIDI and working with ProTools and Digital Performer. I’d only worked with tape until then, so that was another whole new world. Later, when I was doing the corporate audio production gigs, I would do intro/outro voiceovers, in all different styles, sounding older, younger, hipper, nerdier – whatever was required.
Was voice acting something you always had a talent for and a desire to do?
Oh yeah, but you never really think realistically about it ever being a job. I mean, you’d always hear about Mel Blanc and people like that, but it just seemed like such an unattainable thing. It’s just a fun thing to do, especially if you have a couple of really cool characters or able to do impressions.
I could actually make my voice sound like Theodore from the Chipmunks – real time! I came up with a parody script of Theodore being interviewed that I ran by this one guy I knew who produced radio spots, doing that voice while he was the interviewer, and he couldn’t get to his next line without busting up. We never finished the demo, he moved up north to another gig, and that idea kind of died.
Telltale unveiled you as the new voice of Sam in 2006. How did you land the role?
When I was at The Learning Company, I was the voice when Sam the Lion in the Reader Rabbit series had to sing. Terry McGovern was the actor for Sam, but I was the ‘Singing Sam.’ So when there were ‘Singing Sam’ parts after Riverdeep took over, I got the call – but had to join the agency that they used for voice casting.
I ended up doing a ton of other work for that agency, including being IVR voice for AOL tech support for about four or five years. They would email out audition scripts that you could come into their office and record, or do at home if you had the gear, which I did. One of the auditions I did was for Sam & Max. Actually, I auditioned for both Sam AND Max and nearly got both – but someone figure it wasn’t a good idea and wanted to cast separate voices.
Did you know anything about Sam & Max before taking on the role?
Not a thing – but the scripts cracked me up and knew it was something I’d love to do!
Had you heard the previous incarnations of Sam, either from the LucasArts game or the animated TV show?
They had samples of characters from the LucasArts games, so that’s what they were going for.
What was your approach in deciding how Sam should sound? Did Telltale have something specific in mind?
I think Bill Farmer decided that for me! Bill is such a monster, he totally nailed who Sam should be, like everything he does – the consummate voice pro. So it kind of started with doing an impression of Bill doing Sam, and then adding in a bit of Humphrey Bogart with a James Cagney twang on the finish. At least that’s how it sounds to me, anyway. When I read Bill’s approach as kind of going in a Johnny Carson kind of direction for Sam, it was like, “That’s it – that’s what that is!”
Have you met Steve Purcell, the creator of Sam & Max, or heard what he thinks of your Sam voice?
I’ve never met Steve, but would be honoured to someday, for sure! I don’t know if he was part of the approval process when the casting was done, but I never got a call saying, “Steve told us he hates your Sam voice, so we gotta make a change.”
What do you enjoy most about voicing Sam?
No matter how long between sessions, it’s easy to get back into the Sam groove. And the character is not a lot of wear and tear on the voice, so we could do sessions four, sometimes five hours long, wall-to-wall, with only a couple short breathers here and there.
What was the routine for the recording sessions?
Considering the games were episodic, you weren’t recording everything at once. We’d have script laid out, take a look at the first couple pages to kind of get a sense of location, mood, action going on, and then just start recording. Sometimes Julian would prompt with other characters’ lines from the control room for a specific reaction, but it was pretty much head down and go. I had suggested doing it radio show-style, so the actors could actually play off of each other, but scheduling would have been a nightmare – everyone was so busy with so many other gigs.
What are some memorable moments from your time in the booth?
There was one occasion when we were on an incredible roll, in a groove and getting pages and pages of script done. We were coming to the end of the episode we were working on, and I could see Julian and Brendan, one of the Telltale writers, frantically busy with something in the control room. When we finished the episode, they ran out with a whole other script. I had finished earlier that what I was scheduled for, and they said, “We’re on such a roll, can you stay an hour overtime and do this?” I said, “Sure” and we ended up breaking the content record for a character in a single day. I don’t remember the line count, but it was a ton!
Did the way you voice Sam change over the years?
I haven’t gone back and listened that closely – there probably are some differences, but I haven’t consciously heard them.
Did you ever get meet with William Kasten, voice of Max? Perhaps to bounce ideas off each other?
There were times when some of the actors would be leaving as others were coming in, but never enough time to sit down and discuss what was going on.
I assume you didn’t record directly with William. How did you capture that dynamic between Sam & Max when you’re alone in the booth?
Since most of the dialog was between Sam and Max, I would set myself up with the Max that I did In my head – sometimes voicing it out loud, which would drive Jory crazy.
Have you played any of the Telltale games? If so, what do you think of them?
I’ve played them casually, but never finished them. I’ve never really been a gamer, though I love doing the production on the games.
Away from the world of work, what do you like doing in your spare time?
I still enjoy song writing and producing other artists’ material; very therapeutic, it’s what keeps me sane. There seems to be a real renaissance of using live musicians as opposed to the canned instruments inside the DAWs that are everywhere now; more human interaction that adds so much more personality to the songs.
Thank you so much for your time, Dave. Do you think we’ll get to hear you again as Sam soon?
Well, there has been some talk about some things here and there, but if anything does break, you’ll be the first to know!