Updated: May 24, 2022
The following is a conversation I had with my friend David Orr.
David is a professional composer and sound designer. He's composed music for games such as Castle Crashers, Sonny, Call of Duty: Heroes, and Call of Duty: Siege. David currently works as a UX Sound Designer for Amazon.
We spoke about his creative process, the pleasures of teaching music, advice he would give to aspiring composers, and other topics. Enjoy!
Ben: Let's start with your background and interests. How did you come to work in music and sound design?
David: I took piano lessons at a young age. Growing up, I thought I would follow the performance and piano teaching track. Towards the end of high school, though, I got really interested in game music. I played a lot of video games, and I always liked improvising and composing. It seemed like a very natural outlet for my creativity. So I began composing for independent developers through online communities. I went to college and got undergraduate degrees in music theory and piano performance, and went on to get my graduate degree in composition. All the while, I composed music for games.
I started teaching private music lessons to students of all ages. In 2015 I moved out to California and built up a studio of around thirty piano, theory, and composition students. Meanwhile over time I got more and more into sound design for games. This led me to UX sound design, making sounds for real-world products (e.g. smart speakers, phones, etc.). That's what I spend most of my time on now. Other than that, I'm a consultant for game developers and I have a couple of music students.
Ben: Sound design seems to be a natural outgrowth of your interests. Do these different activities ever collide? When you're in a piano lesson, would you ever talk about your game audio experience?
David: It comes up in some lessons more than others. Students will become interested in applying these creative skills professionally. Usually that's late middle school or high school students thinking about entering the industry. They want to go to school for music, or they're trying to make a career of it. Those are the ones that are a little more inquisitive about how I put food on the table.
Music composition and sound design (especially UX) are trying to achieve the same thing, just at different time scales.
When you compose, you're telling a story or conveying an emotion. You're taking your audience on a journey. It may not be far, but you're taking them somewhere. And that's over the course of a few minutes, maybe even a few hours. With UX sound design, we're talking about at a few seconds at most (it's often measured in milliseconds). But you're still trying to convey an emotion, or some change in state. You've turned on a device, or you've turned up the volume. It's an error sound, or a success sound. Sometimes it's a sound simply for the sake of adding enjoyment to the experience. In designing these sounds, you're doing all of the same things that you would in composition, but it's much more condensed. Your tools are more limited. Every decision has more impact because you have only a few notes or events to play with.
Ben: I love that point. There's a piece of software called PaulStretch that takes short sounds and stretches them over long timescales. When you do that, you hear all kinds of hidden variety in even short audio clips.
David: Absolutely. Here's another analogy, for people who are more versed in music theory: think about Schenkerian analysis, which is designed to distill a piece of music into its core harmonic elements. A whole symphony suddenly turns into a I-V-I chord progression. That boiled down representation can be thought of as the essence of the music. That's what we try to capture with UX sound design.
Going the other way, if you were to develop each sound more fully it could potentially become a piece of music. You could even take a set of UX sounds and use each as a movement within a larger piece. That's not a bad idea, actually; I may try that sometime...
Ben: What advice you would give to people who want to get into this?
David: First, be very selective about when you say "no". I've found that when I say no I often regret it. That's especially true when I see the final product and think "I could have done that" (or worse, "I could have done a better job"). Now I think hard before I say no to any opportunity that will build my skills. Of course, there are certainly cases where you might want to do that--it won't sustain you financially, the environment is not healthy, etc.--but generally, think hard before you say no.
Secondly, if you're trying to make a business out of this it's wise to think of it as a business. That's true if it's performing music, teaching, designing sound, whatever. A lot of people go into creative industries following their passions. They want to do what they love. That's fantastic, but there is also a culture of romanticizing the arts and some of that needs to be checked at the door. Are you trying to put food on the table with this? Then you sometimes have to take gigs that aren't glamorous. That's the double-edged sword of making your passion into your job. This is important: if you go into music because you love it, understand that there may be times you don't love it and you still have to do it because it's your job. I think if you are aware of this at the start, you're better equipped to deal with those hurdles. It's part of the journey.
Ben: Yes. It's the difference between a professional and an amateur. Whatever you're doing for a living, if you want to continue it has to be sustainable, and you have to solve practical problems like putting food on the table.
Let's talk about the creative process a little more. You compared UX sound design over milliseconds/seconds to composing over minutes/hours. What's the thought process there?
David: When it comes to music, it's all about creating contrast and change. And of course that could mean a lack of contrast, or a lack of change--anything that disrupts expectations. Looking at music historically or traditionally, you see that the mechanisms we use to move music forward are all about creating contrast. For example, dynamics (loud and soft) are a very fundamental type of contrast. I always tell students: "What's the best way to make something sound really loud? Proceed it with nothing." Get really quiet right before. (Don't just bang harder...slamming the lid...!)
Often times, contrast isn’t based on timescale. It can be based on a momentary, instantaneous change. And so whether you're writing a large piece of music or a two second sound you still have that opportunity for contrast.
Imagine a power-down sound on a smart speaker. You turn off your speaker and it creates some sort of sound. There's a story here that we're trying to convey to an audience: the device is now going from an on state to an off state. There's a change in device state; there’s an opportunity to tell that story using sound.
How do we convey that effectively? Maybe you have a descending arpeggio. You start from a high note and descend down the arpeggio. You might start loud and get softer. You might vary some of the textures. You might have long notes that become increasingly shorter, like skipping a rock across water. There's no one right answer — the only wrong answer occurs when you hadn’t considered the opportunity.
It's the same when you're writing music. You may have lots of those moments in a large piece of music, but oftentimes there's an overarching story that you're conveying. Take sonata form. You start with an exposition, a stable feeling of being at home. Then you go to a contrasting development that adds tension and puts everything that you've heard into a kaleidoscope, mashing it up. Then, what do you do? You resolve it. At the end it's settled in even more than the beginning. You can get as technical as you want with this, but I think the concepts are pretty simple. It's about time, a story, taking an audience on a journey and trying not to lose them along the way. Because if you lose them--whether it's a ten minute piece of music or a ten second sound--you've probably made a mistake somewhere.
Ben: It's interesting that when a sound has lost me I often don't know why. I just feel that something is off. I noticed it too much, maybe. It was intrusive. Or it wasn't intrusive enough, or it conveyed the wrong emotion. And that's how it goes with a piece I don't like, too. It's like something's off and I can't necessarily put my finger on it.
Let's talk a little bit about teaching, and the creative side of that. What is the process of teaching a student from the first lesson to the third year? What is that like for you?
David: The reason I've always liked to have a least a few students, regardless of whatever else I'm doing, is because I understand something best when I'm able to teach it. I'll identify holes in my knowledge of a topic when I'm trying to teach it to somebody else. That goes for music, sound, or anything.
A lot of times when a student says "I don't understand" it has nothing to do with them. It has everything to do with the way it's been taught, the way it's been communicated. There are exceptions, but generally, I've found if a student doesn't get something it's because I don't sufficiently understand it myself.
For example, take Steven Hawking, who was a phenomenal teacher. You read his books and there's these huge complex ideas, but they're conveyed so eloquently and simply that you think "oh, of course, that's so logical." That's not an accident. He deeply understood what he was explaining. That's a big part of why I love teaching. It forces me to deeply understand the subject matter.
And then the other side of that is it's really satisfying and rewarding to watch somebody grow. It's interesting with a young student--starting at maybe four, five, six--as you see them grow up, you feel almost like a parent.
One nice thing about having a student for a long period of time (say, three years or longer) is you can make long plans with them. It's after that phase where they've been studying with you for a few months, maybe a half a year. You start to get the sense that they're going to be around for awhile. They're practicing, they're engaged in their lessons, the parents are supportive, and all the pieces are in place. You feel like there's a connection that goes both ways. At that point you can start to make longer term plans for their learning and development. You can start to consider “What do I want them learning in a year? How about two years?” And you can start to work backwards. “Okay, in two years I'd like to see them playing a Beethoven sonata, a Clementi sonatina, whatever.” I look at their skills today and start to plan a path forward.
I think that's especially helpful for mid- to late-intermediate students, the ones who are on the precipice of learning more advanced music, because generally at that point students will have some kind of specific deficit. They may be technically advanced but have an issue with expression. Or maybe they're extremely expressive, musically mature, but they have issues with their trills. And you can put them on a course of improvement over a long period of time, and track their development. I find that super fulfilling. And it's also a great opportunity for a teacher to learn, too, since you can see what works and what doesn't.
Ben: And as you said it forces you to understand all of those intermediary steps, which increases your own musicality.
That approach connects with the other creative things you spoke about. You have an end goal in mind and you're reverse engineering, working backwards from it.
Ben: Speaking broadly, what gets you excited about your work? What gets you up in the morning?
David: The reason I got into game music was because it was an opportunity to get my music and sounds in front of people and it might mean something to them. And to this day I get emails on occasion from people playing games of mine, mentioning that they loved the music, or that it was a part of their childhood. For me, just one of those messages will make a week--it'll make a month, really--because my work touched somebody. I get a lot of the same feeling from the UX sound design. Our sounds are exposed to millions of people, billions of times a month collectively all over the world. It's insane. And knowing some of the sounds I've created are a small part of somebody's life is gratifying. It's satisfying. That's what gets me up in the morning. It encourages me to raise the bar and make the experiences as good as they can be.
Ben: Great. Thanks for taking the time for this! I really enjoy your work and it's always a pleasure to speak with you.
David: Likewise, Ben! I admire your work as well. Thank you for having me.
David is a professional composer and sound designer. For more information about David's work visit www.DavidOrr.net.