Colin Howe: Sound Designer at work

Colin Howe: Sound Designer at work

Colin Howe is a sound designer who is currently working on sound design for Star Citizen, an in-development multiplayer space trading and combat simulation game.

Colin Howe is a sound designer who is currently working on sound design for Star Citizen, an in-development multiplayer space trading and combat simulation game developed and published by Cloud Imperium Games for Microsoft Windows. What’s intriguing is that Colin started his career as a sound engineer but is now primarily working as a sound designer. How come?

I started out as a musician and through a need to record ideas and demos I quickly developed an interest in recording/mixing which I was then lucky enough to make a career out of as a sound engineer.

After 6 years of doing this professionally I started to feel creatively unfulfilled, I still loved all things audio and had a strong desire to make and record noises and music but wondered how this could be applied to a different career in audio.

It was really just by chance that I happened upon game audio and I recall putting a basic ambience into a demo level in a game engine and then listening back to the result as I wandered around the level hearing the sonic world I had just created, it was an incredibly inspiring experience. I was hooked immediately.

I got lucky again and after a couple of years of dedicating just about every waking hour I could to learning game audio I was able to get my first job in the industry.        

What does a sound designer actually do?      

You could ask any sound designer this and they will probably struggle to give an answer, as will I, but put simply what any sound designer is trying to do is build immersion and evoke an emotional response in the viewer or player that compliments a scene and story. 

In games this could be placing you on a battlefield in WWII with the sounds of bullets whizzing by, explosions in the nearfield and distance, planes soaring past overhead suggesting that bombs may follow, the punch and thump of your weapon as you fire combined with the satisfying clank of the firing mechanism bringing it all forward and making it feel like the weapon is right there in your hands. It is also telling the player something important about the environment around them and how they should react to it should they wish to survive.

All of the above still applies to a game like Star Citizen with the fundamental difference being the setting, set way off in the future means we have to create sounds for objects and places that often don’t exist in the real world but still make them grounded enough that the player understands their context, meaning and purpose, a careful balance between familiar and unfamiliar but ultimately still enthralling, evocative and immersive.

How do you approach a project / what does a normal workday look like?

No two days are ever really the same and the work is varied, there are even some days that I won’t be doing any sound design as I’ll be busy on the more technical side of things. Due to the interactive and dynamic nature of game sound design a lot of thought has to be given to the logic and setup that will drive the audio on a particular feature. Once that is done, I will design a first pass of the sounds, listen in game, figure out what works and what doesn’t and take it sideways from there until I have something I’m happy to put up for review. 

Of which projects are you particularly proud?

I am proud of everything I’ve designed for Star Citizen though looking back over older work and with a little more experience there are certainly things I could do better. Luckily with this game being in open development revisiting older work is something I am able to do. 

Can you tell us more about your work for Star Citizen or other current projects?

Well Star Citizen is the first professional game project I have worked on. If you want to know more about it, I can only suggest playing the game. It’s a visually stunning game with a ton of content and though I may be somewhat biased I think all of us in the audio team have made the game sound as incredible as it looks.    

What makes a good sound designer in game development?

This would depend upon the needs of a project and/or audio department, though a good understanding of the nature and challenges of designing and implementing audio for an interactive medium is quite important. 

Could you name three to five games that have really good sound design (just like you would recommend a record) ? What makes the sound design special in these games?

Alien Isolation – For staying so true to the iconic audio aesthetic of the original Alien film and creating incredible tension with the sound design in all sorts of subtle ways whilst evoking huge peaks of terror with the aleatoric music design.

Inside – Blurring the lines between music and sound design to create the most beautiful, ethereal, abstract and moody soundscapes I’ve ever heard in a game.

Control – The sound design and music are very original, quirky and powerful and ties in beautifully with the brutalist and disorientating aesthetic and story.

Soma – Similar to Inside and Control in how moody, disturbing and disorientating the sound design is.

Half Life 2 – This is an old game now but I played it again recently and was amazed how well the sound design and audio in general stands up to the test of time. Lots of iconic sounds in there and many very original, clever and unusual choices for how the audio is presented.

I could add a lot more games to this list but the ones above are what I could think of in the moment and that particularly stuck out for me as a player.          

Sound Designer Colin Howe at work with the Hi-X65 headphones from Austrian Audio

How did you come across Austrian Audio?

I think by chance but then I read about the company and the many years of experience they have had creating products for AKG and this piqued my interest.

I then saw how beautifully designed and engineered the Austrian Audio products were and quickly made contact asking if there may be any open back headphones planned for release in the near future. This was strongly hinted at and from there I just kept checking the website every month until finally the HI-X65’s were released.

I bought them immediately!     

Have you tried any of the Austrian Audio headphones? How is listening to your sounds on Austrian Audio headphones helpful when designing sounds for games? Do you think that gamers would appreciate them as well?

Yes , I own a pair of the HI-X65s and they far surpassed my expectations in sound and build quality, both of which are exceptional!

I’ve always used headphones at home and at work for more surgical sound design and critical listening even in a treated audio room. Now that the vast majority of game developers are working from home and in less-than-ideal listening environments, I now use headphones almost exclusively every day.

The Austrian Audio Hi-X65s have proven to be the perfect tool for me when designing sounds and mixing for 5 main reasons….

  1. The low-end frequency response is way more accurate than any other open back headphones I have used and I feel much more confident in my mix choices when listening with them.
  2. The drivers are fast and accurate which is especially useful when creating and mixing very transient sounds.
  3. Mixes sound far more open and less smeared than my previous headphones. The frequency response is really flat and accurate with a top end that is impressively detailed and smooth.
  4. The exceptional sound quality of the Hi-X65s is matched by their build quality which for me is incredibly important as I need a product I can rely upon in all respects and that will withstand the heavy usage.
  5. They are really comfortable, I have them on for about 8 hours a day! 

I would certainly recommend that any gamers that want to hear and appreciate the sound of the games they play at the same fidelity and quality that they were designed and mixed to, then without doubt a high-quality pair of headphones such as the Hi-X65s would be a great choice.

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