Andrew Lackey Special: Exclusive Interview

by Miguel Isaza, December 4, 2009

Designing Sound: Let’s get started, tell us how did you got involved with sound design?

Andrew Lackey: Growing up I inherited old discarded audio equipment from my dad and grandpa’s dance band; The Don Roberts Quintet. As far back as 12 years old I wrote and recorded music with my friends. I went to college at Middle Tennessee State University where I learned how real music studios worked, and it was there that I got hooked on sound for film. I moved to LA in 1998, and started an internship with Dane Davis. I interned with him on two really small films and then one really big one…the Matrix. One day he handed me the Matrix script to read, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow this is cool….I’m being included.’ Throughout that project I was the do boy for the oddest of tasks. Dane would say something like, “Andy, we need to record every type of electricity there is.” or “I need fidgety machine sounds.” I would take some petty cash and search prop houses and industrial junk yards all over LA for random audio treasures.

The ones that stand out the most in my mind were a variable voltage DC power supply, a neon sign transformer, and 12 foot tall Jacob’s ladder. The DC power supply we hooked up to RC car motors. The awesome thing was that it had a huge knob that we could sling around to make the motors speed up and down really dramatically…like they were talking. The neon sign transformer was just plain trouble. We attached leads to it, plugged it and just arc’d it…occasionally to the mic…occasionally through Dane. Once we sent a voltage spike into the wall power and it shocked an editor through his headphones in the next room.

The Jacob’s Ladder was completely awesome. The arc traveled up the leads pretty slowly and ended up being about 18 inches long at the top. It had this amazing ereiorerwerary kinda quality. I got to watch Dane use all this material as ingredients for the squiddies, doc bot, fetus feilds and Neb (Morpheus’ ship). Years later on Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions he gave me the all the ships and squiddies to do….and there was alot of them.

DS: What was the hardest thing about starting out?

AL: The first few years in this business is grad school. Plan on going into debt, learning on your feet and burning some midnight oil. School or prior experience in a related field is important to getting started, but only gets you in the door. You gain skills and trust by doing…and its really important to make the most of your opportunities.

DS: What’s the most important thing about designing sounds?

AL: The most important thing is to keep in mind is why you’re designing the sound. This may sound simple, but knowing the answer will inform every creative and technical choice you make. When you ask ‘Why is this sound important or even necessary?’…the answer you get is the essence of the sound you are after. Another way to ask the question is “What is it about the experience the sound should reflect?” 99% of the time you are asking yourself that question, but if you don’t know the answer its time to call the director. The huge secondary benefit to this approach is that your work always stays fresh and interesting. Wind is never just wind. A footstep is never just a footstep. What is it about the character’s demeanor, size, biology or intention can be reflected. This doesn’t mean loosing your sense of scope though. Again, you are asking why this footstep is important to the experience. Is the character in a bathroom, in a cave, in space? Why is the sound you’re making or not making important to the experience?

DS: You’ve worked with the film and gaming industry for audio. If you had to choose only one what would it be? why?

AL: Games, but I love film too. They both offer great creative challenges, but games are also technically very challenging. A big part of a sound designer’s role on games is to help design the audio system and tools. The equivalent in film would be redesigning a new DAW and console to suit the needs of the film. In games you also tend to be more vertically integrated…as opposed to horizontally in film. What I mean is that one person can take a particular sound from the conceptualizing stages through recording, designing, implementing and mixing stages. In film, roles are more specialized, so that process would involve 3-5 people. The end result can be great either way, but personally I like wearing the different hats.

DS: Which implementation and project management tools do you use?

AL: What I use changes from project to project. For audio, I’ve mostly used proprietary tools that studios have written, but also packages like Wwise and Fmod. As far as game engines, I’ve used Unreal, Unity, Renderware and proprietary systems. I’ve worked on a few projects where the audio team has had either scripting capabilities or graphical programming environments. Sound designers these days are getting more and more exposed to runtime variables and audio systems that support customizable playback parameters controllable by these variables. This is blurring the line between programming and sound design.

DS: What are your main tools in the studio?

AL: My studio is set up so that it is just as easy to flip on a mic and record something as it is to instantiate a plug in or search in my library. I have a wireless remote and video monitor feed split to my live room so I can go in there and record to picture. Nuendo is my DAW of choice, but I use Protools on occasion.

DS: And for field recording?

AL: I use a modded R-44 with a sound devices mixer. My main mics are Neumann KM140s and an AT shotgun. I probably have 30 mics in all including hydrophones and contact mics, but these get the most use. I also have a Nagra VIs that goes with me to record guns. Another device I’ve been using in the field lately is my iPhone. I put video of what I’m recording for on it so I can reference it…or even perform to picture.

DS: A sound designer you admire?

AL: Well, I’m obviously very grateful to have had Dane Davis as a mentor. Most of what you read about his work on movies only scratches the surface of the thought and creativity he puts into every scene. Metaphorically speaking, sound is what you bring to the project at the end of the day, but you start the day as a filmmaker or game designer. This is the best way I can distill what I learned from Dane. You really have to understand what the project wants to be in order to do the most effective work. I probably absorbed as much from him about narrative structure, character development and scene pacing as anything else.

I also know that audio is a team sport, so I tend to keep the entire crew of a film or game in mind if I’m enjoying the audio. Even if its one lead consistently doing great work, its likely they have an awesome crew. The contribution of mixers, programmers, foley artists, field recordists and sound editors really should be included in any discussion about sound design.

DS: How much time do you spend playing games?

AL: Depends on how much I’m working. I play 5 or 6 games a year. Usually an epic AAA, a multiplayer co op, an RPG and 2 or 3 indie games. I’m really into independent games right now. I think we are getting to a point in games that I think of as the Nirvana moment….where the counter culture takes over as mainstream. Maybe I’m crazy, maybe its already happened.

DS: How do you see the current state of game audio? How do you see it in 5 years?

AL: Game audio is in a big growth spurt right now. The level of sophistication and creativity that’s going into sound is leaping ahead every year. Sound designers are pushing the bar aggressively, and the theoretical limits of what’s possible is still really far out there. On the other side of the fence, fans are getting more interested in the audio experience they’re having and reviewers are talking about sound with more and more sophistication. The internal support for audio departments seems to be increasing as well, and level of integration of audio into overall game development is growing.

In 5 years, I’d like audio to be used more intelligently in gameplay mechanics. The sound geek in me sees opportunities for audio to be used as a core mechanic at times. Maybe I’m the only one that would enjoy that though.

I’m also curious about all of the add on devices that are coming to the market now like Wii Fit, the Tony Hawk skateboard and Project Natal. These devices are getting people off the couch, and the physical gaming space is being expanded from the area around the hands to a larger area in the living room. I think its possible we’ll have sound coming from these devices pretty soon….makes sense if you think about Rock Band and Guitar Hero.

DS: You have been working on several projects this year that will be released in 2010… like Dante’s Inferno, BioShock 2, etc… Can you tell us something about what could we expect from those games?

AL: I was a supporting member of really talented audio teams. You can expect really great work, but its best to let the audio directors talk about their visions when the projects release.

DS: Finally… can you tell us about your future projects?

AL: I’m really looking forward to the coming year. It should be a great spread of AAA action and indie intrigue. Right now I have some gaps in my schedule so I have some pet projects in the works. One is a not for profit music release of tribal music I recorded near Mfuwe, Zambia. I also have some game ideas of my own.

And remember! If you want to ask something to Andrew, just tell me!

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