Molecule Profile: Lisa Devon
Musical maestro Lisa Devon is part of our brilliant audio team, working hard to make your aural experiences in Dreams ones to remember. But there's a whole lot more to the job: from mixing to mastering, and voice recording to vocal direction, the role is varied, with tonnes of room for experimentation. It’s not easy coming up with a whole audio design for a game from scratch, but Lisa is up to the challenge. Here, we chat to Lisa about vocal warm-ups, the best tech for making music, and her favourite composers in Dreams.
Hi Lisa! What do you do here at Media Molecule?
I'm a sound designer, which at Media Molecule entails the entire audio creation process. So that includes creating sound effects, implementing them in the game, creating instruments, writing music and making the music integrated, like music systems for the game as well. So it’s a mish-mash of working with logic, working with all the other members of your team, all the other game developers, and taking a project from start to finish with all of the audio.
Did you have a hand in helping to develop the audio Create tools?
A little bit, but by the time that I joined Mm to work on Dreams, the Create tools on the audio side were pretty similar to how they are today. But obviously they have been tweaked and developed as the years have gone by, and I've definitely had the opportunity to add some opinions to the pool of what we should improve or change in terms of features, and it's been cool to see those come to fruition. I also get to work very closely with our audio programmer and we discuss fun things that we're listening to or things that we think would work really well in the game and features that we would love to see added. We’re constantly communicating with each other about that.
What's your favourite thing that you have worked on at Media Molecule?
Oh my gosh, that's really tricky. What is my favourite thing? It's really hard because I feel like I must love all my children equally. I'm very proud of the work I did on Ancient Dangers: A Bat's Tale because that was my first fully solo project. So I made almost all of the audio for that, and got some help towards the end of development with creating the cutscenes. But working with the musicians, working with the voice actors, directing the voice, the creative direction, all of the characters and gameplay systems, and integrating everything together was a mammoth task. It was basically making a full game from start to finish. So that's probably my proudest project.
Working with professional musicians sounds like fun - what's it like working with those external partners?
It's great. Usually I end up recording with people that I know already that I'm already connected to in the music industry. So working with friends is always super fun. I guess knowing your own limitation as a composer is important - like, I can't actually make a really good sounding electric guitar using virtual instruments, so knowing when to call somebody to say ‘Hey, you're a guitarist, what do you think about this?’ and then giving them the chords or the melody and the basic structure of the song to see what they create is super exciting. Because I for sure couldn’t create something as cool as they do.
And I love that collaborative process of working with people who are amazing at what they do, and then connecting it to what I do. Working with the voice actors for Ancient Dangers was just so much fun because it was a super goofy but still very serious session that we had with them, and it was great fun working with death metal singers and giving them direction for making the various creature noises.
It's hard to believe that people can make those sounds with just their vocal chords.
I know, and the fact that it doesn't destroy them is a testament to their skill. They have all these tools and techniques and warm-ups to prevent their voices from getting totally wrecked afterwards. That's the most impressive bit to me. The fact that they can do that every single day and then go play with their bands at night. It's incredible, and it would absolutely destroy my voice if I had to do that.
Do you remember what any of the warm-ups were?
Sebastien, who's the director of the voice studio, actually did a stream with us a couple weeks ago [at the time of the interview] where he shared some of those techniques; a lot of them are similar to singing techniques like performing scales, and then doing breathing exercises to almost warm up the diaphragm. He had these strategies for pushing your vocal chords to the max without putting too much pressure on them. He described it in this way that was hard to picture, but it clearly works and I'm sure he's got a lot more warm-ups up his sleeve. It was certainly very eye-opening to learn about.
And on top of all that, you're a musician yourself as well! So what instruments do you play?
I grew up playing classical piano. I played that for about 10 years and then I played guitar for a couple of years. I've also tried a couple of wind instruments; I just really love trying everything as you never know what instrument is going to gel with you. The one instrument that I'm just absolutely terrible at is the drums. I do not have any natural rhythm. I would love to actually learn how to play the drums, as maybe that would help with my rhythm problem. And then I also sang for a while, but again, that's another thing I would love to get coaching for because the voice is definitely an instrument that needs to be practiced and nurtured over time.
What brought you into the game industry? How did you get from playing classical piano to working in games?
When I was around 15, I decided that all those instruments weren’t cool any more and I wanted to learn how to make techno and electronic music. So I was given the best Christmas present of my life from my dad, Pro Tools, which if you don’t know anything about music production, is a pretty well regarded audio editing software. I think he noticed that I was writing my own songs on the piano and singing along, and so he thought if he got me this I might become interested in the engineering side of things (sorry, Dad!). I guess I got part of the way there but it never really happened. So anyway, I started learning how to use that software and got really, really into the recording side of things.
I actually realised that I liked that even better than the performing side of things, so I started taking recording and sound engineering classes, and then eventually full-on music production classes - also music theory courses and foundations of audio courses from a free community college in my hometown. Eventually I transferred to a university to do a classic audio engineering degree, where I learned how to record bands, microphone techniques, and audio production.
Unfortunately, the music scene kinda died in San Francisco, where I was living after a while. All of the audio work was in post-production, like sound editing for films and adverts. So I worked in a few post-production studios in the city for a few years and I actually loved it, but I wanted to take it to the next step. And games is always something that really fascinated me because of the interactivity of it and how you have to mix things for so many different play styles and environments, and it doesn't have to just play once nicely the first time like a film would.
I had a couple of friends who had gone to this sound design for games course in Edinburgh and I was also looking for an excuse to move abroad and experience life outside of my own country, so I did the course. It was awesome and then pretty much directly after that I got the job here.
How was the process of transferring your music skills into the world of games?
With Dreams it's surprisingly easy, because it really does resemble a lot of the tools that we use anyway within audio editing software. I know that in the early days of Dreams development they kind of wanted the audio tools to be a little less technical and more gestural, for example to be used in tandem with the Move controllers. But then through lots of iterations, people wanted more features and more flexibility, and to be able to play things back and to edit them and iterate on them in real time so eventually it kind of started resembling more and more like a DAW, which is the Digital Audio Workstation THAT I would normally use for audio production. And now Dreams has the best of both worlds: it still has that performative aspect, but you can also control things to a very precise detail. Transferring over those skills from what I would do on my computer or with a DAW is actually pretty simple. I think the hardest thing was getting to grips with the DualShock contoller, learning the control scheme and then making use of the shortcuts, honestly.
Do you have any top tips or advice for anyone that's looking to potentially get into audio design?
It might be controversial to say, but I really do believe this, that whilst I had a really good time at that course in Edinburgh, everything I learned there you can learn yourself online. It just takes the deadlines that a university course can give you to keep you going and motivated to get through it. I personally need that kind of motivation - I definitely need deadlines or grades or something that gets me through to finish a project.
There’s some great software out there, the two most popular are Wwise and FMOD, which you can download both for free. There's also a bunch of amazing free resources for learning those software packages online. Something that might be useful for really entry-level applicants or students is a mentorship programme I’m part of called Limit Break(opens in new tab), where I mentor a few different people who are trying to get into the games industry. They send me their work and I critique it and give them feedback. They iterate on that, send it back, and so we have these regular meetings where you can basically get people who are already professionally situated in the industry to listen to your stuff, it’s great.
Mm staff seem to have a lot of interesting items on their desks. What's on your desk at the moment?
I'm actually currently borrowing this room from another sound engineer in Guildford while we're doing our office renovation, but on this desk he's got some incredible gear. Over here he's got this quite fancy hardware to mix and master music, and he's got this really cool valve compressor by an English brand called Thermionic Culture. There’s all sorts of spaceship looking equipment that you use to do the final touches on your mixes when you're writing music. That's what I've got on my desk right now.
But normally I think the favourite thing I have on my desk at work in the office is a hand-crocheted octopus that Dave Smith, our technical director, gave me. It's super cute and he's really good at crocheting, which is a fun fact about Dave that a lot of people don't know.
To wrap up, what are your favourite Dreams, and are there any that you'd like to recommend?
So there's a game called Purgatory Panic by surrounded_, which is a rhythm game and it's so cool. I love the style of it. It's kind of got this very flat, almost 2D, artwork and it's almost got like a bit of a Wipeout retro feel to it. It's a very clever interface for a rhythm game that I've never seen before. This kind of thing is just what Dreams excels at so much, and I really like the ingenuity and creativity behind that particular game.
Music-wise, I love stuff done by artists like venwave. I love it when people try to push the outer limits of what Dreams can do, and to try things that people otherwise would try to avoid. Another awesome artist is ghostfruit64, as they also make both amazing music and amazing games in Dreams. So I'm a massive fan of theirs. There’s just so much great music out there in Dreams, you’ll never be short of things to listen to!
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