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Interview with Ryan Ike, Composer & Sound Designer for Media

I recently had the chance to sit down for an interview with composer and sound designer Ryan Ike. This transcript is a condensed version of the interview. Follow Ryan on Twitter at @RyanIkeComposer.

Joshua Du Chene: Hey there, Ryan. Thanks for sitting down with me for this interview. Let’s start with you introducing yourself and what you do, then I’ll ask you a handful of questions about your career.

Ryan Ike: My name is Ryan Ike, I make music and sound primarily for video games, but I also do work in film, television, and advertisement media.

JD: Great. What path led you to your career of working in media and video games?

RI: I’m really fortunate in that I’ve sort of always known that I wanted to do music, even from an early age. I’ve always loved video games, I’ve always found the music of games inspiring in the way that it’s interactive in ways that most music is not. The player gets to affect, in many ways, what happens to the soundtrack. And I always thought it would be cool to do that.

But throughout high school, college, and grad school, I always took a really academic focus on music because that’s how I thought you got a career doing music. During my grad school program, we mostly studied atonal music because that was being pushed in academia, but I didn’t like it. If you’re not familiar with atonal music, imagine if you took a xylophone, a pipe organ, a couple anvils and police sirens, and then just pushed them all down a flight of stairs. That’s what atonal music sounds like to me.

So it really took me doing this type of music I didn’t like for three years in grad school to come to the point where I had to make a decision to either keep doing this atonal music I hated, or finally say, “screw it,” and go after this other type of music that I actually liked. My wife was also there telling me that I should just do the thing I actually wanted to do.

It wasn’t like I never thought about doing music for games – I thought about it constantly – but it seemed so inaccessible. It felt like pursuing pro NFL or becoming a movie star, like it was that inaccessible. And there wasn’t a a big indie scene back then either, so there were just these very few composers working for these big companies, and it seemed impossible to get in with the high competition and limited jobs.

Fortunately, the tools have become better, cheaper, and more accessible so that anybody can do this. And we have a huge indie scene now with more opportunities for audio people. So that’s what really helped me get into this career.

JD: Amazing, thanks for sharing that. So now that you’re working full time in the music industry, what does a typical day on the job look like for you?

RI: Since I’m freelance, I work from my home studio and I set my own schedule. So typically, in the morning I take my dog for a walk and go to the gym, and I sit down to work around 10:30am and try to finish around 6:30pm every day. I find that it’s really important to have a sense of work-life balance, so I try to keep my work days to eight hours when I can. It’s really important to treat your non-work time as sacred – you have to see family, you have to take care of your health, so I keep my work to the weekdays and leave weekends open when I can.

It’s tricky to give you a picture of what my regular day looks like because it’s different every day. Most days I’m working on writing out the next track for a game that I’m working on. Some days I’m doing admin work and getting in touch with clients, other days I’m doing audio work where I’m walking around my apartment banging stuff together and recording it. So there really isn’t a regular schedule, it’s more like the night before, I write out a list of tasks that I’d like to get done the next day, then I start working on them to see how much I can get done. As you know, the work never ends – it’s not like, “Oh, I just need to get these TPS reports out and then I can go home.” So I like having that list of things so I can stay on task and see the progress I’m making.

JD: So it sounds like you have a structure in place for your workflow, but within that structure it’s very free and open for whatever you need to do at the time?

RI: Right. One thing I try to do every day, though, is to practice my instrument. Piano is my primary instrument, so when I sit down to work, the first thing I like to do is practice piano for a half hour or so. It’s really important for me to keep those skills up and keep learning new things and new music, so that’s definitely a part of my routine. I don’t want to lose that performance edge, and it’s really important for your writing to continue learning to play new music.

JD: When you’re working, do you ever feel uninspired or come up against writer’s block?

RI: Oh yeah, I usually have writer’s block once or twice a week.

JD: What do you do when you’re experiencing writer’s block?

RI: I have to get away from my studio or I’ll go insane, so I’ll usually get out and take the dog for a walk, or I’ll just go do something mundane that doesn’t have anything to do with work. One thing I’m working on getting better at now is switching tasks when I hit a wall on something. That’s one thing I like about this job, is that I have a variety of projects I’m always working on. So I’m trying to get better at changing to another project when I’m stuck on something, because often that will be enough to help me get back into the flow of things, then when I come back to that other project that was giving me trouble, I’ll have new ideas because I gave myself a break from it to do something different.

JD: That seems like a great tool to have in your kit. So speaking of roadblocks that come up sometimes, what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your career?

RI: The challenge of finding your voice, and not only that, but being cool with what your voice is once you find it. That one was kind of rough for me for a while. I went through graduate school and got this degree in music composition, and that sort of put on hold the types of music that I actually like to make. I’m a really melodic composer – I like to write a catchy main line and then hang everything on that. But it took me a long time to accept that was okay having been steeped in a program and culture that considered that a bit low-brow. But once I accepted that and became at peace with the fact that I’m a melodic composer and I like to write catchy things, I’ve felt a lot better and I enjoy my work so much more.

JD: Yeah, it reminds me of high school when it wasn’t cool to like certain types of music like pop music and boy bands. I remember hearing stuff that I actually kind of enjoyed, but not letting myself like it, and conversely trying to like stuff I didn’t actually enjoy because I thought it was what I was supposed to like based on my friend group and such.

RI: You basically just summed up high school in a sentence. Trying to like things you don’t actually like.

JD: So, we talked about some of the challenges you face in your career, but what are some of the biggest rewards of working in game audio?

RI: One of the things I love about this career is that it always provides you the opportunity to be doing a new thing that’s kind of uncomfortable, but in an awesome way. With each new project, I’m often doing a style that I’m unfamiliar with, so I do a deep dive into it to try to learn as much about a style as I can. One of the games I’m working on, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, is very old blues, folk, country, bluegrass type music, which I love, but I’ve never written that style before. So I get to explore what made those styles what they are and especially in the early Americana era. For another game I worked on called Gunpoint, they wanted me to do like noir jazz, and I can’t write jazz for crap. So it was kind of terrifying, but I love that challenge when somebody is like, “Do this type of music you’ve never done before, and make it sound like you know what you’re doing.”

JD: That sounds like a lot of fun, trying to puzzle together the most important pieces of a style of music so that you can do that style justice while still being your own music.

RI: Yeah, it’s really rewarding when you finish and people are like, “Man, you must have studied jazz for years,” and I’m 99.9% incredibly flattered, but there’s that 0.1% that feels like I’m getting away with something.

JD: What advice would you give to somebody who was considering a career doing game audio?

RI: Assuming you already have a computer, the first thing you’ll want to get your hands on is a DAW (digital audio workstation). That’s where you’re going to be doing most of your work. But it doesn’t have to be expensive. What I usually tell people starting out is to get Reaper. It’s a full-fledged DAW just like the other big names, but the license is like $60. And they have a free trial period where you can use the full program with all the features to see if you like it. And I think the trial period is pretty much as long as you want to use it, and they just hope that you’ll be a good person and eventually pay for the license if you end up using it a lot.

JD: Yeah, they have an indefinite free trial where there’s just a nag screen that pops up for like five seconds when you open Reaper that asks if you’re still evaluating it, and it reminds you to pay for a license if you’re going to keep using it. But you can click “still evaluating” as long as you want.

RI: Wow, yeah, so get Reaper – it’s full featured and there are plenty of professionals who use it as their main DAW. The second thing I would say is to network. At first, this was terrifying for me, but you’ve got to network. There are plenty of events each year that are worth attending. PAX (Penny Arcade Expo) is a great one that happens here in Seattle every fall at the end of August or beginning of September. While it’s mostly for fans, there are tons of industry professionals and indie devs and audio people that go to it.

JD: That’s where I first met you in 2014 was at the panel you were on at PAX.

RI: That’s right. It’s a great place for that. I’d also recommend GDC in San Francisco. The Game Developer’s Conference, which usually happens in March, is the big industry conference where all the professionals go. If you can only go to one thing, I’d recommend going to that because you’ll get every stripe of the industry from all over the globe. You’ll have these huge booths from all the big companies like Nintendo and Sony, then you’ll have a bunch of indie devs showing what they’re doing, and then there’s people who are making new hardware and all sorts of stuff from everywhere. And it’s just for developers, so everyone you meet there works in the industry.

Lastly, I’d check out IndieCade in Culver City, California in October. It’s much smaller, but it’s very focused on the indie scene. Just make sure that you don’t go and rub your business card on people’s faces. That’s what I tried to do my first year, but I’ve since realized that’s kind of gross. What you do is you go to these things to meet new people and make new friends. When you make as many friends as you can in as many facets of this industry, all you do is open doors. You might not get a bunch of gigs right away, but friendships are what are going to eventually get you gigs. If composer A is this amazing web presence and their work is incredible, but you have no connection or relationship with them, and then you’ve got composer B who is good, but maybe not as experienced, but you’ve grabbed a coffee or beer with them and you had a great time, you’re going to pick B every time, because you want to work with your friends. Even with other game audio people, like we’re technically competition, but you’ll often get gigs from other audio people whom you’ve met.

JD: Definitely, I’ve gotten a few gigs from other game audio people, so I can personally attest to that. So in wrapping things up, is there anything else you’d like to share?

RI: I would just encourage people that if they want to do this, just go for it, and don’t be afraid to be inventive. I have a friend I was mentoring as she began her game audio career, and she would show me something she was writing that was amazing, but she’d ask me, “What if I’m not writing this right? What if this isn’t what people like?” So I asked her, “Well, do you like it?” And she said yeah, so I was like, “Well, then go for it.” Because if you didn’t like what you were writing but you thought that other people might like it, wouldn’t that be the worst? To be in a creative field but never make anything that you actually like because you only make things that you think other people will like? That would be rough, but I think a lot of people think that way. Like they think they need to sound like this or that composer, or this sound designer, like that’s the correct way to do it. But the correct way to do it is the way that you do it. I mean, keep learning and growing and everything, but always be authentic, because people are going to be coming to you for your sound, not the way you imitate somebody else’s sound. If they wanted that other person, they would hire them, and if they can’t afford to hire them, they can hire one of the twelve billion people who can emulate that person better than you do. But nobody is going to emulate you better than you. That’s a lesson that took me a long time to learn, so if you can just skip over that whole thing and just start making music the way you want to make it, popularity be damned, that’d be the best.

JD: That’s amazing advice, and I think that’s a great way to wrap this up. Thanks again for taking the time to sit down with me and chat about all this great audio stuff.

RI: Yeah, of course. This was super fun. Bye, everybody!