Audio Department Organizational Strategy

As I joined Telltale Games in 2014, they were in the beginning stages of what would come to be known as The Very Hard Plan. This was to be a large scale expansion of the studio, a rapid growth from a struggling independent developer into a multi-project publisher, kickstarted by the critical and commercial success of The Walking Dead.

The studio was evolving rapidly. The audio team needed to evolve along with it.

When I became the Audio Director, I wanted to show how I would structure the audio department and how it would function within the studio as a whole. I created a presentation that laid out how Audio would fit in the growing company, not just from a project development standpoint, but also how it would function interdepartmentally.

The original document was created in February of 2015. The one linked below is a slightly updated version I shared with the studio a year later.

As with my previous document, what I detailed here was somewhat specific to Telltale Games and the unique ways it functioned as a studio. I don’t think I was re-inventing the wheel, I was just trying to elevate my department in the eyes of the studio leadership and set us up to succeed the best I could. It didn’t work out the way that I wished but it at least it served as a blueprint that helped guide me through all the craziness of what followed.


Telltale Audio Department Organizational Strategy

Understanding the Telltale Audio Process


Communication between departments is a huge challenge at any game studio and Telltale Games certainly was no exception. This document is something I wrote as the Audio Director at Telltale to help explain how I approached preparing the audio budgets and staffing for our projects to the Production team at the studio. I wanted to provide some context for my data so they didn’t feel that I was just pulling numbers out of thin air.

At the end of this document I included a few formulas that hopefully provided an easy reference for Production for the numbers I was coming up with. This formula is based around the basic blueprint for how Telltale set episode production schedules.

An explanation of terms:

Tool: The Telltale Tool, the game engine used by the studio.
Dialogue Files: The part of the Telltale Tool containing the script for the episode.
Chore: The Chore team at Telltale was the cinematics department who put the episode together visually.
Chores: The name of the files where the cinematics were created. Short for Choreography.
First Playable Milestone: Rough first pass of the episode as a whole for team review.
Ratings Milestone: The episode should be playable front to back with most content implemented for evaluation by the team and studio leadership.
Chore Lock: No more camera or animation timing changes should occur, only polish.
Submission: The episode should be finished with the team only addressing bug fixes.

Understanding the Telltale Audio Process

Basic Episode Staffing

Each Telltale episode requires a minimum of three Audio team members made up of one Lead and two sound designers. If an episode is a 101 (the first episode of a new series at Telltale), there should be a minimum of four sound designers assigned in order to help establish the sound design for the series.  If an entire season is determined to be sfx heavy, a total of four Audio team members may be needed per episode and should be considered when budgeting.

If the music for the show is being done by a composer that will not be implementing their own work, then an additional Audio team member will be required for the season to interface with the composer and implement the music files into the Tool and should be budgeted appropriately.  

Additional Staffing Assessments

When the Lead and/or Audio Director first evaluates an episode, they may determine that another sound designer may be necessary for all or part of the episodes audio production. If it is determined that an additional team member is necessary, the Lead needs to communicate to Production how much estimated extra time is needed by Audio to complete the episode to quality. Production can then decide to a) accept the overages, b) scope the episode appropriately, or c) accept an overall lower quality audio experience for the episode.

During the Pre-Ratings and Pre-Submission Audio review session, each episode’s audio work will be assessed for quality and schedule. The Audio Director or Audio Lead may determine at that time that some extra designer work will be needed to deliver the milestone on time and/or to quality. If it is determined that extra help is needed, Production will be informed of the estimated number of designer days is needed to adequately deliver the milestone.

Episode Schedule

Step 0: Season Set-up

When a season is kicked off, there is a certain amount of prep and set-up that is required for the Audio department.  The Fmod project has to be created and audio files integrated into the Tool folder hierarchy, the project’s audio library has to be built, and the overall audio vision of the project has to be determined. The season Audio Lead for the project should be budgeted at least 2 weeks of time for initial project set-up and to prepare for the designers to be able to jump right in and begin working when the project approaches its first milestone.

Step 1: Episode Set-up

When kicking off an episode, the Audio Lead will review the episode via the Dialogue Files and assess the size and scope of the audio needs for the episode. The Lead will also need to communicate with the episode producers and directors to understand any special requested creative or technical audio needs for the episode. The Lead will assign each scene of an episode to a sound designer based on the complexity of the scene and the skill level of the designer.

Step 2: First Playable Milestone

A First Playable milestone requires a rough first pass at the episodes audio that includes ambiences and temp music.  Also the episode director may request any audio be added that is needed for clarity. Any other work that can be accomplished before the milestone to create a more complete experience is encouraged but not required. 2 worker weeks of time is required for this milestone.

Occasionally, scratch VO will be needed for the milestone. If a VO Director is not available, then an Audio team member will be able to engineer the recording session using the VO booth.  The recorded tracks will then need to be passed off to an outside contractor for editorial processing.

Step 3: Ratings Milestone

Ratings requires a full but unpolished sound design pass from the Audio department. All necessary sound design must be created and implemented, especially all audio related to violence that will affect the rating of the episode (fights, guns, gore, etc).  

The Audio worker weeks needed should be relative to the number of Chore worker weeks leading up to the Ratings milestone but should also be determined by the complexity and intensity of the episode. After their initial review, the Audio Lead will have an idea of how much effort will need to go into the episodes audio completion and communicate that clearly to Production.

Step 4: Post Readiness

Post Readiness is the point at which Chore Lock is supposed to happen.  All chores are supposed to be timing and animation locked so that the post teams can confidently complete their work.  Between Chore Lock and Code Lock, Audio should be finalizing their scenes with last minute fixes and polish work. Mix passes can begin on scenes as soon as they are audio locked. The worker weeks needed should be relative to the number of weeks chore has to work leading up to Chore Lock. Ideally the time for the post teams to complete their passes is no less than three days.

If there are going to be any large changes to the structure of a scene in an episode (especially post-Ratings), Production needs to communicate the extent of the changes to the Audio Lead and Audio Director. Any changes will greatly impact the time needed by Audio to finish the scene to quality. The longer the scene remains incomplete approaching submission, the less likely a scene will have a polished/mixed audio pass. Occasionally, chores will change after they have been released to post for Chore Lock. If this happens, Production needs to communicate these changes to the Audio Lead as soon as possible.

Step 5: Submission Milestone

Submission requires a fully complete and polished audio experience for the episode. Final passes on all scenes must be completed by Code Lock to allow the Lead and/or the Audio Director a chance to review and do any final mix passes needed to complete the episode to quality.

The Lead and/or Director is also working with the submission and compliance teams on any content or technical audio bugs that are found during the submission process.

Episode Audio Reviews

Each episode will have two scheduled audio reviews, one a week before Ratings and one a week before Submission. This review will be led by the Audio Director and the Lead.  All designers assigned to the episode will attend.

The goal of the Pre-Ratings review is to get an idea of where the episode is currently at in terms of audio coverage for Ratings and to determine if the amount of work needed to meet the Ratings deadline fits within the remaining time. This is also a chance for the Audio Director to give feedback on the episode as a whole and make sure the design fits within expectations.

The goal of the Pre-Submission review is to make sure that the Audio team is on schedule and to allow the Audio Director and Audio Lead to give designers any feedback on the audio design leading up to episode submission.


One Audio category which will impact the budgets on a per-episode basis is Walla.

The Audio Lead will review the episode for scenes which may call for the recording of specific background crowd presence or individual call-outs and provide a list of potential needs to Production. The Audio Lead can then contact our vendor and request a quote for the recording and editorial of the required walla tracks. If the quote is approved, the Audio Lead will then coordinate and direct the walla session. The vendor will then edit the walla tracks and deliver the final files. The Audio team will then integrate the walla into the appropriate scenes.

It is generally ideal that the walla be integrated before the Ratings milestone but if necessary, the tracks can be added to the episode post-Ratings as long as there are appropriate temp tracks in place for Ratings coverage.

Audio Staffing Formulas

Note: These formulas are just a place to start from. Each project will be evaluated based on need.  

Minimum number of Audio team to be budgeted per episode: 3 (1 Lead + 2 Designers)

Is the episode a 101?: +1
SFX/Action heavy episode?: +1
Music Implementation needed by Audio?: +1

Minimum worker weeks needed per episode: 18 (6 weeks * 3 Designers)

Is the episode a x01?: +2 (2 weeks additional prep)
Is the episode a 101?: +6 (1 Designer)
SFX/Action heavy episode?: +6 (1 Designer)
Music Implementation needed by Audio?: +6 (+1 Designer)

Minimum Audio budget for season: 92 weeks/21.4 months (18 weeks * 5 Eps)+(2 weeks prep)

Is the season a 100?: +6 weeks/1.4 months
SFX/Action heavy season?: +30 weeks/7 months (6 weeks * 5 Eps)
Music Implementation needed by Audio?: +30 weeks/7 months (6 weeks * 5 Eps)  

Appreciating Where I Came From

WLTL Yearbook Photo

When I trace the roots of my career, my interest in audio, and my love for the way sound is used to tell stories, there is one place that was the catalyst for everything that came after - my high school radio station, WLTL.

The summer before my freshman year at Lyons Township High School in LaGrange, IL, my mother insisted I take a summer school class so that could get used to how different the experience would be from grade school. Looking through the catalog of classes, I saw a radio production course and thought "Oh hey, that looks easy! Certainly better than taking algebra!" Little did I know how much that "easy" decision would shape my life.

I ended up spending the next four years taking part in almost every aspect of the station - from DJ to remote broadcasting to engineering to managing. The one place where I really found my calling was in the production of radio dramas. While the teachers and administrators treated the radio station like a professional endeavor, they gave us a lot of latitude to play and create and explore.

Inspired by the classic radio dramas from the early days of radio, I started recording and editing my own versions of radio programs, tv shows, and movies. I did the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy from the original radio scripts, an version of the British TV show Fawlty Towers, and my own adaptations of two movies - the 1966 Batman movie and The Breakfast Club. We also did live broadcasts of A Christmas Carol every winter.

The WLTL Production Room circa 1990

The WLTL Production Room circa 1990

It was a tremendous amount of work as I recorded, edited, and mixed all of these programs on a 2 track reel-to-reel machine. First, I would bring in all my friends on a Saturday and record the script on one track of the tape. Then I would spends countless other weekends editing and mixing that voice and using albums, cassettes, and cart machines to add music and sound effects onto the other track. Eventually, I would finish and be able to play back what was essentially a mono program on the radio.

It was an incredibly fun and gratifying experience which led me down the path to a career in sound for movies, television. and video games.

This past weekend, I went back home to WLTL to be a part of it's 50th anniversary celebration. In January of 1968, WLTL first started broadcasting as a small, 10 watt station out of a room on the third floor of Lyons Township High School. Today, it is 180 watts, has an amazing set of programs and equipment, and boasts an incredible set of alumni, of which I am proud to be a member.

As part of the festivities, the station inducted a number of alumni into its Hall of Fame. I was surprised and incredibly honored to find that I was to be inducted along with a number of other well deserving alumni, all of whom have careers in media and broadcasting.

I am so very grateful for everything that WLTL gave me. To be recognized by them like this means the world to me.

I now have it at work to always help remind me where I came from, where I've been, and how fortunate I truly am to be able to have this career and this life.


originally published on LinkedIn 04/23/2018

Creating Validation

The other day on my drive into work, I was thinking about validation. Specifically, as a person in a "creative" profession, what validation means to me.

One of the hardest lessons that I have learned over the course of my 20+ year career is how to take feedback. I was terrified to have my supervisor sit over my shoulder while I displayed the work I had been crafting for the past week. I would much rather have them review my work while I was out of the room and come back later to get the notes they left behind. 

The thing to remember is that everyone else is just as wrapped up in just as much insanity in their lives as you are. They have just as much joy and pain and stress and anguish and hope and disillusionment as you.  I figure 60-80% of their reaction/interaction with you probably has 0% to do with you and 100% to do with whatever they are dealing with at the moment.

Where I’m going with this is that as creatives we do what we do because we love to do it. However, we are always hoping to have some kind of external validation for what we feel we are accomplishing - be it from our boss, our compatriots, our product's end-users - whomever is getting exposed and influenced by our work. 

Unfortunately, as fractured and stressed as we are these days as a society, it’s almost impossible to get any kind of unsolicited and constructive feedback from people. Even getting a “yea, that seems good” can feel like pulling teeth. Others will never see everything that we put into our art or understand the stress it takes to even get something into a state we feel we can share it with them. 

My point is to be mindful of two things…

1) Don’t rely on external validation to justify your creativity, find that validation internally. Sometimes it’s the only way to keep going. 

It’s cliche to say “believe in yourself” but that exactly what you have to do because you will always go through patches where it feels like one one else does and you need something to keep you moving.

2) No matter what position you are in - intern, manager, or CEO - find the time and make the effort to give people validation for the work that they do. If something impresses you, if you are moved by someone's work, if you feel they have hit that sweet spot - tell them so. Even if what they did works on a functional level but doesn't quite hit the right emotion, tell them they are on the right track, give them the direction you are looking for along with the motivation they are craving. 

You never know when the words of encouragement you share with someone will be just the right us for them to make it through their day.

Be mindful, be encouraging, be constructive, be considerate, be helpful, be honest - whatever it is you do, ultimately just try to be the message you most want to receive from the world. 

originally published on LinkedIn 03/10/2018