Talking Game Audio with Zachary Quarles, Audio Director at Microsoft (XBOX)

We love talking sound with some of the smartest people in the industry, and Zachary is one of those people. While he's currently an audio director at Microsoft, he's has years of experience with game audio under his belt. Some credits include Soldier of Fortune II, Killer Instinct, and even some completely fresh projects of his own. We were fortunate to have Zachary answer some of our questions about his career, his inspiration, and the future of VR/AR. 

You can find Zachary on twitter at: @zq_audio and on his personal website: http://zacharyquarles.com/blog/

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1. (OSSIC) Can you give a brief background into your work history and what got you first interested in sound?

( ZACHARY) I started at Raven Software in 2000.  I was studying at Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State University) with an emphasis in Musical Theatre Performance but had always loved games, MODs, writing music, etc…I got the job and started work as Audio Lead on Soldier of Fortune II: Double-Helix where I did all sound-design and music composition.  Since Raven, I have worked as audio director for Day 1 Studios, id Software, and now Microsoft.

2. As an audio director at Microsoft, you're often working with a crew of talented people on a project. What are your strategies for getting the most creativity out of the team? Yourself included?

I think one of my primary methods to spark creativity is discussion and custom recording.  It’s easy to get into a rut if you’re simply going through sound libraries to try and find something to make work.  I’ve always found that it’s a good thing to get into a studio or out in the field and deconstruct the “character” that you are trying to create and find the base qualities that make that sound up.  What emotion are you trying to get across?  How can you execute that emotion cleanly with as few sources as possible?  Should it be something organic or digital?  These are all questions that help me spark creativity and it allows for the audio team to ruminate on how to approach a new sound. 

3. What have been some of your most challenging/favorite projects to date?

The primary project that I’m working on right now is Killer Instinct.  It’s an incredibly fun and deep project that allows the audio department to dive deep and get pretty crazy with how we approach the audio for each character in the game.  There’s a lot of passion there and TONS of bespoke content…but an incredibly aggressive schedule.  For Season 2 we released a new character/stage every month (and even had a bonus character that season) and every character requires approximately 1000 unique audio assets.  Super fun but super stressful.

Members of the Killer Instinct team talk through their visions for the sounds and music which you hear in Killer Instinct.

4. We noticed on your website that you mention you take a lot of time for side projects outside of work. Can you tell us about a few and why it's important to make time for them?

Well, I’m working on a horror movie right now and have a side music project (www.singlefrequency.com) that I occasionally do some puttering with…although, I haven’t released anything for a couple of years.  The big side project is one that I started with my brother in 2012.  We have a game company where we are working on both a tabletop board game and a point & click adventure.  It all takes place in the same universe and is based on a short story idea that I had over a decade ago: www.winternightgames.com.  I think it’s important for any artist to work outside of their comfort zone.  It makes you better and it makes you think about things different if you have multiple perspectives.  I highly recommend any game audio person to get familiar with Blender 3D, Photoshop, Unity/Unreal, Premiere, etc…it makes you a much more rounded game professional and it allows you to understand where some of the other disciplines are coming from.

Arkhangel: The House of the Seven Stars teaser video

5. What is the most underrated part of the game audio design and production process?

Implementation.  You can make amazing sound design but ruin it if your implementation method or pipeline are broken.  I always say that a memorable game audio experience is 50% creative and 50% technical.  

6. Have you experienced Virtual Reality recently? What was the platform (if yes) and what did you think?

Yes.  I was an audio director for the Microsoft Hololens group for about a year and I’ve had several experiences with Oculus Rift and Technical Illusions’ CastAR.  I think they are all excellent in their own ways.  Ultimately, they are tools with their strengths and weaknesses.  I think we are on the precipice of something very interesting and industry changing, but we are in the infancy.  I think we have a little while before we are in the true mainstream but there is certainly a groundswell under AR/VR and it’s exciting to see where it might take us.

7. With Virtual Reality on the rise, it seems like immersive audio has to play some catch-up. Do you think the process for designing game audio will change at all, given this growing medium? And if so, what might be some differences vs what will stay the same?

Actually, I’m not sure if “catch-up” is the right word to use.  Almost all of the AR/VR options have been taking audio incredibly seriously because they know that immersive audio will help augment the visuals (and will help cover some of the current visual limitations).  Use of HRTF/3D audio rendering that gives the user true aural altitude with their experience is already making its presence known on these platforms and are helping really sell these experiences.  Again, we have some growing to do, but there is some really exciting stuff happening out there.  It will be the audio professionals responsibility of leveraging this kind of technology in a mature way and always keep the customer in mind with whatever experience they are creating.  It’s easy to go down a rat-hole and make something cool and nerdy for the sake of making it cool and nerdy.  We need to always maintain the spirit of the experience and the customer…just like all other mediums.

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A big thanks to Zachary for taking the time to answer our questions. We'll be on twitter and facebook to answer questions. Feel free to sign up below for more interviews and updates delivered straight to your inbox.


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