Opinion Pieces

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Gavin Shepherd puts The Pedal To The Metal

Gavin Shepherd, co-owner of Rev Rooms, talks to us about how he got into the audio business and starting the company. Shepherd has worked on the likes of  Black Panther, Star Wars - The Last Jedi, Coco, Bladerunner 2049 and game titles including Forza Street and Detonation Racing to name but a few.


Shepherd fell in love with recording studios after being given free weekends in a local studio in exchange for playing bass on music sessions. “This was around 1986 and the owner became my first mentor, teaching me how to use the desk, outboard and tape machines. He also had some cutting-edge kit like the Greengate DS3 Sampler, and I never looked back. I recorded, produced and mixed the band I was in, realising I much preferred a life in the dark of the studio than playing live on stage. More bands asked me to produce, so I gained plenty of experience really early. I left education at 16, and by 19 had my first job in the industry. There were almost no higher education courses for sound engineers at that time, so you just had to jump in and start from the bottom. More than 30 years later, I still love being in studios.”


His first job was with a Brighton based e-learning company called Epic in the early ‘90’s where he operated Sound Tools on a Mac IIFX. “The salary was £8,000 which was double what I was making working in a café. I was recording and editing hours of VO, learning skills that I still use today. Soon after, the company made a move into games development and I built a small studio in the basement, convinced my boss to invest in Pro Tools (only 4 tracks at a time) and hired a small team. We got to work on PC point and click adventure games, like Drowned God, which was a huge challenge. All the audio was 8 bit, 22kHz mono, so we had to be very careful with dialogue intelligibility. It taught me so much about how to prepare assets for games.”


Having moved across many areas of audio, Shepherd has been presented with many challenges during his career. “I went from game audio to writing music for TV in the 90’s, then to interactive sound design, sold the company to a web design conglomerate in the dot com boom, who went bust 2 years later. At that point, I knew I wanted to move my career into dubbing mixing but had no contacts and no experience. 9 months later I was hired by Disney’s foreign language division to help with TV dubbing. On my first day, the boss invited me to Shepperton Studios to sit in on the supervision of Finding Nemo mixes. Seeing and hearing the 35mm projectors whirring and being in a large dubbing theatre was love at first sight. In less than 3 years I made that jump to Re-Recording Mixer, working for Pinewood at Shepperton for 13 years. My biggest challenge though, was making the move from post to games in 2017. It took time to make the decision as I had a very comfortable job in movies. Many times I thought I was out of my depth, but I set myself a challenge to learn one new thing every day, and as a result, two years later we shipped a great game.”


Shepherd has had many mentors throughout his career. “Working with Nick Wiswell, Head of Audio at Turn 10, taught me so much about game audio in such a short space of time. I came from working on the Black Panther mixes at Pinewood on a Friday to being Audio Lead on Forza Street on the Monday! I knew little about game development, but he was incredibly patient, and over the two years we worked together, he taught me how to lead a team, how to plan and document work properly, and ultimately how to ship a game with killer audio. I think that’s the one thing in game development that surprised me the most, just how collaborative and friendly people are.”


Shepherd took the leap into games quite late in his career. “It was a huge leap for me, in my mid-forties, when I could have stayed in post forever. I was still working on huge titles like Blade Runner 2049, The Force Awakens and the MCU titles, but I had lost my enthusiasm for post, the hours were relentless, and I was at the place of “accept or change”. I knew change would be hard work and risky, but was ready for a big challenge. In post, we had spent the last couple of years adapting to mixing natively in Dolby Atmos, so I wasn’t afraid of the tech side of audio. An old friend of mine from the Epic days in Brighton asked me what I knew of game audio and specifically FMOD? I lied and said I knew a little. I then went away and took a weekend course in FMOD, studied game audio, did as much research as I could, and applied for the job as Audio Lead at Electric Square.”


Game audio can be very technical, and the area Shepherd specialised in post was the foreign version world. “You needed to have a rock solid workflow, and to be able to adapt quickly to new technology. Using and sharing automation, updating virtual mixes in many delivery formats takes a much organised team. We moved from 35mm print to digital, from 5.1 to Dolby Atmos. I felt the move to object based mixing had parallels with game audio that gave me the courage to move in that direction.”


Shepherd started Rev Rooms with Andy Gibson and Gwen Raymond in January 2021 and never looked back. They may be celebrating their first year in business but they already have many titles under their belt for such a young company and have grown very quickly due to their success. “We had been the in-house audio team at Electric Square, and loved the idea of creating an outsource audio team that fused code and audio. Between us we had good knowledge of most engines and middleware and had worked on a wide variety of games. We also had a unique diversity of experience. Gwen is a senior coder and musician, Andy is steeped in game audio and a certified Wwise and FMOD tutor, and my background is post and mixing.”


“We were very passionate about giving young talent a chance. It is so hard to get your first job in game audio, and we wanted to break that Catch 22 of you needing experience of shipping a title before you get your break. As we are a small company (there are currently 12 of us) working on multiple projects, our staff get to experience lots of different areas quickly. They may spend a few months working in Unreal Blueprints, making a footstep system in FMOD for a boxing game, or a field recording session for motorbike surface and tyre audio.  If we can use our tutoring and mentoring skills to help shape the next generation of Designers, Leads and Audio Directors, then the whole industry benefits.” Shepherd would like to see Rev Rooms as the go-to place for audio development solutions, with large teams of audio designers and coders servicing multiple AAA and mobile partners. 


So what kit does Shepherd have in his studio?  “I use Dynaudio monitors; I trust what I am hearing with them. After 19 years of working with them, they are the “comfort blanket” of my kit list. I also love the Softube Console 1 with Faders, a great piece of engineering - solid, ergonomic, with a good range of classic console channel-strip models.”


When approaching a project Shepherd looks at the project with the game director and designers to assess what the overall vision for the game is. “What are the design pillars? Where might the difficulties be? Does the game require complex code solutions for audio? Then we look at resources. How big is the team? Do we need one coder and a Senior Audio Designer? Do we need to provide an Audio Lead? If we are providing a big team, say 5 people, then we will look to place an in-house Project Lead resource on the team too.

In pre-production, we would start with an Audio Target, usually to video, showing the level of quality and detail we are aiming for. We may prove out some systems in-engine too. For example, we have worked on racing games with Electric Vehicles that require us to prove we can make these in middleware to a high quality bar. Once we reach production, we are usually into Agile project management, depending on the project and client. Our teams are involved in the whole process from sprint planning to backlog grooming, and are used to estimating their tasks.”


Creating sounds can be quite time consuming so what techniques and processes does he use? “Being organised and intentional about a piece of work enables us to not waste valuable resources on a project. We start with scoping out a body of work, let’s say for example robot foley. We decide how many variants we want for each move, what materials and surfaces the robot can collide with, what damage it can take etc. Once we know what we want to create, we sprint plan it, separating out the sound design, middleware implementation, game engine hookup, mixing and performance. We use a variety of tools, with a vast number of sound effects libraries, audio manipulation plug-ins with Native Instruments a big favourite. We all have our go-to pieces of software, instruments and methods. Most use Reaper, which is fabulous for automating tasks. As the team oldie, I still use Pro Tools!”


We asked what creative techniques he uses to remain focused on the listeners’ perception of the story. “In my mind when creating and placing a sound in a 2D or 3D space, the question is “what does the player need to hear and what should the player be feeling at this point? It’s important to make sure I am in sync with the Product Owner and game design team. It’s possible to veer off course a little with creative decisions, so I’d say communication is the best creative tool. On my current project, we hold weekly 30 minute audio reviews that the whole team can attend, and we always get a perspective we hadn’t considered before. Don’t be afraid of criticism! At the moment, we are reworking a suite of weapon sounds based on feedback from the game director. He wanted the player to feel a certain way about each one, and we were able to hear the sounds in a totally different way when given the players perspective.”


As for providing a seamless transition in terms of mix, assets and aesthetics to keep them at the forefront of player experience Shepherd has spent 15 years in movie post so his passion for mixing and aesthetics is still alive and well. “I like to mix games as I go, so from the very beginning sfx are balanced and sit well with music and dialogue. I’m not a big fan of placeholder sounds, I like to start with high quality and keep it there. I’ve been lucky to work with game directors who have a clear vision of where audio adds value to the User Experience. “


So how does Shepherd see game audio changing over the next 5 years? “From our point of view, we see more outsourcing of audio as internal teams reach capacity. Lockdowns proved you can trust people to deliver great work off-site, so large development teams working externally is now the norm. I think the biggest changes will be AI and automation of tasks. Dialogue AI is just amazing, companies like Altered.AI are doing really interesting work that will have a big impact in game development. In terms of automation, Reformer from Krotos is another great example of how software is driving the ability to speed up complex foley tasks.”





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