The last time I spoke of my upcoming iPhone game, I was soliciting recommendations for graphics and sound designers. Since then I’ve hired a sound designer and had the sounds completed. I had originally intended to write about my experiences with sound and graphics designers in one article, but I actually just hired a graphics designer, so my experiences with him will have to wait until next time.

This is a description of my experiences with finding and hiring a sound designer to create royalty free, custom sound effects for my game. My experience with hiring and working with a sound designer was quite pleasant. The entire process was completed exactly one week after I first started contacting designers.


Before I started contacting designers I sat down to figure out what exactly I needed from the sound designer, and what information he or she would probably need from me. I’ve never worked with sound designers before, so I had to make some educated guesses. In the end, my guesses seemed to be at least adequate. I wrote down everything I thought the designer would need in a specification document.

The specification document I create was pretty simple; it had two sections: an introduction and a description of the sounds. In the introduction I gave a brief overview of the game, how the sounds were going to be used, the “theme” I wanted, and a total count of sounds to be created. I managed to fit this into five sentences, on the assumption that the designer wanted to know about the sounds, and not my life story, fascinating as it is.

For each of the sounds, I created a description for it. I gave each sound a short, unique name so they were easy to refer to. I then described what the sound was, for real world sounds (e.g. card placed on a table), or what I wanted it to sound like, for abstract sounds (e.g. a sharp, clicking sound). I also tried to give the context in which the sound will be played (e.g. when a button is pushed). Finally, I stated the length I wanted the sound to be. Most of mine were only one or two seconds in duration.

Selecting the contestants

With the sound specs in hand, I was ready to start contacting designers. The only problem was that I didn’t know any, nor had I heard of anyone recommending any. Being put in such a desperate situation, I did what any engineer would do — I googled for some, and blogged about it. In the end, I contacted three different sound designers:

I originally found about six companies that I thought could possibly do the work, but I whittled down the choices to these by using the following criteria:

  1. Did it look like the designer had experience creating sound effects for games? Since that was what I wanted, it made sense to see if their portfolio reflected that.
  2. Could I navigate the designer’s site well enough to actually find a way to contact them? I didn’t originally intend for this be criteria, but it ended up being one. Advice for sound designers: hire a good web designer.

For each of the three designers I selected, I sent out an introductory email. In the email, I briefly described the project and asked if they were available and interested. I mentioned that I had a spec and would like a rough estimate before work began. In retrospect, I should have probably attached the sound specification to the introductory email, because that was the first thing everyone who was interested ask for.

Of the three designers I contacted, SoundRangers and IndieSFX replied to me within 24 hours. Sound for Games never got back to me. SoundRangers and IndieSFX charge by the sound, and offer both stock and custom sounds. For stock sounds, prices range from around $1 to $5 per sound, although IndieSFX only sells them in packs. For custom sounds, prices range from $10 to $40 per sound. None of the stock sounds were quite what I wanted, so I elected to go for all custom sounds.

Between SoundRangers and IndieSFX, I chose IndieSFX. Both seemed to be comparable in quality, but IndieSFX had better prices.

Creating the sounds

Once I had signed a contract for IndieSFX to create the sounds, I began working with Mark to do just that. Based on my specification, Mark created a first draft of the sounds by the next day. Some sounds had multiple variations for me to pick from, while others I was just given one choice to refine.

Mark and I went through about seven or eight different variations of the sounds before we settled on something. In general, I got a new revision of the sounds every day, which was highly motivating.

Along the way I learned a couple of things about sound. First, there’s the concept of “wet” versus “dry” sounds. Wet sounds have more echo and reverb and, at least in my case, sounded better. Dry sounds are shorter, which can be good if you have a tight time interval in which to play a sound. Second, I found out that playing the same sound several times in a row makes it sound like a typewriter or machine gun. Fortunately Mark knew how to fix this: create several variations of the sound and randomly pick a different one to play each time.

That leads me to something I learned about the process: always try out the sounds in the game. Sounds that sound great by themselves may not sound good in context, or when they’re interacting with other sounds. I unfortunately approved a couple of sounds that didn’t actually work well in the game. Fortunately Mark was nice and let me make changes even after I initially said they were OK.

The other thing I learned was that I needed to be as specific as possible when I wanted changes. It was easy to verbalize emotional reactions to sounds (I like this, I don’t like this, etc), but hard to spell out specifically how I wanted something changed, so Mark could actually do it. It turns out sound designers aren’t mind readers. Who knew?

After about a week of revisions, I had sound effects I was happy with. I paid IndieSFX, added their name to the about box, and checked the sounds into source control.

Using the sounds

During the creating process, I was taking the sounds Mark was sending to me and integrating them into my iPhone game. Since Mark was sending me uncompressed WAV files, I had to convert them before I could use them. Fortunately, Apple provides a nifty little command line tool to do just that: afconvert.

At first I was keeping the sounds uncompressed, for quality reasons, so I used afconvert like this:

/usr/bin/afconvert -f caff -d LEI16 <input WAV file> <output CAF file>

Unfortunately, high quality, uncompressed sounds are huge and this app is going to be distributed over the internet. So I switched to a compressed format, using this command line:

/usr/bin/afconvert -f caff -d 'ima4' <input WAV file> <output CAF file>

This gave me a 50% savings in size, with no discernible difference in quality. I chose these formats because I needed the sounds to be able to play simultaneously, and these are the two formats that the documentation say will allow that.

Lifting the veil

Hopefully this article has made the process of working with a sound designer more transparent. When I started this process, I had no idea what to expect — how much it would cost or how the process even worked. But I was quite pleasantly surprised. Getting custom sound effects created for an indie game is quite reasonable, both in time and money.