Taylor Shechet Interview: Sound Design & Soul Harvest

The following is published as-is from an interview we conducted with Taylor Shechet. Taylor is a sound designer involved with Soul Harvest, a local-multiplayer strategy game which is currently available through Steam Early Access. He is also part of GRYPT, an experimental trio of musicians based in Los Angeles.

How did you get into sound design?

I got into sound design in the way I think most people do, which is through music. The route is a little roundabout but music and games have always been intertwined for me.

I always enjoyed music a lot (There’s family footage of me as a toddler running around singing Disney songs with a ukulele) but before I really consciously got into music my parents signed me up for piano lessons. Like most kids I found practicing a bit of a drudgery but my teacher was super inspiring to me. He was a young guy who was also a visual artist working for a video game company. He became my idol and I “founded” a video game company with my best friends. We never actually developed anything but we had folders full of concept art, gameplay ideas and stories.

At around the age of 16 I got into playing guitar in bands and mostly lost interest in video games, although game music remained a major inspiration and obvious influence in my music. After my first 2 high school bands fell apart I started getting into electronic production like synthesizers, drum machines, looping etc. as a way to avoid the logistical difficulties of working with other people and my lack of equipment. I quickly was sucked in by the endless acoustic possibilities and got obsessed with synthesizers and audio production.

Later, when I was living in LA, playing music, and trying to find alternative ways to make money with my audio skills, I started working in film doing production sound and scoring my friend’s indie films. Sound design for film was a natural extension of that. I was especially inspired (as are many sound designers) by Ben Burtt, the celebrated Star Wars sound designer.

In around 2013, the indie game resurgence (as documented by the film Indie Game: The Movie) helped rekindled my love of video games and made game development seem much more approachable. I took the School of Video Game Audio course on Unity 3D and dived into the Twitter gamedev community. I saw some screenshots from a young developer named Jack Squires (AKA Duende Games) who was making a visually amazing game for a glitch themed game jam and reached out. The music from my 2010 IDM album “Homunculus” was a perfect fit for Jack’s game ▲Nø♦C1iP▲. Since then we’ve collaborated on several other games including TONIGHT YOU DIE and Exit 19. Shortly thereafter I met the Soul Harvest devs on Twitter and joined the project.

Last year (2016) when my day job at a startup went belly up I decided to go full time with game audio and created my company EarwormAud.io. It’s been about a year and I’m just starting to be in the black financially, which is very encouraging.

What’s your go-to software / technique, and why?

I use Ableton as my main DAW. I first started using it while DJing but it quickly became my favorite because it’s very flexible and easy to be creative quickly in. I also use an iPad with a dock and a lot of different apps to generate crazy sounds… I love software with a “random” option. I’ll often just sit there generating random sounds until I hear something I like and then save it. I call it “chaos harvesting”. Some iOS apps I use for that are BitWiz, Elastic Drum, Crystal XT, Soundscaper and Magellan. Other than the iPad my favorite piece of gear is my Pioneer SR202 spring reverb. Spring reverb is great for sound design because it adds a sense of space without communicating specific spatial information to the brain, allowing it to be layered with other reflective atmospheres without becoming cluttered sounding. Also running sounds through an analog piece of gear can give them a little noise and cohesiveness that helps tie everything together.

I’ve noticed many of the portfolio pieces on your site have a pretty heavy focus on atmosphere (and horror), and how sound can be used as a key tool in building that. How do you decide on the atmosphere to create for a given project?

Thanks! Yeah, I love horror and heavy atmospheres. My favorite thing to do with sound is try to transport people into an imaginary space that adds subtle emotional colors to whatever they are experiencing. When trying to decide on the atmosphere for a project I usually brainstorm with the other members of the development team.

Word association can be a great way to get a better understanding of what the team is trying to convey. I’ll have the developer just list words (especially emotional words) that relate to how they want the audience to feel and then I’ll list nouns (objects, ideas) that I associate with those emotions. Those more physical objects can often translate into sound ideas. For example we might start with “oppression” and then get to chains which leads to all sorts of sound ideas.

What projects have you most enjoyed working on (due to the work itself, the people you got to work with, or anything else)?

I’ve really enjoyed pretty much every game project I’ve worked on so that is a very tough question. I guess TONIGHT YOU DIE and SOUL HARVEST really stand out because I’ve had the most creative say on those projects. I also recently did audio implementation and sound design for a VR project that was a lot of fun but it is unfortunately still under NDA so I can’t really talk about it.

Soul Harvest has been in the works for a long time (3 years or so) – have you been on board since the beginning?

Not the very beginning. That was a game jam, I don’t know how long ago, but since 2013.

How closely do you work with the rest of the team on the project? For example, were you involved in things like the game design as a whole to better understand the atmosphere you’d need to create, or were you given a list of design documents and what the soul harvest team needed, then created the sounds by yourself?

We work together very closely. We have a lot of shared documents on Trello and Google Docs, and talk on Slack and through email and Twitter. I did some initial exploration to narrow the vibe down and since then it’s been a pretty quick process. I get animations to work to from Sha and a bit of explanation about the character and then just crank it out. Sometimes we iterate back and forth a bit if a sound doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the game for some reason.

What did you enjoy most about working on the game?

My favorite part has definitely been drafting my friends as voice actors. I used my own voice for a lot of the sounds in the game but I didn’t want everything to sound the same and although demons are sort of genderless I specifically wanted some of the characters to read as femme. So I conscripted my bandmates from GRYPT (Romie Romak & Myrrh Ka Ba) as well as a number of other friends to lend their voices to some of the demons. My friend D. Bene Tleilax (AKA Pink Abduction Ray) is a skilled metal vocalist who provided the voiceover for the greenlight trailer and the announcer voice in the game. To help him get into the character I wanted I described a raving demon hobo who spouts cryptic prophecies at anyone who will listen. The developers liked the concept so much that he actually became a character in the game who will help you during the single player mode!

What was the hardest part of working on Soul Harvest?

The most difficult things are the time difference (The rest of the team is in France, except for Erik) and the length of the project. Working on something over such a long period of time makes it hard to maintain consistency. I’ve been through several disastrous computer explosions over the years and despite my best efforts some files were lost. Also I’ve just gotten a lot better at mixing and sound design since I started so right now I’m in the process of going through all 300+ sounds I’ve created for the game and trying to make them consistent for the final release.

Do you have any other projects in the works, other than the Soul Harvest updates?

Quite a few actually. I’m writing and performing with my band GRYPT which just released a single on Cleopatra Records. We’ve also been doing an ongoing horror audio drama called THE BLOB STARES BACK which is a lot of fun, and sometimes we get gigs scoring or doing sound design for horror movies and such.

For about a year I’ve been developing my own indie game which is called DREAM ONLY MEMORY. It’s a speculative sci fi game heavily inspired by ideas about artificial intelligence put forth by the futurist Robin Hanson in his book The Age of Em. I created a prototype in Unity but recently decided to switch to UE4 so I’ve been rebuilding the whole thing in there.

I’m also working on sounds and music for a cyberpunk game called GUTTERSNAKE by Jeremy Mitchell and a physics based puzzle platformer called 40hz: Forgotten Future, and a number of VR projects whose details I cannot yet reveal!

Where can everyone find out more about you and the work you do?

My website has my portfolio and reel: earwormaud.io

But I don’t update it nearly as often as I should so probably the best way is through my twitter account @_tlr_

Gaming nerd and movie over-analyzer. Has credits on Appcues, Usability Geek, and Process Street, but comes to Secret Cave to unwind and spit the shit.