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Madsen’s Musings: Episode 4 – Reframing

The fourth episode of Madsen’s Musings is now out! In this episode, I discuss the concept of reframing your mental picture or idea of yourself, your work and your place in the industry. It’s an important concept that I feel can really help keep one focused on the right goals, and not get too distracted by comparing one’s stature to someone else’s.

The cool thing about reframing is that it can apply to anything! Struggling to lose weight? Try reframing your mindset to focus on the victories you ARE having in that journey. Wanting to build up your brand and getting frustrated? Change your focus on to what you’ve done well so far while pushing to learn and do more for your brand over time.

So much of the journey in professional audio is many tiny steps done over a period of time. Invest in yourself and keep your mental image of yourself in check with reframing.

If you like what I’m doing with this vlog, please consider subscribing! If you have questions or topics you want me to cover – get in touch! I’d love to help out. And if you want to learn more about me and my work – just reach out!

Thanks!

Bio:
Nate is an established composer/sound designer, based in Austin, TX. Aside from making various kinds of noises and music, he also teaches private lessons (saxophone and piano) and performs with live bands. On the weekends he likes to sit and watch the grass grow. He’s also quite fond of fancy beers.

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Madsen’s Musings Episode 3: Having a System

The third episode of Madsen’s Musing vlog is now out!

Watch it here!

This episode discusses the importance of having a system to help you have the best odds when freelancing, networking and practicing. Madsen’s Musings is a new vlog series that I’m putting out on a (hopefully) weekly basis. This series will cover various topics including how to break into the industry, working with clients and how to balance work/life balance among many other subjects.

If you like what I’m doing with this vlog, please consider subscribing! If you have questions or topics you want me to cover – shoot me a message! I’d love to help out. And if you want to learn more about me and my work – just reach out!

Thanks!

Bio:
Nate is an established composer/sound designer, based in Austin, TX. Aside from making various kinds of noises and music, he also teaches private lessons (saxophone and piano) and performs with live bands. On the weekends he likes to sit and watch the grass grow. He’s also quite fond of fancy beers.

nathan-madsen-madsenstudios-austin-texas-composer-sound-designer

Surviving Unemployment

This post is going to talk about an unpleasant topic: unemployment. Better yet, how to survive unemployment. I’ve gone through this ugly phase twice in my life so far but both situations were very different from each other. The first time I was laid off myself and the second time (which happened earlier this year) my wife was laid off. Since I was a full time freelancer at the time, it impacted both of us very strongly. I’m not a pro at this type of thing but I have noticed a few things that helped me cope while doing the dreaded job hunt and I’ll list them out below:

Don’t go it alone.

This is not a time for the lone wolf approach. Yes, you might feel embarrassed and angry about your situation and the temptation may be to hide away from friends and family. Sometimes answering their questions of “are you okay?” “how are you doing?” “what’s your plan?” can be overwhelming. But this is the time when you’re going to need to lean on friends and family. If you’re a member of a church, lean on that community as well! This network of people will not only help give support in various ways, they may even help generate job leads! More on that in a bit.

Pace yourself.

The two times my family faced unemployment it felt very much like a marathon. It feels like a race where you have no idea where the finish line is or where you are on the track. Perhaps it’s a guy thing but I wanted to get the problem fixed in 2-3 weeks time. Heck, I sorta expected it! But the reality is most people find work in about 3 months or so. In my family’s experiences, the first job hunt took about four months and this last time it took three months. Don’t expect everything to be fixed by a certain date. You cannot throw everything you have at this problem 100% of the time. You’ll burn yourself out. You also can’t avoid it completely and pretend it will go away. So pace yourself by working on the job hunt for chunks at a time then relax by watching some of your favorite DVDs or playing a video game/board game/etc with a friend or family member. Trust me, you’re going to need some down time.

Cast a wide net.

Job hunting, especially in a flooded market, is very hard. So you might have to look at fields that orbit your skill set or look at moving to locations you’ve not considered before. Consider new options that otherwise might have gone unnoticed. If you have the time and resources, also consider adding new skills or certifications to your resume. Depending on your situation you might have to cast a wide net right away or you could search for your ideal job fit for a while. More on that later.

Keep a balance.

When my wife and I were facing unemployment the last time, our initial reaction was to cancel everything that wasn’t essential to our lives. We were, basically, in full on freak out mode. But after speaking with our financial advisor (strongly recommend you get one if you don’t already have one!) we realized some of those “extras” could really help us look for work. For example, our gym membership was going to be cut because we felt it was an extra thing. But as members we had 2 hour daily child care for our son at no extra cost. We realized that if we wanted to, we could drop him off at the gym daycare then use the free WiFi to surf for jobs and network in the gym’s cafe area. Plus we found going and working out to be a GREAT way to deal with the physical side of all of the stress unemployment brings into your life!

Pick your battles.

One way I deal with stress is by eating, honestly. And I told my wife that while we were looking for work, I wouldn’t police myself as strictly as I normally would. Now I’m not advocating just letting yourself go and gain a ton of weight. But I am saying the routine of your normal life when you were working probably can’t exist while you’re in unemployment. I knew that I would be stressed enough as is, so a few cookies here and there helped me cope some. Again, not advocating super poor health but let’s be realistic. When people are stressed they seek comfort and, to a extent, I think that’s okay to let some things slide when searching for work.

Maybe your thing was having a super clean house? It might be that only 2/3 of the rooms are spotless and one gets chaotic. Maybe the whole house does! Maybe you fall behind on some of your other chores. It could be anything! My point is to give yourself some extra grace during the period – you’re going through a lot.

Be careful with social media.

Just know that people ARE watching what you do. If you have a meltdown or a rant session, keep it with someone you trust and away from “printed” social media. That stuff follows you everywhere. Talk with someone who knows you and won’t think less of you if you’re letting off some steam. Too often I’ve seen people completely lose it on social media and this doesn’t help attract the kind of positive attention you want from possible employers/recruiters/peers.

Find fun things to do at little to no costs.

The web is filled with great lists of free or really cheap things to do! Give yourself some days off with your spouse/family and go do some fun things. This will really help get you refocused on the tasks at hand later.

Make a plan.

Earlier I mentioned getting with a financial advisor. When my wife was laid off, the first thing we did was meet with him and he talked us through our budget. This showed us our timeframe. He was excellent at giving us the large picture while also helping us see the tiny tasks we could do right then to help with immediate needs. We made a plan that for X amount of time we’d look for ideal jobs (i.e. jobs that were directly in our career paths and/or in locations we really wanted to live in). Then after that time, we’d expand our search out to include other jobs somewhat similar to our careers and additional locations. If nothing worked out in that time period, then we’d take whatever we could find just to make ends meet. All of these milestones were mapped out according to what our savings and resources could manage. Without a plan, you feel so hopeless and might make foolish decisions.

Ask, ask, ask!

In both instances where we were unemployed, the jobs we ended up getting were from friends in our network. Remember that earlier point about leaning on your friends and family during this time? It really does help. Don’t harass your friends and family daily but let them know about your situation. Ask around to see if they know of any openings.

Closing – Unemployment Sucks!

Unemployment is super scary and stressful. It sucks! But you can and will make it through. It may not be in the manner or timeframe you’d want but literally everyone I’ve seen go through unemployment has made it out alive to the other side. These tips above have really helped us and perhaps they’ll help you. Best of luck! Keep your chin up. Good hunting!

Bio:
Nate is an established composer/sound designer, based in Austin, TX. Aside from making various kinds of noises and music, he also teaches private lessons (saxophone and piano) and performs with live bands. On the weekends he likes to sit and watch the grass grow.

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Impressed?

So often freelancers worry about trying to get clients. Trying to impress them with demo reels, quick responses, shiny websites and their overall professional approach. There’s nothing wrong with that but many forget that clients also need to impress their freelancers. Or they risk losing them. This blog is both a reminder to freelancers as well as a helpful note to clients. Much of the attention seems focused on the relationship from freelancer TO the client but, aside from a few humourous websites, little attention is given to how clients should be treating their freelancers. Here’s a quick-n-dirty list of some of the biggest offenses I’ve either heard about or experienced directly when dealing with these kinds of clients:

1) Little to no information

Most freelancers work remotely so face-to-face interaction is very limited, if not completely absent. This makes having precise and up-to-date info that much more important. Vital even. Most of my clients have been amazing at providing clear and consistent communication which really helps me do my job well. I’ve had a few, however, that go dark for weeks (if not months) at a time. Radio silence, when a freelancer is already remote, is a very scary thing! Suddenly doubts begin to arise: “Did they replace me with someone else?” “Did they lose funding?” “Is this project even on still?” Part of a client’s job is to keep everyone on the crew, including freelancers, in the loop. In the know. Not doing so is, to put it bluntly, sloppy and ineffective leadership.

2) Not keeping promises

A not-so-secret-dirty-secret about production is that it almost never goes according to plan or schedule. Even the best teams experience a tiny bit of variance from plan to reality during production. Most freelancers are aware of this and completely understanding. But when things start to get too far off the plan, red flags begin to be raised. I once had a project where the client originally wanted all of the music and sound done within one week. I calmly talked him off the ledge and we set up a more realistic and reasonable work schedule. He expected that game to be done within a month’s time or so. Six months later, the game is still not done. So clients, please do your best to make realistic and reasonable production schedules then keep everyone updated on any changes. Most of the time, we’ll completely understand! And if you’re not sure how long something would take, ask an expert on the team! For example, I also offer pre-production services where I can help plan out an appropriate schedule that gives plenty of buffer for changes as well as enough time for review and revisions. But once a certain amount of promises are seen as unkept (i.e. “We’ll have a new build by next week!” “The game will launch on X date!” and so on), faith in that team’s leadership and ability to perform takes a big hit.

3) Promising future work to make up for poor performances today

I’ll gladly pay you tomorrow for a hamburger today. This one doesn’t really need an explanation, does it? I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard this line in my career. Each time I find myself thinking (often with one eyebrow raised) “Okay, so you want me to repeat this process with you, when the first time was so bad?!” Given, I know that each time a project is completed, a team gets better at the job. At least that’s the hope! But sometimes I’ve witness crews making the same mistakes over and over again. Sorry, I’m just not that interested in repeating a bad cycle. I’m interested in making great games with talented crews and always growing as an artist. So, clients, if you find yourself about to make that promise – stop yourself! Instead talk about what you’ve learned and how you’re going to make the next project better.

4) Offering exposure or credit as compensation

This also shouldn’t need much explanation, I hope! Making audio is how I pay the bills, feed my family and support my coke habit. Wait… ignore that last part. 😛 Exposure is only as good as the amount of eyes and ears that will be on the project. Something like Star Wars offers a lot of exposure and that’s worthwhile. A game that might be played by 30 people doesn’t offer that same amount of exposure. Also giving credit, in my opinion, should be standard! Withholding that, as I’ve seen some clients do, doesn’t make much sense and is hardly professional. I totally get that self funding a game is an expensive thing to do – I’m doing it myself right now! But offer some kind of tangible compensation. Offer an exchange of services. Make it a fair transaction instead of offering things that, really, don’t help support your crew.

5) Stick to the contract

Remember KISS? Keep It Simple, Stupid? It definitely applies here. Sure, a little bit of flexibility is fine, even warranted. But should the situation change too much, I’ve found it’s much easier, less stressful and more professional to simply finish out the current contract (with whatever milestones were completed) and then draft a new one so everything is always crystal clear to all parties involved.

6) Keep it professional

Game development can be (and is!) really hard. It can also be stressful. Sometimes egos clash or tempers flare. To an extent, this is just the hazards of working in such a creative and competetive field. But should things be taken to a personal level, which makes you uncomfortable, walk away. It’s not worth taking abuse from someone. I once had a client that I had worked with for five years. He would tell stories about how everyone he worked with was an idiot or a jerk. It took years but eventually he turned that abuse on to me. He was yelling, calling me names and taking it to a level that – honestly – I’ve never had another client take it to. So I walked away. I calmly told him that my time and craft were worth more than that. That I, as a person, was worth more than that. Don’t take abuse – it’s not worth it.

Summary:

I’ve been lucky enough to work in this field for ten years now (crazy how time flies!) and on over 150 projects. About 96% of my clients have been amazing, fun, super-duper talented and a pure joy to work with! I choose not to work with those VERY few who haven’t impressed me. So to you freelancers out there – keep fighting the good fight. Know that your time and craft are worth something – often more than you think! Be picky about who you work with! We’re freelancers, not servants. Clients, keep thinking about ways to make hiring and managing a freelancer more streamlined and effective. Look for ways to include that freelancer in the production so they don’t feel so in the dark. The better the communication, the better everything else tends to go. (Most of the time, anyway)

Bio:
Nate is an established composer/sound designer, based in Austin, TX. Aside from making various kinds of noises and music, he also teaches private lessons (saxophone and piano) and performs with live bands.

Once you land the gig…

 
Many of my articles have focused on how best to network, promote yourself, negotiate and interact with potential clients. In this article I’m going to share a few pointers to help after you’ve landed the job. As with anything, nothing is a fix-all solution so always take these suggestions with a grain of salt. Carefully evaluate each situation, each client and if one of these tips seems to be a good fit then by all means use it! So let’s get right to it:
 
 

Don’t begin work until you have something to work to.

 
Sounds like simple common sense, doesn’t it? But in my experience it’s been rather surprising how often less(er) experienced clients expect me to begin work right away without any art or visual references. Usually more experienced teams already understand that audio is one of the last elements to be placed into a video game. Less experienced teams, however, tend to get excited and also not be aware of the common and more effective pipeline. Even for more simplistic sounds (like a generic button click) if a game isn’t there yet, so much can change during the production cycle that any sounds created early on could end up not fitting or matching the game’s vibe and feel. So if a team doesn’t have anything ready for you to work to – they’re not ready for audio yet.
 

Balance your workload – especially when extra tasks pop up.

 
Several times I’ve had clients expect me to capture video of the game when it was never part of the assigned tasks set up in the contract. These clients didn’t offer any kind of payment for my time or use of my equipment. Instead of getting upset or simply saying “no” I told them I would be happy to assist but we’d need to first figure out an appropriate cost for this extra service and the time it would take. Every time I’ve used this approach the team, which previously was too busy to capture video or didn’t have the needed tools, suddenly had the time and resources to provide those videos. So remember – unless a task is specified in the contract, it is extra work and as such you could require additional payment.

In some situations you can choose to take on some extra tasks to help the team out – which can really help your reputation with the team! This is usually when your work load is very light and you don’t have other projects also demanding your time. But be careful. Always explain if you’re making a concession. Something as simple as “well I usually charge for X but I had some extra time and wanted to help the team out.” The key here is balance. Don’t allow a team to repeatedly throw extra tasks at you which were not set up in the contract without added pay for your time and efforts but don’t nickel and dime your clients to death either. It’s a fine line but remember: it’s YOUR choice.
 

“Just play the game and create sounds from watching the game.”

 
While more rare, I’ve had a few clients give me a build of their game and expect me to just play it and then make sounds or music to that game build. When I asked for animations to “score” directly to they tell me to just play the game. I’ve even had a few clients push back after I explained my workflow process (placing animations directly in my DAW and creating sounds directly to that file). What usually convinces the client is this simple question: Do you want the sounds of the game to be estimates and guesses are do you want your sounds to be precisely synced to all animations?
 

Not all feedback is useful feedback.

 
I once had a client give me one-word feedback for about 20-25 sounds I had delivered: “Rework.” I explained that with that kind of vague feedback, I didn’t have enough information to know what direction or changes needed to happen. I didn’t know what the team didn’t like, I didn’t know what the team did like. It didn’t even specify what sounds needed to be reworked. After asking for more detailed feedback I found out there was only one sound they wanted reworked and the changes requested were minimal. The initial feedback was so vague, it gave me nothing to work with. Don’t accept vague feedback like this or you’ll end up running in circles and wasting a good deal of time. Asking for specific feedback isn’t challenging or rude when done in the right way. It shows how invested you are in making sure the sounds are the perfect fit for the game.
 

Iteration for the sake of iteration is crap.

 
I once worked on a team where the culture was to iterate just to see what would happen – without any clear goal or direction. In my frank and honest opinion it was a crappy attempt to cover up a clear lack of vision on the project. So teams just started iterating and making content, remaking content, scrapping content, going back to previous content, creating new content all in the name of iteration. And it was crap.

I’m ALL for iterating and adding polish to make something better. To achieve that end goal. To push the limits. But if a team wants you to iterate just to see “what happens” or “what comes out” then inform them that it raises audio costs and slows down the production time table as you’re stuck iterating on level 4 over and over again. Side note: this is why I have a revision limit on my rates. If a client feels they can have unlimited revisions at no extra cost then, by God, they’re going to use them! So make sure your rates allot for those situations where you’re drafting 15 versions of a game theme and explain those costs and limitations upfront to the client.
 

Play the game when mixing/implementing audio but push for alternate testing methods as well.

 
Once I was trying to test a sound I had created in a client’s build of their video game. The certain sound was on a stage that was so buggy and the game event so rare that it literally took me an hour to just hear the sound. Once! Then I made the needed changes and still had to fight the game to make that sound event happen again. It ended up taking much more time than it should have and made me quite frustrated. For those harder, more rare game events push for an alternate testing method. Perhaps a virtual soundboard of some sort or slash commands (if it is similar to a MMO-type game). Anything that can help you speed up mixing/implementation time. Some clients will push back on this but if you charge for your mixing/implementation time (which you should) then this can help speed up these tasks and lower the cost to that client. This is usually enough rationale to help convince the client that it is worth their energy and time.
 

Setting the right expectations.

 
As with many things in business, this is all about setting the right expectations and then fulfilling them. Even exceeding them. Explain to your clients what you need and why. Show them how by providing these items it will help you do a better job for them, make their product’s audio that much better and help you keep audio costs down and on schedule. So the final tip is really all about communication. I strive to have fluid, frequent communication with all of my clients and I have yet to hear a single complaint about it. The better you communicate, the better everyone understands their tasks, their roles and the needs of the project.

Get out there and make some noise!