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How a Tuba Player Founded a Conference for Game Sound

When Brian Schmidt started his freshman year at Northwestern in 1980, he was going to be a tuba major in the School of Music.

“I wanted to be a tuba player, but I found something new that totally ricocheted me in a different direction,” Schmidt says.

That ‘something new’ was an interest in computer music. Thanks to Northwestern professor Gary Kendall, Schmidt shifted his focus of study, deciding to pursue a degree in music and computer science. 

“I got really fortunate my freshman year,” Schmidt says. “[Professor Kendall] got a grant to study 3D hearing, so there was a burgeoning computer/music program.”

In 1985, Schmidt graduated with dual degrees in music computer science, and then in 1988, he earned a master’s degree in computer application of music. While finishing his master’s, Schmidt landed his first job with pinball company Williams Electronic Games, a dream job for a kid who grew up playing the game.

“My mom used to yell at me about playing pinball all the time,” Schmidt laughs.

After Williams, Schmidt spent nine years as a freelance game sound designer and games consultant before getting a call from Microsoft with an offer to work on the company’s Xbox team.

“When it comes to sound design for video games, in general, sound serves a lot of the same roles as music in motion pictures. We’re able to influence people’s emotions in the game the way music does in motion pictures.”

But beyond the emotional impact that sound can have on a video game player, sound design can also serve as a useful tool.

“Above and beyond traditional media, we also use sound to inform the player that they’ve done something or that they need to do something,” Schmidt says. “You get a hint about something scary – a sound to your left or a creature behind you, and you better turn around and react or you’ll get destroyed by it.”

While still at Microsoft, Schmidt got the idea for what would eventually become GameSoundCon, a music, sound design and virtual reality audio conference now in its ninth year.

“Around the same time that Xbox launched, companies started to hire sound designers for more traditional media,” Schmidt says. “I was finding that a lot of these composers from more traditional media were running into the same stumbling blocks. I thought it would be cool if you were a well-versed composer/sound designer who just didn’t know about games, that you could get the chance to drink from the fire hose for a few days.”

GameSoundCon started out as a one-room conference in Los Angeles geared toward film sound designers who wanted to learn more about games – many of whom had just gotten a game contract. Over the years, the conference has grown to include a Game 101 Audio Crash Course, one-on-one sessions and VR.

“What started out as this little game audio 101 thing with maybe 45 people has turned into… seven rooms and 400 people,” Schmidt says.

As for the future of the conference, Schmidt says he hopes to eventually get those researching sound tech and studying gaming from a music theory perspective into the same room.

“I want to get them all in there together mingling,” Schmidt says.

Schmidt credits his Northwestern training for the success and fulfillment he’s found in his career.

“Through professors I met at Northwestern and the flexibility of the school in terms of designing my own program, it launched me into the career I have been grateful to have for 30 years.”