(Picture above left to right: David Phillips and Byron Bullock)
Formosa Group is one of the leading forces in post-production audio and has left its mark on everything from movies like Dune and Top Gun: Maverick to games like God of War and The Last Of Us: Part II. Formosa Interactive UK is run by David Philipp and Byron Bullock, formerly of The Noiseworks, before their company was acquired by Formosa in June. They’ve been regular users of zplane plugins for over a decade, so we thought it a good idea to speak with them about their work.
– Hi guys. Thanks for sitting down to talk about your work at Formosa and using our plugins. Firstly, what were your respective entry points into audio?
David: I went to Salzburg University, which is renowned for its audio program, but back then, it was less focused on game audio than recording and mixing. Fortunately, I was later able to get an internship at Dynamedion, one of Germany’s leading outsourcing companies for games, and I also became a co-founder of BOOM Library. The internship and BOOM are what pushed me into the sound design niche, which wasn’t a big field in Austria or Germany fifteen years ago.
Byron: Similarly to David, I got my start at university and did a Bachelor’s in Music Technology before moving to London. There were no game audio programs back then, so my studies focused on music and post-production. I couldn’t get any sound design jobs after graduating, so rather than doing an internship, I started a career in location sound recording for TV. It involved a lot of travel in and out of the UK, which wasn’t suitable when you have a fiancé. I also wanted to do something more creative, so I changed jobs in 2009. Despite having zero experience in game audio, I got a position at Electronic Arts because the head of the studio was looking for people from TV and film to bring a fresh perspective to their game audio division.
– It sounds like neither of you were that experienced when you got your first game audio jobs. Is that right?
David: I was terrible when I started and had no idea what I was doing. When I think of myself from back then, I couldn’t compare to the entry-level sound designers of today. My first hiring had less to do with skills and more to do with being a fit for the team, which is why my employers were like, “You seem like a nice guy and at least you communicate well. You’re hired ” (laughs). Following that, the first game I was properly involved with was Total War: Rome 2.
Byron: I didn’t even know what a game engine was when I started, so I probably wouldn’t have qualified for a job nowadays. Junior sound designers of today at least know how game engines work and they can do a reasonable degree of sound design when they’re first hired.
– Byron, didn’t you have a phase of working trailers prior to video games?
Byron: Yes. During my time at game studios, I was always the one who handled trailers and I still do it at Formosa. That came from my time working with Charles Deneen, who’s big in the trailer world. I met him whilst working on my first project, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. I did three titles in that franchise before moving on from EA to Creative Assembly where I did Alien Isolation, which won a BAFTA for audio. Then I joined the PC team and worked on the Total War series where I met David. We worked together for a number of years before starting The Noiseworks, which is now Formosa Interactive UK.
– How did you end up with a specialization in creature design? Did that result from your work with BOOM?
David: Yes it did. After the success of our second library, “Creatures“, we saw a surge in our bookings for creature sound design, which allowed us to become even better at it. Back then, it was novel to record creature sounds with your month into the Sanken CO-100K. It’s become an overused technique nowadays, but it was cool back then. When I later worked at Creative Assembly, I led the creatures team on Total War: Warhammer, and that’s how things evolved beyond BOOM.
– Tell me more about The BOOM Library, which has taken a somewhat prominent place in the sound design world.
David: It’s become a go-to library that everyone knows. They’re a challenge to create because we judge ourselves by the highest standards, and there’s only 4 -5 sound designers on each release. As a result, things get more difficult with each new library as the concepts get more narrow, plus there’s new indie libraries who also set the bar very high. When we started, there was only Sound Ideas and a few others that were easy to compete with, whereas it’s different today.
– After having worked at Creative Assembly for a number of years, how did Noiseworks come about?
David: The idea emerged during our train journeys from London to Horsham where Creative Assembly’s offices were based. Things had become a bit stale working there and we wanted to make great-sounding audio not just for our employers, but for other people also. We didn’t have a business plan in place when we quit our jobs, so the next three months saw no income – only mortgage payments (laughs). But it didn’t take long after that for Noiseworks to get its first clients and start growing organically. After running the company for some years and having success, we were contacted by Formosa. They felt we’d be a good fit for their team because they had a similar mindset about audio quality.
– Is there one particular project that put The Noiseworks on the map?
David: Not really. Nobody knew who we were initially, even if we did great work, and we didn’t really do much marketing beyond Twitter and Instagram, which didn’t help much. But as I went to GDC each year and met more people, things began to change – we ended up working with studios like Rocksteady and stayed involved with the Total War franchise. So rather than one particular project, The Noiseworks found success due to a combination of things.
Byron: I think our experience with BOOM library helped. When people learned that we were the founders, they’d tell us that they had all our libraries. Most game studios had BOOM licenses, so it became a way for us to build our reputation because everyone trusted us with sound design.
– What’s your work like now that you’re a part of Formosa?
Byron: COVID forced a lot of people to work from home, which created more opportunities for outsourcers like ourselves to work closer with in-house audio teams. It’s become more of a co-development process where we get to see the builds and use insider tools as if we were part of the audio staff. That’s been one of the biggest changes recently.
Specifically at Formosa, we’re now part of a global company and a larger team than before. They have staff in LA, Seattle and London, and we’re about 90 people at Formosa Interactive who do music, dialogue, casting, sound design, recording and production. But other than the increased team size, David and I still have creative control over what we do in the UK.
– Can you mention any projects you’re working on at the moment?
David: We’re working on Nightingale by Inflection Games, as well as Suicide Squad by Rocksteady. We’re also involved with the Dead Space remake and we’re working on a number of un-announced Sony projects.
Byron: We still get a lot of jobs for creature sounds, which is a blessing and a curse. The amount of giant spiders I’ve done over the years is getting up there, and making them all sound different gets harder each time. But it does encourage us to find new ways of being creative.
– Let’s talk about your use of zplane plugins. How did you first learn about them?
David: We were still working in Pro Tools and it didn’t have a pitch plugin that was automatable. I came from using Logic which had cool pitch plugins, so I was looking for something similar that could be automated over time to help make creature sounds. I came across ELASTIQUE PITCH soon after it was first released and it worked really well. I soon recommended it to everyone we worked with, so all the staff at The Noiseworks used it, and so does our Formosa team today. It’s one of the plugins that never gets old for me; the sound quality is good and it’s not too CPU-hungry.
Byron: It’s better than Avid’s polyphonic pitch-shifter, and the fact that Pro Tools still doesn’t let you automate pitch is ridiculous. The X-Y pad really lets you achieve nice nuances to your sound, and if you fine tune the Voicing bar to emphasize high versus low frequency content, it gives you better results.
David: I only recently found out that ELASTIQUE PITCH has a mix knob (laughs). I don’t know how I missed that before. Like I said, everyone on the team uses it, and the guys on Creative Assembly used it too – it’s one of the most used plugins on the audio teams I’ve worked with. There’s nothing else like it.
– What have been some specific use cases for ELASTIQUE PITCH that you’ve found indispensable?
Byron: Dialogue pitch processing, for sure. You can tune things quite finely using different parameters, be it timbre, pitch or voicing. It gives you great, natural-sounding results, but also works well on creature sounds. We sometimes duplicate tracks and pitch one an octave higher, and I’ve linked it on my mod-wheel so I can automate using that. I often use it on the master bus to automate the whole track if a creature is performing an action – I’ll start at a low pitch setting, then as the creature lifts its head I go a bit higher and come back down.
David: I use it to automate the overall movement of a sound, and it can also make dopplers more aggressive. The only thing missing is being able to click on the X-Y button to make it automatable. As of now, you have to open the parameters and select “Add”, whereas using Ctrl + Alt + Cmd + click would’ve been easier.
– Have any other zplane plugins caught your interest besides ELASTIQUE PITCH?
David: I just started using FENNEK and found it to be very comprehensive, but the plugin I used excessively on BOOM’s “Cinematic Expressions” was TONIC. The library is a collection of harmonic sounds that can be layered underneath your impacts, but whilst designing the sounds, we forgot to label the keys. TONIC is what most of us used to determine the keys so we could label them afterwards. I would double check the labels by playing notes on my keyboard and found everything to be correct, so that plugin really saved me on that project.
Byron: Another great usage for TONIC is in trailers when you’re trying to keep your sound effects in key with the music. If you’re not musically inclined, you can use TONIC to check the key of the song and make sure your sound effects match.
– Thanks for talking to us guys. It’s been great to learn about your work and how our plugins have helped. What does the future of Formosa Interactive UK look like for the rest of the year?
David: We have a lot of projects ongoing, some of which we’re in the middle of. We’ll be growing our team until the end of the year and we’re also moving into some new studios in the first quarter of 2023 in Soho, so we’re looking forward to that.