Chris Wilson: Sonic Architect and Sound Guru
Sound engineers are among the most under-appreciated artists, despite the fact that they do some of the industry’s most important work. They ensure that the new album you bought sounds incredible, that the movie you’re watching makes your ears tingle with suspense and delight, that the video game you’re playing fully pulls you into the experience. Sound engineers create atmosphere, strike the proper balance between vocals and instrumentation, and tell sonic narratives in ways that enhance audio-visual experiences.
Every time Nathan Drake collects a small treasure in Uncharted and the chime rings, there’s a sound engineer behind that who’s mapped out every hidden element in the game. Each time someone slurps tea or throws a punch on screen, there’s a sound engineer behind that. Yet, creating and mastering sound for the movie, music recording, and gaming industries are just a small sample of what these people can do. Their work is intricate, highly technical, and they often have to do it in closets, attics, and asbestos laden rope lofts.
Chris Wilson is one of Salem’s most well-known and respected sound gurus, but due to his ninja-like ability to keep to the eaves (or hidden behind enormous sound boards), you may not have noticed him unless you know where to look. Around these parts, he handles most of the festival musicians and performers, making sure that when they go on stage they not only have the equipment they need, but that they sound good too.
But working these various Salem festivals and fundraisers is only about 5% of what Chris actually does. He’s also the co-owner (and co-founder) of the independent sound library, sound design, and soundtrack creation company SkewSound; the guitarist for the Boston-based wedding and party band The Ward Eights; a composer; and, of course, he’s married to the President of Salem Main Streets - the lovely Kylie Sullivan.
He has no idea what it’s like to have spare time.
Chris’s current company, SkewSound, is a sound and music production studio committed to high-quality, handcrafted audio for independent and large-scale projects. However, several years ago Chris had no idea that this would become his future.
“I was working as a video game developer – in the audio department – at Harmonix, the company behind the Guitar Hero games, Rock band, Fantasia, and a bunch of great other games. When I started there, Rock Band 2 was about to come out and they needed so many people to come do this kind of work because they had to produce so much content. Our audio department contained about 30 people, which is huge.”
Chris admitted that to get this job he sort of snuck into the industry without anybody noticing. His resumé had simply fallen into the right hands at the right time. He had sound experience sure, but no relevant gaming experience. Fortunately for him, he’s a fast learner.
“After a while of working on the Rock Band stuff, the craze started to die down. The company began to move onto different things, different kinds of games that were more dance central. Our focus went into motion gaming, and we we were trying a bunch of things to see what the next big hit was. So we ended up working on this project that’s still classified. It was very different from anything we’d done before.
“There were four people on the team: myself, Steve Pardo, Nick Kallman, and Dan Crislip – who was the audio lead. We were the whole audio team for this project, and it got pretty far. We had big publisher funding and we were working on it for about a year.”
Over the course of that year the quartet realized how well they all meshed and were able to complement each other in strong ways. They threw around the idea that the four of them should start producing and selling their own indie sound libraries.
During this time, something big was also happening in the industry. The large gaming companies were starting to see a great deal of competition from smaller indie projects and studios, who were using the rise of the internet to make and market their games, and the big companies were losing huge projects as a result. This development gave rise to more specialized sound engineering and effects masters.
“For a long time there were two main sound companies that did sound effects libraries: Hollywood Edge and Sound ideas.” Chris explains, “And they were the be all end all, that’s why in the 80s and 90s you hear the same sound effects over and over again in movies and games. With the advent of the internet it gave small indie field recordists an opportunity to pursue these niche projects and sell them on the internet. Then you have some guy who really loved this certain antique BMW and record the hell out of it.”
These industry changes provided an avenue for sound specialization that simply hadn’t existed before, and the four thought it would be something cool to do in their spare time.
“We thought that if we would, for example, record the swing set down at the end of the road, and that swing set would sound different from every other swing set on earth.”
It was an idea that sounded like a lot of fun, until not long after things began to change drastically. The immersive project they had spent a year working on, the one that’s still classified and Chris can’t really talk about even now, was cancelled due to an artistic disagreement with the publisher. As a result, Nick got laid off and promptly moved to Portland, OR. Then, not long after, Dan - who was originally from the Seattle area - had his first son and decided to move back home to be closer to family.
In February of 2014, Chris was still at Harmonix and so was composer Steve Pardo - but with the team so split up regionally, they decided that then was the time when they would finally get SkewSound off the ground. Considering their collective experience, they figured that their client base would be small Indie Gaming Studios, and they were right.
“So it just so happened that a guy we used to work with named Patrick, who was the audio lead on Bioshock and Bioshock infinite at Irrational, and also Rocking Beatles and other games at Harmonix. He, when Irrational imploded, went off and started his own audio company and was getting some work and needed some help and by chance saw our Facebook feed and got in touch with us. He asked if he could subcontract us to do some work with him and help out on some projects. He helped us get our feet wet.
“Patrick is a great guy, super sweet, a really good mentor. He’s willing to talk about things with you and share things with you and not into keeping industry secrets.”
The timing couldn’t have been better. Over the past 5-7 years there’s been a Renaissance in Indie Gaming with the advent of Steam and other online platforms.
“What happens in that you have all these little teams of 5-10 people who don’t have the budget to staff an entire audio department.” Chris continues, “But they still need all that content, and looking around all the big studios, most of them are gone. Because so many people spend so much more of their dollars on indie games now. It’s kind of like the record label if you have 100 artists on your roster, you rely on two of them to make the multi-platinum hits they used to pay everyone else. That model just isn’t sustainable anymore.”
Soon after making the leap to start SkewSound, Chris was laid off from Harmonix. It was a significant downsizing move that cut a third of the company and half of the audio department. Despite the blow, Chris found himself able to devote a lot more time to SkewSound, and to his new band the Ward Eights.
“The toughest thing for us at SkewSound was just getting started. The kind of service we provide isn’t something you advertise for, it would be a huge waste of money. It’s all word of mouth. The thing that compounds that is that often you work on a game and it’s not released for six months, and you’re not allowed to talk about it for six months. You have all this time where you did this cool thing but you can’t talk about it.”
Yet, although they can’t always personally talk about it to the public, the people they’ve worked for talk about them a lot.
“So a lot of projects in the pipeline are with people we’ve worked with before on titles at other studios. We’re not really at a point where we’re making a full time living, but we feel pretty good about how busy we are.
“We’ve been doing the SkewSound thing for two years now, and we’ve released a couple of sound libraries but we’ve been so busy doing actual games that we haven’t been able to put a lot of time into the libraries. We have a huge backlog of content that still needs to be edited and polished before we can release it.”
In an odd turn of events, Chris got a call last year from his previous company, Harmonix, asking if he would be interested in working on Rock Band 4. As it turns out, they had fired everyone on the team who knew how to do the work.
“I told them that they couldn’t hire me, but were welcome to hire my company.” They agreed. “They’ve moved me over to a Rock Band VR with oculus so I’m working on that right now.”
From Basement Band to Rock Band
Chris fell in love with music as a teenager, most likely the result of being a member of a highly musical family. “My dad’s a drummer, my Mom’s a pianist, and my Aunt’s a fabulous flautist. I took piano lessons when I was six but it interfered with watching Dr. Who so I quit.”
It wasn’t until Junior High that Chris began to take music a little more seriously.
“My neighborhood friends and I decided to start a band. No one knew how to play instruments so we we’re just like ‘You play drums, you play bass, you play guitar and sing.’
“And we all just jumped in and like tried to learn Green Day covers in our basement. It’s how I cut my teeth on it. I really fell in love with it, but I was self-aware enough to know I wasn’t a performer. I enjoy being on stage but I don’t have that spark. And I don’t have the patience to practice enough hours in a day to become a master. When I was looking at majors I thought, well, I could become a performance major but there’s no way I can sit in a practice room for 6-8 hours a day. What is required of me to become that level of proficiency on my instrument, like, I don’t have that. I can do like an hour and half before I lose my mind.
“I really wanted a career where I could be involved in creating music, but be in a situation where I can help someone mold and guide a song a musical piece to kind of its creative apex. Like you have this great idea let’s massage it and think about instrumentation and feel and how we want to approach this and make it shine. So I decided I should go to college and get two degrees, one in sound recording technology and one in business.”
Chris decided to pursue these degrees at UMass Lowell, where both majors were offered as music degrees. Many other universities list sound engineering as part of the engineering department, or put such an emphasis on the performance aspect that made Chris uncomfortable.
It was also during college that Chris first tried his hand at composing, although he claims to still be “bad at it.”
“There was a time where I thought about getting my masters in composition, but again I realized that I don’t have that kind of innate talent that a lot of composers have. I can’t just sit down at a piano and just do it. And I know people, Steve for example, who are one of these people. He went to the University of Miami and got his Masters in Jazz Composition and he’s an excellent saxophonist, that’s his main instrument, but he can play flute and guitar and piano and he can play nearly any instrument you put in his hands. The way he understands music is not the way I do it. So I like tried very hard to recognize my own shortcomings. I could waste 2-3 years and a lot of money doing this thing or I could stick to my original plan to become a record producer.
Crawling through Asbestos at the BSO
Soon after graduating, Chris began doing freelance work for Sound Mirror, a studio based in Jamaica Plain which specializes in on location classical music recording.
“I remember this one trip in particular. I was the lowest on the totem pole and we had to pack this 28 foot box truck full of sound recording equipment and I drove it to Texas. We recorded a brass quintet in Houston and then we went to Dallas and recorded this guy’s crazy symphony in this big church. It was wild, one of these things where we recorded it in surround sound. The main ensemble was on stage then four trumpets back to the left then one other guy over there and three baritone singers over there and at one point a marching band comes through the center of the performance and exits stage left and the whole thing ends with a shotgun blast.
“It was called Circus Maximus, and it was about how television interrupts the interior quiet of our souls, or something like that.”
After Chris’s epic sound-inspired tour of the southwestern U.S., Sound Mirror was contracted to do all the archival recording for the Boston Symphony orchestra for the 2005 season.
“In that season we recorded a piece called Neruda Songs which won a Grammy the following year for best female classical performance. I didn’t get credited for it, but I was there.”
He recalls the harrowing experience of attempting to install a real recording studio inside Boston Symphony Hall.
“We would go up in the loft and drop cables all the way down to the floor and hang the microphones way out in the hall. So, to do this, I had to go up in the attic of the BSO and crawl on my hands and knees in the wood planks with holes in them, and John Newton would be on the floor pointing up at the holes he wanted us to drop mics through with a laser pointer. There was a board on steel and then a steel grid pattern and nothing but chicken wire and plaster and forty feet to your death. Above me was the asbestos laden heating center, and I’m crawling around trying to find where this laser pointer is pointing to.”
He loved every minute of it.
“It was super cool learning how to record an orchestra. And the guys at Sound Mirror had won tons of awards, and it was awesome having the opportunity to learn that part.”
His work with Sound Mirror at the BSO would ultimately lead to him landing a job with the Boston University school of music. Every year the BU Symphony Orchestra and the BU choir would do one big piece at symphony hall.
“One semester I was still there, and John told me “The BU guys are coming, I don’t want to take everything down, you just stay there and be their engineer and help them interface into the system and make sure they have everything they need.’ After the performance, this guy Roberto, who was was running the recording studio at BU school of music offered me a job. It was only a nine month per year project, but I knew it would be steady work.”
Consequently, this is about the time where Chris met Kylie, who was the then coordinator for BU’s vocal and choral music.
“My good friend Roberto hired this guy and he was invisible for three months, because he was hiding in the recording studio.” Kylie interjects.
“The studio was on this weird half floor, it was a cave, one entrance in, one window to this one performance hall, and that’s the way I liked it.”
It was during this stint at BU that Chris started delving further into digital sound development and composition, which would soon take on a large role in his life.
“I found this program called Reason, a self-contained thing, didn’t have to run it through Logic. I was curious about learning more synthesis so I picked up a copy of this program a year or two before I started at Harmonix and began experimenting in my spare time. My roommate at the time overheard something I was working on and told me that what I was doing would be great music for a video game. And I thought he was right.”
Sound Design and Franken-Instruments
One of the most fulfilling projects Chris ever worked on happened during his time at Harmonix, and although he’s not allowed to talk too much about the details, he was able to say a few things about the process going into it.
“I had this idea, and this is something as we’ve done more games has become really interesting to me, that the music that you hear when you’re playing a game should be tied to the world that you’re playing in.
“So for example we did this game called Knee Deep a little while ago, it’s available on Steam, they call it Swamp Noir and it’s all conversational. It’s a murder mystery type thing where you have conversations with the people and how you respond to them will change something later in the story. And it takes place in a run down town in the swamps of the Florida panhandle, it’s a town where their time has come and gone.
“In the game there are three main characters and they each have their own musical style – one is southern gothic style, one is swamp blues focused, and one is delta blues focused – all these native musical traditions that we used to paint each of the characters.
“We wanted to take it a step further and use instruments that were beat up and broken down. So we scoured Craigslist and I bought this old drum set from the 60s that was a Ludwig knockoff that sounded terrible, but it wasn’t about the sound of it but about the vibe of it. I wanted the instruments to sound run down like someone had found them on the side of the road.”
Chris and his team asked themselves what would this unique world sound like? They put their heads together and came up with a bunch of short pieces, working in various instrumentations and sound treatments. They also made their own instruments – these hybrid conglomerations, Franken-instruments if you were, that would be able to evoke the tone they wanted.
“I had an acoustic guitar and I took a bow and ran the bow up and down the guitar and it made this great sound that’s like a cello but a little screechier. But the problem with trying to that on a guitar is that the bridge is flat. So Bill, another member of the Ward Eights and fellow sound engineer at Harmonix, and I cut the neck off the guitar and glued it back on at an angle. Then we built a tail piece and took a bass bridge and cut it down to get the curvature that we needed to have the facility for using the bow.
“We used a lot of traditional instruments too, trying to augment it as best we could with these instruments we made or weird other experiments or other offbeat percussion instruments like seed pod rattles or shakers or anything organic and earthy.
“We worked on this project for a year or more. And its really amazing because it’s the only project I’ve worked on that will still give me chills.”
Playing with The Ward Eights
Another thing to come out of Harmonix was Chris’s band The Ward Eights, which he started with bassist Bill Whitney. They were able to field from within the company guitar, bass, drum, keyboards, male and female vocals, and sax. There was only one member who they picked up from outside Harmonix.
“We thought it would be fun to get together and learn some tunes and see if anyone wants to get married to our music.”
Little did they know that soon they would be one of the most wanted Wedding/Club bands in Boston.
“We started the band in 2010. So the first 2 or 3 years we would get a couple gigs a season, mostly friends and family, a couple club gigs here and there but then like it really started to blow up. So last year was our first really busy year where we did weddings and club gigs and other events and fundraisers like the the Hawthorne Hotel Halloween Party, the Salem Common Neighborhood Association, and a fundraiser for Helping Hands.
“It’s a lot of work because one of the things that we do for our clients is that we take requests. We originally had this idea where we would learn three new songs for all our clients which is fine when you have five gigs a season, but when you have twenty gigs a season that’s a lot of material to be up on. Last year was a real learning experience for us because it was by far the busiest year and we learned a lot about what our limits were in terms of how many double header weekends can we do without wanting to kill ourselves.”
The Ward Eights aren’t your typical wedding band either. They bring a vibrance and energy to any space they play in, and they attract a much more fun-loving clientele.
“I remember we did this one gig in New Hampshire on Lake Winnipesaukee, and by the end of the night the group was bringing us handfuls of beer, everyone was having such a great time. We’ve always wanted to be that band where people are like ‘oh I went to the club last night and saw this wicked fun band and they also came to play my wedding the next day.”
What is creativity?
Chris is the kind of person who lives and breathes creativity. New challenges are opportunities to craft something remarkable, and this perspective infiltrates every aspect of his life – whether he’s working on a new arrangement for his band, inventing a new instrument with sound that will define a character, or composing intro music for the Creative Salem Podcast.
When asked how he would define creativity, Chris headed down the path of art history.
“If I remember correctly, Michelangelo once said that when he looked at a block of marble what he saw was the sculpture surrounded by excess, and it was his job to get rid of the excess, to like lay bare the thing that he saw that he knew was there.
“Creativity, whatever your medium is, whether it’s a blank piece of paper or canvas or computer screen or instrument or whatever, is being able to look at it and see that thing that’s in there that other people don’t see and then being inspired to bring that out.”