Co-founders of audio production house IMBA Interactive talk about their love for making video game audio, and the challenges in setting up a shop for the same in the city-state
The gaming slang for “imbalanced” is “imba”, a term describing how unfair a particular game system, weapon, power-up or unit is. So it’s no surprise that a startup that goes by the name IMBA Interactive is focussed on all things gaming.
Instead of making games, however, the startup is focussed on the sound design and audio engineering of the interactive medium. With Co-founders Jeremy Goh, Gwen Guo, and Sharon Kho having game design backgrounds (they’re alumni of the GAMBIT Gamelab Summer Internship Program), they are focussed on creating the best damn kind of audio production for all sorts of interactive media in Singapore, be it for mobile, consoles or PCs.
This is a team you should pay attention to, as audio and soundwork is integral to an interactive medium like video games. Their past works consist of creating the sound design and audio for games like Singapore real life simulator WhyMoolah, puzzle game One Upon Light and strategy title Romans In My Carpet. The team has won honours and awards from expos like Casual Connect Asia and the Independent Games Festival China.
So what made Co-founders Goh, Guo, and Kho form IMBA? It all attributes to passion and drive to make a difference in the local industry, both in the standards of work and the industry’s creative value. And then there’s a gap in the sound design for games, apps and interactive media of the country that needs to be filled. “With 15 years of combined experience in diverse forms of media,” Guo said, “we were confident that we could kickstart a movement that would augment the quality and artistic value of audio production for interactive media in Singapore.”
The three of them met in December 2012 at a Starbucks coffee shop. While the road to IMBA officially started there, the seeds were planted a few years back. Guo studied in Vancouver Film School, while Sharon Kho was pursuing her career at GAMBIT. Both of them talked about the game audio scene in Singapore in great detail. Kho brought Goh into the fold via Facebook contacting.
All three of them had coincidentally finished their obligations and met up on that fated December day: Guo was done with a Hong Kong film sound studio internship, Kho’s five year GAMBIT Program had ended, and Goh had graduated from the School of Art, Design and Media as well as had finished his internship at Mediacorp. “It all came together very nicely,” Guo said.
The creative process
The startup company does not have an office per se; the trio work from home with their state-of-the-art audio capturing and sound-creating equipment. Somehow, that’s more than enough for them to get the recognition they deserve.
“The beauty about (creating sounds) is that there isn’t a ‘fixed’ way to do things,” said Guo. She said that methods for audio-crafting range from live recordings to obliterating existing sound samples and then reconstructing them again. These sound samples can also be put through effects modulating, processing and sound synthesis if needed. “As long as it gets the job done,” she added, “it’s all good, though we do not endorse stuff like animal abuse or smashing other people’s property.”
The team has its own preferences for tools; they use digital audio workstations like Logic and Pro Tools. Guo loves the SoundToys FilterFreak and Crystalliser plug-ins, while Kho uses smartelectronix’s Ambience for nice and long audio reverbs. Goh sticks to using Adobe Audition; it’s a simple tool but it packs a punch for quick wave-editing. As Guo said before, so long as it gets the job done, the methods do not matter.
But it’s usually better to convince others with an actual proof. Here are a few samples of their work for you to decide:
Of hardships, big and tall
That is all fine and dandy, but the road to achieve the awards and stellar portfolios was anything but smooth. Guo said that the challenges the team had to face was in defining their niche. You see, IMBA started out with five interested parties and a couple of investors. Guo and her team decided that the startup was not about competing in a mature sound industry, but rather to focus on game audio. “It’s about finding a niche, filling in the gap, disrupting the peace, plugging the hole… you get the idea. The decision of cutting the founding team from five to three was indeed heart-wrenching. Nevertheless, the five of us remained good friends until today,” she said.
Other challenges include managing each of the team’s expectations and learning how to run a business from scratch. But so far, the toughest hurdle they have faced is conveying the value of proper audio work to their clients. “This is a major uphill battle for us,” said Guo, “because game audio is not something which is often thought of adequately budgeted for in pre-production, especially in (Singapore) the region.”
Video game companies often leave audio as the last thing on the production pipeline; this then leaves sound designers less time to provide high quality audio assets and care to the project. “This is something (IMBA Interactive) is working on as we speak,” said Guo. “(We need to) educate clients on the importance of bringing in audio early, and communicate our vision to the industry to strive for quality.”
At the very least, the team has friends within the Singapore gaming industry to dish out hints and tips on how to run a company and team-build. Guo agrees that while the country environment is suitable for startups (especially in the government or investor funding part), the resources available can be used more efficiently. Methods to do this include having more platforms for collaboration and maximising the talent pool in the already-small city state. “Entrepreneurs need to share more with each other on what they care about,” she said, “and follow through with collaborative execution.”
But what about the sound design side of things? Guo said that there are a lot of music creators and composers in Singapore, but there aren’t any individuals who prefer to do sound design. “There still isn’t enough talent in Singapore who want to explore methods to design and create sounds for technical applications, especially for video games,” she said.
Making music, and loving it
Even with such issues, the trio of IMBA Interactive will not trade this for anything else in the world. To them, IMBA is anything but a job. “Every single day, we face new challenges,” she continued,”We like that because we learn something new every time. Apart from enjoying what we do as sound designers, it is gratifying to see aspects of a startup like business development, management, and marketing contribute to the bigger picture of having clients hear the importance of sound in their game. As entrepreneurs building a company, we get to create a culture of our own. Isn’t that awesome?”
Guo said that passion is required for startups who want to pursue this line of game industry work. “You have to love what you do: get your hands dirty, gather your resources and networks outside, get updated with industry trends. It’s about what you can give to the industry by planting these seeds so that you can benefit from it later,” she added.
She believes that passion and money are not mutually exclusive, as startups need to focus on their own company goals and values as well. But above all else, startups need to be the change if they want to see change. The team’s ending quote to sum up its end goal: “Indulging in geekery is a given. Progressing as visionaries is even better!”