Here’s What A Former Skywalker Sound Director Has To Say About Looking & Sounding Your Best On Camera

Photo by: Isabelle Smith

Nick Peck is an audio director and sound designer with over 35 years of experience at companies such as Skywalker Sound. We sat down to speak with him about the future of interactive gaming, the role that sound plays in creating immersive experiences, and why looking and sounding your best on camera and in Zoom meetings is critical to your career’s success.

First off, can you provide some background on who you are and what kind of work you do?

I am an audio director /composer /sound designer /electronic musician /keyboardis t/singer. I’ve been doing audio production for long enough to have had opportunities to explore many facets of the craft. Most of my work these days involves managing an incredible team of voice directors, composers, sound designers, and support people. I have also been directing a lot of audiobooks over the last couple of years. When I’m not working, I’m very involved in electronic music – especially modular synthesizers. I really enjoy composing and improvising abstract electronic music. But I also love recording acoustic instruments and voice, which is where my Earthworks mics enter the picture.

How did you first learn about Earthworks mics?

I love recording acoustic instruments, trying to capture a purity within the sound that accents and deepens the performance. In the late nineties, I’d been trying to record my piano well without much success, and a friend at Lucasarts, sound designer/journalist/audio maven Larry the “O” let me know about this new company that was focused on developing high-end microphones to create pure, accurate, highly detailed recordings. That company was Earthworks, of course. So I bought a matched pair of QTC-1 omnis. They arrived in a gorgeous wooden box, and the design of the mics was like nothing I had ever seen. Smooth, elegant aluminum tubes that narrowed into a small tip where the diaphragm was. I have been using that same pair of mics for over twenty years now – they are a permanent part of my arsenal.

What do you typically use Earthworks mics for, and in your view, what makes Earthworks mics different from other mics out there?

So to me, Earthworks represent purity, cleanliness, accuracy, detail, and speed. I’ve tried them on electric guitar and bass, but I really use them on acoustic instruments, often as ambient or overhead mics. I like them inside of my grand piano with the lid up and the mics a few of feet from the strings, getting a broader, smoother sound than typical close-miking techniques. The QTC-1s are omnis, which create a different soundstage than cardioids. I adjust them by ear, putting one nearer to the bass strings and middle of the piano, and the other near the treble strings. I’m really shooting for a smooth, even sound across the piano. Sometimes, I place them up over my shoulders at the piano keyboard position, so that the QTC-1’s hear what I am hearing as I play the instrument. My other favorite use of the QTC-1’s are as drum overheads. They pick up so much sparkle from the cymbals. They are my go-to mics for that task. I’ve also used them on nylon string and steel string guitar, with excellent results.

I was delighted to learn that Earthworks had created a USB mic tailored toward spoken word. The pandemic forced us to connect remotely, and technology needed to rise to meet that challenge. Many voice over actors started recording from home by necessity. They set up their rigs, put on their engineer hat, and started to communicate with directors over Zoom while recording themselves into Pro Tools or Reaper, and then posting the recordings for editing and further production. While some actors had a natural affinity towards computers and technology, and were comfortable in setting those types of systems up, others didn’t, or didn’t have time. And for them, remote recording rigs started to come into vogue. People would create rigs with laptops, audio interfaces, microphones, mic stands, and headphones, and would send them to the talent for setting up at home. Once set up, the engineer would control the laptop remotely, allowing the talent to focus on acting. The problem, of course, is all that technology is a bit of a high-wire act, with every component becoming a possible point of failure. With the Earthworks ICON, you eliminate one or two components from the equation: the audio interface and the mic preamp. I love the fact that you plug the mic straight into the computer’s USB port, and then plug the headphones right into the mic! This simplifies and streamlines the remote recording process, with no compromise in audio quality. You get a great sounding vocal mic with a high quality analog to digital converter. I have used this system to successfully record vocal projects of over 100,000 words in length, with zero technical glitches.

I’m excited to explore using the ETHOS as a spoken word mic as well. Like so many of us, I am on Zoom calls for hours every day. That little video box on the screen of my colleagues represents me. It stands in for working in person in a conference room or coffee shop. And that representation inevitably takes place through a $60 webcam, with lousy video and audio quality. I think that sounding and looking good over these real-time video communication platforms is quite important – it’s akin to wearing nice clothes to a business meeting. So for me, using the ETHOS with my audio interface’s high quality mic preamp, or the ICON with my USB port, is the way to present my voice at its best. It’s the same thing with the YouTube videos I make on my channel. I almost never use the built-in mic on a camera or smart phone to record my voice. I search for a high quality solution. My channel is all about music and audio, and it would undermine my credibility for the VO quality to be lacking.

How did you get into your line of work?

My parents bought a piano and started me in lessons when I was eight. It was an instant love affair that has lasted to this day. I started playing with other kids in high school, and then got serious with it in college. I started recording the bands I was playing in, and released several albums on small record labels. I was bitten hard by the recording bug. From there, I knew unequivocally that audio production was my career.

Education has always been extremely important to me, and I received a BA, and then an MFA, in electronic music. That formal training taught me a great deal – and it gave me the open space to just explore making sounds. As I was finishing graduate school, and figuring out my next move, a friend told me that Lucasarts Entertainment Company was looking for a sound designer for an upcoming game. I landed an interview, and got an audition, where I had 1/2 hour to sound design a 30-second animation. Because I had taught myself Pro Tools in graduate school, and had spent so much time editing sounds, I was prepared. I passed the audition, landed the gig, and have been working in audio production ever since. 

You’ve been a part of an industry insiders podcast for the past 15 years. How did you first get involved, and how has it shaped your view of the industry over such a long time?

I am a panelist on an audio industry-insider podcast called the Audio Nowcast. It is the longest continuously-running pro audio podcast, clocking in at 15 years or so. Everyone on the show is a pro who has made a living in audio for many years. There is a great diversity of thought and experience on the show, which keeps the conversations really vibrant and interesting. The founder and host is Mike Rodriguez, who is a mixer, director of photography, and film maker. Bobby Owsinski is a prolific author of audio production books. Scott Gershin is an Emmy-award winning sound designer who has done triple-A films and TV for decades. And Rob Arbittier is a composer/producer who has been working closely with Stevie Wonder for decades, creating synthesizer interfaces for the non-sighted. Previous panelists include Andrew Schoeps, producer Bobby Summerfield, and singer/songwriter Martin Page, who wrote “We Built this City”. API has been our sponsor since the very beginning. It’s such a fun show.

When I was living in the Bay Area, I enjoyed listening to the show. There used to be a tag at the end saying “if you are an audio professional in the Los Angeles area, contact us”. So when I moved to LA ten years ago, I emailed them, and they invited me on the show as a guest. We really hit it off, and by the next episode I was a panelist, and I’ve been with the show ever since.

You’ve also been working recently in interactive gaming. What kind of work have you done in that field, and where do you see the industry going in the next 5-10 years?

I started learning computer programming when I was 13, and that skill has helped me throughout my career. Having an understanding of how computers “think”, and being able to communicate with them efficiently is such a critical component of working in a modern technical industry. The specifics seem to constantly change, but the general theory is always the same. I started out doing a lot of interactive advertisements, media presentations, and user interface design for set-top boxes. Then I was able to transition into sound designing video games, which took the next fifteen years or so of my career. Some standout titles include Star Wars Battlefront, LEGO Star Wars, Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb, Grim Fandango, and Guitar Hero Van Halen.

Since then, I have done a lot of iOS and Android apps in the learning and entertainment spaces, which were really big around 2010-2015. Then I moved on to doing a bunch of interactive adventures for Amazon and Google smart speakers. These days, I’m doing a lot more linear audio, such as audiobooks and eBooks, but wait five minutes – it will change again. The point is that the knowledge of how hardware and software behave has helped me approach all these different challenges.

As far as where the industry is going, the hardware continues to drive towards being able to render ever better games and interactive experiences. The line between games being rendered in real time and CGI for films seems to get thinner all the time. Whether the delivery platforms end up as VR, AR, or just big computer monitors and smart TV’s I can’t say. But there are generations of kids growing up online, and multiplayer gaming is a huge part of that. The pandemic especially drove everyone to find fellowship through their internet connection, and I don’t think that’s ever going away. What excites me is personalization, and the ability for everyone to express themselves individually online. The Metaverse is a huge buzzword, and a lot of money and energy is being thrown in that direction. But I hope that no company ends up “owning” the metaverse – that instead it becomes a commons where businesses and individuals can each exist and carve out their territories,  just like the way the World Wide Web works now.

And finally, do you have any takeaways or insight from your 35 years of experience that you could share with our followers?

When I lecture at colleges to students who are at the beginning of their journey, I say the following. Please look at the student to your right, and the student to your left. Five years from now, one of you will be working in some aspect of the audio industry, and the other won’t. And the one that is an audio professional will be the person whose passion and energy for the craft drove them to keep at it until they succeeded. After all these decades, I still have as much love for music and recording as I did when I was 18 – if not more. Do what you love, and love what you do!

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