MFA 2004, Theatre, Patti and Rusty Rueff School of Visual and Performing Arts
Lead Sound Designer, Sledge Hammer Games, Foster City, CA
Video games have become so realistic that they’re almost an exercise in virtual reality these days. Visuals can make you feel as if you are walking or flying through a landscape, but sound is equally essential to the effect. A plane swoops in, an explosion goes off nearby, and both are clues to what a player’s next move should be. David Swenson’s job is to make those sounds as realistic and vivid as
Currently working on Call of Duty as the lead sound designer at Sledgehammer Games (Activision), Swenson is no stranger to recording sound for unique projects. While working on his MFA at Purdue, he served as an audio assistant for the alpine events of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games. Even then, he was trying to help you hear the sounds of the snow crunching, and the speed and the effort of the skiers.
Now he’s putting those skills to work again for Activision. “The best part of my job is recording the realistic sounds that I later manipulate and put in the games. Working on a military game gives me the opportunity to record authentic military weapons and vehicles,” he explains. “Probably my top ‘wow’ moment happened while I was recording the sounds of fighter jets with the famous Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy’s Flight Demonstration Squadron. They invited me to attend one of their practices at their home base in Pensacola, Florida. I remember standing out on the runway when one of the blue and yellow F-18s dropped to only a few feet above the ground and raced by, just in front of us, going almost Mach 1. Because the jet was traveling just under the speed of sound, we couldn’t hear it coming until it rocketed past us with an explosive sound. The pilots affectionately call this the “sneak pass” because they can sneak up on unsuspecting people on the ground. Being so close to a fighter jet flying that fast was incredible!”
There were two individuals at Purdue who had a significant impact on my career and life. The first was my major professor, Rick Thomas. In addition to being a brilliant teacher, Rick was an incredible mentor. When I arrived at Purdue, I knew I wanted to be a sound designer, but I didn’t know how that translated into a career. I struggled with this uncertainty for my first two years in the program. I still remember the day I was working on a project with Rick in his home studio and he suggested for the first time that I should consider going into the video game industry. It was the answer I had been looking for and it changed the course of my life.
The second person was my assistantship supervisor, Robin Shanks. I have never had, and likely never will have, a more wonderful and caring boss. Robin was like a father to me while I was at Purdue and he helped me get through the three most challenging years of my education.
For my Purdue assistantship, I worked as a sound engineer at the Elliot Hall of Music. Some of my favorite memories at Purdue were doing sound for the many concerts and events on campus. It was definitely an adrenalin rush to be standing backstage with Dave Matthews just before he walked out to greet 6,000 screaming fans, or to be running the giant mixing console, surrounded by thousands of cheering students, at the annual Slayter Slammer.
I stay in contact with my professor Rick Thomas, and I am always amazed at how the sound program continually evolves and stays on the leading edge of the entertainment industry. Every time I talk to Rick he tells me about some new project he is concocting with his students. Status quo is a phrase they have obviously never heard of. This mentality motivates me to push the boundaries in my own career.
In life? Without hesitation I would say my family. I have an incredible wife and three amazing kids. They are unbelievably supportive and the reason why I do anything. In my career? I would probably say winning a BAFTA [British Academy of Film and Television Arts] for use of audio on the game Dead Space. I remember being absolutely thrilled to be nominated but thinking that I didn’t have a prayer of actually winning. Instead of attending the awards ceremony in London (for what was to be my inevitable loss) I opted to attend a previously planned trip to Hawaii with my family and parents. I remember sitting on a beach, next to my mom, watching the results of the awards show pop up on my phone. After a brief moment of shock, I looked up from my phone and said, “Mom, I just won a BAFTA!”
Person I Admire
I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormons. One of the leaders of our church is Jeffery R. Holland. His, faith, testimony, and conviction are truly inspiring. If I could be like anyone on this earth, I would want to be like him.
Idea of Perfect Happiness
Perfect happiness for me is sitting on a beach next to my wife, watching our three kids run around and play in the water, and listening to the sounds of the waves rolling in. Oh, and knowing that I have my favorite sound recorder in my pocket in case I hear anything cool and want to jump up and record it.
What I’m Reading
I am a sucker for fiction. I love using the words of the author to create magnificent worlds in my mind. That’s how I exercise my creative muscles. Right now I am enjoying the Ender’s Game series, by Orson Scott Card, for the fifth time through (this time reading it with my two sons). In recent years, I have loved the Song of Ice and Fire novels (including Game of Thrones) and devour each book as soon as it comes out.
Profession I’d Like to Try
I have always wanted to be a pilot. I am lucky that my job allows me to be around so many amazing machines of flight. Every time I am standing on the ground, pointing my microphone at a jet or helicopter, I always think about how I would love to be the guy in the pilot’s seat.