Audeze speaks to sound designer and composer Raison Varner

March 11, 2023


Raison Varner is a sound designer and composer working in the video game industry since 2006. Currently the audio director for Obsidan Entertainment’s “Avowed,” some of the other titles Raison has been involved releasing include: Borderlands 3, Battleborn, Aliens: Colonial Marines, Brothers in Arms, Red Faction: Guerrilla and Saints Row 2. After a 12 year stint at Gearbox Software, Raison joined Obsidian Entertainment in 2020 as the audio director for “Avowed.”

Raison Varner in the studio with his Audeze LCD-X headset
"In the past, I usually minimized my time on headphones because I find I make better decisions when monitoring on speakers. Interestingly, the Audeze LCD-X are some of the first headphones that have made me start to reach for the headphones as the source of truth instead."  - Raison Varner
Here's our chat with Raison:
Can you pick out any highlights from your work that you're particularly proud of?

The music direction as well as the score that I contributed to Borderlands 3 and its DLC Bounty of Blood is some of the most complex interactive music and system development I’ve had the pleasure to work with in my career. Both the style of the music for Borderlands 3 and the wonderful talent I got to collaborate with was a real pleasure and labor of love getting that behemoth of a 6+ hour score released.

How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on these days?

These days I fulfill the role of a project audio director managing a team of sound designers as well as managing budgets, scheduling, system design, outsourcing and other needs as they crop up. While there is a lot of admin related work I also make sure to carve out plenty of space to continue to provide sound design and other content. At the end of my time with Gearbox Software I had been specializing into a music-centric role but I’ve found that the deeper you specialize into music, the less you interact with the larger team and that large team collaboration was the driving motivation for me to enter game development instead of film or TV.

How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?

There was a piano in this Montessori school playroom that I found myself gravitating towards during elementary school years. I banged out a few key signatures not understanding what I was discovering at the time and that then led to lessons and picking up additional instruments like guitar, bass guitar and viola during middle and high school years.

I was a terrible student when it came to practicing as hitting wrong notes would send me off writing new material. I’d show up to my lessons and say things like “sorry, no, I didn’t practice. But I did write this thing!” My teachers didn’t quite know what to do with me at times. That led to orchestral composition which led to sound design and in my early career I started discovering EDM production and working to develop my chops as a producer. I still consider myself a generalist as I have also served as a writer and voice actor in Borderlands titles amidst several other intense interests that game development opens outlets to. It would be unlikely to have as broad of a set of opportunities to satisfy things like production policy, group psychology and color grading in film/TV.

Can you name any factors that influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?

I grew up both a giant gaming nerd and a lover of sports and outdoor exploration. The early Final Fantasy series soundtracks by Nobuo Uematsu really opened my eyes and inspired me to write music for games. The day I ordered a bootleg orchestral album of Final Fantasy VI from Japan, my jaw dropped at how the music was transformed out of its rudimentary MIDI arrangement into a sweeping orchestral and romantic soundtrack. That sold me on the industry for life. Considering it is also difficult for me to maintain any significant seriousness for long periods of time and my enjoyment of developing and thinking in systems, I felt games were a natural fit.

Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?

One of the biggest difficulties I encountered early in my career was the lack of recording facilities, high quality gear, microphones and the wealth of experience and mentorship that usually comes with those kinds of facilities. It’s amazing how de-centralized our world has become since those times and how freely this information is available, but the steady growth of talent that came up during similar early days has been amazing to watch develop over the last 20 years. I often found myself struggling how to approach my development without mentors to help guide me. Which tools were the right tools to use and why? I bought monitors before I invested in treatment, I skimped money on mics because I was a bit poor, I used libraries over live players for convenience… These are all things I would push a younger version of myself to reconsider. Especially taking on more sacrifices or hustling a little harder with jobs to afford better mics. Having the right tools is so critical to cutting down the time it takes for you to achieve new understandings and I let my negative self-talk tell me it was just me that had to get better. After all, I thought the adage “a poor artist blames their tools” was accurate to our field. While there’s an element of truth to it, there’s also a ceiling to what you can achieve without investing in quality tools.

Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?

Most of my work is entirely in-the-box. However, the Sanken CO100K has become a favored personal mic. My Zoom F6 has been a new favorite as well. The amount of features and solid design in such a small package is impressive.

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?

Reach out to game sound designers! We are a very approachable crowd, and we remember the generosity of veterans who gave us their time and minds when they had no real personal advantage to do so. I hope this approachability in our industry never changes. Outside of that, having fewer high-quality tools is far more important than having a multitude of compromised tools that offer you greater flexibility. Doing audio for video games is as much about software principles like memory management, data organization, scope mitigation and a host of other collisions between our creative appetites and vision and the constraints of software and hardware. In a cinematic cutscene, we can fully embrace our creativity and design for the pure joy of design but most work in video games is more like you’re designing the system that will score the cutscene for you. So how do you make a system that can even come close? If the system problem excites you more than the cutscene problem, you may want to look at game audio. If both are equally exciting? You almost certainly want to look at games. That said, have faith in yourself and your own path. Everyone’s story is different, and you’ll find my story is one that others in our field may not relate to. Find that balance between avoiding others' mistakes but also have faith in charting your own path when it feels aligned with your goals and desires. Do that with hunger and resolve and you will likely realize your definition of success.

How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?

In the past, I usually minimized my time on headphones because I find I make better decisions when monitoring on speakers. Interestingly, the Audeze LCD-X are some of the first headphones that have made me start to reach for the headphones as the source of truth instead. As our industry adopts spatial formats like Dolby Atmos, it has been nudging me into headphones more and more each year. I suspect a large part of my resistance to headphones in the past was also due to inexperience and feeling like I was adding another confounding variable to developing my ears and instincts. Since I had not worked in a real room with high quality monitors, I lacked the modeling and comparisons to be able to parse the headphone mix from the speakers from the inevitable car test. Nowadays we're doing a large portion of our monitoring and mixing on Audeze LCD-X headphones for Dolby Atmos. As the format gains in adoption rates, I suspect we will all be splitting our time more evenly between speakers and headphones since our user base will have much easier access to headphones than discreet 7.1.4 speaker setups.

Do you have any additional comments or stories you want to share?

For lovers of the Borderlands series, something they may not know is that I was originally the writer for Claptrap and the character Brick. Borderlands 1 was a scrappy indie labor of love and we had a lot of contributors to the dialog/writing on that game. Halfway through BL1, I transitioned those duties to then writer that came on to the project fulltime (Mikey Neumann) and Mikey continued to shape Claptrap’s character into a maniacal actor. I wrote Brick in the studio live with the actor after a script error was made. But by working with all the voice actors and encouraging them to bring their own vibe and takes to the characters, we made a lot of memorable performances and the actors had some of their most enjoyable voice sessions in years. Win–Win! Claptrap was a character where we were given the guidance that he should be a mix between the “movie phone guy” and the cab driver from Total Recall packaged into a friendly and helpful little robot. I worked on the character and the voice with David Eddings who was our VP of Business Development at the time. I came up with a suitably annoying but distinct vocal processing chain and thus! Claptrap was born. I apologize for nothing but I’m also terribly sorry to the world.

Here's a series of videos we made with Raison at the Obsidian Studio