How did you first become interested in sound design? My dad is a musician and a jazz aficionado, so I was constantly exposed to music and the importance of sound. I started as a musician and later got into songwriting and music production, which leant itself to sound design. After playing in bands, DJ-ing and producing for several years, I came to a school in San Francisco that opened my eyes to other avenues. I realized you can be extremely creative by tying visuals to sound or music. I loved stripping out sound from film clips and replacing them with custom scores and sound effect beds. This made me realize how much the sonic environment affects the way people read into a story. If you haven’t before, watch five minutes of a film without music or sound design, and you’ll notice how much emotion is lost. Sound is a massive part of the whole when creating an emotion, for everything from film to products to brands.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken in your career? I think the biggest risk I’ve taken was getting into the music and sound industry to begin with. The odds of success in these fields are pretty low, but I’m a true believer that if you really want something and hustle, you can get it. Also, I’ve approached it from a more entrepreneurial direction, which I feel was also a risk, but has paid off. They say with great risk comes great reward, and I feel like I’ve really been lucky in carving out my path.
What are some stellar examples of sonic branding that you’ve heard recently? I think some brands in the automotive industry are doing some great work and being very thorough. Immediately Audi comes to mind. The brand has taken a holistic approach and focuses on everything from the music in ads to the user interface and functional sounds of its cars, all of which reflect the premium brand.
At CA, we’ve written about how many companies aren’t taking full advantage of sound design. Why haven’t they so far, and why should they start? I think we as a culture are more drawn to visual experiences, and sound often falls to the wayside, but this is starting to change. More and more often, companies get me involved very early in their processes to research and align visual and sound objectives. This is super exciting and smart because visuals, sound and functionality all have to work together and play off of one another to create an impactful experience.
What’s your sonic equivalent of a mood board? Research is a massive part of our process. We work on so many types of projects that call for different personas, moods or feelings, and it’s extremely important to understand that nuance to meet the client’s needs. My priority is to deeply understand genre, style, timbre and tone. Then I educate myself on the specific project.
For products or brands, we immediately gather creative briefs and dig into what competitors are doing in the landscape, which shapes our direction. This process is a bit more analytical. For film or installations, we work closely with the artist to better understand the story and its goals. We inject color, emotion and support the story. It sounds ridiculous, but after doing this for so many years, I’ve almost got a sixth sense that I feel translates words into sound. Hearing people talk about what they want, I begin to hear and visualize the experience, which is pretty cool.
What was your process for coming up with a sonic environment for Unnumbered Sparks, the interactive installation at the 2014 TED Conference in Vancouver? The Unnumbered Sparks collaboration was one of my favorite projects we’ve ever worked on. We worked closely with Google Creative Lab on the interactive part of the environmental sculpture by Janet Echelman and Aaron Koblin. The goal for us was to create an immersive audio experience that would support the grandeur of the sculpture itself as well as reinforce the interactive component with layers of color and melody when more people began to interact with the installation. As they used their smartphones and tablets, they could paint a streak across the sculpture, which was suspended between buildings like a blanket. We played off wind, water and the otherworldly because these concepts were inherent in the sculpture and its location—a stretch of sky. We crafted the tone and timbre based on this framework and broke the audio down into three components:
1. The Sound Bed: For the sound bed, we created a seamless loop that sounded like it was forever changing ever so subtly, almost shimmering in the wind. The sound bed looped constantly throughout the experience.
2. Swells and Textures: The swells and textures were all composed in the same key to match the sound bed. When more people interacted with the sculpture, they layered on top of one another to create crescendos, and the sounds became extremely colorful.
3. User Interaction Pings: When a user interacted with the sculpture, the sound coming out of his phone was a unique pitch. When played alongside others, they harmonized and created rushes of melody.
Are you creatively satisfied? I feel very creatively satisfied. We’re working on a very diverse portfolio of projects, from products and apps with heavy brand focus to installations and musical scores that have more of a creative lean. It’s important to exercise different parts of the brain. I find that thinking analytically for business-focused projects opens me up to be more creative when I need to be.
How should an aspiring sound designer get started in the industry? I think it’s important to get your hands dirty and experience different aspects of the space. My path took many turns, and I learned so much at every turn that really pushed me to where I am today. For example, these days, I’m more focused on the business and creative side of projects, but I also work with acoustic engineers who concentrate on the scientific side of acoustics. From past experience in the industry, I am able to speak their language and work with them to find creative solutions.