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The Composer / Sound Designer Hybrid: A Unique Breed

Three unconstrained manipulators of sound explain what it means to straddle the audio industry’s traditional divide

The Composer / Sound Designer Hybrid: A Unique Breed

The advertising industry has a history of putting people in boxes according to the very specific roles they perform in the process of developing campaigns, but people don’t always work like that. Some art directors also like writing, some producers like to dabble in set design and a lot of sound designers love making music too.

The roles of sound designer and composer overlap and feed into each other’s disciplines, so maybe it makes sense that more people doing top-class work in the industry are starting to position themselves as hybrids. After all, it’s all organising sounds.

Intrigued about how these two roles influence one another when combined in one person, LBB’s Alex Reeves got to know three people who blur the lines between them.


Mike Bamford

String and Tins

LBB> Where did your interest in music and sound come from?

Mike> My parents bought me a small suitcase record player for my second birthday. Not one of those toy Fisher Price ones - a REAL record player - and I became a magnet for records from uncles, aunties and family friends. I was obsessed with collecting as much music as possible and progressed to taping music off the radio on my dad's Hitachi deck.

 
LBB> Which of the two did you come to first - composing or sound design?

Mike> I played piano from an early age and after a couple of years of pleading, got my first synthesizer aged eight. Listening to radio in the 1980s I was particularly fascinated by the way that lasers and whoosh noises were overlaid on station jingles to make them sound more exciting. Another sound design influence was Kenny Everett's radio drama Captain Kremmen. He did all the voices, sound effects and mix himself. It was fairly lo-fi but his inventiveness made it really immersive. The two disciplines of music and sound started to merge further when I heard The Art of Noise's debut album ‘Who's Afraid of the Art of Noise’ in 1984. They were early pioneers of sampling and combined the beautiful melodies of Anne Dudley with cut up car engines, dustbins and ping-pong ball rhythms. A light bulb went on in my brain.
 
LBB> And then how did you get into the other side of things?

Mike> At the same time home computers like the Commodore 64 and Atari 2600 were pushing the boundaries of what their tiny processors could do in terms of in-game SFX and music. The programmers were often writing the music as well. The melodies were played on pretty raspy monophonic SID chips and filtered white noise was used for the drums, further blurring the distinction between music and sound.
 
LBB> How do you feel about the way the ad industry views and interacts with the music and sound components? How does it differ?

Mike> We're lucky to work with clients at String and Tins, who let us work up the music and sound design at the same time. Each layer informs the other and it's best to start this process early in the project, testing out ideas ahead of the shoot. When music and sound design are considered as separate parts, to be bolted together in a final mix, they can fight each other and you have a hard time getting the balance right. We get the best results when we're given experimentation time, allowing us to choose a creative path earlier in the process and then focus on crafting when the edit arrives, rather than making multiple versions and options.
 
LBB> How does your composing experience influence the way you sound design? And vice-versa, how does your sound design experience affect the way you compose?

Mike> When clocks start to tick in time, or a car engine roars in the key of A, you melt the boundaries between descriptive sound and music. Sound design on it's own can sometimes be fairly cold but when you add a drone, a few notes of melody or rhythm, you are able to convey a greater emotional depth. I always take care to tune tonal sound effects to be in key with the music track… or make them purposefully dissonant if that's what's needed. Rhythms made from clanking trains infer pace and urgency, using a prepared piano adds quirkiness. If you listen to Bjork’s 2017 album ‘Utopia’, there's an almost constant bed of magical flora and fauna burbling away in the background, which takes you deeper into her magical world.

LBB> Which projects do you feel you've best been allowed to flex both skillsets on? How did that work?

Mike> I love the Formula 1 promos we're working on at the moment. Rhythmically cut and tuned SFX, on top of a banging N.A.S.A. track, for which we have the stems for. These are so much fun!


I really enjoyed the series of films we made with director Chris Cairns for Sunoco via Allen and Gerritsen. We wrote the tracks ahead of the shoot to inform the pre-vis, and then recorded real car sounds on set to take the soundtrack to the next level.

LBB> Finally, do more sound designers want to be composers or do more composers envy sound designers?

Mike> There are way more accomplished musicians in the world than sound designers and unless you're Matthew Herbet, there's limited performance opportunities for sound designers.... So I guess sound designers would probably like to get out and record in the real world more and composers would like more time alone to craft their music. Sitting in between these disciplines is a pretty rewarding place to be.


Will Ward

19 Sound

LBB> Where did your interest in music and sound come from?
 
Will> It was a combination of things really. I grew up in Cambridge where there was a thriving drum and bass scene. Me and my friends used to collect tape packs of the raves and listen to them religiously. We were obsessed with DJs like Mampi Swift, Andy C, Brockie and Ray Keith. 

When I was 14 I managed to buy my first pair of decks (belt drive) and I’d try and emulate the mixes I was hearing on the tape packs. It took a while to master, but eventually I got the hang of it. It was listening to Mampi Swift mixes in particular that taught me how to mix. He was the master of the ‘double drop’; a technique of mixing two tracks together so that the main drop of each track would happen at the same time, creating one mighty ruckus!  

My older sister was also quite influential back then. She was tapped into things a few years ahead of me, so I would hear what she was listening to and I’d lap it up. I remember her playing the Roni Size album ‘New Forms’ and being completely blown away.

LBB> Which of the two did you come to first - composing or sound design?

Will> Composing came first. Soon after I got my decks and was learning how to mix, I started dabbling with programs like Reason. Some friends had the software and gave it to me. I’d play around with basic compositions, drum loops, bass lines, etc. Basically trying to recreate the drum and bass that we were obsessed with on the tape packs. 

LBB> And then how did you get into the other side of things?

Will> Steve Goodman (AKA Kode9), was a lecturer at my uni, specialising in sound design. He ran a module that focused on sound as a compositional tool and he would also set us tasks that were more traditionally sound design focused. One in particular was to create the soundscape for a scene from Ghost in a Shell - the 1995 anime classic by Mamoru Oshii. This was a real eye opener and my first taste of sound design as opposed to composition. It really hadn’t crossed my mind until this point, but I was fascinated instantly. It seemed to open up a whole world of opportunity both compositionally and creatively. It was during this time that I was also learning about Musique Concrete, Pierre Chauffeure and John Cage, so things were really opening up in terms of sound design and the compositional possibilities involved. 

After graduating I worked as a runner at Lipsync Post where I was able to learn the ropes first hand. From this point on I haven’t looked back.

LBB> How do you feel about the way the ad industry views and interacts with the music and sound components? How does it differ?

Will> I think generally speaking the ad industry considers the two sides as very different things. Bespoke composition is treated as a far more valuable commodity than bespoke sound design. This is understandable on some projects, but often the merging of the two can be misunderstood and ultimately underused. 

The most interesting/satisfying projects we work on tend to involve both sides of the coin. When the sound design and music are indistinguishable and work together, it more often that not will produce a much richer viewer experience. Its always a consideration when we start on a new project, so we always encourage it where possible. Our passion for music, sound and composition lends itself to exploring these spaces in between. 

However, I understand that it’s not always entirely necessary and briefs can vary. Ultimately every job has a completely different set of requirements, where the focus shifts between composition and sound design. Sometimes the two merge and we thrive on this, but you have to take every job as it comes.  

LBB> How does your composing experience influence the way you sound design?

Will> For me, writing music is the same as creating sound design. They’re both compositional processes for me. The studio has always been my instrument, so all my skills have come from working in various DAWs [digital audio workstations] over the years. Reason then Logic and now Pro Tools and Ableton. It’s simply a case of building sounds in layers and blocks. Composing the right amount of texture and colour to fill a space in a considered way. Choosing the right amount of compression, reverb, EQ and modulation to enhance the sound. These are techniques used on both sides of the spectrum. 

LBB> And vice-versa, how does your sound design experience affect the way you compose?

Will> Same as above. But I would say the longer I’ve worked specifically as a sound designer the more technical I’ve become as a composer. My understanding of space and where to place things has really helped my overall compositional process and vice versa. 

LBB> Which projects do you feel you've best been allowed to flex both skillsets on? How did that work?

Will> We’ve just finished a job where the client specifically requested, in the pitch process, that we fuse the sound design and music together. The premise was to use the sounds of cars and traffic in the music. The film is for a scooter company based in the US and it features a guy helping out eco-friendly scooter riders in a busy, traffic congested city. We started by writing the main track using traditional instruments and creating the sound design in the traditional tracklay way. Once the two elements were down we began creating instruments out of the car horns, tyre squeaks and various other sound design elements. The car horn was a perfect sound to be used in this instance. We wrote an arpeggio line by playing one of the car horn sounds through a sampler. This sat perfectly over the track and was a direct link to the sound design layer of the film. This same technique was used throughout the film. We would establish a ‘sound design’ element then gradually blend this into the ‘musical’ track using simple arrangement and mixing techniques. Throughout the film the musical track and sound design slowly merge into one overall soundscape.

We’ve also just finished a series of films for adidas and Manchester United that followed a very similar set of principles. These films actually required an even more integrated approach, to the point where music and sound design are almost indistinguishable. These were really fun projects to be involved in that gave us real creative freedom. 


LBB> Finally, do more sound designers want to be composers or do more composers envy sound designers?

Will> I can only speak for myself, but exploring the relationship between the two is something that will always fascinate me, so being envious of one or the other will never be a problem. I think to be one you already are the other. Music is basically organised sound (according to Leigh Landy et al). 


Jon Clarke

Factory / SIREN

LBB> Where did your interest in music and sound come from? 

Jon> I have an older sister who took violin lessons at school. Apparently I decided it was unfair that she was doing something I couldn't and made my parents enrol me in lessons too! As a result, I started playing violin from the age of six and piano not long after that. I loved music classes in school and played in the county youth orchestras during my teenage years, which then led me to studying music and composition at university. While studying at university, I got to do some basic sound engineering in the studio they had on campus; they had some old AKAI S-Series samplers and some vintage synths which I really enjoyed playing around on to make electronic / computer based music. I had one module called 'Electro - Acoustic Composition' and that was where I really got introduced to music technology and sound engineering. 

LBB> Which of the two did you come to first - composing or sound design?

Jon> Despite my interest in sound coming from my musical background, becoming a sound designer is actually what opened the door to the composition and music scoring opportunities that I've had. After joining Factory as a transfer engineer in 2009, I quickly became one of their sound designers. Learning to work in a fast-paced environment on advertising-based projects really helped me hone my technical skills and developed my understanding of working to picture. I was lucky enough to work on a few high-profile projects which saw my work recognised by the many sound and advertising awards shows. These opportunities meant that I had built a solid reputation as a sound designer with my clients and peers well before I had scored anything.

LBB> And then how did you get into the other side of things? 

Jon> In 2011, Factory opened a music production and bespoke composition company called SIREN. Through them, I was now afforded the opportunity to create music for a variety of advertising, TV and film projects. These projects were key in allowing me to develop my compositional skills and further understand the working practices needed to be a composer in the commercial world. It was an ideal way for me to develop my music, whilst also creating sound design at the same time. My passion for film and scoring meant I've always had an ambition to work on longer-form projects and this saw me begin to work on scores for various short films. Through sound designing at Factory, I was constantly meeting directors and production companies who were interested in my music compositions and began to offer me opportunities to work on a range of exciting music and sound design based projects. 

LBB> How do you feel about the way the ad industry views and interacts with the music and sound components? How does it differ?

Jon> Every project is different and requires a different approach. In terms of music in the ad industry, it's a very tough world out there. As a Sound Designer, I get to see both sides of the business and in particular, how a composed track is judged by clients. Often, there can be a number of demos which have all been created to a similar brief ready to be reviewed in session. This can be a brutal process because music is so subjective and tracks can be easily discarded without too much thought. One person in the room may love it and one may hate it, but they all expect every demo to sound as finished and as perfect as possible. Sound design is a little less tricky to deal with as our role is rooted in story-telling or recreating real sounds for the film with Foley and bespoke sound effects. You aren't normally pitching for a sound design job. Instead, you've been hired for a specific reason which I think makes for a slightly more rational approach in its judgement, rather than emotional. 

LBB> How does your sound design experience affect the way you compose?

Jon> I'm very used to manipulating SFX with plugins and effects to make them sound how I need them to for the film or project I'm working on. I take this approach into my music, often using more traditional elements like the violin but processing and warping them into something entirely different. I also like to create sound palettes of tones or melodic ideas before we start working to picture. 

LBB> And vice-versa, how does your composing experience influence the way you sound design?

Jon> It's tricky to say, as I think it may be more of a subconscious thing. One thing I do continually notice is that when I'm creating sound design for a film, the music always affects the sounds I choose. Once the music is there, whether it’s something I’ve written or music from someone else, it massively impacts the way I approach the sound design. I often find I work rhythmically to ensure the sound design works in tandem with the music. Or, if there are tonal elements to the sound design, I will pitch them in to work with the music and make the piece less discordant. Obviously, it depends on the brief and each job requires a different approach, but I don't think I’d consider that process as much if I didn’t have a musical ear. 

LBB> Which projects do you feel you've best been allowed to flex both skillsets on? How did that work? 

Jon> I recently worked on Aoife McArdle's debut feature film 'Kissing Candice' which premiered at TIFF 2017 and Berlinale 2018. This saw me create and compose an original score for the film, whilst also working alongside Factory's Anthony Moore to create the sound design for the project. It was great to get the opportunity to create a soundtrack where we could fuse the sound design and music together to make something that feels unique and has a real impact on it's audience.

The process for the film was very organic and I started by creating a tonal sound palette to find a vibe that began to resonate with Anthony and myself. This involved me locking myself away in a room for a few days and resulted in the creation of lots of tonal atmospheres and melodic themes using violins, synthesizers and organic sounds that were then mangled through different effects chains. Anthony then took these sounds and musical ideas and started arranging and editing them across the film. 

Once we'd established the sound and aesthetic for the music, it then gave me the basis to move forward and write for the bigger, more musically-led sections of the film. This allowed me to write a lot of subtle thematic developments into the score that would cleverly integrate with the sound design layers. 


Another project that saw me combine my skills as a composer and a sound designer was 'PINK or BLUE' which was written and performed by Hollie McNish and directed by Jake Dypka. This was a unique spoken word piece that needed the score and sound design to work seamlessly together. In this scenario, it was important to create a track that would lead the audience through the film without overpowering or distracting from the delivery of Hollie's powerful prose. I approached this by creating a harmonic and rhythmic chord structure as a base. From here, I then went back through the film to add sound design elements whilst also building in additional instrumentation and intensity to match the emotion of each stanza and compliment the visuals on screen. 


LBB> Finally, do more sound designers want to be composers or do more composers envy sound designers? 

Jon> Haha, I don't know! I think there are always sound designers who will consider their sound design to be music and composers who think their music is also sound design. I love being able to do both and blurring the lines between the two disciplines wherever possible. Sound and music always need to work together and when you embrace this idea, you can really create some original and interesting work.
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