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Discovering the Wonderful World of Sound Design Through Music


How musicians, Luke Isom, Sean Mahoney, Chris Southwell and Stuart Allen-Hynd found a love for sound design at Jungle Studios

Discovering the Wonderful World of Sound Design Through Music

Jungle Studios sound designers, Luke Isom, Sean Mahoney, Chris Southwell and Stuart (Stuey) Allen-Hynd all began their love for audio through music. Finding the two to be intrinsically linked, in this interview, the four musical talents chart their career history and why they believe that one discipline can’t be fully mastered without the other.

LBB> Music and sound are closely related. But which did you first get drawn to?

Luke> They are indeed closely related, sound is music and music is sound. However, I started off with music. I feel most people do as sound design isn’t presented to young children in the same way music is. So, I can imagine most sound engineer’s first steps into audio will be through music. 

I had the classic primary school induction into the wild world of playing the recorder. Then I just kept picking up instrument after instrument. I was exceptionally lucky and the county that I went to school in (West Sussex) had an incredible music programme for young people and provided free instrument lessons for any interested children as well as help in loaning instruments to children that couldn’t afford their own. 

Thanks to this, I ended up picking around 10ish instruments (drums, piano, guitar, bass, trumpet, euphonium, bari horn, EEb tuba, BBb tuba, sousaphone and the tuned and untuned percussions section).

They also ran a Saturday music school composed of various ensembles for different skill levels so I got to play as part of a larger group on a regular basis as well as playing the drums in several “rock” bands during my teen years.

Sean> For me it was also music. It wasn't until my later years that I discovered sound design. To be honest I didn't have a clue what sound design was when I was a kid. I was just obsessed with music, I started with the trumpet in my primary school orchestra which was quickly forgotten about when my mum bought me an electric guitar (after I constantly bothered her for one). I started a band with a school friend and we started writing and recording music in our bedrooms.

Chris> Music was my first passion. I grew up smack bang in the middle of the 90’s Manchester indie scene. I formed a band and performed original music. My musical journey started there.

Stuey> I actually started making beats (and still do) and then discovered the wonderful world of sound design - building emotions and feelings through that. Both are connected and the skills are transferable. Even a music edit in a commercial draws upon similar beat making skills like knowing where a bar ends or where you might add a drum fill.

LBB> From there how did you transition into the other discipline? 

Luke> When I went to college I started learning about music technology. The more I learned to compose and produce music, the more I experimented with and included sound design elements into my pieces. It would start off with adding some waves or cicadas as a layer of texture and then got more adventurous creating percussion out of non-percussive things. 

Also, I’ve mentioned before that my father used to be a sound engineer back in the 70s / 80s and early 90s. The more that I progressed with music technology, the more my dad started explaining about what he used to do which really spurred my interest in sound design. 

Sean> It wasn't until I went to university and did a module on sound for moving image where I really discovered and fell in love with sound design. We were asked to re-sound design and compose some music for a scene from a film. I enjoyed it so much I decided to do sound design for my final major project where I collaborated with some film students on a couple of short films. I loved the collaboration with sound for picture and knew this is what I wanted to do for a living. 

Chris> The love of sound continued into college and university. Then, I was lucky enough to get a work placement at Jungle and I was instantly drawn to the sound design life. I remember sitting in on audio sessions and thinking, “I want a bit of this!”

Stuey> I did work experience when I was at school and really learnt a lot about sound design, and VO recording. I loved the studio environment and the process so much that I really could see myself working in audio post production full-time.

LBB> All four of you are musicians as well as sound experts. How do your two skills intertwine and what are the benefits of this for your clients?

Luke> As I said up the top, sound is music and music is sound. If it’s well thought out from the beginning then they can come together into one cohesive sound scape. If the music and sound design are curated from scratch (especially if they’re done by the same person), then they will really mesh well. It allows us to consider little moments and hit points that most likely wouldn’t be possible by just slapping a random bit of music on and adding the sound effects. 

Crafting both together can really emphasise the tone of the piece. I recently worked on a short film shot by the coast on an extremely windy cliff. The director really wanted the wind to be an overbearing feature to add pressure and intensity to the scene. So, I actually ended up blending loads of really light and airy strings playing high pitched drones with airy choral whispers and extended vocal techniques, and of course, the sound effects of heavy wind. Using the airy musical textures and of course, the airiness of the wind itself made the awesome texture where you can’t quite tell what’s what half the time, whether it’s sound or music. 

Sean> I definitely use my musical ear in pretty much every session I work on. I feel like more and more there are briefs that come through where the lines between sound design and music are blurred. But even when you’re not necessarily working with music I feel as though my music knowledge comes in useful. For instance, when I'm directing a VO with pitch and timings or even using rhythm to place SFXs.

Chris> I believe having both disciplines helps create rhythm and tone within a project. You’re more aware of timing, which can really help with impact and narrative within a commercial. It also helps with any SFX clashes against a music track. These elements really need to sit side by side together.

Stuey> Most projects normally involve a music edit like taking a three min track and making it 30 seconds. It will probably need to include an intro, chorus and an outro, or musical elements that help create a feeling. Hearing tonal sounds that might contain a music note (for example a fog horn) and matching it to the key of the track so it doesn’t sound out of place. These skills are all musical and because of my music background, I feel I can contribute to the project and help those sonic ideas come to life.

LBB> Do you feel that not having one of these skills would influence your ability in the other?

Luke> To be honest… I can’t even imagine not having music in me as I started so young haha. I honestly reckon though, if I hadn't had music, then I wouldn’t be a sound engineer now. So I guess yes, that would greatly affect my ability!

But hypothetically, if I was a sound designer but hadn’t ever studied music, I feel like it would be a lot more challenging for me. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am now, my basic understanding of mixing and how audio works would be years behind.

Alternatively, if I was a full-time musician and didn’t do sound design, I reckon my music would be stale as f***. Since becoming a sound designer, I feel my music has improved and I’ve taken bigger leaps in trying out different styles and genres. And mostly, the quality of mixing in my music has greatly improved. 

Sean> I can only speak for myself, as I know some amazing sound designers who don't have a background in music, but for me personally, having a musical ear has really helped when working on sound design. Music and sound are so intertwined, having an understanding in the basics of music has been such a useful tool for me when working with sound. I feel when I'm improving my skills in sound design my music gets better and vice versa.

Chris> I’m not sure I personally would be as creative in sound design if I didn’t have the understanding of music. This helps me as an individual.

Stuey> Both skills definitely come hand in hand. Before I started working in the industry, I didn’t know sound design and audio post were a thing. I just thought everything sounded how it did because it was recorded that way… Not realising there is a lot of curation and thought that goes into it. Sound is only really noticed when the job isn’t executed well or it's out of sync, as it pulls you out of the ‘illusion of a film.’

LBB> Lots of young people don’t realise that the sound design world exists but their skills are very transferable. What would you say to young aspiring musicians? 

Luke> For any musician, experimenting with sound design can be incredibly rewarding and pushes you out of your comfort zone. It can lead you down a new creative path, grow the sound and experience of your music, or enhance moments of a live performance. A really simple example: imagine a rock band / metal band playing live. The introduction of an electronic pad that would trigger a bass drop to be used a couple of times sparingly throughout a set to really emphasise those few moments will always go down well with the crowd. 

Also, you’ll find a lot of skills you might already have in music are techniques that can be applied to sound design. In classical music, a lot of extended performance techniques can help create super surreal audio environments and if you work with any kind of synthesis then that can be a super powerful tool to manipulate sounds into whatever you want.

Expanding your horizons and gaining some knowledge of sound design will greatly impact your approach to your compositions- especially if you are an aspiring composer for film, TV or moving image. It helped me learn to be more sparing with my composition and allow certain moments of clarity in the score for the sound design to take over and become the dominant feature, but then music can have its time to shine again. 

So yes, I feel like if you're interested in getting into music then you’ll greatly enjoy getting into sound design. I wish I’d been introduced to it younger.

Sean> I would certainly encourage musicians to explore the world of sound design. I had no clue about my job when I was growing up and wish I did. There are so many transferable skills I use day-to-day that I acquired by making and playing music. 

There's a lot of negative stigma around pursuing music as a career at a young age - there certainly was when I was growing up. I think you should certainly follow through with what you are passionate about. I have so many friends who make money out of making or playing music. There are so many career avenues that people just don't know about. That's why I love doing our Jungle workshops where we go into schools and colleges and can show young kids that their skills are transferable to an actual job. 

Chris> 100%. If you have the creative ability to produce music, you should definitely explore sound design. It’s a very similar process which allows you to create soundscapes etc. You track-lay individual layers involving tone and SFX placement to enhance visual imagery.

Stuey> I would absolutely enlighten young aspiring music producers and sound engineers that the sound design/audio post world exists. It's obviously not for everyone and it's a very collaborative, exciting process that can be really rewarding. Especially when you sit down at the cinema and your project is played!

We have been running some sound design workshops in schools and music tech colleges with the intention to enlighten and inspire young engineers who didn’t know this world exists.

LBB> Tell us about the sound design and music capabilities within Jungle. 

Luke> So all our studios are running the industry standard ProTools Ultimate, plus our superb selection of microphones. We even have a Neumann KU 100 Binaural Head which is awesome for recording environments with. 

Then we have our foley ‘cupboard’ which doesn’t do it justice haha, it’s an entire store room full of s***. From a slinky to a pair of earrings, trash can lid to a surprisingly large quantity of marbles - whatever you need, it’s in there.

We also have a load of virtual music instruments installed on all our machines allowing us to start making music just like that (insert finger snap). I'm also really tempted to bring my drums into the studio so we’d have them to record with if needs be. I just need to work out logistics and where it can live!

Sean> We also recently invested in some Spitfire Audio orchestral libraries which sound absolutely incredible.

Chris> There’s some incredible creative talent here with mixed musical backgrounds. We’ve invested in a new composition studio and bought new music creation tools. Also all composers have home setups, which further enhances Jungle’s musical offering. We additionally have external session musicians should a project require a solo violinist or more.

LBB> What projects have you worked on that combine both music and sound design skills? 

Luke> As I mentioned above, I had this short film with the wind. It’s called Rendezvous At High Tide but it’s not actually finished yet.

I also did a fun little project for Depop. The music for the main TV spot was taken down a slightly different route by the client, but was still fun to work on. However, myself and the director worked on a director's cut that showed mostly his own, but also my original creative vision. 

Sean> I recently worked on a project that was for a hotel company where there were shots of different people sleeping. The client wanted the ad to start with different yawning sounds that came together at the end to create something rhythmical. I created a yawn keyboard by assigning different yawns to each key. It's definitely times like this where you can't believe you do this for a job.

Chris> I was lucky enough to do the trailer music for Netflix’s F1 documentary series ‘Drive To Survive Season 1’. I was given Hans Zimmers ‘Dunkirk’ score as a reference. This was a one day tight turnaround job. I had to research and create a shepard’s tone and compose the track with sound design. A late night shift was required, however I was pretty pleased with the end result. 

Stuey> I worked on a job for Oppo phones, where the music had already been created, however, it wasn’t hitting in the way we wanted when playing it against the film.

Tonally the melody was great, but we wanted to beef it up, so we ended up adding some 808 drums, distortion, and gave it a bit of a re-edit. I guess it's the perfect example of a collaborative process that might only happen in the studio when you hear the music over the visuals. 

The sound design really helped the transitions and gave the project more sonic depth, but without the music, the sound design wouldn’t have carried it alone.

LBB> How do you hope to develop your talent over the next year?

Luke> I definitely want to push the boat out a bit more, find something new that I haven’t tried before. Learn some new recording techniques, something a bit out there. I’ve just bought myself a contact microphone which you have to attach to things to pick up the vibrations resonating through. I want to play around with that and get some fun / weird sounds out of it. 

There’s also this random little idea that I’ve wanted to do ever since uni. There’s a foot tunnel in Greenwich that runs all the way under the Thames and it sounds WILD in there. I always wanted to take my drums down there in the middle of the night and set up microphones all the way down the tunnel and just see what I get out of a recording. 

I think, stuff like that, pointless but fun things that I’ll really enjoy doing with an unknown outcome will see me develop. Diving into the unknown and taking leaps of faith into bigger and better projects. Just to keep learning and stay mentally stimulated.

Sean> Hopefully I'm able to work on bigger and better projects. I’m always trying to push myself and take myself out of my comfort zone. That's the great thing about what we do, there is always room for improvement and so much more to learn.

Chris> I’m always tinkering with music and trying out new software instruments. This naturally gives you a broader composition capability. You never know what brief will turn up.

Stuey> I hope to spend more time song writing with artists and collaborating with other colleagues and music producers. Not only is it hours of fun, but in every session you learn something different. 

It might be the way someone chops up a beat to give the track a different feeling, or a technique to get the best from a singer.

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Jungle Studios, Wed, 22 Feb 2023 15:32:13 GMT