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The Psychology of Sound with Dan Beckwith


From sound design history, to how product and sound fight or work together on the battleground of creativity, Factory Studios’ creative director speaks to LBB’s Zoe Antonov about how sound affects audiences

The Psychology of Sound with Dan Beckwith

“It used to be a mixture of fortune, timing and keenness,” says Dan Beckwith, creative director at Factory Studios when looking back at how things turned out for those wanting to join sound design in the production world. While it’s understood by most that the first rung on the ladder is as a runner, Dan actually started out temping for Cannes Lions, cataloguing awards entries and other administrative-adjacent activities. He took a day off to go down the now retro way of knocking on doors cold turkey. After a few Soho sound houses, Silk Sound was the final one. “They showed me around the studios and told me they’re looking for a runner,” he remembers. “So I had timing, I had fortune, and I was keen.” 

And really, being keen is something one would very much expect from somebody with Dan’s past - a childhood filled with great memories and even greater people, all against the backdrop of amazing music. Listening to mostly rock in the car - where Dan’s father would photocopy the lyrics for him and his siblings to sing along - was only one of the formative experiences that lit the fire in Dan’s heart. Although at the age of six he cried at his first ever concert (Bon Jovi) because it was too loud, it was still enough to make him obsessed with music. This led to university, which led to fleshing out of interests, which eventually led to the idea of pursuing sound design.

“Being a runner back in 2005 was very different to being a runner in 2023,” he adds. In his opinion youngsters back then running on set got a much bigger picture of the post world, having to physically hand deliver tapes to post houses and magneto-optical disks (MODs) to engineers. Regardless, all goes back to keenness, and Dan was keen - so he liked it. And the next rung in a sound designer’s ladder quickly followed - promotion to the transfer bay. “Here I learned all of the technical aspects of ingesting and deliveries, etc.”

More fortune followed when he met Factory’s managing director and head of production at Yakety-Yak’s Christmas party in 2007. Only a couple of months later, Dan moved to Factory, and has been there ever since - now 16 years. “From there, it was nothing but hard work to impress the bosses enough to be given a chance to show I was ready for sessions as a junior sound designer,” he says.

So, in brief, the path goes like so - runner, transfer, junior sound designer, sound designer. The landscape has changed immensely since then, and according to Dan it’s easier for aspiring sound designers to have high end software on their home computers, which has made things quite competitive. “However, when we hire runners, or front of house assistants, we do it with the prospect of their career in mind - Factory’s ethos has always been to nurture talent,” he adds. 

But let’s talk about sound design itself. When it comes to its importance, there could be some division, but things tend to be taken on a case-by-case basis. According to Dan, some commercials can exist without music altogether, and that quite often is a conversation that happens in the studio towards the end of a project, at the point where the sound designer has filled out what was previously empty, quiet and boring. “And on the contrary, sometimes we need a bed of music to glue the whole sound mix together,” he says. “There is no genre of commercial that specifically calls for intense sound design more than others, because as Lurpak have proven over the last few years, even congealed milk can make for a bloody powerful cinematic experience with sound design to match.” In his opinion, Dan believes that filmic ads are where sound design is most impactful, and serve as a good segue between cinema and home, captivating the viewer who has no doubt got the latest 65 inch TV with a Dolby Atmos enabled speaker system.

But, while he says that there is no one way to approach a certain commercial, there are some themes that have unravelled. For example, there must be a reason for all ice cream ads to be so sensual sounding, right? For Dan, it’s the big successes in the past to blame for trends that stick around. “I think it takes one brand to take a leap into a new idea of how a commercial can sound, for others to see that it has been successful and then follow suit. It’s like how there were movie trailers and then Inception came along and all of a sudden…'DUMMM!'. In all the trailers. I’ve been witness to brands saying, can we make it a bit more ‘Lurpak’. Not really, you’re selling cat treats!”

So, in this case, one could wonder - does the product come first or does evoking an emotional reaction in the audience come first? Or perhaps a sort of ‘bell ringing’ when advertising ice cream, to make sure that people know what they’re seeing on screen and all their senses are absolutely certain that this is, in fact, an ice cream ad. “Product and emotional response are loosely connected,” explains Dan. “But it really depends on the film and the product.” When there are lower budgets, often clients prefer to sell the product first and foremost, which for Dan is understandable. “The sound design should support this goal by conveying important information about the product in a clear, engaging and sometimes fun manner, highlighting its unique features and benefits, and creating a sense of urgency or excitement that motivates viewers to take action.”

He continues, “Of course, I will use my own expertise to push sound design to a level that can elevate the product’s ‘sellability’ without being too brash or overindulgent. When it comes to invoking an emotional reaction, I would say that music has the power to do this over sound design. Watch any reality show and listen to someone’s sob story with the melancholic music playing underneath. Imagine taking the music out, how dry would that sound!?” And indeed, music is up there with colour and sound design as the triad of emotion - it has the potential to elevate, confuse, attack and soothe the viewer. This is why it needs to be carefully liaised between all sides of a project, to arrive at the end goal. If the purpose is a contradiction - make that clear. And if not - be wary of it. “Used well, colour and sound can work together to create a cohesive emotional experience for the audience.” 

Dan speaks of personal expertise to raise the ‘sellability’ of a product, but how much of that personal expertise is also dependent on the subjective style of the sound designer. And is a sound designer for ads even allowed to have a personal style? “Sound designers can have their own identities, but I think a truly great sound designer can adapt and play to the strengths of the subject. I don’t think I’d like to be pigeon-holed as the guy for just this specific type of film. I like to have fun by working on different types of content. We have our go-to SFX libraries, plugins and processes, but to use them in different ways on a variety of different subjects is where our expertise really comes into play. I have never left traces of myself in the work,” explains Dan… “Or have I?”

Traces or no, the process for Dan is never the same. In an ideal situation, he explains that he would have read the treatment and the initial brief for a film along with any scripts way before the agency and creatives have even set foot in the facility. Then, a sound designer always skips to the relevant part of the treatment to see if sound design has been considered in the initial conceptual stage. After the brief, Dan would usually take his first session unattended, so he can sketch out ideas - sometimes this first pass can be the first 90% of the mix, but usually further collaboration is essential to bring ideas together for the perfect mix. “There are many things that can inform my thinking for how the sound design should be for any given commercial. For example, if there are loads of quick cuts in the edit, it would be prudent to follow suit with the style of sound design.”

Not only the edit, but also the brand itself is something that a sound designer looks at from all angles in the process of their work. There are certain sounds, according to Dan, that throughout the history of sound design have started invoking particular psychological responses. “A creaking floorboard means someone bad is looking for you. A bell tree is a good signifier of magic and wonder. A whoosh is often used to emphasise the speed and size of an object. So, we’ve been taught a lot already without really realising it.”

Using these learnings in a clever and correct way can elevate sound and help it really back up and solidify the intention of the story and its interaction with the audience. “In some of the group workshops I’ve done, I’ve shown examples of how one scene can be totally transformed just by the sound design, turning a heartwarming Christmas morning scene into a living nightmare by using certain audio triggers.” Dan explains that he has worked on ads for a certain industry where he has been directed to specifically use triggering sounds, and others where he has been directed to completely avoid triggering sounds at all costs. This is because it’s been proven that sounds trigger behaviours - like Pavlov’s dog... but for people.(“And for gambling.”)

So, between personal style, knowledge of sound design and how it affects audiences, branding and direction from the side of production, it must be extra hard for a sound designer to stay diplomatic. For Dan, sometimes the process is clear, sometimes a bit messy. He says, “At Factory, we have an amazing team of producers who consolidate a lot of the incoming information, feedback and direction and pass that on to me. Typically, if I have the client, the agency and the director, all in the studio with me, there is respect amongst everybody to have their opinions heard and tried. With post production audio, most of the really hard graft has already happened, as audio is the final step, so a lot of the decision-making has already taken place.”

For Dan, there are several ways to know the mix has been a success after the launch. Namely, feedback on social media, reviews on industry websites, award nominations. If he himself has heard good sound design on a commercial or film, he will most often find the sound designer on LinkedIn or Instagram and message them to let them know. “Another way, as I mentioned earlier, is when near the end of a project, I get asked to take the music out! At the end of the day, if the client is happy, and I’m happy, then I will give them a final Wav. That’s my criteria!”

Besides this, the future of sounds holds equal parts excitement and anxiety. The looming tsunami of AI usage is something that doesn’t necessarily keep Dan up at night (yet), but it is definitely worth talking about. “It’s already being used to help write script ideas and create artwork. Its development into audio has begun with the offerings of enhancing poorly recorded voice into clear near-studio quality recordings.” There will be a point in the future, he thinks, where he will be able to type a script and have AI execute the read with a voice over artist of choice. While this will change the workflow totally, it will of course keep opening new cans of worms, or legal and usage conversations, where people will need to rethink how their digital entities are used. “I think that as long as it’s used in conjunction with the more traditional methods, then I can see AI being a really useful platform for enhancing the audio experience,” he concludes. He is also super excited about the inclusion of Dolby Atmos tech into everyday usage, such as through headphones, soundbars and speaker systems, meaning that audiences can experience it outside of the cinema!

With all its difficult decisions, long hours and extreme attention to detail, sound design is what Dan loves and with itself it brings a horde of incredible people which he is always grateful for. Both at Factory and clients that bring their ‘wonderful work’ to him. He leaves us with this: “It’s easy to say this, because it’s true. I’m inspired everyday by the amount of creativity and passion that can be shown, with highly skilled healing individuals literally making magic - creating something out of nothing. And the lunches. The lunches are great!”

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Factory, Fri, 21 Apr 2023 16:38:09 GMT