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Thinking In Sound: Ben Arons on Why the Simplest Solutions are Usually Best


VentureSonic - a Made Music Studio company's VP director of music technology on his audio heroes, why the metaverse is a dream and a nightmare and why surround sound is so last century

Thinking In Sound: Ben Arons on Why the Simplest Solutions are Usually Best

Ben Arons is an experienced sound designer and engineer whose goal is to move people by creating memorable experiences through music and sound. 

Prior to joining Made Music Studio, Ben gathered extensive experience in the fields of music recording, theatre, and advertising, working as a sound designer, engineer, and drummer for NYC theatre, including Alex Timbers’ award-winning production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at The Public Theatre. In the Sonic Branding space, Ben has created audio assets for brands including AT&T, Disney, Virgin Hyperloop, NPR, Intel, and Discover.

As VP, director of music technology for Made Music Studio’s innovation arm, VentureSonic, Ben has been a lead on the company’s creative efforts in Experience and Industrial Design. Recent projects include developing acoustic vehicle alert system sounds for Nissan’s electric vehicles and collaborating on immersive office soundscapes with audio platform Spatial, a project which was featured in Fast Company. He can also be heard playing drums as The Muppets’ Animal in a spot for GEICO Insurance.

LBB> When you’re working on a new project, what’s your typical starting point?

Ben> I start by asking a bunch of questions, with curiosity. Identify the audience, determine the flow as the person will experience it.  Ideas for creative content are often inspired by identifying problems and challenges, and also of course by ad/brand visuals, brand language and further conversations with client teams. 

For purely technical work, the user experience is what inspires. I often find inspiration in natural metaphors and like-experiences. We are natural beings after all!

LBB> Music and sound are in some ways the most collaborative and interactive forms of creativity. Do you prefer to work solo or with a gang - and what are some of your most memorable professional collaborations?

Ben> When mixing a musical piece, I usually like to start alone and get everything close to what works for my own artistic sensibilities. This includes developing a technical layout that facilitates what follows, which is my favourite part — group collaboration to achieve the end results. When working on an installation, there is always more collaboration on the first part as several stakeholders are required to make things happen (architecture, AV Integrators, acoustical consultants). 

Creating the AT&T Sonic Logo took a year and a half for 2.5 seconds of sound (many many stakeholders!). We got to know each other VERY well! Another was creating the Nissan 'Canto' external vehicle sound – spending a few days in Japan in and out of an anechoic chamber, interspersed with driving the car around a track, with Nissan’s engineers, tuning the sound to both meet the regulation spec and also making sure it still sounds like what the marketing team decided was the ‘winning’ version.

LBB> What’s the most satisfying part of your job and why?

Ben> Making something come to life. Sound does this in a way nothing else can. Solving problems and technical challenges is hugely satisfying for me as well! Often, these things go hand in hand.

LBB> As the advertising industry changes, how do you think the role of music and sound is changing with it?

Ben> Certainly there is more and more interest in sound as a system. It’s really encouraging to see brands come around to the idea that creating sounds for their products and experiences ad hoc is not as effective as creating an overarching family of sounds and strategy — a sonic system, if you will. 

It’s very exciting to see brands embrace a more holistic approach to sound and new technologies. Folks are looking towards virtual experiences as well so spatial audio, that is sound that is perceived to come from all six degrees (up/down, left/right, back/front), and we are jumping into that pool with our audio delivery (both binaural for virtual, and multi-channel surround of many types for IRL experiences). It’s so much fun to make immersive sound because it’s that much more engaging when done well. It’s also a big technical challenge with so many puzzles to solve there.  

LBB> Can you talk a little bit about the technological developments in sound design right now? i.e Dolby Atmos and 7.1 mixing or any new tech that is relevant to your work. Can you explain the tech to us laymen and describe what opportunities they bring?

Ben> Surround sound is so very last century (hah). Now we call it immersive audio! It involves playing back discrete channels of audio, pre-mixed, to come from those channels spaced around the listener. It creates an effective 4-degree immersive experience, as long as you are facing forward and in exactly the right spot. Unfortunately, it does not scale well to other installations. It must be remixed to do its job well in other rooms. Atmos, by contrast, enhances immersion by adding another dimension, but more importantly it works using 'objects.' A sound is mixed, placed in space, and instead of always coming out of a specific channel it is stored as an object with metadata about how it’s supposed to move or be positioned. This then is interpreted by a decoder during playback that scales it to the number of channels/speakers available in that installation. 

LBB> How do you see the future of sound design? And is the metaverse a dream opportunity for immersive sound design?

Ben> The metaverse is a dream and a nightmare both! It presents opportunities for exciting, fully immersive and controlled experiences, but it also scares me to think how many people are spending huge percentages of their lives not in the room with real people (already, think: Zoom). 

Sound is particularly challenging in the virtual space because the user has freedom of movement. It’s one thing to create immersive audio for a listener in a fixed position, it is another entirely more complicated thing to have to continually update based on listener position. In designing this experience you are constantly weighing the amount of data being transmitted versus the amount of processing required on the user device. It’s shocking how much data and processing is required to do this in a very believable way, creating a compelling experience. The other challenge is that everyone hears differently — your brain adapts as you grow from birth to the sound that reaches your eardrums based on your body’s effect on incoming sound waves. Personal filters are the only way to make a convincing binaural immersive soundscape. That involves measuring the head and torso, then applying that to the sound that particular user hears.

LBB> Who are your musical or audio heroes and why? 

Ben> One really important one comes to mind, Ben Burtt who designed sound for Star Wars. He was really good at taking real sounds and manipulating in a way that created an entirely new world. I’m sure if he had access to all the tools we have now, it would’ve been worse. But because the sound design — the lightsaber, or Darth Vader’s breathing, for instance — is rooted in the real world, it felt more human and possible. And he did it with full vision and genius. 

Some other big musical heroes would be John Williams, Beethoven, Peter Gabriel, Radiohead, Brian Eno, Charlie Parker, Keith Jarrett, Bill Frisell, and then Nick Forshager, who created the sound of the Breaking Bad / Better Call Saul universe. All the tension in those shows is via sound design and Foley, not music. I think the ASMR folks would go crazy with that soundscape.

LBB> And when it comes to your particular field, are there any particular ideas or pioneers that you go back to frequently or who really influence your thinking about the work you do?

Ben> Let the content lead. Never do anything just because you can, always have a reason… and Occam’s Razor. I tend to try to make things too complicated or fancy. If I can remember that “the simplest solution is usually the best one,” I get there better, and I get there faster.

LBB> When you’re working on something that isn’t directly sound design or music (lets say going through client briefs or answering emails) - are you the sort of person who needs music and noise in the background or is that completely distracting to you? What are your thoughts on ‘background’ sound and music as you work?

Ben> I like my background quiet to focus. A little ambience is fine, and I know that subliminally certain sounds can be quite effective at helping with focus, but too much (and if it’s compelling music or even worse, talk radio or other speech) and I start to focus on it and my brain starts to analyse it and then I’m out. If the distracting sound isn’t too close it can be helpful to cover it with some noise-based solution — preferably biophilia and not ‘white noise’ which I find fatiguing.

LBB> The quality of the listening experience and the context that audiences listen to music/sound in has changed over the years. There’s the switch from analogue to digital and now we seem to be divided between badass surround-sound immersive experiences and on-the-go, low quality sound (often the audio is competing with a million other distractions). How does that factor into how you approach your work?

Ben> It's important to check yourself and not over-design to make things ‘competitive’ with all the noise and other intrusions. Make what works for that experience and figure out ways to create the white space needed to make that design compelling and ‘speak’ effectively.

LBB> On a typical day, what does your ‘listening diet’ look like?

Ben> That’s private ☺ JK. I try to listen to as little as possible these days to keep my ears from getting tired. A lot less music is in my ears as I go about my day sadly, but when it is it’s usually when I’m driving or walking the dog, and usually it’s something either recommended to me by Apple Music / Spotify or the local DJ. I try not to have to think about choosing music for myself because it becomes a rabbit hole. There’s too much choice. When I’m inspired by something specific, though, isn’t it great that it’s almost always just there for me to play anywhere any time? I love Newark 88.3 WBGO and WFUV because they have great DJs and I don’t have to think about it.

LBB> Do you have a collection of music/sounds and what shape does it take (are you a vinyl nerd, do you have hard drives full of random bird sounds, are you a hyper-organised Spotify-er…)?

Ben> I have a hard drive with a ton of samples and sound-effects, but it’s not anything to write home about. There’s so much available online!! I wish I could say that I was that genius nerd who collects a ton of obscure stuff, but I’m just not that guy.

LBB> Let’s talk travel! It’s often cited as one of the most creatively inspiring things you can do - I’d love to know what are the most exciting or inspiring experiences you’ve had when it comes to sound and music on your travels?

Ben> Hiking. I love the peace and quiet of going on a long hike and hearing new sounds in nature. Contrasting that, I went to Tokyo a few years ago and there’s so much sound there that is NOT in nature, but is very deliberate. Everything you interact with is created to make a sound. It could get annoying eventually but I really found the little tunes they play for every subway stop helpful AND neat to listen to. Also every once in a while NASA interoperates something in space in sound. ‘The sound of a black hole’ for instance. I find that truly awesome, even though it’s implausible.

LBB> Outside of the music and sound world, what sort of art or topics really excite you and do you ever relate that back to music?

Ben> Impressionist art, Joan Miro and Kandinsky, Haruki Murakami, also, my kids and how they see and hear the world. It’s a non-stop font of newness.

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Made Music Studio, Thu, 08 Sep 2022 10:16:42 GMT