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Thinking in Sound: Trial and Error with Ben Gulvin


The senior sound designer at Wave talks about working on Jordan Peele’s ‘NOPE’, music induced nostalgia and how one’s passions grow over the years

Thinking in Sound: Trial and Error with Ben Gulvin

Ben Gulvin is an award-winning, senior sound designer at Wave, with 18 years of audio work under his belt working across London's top studios.

Over the last two decades Ben has crafted sound design on countless UK and International campaigns across numerous audio disciplines ranging from TV, cinema, radio, and more recently, feature films where he worked alongside Wave’s Johnnie Burn designing soundscapes for Jordan Peele’s latest film, ‘NOPE’.

Ben’s attention to detail and creative understanding has led him to collaborate with incredible talent from some of the best production companies and agencies in the game. These partnerships and creative audio achievements have been recognised at awards such as the British Arrows, D&AD, Music & Sound, Cannes Lions and The One Show.

A talented bass player, ‘motorbike nut-job’ and dad of two, Ben is a force to reckoned with!

LBB> When you’re working on a new brief or project, what’s your typical starting point? How do you break it down and how do you like to generate your ideas or response? 

Ben> It’s important to understand what the idea is from the very beginning, to read the brief or watch through the first edit a few times and structure the job in my head. Approaching the flow and the feel of the piece. Think about reference sound and understand the role of the mix, be it delicate or boombastic. I might see something that I immediately want to put a sound to, a defining moment that I have had an idea for. Meaning I don’t always work linearly. I can then build the feel for the sound mix to and around that moment.  

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

Ben> Each engineer has preferences when approaching their work flow, certainly many prefer to work solo at the earlier stages. You need time to experiment and build an idea. I personally much prefer having a room full of people, sharing thoughts, feedback and alternative ways of approaching the job. There’s also collaboration within the studios, designer's working together can often see a job from a different perspective. Notably working with Johnnie Burn and the film team on ‘Nope’. They are so open to ideas; allowing me to design what I thought was needed throughout the film. Try it, if it works, great, if it doesn’t, well how do you know until you try it. Then, how can we make it better? Sometimes it can be the smallest detail, texture, tone, that lifts a sound, scene, or film.   

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

Ben> You're trusted to deliver the best for the mix and the idea, when you work towards it there's always the process of trying different approaches, figuring the piece out can be a lot of different elements all fighting for a place in the mix. It’s the final stages where you start refining, tweaking, adding, removing and adjusting. When all of a sudden it all really clicks into place it’s very satisfying. When clients get very excited about what they're hearing it’s a buzz.  

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

Ben> Music and sound has always been an important role yet there's improvement of technologies. The quality of the mixes and the operators providing them is on the increase. Great advertising is not just a good idea but the craft and execution. I'd say originality, doing something different, and being bold and brave with it including audio will be how we can make a campaign engaging.  

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> Dolby Atmos and surround sound mixing, Binaural, Ambisonics, immersive audio certainly is having a big push, the technology is improving all the time. More so in easier ways for the general public to monitor the audio. Sound bars at home are making it a lot easier and palatable for people to listen to a Dolby Atmos mix be it film, gaming or music via their streaming services. Headphones specifically developed to monitor spatial audio. The tech is here, you don’t necessarily have to understand it, that’s what we’re here for, however there’s a whole new way you can present your piece of work that engages your audience in a way you may have not expected. It becomes an experience in itself for more engaging and exciting, from my perspective we need to be exploring more of this.  

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

Ben> I can’t comment much on the metaverse as I don’t have enough experience of it myself, but enlightening on the technological developments that sound design is going to become more about the experience. Its futuristic sci-fi ideas of the past, coming to fruition, taking you into another world altogether, visually and audibly. Fooling you to believe you're actually a part of that new world, if you’re seeing, hearing and believing what’s in front of you. There are those opportunities to create something truly groundbreaking.  

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

Ben> Far too many to choose from, I'm big on nostalgic sounds usually from films I watched when younger. The ‘80s seems to be back in fashion with the likes of ‘Stranger Things’, it utilises that in a way that all my memories come flooding back. I could list a whole lot of sound designers but it wouldn’t be anything you’ve not seen listed before. Musically I can't really pick because there’s so much variety I'll listen to too. Right now I'm in a bit of a Post Punk binge. I'm a bass player at heart so Flea has always had a huge influence on me along with Krist Novoselic, Tina Weymouth, Paul Simonon, Peter Hook, etc.  

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> I've literally been blessed to work with and listen to who I believe to be the best in the business Johnnie Burn, Warren Hamilton, Nigel Crowley, as well as all the other engineers I've had as colleagues and also those at other studios. There's a lot to be said for the artists out there, regardless of position or status I often might hear something really cool someone else has done and think to myself “that’s a very cool way of doing it.” Or break down someone else’s mix and figure out their approach. There’s always something new to learn from.   

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?

Ben> Always. But at home with the family I like to switch off.  

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 bad-ass 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> Your mix has to be well rounded for the platform it's going out on, you can't control listening habits, you can control how good your work can be. 

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

Ben> I’ve a long commute so the headphones are on almost straight away for the train, then work and home again, so it is always music or streaming films, at home I tend to ease up, ‘6 Music’ is on a lot as is ‘Talksport’. I love my motorcycles and they in themselves have a sound that I can relax too.   

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> Yep I have a few vinyl knocks about and I like to record sounds. Spotify is my go-to, not that I'm happy about how it funds smaller artists, but it’s the ease at which I can hear anything I want. Which also has its downsides. 

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> Yeah, certainly I am a gamer and I really enjoy reading. The sound you hear while playing, or the sounds you imagine while reading make you think about ideas that you can translate. Recently I had a crack at fishing which is so good for your mental state. I found myself really aware of the tranquil sound of the environment around me. 

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> I’ve not travelled enough, morning sounds and evening sounds are always really interesting, Egypt and Australia were quite eye opening, literally.  

LBB> As we age, our ears change physically and our tastes evolve too, and life changes mean we don’t get to engage in our passions in the same intensity as in our youth - how has your relationship with sound and music changed over the years?  

Ben> Lol, I took the kids to see ‘Sonic Two’ at the cinema, I wasn’t all into it but there’s a moment where Dr Robotnik (Not Eggman thank you very much) has an action scene stomping along to Pantera’s ‘WALK’. I literally laughed out loud in the cinema, my kids were loving it. Freddie especially (he’s seven years old) so I played the track in the car on the way home thinking to myself how this was the biggest thrash metal band in the world. I saw them in Brixton at one of the most insane gigs I've ever been to back in 2000 and here’s my seven year old digging it because it’s in a Sonic movie 22 years later. A game that I played at his age that had some of the most iconic audio, bet you’re all dee dit dit, dit dee dee-ing the theme now. We get older, your passions don’t change, you just might get a different palette.  

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Wave Studios, Mon, 31 Oct 2022 14:53:06 GMT