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In this third installment about how SFX creators have pushed artistic and professional boundaries, we hear from HISS and a ROAR, Dynamic Interference, and Norsonant. Stay tuned for more stories from our community later this week and next week.
1. What is your name, and who are your team members/co-creators?
Norsonant @norsonant @thomasalf: My name is Thomas Alf Holmemo and I founded Norsonant. Marius Ytterdal joined the team when we started an audio post production company together in 2015. We also worked with Jory Prum who helped us record the ‘Shiba dog’ library before he passed away.
When was a time you felt you pushed the boundaries to capture the perfect sound effect?
HISS and a ROAR: For me it occurs constantly, all of the time—it is a fundamental part of my nature and my ethos, my work: evolution, research and a constant motivation to explore unknown territory, whether it’s in the studio or out in the field. I love the feeling of travelling home after having captured unique new material and knowing that if it wasn’t for the fact that I had put myself in the path of that sound or image, it would not exist (other than ephemerally).
I fully acknowledge the giants on whose shoulders we all stand. For example, my exploration of contact mic recording might never have occurred without the incredible creative work done by Alan Splet and Anne Kroeber. In many ways their work was my starting point, but constant experimenting and exploring rapidly pushed me into uncharted territory.
As with my own work, I believe the motivation comes from a combination of a creative approach and long term work on projects that demand profound exploration. There are many, many locations and situations in New Zealand, Japan, Samoa, Vietnam, Bali, Papua New Guinea, etc., that I have experienced but did not even know existed until researching and exploring, following wherever my work and passion lead me: The blow holes at Aloofaga and the echo-locating cave-dwelling birds in Savaii, Samoa. The epic underground spaces of G-Cans in Tokyo. The incredibly complex, multi-tap reverberant space in the Ryue Nishizawas installation on Teshima, Setouchi. Experiencing Nyepi, the day of silence in Bali, and doing a gamelan workshop the following day (and again at the School of Music in Wellington, NZ). Recording a complete 24-hour cycle in Boganville and hearing how much louder PNG becomes as dusk falls… Walking through freezing cold bushes late at night to hear and record a breeding pair of the rarest Okarito kiwi. All of these things (and many, many more) happened for the exact same reason—to explore and push boundaries.
Dynamic Interference: Probably the museum ambiences I recorded back in 2013. I was asked to speak at an event at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. It required a lot of prep, and there was a very small stipend. The event was focused on sound though, and I asked the organizers if they had considered incorporating the sounds of the museums themselves into the event. They found the idea intriguing, and I offered to record the spaces if I’d be allowed to own the files. We never did have time to incorporate them into the event, but I got access to some of the most iconic museums in the world…both during operation and after hours. Exploring the museums while they were empty was amazing, and not many people outside the staff get to experience that.
Norsonant: I have recorded quite a bit of sound in challenging weather. I find it extra satisfying to get back home with good recordings when I know I’ve pushed myself and my gear to capture them. The time I remember best was when I was recording sound for a pretty extreme TV show here in Norway. The location was the mountain Stetind (1,392 m / 4,567 ft). The weather was bad. Heavy fog and strong winds, raining at the bottom of the mountain and snowing at the top. I’m a mediocre skier by Norwegian standards, but I managed to get both up and down the mountain and capture the sound we needed (I won’t pretend I didn’t face-plant a lot on the way down). It was a big challenge both physically and mentally, but this was one of the most satisfying recording trips I’ve ever had.
When was a time you felt you pushed the boundaries to design a new sound effect?
HISS and a ROAR: As a sound designer, every film project I work on pushes the boundaries, but the motivation is not to overtly draw attention—the quietest sounds are as important as the loudest. I believe film requires endless exploration to find the film’s own unique voice. Accordingly, I do not release designed sounds. If someone wants my aesthetics for a project, they hire me as sound designer and we collaborate. So I am very wary of the use of pre-designed sounds. For me, there could be nothing worse than a signature sound from a film coming straight from a sound library. Creatively it strikes me as a very odd concept that a sound designer would be hired to collaborate and create unique material, e.g. for a sci-fi film, but then use a generic sci-fi sound library as source material.
As Matsuo Basho said, ‘‘Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; seek what they sought,” which to me requires not copying or even trying to emulate past masters or existing projects, but instead focusing your energy and motivation to create elements that are unique to you as a sound designer, using every aspect of your life experience and thereby making a contribution to the project that only you could make.
Dynamic Interference: I was working on an independent film, and the director told me he wanted something akin to the THX “Deep Note” sound. Obviously, we couldn’t use that actual sound, but I had an idea. I recorded a number of people involved in the film, myself included, chanting. In order to help all of these people feel a little less self-conscious, I had them use Robin Arnott’s Soundself. They sat there (men and women) and experimented with the software, and I ran a recorder while they did it. I went through and pulled out what I thought were the most tonally interesting elements and brought them all into Izotope Iris. I used Iris to isolate the most prominent harmonic components and created a drone out of it. The sound is fantastic. The director didn’t like it for the scene, and we wound up going in a very different direction from “Deep Note,” but I’m happy. It’s sitting on my hard drive, just waiting for the right project.
Norsonant: One of my favourite techniques is extreme stretching of sounds to create ambiences. I worked on a short film a while back. For the opening shot of a man running through the city at night I stretched a few short screams so they’d last for minutes. I think it sounded awesome and right for the scene, and the director’s feedback was the best part. He pointed out parts of the ambience that sounded like horror versions of the sounds he knew from the city. Even though I had used no city sounds at all, the extreme stretched sound fit his vision for that scene. It always feels great when you try an extreme technique for fun and get “lucky”, for lack of a better word, and the director loves it.
When have you pushed the boundaries in selling sound effects (whether they be yours or others’)?
HISS and a ROAR: When I started developing HISSandaROAR there were no indie sound libraries—Hollywood Edge, Sound Ideas and Sound Dogs was it. And it was my frustration as a sound designer at the existing models for licensing sound libraries (and the content) that motivated me to develop HISSandaROAR. For the film projects I was working on we had moved past CD quality and the limited performance choices from years prior. Like a lot of film sound editors, it is normal to record for every film project. So it seemed to me the same should apply to making sounds available online.
Ever since, I have based the evolution of HISSandaROAR on what I personally wanted and needed from the last 20+ years of work on 40+ feature films. The sounds that were lacking in variety and quality in my own 4TB personal library became a to-do list for future recordings. But I also took notice of my own beliefs and perceptions of other people’s business models. For example, it annoyed me if I bought a sound library or sampled instrument library only to discover it was on sale a few weeks later. So for HISSandaROAR, I decided we would not follow the common practice of recurring sales or seemingly random discounts. We would only have two forms of discounting: an early bird sale for a week after each new release (to reward loyal supporters) and an annual sale in August to coincide with the site’s birthday.
Dynamic Interference: I tried something a little different when I released my first library, a massive fabric toolkit for cloth movement and handling. I allowed people to sign up for a zero-commitment pre-order. They weren’t obligated to put any money down, nor actually purchase the library when it came out. It let them build up a limited time discount on the library though. The more people who signed up, the more I discounted the purchase for those people. I think it got up to 30% off, but only for those people who signed up. They had two weeks to make use of the discount code. Not everyone did, but it encouraged people to spread the word about the library. So I basically turned the community into my advertising team. I like to think it was a fair trade. They helped give the library some visibility, and in exchange got a deep discount.
Norsonant: We’re still pretty new to selling sound effects, but we have set a few goals to push ourselves. A big one is our plan to release ten libraries in 2016. We also try to challenge ourselves in one way or another for each library we record and release. For ‘Oslo City ambience’, the challenge was that I wanted to record very long takes to reduce the need to loop ambiences in post production. For ‘Gardermoen airport’, I wanted to record a full library while travelling. For ‘Shiba dog’, we wanted to record a large animal library in a studio setting. For ‘Windy forest’, we wanted a wind library without a lot of local birds “polluting” the recordings and making them hard to use internationally. The goals and challenges don’t have to be extreme, but it’s nice to have something extra to think about and aim for when you plan and execute.
Have you ever created a sound or synth that made you or your team laugh out loud? If so, what was the sound?
HISS and a ROAR: I consider many sounds from HISSandaROAR to be unusual or uncommon. So while they may not make people laugh out loud, I have for example had more than a few emails from people who bought our SEAL VOCALS library and while auditioning it, I’ve had co-workers come in asking WTF IS THIS?? I have always been interested in sounds you cannot immediately assimilate, as the human brain does very interesting things when it cannot work out the providence of a sound. Like misheard lyrics, it can create unintended revelations and bring to life ideas that might not otherwise exist.
Dynamic Interference: I recently worked on a television special that stars a group of well known animated characters. In it, one of the characters sits on an egg, and there’s a close up of said character’s butt shifting around. The marching orders from the director were, “Make it sound gross.” I cut in this wet and squishy washcloth squeezing. The first time anyone saw it, on the sound team or the production people, they made that disgusted, “Awuahh,” and cracked up. The best part for me was that no matter how many times we watched it, everyone chuckled on that particular shot…every time. It’s a great feeling when you can find the perfect sound that keeps working over and over again.
Norsonant: Sometimes my recordings sit on my hard drive for a long time before I edit them. I recently edited a batch of ambience recordings that I did many years ago. In the middle of the session I walked past a sheep that made a strange, human-like sound and I recorded it. So, in the middle of my ambience editing session this super weird sound blasted out from my speakers and I couldn’t help myself from laughing out loud and wondering what on earth that was. I had completely forgotten about the weird sheep.
Bonus: I always record vocal slates. Even after doing this for many years I still manage to do it awkwardly enough to make myself laugh when I edit the recordings later. I suspect I’m not the only one who does that.
What is your advice for sounds designers who want to create and sell their own SFX libraries and synthesizers?
HISS and a ROAR: There are two key things that will interest me in your work: your aesthetics/ideas and your experience. I am less interested in how, and far more interested in why. What is the purpose or motive? The other important aspect to consider is this: capturing the sounds in a way that they can be used in projects is very important; it is mission critical. But it is only the first 20-30% of the work. Do not underestimate the time, skills and resources required.
Dynamic Interference: First off, don’t expect to make a ton of money off of your libraries. Just record stuff you like, stuff that you find useful and want to have in your library. That should be your first priority—fill your own needs. If you can do that with your recordings, it’s likely other people will find the sounds useful, too. You’re not going to pay the rent with your libraries (very few people can), but if they’re serving their purpose for you…and you make a few bucks off of them after the fact? That’s just a bonus. Also, it’s important to spend time using your sounds before that first release. You need to use them in a project so you can see where things can be improved. The way you package/master the sounds and tag them with metadata that first time may not lead to the smoothest workflow. Test that all out beforehand. Make revisions so it’s easier to work with your sounds, then release them.
Norsonant: Just go for it. It’s easy and free to put your sounds up on one of the many websites that sell independent libraries. Record stuff you think is good and release it. Start small and do it for fun and because you like it, not because you think you’ll get rich. The ‘start small’ part is important. My first library was really too big and it took a long time to record and edit. At the end I was exhausted and I had to wait quite a while before I was motivated to release a second one. The second library is much easier than the first one because you’ll already have done all the research on metadata, packaging, marketing and other stuff you should know.
What is an area you’d like to see pushed even further?
HISS and a ROAR: I have enough new ideas to fill the next few years of full-time development and work, but they are difficult to talk about as I prefer not to share ideas until they are fully realised and available. I’ve had to learn this the hard way, from sharing and then seeing a unique idea be co-modified by others, badly. When I started the MUSIC OF SOUND blog back in 2006, it happened more than a few times, and I am now more careful about sharing work in progress and process. But needless to say, the further you explore, the more you realise there is so much more to explore—the rabbit hole is bottomless!
Dynamic Interference: There so few animal libraries out there. I think there’s a lot of room for people to play in that area, and animals can be such a valuable design resource…and not just for creature design either. Do you have any idea how many spaceship sounds Ben Burtt has made out pigs?!
Norsonant: I’d like to see more binaural and Ambisonics ambience libraries now that VR is starting to become a big deal.
We hope you enjoyed reading these stories and words of advice. To hear more about their experiences, check out their blogs:
HISS and a ROAD: HISSandaROAR v3 has just launched and features my specific new field recording blog: www.musicofsound.co.nz/blog/.
Dynamic Interference: designingsound.org ;) (my personal blog broke a long time ago, and I just haven’t invested the time to fix it yet)