Covering both the subject of last month’s DIY and this month’s of Fear, we spoke with Diego Stocco about his work as a sound designer, composer and performer. Diego creates eclectic musical experiences with custom built instruments and experimental recording techniques. He loves discovering hidden sounds from organic sources, objects and materials, with an unorthodox musical curiosity that allows him to produce music with sounds that have never been heard before. Recently, his creations have been conjuring fear in audiences around the world as part of the ad campaigns for “Annabelle: Creation” and “IT”.
Designing Sound: Did you have any formal education in sound or music? How do you feel a formal education can either aid or detract from a person’s creativity?
Diego Stocco: I’m mostly self taught. As a child, I was eager to learn about music and music technology. When I was 6 years old, my introduction to music began when a friend showed me a Bontempi Hit Organ. I bugged my parents about that thing until they bought me one. I also had a brief and turbulent classical training, which ended with an expulsion from the local Conservatory of Music when I was 12. After that, I did a couple more years of music theory with a private teacher, which later enabled me to teach piano and choral singing at a private school where he was the musical director.
I learned the basics of Pro Tools while working in postproduction, but in my spare time I came up with a bunch of tricks to work with loops and audio (this was around the time Pro Tools 3 just came out) and that allowed me to come up with my own technical/creative approach.
I certainly see the value of getting a formal education, as it can be very useful in providing a set of coordinates to follow. By doing so, it can possibly reduce the amount of time wasted on wrong approaches. However, creativity is something different than education and I don’t think it can be taught as a set of lessons. Creativity is a mindset, it’s an inner instinct that someone has; something that can be expressed even with a rudimentary knowledge. A creative mind can use education to push their work further, but going through college for a number of years does not automatically turn someone into a creative person.
Designing Sound: When did you start creating your own sounds, instruments, patches and what inspired you to do so?
Diego Stocco: It was a gradual process that started when I was a kid. I was trying to get familiar with synths, samplers and studio equipment as much as I could. I spent many afternoons at the local music store trying out the same stuff over and over before being able to buy a little thing to take home with me. My first gig as a sound designer was creating sound effects for radio IDs. After that I did a few projects with Korg Italy, programming synths and making samples.
A big step forward was when I started working with Spectrasonics. I was using their sample libraries when making jingles and I was inspired by their sounds. I wanted to make a good impression, so I spent almost a year working on the concept of a sample CD, a cinematic sounding construction kit with ambiences and grooves.
I wanted to create something different, not traditional instruments or drums. I started recording what I could hear around me. Noises coming from the computer, the chair I was sitting on, random objects, and then processed them in a very meticulous way. After sending the demo and receiving positive feedback, I flew to L.A. to meet Eric and Lorey Persing. I was incredibly excited for the opportunity to do something together and for a moment my jaw hit the floor when they told me that they were done doing sample libraries. At that time nobody knew about it, but they were going to be releasing their first virtual instruments soon. They loved my sounds and offered me to be a part of this new journey, so the ambiences became part of Atmosphere and the grooves later became part of of Stylus RMX. Since then, as you can see in Omnisphere 2 I kept experimenting with more recording techniques, sound sources and custom built instruments.
Designing Sound: Do you have a specific design process whether for sampling, designing and creating acoustic instruments or software patches?
Diego Stocco: It depends on the sound I’m creating. If it’s based on a custom built instrument, there’s a construction phase first, followed by a musical/performance phase. In order for me to know if an instrument can translate well in a sampled form, I need to know that it can be playable and make musical sense. Sampling is a pretty time consuming task so I wouldn’t want to start recording something and later figure out that it’s not that inspiring.
If I’m creating sounds for my own compositions I work differently. It’s more like performing and processing in the context of the piece. I start with something simple, it could be a rhythmic part, and then add something on the top. Usually I record different options so that I can choose the one I like the best.
Designing Sound: How do you come up with the names for your original instrument creations and patches?
Diego Stocco: It’s a mix of things and languages. It could be inspired by the shape of the instrument, like the Arcophonico, where the idea came from an arched piece of wood I found on the street. It could be the inspired by the sound it makes, like the Sub Bass Column. It could be based on the original use of the materials, like the Fence Bass, built with a fence pole. And finally, it could be based on the idea of trying something experimental, like the Experibass (as in Experimental + Bass), where I initially intended to test a physical modeling concept in real life (violin, viola and cello strings on the body of a double bass).
Designing Sound: In your recent work for Adidas Boost, you manipulated the material in variety of ways. While some techniques yielded compelling sonic results, others, I imagine, were less successful. What role does “failure” or fear play in your creative process? Do you find that with experience you “fail” less often as you become better able to predict sonic outcomes or premtivly design towards a goal?
Diego Stocco: Every time I start a project like that I know that I’ll have to try different ideas before I find the optimal approach. Failure is part of the learning experience, especially when trying new things. In some occasions I thought I had a great concept in mind, but then it turned out to be disappointing when put into practice, or even dangerous.
In the beginning I had to test things out more to know if they were going to make sense. For example, testing different mic setups, sometimes too complicated. Now I can look at an instrument and get where I want much faster with a simpler setup.
Designing Sound: What do you look for and appreciate in the creative tools you use and what developing technologies are you most excited about?
Diego Stocco: I like a well designed workflow, it makes the experience of working with that plugin or hardware much more powerful.
So far, when it comes to AI applied to sound and music, I’ve heard some underwhelming examples. Something exciting in theory doesn’t necessarily translate as inspiring in practice. Maybe in the future we will hear some incredible work coming out of AI, but for now it looks like they’re still training those systems. Augmented Reality seems promising.
It might be worth focusing on different ways to achieve human expressiveness through new kinds of controllers, possibly going beyond physical playability. The technology might be there already or it could be created. Imagine being able to control the complexity and emotional color of a sound by simply thinking about it.
Designing Sound: You’ve recently been doing work for movie trailers. Do you see yourself more as a composer or sound designer that area?
Diego Stocco: I am focusing on trailer music again and releasing my own catalog. In trailer music the sound is very important and experimentation is welcome. Having a range of custom instruments allows me to create pieces with complex and unique sounds. There’s not much distinction for me between being a composer and a sound designer. I compose with sounds as I compose with notes. Would the term Sound Composer make sense?
Designing Sound: Some of the trailers you’ve worked on recently have been within the horror genre. Are there any common elements that you identify in the sounds you create that make them “dark”, “scary”, “horrific”!?
Diego Stocco: It is a genre of music that comes naturally to me and it’s also in the nature of some of the instruments I build. I’m interested in finding sounds that are harmonically rich, and play things with unusual tools like forks, pieces of wood and whatever I pick up from the floor at that moment.
A dark sound can be created by playing a solo instrument in a very intense way, rather than relying on a large orchestra. Processing my custom built instruments can also lead to interesting sonic direction. Camera Obscura is my most recent album. It’s an industry-only release, but you can find two medleys on my website that will give you an idea of what I’ve been working on recently.
Designing Sound: Is there any advice you could give when it comes to creating something truly original and taking a DIY approach to sound and music?
Diego Stocco: Ironically, the first thing I would recommend is not to try creating something truly original, because the expectation alone could send anyone into an endless loop of: is this truly going to be original? I would probably focus on coming up with an interesting question and see if there’s a way to answer it. For example, when I made Music From A Tree the idea was very simple, can I play a tree tonally? Twigs and strings looked similar to me in the way they behave, so one day I grabbed a double bass bow and tested the idea.
Another thing would be to figure out what resonates with you the most. For example, I always found a single note on a piano to be more than just a note. The way a bass note evolves, with the harmonics, at different dynamics, it’s very interesting to my ears. Each piano sounds different, and it’s really interesting to try to manipulate those harmonics, like in a prepared piano, or by messing with the tuning. I did some sounds for Omnisphere 2 where I retuned down the last two high octaves of an old piano, the timbre that emerged was really a surprise, almost like a bell but still tonal and warm sounding.
Finally, connecting with your roots can provide a sense of direction for your work. I grew up in Italy in a family of people who built and fixed stuff, my Grandfather was a truck driver and had a garage with all kinds of tools. I enjoyed watching him fix things, so now I incorporate that DIY approach into my work. My Father is a butcher, so sometimes I butcher musical instruments and recombine the parts into something different. My Mom is the most artistic person in the family, and even though she’s not a musician she was the person who was willing to listen to my little compositions when I was getting started. The way I see it, a person is a like a remix of the people who influenced us the most, so you need to listen to yourself and pay attention to the notes that feel more familiar.