To get things started on this month’s featured sound designer, here’s an interview of Axel Rohrbach:
Designing Sound: While we all know about BOOM Library, tell us about yourself. What got you interested in sound?
Axel Rohrbach: I can not remember any day in my life without being involved in any way in audio. The reason is simple: my parents own a music-school. I started with early education in music when I was 3 years old, clapping, singing playing percussion and that sort of stuff. At the age of 5 I started having classical piano lessons. After that I became more and more attracted to music, took lessons in several instruments like E-Bass, Organ, Keyboard, Trombone. There was this Yamaha support programme for young composers. I first went into studios at the age of 10, recording my own compositions, organized by Yamaha. I played in bands, orchestras and solo piano for dinner in restaurants. My first creative tool was a tracker application on the Amiga. I recorded my own samples for that with really unbelievably cheap equipment when I was 12 years old. At the age of 15 I updated to Logic 3 with Audiowerk 8. This was the time I first got in touch with sound design, creating radio jingles and sounds for our school radio.
DS: Wow! That is really impressive. With such a strong musical influence, do you perceive the design of sound effects like just another musical instrument working in an arrangement? Also, does your musical knowledge allow for easier communication with the composers you work with?
AR: I guess it is the best of both. Creating sound effects is a bit like mixing a song. Every instrument has its role which should be featured, in a good arrangement all the instruments have a reason and are completing the other instruments in their sound characters and frequency range. The same goes for sound effects. Differently layered sounds should complete each other to build a sound effect. This sound effect however could be an instrument again, having a special character and frequency spectrum to build the “song” (= movie, game, scene) in combination with other instruments (= sound effects, music, dialogue).Talking to musicians is definitely easier when you understand what they are talking about. Also talking to clients is much easier, because I am able to talk about sound effects as well as music. The most important thing in my daily business is, that I am able to create short snippets of music like winning jingles, confirm buttons, gambling machine sounds, cell-phone ringtones and that kind of stuff.
DS: Tell us about Dynamedion and the role you play there.
AR: Dynamedion is the leader in soundtrack composition and sound design on the European computer game market. Credits include “Crysis 2”, “Alan Wake”, “Halo Legends”, “Darksiders Wrath of War”, “Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe”. I am currently lead sound designer at Dynamedion, but I am not sure how long I can handle the workload together with the Boom Library. Maybe in the near future I will swap to being senior sound designer. Being lead sound designer means that I am responsible for organizational things, budgets, style spotting and “vision” plus the communication inside the team.
DS: You primarily work out of Europe. Do you find the industry very different from elsewhere in the world? Are there any advantages and/or drawbacks?
AR: There are definitely different genres focussed in different countries. Germany for examples loves the medieval era. Games like Gothic, Sacred, A.D. (aka Anno), The Settlers, Drakensang, Battleforge; just some examples. From my experience there are definitely differences from country to country, but the goal stays the same: creating games that are somehow touching the players, using mostly the components story & character, gameplay, visuals and audio.An advantage of working in Europe is, that there are a lot of different countries and possibilities. Everything is pretty close together, so the travel times are low. Drawbacks of course are many different languages and laws. Being experienced in working with those drawbacks however is an advantage. We work on projects in whole Europe, in North America, in Russia and in Asia which is only possible because we are experienced in working with other countries.A drawback for us sound designers in Europe is that the population is extremely dense. Especially where Dynamedion is located, it is really hard to find a quiet spot without a busy road, without an airport approach corridor, without a windmill etc. Also the laws over here, best example the gun laws, are so strict, I can’t count how often I risked being caught by the police for recording things.
DS: If you have to describe what ‘Sound Design’ is to you in a sentence, what would it be?
AR: Sound Design is the creation of realities.
DS: Do you mean designing something that is believable for the audience/player even if it’s something surreal and might not exist in our everyday lives?
AR: This is actually meant ambiguously. What you mentioned is one of the meanings. I think sound design is done very well if no-one recognizes it. If you are sitting in the cinema and think “this was a sound effect” – something went wrong. Of course it is possible that sound design is the main focus and should be recognized, but this is seldom the case. It should feel real. In the real world you wouldn’t think “that was a tire squeal, followed by a sheet impact, glass impact and some debris”. You would think “that was a car crash”. You wouldn’t think “this is a click clock click clack sound”. You would think “RUN! It’s a Predator!!!”On the other hand sound can be real in creating emotional reaction. Goosebumps is very real. Rapid heart beats are real, feeling queasy is real. Those are things that can be caused or at least provoked with sound.
DS: Have you had any mentors or strong influences?
AR: I had to think about that for a while. The answer is yes – and no. I had a lot of mentors, teachers, situations, friends, experiences that strongly influenced me. But there is no “main mentor” or “key-situation”. It is like a puzzle, tons of small pieces create a whole Axel (fill in your name). There are of course periods in my life in which I was focussing on some things. During my time at the university for example I was trained to be creative, to take my time to create art – during my first job and here at Dynamedion I have learned how to work efficiently and how to achieve an output that is compatible with the world around me.
DS: Are there tools – both in the field and studio – that you can’t do without?
AR: Excel for organizational things and recording roadmaps for the field.
I am relatively new to Wavelab and it still is a bit buggy – but this quickly became one of the things I don’t want to live without anymore. Same for iZotope RX. I usually use it stand-alone. A real killer app.
It is hard to say for the field. I love the equipment we use, especially the SD 744T. I think there is lots of space for improvement in field related gear. Examples: having 4 mic preamps in the 744T would be a great benefit. My headphones (Sony MDR 7506) sound great, but they hurt after a while. The MKH416 sound awesome, but they are mono only and the MKH418 sounds different. And so on. Don’t get me wrong here: I really like the stuff and the results they bring, it’s just that I don’t want to recommend anything without talking about details.
DS: If given a choice between time spent in the studio or recording outdoors, which would you prefer?
AR: This is a tough one. Would you define “studio” with editing, mixing and such vs “recording outdoors” which also means recording indoors? In that case nothing is preferred, or both. I enjoy recording things, trying out which wood has the best wooden impact sound etc. But after every recording I am so looking forward listening to it and editing in the studio, that I would say it really belongs together.Recording outdoors vs recording in a studio: In this case I prefer the outdoors. But only because I like to go out and breathe fresh air. Talking about the sound quality: there are a lot of things that I rather record in a studio or on a foley stage. You don’t have to clean the recordings too much and cleaning is always a loss of sound quality. But there are of course a lot of things that are too loud or too big for a studio recording or simply sound better outdoors.However, the best experiences so far were always going out to record for the Boom Library. Having a lion about 20 cm in front of me, smelling his terrible stinking breath, shooting an AK47 in a stone pit, smashing full bottles of sparkling vine against a wall or having a Tiger pee on me from 3 m distance will never go out of my head.
DS: How do you approach a new project? Do you have a methodical style of working or is every project treated differently?
AR: We do have a methodical style of working. If possible we try to make only minor changes to that per project.
However, some projects imply to be treated differently. The approach is as follows:
1) Talking to the client about the project, getting as much information, visuals, artworks, story etc as possible. This spotting session is very important and saves us a lot of time if done properly.
2) Defining timelines, schedules and content. We create a sound-book and a music-book containing every single sound and every piece of music, including examples if there are any, a description, status and a deadline per sound / music piece. The milestones should be defined thoughtfully. It makes no sense to constantly postpone milestones because the graphics are not ready or because we weren’t able to get the recordings done. At this state we also have to organize recordings if other people need to be booked.
3) Starting to design / compose. At this point everything should have been discussed. All the involved audio creatives should know what is expected from their work, all information necessary should be available.
4) Feedback from the client. The first packages should be delivered as soon as possible to get a first early feedback. This shows if topic 1) was done right.
5) Mixing, mastering, implementation (games). This last step is more or less clear I guess. For games: the implementation should not wait until all the sounds are ready but rather start right away when the first sounds have been created, probably even before that using, dummy sounds. But this is definitely the last step for a game. After the last sound is delivered, it has to be implemented and checked in-game.
6) Check bank account.
This works for all kinds of projects, no matter if it is a sound library, a game, a trailer or a movie. However, the duration of the topics may differ strongly, depending on the size and kind of the project.
DS: How do you overcome creative roadblocks?
AR: For the Cinematic Trailers library we had those creative roadblocks from time to time. My best chance to overcome this is to start working. If I am unable to think of ways to be creative I have to record all kinds of things or test new ways in the host sequencer. Most of the time that really helps getting new ideas or finding new approaches to create desired sounds. Another way is to set short deadlines which puts me under pressure. Sounds weird, but this often helps me. The last thing I do if nothing helps: taking two days off, doing something really different like visiting a funfair, reading a book, going to the cinema or doing sports to reboot the brain.
DS: A lot of freshers/students believe that ‘Sound Design’ is only about making cool sounds. But in reality it includes a lot more – including time, people and budget management. What are your thoughts on this? What is your formula for keeping clients happy?
AR: I think one of the most important things is service. Answering emails and phone calls as soon as possible (I am talking about minutes, not days). Service includes fair budgets, probably even helping to get the budgets down with ideas and solutions. This might result in less income for you for now, but a client who will book you again.
Late deliveries is a no-go. There may be situations in which it is better for the client’s project to deliver things later – talk to them and discuss that, but there should definitely be a back-up plan to deliver on time.
Even if the client gets personal in his feedback or reactions: don’t get emotional. Stay calm and objective. You are not the only one being creatively and emotionally involved in the project, the client is as well. Fierce discussions only waste time for all parties.
From my experience, talking about quality is not interesting for the client. Creating outstanding sounds is your job. The client expects the best ever made anyway, no matter what they pay or how short the deadline is.
DS: What are you currently working on and what do you have lined up?
AR: The most hated questions ;-) I am not allowed to talk about current projects, even if I would love to, because as always the current projects are the best one has ever worked on. Anyway, there are some things I am able to say. We are still in production for Ubisoft’s “Anno 2070”. We do the music, sound effects and implementation for that. I visit the studio (Related Designs) from time to time to implement the sounds onsite, the sounds are created in our studios. “Risen 2” is nearly finished, there are only a few remaining sounds to do. There are two more major games currently in the making, one is a fantasy game (PC and next gen consoles), the other one is big franchise game (Xbox). Additionally we are working hard on the next Boom Library already. This is going to be a “Construction Kit” plus “Designed” library again and we a hard at work already.