Editor’s note: This article is written by Karol Urban, CAS. Designing Sound did little to contribute to this interview beyond bringing two highly skilled women together to talk about working in sound. We thank Karol for bringing her expertise and perspective to this article.
Karol Urban: What do you think it is about you or your life experiences that has driven you to become a sound designer and recordist?
Ann Kroeber: I started off in sound very much by accident. I had a dad who was very strict and Germanic and he wouldn’t even allow me to turn on the stereo. He had very expensive photo equipment and I’d sometimes go out with him when he was shooting with it. For example, I’d point out the way the light was falling on the trees as a bird was flying over and he’d capture it with his fancy camera, but I wasn’t allowed to even come near that gear. That was strictly his domain. It was like a guy thing. So, “Don’t touch it!” I just assumed that that was just a thing that girls didn’t do.
So, it was when I was working at the United Nations. I had this awesome job. I had actually wanted to work there since I was about 16, and I had landed a real cool job in the film department. It was just kind of by accident that I got into the film section. There was an opening and I wrangled my way in.
I really wanted to work at the UN. So, I just learned everything. I learned as much as I could. I learned all about what the job was about. It was in the film library going through old archival footage and finding new stuff that could be used for other documentaries. It was a wonderful experience to be able to see all this cool stuff from all over the world.
Anyway, at the end of my assignment, I was trying to find another way to stay there in another capacity perhaps. My boss said “Well, why don’t you do sound recording?” And I looked at him like, “Yeah, Why don’t you do astrophysics?” It seemed out of the question…sound recording.
He said, “Yeah, you could go out with some crews and do some recording.” I tried to convince him that it was not a good idea. But he said “No Ann, here.” He showed me this new tape recorder, which was a Nagra at the time, a pretty expensive microphone, and he gave me very specific instructions on how to use the recorder. And I wrote them down very carefully. I got all the rules. How not to turn it up the sound past a certain dB and not to adjust the gain after you set it, to leave it alone. He said that was important.
I didn’t even try the tape recorder until I went out. My assignment was to go out and record Chinese New year. I went out down to Chinatown in New York City. I went out with full trepidation, carting all this equipment. Then, I put the headphones on and, all of a sudden, when I turned on the recorder, this new big world opened up. I thought, “My goodness. Wow, isn’t that just wow.”
I got so excited that I forgot about the rules and I just used my instincts and my ear. I knew that I wasn’t supposed to go over that level of gain; that it would distort. But, I switched the gain for the fireworks and I would get it right to the edge and then I would slowly bring it back. I would find cool places to put the microphone. I was just so excited. It was really fun. I had no idea how it was going to come out. But, I brought it back and they were surprised. My boss was like “Oh my goodness gracious, this is really good.” He was very excited about it. And so…that’s how it started, my career.
I was surprised to learn that an individual so renowned for her experimentation with recording technology, such as her work with the FRAP contact microphone, ever went through a moment of technological hesitance. She went on to explain that her ear, not technology, is what motivates her decisions.
I still have that old lingering thing about technology. I admire people who don’t have that. I am getting much better and, certainly, once I learn how to use something, I overcome my fear and I am fine with it. I can play around with it and find new ways to use that technology. And I like to collaborate with people who are easy with technology and enjoy my artfulness.
My whole approach to sound is through my ears and through my instincts. This is something I teach my students now: “the art of listening.”
For me, when recording, the most important thing is getting out of the way of your head, your mind, and just becoming all ears. It’s almost like a Zen thing. You get really quiet and you just hear. It’s just amazing…the world around you when we just listen. So, that really is just it. I have a pair of Schoeps and I couldn’t tell you what the number is on them.
I remember when I was looking for a new mixer. I can’t tell you which one I had, but I wanted a new mixer for when I was doing the production mixing for Blue Velvet. I went to the major [gear] store in LA to look for mixers and the guys pointing out the most expensive ones that they claimed were the best ones. I said, “I’ve really got to listen. I have to plug my microphones in the mixer and see what it sounds like.” They said “okay.” So, I did that. The one that I liked wasn’t the most expensive or the most popular but it sounded better, and they thought I didn’t know what I was talking about. So, they did a blind test with me and, sure enough, it came out the same…. That’s what I go by. That is the most precious thing I have when it comes to recording sound; my ears.
Everything else follows.
Would you say that the focus on listening is your favorite aspect of your career?
Oh no. It is capturing things. Listening is just the first step. It is not just being a passive listener at all. It’s coming up with things and being able to witness something that is available. It’s being open to new ideas around me. I am very much going for something. Whatever the project is, I am going for it. Listening is just the first part; it is about opening up to being available for sound.
I really like having…my sounds reflect the mood of my character. I just find that that really enhances the mood of my film. I did an experiment with my students in Sweden. We went out and shot a scene, a short little scene, and then I had them do the sounds two different ways. One way was to create a romantic mood, and the other an ominous one.
With just sound effects we made the scene be romantic, and then with other sounds made it scary…telling the story through sound effects. It was really challenging and also made me really appreciate the other aspects as well. But, you really can do it. You can tell a story through sound effects… You can really change the feeling of a scene just through the sounds that you use. I like working with that.
I am very interested in the musicality of sound. I find musicality in all kinds of things. I found it in my contact microphone recordings, listening to sounds in a toaster or the movement of Venetian blinds…all kinds of things. There are just amazing rhythms and textures that are really very musical. I really tried to portray that in the Hollywood Edge CD that I did, called “Sounds of a Different Realm.” They are common sounds that are heard in uncommon ways. I wanted to show people how musical something we take for granted like the water going down a drain can be. The rhythms of a dishwasher are amazing.
Viewing sounds through a lens that brings out details not capable through the human ear is so thought provoking. How did you discover this technique and when did you begin to explore it?
My late husband Alan Splet and I were working in England on The Elephant Man, and I turned on the BBC and there was this little 5-minute program on. A guitarist and a drummer were playing with what they called a contact microphone on the guitar. So, the recording only captured the guitar and not the drums right next to it. I thought “Wow, that’s amazing. Wouldn’t that be great for sound effects? You could put it on something and you could only hear that and not hear all the other things that are around you.” And at the time, it was a lot harder to block out all the other things, we didn’t have cool programs like we do now to do that.
I got back to San Francisco after our stay in England and I wanted to learn more about the contact microphone and I asked people about it. They told me the inventor, Arnie Lazarus, lived in San Francisco. I was curious and it became my quest. I went to talk to him and told him what I needed. We worked for three months. I went back and forth. He worked building a special microphone for me that I could record sound effects with. I could put it on the outside of something really noisy, like a steel mill or other really strong sounds, and still be able to capture them. But, also have nuance and detail in the sound.
So, we worked on it. And finally, we got it working pretty well. So, I went back to where I was working and started putting it on things. I was stunned. I had no idea. There is this whole world of sound that we don’t hear with our naked ears. We just don’t hear it. There is this whole other realm of sound going on. One of the first things I put it on was a ventilator, and with a ventilator you just hear a kind of a white noise airy sound. With the contact microphone I heard a symphony of sounds going thru the ventilator all the way up through the building. Also, there was a kind of alarm sound building up inside as the air rushed through the system. It was so dramatic. I played it for Alan and he was… “oh my goodness.” So, I continued the quest.
A couple times a week I would just see what I could discover. Sometimes I would put a regular Schoeps on one channel and the contact microphone on another channel and record a variation with both. We created the sound of outer space using that technique.
Interestingly, Ann went on tell how much the sounds of inner space used to create the outer space sounds of Dune were very close to the real thing…
One of the things that blew me away…A friend of mine from Amsterdam, Zander Rickart, contacted me about a Kronos Quartet program that was playing out in Stanford that was using space sounds.
What they had was actually real space sounds. They used real sounds from NASA. They had developed this gorgeous program. One of the things that actually blew me away was how much they sounded like inner space. This guy had captured sounds using a special technique called magnetic resonance recording, where they pick up the sound in space and convert them into something we can hear. What really impressed me was the space ship moving toward Neptune sounded so much like what I was hearing in inner space. It sounded so much like the kinds of ideas we were having for Dune of what space sounded like.
One of your great strengths and talents is recording animal vocalizations. Having recorded amazing vocal textures from big cats to alligators, have you ever had a close call with any of these animals and do you have any advice on safely capturing animal sounds?
I have been very, very fortunate. For example, let me tell you about this Tiger, named Caesar. I fell in love with him when I recorded him last summer. He wanted me to pet him. He had come over to talk to me. I was in front of a fence and he was in a big open space behind it. I had just developed this rapport with this Tiger. He would kind of talk into my microphone.
He put his head against the fence and he wanted me to pet him. I so wanted to do it, but I had read so many things about what tigers could do to humans. I told him that I just wasn’t allowed to do that. I was so, so sorry. He just looked at me, got so incensed, shook his head, just walked off, and wouldn’t have anything to do with me for while. I mean, ya know, he could have been setting me up to eat my hand? But, I don’t think so.
I think the most important thing that I can recommend, and what I have discovered with animals, is to treat them with respect and treat them like they are intelligent. I tell them about sound and what I am doing. I don’t know if they understand, but they seem to. They seem to get it. They are just amazing. I have had so many experiences with animals talking to me.
You have been recently credited for your work on one of the first releases for Xbox 360 to use the new Kinect hands-free accessory system, Kinectimals. It is a virtual pet game involving large amounts of interaction with big cat cubs. What was this experience like?
I had a great time working with Frontier on these. I really like the folks there. Eilam Hoffman did the design on the first one and Adam Hay on the recent bears version. They’re based in Cambridge, England, and I got to know them and their needs during a number of phone conversations.
Video games are getting so sophisticated. It is almost getting more sophisticated than filmmaking. It is really quite remarkable. Initially, I was a bit of a skeptic. I am not a game player. But the people I have come in contact with are really excited, really bright, and really into sound. So we have developed some great rapport.
For Kinectimals I spent a week in the Mojave Desert at a big cat preserve there. I got to know the big kitties, and they, me, by just hanging around with my recorder and talking with them…and they’d talk back to me.
Is your workflow similar when it comes to games versus films?
Nowadays, I develop a rapport with the person that I am working with and I find out what they need. We come up with some ideas. They will send me clips. I get games clips. With Kinectimals, I got pictures of just what they were up to. With movies, people will send me the movie in the rough-cut stage or whatever. I do sounds for them and we go back and forth. I get to come up with new ideas for them. It is collaboration, really. It is a lot of fun.
How has the speed of new technology helps or hindered your creative process?
When I first started in film, it was all film. There was no video. There were no video copies, no digital. It was all analog. The sound was transferred onto mag film and you cut it. You cut the sounds to match. You had these huge editing machines. I used a Steenbeck, I had a dyslexic thing with Moviolas. It is so dramatic, the difference [now].
And there were just more people that worked on a film back then. There were many more people. The time was much longer just because of the technology. Being able to send some thing across the world in just as matter of minutes…now even my Comcast has gotten so much faster. It used to take forever. And storage…I remember Alan bought storage, in the early days of digital, and it was this monstrous thing and it was 250MB. And it cost many thousands of dollars.
It is a different kind of creativity now. The problem is that people need to realize a certain amount of time is needed to be given to develop a creative idea and to be able to develop sounds. Sometimes they just think you can do it in an eye blink. That’s a problem. But, there is so much more that you can do. Because the technology is so much cheaper, there are so many more people able to do it. You couldn’t edit a little film easily. It was just too hard. That is really quite a difference. And this is great.
It is so unique and special for me to find a woman with so much experience and insight in sound. Have you noticed an increase in diversity over the years, and if it was getting easier to be a woman in audio?
Yes. It is increasing now. It is slow but it is getting better.
I was invited to be on a panel about 6 or 7 years ago for AES called “Successful Women in Audio.” They wanted to allow us to talk about what it was like to be women in the business. We all had lunch together before the panel. I was talking about all of the difficulties I had after my husband passed away, just with being visible and so on. I said, “I want to talk about this with all of you, and get this off my chest before we go on.”
I told them how I felt. And there was a woman sitting next to me. She was European, very attractive, and seemed initially, well, slightly aloof…She was a scientist, a former President of the AES and one of the founders of Digidesign. She looked at me, undid her hair, put her elbows on the table and said, “Let me tell you…” She told stories. The other women told more stories. It was incredible. This talk continued at our AES panel. It was fortunate and I guess unfortunate as we were talking about what it was like to be women in the field and well, they never had another one of these panels…
But one of the things that have touched me to the marrow was when I was invited to speak at the School of Sound in London several years ago. It was a really big deal for me. It was kind of a coming out. I was invited to speak about working with Alan and I kind of took it a step further. I talked about all the things he did and all I had done with him and some of the stuff I had done since. And it was just amazing. The audience was really interested. There were people there from twenty different countries.
After I got back home, someone told me there was a game site where these guys were recommending me for animal sounds. They were saying, “Go to Ann Kroeber.” I was just so touched…
I know as a woman in the field that I am a minority, but there are a few women ahead of me who have led the way. Have you had female counterparts in your earlier years or felt a particular woman had been able to act as a mentor for you?
Unfortunately, there just weren’t very many women. I think most of the women that worked with me worked under me. And the women that were in the same level were very competitive.
In my generation, our mothers were all so frustrated. They all stayed at home. There needs to be a balance and it was very out of balance. And there is a lot of built up anger.
I think when there are more of us together that we become cooperative. I think it is our nature to be cooperative. But, when we are stuck in a situation that is not so friendly to us, we become competitive. And that is just my philosophy. But, thank God, it is changing. I think it is getting much better now.
When I am teaching, there are women there that weren’t there before. I taught a master class and it was just nice to see other women. It is evolving.
I notice you are often credited as a recordist, a sound designer, an editor, and, on Blue Velvet, an audio mixer. How has performing all of these duties helped you improve your craft as a sound designer and the communication and relationships you have with your fellow sound team?
It gives an understanding of the whole certainly. It makes me better at what I do, having had that experience.
Who inspires you and why?
I get inspired from the project, the collaboration, and the ideas that come off of it, the energy and all that stuff. It evolves that way. There are certain sound designers that I admire. Recently, the film “Super 8” blew me away. I didn’t know who had done the sound design.
I was just stunned. The first 10 minutes of the film I didn’t listen to the dialog. I didn’t even know what was going on. I was just so fascinated with the sound. I thought, “Wow, that person has such a command over the mix, the elements, the musicality of it….” I thought that soundtrack was brilliant. It turned out to be Ben Burt. He is brilliant. He has done such amazing things in sound, but it was a different style for him. I also admire Gary Rydstrom very much. There are lots of new people on the horizon that I have been working with and am impressed with.
I am working on a low budget feature right now where I am working as a consultant. I am doing the sound design advice and working with the Director, talking about the whole direction of the film and working with the Composer. We found this really talented sound designer in Canada named Joe Burruco. I saw many show reels and I thought he was very imaginative. I’m really excited to see what he is going to come up with. The movie is called “Us.” It is so well acted and so well directed. The Director’s name is Sam Hancock and I hope you all get to see this movie when it comes out.
You have such a passion for what you do. What is your biggest frustration about working in film?
One of the things that can be frustrating about film is that one aspect can fall down, and then the film just doesn’t quite make it. Carol Ballard talked about pole vaulting. You try to get over that hurdle of the pole and if you miss it by a little bit, you knock it down. And just by that little more that you can add to it, it can get you over that pole. I’ve seen that over the years.
Finally, how do you feel about the emergence of the online community and forums that are connecting sound designers across the world?
I met Peter Albrechtsen through a sound design group. He put a request on the Yahoo sound design board. He needed a piece of ice breaking up with kind of a magic sound. I contacted Peter. I had a lot of ice breaking up and water sounds of recordings in Alaska. We talked over the phone.
He had this actual recording of the ice kind of cracking. It was absolutely beautiful. But his director thought it sounded too spacey, like outer space. Which, I could kind of relate to. You couldn’t necessarily relate it to ice. So, I said we could ground it with some of these watery sounds, give it some slush. And I happen to have the sounds of a spirit catcher. It is kind of a whirling sound. It is actually in my Hollywood Edge CDs. I don’t know if Peter knew that. I think I gave him a variation. It has a whirling tone. I said, “I think you could use your ice, with the watery sound, and the whirling sound.” And they loved it. That started our collaboration. And I have worked with him on a number of films that he has done since. He has such a great spirit and is very talented.
I love the collaboration that seems to be happening. That is so important, collaboration all around. Film can be so much better when you can work with the composer or when the Director is thinking about sound. That is one of the big problems here. There are these compartments. Things stay separate. You don’t even know what the music is until the very end.
How can you make the music dance with the sound if you don’t hear it until the every end? With collaboration we can all flourish.
Thank you so much, Ann. I certainly hope to have the honor of collaborating with you in future.