Scanner, aka Robin Rimbaud, is a British artist, composer and sound designer whose works include film scores, installation sound, product sound design and of course, electronic music. Just last month he presented the Keynote address at the 49th AES Audio for Games Conference. As thoughtful as he is thought-provoking, I sat down with him in his East London studio to chat about the intersection of sound design and music. Here are selected excerpts from that conversation.
Is there a difference between music and sound design?
I don’t ever delineate between the two. For me, they have the same goal which is to tell a story in sound…
In fact I wrote a musical in 2007, for which I wrote a lot of “traditional” music, but then I wrote all these other incidental parts where every now and again there were notes playing through it. So was that music, or was that sound design? I got into this really big debate (with the producer) because essentially with publishing, you have to pay on performance rights. So the less they have to pay, quite clearly, the better it is for the producer of the theatre – and they said “no, that’s not music.”
So I went back to them and said ‘What about Luc Ferrari and Bernard Parmegiani and the whole history of music concrete? Pierre Schaeffer and all those characters? Are you saying when Pierre Henry made a record of a creaking door, that wasn’t music? Where are the limits to these kind of discussions?
They just completely ignored it and said “that’s not music.”
Certain sounds evoke certain emotions in myself, but they won’t necessary evoke an emotion, or the same emotion, in someone else. How, as a sound designer, do you navigate that?
Well I suppose there’s certain universal, not truths, but universal understandings that a piano sound like this one (Scanner plays a minor chord) can be quite melancholic. It’s about your relationship to those objects. When people hear this (plays a series of piano chords), people recognize it’s a piano. In their palette, sound comes from something in their history.
I think what can be problematic for people with electronic music is that it doesn’t come with a history often. So it can be rather unsettling because those sound worlds are synthetic and they’re not drawing on a natural world, their not using environmental sounds although sometimes they’ve come from that kind of world.
I think sometimes there is a universal understanding of, for example, what is melancholia, what is joy, what creates a feeling of “epic” – the sort of music you hear in a film. But in between there’s a lot of space in there for very personal slants.
On sound and music for film…
There are so many films where the soundtrack plays such a key role. ‘Drive’ is a great example. This is a film that had a huge influence on musicians that do soundtrack work; this kind of minimalistic, arp-lead soundtrack. I’ve heard so much commercial work now ripping that off, basically, but I don’t think most people are really aware of the score of that film…
I still feel it’s a huge battle to be fought here for actually recognizing the role that sound has, particularly in cinema. That field is telling a story is such an immersive way, moreso than most people would ever have at home, and yet most people don’t know about the value it actually has…
Some films don’t understand how sound works. If you close you eyes and listen to a film scene of an accident on the motorway, what you’re hearing is cars being dropped off cranes and all kinds of things; that’s actually the sound design being made for it. In a way it has very little reference to what you’re seeing, but because you see an impact on the screen, the two stories are telling the same thing: the sound is saying “impact,” the image is saying “impact” but actually they are two completely things. Sometimes it’s quite magical when that happens, and sometimes it just doesn’t work…
The ones I don’t understand are films that are presented as verité, or presented as found on tape: why is there a score on it? Really odd. I think it becomes problematic because I know what they’re doing, and it’s taking me outside the experience. Suddenly it’s saying “this is a film, this isn’t really a found tape, this is actually scored therefore it’s been manipulated afterwords, and we’re manipulating you.” So I’ve been thrown out of the picture. Sound design is fine but adding a score really disrupts the experience in a general way.
Playing devil’s advocate, so why is adding sound design okay?
Because some films are very good with the sound design, very impressive: you have these textural elements that actually aren’t interfering with your understanding of the film. I think they (sounds) are so subtle in a sense.
So would you say that’s where music and sound design diverge?
Maybe with sound design it’s easier to – not mislead people because that sounds very negative – but play with people. When you hear a piece of music, you either decide that you like it or don’t like it pretty soon, and then you realize whether it’s a major or minor piece. Even if you don’t recognize the musical references you recognize whether it’s sad or happy. Whereas often with sound design it has the ability to “shift”, in a more subtle way.
If you were to give advice to a new sound designer, what would you say?
Avoid all your plugins for the time being. Actually play. Play between working on things, just enjoy it, and don’t rely on a standard plugin or a piece of software, don’t rely on a preset or anything like that. Have fun. As soon as you make something you “own” and you’ve found your own voice, that’s what’s important. People come to me because there is a certain ‘sonic voice’ I present in the work I make, and that’s what I do, and they go to other characters because that’s their voice. Also, don’t go to bed late (laughs).