Friday, July 11, 2008

One of my students...

...asked me to do an interview about why I settled on sound design and teaching as my career path. I thought it might be helpful for incoming Flashpoint students if I re-printed the transcription.

The interview was conducted by Dan Newman, one of the inaugural Rec Arts students, now awaiting his second year at FP.

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April 2008

Dan Newman: You seemed to have established yourself well in the field of sound design, can you talk about how you got started in the industry?

John Murray:
I suppose it all started with a love for sound, and a thirst to capture it, harness it, manipulate it, and to tell a story with it.

My first recording device was a cheap portable Panasonic cassette recorder / player. I carried it with me everywhere. I was about nine years old. Once I discovered that I could start and stop recordings with the “PAUSE” button, and in effect, string together snippets of audio, there was no stopping me. Although I didn’t recognize it as such at the time, it was a way that I could “edit.” Much like a film editor tells a story by “editing” together discontinuous moving image sequences, I was editing little pieces of unrelated audio that once compiled together told a story that was formerly only present in my imagination.

That primitive methodology evolved through middle school until I became dissatisfied with the lack of precision. After all, the PAUSE button was mechanical, housed inside a really cheap device. I wanted the ability to make “cuts” that were absolutely, and precisely, in time with the music I was using. So around the time I started high school, I began meticulously taking apart cassette casings, carefully pulling the tape off the reels, cutting it with scissors at exact moments, rearranging the pieces and using scotch tape to mend the seams back together.

By the time I got to college and was allowed to use “professional grade” open reel tape recorders, splicing blocks, grease pencils, razor blades, and real bona fide splicing tape, I was completely hooked.

DN: Why sound design? Have you any interest in music recording or location audio?

JM:
Though I thoroughly enjoy the process of recording music with bands, and I’ve done a fair amount of it, I guess I’ve always known that “audio production,” including the freedom and control of multi-track layering, editing, and manipulation, was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I just love the idea of being able to use bits of seemingly random pieces of recorded audio to create an entirely new emotional response.

And, for the first ten years of my career, I was fortunate enough to work at facilities that had both music recording studios and sound for picture rooms. So, if I ever had the urge to do that I could.

Location audio wasn’t something I understood until I started doing audio post for TV commercials. I did location audio a few times early on and it just never agreed with me. I never got comfortable with waiting around on set for hours while grip and electric and the DP set up shots.

Field recording to gather sound effects and ambiences, on the other hand, is something that interests me very much though I never seem to have enough time to do it.

DN: Can you talk a little about the medium that you worked on before Pro Tools became the industry standard? What was the industry standard before the digital age came about?

JM:
Well, obviously it was in the analog domain. I started out using the Ampex AG-440 line of transitor-based recorders. Fantastic machines. 1” 8-track, 1/2" 4-track, and 1/4” 2-track. Built like tanks. Then I moved up to Otari multi-track recorders, before finally working regularly with a variety of 2” 24-track machines. You have to understand that although these machines were workhorses – I mean you could really pound on them - you had to perform daily maintenance, constantly making adjustments to the internal electronics that governed record and playback levels and bias across the frequency spectrum. It was a funny mixture of feeling comfortable that the machines would NEVER fail you, so we worked them pretty hard, but you also wanted to take care of them. I suppose it’s akin to antique car collectors getting fussy about “leaning” on a front quarter-panel. In the end, they were mechanical devices, and we were the operators, so an extraordinary amount of care went into making sure they were functioning properly. It was just part of the gig. Any engineer from that era will muse fondly about the countless hours listening to the voice identifying frequencies on MRL [Magnetic Reference Laboratory] alignment tapes used to calibrate the machines.

There was also the fact that there wasn’t any “undo.” When you punched into record on a specific spot on tape it was forever, no going back. Whatever was there previously was now erased. It seemed completely natural at the time, but part of being a good engineer was understanding the limitations of the devices you were working with, which included only a certain amount of tracks. What we would call “file management” or “track layout” today was at a premium back then. You only had so many, so you had to pack it in wherever you could.

DN: What is your process in doing the actual work of sound design for film? Is it conceptually driven or practical, or both?

JM:
It starts out conceptually and then moves into practical. There is always this moment at the beginning of a project where I panic a little, not knowing how things are going to turn out. Or if I’m going to be able to sonically capture the essence of a story, but that always seems to fade the farther I move along in the process.

I typically begin with dialogue, cleaning up production audio to make it as smooth as possible throughout the film. It often takes quite a while to get the noise floor to be seamless from shot to shot and scene to scene. In doing this, I become very familiar with the characters and the little nuances in performance, which helps me hone in on the story on several different levels—not just the obvious narrative arc, but also any symbolic or metaphorical stuff that I can latch onto.

I then turn my attention to backgrounds or ambiences. Again, taking great care to represent an interior or exterior shot as accurately as possible. Often, I have to “build” an ambience. For exteriors, this means creating things that are not only appropriate in the foreground, but also distant, out-of-frame stuff, like dogs barking, car passes, hydraulics of buses, lawn mowers, kids playing, construction, airplanes, you name it—anything to bring alive the neighborhood. Mind you, all of these sound elements usually end up on the edge of perception, but they really give a soundtrack realism.

Foley is next. If I’m doing it myself it’s fairly laborious. Footsteps, floor creaks, seat rustles, and cloth movements make a huge difference, but there are always props that need to get re-recorded as well. Keys, phones, dishes, glasses are all examples; it’s really anything that a character may handle, touch, or move.

Of course, I’ve described a typical slice-of-life film. If the story is a thriller or action or sci-fi or horror, everything changes. In those cases, music and / or sound design elements created with virtual instrument modules, i.e., synths and waveform modulation stuff, play a much bigger role and I usually need to get to that earlier in the development of the track.

DN: How do you get motivated to do the work? What are your aspirations? Who inspires you most?

JM:
It’s not “who” that inspires me, it’s “what.” It’s always the story. If the story is good, interesting, and meaningful, I’m in for the long haul. And I guess that’s where my motivation comes from.

DN: In your personal experience, how has your creative work reflected or influenced your life?

JM:
That’s not exactly an easy question to answer because I think it goes both ways, back and forth. My personal life certainly influences my creativity, but it’s also the other way around.

What I can say is that when I’m deep into a project there is no difference between them. In other words, immersing myself in a sound design project is my life for a short amount of time. It’s all I think about. I go to sleep anxious to get back to it the next day, and I wake up thinking about how yesterday’s work is already different in my mind. There are definitely instances of clarity that come to me as I walk away from the studio each day or night. Perspective and momentary distant from a project is vital to me. I need time to digest and ponder the development of each day’s work. I suppose if you charted it, there might be a pattern. But if there is, I’m not sure what it looks like.

DN: Is there anything about the industry that you know now that you wished you had known 10 years ago?

JM:
Not so much 10 years ago, but I wish I knew 25 years ago how important it would be to protect my hearing. I used to go to a lot of live music shows, most of them were entirely too loud, and I also spent quite a bit of time under headphones listening to audio at high SPL’s. I just didn’t think about it then, I was young and thought I was invincible. The parts of the ear that allow us to hear are some of the few vital human organs and processes that do not repair if damaged. Ever.

DN: What advice can you offer someone interested in the sound design field?

JM:
Don’t worry about the software and hardware. By the time you master any given product it’s long obsolete. Spend your time grasping concepts. Sound, image, time, and space are good places to start. Develop perception, attention to detail, and aesthetics. Work on communication skills and understand collaboration and never keep somebody waiting. If you can create a sound in your mind and then know exactly how to achieve that sound using available technology or good old-fashioned knowhow, and do it quickly, you’ll be just fine.

I don’t mean to sound like an advertisement for Flashpoint Academy, but we hammer away at these issues for a reason. They are the most important tools you can have.

DN: Do you enjoy teaching the craft better than working in the field?

JM:
Fortunately, I get to do both. But yes, I enjoy teaching immensely. I think one of the greatest gifts we can give is to pass along knowledge and experience to the next generation. And to finally find an institution where immersive and experiential learning can take place—something I believe in very strongly for technology-based education—is a terrific situation for me.