Practice Balance: A talk with Composer/Sound Designer Richard Gould

Richard Gould

Meet Richard Gould. Richard is a composer, sound designer, and voice actor for film, video games and interactive media and currently juggles freelance projects while working in sound editorial for Bay Area post-production company Skywalker Sound. His portfolio includes projects ranging from last year’s Blue Sky Studios release “The Peanuts Movie” to Adventure Time’s “BMO Snaps” for iOS to a host of independent documentaries, animations, and short films. Even a brief look at his credits & awards page will give you an idea, not only of the caliber of his work but also of the scope.

Richard graciously agreed to submit to Practice Positive’s first interview and I took the opportunity to ask him about something he is very good at; producing content and completing work. Below you’ll find our conversation about sound and music for film, creative process, and productivity in the face of a wide variety of projects.

An introduction:

Hello Richard.

Where have you lived, where do you live now, and how did you get there?

I was born in London England, but spent most of my childhood in the south-east of England on the White Cliffs of Dover. After finishing what’s equivalent to high-school, I spent a gap-year working, touring with a band and then traveling in Central America. I was going to go to Bristol University to study Geography with a mind to going into urban development, but I was afforded an opportunity to be the drummer on a potentially exciting project.

I deferred my university place by a year, only for the music project to fall though a week later due to differences between the producer and songwriter. My place at Bristol University for that year had already been given to another student, so with a year to play with I did a drum performance course at a London college called TechMusic Schools.

During that year I lived in west London with four other musicians. Two of them applied to Berklee College of Music in Boston MA, which at the time I hadn’t heard of. Neither of them spoke English as a first language so I helped them with their applications. For some reason I mentioned to my sister that I was doing this and she encouraged me to apply even if I didn’t want to do music professionally as going though the application and interview would be good practice for future job interviews.

It sort of made sense so I put in an application and prepared for an interview for a college I didn’t want to go to by writing “Berklee” in the center of a massive sheet of paper, studying their prospectus from which I generated numerous plausible reasons why someone like me would want to attend in the hopes of convincing my interviewer. Thankfully, I managed to convince them as I was awarded a place. What I didn’t anticipate is that I also convinced myself that Music in America sounded more exciting than Geography in west England.

So six months or so after my interview, I found myself in the US embassy in London getting my visa alongside none other than the actor Tom Hardy who was going out to do a play in Chicago at the time. If you’ll forgive the aside, this was prior to “Inception” so he was still relatively unknown, but I was a big fan of “Band of Brothers” (in which he shortly featured in one episode) and “Black Hawk Down,” and had a background myself in acting so I struck up a conversation with him. Now when you enter the US embassy, they take everything from you save for the paperwork you require for the meeting. As a result, my Berklee College of Music acceptance letter is signed not only by the president of the college, but also by Mad Max.

I spent the next five years in Boston MA, a city I dearly love. I lived in dorms on Commonwealth Ave and apartments in the Back Bay, Fenway and Allston. Then after graduating I drove across the country with my wife to northern California just north of San Francisco where I now live and work.

Please give a shout out to an exceptional venue, restaurant, park, museum, etc. in your area where we might run into you.

My favorite hidden gem of San Francisco is the Musée Mécanique which houses a vast collection of coin operated devices such as player pianos and ancient arcade machines. I love to just walk around and listen to all the switches, cranks, music and general cacophony of sound that erupts from all the various contraptions housed there.

Favorite movie or movie franchise?

Time again, I always find myself returning to Sam Mendes’ “Road To Perdition” (2002) as my favorite film. Whilst this film revolves around the mob, I don’t consider it a “gangster film.” At its heart, I believe it’s a film about the relationship between fathers and their sons, the sacrifices parents make for their children, and the rapid trip through adolescence that some of us are denied on our journey into adulthood. There’s beautiful exposition at the beginning of the film and Thomas Newman’s score immediately tells us this is ‘not your dad’s gangster film’, but instead a less stylish, more intimate and emotional journey. 

I’d like to briefly discuss two favorite scenes of mine.

The first is a great example of source music and how it can influence and interact with a scene. We find ourselves in the basement of a club where Michael Sullivan Sr. (played by Tom Hanks) is unknowingly delivering a message instructing the recipient to kill him. The music and dancing in the club above is shaking the lamps and features in the room ever so subtly. There’s tension already in the space. The energy builds as there are crossed glances of confusion. The man reads the message and Michael catches on. He spots a gun on the table between them that begins to physically shake with the energy in the room as if it’s calling out to be used by whomever can reach it first. It’s a wonderfully creative use of setting and score and a powerful moment within the film.

The next scene I find to be so visually and sonically stunning. The “rain scene,” as it’s often referred to, is perhaps the most iconic scene within the film and certainly the most striking. By this point in the film, John Rooney (the mob boss played by Paul Newman), has expressed how none of them will “see heaven” and clearly is in some way at peace with the actions he’s taken. He and his men exit a building, it’s raining heavily outside, the sound of the rain fades away to silence (a brave directorial decision) and a haunting score comes in. As John discovers his driver has been killed, he looks around unknowingly for a second before he figures it out. We then see an umbrella held by one of his men flutter into pieces, yet we still hear no sound safe for the hauntingly simple piano piece. From the end of the road, out of the pitch black, we see a muzzle flash as the weapon rains down on John’s men in silence. They fall one by one, returning fire blindly into the pitch black before them, yet John stands still, peaceful, facing the other way with his head down. Then from the darkness, Michael Sr. walks forward. Only one line is spoken as John turns and says, “I’m glad it’s you”. The music reacts perfectly to this moment, holding, waiting patiently for the line. Then we hear it, the sound we were denied before, the rupture of the gun. Whether John was saying he’s glad Michael was the one to kill him at the end of it all, or whether he was saying he’s glad that it’s he and not his son who will go on to live, I’m not sure, but it’s a beautifully simple line with different ways to interpret it.

If you could have any dessert on your plate right now?

Plain cheesecake, maybe with some raspberry sauce.

Guiltiest, most irresistible distraction?

The Hamish and Andy Podcast. Two Australian DJs who put out a daily podcast I’ve listened to religiously since 2009. Their childish and inventive sense of humor has put a smile on my face daily and goes a long way to keeping my mood up. I can occasionally get a little low when I read a little too much news, I tend to take the weight of the world on my shoulders, (and I’m also from the UK where we’re renowned for being a bit grumpy), so it’s proven invaluable for keeping my spirits up and maintaining my jovial personality.

What is the most recent thing you’ve made with your hands?

I made these two plush toys. One a Yeti, the other a Sasquatch. It was to celebrate the release of “Bigfoot Hunter,” a video game I worked on recently.

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The craft:

How would you describe your primary craft or crafts to someone who has no idea what you do?

When you’re playing a game or watching a film, try closing your eyes for 30s and just listen. I do that. If you mute the film or game, you’ll start to see how important it is. Music is more easily understood than sound as people know that it’s not naturally happening on location. But whilst most people intuitively understand that music has to be composed to exist, they also assume all the sounds they hear in a film were simply recorded on set when the lines were spoken. They don’t realize that in some cases, every footstep, every door being opened and closed, every sound and indeed every line spoken is created or rerecorded in post-poroduction, after the cameras have done their part. The easiest way to explain this is to draw on an example like “Toy Story” or any animated film or video game where there were no cameras on a location. They realize “of course, the images were made on a computer so there was no microphone on set to pick it up!”

What drew you to music and sound in the first place?

I was very musical as a child and played numerous instruments but when I was eleven I fell ill for several years and life basically went on hold. When I recovered, I picked up the drums again and still had a very musical ear but no real formal training. 

I discovered my love of scoring at college when I figured my preexisting passion for film would suggest I should major in film scoring. I chose that path despite having major reservations about my own abilities. They didn’t really teach post-production sound however so I discovered that by accident. There was one project they made us go though where we take all the sound and music out of a scene and build it up again from scratch. For most students it a chore as they were at music college to study music, not sound. But as I went though the exercise I saw something magical happen as the sounds brought the image back to life. I’ve heard many a sound designer describe a very similar story from their past as they first discovered the power of sound. From there I realized I needed to learn more and so I co-created the Berklee Sound Design Network to give me an impetus to learn about post-production sound. There was a growing community who expected me to know what I was talking about each week so I studied in my spare time preparing various talks on different aspects of sound design.

The drums are obviously more of a textual and sound-based instrument than a melodic or harmonic instrument like a flue or piano (though you can make the argument for drums having tonal qualities), so I think that played into my exploring sound in addition to music. In college it became apparent that while I didn’t necessarily always know exactly what was going on musically, I had a natural ear for orchestration and organizing all the disparate orchestral textures which makes sense to me as I see this process as a form of sound design.

Let’s get some backstory. How did you develop this particular skill set?

I developed my music and sound skills initially at college and then through finding outside work in addition to my studies which helped in terms of my professional skill set, managing the business aspect, dealing with clients and generally getting faster at what I do. It’s rarely about perfection and more about knowing I can get the work up to a professional level within a certain time.

To illustrate this point, for a senior project of mine I redid all the sound and music for a Disney short. I was thrilled with how it came out and it’s probably the best piece of work I’ve produced. Everyone thought it was a great piece and some felt it was stronger than the original in some ways. The thing is, it really should be as I had a few months to spend on it during which I explored my options, perfecting every detail till I got it as far as I alone could take it. In the professional world, you don’t get three months to spend on a single short, you get maybe three weeks at the most. So spending that time in college exploring and experimenting and developing your skill set is so important. You need to know what your 100% sounds like, getting that as far as you can so when time is tight and you can only get to 80%, it’s still up to the necessary level of quality and you can move on.

Why is it important? What brings you back every day to your desk?

I love helping others whether they’re directors or game designers by solving their creative problems with creative solutions and helping them to tell a story or create an experience. I shy away from the term ‘artist’ as I have too much respect for it and instead like to describe what I do as creative problem solving. It’s an added bonus if the project holds some significance or potential to impact lives in a positive way.

Who else should people look to for good examples of sound design, scoring, or voice acting? Who’s work or philosophy do you admire?

There are so many wonderful examples out there and I could go on for days, but for scoring, some of the more traditional names I keep turning to are Thomas Newman, Michael Kamen, Dario Marianelli, Howard Shore, John Williams and Bear McCreary. More recently I’ve discovered the music of Gustavo Santaolalla, Saunder Jurriaans and Daniel Bensi. Juries’ and Bensi’s score to “Last Days in the Desert” last year was, I thought, a highlight which I hope gets a soundtrack release at some point. Given how much time I spend listening to music though work, it can sometimes be hard to sit down and listen to new music as I either crave silence or something easy and familiar. I do occasionally find time to explore new music however and two composers I’ve discovered in recent years who’s work I really admire and enjoy are Caroline Shaw and Jon Hopkins.

On the sound side I have to be careful as I work with many of the people I admire the most. I even gave presentations on their lives and work while I was at college, so I could go on forever and don’t want to pick favorites. I will say however I thought the sound design for “Last Days in the Desert” was particularly strong last year, very tasteful and restrained. While I worked on “The Revenant,” I only contributed to one key scene, so I feel I can objectively say that I agree with what’s becoming the general consensus out there that it’s a fantastic sounding film. I think it’s especially effective in its blending of the score with esoteric sound design and more traditional effects and Foley elements, three distinct components that seamlessly become one cohesive sound. I’m especially interested in the idea of thematic sound. We often hear musical themes conjuring up specific characters, locations or concepts within a story, but I think the same process can be applied to sounds and textures and I think there’s great examples of that within The Revenant. There’s one moment for instance where DiCaprio’s character is near death, and as he struggles, though we don’t see one, we hear a fly buzzing, a sound often associated with death and decay. It’s a great example of a thematic sound that can have a very specific emotional trigger on the audience.

For the past two years DesigningSound.org (for which I’m an editor) have put out year-in-review posts to which I’ve contributed. So if you want to read more about what I was listening to in those years, you can check out those posts here…

2014

2015

The practice:

What skills have you found to be absolutely necessary to do what you do?

Above all else, having an ear for aesthetic, quality and and eye for sync, which if lacking, can make great sounds fall flat. Being able to think laterally to come at creative problems from new angles is key along with people skills and a genuine joy for the work, without which you’re not much fun to work with!

What tools do you find yourself using every day and why?

At a barebones level, I typically use ProTools for sound, it’s the industry standard for now. For music composition I gravitate towards Digital Performer. Both of those are subject to change depending on the projects and future developments. I also use an assortment of plugins, software instruments and sound libraries. I also have my recording rig with which I’m constantly recording new sounds to add to my personal collection. By far my most important tools however are my eyes, ears and my inner ear. They allow me to look and listen critically, analyzing what information my senses are being provided or denied before conjuring up sounds or music in my head that I feel are ‘right’ for the moment. Once I have that, I can go about creating it using the soft/hardware tools, but without that initial idea, I wouldn’t get anywhere. Random experimentation can of course be a useful tool, but I try to experiment as much as possible in my head before touching a keyboard or fader.

Early on, how did you explore the techniques you use on a regular basis today?

I previously wrote an article on field recording in which I analyzed how my ear and inner ear had matured though recording and working on post-production sound. I felt there had been four stages in my developing my ability to listen critically to sounds in the outside world that I might record to add to my library.

 

  1. Listening for interesting sounds in relation to context (i.e. see a dog, hear a dog)
  2. Listening for interesting aspects of a sound, regardless of context (i.e. see a dog, hear the raspy wet quality to the high element of the growl)
  3. Listening whilst considering the possibilities and later altering sounds to make them interesting (i.e. see a dog, hear the beefy low tonal end of the growl which I know I could pitch shift down, filter out the top, time stretch and use as an ambient tone)
  4. Conceptualizing interesting sounds in my head and creating the conditions to replicate that sound (i.e. the ability to conjure up sound ideas without sonic stimulus whilst having ideas on how to go about generating such a sound)

 

You can read the full article here if you’re curious.

Do you actively practice any skills outside of project work or do you find that the work itself keeps you sharp?

The latter. I will on occasion sit down and either learn or relearn a tool or piece of software, but I typically have to prioritize work, rest, fun, writing articles or sleeping over dedicated learning. Being relatively early on in my career, I’m still learning a lot just by doing and I will always try to make room for experimentation when time allows.

How do you decide whether or not you have room for improvement? Outside feedback? A standard of comparison?

Well, I think it’s hard to make the argument that one can get to a point when they can no longer improve. Even those at the top of their field I’m sure would say they could still improve in some way. Certainly in any creative or artistic endeavor, we’re often relating to or reflecting upon the real world which is always changing, so we can only stay static for so long.Working in both music and sound, straddling two complimentary yet separate disciplines, I feel I have to do double-duty in some respects when keeping tabs on my level of ability. Sometimes that means deciding to focus on improving one over the other which can be very difficult. 

As for a single instance of my work, I feel I’ve got a pretty good sense for where my abilities are and I know when I’m hitting the point of diminishing returns. I will sometimes seek outside feedback if I’ve been up against a wall for too long or if my ears are fatigued, but I feel it’s important to have confidence in your ability to self-asses and self-critique. When it comes to client feedback though, I strongly believe in making mistakes early, so I’m often sending work to clients (or superiors if I’m part of a team) that’s far from complete to get their initial reaction. Better to find out if I’m going down the wrong path sooner than later!

We have talked a few times about how you view music and sound as more of a trade than an “artistic expression” for yourself yet your work, from a third party perspective, is certainly expressive, unique, and artistic. Can you talk a little about this? How might your approach or mindset affect your productivity, workflow, or finished product?

So yes, I don’t view myself as an artist. I see my work as providing a service, providing creative solutions to creative problems in telling stories and creating experiences. That’s not to say I don’t see artistic qualities in my work but I don’t use my music or sound to purposefully express myself. My contribution is invariably part of a larger piece of work and I think having too grand a view of my role and the significance of my work could hurt its ability to fit within the larger piece. I think music and sound are hugely powerful tools, but they’re at their most effective when used consciously, conservatively and within its proper context. You have to be aware of the visuals, the narrative, the script, the characters, the performance, the setting, the whole experience.

In terms of an individual project, do you have a set methodology that works for you or do you find your workflow changes regularly?

It varies depending on whether I’m doing, sound, music, film, video games, installation works for museums, adverts, or whatever. If I’m writing music, I typically like to try and nail down a suitable aesthetic or feel from which I can begin creating music with. To begin this process I’ll typically pull together a range of music that I think could be effective in some way either from my own catalogue or from the vast world of music and sound. Often there’s already a ‘temp score’ (music pulled from other soundtracks as a temporary score) which can be a useful tool. However, if a director or game developer has been listening to specific pieces set to their film or game for months or even years, ‘temp love’ can set in which often results in my being charged with simply recreating the music which they can no longer detach from the rest of the work. Whilst it can be an interesting exercise to try and recreate music in a way that doesn’t infringe copyright, it does turn it into a bit of a stale process which can hurt the music and make it sound forced.

A few months ago you wrote a lovely reflection titled “The Inner Workings of Work.” In this piece you broke down the many different environments in which you’ve worked, from freelance to contract employee, and compared their pros and cons. Could you speak to how your daily creative practices differ in these environments?

I’d say the biggest difference I encounter currently between my freelance music and sound work and my contract work at Skywalker Sound, aside from the scale of the projects, is that when I work at Skywalker it’s within the context of a team with a shared aesthetic where I will typically be following the direction of a supervisor who deals with the client and sets out the creative direction. This means I’m typically getting straight to work and moving forward quickly compared to my freelance work where I’m often the one making the creative decisions, experimenting with directions and feeling out the client for what it is they’re looking for.

What is it like to switch roles like that from project to project? I imagine they have complemented one another in the long run.

I’ve always said the best things I learn about sound come from music, and the best things I learn about music come from sound. The constant changing dynamic of my work life keeps things interesting and provide a rich learning environment whether I’m working on my own or as part of a team. 

What work have you encountered recently that proved a challenge or forced you to change tactics? How did you work through this?

The hardest thing I encountered in 2015 was finding my work/life balance. It was by far my busiest year professionally but it was also busy personally as it was the year of my first marathon and my wedding. I found myself getting to the point where I was having to turn down projects due to existing professional and commitments. I always know I can probably technically find the time and take more work on, but it’s important to me that I’m happy and maintain some sense of a balanced life which I feel is key to my producing good sounding work. So making the calls to say ‘no’ has been my greatest recent challenge. I try to see it as a good problem to have and I don’t know if I’ll change my tactics at all in 2016. There’s typically a ‘feast or famine’ cycle to my line of work so I try to allow myself to enjoy the time off when it comes up so that I’m refreshed when the work starts building up again.

How do you avoid or confront a creative block?

I only really get creative blocks in music. When I do, I’ll typically work on something else, maybe some sound effects to get out of the music space. Sometimes I’ll try random experimentation to see if I come up with something serendipitously. Other times I’ll write something which I know isn’t where it needs to be, but it at least allows me to progress forwards. Then with hindsight, with the knowledge of where a musical passage ends up, I can see where it needs development.

Interesting that music is the main source of creative blocks. Why might sound design present fewer blocks for you?

I think the main reason is that for the most part, a lot of the sound work I do is self-evident. It’s pretty obvious when a door closes that I need to put a sound in for it, so it’s a lot easier to keep moving forward, even if quality is a varying factor which necessitates additional passes. With music, there’s generally a lot more raw creation and conceptualization going on which naturally takes more time. There’s certainly sounds I design from scratch that are very creative where I encounter blocks, but not to the same extent that I do music.

Often times creators are terrible self-critics. Without self examination an artist’s progression would be slow but this can occasionally be as crippling as it is constructive. Have you faced emotional challenges in your creative work and if so, how have you worked through them?

Generally I’ve been happy with the work I produce for clients (and hopefully they have been too!). I try not to spend too much time assessing the worth of my own work though as whether or not it’s effective is best left to others. If I keep getting work, I’ll take that as an indication that my work is where it needs to be.

That being said, there was one occasion I can recall where I was very unhappy with my contribution to a work. In hindsight I feel this was principally because my work was undervalued from the start and I was being taken advantage of. Unfortunately, this made it very difficult to work on the project and as such the work suffered.

That one occasion doesn’t sound like fun. Creative work being what it is, most people will run into conflict of varying degrees throughout a career. Some professionals walk out on projects in extreme cases while others just grit their teeth and give the client what they want. How do you try to comport yourself and move ahead if confronted with less than preferable work situations?

Well I’ve only had that one occasion so far, and there were early warning signs I should have seen but ignored because I was relatively early on in my career. So I think the brunt of the work comes in listening carefully and anticipating these kinds of issues, either before accepting a gig, knowing that it’s one you probably should decline, or redirecting the course of things mid-project if you feel things are going a certain way. When I was stuck in it though, I just gritted my teeth somewhat and got on with it. I knew the work was going to suffer which was the hardest part as you always want to leave a project proud but sometimes circumstance doesn’t allow it.

Day in and day out can be tiring or exciting depending on the individual. Are you a proponent of the “Seinfeld Method” or do you break up your creative routine? How do you block out your creative time?

At college I took a reverse chronological order approach to projects where I’d do whatever I had the most time to work on first. That meant I always had the most relaxed midterms and finals weeks as all my work was done. Since entering the professional world, I’ve not found any work/break method necessary personally. I take breaks when I get bored or if I’m not making any progress. As a break I’ll typically go cook, eat a good meal, go for a run, go play a video game or watch an episode of something while knitting.

It’s clear that you are not an overtly obsessive worker and seem to have found a nice balance between work and sanity whenever possible. What can you say about counterproductive perfectionism or, on the other side of the coin, procrastination in either your own work or in working with others?

What can I say about counterproductive perfectionism? I wrote a lengthly article about that very subject!

I don’t really have more to add to the topic than what I covered there, but to summarize, Perfectionism totally gets the better of me when there’s no deadline or client to please. When I’m accountable to someone other than myself though, I have no problem getting the work done to a good standard (but not perfect), on time. That is perfection. Sure I could have taken more time and delivered perfect content late, but my client would be unhappy, and what’s perfect about that?

For more about productivity and a detailed look at some time saving workflow strategies, check out Richard’s recent article published to DesigningSound.org titled, Macros for Audio Production – Automating Your Workflow. DesigningSound.org is a resource dedicated to the art and technique of sound design with the aim of sharing information and knowledge for free. As mentioned earlier, Richard contributes regularly as a writer and editor.

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