When it comes to music as a profession, composer Robert O. Ragland might have said it the best, “The film composer has two main pressures…time and quality“. Sam Estes and Michael Hobe can certainly relate to all the hurdles in the creative process. They have seen their fair share of films, TV shows and video games and learned from the best in the industry while working as composers and sound designers at Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control Productions. Following their time there, they went on to produce private sound design and samples for the likes of Danny Elfman, Michael Giacchino, Junkie XL (Tom Holkenborg), and Christopher Lennertz.
Sam specializes in taking a compositional approach to sound design, and his knowledge of both unusual instrumental acoustics and digital manipulation lends to a never ending supply of new and interesting sonic possibilities. Sam’s musical background is as a woodwind player (bassoon), vocalist, and pianist. Michael’s fields of expertise includes sampling, sound design, guitar, and other stringed instruments. Together they have worked on plenty of blockbuster films including The Dark Knight, Sherlock Holmes (1 & 2), Inception, Rango, Pirates of the Caribbean IV, and The Dark Knight Rises before starting their own company, Sonicsmiths.
We got to talk with Estes and Hobe recently, and chatted about their work as well as the duo’s ground-breaking sound sampling library called The Foundry. Enjoy our session with Sam and Michael.
GoSeeTalk: Sam, Michael, you have both played many roles in the film/TV/video game music world as synth programmer, sound designer and composer. What are the biggest challenges across formats and mediums?
Time! Film is always everything at the last minute. TV, there is no time to think, only deliver. For video games, time somehow is always changing. Time is always our biggest challenge and knowing when and how to deliver. On a technical level, it’s all about the same – delivering assets like stems, tracks, cuts. Video games are the only real different one, since that’s very loop, and element trigger based.
I’ve talked to several composers about sound design in relation to thier scores. Some say they are continually going that direction in an effort to make their music more unique to the project. How does being versed in sound design aid in musical compositions, and vice versa?
Music is always more than just notes on a page. It’s the orchestration colors involved, the player’s interpretation, and ultimately how you create the “sound of the score”. Being able to understand and use the traditions behind “pen-and-paper” composition is great in terms of writing good music, but then understanding how to fit in the “non-traditional” elements – synths, sound design, other new instruments – that can replace, enhance, or modify those traditional “orchestral” elements is really where you can create magic.
So knowing how to properly voice chords – how to write a good melody, how to create tension and release through musical means – provides a solid base for adding in the sound design. Knowing how to do sound design helps in creating a modern orchestration for a good composition.
Talk to us about how sound design and music come together. Is it just tweaks to a composition with effects periodically thrown in, or is it done in tandem with the composer and director every step of the way?
It’s both, really. We have to be fluid with every project that comes in. Sometimes we front-load a project with a bunch of sounds that a composer will use along the way. Other times, we are taking tracks and adding or “sweetening”. Often times it’s “hey I need this sound or something like this sound” or “what’s missing here?”.
Our favorite part is getting an orchestral skeleton/piano sketch and then having the freedom to design and add tracks around it. We send that material back to the composer for them to continue to write to, and then they send it back to us, etc. That collaborative process is the best.
Both of you worked at Remote Control for four years, and after that spent time with some real top level composers. So what changes in the industry have you noticed, and what do you think is the current trend in film/TV music? Or what do you see things progressing towards?
There are two trends happening. The static trend – the “Let’s be safe and stick with big driving rhythms and hits, with standard orchestral elements”. And then the moving trend – “Let’s be big without being big”. In other words, we see a pull back from the in-your-face quality and “loud” music. It’s moving toward messing more with frequency and sonics to give breadth and bigness to a score.
The trend of traditional orchestral scores is still on the decline, but the “big” hybrid score is also declining. We think some of the more delicate, intricate hybrid scores will be rising. Obviously this highly depends on what the project is and most importantly, the budget. Now shrinking music/post budgets are DEFINITELY a trend.
Let’s talk about Sonicsmiths. You two already had a lot of musical sounds specifically designed in The Dark Knight Rises and Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, not to mention the hundreds of other films that have used your instruments. So what prompted the jump to do your own thing?
Ownership and full creative collaboration. We saw a need from a vast array of composers needing more and more sounds created specifically for their projects, and, in order to spread out that base, we needed to be independent from any singular commercial venture.
This allows us to stretch our sound as each composer and project have a different vibe and sonic aesthetic they want to create. Being our own independent company we could take on these projects, keep them private for the individual composer, and then to branch out to be composers ourselves.
You are about to release a new sound design creation tool called “The Foundry”. I’ve heard Robert Rodriguez talk about a huge library of sounds he created and stores for his films. What makes this product different from the other tools out there?
Just two things: Time and Originality. Within 5 seconds, after loading the program, you can create a patch by feeding some key-word elements to The Foundry and have it randomly generate a patch based on those keywords – we call this the “Adjective Assignable Randomizing Engine.”
No longer does a composer have to sort through a list of patches only to pull up a patch that some other composer is using – you just press a few buttons and you get something new. If you want to get “tweaky” with it, we have let you have the ability to do proper sound designing with it.
When a film is done, I’ve been told that the movie and music belong to the studio. So can you “take” sounds and samples with you once you’re done with a project? Is The Foundry a compilation of all your past efforts?
Well, it depends on the contract. Certain sounds are owned by the studio, some are owned by the composer. In either case, we take special care not to distribute, use, or do any manipulation to the sounds we’ve recorded for a specific client, unless granted special permission.
We highly value our clients and the rights of our clients and would never sell or use their material for a different client or for a commercial venture. The Foundry is 100% new material that we’ve been recording, collecting, and manipulating for the past several months.
With The Foundry, where do you see the roles of sound designers and composers going? Also, what’s the most significant or impressive aspect of this new tool?
The roll of the Sound Designer won’t really change – they will have freedom to access most of the key features within Kontakt and really design a lot of these sounds and patches pretty deeply and musically.
For the composer, who has no time and little interest in doing some sound design, it’s ideal since there is a really hefty generation algorithm making the sounds for you. We really want the composer’s roll to get more used to adding and using the sound designed elements in their scores, plus if they need some custom sounds then they know where to reach us!
Seems like there are millions of ways to manipulate and combine sounds with this tool. The “adjective assignable randomizer” is a really cool feature and should help people use it pretty quickly. But what is the learning curve, especially for some old school composers? Is The Foundry specific to the technical side of the industry, or can anyone play with it?
It actually serves both types of composers. We have the “initial use” learning curve, then the “sound design” learning curve. The “Initial Use” curve is about 2-5 minutes, if you already know Kontakt, the host sampler/program. You just need to know where the randomizing engine window/button is (fyi, it’s the lower right button labeled “Randomizer”). Then know what type of patch you want – Texture, Bed, FX, Rhythmics – and what keywords you want – mysterious, bright, breathy, metallic, etc. – and finally, hit the “randomize” button. Then you have your patch generated. If you don’t like it, hit the randomize button again.
With the “Performance” window, you can access all the elements you need to turn on and off as well as mix and morph the 4 voices together – each voice part also has a dice to randomize fx on the voices. After about 2-5 minutes of use, you should have enough knowledge of the program to generate new patches.
If you are a tweak-head, then we have about 3 more levels deep to go, from designing LFOS, step sequencers, step filters, envelope designers, and an impressive list of Filters and FX – all which are accessible, but also randomizable. The “Sound Design” learning curve for those who are not used to synth programming can be quite steep – about 2-4 weeks. Those who know how to do it, probably 5-10 hours and you can pretty much understand and use all of it.
It seems that by using and manipulating The Foundry’s core library, the possibilities are endless. But what, if any, are the limitations? Is this a fixed library, or will there be periodic updates to the sample sounds you’re providing?
It is a sampled library using everything from wavetable style synths to organic instruments that are designed, so out of the 10gb+ and 8000+ samples there are some natural, albeit small, limitations. If the library does well, we plan to expand with sample packs that will add new sounds as well as more adjectives to the mix – from free to a small update fee.
We also want to build a user community that can share patches freely. Of course, any engine updates that need to happen, will happen – usually free of charge.
I’ve been told this was met with great response at the National Association of Music Merchants. Have you shown it to, or worked to create it with input from your former clients/collaborators – like Zimmer, Giacchino or Junkie XL? Finally, how much time do you estimate this might save potential users?
We are showing this library to any composer that has interest. We have shown it to major film composers, television, video-game, and even “hobby-ist” composers. Every person we show it to has provided some great insight, and have brought up some very good suggestions that we are feverishly trying to add in…within reason.
We are also putting all of our experience from working with these composers into designing something fun that we can use, they can use, and we can use for them.