Music Composer & Sound Designer Alex Tarrant shares an insight into the world of sound
5 min read
"Without music, life would be a mistake" Friedrich Nietzsche
At The Like Minded, we couldn’t agree more! Sound design is an essential element that can make or break creative content but is often overlooked. We take great pride in embracing sound design to produce animation and film that bring emotive stories to life and create a lasting connection with audiences.
In this month’s blog, we are handing over to Alex Tarrant, a talented Sound Designer and Music Composer who we regularly collaborate with. Alex shares the intricacies of composing music using virtual instruments, how to produce authentic custom sound designs for animation and his ability to think outside the box when it comes to recreating unique sounds.
Take it away, Alex…
By Alex Tarrant
From Ancient Greek Theatre to contemporary film and media, music has served as an integral part of enhancing visual performance for Millennia. A modern-day professional composer is expected to possess several skills in addition to music composition, including technical proficiency in music production and a deep understanding of sound design. It is common for the responsibility of music score, sound design, foley (everyday sound effects) and voice-over enhancement to fall to a single audio professional.
It probably comes as no surprise that your emotions are frequently manipulated by the media. Music is an effective tool for leading your emotions in different directions; whether a particular sound is used to induce a feeling of sadness or an upbeat dance music track is used in an advert to get you hyped for the latest product, the fact remains that by hearing certain sounds we immediately know how we should feel.
In the modern technological age, Composers and Sound Designers can flex their skills and flourish more than ever thanks to advancements in digital technology. Access to powerful computer hardware and production software (known as Digital Audio Workstations, or DAWs) has never been so readily available. But perhaps the greatest perk we have now is the ease of collaboration. It has never been so simple for a filmmaker to commission an audio professional for custom music scores, sound design and foley work.
A virtual instrument is any real instrument recorded and imported into a software sampler, such as Kontakt. This enables us to “play” the instrument simply using a MIDI keyboard. The abundance of virtual sampled instruments on the market has given composers unprecedented artistic freedom to create music that would otherwise have been immensely challenging, if not impossible. Composers now have almost any instrument at their fingertips, including full orchestral ensembles, and are an essential part of any modern composers’ toolkit.
Thinking outside the box: recreating the Inanga
Despite the large selection of virtual instruments available on the market, some occasions require improvisation. One such example of this, within a project at The Like Minded, occurred during an animated piece on climate change awareness for the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), titled “Untold stories of climate change loss and damage in the LDCs: Rwanda.”
During the early stages of the project, we conducted thorough research on the region, culture, language and music styles. In this case, we discovered that a popular traditional instrument within Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi is a six (or more) stringed plucked instrument called an “Inanga”. Unfortunately, it seemed impossible to get hold of an Inanga in the UK, and there were no virtual instruments available on the market. It was time to think outside the box and look at ways to re-create the sound an Inanga produces.
Trying to achieve the warm tone of the Inanga with an acoustic guitar proved unsuccessful due to the thinner strings used on a guitar. Eventually, it was an old cello that saved the day. By plucking the two thickest nylon strings on the cello and tuning them to the notes traditionally used by an Inanga, I was able to create a close resemblance to the warm tone of the Inanga strings. I recorded these plucked notes, added some digital processing, and created my own virtual Inanga used in the final film.
Although this virtual Inanga was only used within the first ten seconds of the soundtrack, going that extra mile proved worthwhile as it was effective at setting the initial soundscape and injecting a level of cultural authenticity into the piece.
Creating atmosphere: sound design for animation
Creating an immersive experience is a crucial consideration for any piece of film and no less important for a short-animated film or explainer video. In a world full of distraction and an overload of content thrown at us, most of us are guilty of short attention spans!
Holding the viewers’ interest has never been so challenging or important. The soundscape plays a critical role in bringing the animation to life and creating an immersive experience, drawing the viewer in and making them feel connected to the performance. Some examples of background soundscape elements are weather (wind, rain, thunder), crowd chatter, traffic noises and rainforest ambience.
It is capturing these sounds that often involves heading out with a microphone and a handheld recorder and manually recording the ambience or whatever sound you need. One project for Evans Cycles featured a scene that required a bike trip to the nearest dirt track to execute some skids! Even when travelling, I like to grab a few recordings of the ambience of the local environment, whether it be rainforest or bustling city. (This also is a great excuse to go on holiday!).
On other occasions, sounds can be designed within the DAW using a synthesizer. The video below features a scene from “Sabika’s Story“ and shows the whistling wind sound being produced using a software synthesizer called Xfer Serum.
Making it authentic
Many projects I’ve had the pleasure of working on with The Like Minded have had the mission of raising awareness of issues faced by a specific nation or group of people. Therefore, one of the first tasks is to research the culture in question. The initial focus is on the traditional music associated with the culture, the key instruments, the percussion style used, common rhythm patterns and so on.
“Untold stories of climate change loss and damage in the LDCs: Solomon Islands“, another example from the IIED Climate Change Series, benefited from this initial research because we learned that the traditional music of The Solomon Islands consists of pan flutes and acoustic guitars. These were used in the music score for the animation along with a light piano score which evolves into an emotional crescendo as the film progresses. The client feedback was great; they commented on the music’s good cultural fit.
A team effort
Sound design and music composition can often be a solitary endeavour, so frequently communicating with clients and listening to their feedback can be a game changer. Listening to the ideas of others can spark new ideas of your own and lead you down an interesting path that you wouldn’t have otherwise considered.