CRAFT: THE ART OF SOUND - Sound is as critical as visual images when it comes to creating advertising that can’t be ignored, says Jim Davies

You’re watching television and a friend phones. You press the mute button on your remote control and idly watch the commercials as the pair of you put the world to rights. It’s only then that you realise quite how disjointed these supposedly seamless pieces of advertising are. Of course, under normal viewing conditions, the glue that holds them together is the sound. The layering and interplay of voiceover, sound effects and musical score is in many ways as critical a production issue as the more obvious visual component of a commercial.

You’re watching television and a friend phones. You press the mute

button on your remote control and idly watch the commercials as the pair

of you put the world to rights. It’s only then that you realise quite

how disjointed these supposedly seamless pieces of advertising are. Of

course, under normal viewing conditions, the glue that holds them

together is the sound. The layering and interplay of voiceover, sound

effects and musical score is in many ways as critical a production issue

as the more obvious visual component of a commercial.



Yet, typically, you’ll find sound way down the creative pecking

order.



’The problem is, it’s not the most immediate of the senses,’ explains

Michael Cook, creative director of the sound studio, M62, who has worked

on many ads and is currently concocting an ambient sound experience for

the Body Zone in the Millennium Dome.



’But what many people fail to realise is that, when you turn your back

on the TV to make a cup of tea, you still hear what’s going on behind

you. There are directors and creative teams who realise how important it

is, but it’s probably only the top 10 per cent.’



Cook belongs to a growing band of ’sound designers’ who, over recent

years, have sought to educate the UK advertising community as to the

creative power and potential of sound.



OK, there are occasions when reaching for the nearest soul classic is a

legitimate tactic - after all, it stood Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Levi’s

in good stead for years - but there are also opportunities to be more

imaginative, to really cut loose and use sound to create ambience,

atmosphere and effects that enhance or underscore the on-screen

action.



’(Sound design) always was a silly term, but it was also a useful one,’

Cook says. ’It distinguished between basic sound effects editing and

doing something on a more creative level, perhaps incorporating musical

elements.’



’The phrase has been over-used for many years,’ agrees the Tape

Gallery’s chief engineer, Simon Capes. ’But now the industry is in a

position to do the title justice.’



Cape’s assertion is based on the rapid advances and diminishing cost of

technology in this sector. ’The recording industry is moving incredibly

fast technologically,’ he says. ’The Tape Gallery regularly tests new

hardware and software to try to keep ahead. Sometimes the manufacturers

don’t even know what their kit is capable of.’



These days, a basic studio set-up consists of a sampler, sequencer and

hard disk editor. Then you can add all sorts of bells and whistles, such

as synths, reverbs, vocoders, compressors and exciters.



’A few years ago, it would have cost pounds 2 million to set up a

studio,’ Cook claims. ’Now you could get started for around pounds

20,000.’



In practice, creative teams tend to start considering the possible

avenues for sound during pre-production. They sort out rights issues,

availability of particular composers or sound designers, all of which

can take time.



It isn’t actually until after the film has been shot, however, that the

soundtrack is finally combined with the film footage, literally adding

another dimension. ’As a director, it’s always the last thing you do

because you can’t physically do the sound without the images,’ explains

Mark Denton, a director at Blink. ’But that doesn’t mean to say it’s a

lesser part of the process. Sound is the icing on the cake. Ads would be

really dull lumps of cake without the sound.’



Dave Waters, creative director of Duckworth Finn Grubb Waters, concurs:

’Sound can make or break a commercial. You have to get it right ... I’d

go so far as to say it’s worth spending half your budget to get it

right.



It’s part of our job to go in with ideas about sound, but its always

worth being open to suggestions. (Sound designers) keep their ears open

all the time and usually have something extra to offer.’



Like many other production or post-production specialists, creatives and

directors tend to return to sound experts with whom they’ve built up a

rapport. Denton, for example, uses the wonderfully eccentric Terry Brown

from Old Splice for his more ’cartoony’ sound effects when his visual

aesthetic requires it, or the husband-and-wife team, Tony and Gaynor

Sadler, from Logorhythm for more musical or atmospheric jobs. ’Our sound

designers often get asked for by name,’ confirms Amanda McNeil, senior

producer at Logorhythm, which represents four teams of composers and has

recently completed spots for Mobil, Daewoo and BMW. ’Over time, they

develop an understanding and work together effectively as a team.’



So what makes a good sound designer? Surprisingly, the magic ingredient

isn’t necessarily musicianship. ’I can play the guitar and keyboards a

bit, but I’m not a musician,’ Cook confesses. ’I’ve always considered

myself to be full of music though.’ Bill Chesley, a sound designer at

Amber Music, which has worked on ads for Guinness, Adidas and Sony

PlayStation, reckons there are plenty of would-be sound designers, ’but

good sound designers are few and far between’. He can think of ten he’d

recommend and thinks there is a need to be musical, as ’sound design is

like composing without traditional instrumentation’.



Having a good pair of ears, an inventive, lateral mind and the ability

to keep up with ever-changing sound equipment are accepted as crucial

qualities - and, of course, the ability to work within a bigger

team.



’I think the best credentials are enthusiasm, a basic adeptness with all

things technical, creative flair and, ideally, musical ability,’ Capes

says. ’Oh, and a sense of humour, of course.’



Light may travel faster than sound, but the memory of sound tends to

haunt you for longer. And after all, that’s what every ad is trying to

achieve.