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Interview with Echoic Sound Designers Dave and Tom

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Read Time: 15 min
Echoic Sound Designers Tom and Dave in Melbourne

This weekend, Pause Fest hit Melbourne, the home of the Tuts+ HQ. Devoted to bringing together designers, musicians and digital creators of all kinds, Pause Fest is in its third year and going strong. I had the opportunity to chat with Tom Gilbert and David Johnston of Bristol sound design studio Echoic, who collaborated with Syndrome Studio to create the opening title and ident for Pause Fest 2014. Echoic are based in Bristol, and have an eclectic style that combines inventive processes and unusual instruments with a focus on collaboration between visual and sound design.

Q. Welcome to Melbourne! How was Pause Fest?

Dave: It's been great. I'd really encourage people to come to Pause Fest and other events like this, it's been a great weekend of great talks and meeting people. It's as much about getting people together as anything else, so the beers and the social part of it have been really important. Meeting people away from work, in a natural place that's creative.

Tom: In creative industries we spend a lot of time in front of a computer, and that can lead to not meeting people in the physical world. That's why events like this are so important, to be able to get together and meet face to face.

Pause Fest opening titles

Q. When did you meet, and how did Echoic come to be?

T: We're both from Bristol in the UK. When I first moved to Bristol I was quite into the electronic music scene. I met a producer (I had a few of his records), and he's a really old-school mate of Dave's. So that's how we met. We hit it off in terms of musical taste, and we started a club night together, in our early 20s. We ran the club night for six or seven years, always DJing and dabbling in writing beats and stuff, and at the same time I was working at the BBC in television production, so I was doing a lot of film editing and tv production.

D: And I was working at KISS FM, which is a great radio station in the UK. I was a producer there, was working on radio shows, recording dialogue, cutting up music and things like that.

T: I left the BBC because I realised that I was going down a route and it wasn't the right route for me. It was a great job, but it wasn't what my passion was. So I decided to leave there, and started doing freelance work, mainly editing video for production companies, and whilst I was doing that I had a few opportunities to do sound design and music. I had a realisation, that ‘wow, I can do this and get paid for it'. 

D: So we were friends anyway, then a new studio space opened up that was being let out. At that time it was quite rare to be able to get a studio space at all, there weren’t many creative hubs and places. We jumped at the chance, got the holding deposit down, and then worked everything else out after. 

T: Bristol in general is quite a hub for animation. There are quite a few big studios based there, like Aardman Animations, who made Wallace and Gromit, and Chicken Run, and ArthurCox who have won a BAFTA. There's quite a few really creative animation studios, so there's that element. 

D: There was some influence from looking at other people who were doing the kind of work we were into. There were studios in London, people like Echolab, doing motion graphics and 3D that really inspired us. Things like Nike adverts, MTV idents, all that kind of stuff. It really inspired us to take that direction. 

Q. What are your backgrounds and training?

D: We're both self-taught in sound design. I've got some musical background, I've got a Music Technology MA and I play piano. And Tom did a sound tech course.

T: Yeah, I did Music Technology at Bristol's City of Bristol College, and I did an Access to Music course, which was a very specific course on using Logic. That's where we started learning.

D: When we started up we were quite aware that it was going to be one step at a time, to get clients, and to get work, and to run a business. It was something we'd never even tried to do before. Reading around the subject, it was just about getting involved in communities and networking, that kind of stuff. Quite early on we started going to an event in London called See No Evil, which is for motion graphics networking, artists and directors.

T: It's aimed at the more creative level of motion design, so not just advertising, it's very much about the creative aspect. We started to get some work through that, and built up a network of people in Bristol, it's much easier to go and meet people face to face. There were enough people in the area doing animation, and then our portfolio grew and we could reach out to a more international audience and find new clients that way.

Q. You do quite a lot of international collaboration. What's that like?

T: It's really cool. I think it's amazing that in the 'digital age' it doesn't matter where you're based. We might have a Skype call with the guys from Syndrome in L.A., or a great company in Rotterdam called From Form we've worked with recently. It's fantastic to be able to have a Skype chat and work with a brief and develop that online.

D: Online communities are now kind of out-dating other communities. An online community can be so widespread, rather than a 'scene' that's usually localised and specific to a city. People would migrate to that city if they were into that scene, but now it's just online so it's a lot more open. 

T: We do have a mix of local and international clients. Most of them are in the U.K., around Bristol and London. About a third of our work is international.

Q. Are there challenges specific to working remotely?

D: There are challenges with time differences, stuff like that.

T: Scheduling things.

D: With the opening titles for Pause Fest, George was in Australia and Syndrome was in L.A., and we were in the UK, so getting everyone together at the same time was difficult. George was generally waking up at 6am to take calls. It all worked out though.

Q. Australia's funny like that. It's so far away from everywhere else!

T: For us, that's one of the most exciting elements of having our own creative company. You don't know what's coming next, whether you'll be working in a month's time with a company from Argentina. That is such an exciting possibility, you know? Different studios from around the world specialise in different things, and everyone's got their own style.

D: You still see trends though, across the people who work in the same space. You can see trends pop up on Vimeo, looking through the most popular videos.

T: Trends come from technology, and the software people are using. That influences the artwork a lot.

I wish I'd done that.

Q. What software do you use?

D: We primarily use Logic 9 and Ableton 9.

T: We quite often use Ableton for sketching ideas out and recording audio, jamming. When it comes to track laying and detailed sound design and mixing we use Logic. It's quite a nice way to work. It's great to work in Ableton, write a piece of music and bounce it out, and then start the sound design as a separate project in Logic. Then you don't get stuck making changes to the music. That's mainly our workflow.

Q. What sort of hardware do you use?

T: We've got quite an addiction to analog synths, especially Roland gear. At the moment we've got the Roland Juno 6, Jupiter 6, the 106, the JX-3P, a Roland TB-303, we've got a 909. We've got an Octave Cat, which the Chemical Brothers use loads. It's really hard to control, but the sounds are insane. It's like pure analog, and it's an absolute monster. It's mono and it's insane.

D: We also use outboard, guitar pedals, things like Boss Overdrive.

T: Cheap outboard stuff, that gives it a bit of grit and warmth. We've also got an amazing 80s digital effects processor called Ensoniq DP4. It's got great presets for really great reverbs and delays, really warm and organic and interesting. We use that on lots of projects.

D: We've got a Shannon Filter Bank, which is a crazy distortion filter unit.

T: One of the rarest synths we've got is an EDP Wasp, which is British made in the late 70s. It was made as a cheap alternative to some of the larger Moogs and stuff. It's got a weird plastic keyboard. We got it from a second-hand shop for a hundred pounds, and now they go for like fifteen hundred, two grand. We don't use it an awful lot, it's quite a wonky weird sound, but it's fun. As well as out main studio, we've got a little converted sound booth, where we've got loads of weird and wonderful gear. Sometimes we just go to a toy shop and buy loads of junk, or department stores and second-hand stores that sell loads of tat. We'll buy heaps of things and then go and record the sounds.

Q. How do you choose which sorts of sounds to use for what projects?

T: It just depends on the brief really. We've just done some idents for D&AD in London, and they were quite specific about what they wanted. They didn't want it to sound like a lot of the other idents out there that are quite tech and digital and almost clean. They wanted it to sound organic and playful and handmade. For that we recorded things like chopsticks, a plastic wind-up duck, and all sorts of things to make weird rhythms and things. It really depends on what the client wants.

D: There's plenty of our work that has a more classical sound. Not everything is synthesised. We try to use talented musicians, so it might be that you track lay a certain amount of classical music in the box, using suites like East West Orchestra, and then get live instruments over the top.

T: We work with amazing cellist. We did some work recently with Tim Borgmann, and the backing track for that was quite experimental. The cellist came in and just nailed it straight away. She's not into that sort of music at all, and she just came in and played a great riff over the top. Bristol has a huge music community, lots of great bands are from Bristol, so there's a lot of rich musical heritage and lots of talented musicians. There's a guy who lives five minutes up the road from our studio who is an amazing guitarist. He brings down lots of guitar pedals and creates these big walls of sound that you just can't get with software.

D: We've learnt from experience that even though we can play instruments to a certain level, sometimes it's much better to collaborate with someone who is a specialist, someone who lives and breathes that instrument. What they bring to the project makes it so much more interesting.

T: We don't always use the takes that they've done, but it's a great process to just move the project in a certain direction.

Q. You've both got experience in motion graphics and video editing. How does that influence your sound design?

T: Certain artists use different textures and colour palettes. As soon as you see the look they're going for, it can generate different ideas. If something's very colourful and soft and playful then obviously you're going to be thinking about how to make playful sounds, acoustic instruments. If something's more dark and tech, you might think about electronic or heavy orchestral sounds.

D: Really crisp, crunchy sound design.

T: The two are intertwined so heavily. Motion graphics techniques are so advanced these days. Some of the textures people create are insane, like the liquid metals and things in Tim Borgmann's work. Those kind of projects are so much fun for sound design.

It's also about the movement. If a motion graphics piece has a huge amount of music, flythroughs and tracking shots, that inspires you in terms of the dynamics of the piece of music.

Tim Borgmann Showreel

Q. You've recently rebranded, culminating in a series of motion graphics and audio collaborations. How was that process different to client work?

T: We had a new website in progress, and we had a logo rebrand, so from that moment we wanted to be a bit more proactive in commissioning things of our own, that we could call our own product. As a sound design and music company we're always working for other people. We're always the post-production phase of someone else's project. That's a great place to be, but it does mean that you're always working with a brand's project, or a creative company's vision. We wanted to create something that we could sculpt and call our own.

D: When we first started Echoic we always said that as well as providing audio for other people we want to commission stuff, do things off our own backs. This seemed like the perfect opportunity. When we first started out we had just gotten our website up and running as a place to show our work. We hadn't thought it out too much, it wasn't really 'us' — it was just something we cobbled together.

T: Plus we knew that with the rebrand project we'd get loads of really cool stuff back, with no one else telling us the brief. That was great, because the motion graphics artists we worked with on the rebrand were all very different. Some of them we'd met in person, some of them we hadn't, but we really loved their work. It was exciting because we knew we had different people all working on this stuff at the same time, and we'd purposefully left the brief quite vague and open. We gave them visual props, material to work with. The word 'echoic' means to imitate natural sound, so we wanted organic elements to be brought into it. We gave them imagery of natural elements, and they came back with five very different projects.

D: They're all very different, but they work together well.

Q. Do you have any advice for people who are looking to get into sound design, or motion graphics?

T: With sound design, just try stuff out. Get yourself an audio package like Logic, and a portable recorder, like a little Zoom, and go out and record sounds. Record interesting things. Experiment with your recordings.

D: In sound design there aren’t a lot of tutorials out there, compared to motion graphics.

T: It's a bit more of a dark art. The sound design community, maybe because it's more competitive, is a bit less open. If you go on motion graphics blogs, there are lots of breakdowns, sharing of tutorials, and a community built around that. You get a lot of feedback, between artists.

D: There's a lot less of that in the sound design community. There are less of us, and maybe the work is more competitive. There's nothing negative about it, but there's just not as much of a community or forum of people around sound design.

T: I think the best thing is to never stop learning. In most creative industries, you're always learning. We're coming up to our fourth year as Echoic, so we're still in our infancy really. We're learning all the time.

D: One thing we did, that you can do for sound or for motion graphics, is to deconstruct your favourite work. It's an obvious thing. We would redo the audio of pieces that we found online and liked, remake it ourselves to learn from that process. You never know exactly how they've done it, but you can create new techniques to create similar sounds.

T: Analyse sounds. When you listen to things, write down what they sound like. Is it a loud sound, a soft sound, a crunchy sound... By talking about it and analyzing it, you can learn a lot.

D: Looking at waveforms, using spectrum analyzers is great. You can really visualise things, see the shape of the sound.

T: Music is a bit different. There are thousands and thousands of tutorials on music production, Logic, Ableton, all of that. With that kind of technology you can get so bogged down in the process of it, and trying to learn everything, that you lose sight of things.

D: It can be demoralising. There's so much out there that you could potentially learn, it can make you feel like you're a step behind. You might put off doing a job because you want to learn more first, and stifle your own creativity.

T: Don't use tutorials as procrastination. A lot of people who write music can be afraid of committing to the result, so instead of actually getting it done you say, "I just need to do this tutorial about compression, or EQ, or whatever" instead of just experimenting and doing it for yourself.

D: You can learn just as much by doing something and making mistakes.

T: That's really important in all creative industries, to not be afraid of failing because that's the only way you learn, from failures.

D: And if it's not that great, just don't play it to anyone!

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