Sound Designer Dave Whitehead Talks Plug-Ins, Filmmaking, Immersive Audio and Pro Tools

By in Audio Post, Pro Mixing, Video Editing

What exactly is a sound designer? It’s a complicated filmmaking position to define. Saying that one just designs sounds is way too basic. The simplest way to put it is an individual who shapes the sound in a film and brings the director’s world and vision to life. This feat is also done while balancing madness, psychological warfare, drive data, plug-ins, Pro Tools, personalities of the crew and overall total sanity every day. In an ever-evolving and -changing audio landscape, it’s crazy to see what happens, from some of the biggest-budget blockbuster films to the simple drama or comedy. But at the end of the day, without sound, it’s nothing more than a moving picture.

Sound designers truly are amazing artists with unbelievable landscapes in front of them who use a palette of colors to create a world that allows us to be immersed into something else for that one-and-a-half to two hours of our lives and have us walking out saying, “WOW! Did you see that? DID YOU HEAR THAT?”

Sound designers, composers, sound editors, music editors and re-recording mixers all lend a hand in that creative process that ultimately sculpts this landscape and causes that WOW factor.

Dave Whitehead at BroadcastAsia 2016

At the end of May, Dave Whitehead joined us in Singapore for BroadcastAsia 2016. He was invited to speak on behalf of Avid at the BCA Post Production Hub about his innovative workflow and techniques in the many films he’s worked on and his continuing innovation in new films.

Cicadas, Bees, Pumpkins, Guitars, Synthesizers, Plug-ins and Pro Tools are among the color palette used to paint these immense worlds and were among the massive things we touched on over five days. Not only has Dave done some innovative designs on many films, he also sound designed the first 10 minutes of a little indie movie from New Zealand called The Lord Of The Rings that started some crazy times for that small island on the other end of the world. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and becoming friends with Dave since The Lord of the Rings — Return of the King. Dave not only is a sound designer but also a composer, mixer, business owner, sound wrangler and sound mangler. His company, whitenoise.co.nz, has released its first sound FX Library, with many more to come.

Dave was gracious enough to sit down with me for an audiocentric Q&A during our time in Singapore.

Avid's Ozzie Sutherland and Dave Whitehead behind the scenes at BroadcastAsia 2016

Ozzie Sutherland: Dave, first, thanks for joining us in Singapore for Broadcast Asia 2016. How are you liking it here so far since it’s your first time?

Dave Whitehead: Driving through Singapore is like entering a sci-fi movie set, man. The architecture is amazing; the city is the cleanest I’ve ever seen; the food is incredible and all the locals I keep meeting are wonderful people. All good in the Singapore hood!

OS: By the way, we need to be up at like 5 a.m. tomorrow for your TV Interview.

DW: Mate, 5 a.m.? I just got here. As long as the makeup artist is good, we should be cool.

OS: How did you get started in this Business of Audio?

DW: I got a break at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand. I was running a small MIDI studio, writing music for Campus TV productions, recording students and learning how to run all the gear. This was a real gift and allowed me a lot of time to play with synths, samplers and software that help set foundations for my career in sound and music. I started doing short films for students and colleagues, and through them, I was offered my first feature film, The Ugly.

OS: I have known you since Lord of the Rings: Return Of The King, a very long time now. How did you start with Peter Jackson?

DW: I knew a couple of people who had been extras in Brain Dead. They told me how cool the film was and how amazing Peter was to work with. So when I finished The Ugly, I wrote a letter to Peter via Wingnut Studios, his production company, saying that I would love to be his sound designer and that if anything came up, please feel free to call me. A few weeks later, I got a letter saying there was nothing at this stage but that they would let me know if anything pops up. I’m not sure if Peter actually read the letter, but it was pretty cool to even get a reply.

After that, I had the privilege of working on a film called Heaven, with the late but forever great Mike Hopkins, or Hoppy, as his friends called him. We hit it off, and shortly after that, Hoppy asked if I would like to work on The Lord of the Rings. I actually quit Rings before even starting due to family circumstances, but was later asked to do the first 10 minutes of the film — the prologue. I couldn’t say no to that, and I have worked on most of Peter’s films since. The opportunity to work with Peter and [co-producer] Fran [Walsh] on all their amazing films has been life changing.

Dave Whitehead recording sounds for King Kong at the Niah Caves

Dave Whitehead recording sounds in Canada

OS: Working with Peter has lead to working with other top up-and-coming New Zealand directors and also outside with guys like Neill Blomkamp and Bong Joon-ho. Can you touch on what it’s like working with these different personalities and their ideas around sound?

DW: Neill has always been very clear and concise with his notes. He’s fun to work for because he will give a conceptual brief early on, which usually sets the tone for the show. He loves to hear any crazy concepts I want to present, too, but you know where you stand very quickly.

I’ve had the privilege of working with Director Bong on Snowpiercer with sound designer Tim Nielsen and sound supervisor Ralph Choi. Tim and I had a very short space of time to work on the film, but the meetings we had were also clear and concise. My idea was that the train was like a creature and needed to be a living thing all the people were travelling in. The trains had themed cabins i.e. the greenhouse or the aquarium, which made it easy to decide how the rooms should sound. Director Bong wanted the engine room to sound like a choir, so I added treated choral components that I worked around Marco Beltrami’s’ fantastic score. The film was fun.

OS: How long have you been a Pro Tools user, and how has the technology evolved for you over the years and your art?

DW: I started using Sound Designer first in 1992 then Pro Tools in 1993 at the University of Waikato. I was recording voice-overs and mastering some albums for local bands. The software still feels the same as when I started on it — simple layout, and enough bells and whistles under the hood to keep you on a constant upward learning curve.

I’ve always been more of a creative, and Pro Tools and third-party plug-in developers have given me enough tools/toys to keep me happy in my work. The first system I owned was an Audiomedia III card. I wrote music for a TV series and did sound design for several films on that system. I had the base level of plug-ins and spent most of my time trying to record good material before I started editing.

I’d say the technology has just become more of an extension on my creative process. As you do more, you learn where you can quickly learn to apply certain learned procedures to your workflow. Pro Tools is the tool I have used most for the last 23 years. The plug-ins are plentiful, and access to storage means our libraries are more accessible too. Cloud storage and digital delivery has opened up working with people via satellite and from anywhere in the world.

District 9 alien language

OS: During a lot of your presentations, we fielded questions around the language in D9. Can you elaborate on some of the techniques that were used?

DW: I first wrote a language with nouns, verbs, adjectives etc. Once I had that, I recorded my voice, which acted as the framework or skeleton for the final alien language. It was really then a case of deconstructing my voice and replacing the vowels and consonants with suitable replacements. Neill didn’t want the aliens to have much bottom end in their voices; he wanted them to be insectoid. So I recorded bumblebees, cicadas, vegetable squeaks and chitters, etc. I used the plug-in Avox Throat to shape the smaller voice for the tiny alien Little CJ, but it was essentially the same palette I used for all the aliens.

OS: You have given some fantastic creative advice during these presentations. If there were five key elements of advice for up-and-coming sound designers/editors, what would that be?

DW: 1) Start recording everything in your world now. Your library is so important, and it’s how you will give your original voice to your projects. You don’t need anything expensive to start with; just start recording.

2) Try and move quickly through version one. Trying to build shape and finding the rhythm in the pictures is where it always starts with me. I’ll try dropping sound against the pictures in different combinations, even sounds that shouldn’t really work get dropped in on occasion. I used to say, do everything that’s real, and from there, you will find the surreal components that will help build the design elements. Nowadays, I’d say, what’s telling the story at this particular point in the film? It’s a fine line between clarity and chaos.

3) Lows, low-mids, high-mids and highs. Just get those four things balancing and shifting nicely together, and you will have a great soundtrack. Try and find space in there too i.e. don’t be afraid to go to silence once in a while.

4) Don’t be afraid to share knowledge, take advice and/or ask for help. We are all learning and growing till the day we die. Share with young up-and-coming talent, and be open to their suggestions and opinions. The reverse is true; don’t think old dogs can’t learn new tricks. We all have a wealth of experience to share.

5) Don’t be too precious about your material. Sometime sounds hit the floor, and it’s a tough lesson for someone new. The re-recording mixer can bring great things to a track and is just like you, trying to get into the director’s ‘mind’s ear.’ You have to remember you are at the bottom of a huge pyramid, which is all the crew that has worked before you. Your role is very important, but be open to change, be fluid.

OS: Your concept of putting microphones where you shouldn’t got some great laughs. What were some of the most insane mic placements you have done?

 DW: I buried my Sanken CSS5 in a small wooden box for a coffin effect, which at the time was a very expensive mic for me. I’ve melted four Rycote’s on different occasions: in a steam train, in a steamboat and in fires. I’ve put microphones in condoms to make poor man’s hydrophones that were used to record the palette for the first ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’ My mics have been attacked by African wild dogs, peed on by capuchin monkeys. They’ve been shot at, soaked in the rain and in geothermal record sessions.

Dave Whitehead prepping to record the sound of a bowling ball

OS: How much time do we have to talk about your use of plug-ins and top 10 plug-ins?

DW: I change my plug-ins all the time. I buy more plug-ins than nearly anything else. I could list 50 plug-ins that I use all the time. You tend to use a series of plugins for a particular film and then move on. There are some truly amazing plug-ins at the moment. This week I’ve been using: GRM Tools Warp, Avid Pro Limiter, Devil Loc Deluxe, NI Reaktor, Phoenixverb, Valhalla Ubermod, Sound Gurus – Mangle, Avid Pro Subharmonic, Elastique Pitch and Izotope RX 5.

OS: Cicadas, bees, guitars, synths, ice rinks etc. How have you worked these into creatures and worlds you have designed?

DW: The insects were used in District 9. The bees actually formed the basis of the entire alien technology, including weapons, ambience onboard their ships, tech, etc.

The synths are all over the place, but the one I enjoyed most was my Roland JP8080 for the mother ship in D9. I recorded about 10 minutes of me jamming on the synth and came up with the full palette for the ships. The sound of the ship starting is straight out of my JP8080.

The guitars were used for Elysium. I bought a couple of vibrators from a sex shop (had a hard time explaining that to my accountant). I jammed them into anything metal or anything that vibrated. This was to go with the concept that the rich people on Elysium had advanced technology based on vibration. The sound for the Raven spaceship in Elysium was created by shoving the vibrator in the strings of my metal Dobro resonator guitar and swinging it vigorously above my head. Quite the sight.

The ice was for the Hobbit. We rented an ice rink and attached blades to learner ice skaters frames. The swords dragging on the ice helped build the palette for the chariot sequence in the extended version of movie three. We also bought big blocks of ice, which we smashed on the rink. One got stuck actually, note to self, and don’t leave a big block of ice sitting on an ice rink. It doesn’t take them long for them to become one.

OS: Was Neil very open to you experimenting?

DW: Always. I’ve only met one or two directors who are adverse to sound in general. It’s an odd situation to be in, but it happens. Neill, like most directors, enjoys the speakers coming to life and enjoys hearing about our wacky ideas and concepts. The concept of vibration for the Elysium tech was mine, and Neill wanted the tech on Earth to be ’70s and ’80s lo-fi. The two worked well together through lots of experimentation and recording.

OS: Has Peter ever been very critical of a sound or other directors and made you go back to the drawing board?

DW: Yes, of course. The unfortunate thing about big films is that directors have bigger responsibilities, and they often don’t get to review material till the end, or when VFX come in. Beorn in Hobbit 2 was a classic example, where we recorded grizzly bears and used them. But Peter didn’t want the sound of an actual bear in the end, and we had to completely go back to the drawing board. He asked that it be more Jurassic. It ended up being a combination of metal oven creak, tiger, elephant and New Zealand fur seal. This does happen and is just part of being a sound designer — 11th hour reworks turn your hair grey, but it beats digging holes for a job.

OS: Dolby Atmos was a hot topic for us during these presentations. How do you feel immersive audio like Atmos will enhance the moviegoers’ experience?

DW: I totally feel we should be creating and panning content in Atmos in our design and edit rooms. I think the workflow from editorial to mix will see more immersive and considered Atmos mixes in the near future. As a sound designer, the ability to experiment with Atmos in my studio seems essential and can only be good in the long run for the sound team and the audience. It just means I have to buy a whole lot of new toys and speakers.

My favorite Atmos experience to date is still Gravity. I loved the full immersion into the world, and it was the perfect vehicle to use and experience Atmos. Love that track very much indeed.

OS: Do you feel immersive audio is the future?

DW: I think companies like Magic Leap will spearhead new technologies that will change the way we live our lives and interact with our technology at a base level. Immersive audio and visuals will surely be a big part of that.

OS: Have any upcoming films you want to tell the world about that you are excited to be working on?

DW: I got to compose for a TV series called “Cleverman” at the beginning of the year. That was fun and nice to change jobs for a while. My partner, Shell Child, and I got to work with Denis Villeneuve on his new film, Arrival. We had some real fun on this sci-fi together, and I can’t wait for everyone to see it. I’m also excited to be working on a Russian sci-fi from director Fedor Bondarchuk, with the working title Attraction. Some very cool sequences in this film and a great crew I’m working with under Andrey Belchikov from Moscow. I’m also directing a short film this year, so it’s been a big mixed bag of goodies.

OS: We had some epic food during this trip. Any specific meal you would like to tell everyone to try in Singapore?

DW: Black Pepper Crab — crazy good stuff. To be honest, I didn’t have a bad meal in the entire time I was there. I would just say, go out and try somewhere new every night. Spoilled for choice.

OS: Our night of random great band in Singapore, cool, huh?

DW: “Living on a Prayer” is firmly tattooed in my memory from that night. Such great musos and great company. Along with some Singapore Slings, perfection.

OS: It’s been an awesome trip, and this seems like a good place to end this. Any parting advice, my friend, until I see you in New Zealand later this year?

DW: Be nice to everyone. At the end of the day, we’re in a creative industry, so try not to be the arsehole everyone’s scared of and your life and everyone around you will be better for it. Oh, and have fun making great sounds.

Sound is truly all around us all the time, so take some time each day and close your eyes and just listen. It’s pretty amazing.

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I'm just a simple man obsessed with audio and trying to make my way across the universe. My background is in recording, engineering and mixing. I simply love good audio whether it be a piece of film, TV or music. Keep listening!