Tell us a little about yourselves. What made you join up and create the Track Team?
B: Jeremy and I met while we both were going to CalArts’ music school. He was getting his masters in Composition New Media while I was doing my undergrad in Music Technology. I think we might have actually met with me eavesdropping into one of his conversations he was having about Csound. I think I basically wanted to be his friend so he would teach me the program. haha. But later on I think we found that our (crazy) minds think about sound the same...that is obsessively. Then after we both graduated we started working for other music houses but constantly talked of getting together to form a company. As I started to freelance with some production companies in Hollywood Jeremy would bring his laptop over and we’d work on projects together. Our humble beginnings made us rely on creativity, and made us stronger I think. A lot of the early sounds we came up with for the Avatar pilot I still use to this day and a lot of those came from our voices.
J: Through mutual geekiness we became good friends - always pushing each other technically and creatively. It wasn’t until Bryan Konietzko (Ben’s roommate at the time) and Mike Dimartino developed Avatar and asked us to handle the music and sound design responsibilities that we were able to form the company.
Which interest came first—music, or sound in general?
J: Music for me. I started music at a young age with my mom teaching me piano. At the time it felt like a chore and my mom and I had some epic battles. I eventually wound up playing guitar which has been my love ever since. I thought I was going to be a metal shredder. Looking back though, I think it was the timbre of the distorted guitars that attracted me most to that genre. So in a sense I think that was where I unconsciously started noticing sound as music. In college I was turned on to electroacoustic music and eventually sonic art which Is probably my favorite form of music. Now I don’t really see a separation between sound and music. It’s really one and the same.
B: Music came first, but early on I think I knew that I liked the sound of the music. I first listened to hip-hop when I got into music, and I loved the dirty, gritty sounds. The static was being used to their advantage and brought out instead of discarded, I loved that. So sound came very shortly after. And once I leaned that you could manipulate sound when you produced music, I was all about it.
What have been your favorite projects to work on?
B: Avatar has been great. We have recently completed three, three and a half minute shorts in a totally different style that were really fun to do. The sound design and music were really over the top, in a Japanime kind of way. A lot of the Imaginary Forces projects have been great to work on as well. We’ve done some Nike projects with some amazing computer graphics and the ability to kind of “do our thing” in terms of using electronic / computer music.
J: Those Nike projects were pretty abstract. We were able to go a little farther out on those spots – stuff that gave a nod to Ben’s work as Deru. Of course Avatar has been an incredible experience as well. I wound up being exposed to music I never would have discovered. For instance, the creators came up with the idea of using traditional non-western instruments from all different cultures. So I started studying the guzheng and pipa which I never would have done otherwise. We also got a duduk and some other amazing instruments. This has definitely affected me musically way beyond the show.
What do you do outside the Track Team, as far as music and art?
B: My biggest life outside of The Track Team is the music I release under ‘Deru.’ I started writing music under this name while in college and it’s been the music I think about all the time. I’ve released two albums and lots of other tracks on labels like Merck, Ghostly International, and Neo Ouija. Deru has also allowed me to play live in clubs and festivals, which has been great.
J: I play guitar a lot and sometimes get together with some friends to play tunes by the Meters, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, etc. That stuff feels too good. I try to find time to pursue sonic art composition. A few months ago a director friend of mine named Juli Crockett and I collaborated on an experimental musical theater adaptation of Orpheus and Euridice for the Redcat New Works festival. That was really exciting (and a bit scary!) because it involved a fairly large musical ensemble of wonderful people and players all donating their time to play my music. Poor souls. It’s an incredible rush to hear great players make your music come to life.
Recently I’ve gotten into building guitar pedals. There is just no end to my geekiness. My poor wife.
You do the music and sound design for Nickelodeon’s Avatar, the Last Airbender. How do you approach creating a complete sound environment? Since you do both, do you make the music and sound effects react to each other?
B: Hmm, this is a tough question; I guess we went about that (consciously, or not) in a few ways. One was that Jeremy and I were doing both jobs from the very beginning. The creators of the show asked us to do a pencil test, and then later the pilot, and at that point Jeremy and I didn’t know who was going to do the music and who was going to do sound - or if we could both do both jobs, which is really what we were hoping for I think. So for the pilot we came up with all the sounds together and we scored it together, so that initial creation of the world was done together. But throughout the two seasons I think we’ve also both learned ways to interact with composers and sound-designers in general. Like in a huge action scene with a ton of explosions, you know there’s going to be a lot of bass, so maybe bassy drums aren’t going to cut through, and likewise if the composer is going to be doing a drum track, maybe the sound designer should aim for higher frequencies. We’ve learned practical ways to complement each other.
J: Avatar’s deadlines just don’t allow us to collaborate like we did in the beginning. The nice thing is that since we worked together during the formative period (and because of our similar musical / sound proclivities) we understand both aspects and can sort of predict what the other will do most of the time. We now know when we need to communicate about something specific. When that happens we just iChat each other our work and watch the sound and music together to make any necessary adjustments. That collaborative sensibility is still there.
What is your studio setup like? Do you have any favorite instruments or pieces of gear?
J: We both have our own studios in our homes. The first season of Avatar we worked in one room which was insane. The quality of work has definitely improved since we’ve gotten our own studios to work in. I kind of miss the company, though. Of course, we also work together in one studio on certain projects. My studio Is a very simple setup. I don’t have a mixer or patch bay. Just a Metric Halo Mobile IO 2882 + DSP; a G5 running Logic and various sound manipulation programs like SuperCollider and Soundhack; a pc running GigaStudio; an SPL monitor control; 5 Quested studio monitors; a sub; a Pass Labs amp; a nice custom mic made by a super genius and a whole bunch of instruments. I do have one piece of outboard gear—a mic pre/EQ/compressor unit by an Australian company called Sebatron. I have to say my favorite piece of equipment is my Mr. Slim air conditioning unit but it’s been making weird noises and shooting out ice chips lately.
B: My studio is centered around my computer and audio monitors. I have a very similar studio to Jeremy in that way. I have a G5 running Nuendo, Logic, Max/MSP, Supercollider, and plenty of other software; Questeds with a Genelec sub, SPL level control and a Pass Labs amp. I also use a Sweetwater audio PC for sound manipulation programs like CDP, and I have an analog synth that I love called a Cwejman. I’ve recently acquired a Kyma system that I’m excited to dive into as well. Both of our studios are basically just a really clean signal path from the computer to the converters to the speakers. Neither of us uses an outboard mixer, and I’ve really gotten into that way of working.
Do you use any of the iZotope plug-ins in your work? Any tips for our users?
J: Absolutely. I use Ozone the most, but also Trash and Spectron. I can hear the quality of the math. Or should I say I can’t hear the math which is what you want. The iZotope guys seem to be no compromise type of people. All the details are there and the flow of the GUI is spot on. I feel like I can trust Ozone when I throw it on the 2 mix. When we do TV, it’s the last element in the chain before it goes to the mix house.
B: YES! I’ve used Ozone many times in the sound design when a sound has all the right properties, but isn’t cutting through enough. I’ll often use the compressor module, as well as the limiter, EQ, and/or harmonic exciter. It’s really been an amazing help in that way. Another trick I’ll do when a sound needs to be aggressive but isn’t cutting across is to use a bit of distortion from Trash mixed in with the source. It always seems to work somehow.
Any final thoughts?
B: You guys have saved and enhanced many of my sounds. Thank you!
J: Thanks for the outstanding work. I can’t wait to see what iZotope comes up with next. Any company that puts that much thought and effort into distortion is on the right track (no pun intended) in my book.
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