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Thinking In Sound: Benji Compston



Syn's creative development director Benji Compston on the possibilities of music and picture, the changing waves of the industry and his musical heroes

Thinking In Sound: Benji Compston

Benji Compston is creative development director with Syn. Based in London, Compston is a producer and musician who was a founding member of the band Happyness and has, more recently, released music under his solo endeavor Jelly Boy. At Syn, he is instrumental in developing projects, from sonic branding to original music, with global teams including those based at Syn’s headquarters in Tokyo.

When you’re working on a new brief or project, what’s your typical starting point? How do you break it down and how do you like to generate your ideas or response?

Music and sound are such subjective things, that I think communication (or sometimes ‘translation’) is really key to understanding a brief. By ‘translation’, what I mean is that sometimes the role of a musician or producer is to apply non-musical terms into music, and have an experienced enough musical/sound palette to bridge the gap between words and music. 

Music and sound are in some ways the most collaborative and interactive forms of creativity - what are your thoughts on this? Do you prefer to work solo or with a gang - and what are some of your most memorable professional collaborations?

My musical background was originally in a band, so for me, collaboration and working together as a group is at the heart of music and sound. Something I find really exciting at Syn is being able to bounce projects around the globe through virtual collaboration; for example - I may start an idea for a track here in London, then send it to our producer in LA for additional production. He will then send it to Tokyo for a mix, and then bounce it back to me in London. It’s like a musical game of ‘pass the parcel’. 

What’s the most satisfying part of your job and why?

I love the excitement that comes from every new opportunity and how projects differ from job to job. I’ve always loved the possibilities of music and picture, and to be able to see music and sound come to life alongside visual content is a real privilege. 

As the advertising industry changes, how do you think the role of music and sound is changing with it?

Vast amounts of very high quality content - both musical and otherwise - are becoming more readily available every day, at the click of a button, and as that happens, our audiences are becoming more adept at judging the quality of music and sound. Audience sophistication and our own obsessive tendencies challenges us to strive to create only the most interesting, high-quality and creatively advanced music and sound.

I think most people know how powerful music can be on our emotional state (just think back to any ‘break-up’ song you listened to over and over again) - but I think increasingly the role of music and sound is to actively leverage those emotions in a pin-pointed and data-driven way. 

Who are your musical or audio heroes and why?

One of my musical heroes is Randy Newman, because he has an incredible ability to convincingly tell stories which aren’t his own in a way which sounds completely genuine. It’s as if he presents himself with endless challenges to tell the story of this person or that person, and then manages to do it without ever breaking character. I think that’s what has made him such a wonderful writer of music for film - because he is a true storyteller.

And when it comes to your particular field, whether sound design or composing, are there any particular ideas or pioneers that you go back to frequently or who really influence your thinking about the work you do?

As a composer, I think it’s important to create an environment for yourself where your ideas can be captured as easily as possible. It’s the idea that, when you’re writing a demo, you don’t get too caught up by the imperfections, but you encourage the idea to come out and then be developed at a later stage. And sit in a comfortable chair! 

When you’re working on something that isn’t directly sound design or music - are you the sort of person who needs music and noise in the background or is that completely distracting to you? What are your thoughts on ‘background’ sound and music as you work?

Personally, I can’t have music on in the background when I’m not working on music directly. I find ‘background music’ very distracting, to the point where it frustrates me. I love listening to music when I’m driving or cooking - but you will never find me with a playlist on while I’m replying to emails!

I guess the quality of the listening experience and the context that audiences listen to music/sound in has changed over the years. There’s the switch from analogue to digital and now we seem to be divided between bad-ass surround-sound immersive experiences and on-the-go, low quality sound (often the audio is competing with a million other distractions) - how does that factor into how you approach your work?

This is actually something that we’ve been exploring recently through a number of global studies about the differing listening experiences during the pandemic. I think the increased differences between listening experiences actually presents opportunities for musicians to pay more attention to how their music is being heard. For example - when you’re listening to a mix on the most high-fidelity speakers that money can buy, you have to also consider the reality that the majority of people will listen to the music on Air-pods. 

I also think you have to take into consideration that people’s attention span for music and sound is getting shorter (whether you like it or not!). And because of that, immediacy is important when creating impactful audio. 

On a typical day, what does your ‘listening diet’ look like?

Syn’s producer in Tokyo, Alan Mawdsley, created an amazing playing of Japanese Jazz, Pop and Rock & Roll a few months back, and I listen to that playlist all the time, probably every day…

Do you have a collection of music/sounds and what shape does it take?

I do have a small vinyl collection, but I also have two small kids who would like nothing more than to use every vinyl I have as a frisbee - so I usually stick to a well-organised Spotify for my music needs. Funnily enough, my parents used to have chickens, so I do have a hard drive full of chicken-sounds from a few afternoons I spent recording them in their coup. I’m not sure where this will come in handy. 

Outside of the music and sound world, what sort of art or topics really excite you and do you ever relate that back to music (e.g. history buffs who love music that can help you travel through time, gamers who love interactive sound design… I mean it really could be anything!!)

I love where music and food intersect - not just in the sense of what we listen to when we eat at home or in a restaurant - but how hearing can influence our sense of taste. Scent is often used to influence experiences; whether in a restaurant or a shopping mall, but I think music has the capacity to do something similar with the eating experience, and I get excited about the possibilities there. One of the highlights of my job is working on Music Curation for our clients here in London and elsewhere, using music and sound to compliment spaces and experiences. 

Let’s talk travel! It’s often cited as one of the most creatively inspiring things you can do - I’d love to know what are the most exciting or inspiring experiences you’ve had when it comes to sound and music on your travels?

Last time I was in Tokyo, it just so happened that two artists I love were playing. It was my second time in Tokyo, and going to two very different shows in two very different venues was really interesting. One was a jazz bar, and the other a kind of industrial dive bar - that was fun. I also went to a concert/poetry reading in a community cafe in El Salvador once which was pretty amazing. The menu was beer and tacos, and nothing else. 

As we age, our ears change physically and our tastes evolve too, and life changes mean we don’t get to engage in our passions in the same intensity as in our youth - how has your relationship with sound and music changed over the years?

I try to keep as up to date with new music as possible - often through friends of mine who are artists or managers. I think this keeps music and sound feeling really fresh and developing. I’ve been through stages where my listening habits stagnate a bit and I’m not exploring anything new, but thanks to some amazing playlists during the pandemic (including ‘WHOOOSH!’ on Sirius by our co-founder Simon Le Bon), I’m listening to a lot of new music. 

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Syn, Thu, 11 Mar 2021 11:46:16 GMT