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Thinking In Sound: Music First Mixing with Rob Ballingall

Post Production
New York, USA
Sonic Union composer and mixer on interconnecting sound and music, recording his own effects and listening to music in an a la carte, 'snobby' way

Cutting his teeth as a recording engineer in southern England, Rob Ballingall honed his audio craft through college in Bristol, UK. Then, moving to New York City in 2011, Rob assisted several Grammy Award-winning mix engineers at the now-defunct Magic Shop Recording Studio before transitioning into audio post-production at Nylon Studios. In 2018 Rob ended his tenure with Nylon to land a seat as a sound designer and composer at Sonic Union, focusing on non-traditional, creative audio projects.

LBB> 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?

Rob> I hate giving the ubiquitous answer to this question of ‘it depends on the project,’ but it really does depend on the project...not least because I work as a multifaceted audio creator. While much of my mix work follows a similar production path, I have to approach each brief as unique if I’m composing, sound designing, or working on an experiential project. That being said, I am a music-first mixer, so I anchor around the music, and my sound design is usually manipulated into those harmonic structures. When I write music myself, my focus becomes relentlessly, perhaps even to a fault, drawn to the scoring moments. I don’t care how much your clients tell you, “ignore the visuals and just write the music,” if it doesn’t hit the scoring moments, it’s never going to fly. So I plot those moments on my timeline, ballpark the tempo, and then make minor adjustments until I find musical transitions for every scoring point.


LBB> 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?

Rob> I believe the way sound and music interconnect is key to great sounding mixes, and fundamentally that comes from creative respect. Some of the worst mixes I've done have, for a multitude of reasons, been sonically overcrowded. Mixers have a lot of tools at their disposal to carve out frequencies to make room in a mix and avoid overcrowding, but it can be like trying to paint a dark wall white. If you make decisions early enough in the process, you can prevent the wall from being dark in the first place. I'm always overjoyed when I'm brought onto a project during or even before the edit. I can look at a script and analyse audio pinch points, which can guide the creative and consider a different approach. In that sense, you have to work with a team. My opinions as a mixer, sound designer, or composer only go so far, and, to that end, I don't enjoy doing everything myself.

For me, a project that comes to mind was a collaboration with Campfire for an audio experience for the Amazon show “The Man in the High Castle.” Resistance Radio was a fictional pirate radio network embedded into a web player. Listeners could tune in and out of a series of continually cycling broadcasts (rather than on-demand). I worked with Campfire to concept the sounds and tone of the broadcasts, record and edit each script, and implement licensed music from an associated concept album. With minimal visual elements to constrain the creative, it was an audio designer's dream project, and I worked hand-in-hand with the ECD and Producer from the start, to realise the project's sonic identity.

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

Rob> I get an immense amount of satisfaction from recording or creating my own sound effects. I can, and have, spent hours trawling through sound libraries looking for the perfect sound effect. More times than not, I’ve found it’s better to start by creating my own or not spend as much time searching a library. Not only do I end up with a unique sound effect, but I’ve flexed my creative mind more. I’m not just talking about relying on foley, either; I’ve had just as much success using samplers and synthesis to create sounds.


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

Rob> With the shift into a more digital space, we've seen the desire to create more modular advertising content. How many ways can the same creative works be repurposed so that the content appeals to a broader audience? I see this manifest already when dubbing the same commercial in a different language or mixing the 100th 6-second spot regurgitated from the broadcast campaign. Will adapting music and sound aid in diversifying core works to appeal to an even wider demographic? It can, and it will.

Specifically for music, however, the cusp of change is now. Developments in ad tracking technology give advertisers and PROs more precise data on digital reach, and music creators should start seeing an uptick in royalties from digital works. In addition, advertisers can no longer offer small production budgets for online-only campaigns when their effectiveness has caught up and is overtaking broadcast media. Hopefully, this budgetary shift will drive new and exciting ways of finding and implementing music in advertising and make the industry more appealing to new creators.


LBB> 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?

Rob> I’m a huge fan of Alexandre Desplat’s film scores, particularly his Wes Anderson work. He really understands how to emote without forcing an emotion onto the viewer, and his use of percussion and rhythm creates incredible space for dialogue and sound design.

I’ve also had the opportunity to work with Watson Wu, who I regard as one of the best sound effects artists globally, particularly when it comes to automotive. Watson’s phenomenal work on Baby Driver (2017) led to us collaborating on an immersive cinema commercial for Mercedes-AMG. I got to hang out with him at a racetrack in Vancouver, with an AMG E63S at our disposal. I took the results of those recordings back to NYC and edited and mixed them in Dolby Atmos. It was a once-in-a-lifetime project.

LBB> 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?

Rob> Listening to audio all day is highly fatiguing to anyone’s hearing. Whether distracting or not, I try to limit my exposure to background sound. During the day, if I’m not actively working on a project, I’m usually not listening to anything, just to give my hearing a break. Even when I am working, I try to take respite breaks every hour or two. It’s incredibly easy to lose perspective when you’re listening to every millisecond under such scrutiny. Taking a 5-10 minute break every few hours helps me hear the bigger picture again. In my personal time, I like to take myself away from the content I’ve been working on that day or week, which usually manifests in a lot of Premier League football and dialogue-heavy podcasts.


LBB> 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?

Rob> There is absolutely a divide in the way people consume audio content. For me, right now, the line is often drawn in the sand at the beginning of a project. I typically know going into it what the intended playback mediums are, and I tailor my work to suit. However, with the development of Dolby Atmos and spatial audio on the consumer level, the lines are becoming more blurred. We're starting to move away from the necessity to own a 5.1 speaker system to hear surround sound at home, and that's game-changing in our industry. On some level, every mixer knows their surround sound mix won't be heard by most home viewers. Surround sound speaker systems were never adopted en masse, and technology has now found a way to circumnavigate that. Ultimately, though, when you consume at home, no matter what you're listening on, you're less distracted than when you're out in the world. For good reasons, it's probably best that I don't try to distract you more than is necessary.

LBB> 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?

Rob> No longer performing live, as a musician has been the most significant loss for me. I could still do it if I went out there with that intent, but the realities of building a career, starting a family, and the other commitments we all have, has hampered my desire to perform live music. A few years ago, I battled with the sense of loss and a feeling that I’d never scratch that itch again. I had to actively redirect more creative energy into my career when I came to that realisation. I think it's okay to pivot, and it’s okay to reanalyse what my strengths are as I change.

Music and sound have become my career, but have also always been my release. It quite literally defines who I am, and as a result, I no longer see the content I create, particularly the music that I write, as disposable as I did at the beginning of my career.

LBB> Do you have a collection of music/sounds and what shape does it take (are you a vinyl nerd, do you have hard drives full of random bird sounds, are you a hyper-organised spotify-er…)?

Rob> I wouldn’t call myself a vinyl nerd, but I do have a small collection, and a record player hooked up to a pair of good speakers. As mentioned above, my music consumption is relatively low, so I go for the less is more approach. When I do listen to music for myself, I want to do it in an a la carte, snobby way. I don’t want to listen to music on my phone with a pair of shitty earbuds. I don’t want to be sitting on a subway train competing with deafening squealing brakes and street performers. I don’t want to hear a compressed mp3 coming from a Bluetooth speaker across the room. I guess that does make me a vinyl nerd.


LBB> 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?

Rob> I grew up in rural England, and I dare anyone to grow up like that and not have enormous love and reverence for nature. However, living in New York City is so far removed from the natural world, and I savour every chance I get to immerse myself back into it. The lack of sound in nature emphasises the things you do hear, and the things you do hear are physical, tangible. To bring this back to a point I made above about letting mixes breathe, there is no reference more inspiring than hearing how things actually sound in the real world. I use those experiences to balance my mixes.


LBB> 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?

Rob> Without a shadow of a doubt...the entire country of Iceland. My wife and I explored the whole country for two weeks in late summer 2016, living out the back of a van. I realised how intensely remote that country is when you get outside of the tourist traps in and around Reykjavik. We would drive for hours and hours without seeing other people. Wind, sea, waterfalls, glaciers, volcanoes, wildlife, you can experience them all without sharing the experience with strangers. It gave me a lot of time to stop and listen to the world.

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