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Thinking in Sound: Scott Gatteno on Finding the Essence of the Concept
Music & Sound
New York, USA
Yessian's director of technology and lead mixer on working in the mix team from Skywalker Sound on a 5D immersive attraction and more

Scott Gatteno is a lifelong musician playing electric bass and percussion in bands starting at a very young age.  Scott has a degree in music technology from Wayne State University.

As Yessian's director of technology and lead mixer, Scott has mixed national TV, radio, and digital campaigns for clients like Disney, NBC, Ford, Coca-Cola, Sony, and many more. He brings years of experience and early adoption in immersive audio formats, from traditional 5.1 and 7.1 surround, to object-based L-ISA and Dolby Atmos, to unusual and proprietary custom designs like the 128 channel installations at Illuminarium Experiences. He has traveled the world mixing for high-end themed attractions in the USA, China, UAE, Korea, Canada, Singapore, and India for projects that include 4D/5D cinema shows, interactive dark rides, fly theaters, immersive experience venues, and area sound environments. Brands including Universal Studios, Chimelong, Lotte World, Wanda, and Dubai Parks and Resorts are just a few of the many parks Scott has mixed for. With over 20 years of experience, he has recorded and mixed for everything from music releases, live shows, audio post production for film and TV, theater, and immersive audio installations, winning awards in both advertising and themed attractions, including LIAs, Addys, CLIOs, Cannes Lions, THEAs, Eurobest, NY Festivals.

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?

Scott> My first thought when starting a new project is usually how will I find the time?! But seriously, I usually approach a new project by trying to get to the essence of the concept. What is the message or story that’s trying to be conveyed, and most importantly, how should the audience feel? That’s the most important part of any media to me. The next thought is how will this emotional narrative be created and conveyed within the context of the medium. I work on a lot of immersive and experiential projects that tend to lean heavily on technology to come to fruition.  I always try to remind myself that the technology is there to help deliver the creative intent, not the other way around.  To use music as an example, I’ve heard plenty of virtuosic musicians that can play circles around everyone else, or that use extensive technology to create their sound, but I usually find their performances very uninspiring. I always end up being drawn to music that conveys emotion.

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?

Scott> I definitely like a bit of both, but sound is very often a team sport. Almost all the work I do is audio for picture, so there is always collaboration with the picture department, as well as the director, producers, and clients. I collaborate with the team members from my own company on a daily basis; sound designers, composers, editors, producers. I’m lucky to work with some incredibly talented people and they inspire me every day.  Of course, sometimes it’s nice to put your nose down and concentrate on executing an idea without interruptions or other opinions and ideas slowing down the creative workflow.  

My most memorable professional collaboration was at a theme park in China where I worked with a sound design and mix team from Skywalker Sound on a 5D immersive attraction. We composed, recorded, and mixed the score, and Skywalker Sound created the sound design and did the final mix on-site.  We provided the mix rig for on-site mix, and I was the score mixer, music editor, and mix tech for the Skywalker team.

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

Scott> When I’m working on experiential projects, I love creating a huge, immersive soundscape in a large venue and using the subwoofers and haptics to shake to room and deliver a really visceral experience. When I’m working on more traditional media, listening back to the final mix and feeling the emotions that I wanted to get across in the audio means I’ve done something right.

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

Scott> The role of audio hasn’t changed that much in the sense that sound has always been at least 50% of the experience.  Sound can enhance and convey emotions that might not be obvious from a visual standpoint. But as technology changes, the role of audio needs to adapt and move forward as well. Whether it’s ambisonic audio with head tracking for VR, delivering ads with Apple Spatial audio or Dolby Atmos via new streaming services, or creating immersive experiential events that people can see and hear in person, audio technology is moving forward very quickly.  But what’s important to remember is that the technology should be there to help deliver a message, tell a story, or elicit an emotion. A mediocre idea executed with advanced technology is still a mediocre idea.

LBB> Who are your musical or audio heroes and why?

Scott> My musical heroes and audio heroes are quite varied. On one hand, everything is built on what came before. I’m always truly inspired by the artists, musicians, engineers and producers of the 60’s, 70’s, & 80’s, and earlier, that created incredible music and recordings with limited technology, often creating new gear DIY or inventing new technologies to achieve a new sound or complete a project. Often they were just trying to solve a problem, like excessive distortion in the recording chain, but ended up creating a sound that is so iconic that people are now using modern technology to try to recreate the sound of music they grew up with. On the other hand, I am fascinated by immersive audio and emerging audio technologies and enjoy being on the forefront of using these technologies in new and creative ways.

LBB> 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?

Scott> When it comes to sound design and mixing audio for picture, I try to keep the mindset of the film sound community front and center in my thinking.  The central concept of sound for film is storytelling. For example, if I’m struggling with a particular scene or sound effect, it’s more important to ask myself how the sound helps to tell the story, rather than what’s right or wrong with a particular sound. I once read a post in a film sound forum that is a great example of this.  Someone mentioned that they were struggling with the sound of footsteps of a jogger running through a forested park in autumn. The sound of the feet on the fallen leaves wasn’t sounding right and they asked how to fix the sound of the footsteps. Rather than suggesting a particular technique, like EQ or compression, most responses asked what was the context.  How does the jogger feel?  Is she happy, sad, frightened? Is she running from something? Is she being chased? Does she feel isolated and scared because there’s nobody around?  Is she filled with joy at the beauty of nature and bathing in the ambience of the forest?  The answers to all of those questions might inform the technique used to treat the footsteps.  If she’s scared and isolated, maybe all of the other sounds fade away and only the sounds of her breathing and footsteps are featured in a hyper-present and stylized sort of way.  If she’s happy and feeling confident, maybe the footsteps and breathing are underplayed and a calming a reassuring nature ambience reinforces the feeling.

LBB> When you’re working on something that isn’t directly sound design or music (lets say going through client briefs or answering emails) - 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?

Scott> If I need to concentrate on something, like writing a brief or answering an email with a complicated technical response, I prefer quiet and I’ll avoid the background noise. If it’s a tedious, repetitive task that doesn’t require a lot of concentration, I might put on some music.  But since I spend most of my day sitting behind speakers and listening very critically, silence can be beautiful.

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?

Scott> At the end of the day the goal is the same, to tell a story or convey an emotion, whether it’s through a bad-ass immersive experience or an on-the-go, low quality, portable device.  While there are a lot more options to deliver sound these days, which are often competing with other distractions, there are also a lot more tools available to ensure that the audio sounds great, how or wherever it’s experienced. It’s more important than ever to make sure that audio translates to wherever it will be consumed, and while checking mixes on a wide variety of systems, from headphones and earbuds, to phone and laptop speakers, to TVs and soundbars, nothing beats a well-designed, well-tuned, acoustically treated studio to really have confidence that what’s heard during the mix is what will be heard by the consumer. 

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

Scott> Since I spend so many long hours in the studio listening critically, I tend to try to give me ears a break when I’m not working. 

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…)?

Scott> I am definitely a vinyl nerd. I have a pretty large collection of vinyl (400-500, I think), which is everything from vintage jazz, gospel, classic rock, reggae, and world music, plus all of the punk rock records I bought as a teenager. I’m glad that vinyl has seen such a resurgence, but I do miss the era of cheap vinyl when CDs were the norm. I remember a, now defunct, record store in the Detroit area called Car City Classics. They had 99¢ bins of jazz and blues records that were in great condition, sometimes even brand new. I’d walk in with $20 and some change and walk out with 20 records! I discovered some really cool music that I likely never would have heard otherwise. One of the things that I love about listening to vinyl is that it’s a deliberate act. You have to set out to listen to music and be engaged in it when it’s time to flip the record over and/or put on a new record.

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 (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!!)

Scott> I was raised in a household that really valued art, and I was always surrounded by artwork, from paintings and prints, to oriental carpets, to antique books.  But the one thing that was somewhat missing was music. My father was and still is a big listener to classical music and particularly opera. I absolutely despised opera as a kid, but I’ve grown to appreciate it more as an adult. But no one in my family was musical or played an instrument, and I was mostly isolated from popular music and the radio.  But once I discovered punk rock in the mid 80’s, a switch flipped in my brain and music became one of the most important things in my life. Since my introduction to ska and reggae as part of the punk scene in the 80’s, I became interested in “World Music”, which is a term I don’t actually love, to be honest. I seriously considered studying ethnomusicology at one point.

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?

Scott> Travel has always been a passion of mine, particularly since my father was raised in Istanbul and my parents met there. I’ve been extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to travel the world installing and mixing audio for themed attractions. My very first trip to China, to mix a flying theater ride, was certainly…exciting. In order to get our gear through customs (we were lugging around super heavy flight cases with G5’s back then) we had to pay a cash payment to the customs officials as a sort of deposit.  This was arranged by our fixer/customs broker. My travelling companion had to leave the terminal to meet up with the fixer, while I had to stand at the customs desk with our gear, being watched over by guards with AK-47s. After what seemed like an eternity, he came back in with a brown paper bag filled with the RMB equivalent of $20k USD. Subsequent trips to China got a lot easier with regards to customs. Since then I’ve mixed rides all over China, the middle east, and North America. I make a concerted effort to get away from any tourist areas and see how people live in their day to day lives.

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?

Scott>  With age comes maturity, wisdom, and refinement. In my youth, my relationship to music and sound, was pure, raw emotion. Music was a way to channel my emotions, and punk rock provided an outlet for the abundance of energy and, sometimes, negative emotions that I felt. Sound quality and fidelity weren’t even a consideration at that time. As I grew older, music became more of a spiritual pursuit that helped me look within and better understand myself and my connection to the universe. When I got to the point of needing to focus my energies into a career, I couldn’t imagine a career that didn’t involve music in some way. My initial goal was to be a musician. That later evolved to include engineering (recording and mixing).  Post production was never really on my radar, but as I expanded my horizons and experienced more of the wider audio world, I realised what a rich and nuanced world it held.  While I still work on music fairly often, it’s not what I do most of the time.  But I don’t feel that I’ve let that dream slip away, because I get to find and elevate the rhythm, harmony, melody, and emotion in all of the audio I work on.