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Thinking in Sound: Toby Jarvis

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A-MNEMONIC founder Toby's sounds are instantly recognisable. Here, he shares his creative process and his love of music in all forms

Thinking in Sound: Toby Jarvis

The founder of A-MNEMONIC has been at the forefront of music composition in the UK for over 20 years.

Toby’s instantly recognisable compositions have been heard on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here (ITV), The Link (BBC One) and How Clean Is Your House? (Channel 4). His work for BBC Radio London can be heard hourly with the News and Travel bulletins as well as the flagship Breakfast Show. He also composed themes for the BBC coverage of the London Olympics, and idents for BBC Radio 6 Music and BBC Radio 4 Extra.

In 2013 Toby founded A-MNEMONIC Music Productions with the intention of continuing the themes that have defined his career: Creativity, ingenuity, originality and progression.


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?

Toby> Number one is to talk. Understand exactly what the challenge is. One positive to come out of lockdown, we felt meeting and chatting to clients on Zoom very productive. We used to huddle around a mobile, with the clients on the other end in an echoey meeting room.  

Beyond that I’m not sure if there is a typical process. I tend to get an idea in my head immediately: what I think our music should sound like or how it should 'feel'. It may not always be the best idea that comes first, it doesn’t matter. We always chat through our initial ideas with the team, and invariably realise there may be two or three.

It’s not good to get hung up about genre too early on. It’s how the audience should 'feel' that really matters.


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?

Toby> I’ve been collaborating and working with composers, singers and musicians since I was 11.

And been doubly lucky enough to continue this throughout my working life. I’ve spent an unholy amount of time in studios - 'making stuff up' with musical geniuses. It’s that musical collaboration with other fantastic music minds that really fires me. It’s good fun. 

 

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

Toby> Pulling all the talent together, with all the other people involved creatives, producers, etc. - That moment when you know you’ve nailed the idea.  

Occasionally I’ve been on the tube or a bus stop, and heard someone whistling my tune. That’s when you know you’ve done a good job.


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

Toby> Brands have certainly got smarter. And more brands than ever are thinking about how music can work harder for them. Rightly so.  

Fifteen years ago, it seemed only music radio stations really understood the power of music, and how to use it as a tool. In earlier days, writing radio jingles for the BBC and Capital FM, I was always struck by how good our 'radio station' clients were talking and briefing music.  In contrast, we find some people from the brands and advertising world find briefing and commissioning music very difficult.

I think this has led to Brands becoming ever more obsessed with metrics and data. Record companies are using algorithms to select Artists.. and their songs and vice versa. I can see why this has happened. Brands need to make sure they’re spending money wisely of course. But it takes humans out of any decision making process. We all have to watch that it doesn't usher in a tide of hermonignised blandness!

 

Who are your musical or audio heroes and why?

Toby> There are too many and they will change from day to day. Today, my heroes would be:

Chris Blackwell (founder of Island Records) Had an uncanny knack of putting great artists and musicians together and making fantastic recordings. 

Sly Dunbar & Robby Shakespear  

Master bass n drums combo. Everything they did was a masterclass in knowing when not to play. Or where not to play. Geniuses of economy.

 

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?

Toby> My go-to pioneers are all the record producers whose recordings I’ve loved. They’re all very different. However, I try not to go back to them too frequently! I think the trick is to make your own ideas, and experiment. Look forward.

 

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?

Toby> It would be impossible to work with background music!

In the first lockdown, my neighbours built an extension. Big drilling and piling and groundworks. I had a 'no whistling' and 'no outside radios' clause written into the party wall agreement, so I could continue to write at home. I can happily work with any level of drilling/ banging etc… just not background music. I’m not a big fan of music in restaurants either. We all know the tempo or pace of music can directly affect the rate at which you drink and eat.


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 - how does that factor into how you approach your work?

Toby> Kids listen to music through their tiny phone speakers now. It’s so depressing. They’re not listening for quality, they're listening to the message. You always have to consider where your music ends up being listened to, or through what kind of device. And make sure your ‘message’ whatever that is, can still be understood.

3D Audio was really exciting. To my astonishment it’s not been explored as much as it could. You can make really imaginative recordings, just with a laptop - really cheaply.   

It’s limitations (only works with headphones) should have been a plus for podcast, radio and drama producers. 

If I ran Spotify, in addition to paying the artists a proper royalty,  music would be streamed in  stereo and 3D Audio. Simply plugging your earbuds in would switch automatically to 3D audio. That would be cool. The same with all the radio station output. I’ve heard 3D mixes, so immersive, it feels like you're sat right in the middle of the recording.  

Dolby Atmos sounds amazing. Although I've not been to the cinema for 18 months, so that pleasure is a distant memory.

Watching Netflix at home with all the dolby speakers and the sound bar on is actually quite annoying. 

 

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

Toby> I love new music, new ways of production and new sounds and new artists. I’m not good at listening to classics or looking back too much.

I love pop music. In all its forms.

In the car I switch between Radio 1, Kiss, or let the Spotify algorithm take control. Which sometimes is uncannily perceptive.

At home: Gaydio, Kiss, Radio 1 or Spotify (either from my list or the Algorithm). I use the phone to 'cast' the to a mac which has proper speakers. If I change room, the sound follows me around.


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…)?

Toby> Up until the advent of iTunes and Spotify I had a huge collection of CDs and cassettes. All in the loft, taking up too much space. I’m not a huge fan of leasing your record collection. Which Spotify feels like. There are many acts, intentionally not on Spotify. So it’s not a portal to 'all' music available. However, it is convenient and portable.

I’ve amassed over the years, a huge library of my own recordings. Mostly weird, odd sounds that feel they might be useful for the future. I made some great recordings using an old submarine battery. When you brushed a metal cable over the terminals it would spit and spark eclectic zaps. I’ve used that a few times.

 

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?

Toby> I love hearing new sounds, or music I’ve never heard before. I’m always thinking how it could be borrowed from, or how it could be integrated into our work.  

I spent some time in Damascus - just before the so-called Arab Spring. It was Easter so  much marching and celebrating of local choirs and bands. I heard a Maronite choir. Originally Aramaic speakers, it’s a Catholic religion but sung is Syric. Some of the most beautiful chords and harmonies I’ve ever heard. 

In contrast, some of the most unpleasant music I’ve heard, played in its home land, is the gamelan. The gamelan music scale, to my unaccustomed ears, has some of the most grating and sour intervals I've ever heard. Or thought possible.  Perfect for triggering tinnitus.  One day a brief will come in where I’ll have to draw on this memory!


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?

Toby> I’m not sure my relationship with music has changed over the years. My taste perhaps has become broader. However the same things fire me up now, as they did in my youth: Great contemporary pop music, catchy, with an edge. With fab sound and astonishing production.  


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A-MNEMONIC, Tue, 22 Jun 2021 08:44:12 GMT