I have been interviewed on the site “La Bobina Sonora” which is dedicated to the spanish and latin america audio community. I thought it would be interesting to translate the interview into english in case you want to have a look. There are some insights into my career history, the way I approach sound design and mixing and the projects I was working on at the time (October 2018). So, here we go!
LA BOBINA SONORA: Before starting with the interview, I just wanted to thank you for your presence here at labobinasonora.net.
JAVIER ZUMER: Thanks you for the invitation, I’ve been reading the blog for years and I’m happy to be able to contribute.
LBS: You are currently based in Ireland, where you do most of your work. It’s interesting to ask, which are the main differences in the audio industry between Ireland and Spain?
JAVIER: The main difference is that Ireland is a country that enjoys a better economical situation. This brings more stability and specialization to the profession.
Having said that, Ireland is an interesting example because it shares some similarities with Spain. Both countries went under during the economic crisis (both with a property bubble). Also, both live under other countries shadows like the UK, France or the US since these have a more mature and stablished industry.
LBS: How are audio professionals treated by the Irish industry? Do any kind of associations or unions exist?
JAVIER: Personally, my experience has being positive. Maybe sound doesn’t get as much love and attention as other departments (that’s kind of universal since we are visual creatures) but in my environment I usually have the time and resources needed to get the job done.
About associations, I am not aware of them but if they do exist they are probably based in Dublin since the industry is mostly located there. (I’m currently in Galway).
LBS: Those who work on this amazing profession usually share an appreciation for cinema, music and even other arts. Which were the main reasons for you to end up building sonic worlds? Maybe your experience in music production brought you there?
JAVIER: Like many other people, the thing that made me consider and appreciate sound was music. Reason was the first audio software that I used in depth and that was when I dropped out of college to study audio.
I still think Reason is a very unique starting point since its design imitates real hardware and it gave me my first notions of how the audio signal flows.
Later, I started to be more interested in audio for cinema and games. I think they offer a great balance of artistic and technical challenges.
LBS: At the start of your career you were getting some experience with music recording and mixing at Mundo Sinfónico. How do you think this time helped you in your career?
JAVIER: Mundo sinfónico was my first professional audio experience. Héctor Pérez, who owns the place, was kind enough to let me join on some projects during recording and mixing.
During that time I learned a lot about using microphones, Pro Tools, and other software. It was pretty much like discovering how all these things are used in the real world and in real applications. At this time, I also started to learn how to to face a mix.
LBS: So, how were your first steps as a sound designer?
JAVIER: At some point, I knew I needed to invest in my own gear in order to work in projects and I had to make a decision. I could either invest in music recording or in location audio gear. I decided to go for the latter since building an studio would lock me into an specific location but I could do location audio anywhere. Also, by that point audio for cinema interested me as much as music production.
With this gear I did many, many short films, some documentaries and TV stuff. Naturally, I would also work on the audio post for some of these projects and this was the way I went into sound design and mixing.
LBS: Is there any specific moment in time when you feel you made a big leap forward on your career?
JAVIER: Maybe the way I got my current job. By that time, I was living in Galway, which is quite far away from Dublin (impossible to commute). Since all the industry is really in Dublin, this was an issue if I wanted to get work but those days I was just working on freelance projects here are there.
One day, I decided that it would be cool to find people in my city interested in going out and record sound effects. I sent some emails to local audio folks and one of them was Ciarán Ó Tuairisc, who was the head of sound for Telegael, a company that was super close, like a 5 minute drive from my place.
I went there to meet him and see the place and he gave me some episodes so I could do a sound design test. Some days later, I came back with the results and I was offer a job there. I was maybe expecting that they will consider me for freelance work at best but the whole thing was kind of a job interview where I was successful with no need for a CV or a tie.
LBS: What are your main goals when facing a sound design project? Which of them are esential to your workflow?
JAVIER: When doing sound design I like to first do a basic coverage pass. Just have a sound for every obvious thing without taking much time with each. Once this is done, the real job begins when you start thinking about how the sounds you already have work together and which ones are important enough to spend more time and thought on them.
LBS: When crafting a sonic world, which are the processes (artistic or technical) that deserve the most attention and detail?
JAVIER: The elements that drive the story forward defintely deserve the most attention. Also is very important to give detail to any element that helps with world building.
If the story takes place in a special place or there is a relevant object is important to think how these should sound like. Of course, ideally this should work on subconcious level for the viewer.
LBS: Talking now about all the different processes that build a sonic world (dialogue editing, ambients/fx, foley, mixing…), which is the hardest for you and which one do you enjoy the most?
JAVIER: Probably foley is where I am the least confortable. It is a true art that requieres experience, coordination and sensitivity to get it right. I don´t have a lot of experience doing it and I am not into the physical part of the job although I know that that appeals to other people.
The process I enjoy the most is mixing since this is when all elements come together to create a cohesive whole that moves towards the same artistic direction.
LBS: Do you usually think about mixing when doing sound design? Do you use sub-mixes or pre-mixes on certain elements? Or do you prefer to start the mix completely from scratch?
JAVIER: It depends on the situation. When I´m just doing sound design I try to give the mixer as much control and options as possible so I don´t usually do sub-mixes although sometimes they makes sense.
If I´m mxing and also doing sound design I tend to pre-mix things as I go and even apply some EQ or compression here and there on elements that I know are going to need it. For this, clip effecs on Pro-Tools are great.
LBS: Talking about something omnipresent and unavoidable like technology, which is the gear you usually use when doing editing, sound design and mixing?.
JAVIER: I use a Pro Tools Ultimate rig with a S6 M10 desk. In terms of software, I use the usual stuff, most of my plugins are either from Avid or from Waves. For dialogue editing, Izotope RX is a must.
LBS: Which was your last technological discover that improved your workflow the most?
JAVIER: Probably Soundly, although this wasn´t that recent. It is a library management software that maybe doesn´t offer as many features as Soundminer but I think is a great option. It is more affordable (in the short term) and also offers online libraries that are kept updated and growing. It offers more than enough metadata capabilities and good integration with Pro Tools.
LBS: A big portion of your work is focused on an area that is maybe a little unkwnown for some of us but very important and clearly rising in relevance. How did you get into video game sound design?
JAVIER: I grew up playing games and this was always an area that interested me when I got into sound design.
One day I saw an ad for a crowdfunding from a spanish game, Unepic. They were looking for some money to record some voice acting and I emailed them asking them wether they would also be interested in some help with sound design. I had really no idea about how this kind of work would go and surprinsingly the were interested and we started to work together.
Six year later, Unepic has sold more than half a million copies between consoles and PC, being the first spanish indie game to get into Steam. It was a project that taught me a lot and I have kept working with its developer, Francisco Téllex de Meneses and many others since.
LBS: What are the main differences between working on video game sound design and just working on traditional media?
JAVIER: The main difference is that traditional media is linear. Once you finish a mix, it is going to be the same for all viewers, the only differentiating factor would be the reproduction system but the mix itself it would be the same forever.
On the other hand, video games are interactive so there is no mix in the traditional sense. You just give the game engine every audio asset needed and the rules that will govern how these sound are played. So the mix would be created in real time as the player intereacts with the world of the game.
The real power in video game sound design comes from the fact that you can connect audio tools with parameters and states within the game world. For example, imagine that the music and dialogue are connected to a low pass filter, a reverb and a delay and they change as your health gets lower. Or a game where you build weapons that wear out as you use them so their foley and FX become darker (via an EQ) and more distorted in the process.
I have an article on my blog with more information for someone who wants to start to do video game sound design.
LBS: Let´s talk about your work on field and SFX recording. We can find some interesting libraries on your website made by you, some of them dedicated to something you call “audio explorations”.
How important is field and SFX recording for you?
JAVIER: It´s something I consider very important beacuse once you have access to the big libraries the industry uses, you realize that there are many sounds that are over used. Once you start to hear them, they are everywhere!
So, I think is important to bring a more unique and personal approach to sound design. Also, when you record and create your own sound effects you force yourself to be more adventurous and to experiment with thechniques and ideas.
LBS: How do you usually plan a field recording session? Are they done within the context of a larger project or do you plan free sessions just to experiment and play around?
JAVIER: This is something I´ve been thinking about for a long time. On one hand, when something specific is needed, I just go out to get it. But with time I have been thinking that in those cases is not very convenient to explore and record interesting stuff since you have deadlines and many other things to work on.
As a solution, I´ve been going on what I call “explorations”. I just pick a technique, prop, place or software and I try to create interesting stuff while trying to learn how it works. I´ve been blogging about them and also releasing free mini-libraries with the results.
LBS: Any particular piece of advice to keep in mind when doing field recording?
JAVIER: At the begining of every take, always explain what your are doing with your own voice. Take videos and picture if you can. I guarantee you won´t remember everything you where doing later when you are editing.
LBS: What kind of gear (recorder, microphones…) and techniques do you usually use when doing filed recording?
JAVIER: Nothing too special or obscure. I use a Tascam HD-P2 that works great after seven years of use and is able to record at 192 kHz although it only has two pre-amps so sometimes I need other recorders as a reinforcement. The microphones I use are a 416, Oktava 012, Rode NT4, SM57, Sanken COS-11D and some more exotic mics from JRF (hydrophone, contact mic and a coil pick up).
LBS: Which project would you consider a highlight on your career in terms technical or artistic merit?
JAVIER: Recently, I have worked on the sound design and a good portion of the mix for a documentary series about the lighthouses of Ireland that was premiered on RTE (the irish BBC).
It was a very interesting project with beautiful helicopter footage. I needed to recreate the audio for 200 minutes of aerial shots so loads of waves, wind, storms, seagulls and things like that. I tried to give each location and lighthouse its own personality and sound. Some of them are really astonishing and true masterpieces of engineering while others are situated on amazing natural locations.
I summary, one the most beautiful projects I have had the chance of working on.
LBS: Is there any cool anecdote in your almost decade as a professional that you would like to share?
JAVIER: While I was trying to remember an anecdote I thought I could share something that happens to me from time to time and I wonder if it´s something thar other people experience too.
Some times, when I´m looking for a particular sound. I bring some audio just by chance or even by mistake and it works great just like that. I guess that when you spend many hours editing audio, these things are going to just happen from time to time but it always feels like you were touched by the goods of sound design for a moment.
LBS: Is there any project on your near future?
JAVIER: I´m about to get immersed in Drop Dead Weird, a live action comedy about three australian teenagers that move to Ireland and their parents turn into zombies. I am mixing the show, which is a co-production between Channel 7 (Australia) and RTE (Ireland).
It´s a cool crazy project with a lot of action and sound design and many people on each scene which is always a challenge in terms of dialogue editing.
LBS: To wrap thing up, any advice for someone who is mad enough to be interested in this beautiful profession?
JAVIER: When I look back at my career there is a pattern that repeats itself: I was able to make a leap forward when I was on the right place at the right time. The problem is that you never know when and where this is going to happen, for each of these moments of success I´ve had many more that just were unfruitful.
So the best way to go then is to be persistant and throw as many seeds to the air as possible while always improving as a professional. Something will bloom.
LBS: Thanks again for your time, Javier. Best of luck on your future projects which we will keep an eye on here on labobinasonora.net.
JAVIER: Thanks to you, Óscar for having me. My pleasure.