“You can’t be, what you can’t see”
This was my starting point for a creative discussion the other day – we were talking about creative industries and lack of diversity, lack of representation in some areas, empowered freelancers and I broadened the conversation on to creative skill set and roles. There are SO many roles and extremely talented folks that go relatively unnoticed and unseen. It’s not to do with their lack of importance or skill set – it’s because what they do happens behind closed doors or “backstage”. Ironically, some of these roles (especially the digital and tech ones) in the current climate – have never been more important. These are the folks that will drive and help shape the innovation and reinvention of creative projects because they have the skill and ability to do so! Therefore, we should be shouting about them and celebrating them!
As The Culture Vulture, my mission has always been to empower artists and showcase the creative and cultural sector in its entirety. So, in my blog over the next few months, I’m going to be featuring talented creative people who have interesting roles in creative projects but often, don’t get mentioned or celebrated in the way they should do! I want to remove the “mysterious” element of what they do and hopefully, make them feel seen with the hope that others may follow in their footsteps. I want to illuminate the creative industries in their entirety.
There are so many roles that could sit within the “unseen” and “mysterious” category – but the one I’m going to explore today is a sound designer! If you don’t know what one is – well don’t flap – I didn’t know until a couple of years ago! I’ve personally worked with them on films, animations, theatre productions and public art commissions exhibited as part of an event. They do weird and wonderful things to sound usually as part of a wider whole (e.g. a theatre production). Their skills lay in making people feel, think, experience things via sounds. In an immersive performance context, if we think about humans having 5 senses – the perfect blending of the performance including sight and sound, can trigger the audience to feel, smell, and even taste things. What you hear can be equally as important as what you see!
A sound designer that I’ve had the total pleasure of meeting and working with recently, as part of Mortal Fools – is Matthew Tuckey, he’s very talented but also really canny human (I’ve enjoyed surrounding myself with canny folks of late). So I thought, I’d jump at the chance to interview him to showcase what a sound design is, what they do and to celebrate Matthew’s work, to make it more “seen”. So here we go and over to Matthew!
Hiyer Matthew – right, let’s start at the beginning – please introduce yourself to my fellow Culture Vultures?
Matthew – I am a Sound Designer and Sound Artist. I work mainly in theatre but have more recently been taking private and public art commissions. I’m based in North East England but take my work further afield when I get the opportunity. I am currently craving a long escape to the Highlands (when it is safe to do so) and I really like cooking. So, if you want to talk at length about interesting sounds or how to make an excellent stir-fry – hit me up!
As a forever hungry human, yes please! Can you tell me about your journey into the creative industries?
Matthew – It’s a convoluted one… I started off with a very committed drama teacher who encouraged me to pursue directing. I was involved in music, art and drama at school but unfortunately we were limited to only one option at GCSE level, so I ended up going for Drama and took this all the way to A Level. I tried studying a four year MA in Theatre Studies at the University of Glasgow but after the first two months decided this was a waste of time and somehow landed an internship in a recording studio back in Newcastle. I was still writing and directing theatre here and there, but the studio offered me an exciting new creative outlet. Without planning it, these two worlds merged quite naturally in sound design.
Fast forward to now and I’m exploring the exciting and diverse world of sound design for theatre, and more lately, sound art. This was quite a natural progression from my creative work in recording studios and theatre sound technician work, alongside participation in directing and writing workshops. The surprising thing I found was when I was doing the more technical work, some people were asking me questions like “have you given up on creating theatre then?” which really fuelled my desire to demonstrate how technical and creative meet harmoniously in the designer’s role.
The Culture Vulture – As a non-planner – I find the magic happens in the freedom and I’m delighted to hear you talk about the connection between technical and creative, as absolutely and actually, I think where they meet is exactly where the innovation is, that will take us into the next sector creative phase for reinvent post (or during) pandemic!
So tell me, what do you do as a sound designer? What is a sound designer?
Matthew – I get asked this a lot, and often at the start of a project with a new collaborator funnily enough! Also, a lot of people keep asking me how I differentiate between my sound design and sound art practice, and to be fair most aren’t aware that a “sound artist” is a thing. So to clarify, briefly, I am a sound designer when I am serving a client or collaborators creative vision – they present a problem and I plan and execute a design solution. Sound Art is what I do when I am realising my own creative vision – but the line can be quite blurry.
So, a sound designer means a lot of things across film, music, theatre, UI, AR, etc. Even in the theatre industry, where I do most of my work, it can mean many things to many people depending on the show, the genre, the theatre, etc. Broadly speaking though, the sound designer for a theatre production is responsible for all audible aspects of a performance.
It’s a broad role that can involve any combination of the following: sound effects recording, sound effects design, Foley (live or pre-recorded), sound system design, live sound reinforcement, recording and playback of music, programming the show control software, and room acoustics. So if you get the right one, they can be very good value for money!
I describe this approach as a wholistic sound design and this is what I aim to achieve in my work. Depending on the show and the company, this can either be all on me or with a team of maybe one other sound designer or composer and the technicians in the sound department.
The Culture Vulture – I think it’s an important question for folks to keep asking as, the more they ask and get comfortable with what a sound designer can do – the more ambitious they will get with their use of sound during a performance or project. Lack of technical knowledge and understanding of specialist roles like yours, can be so self-limiting! Through increased awareness, the seemingly impossible transforms into possible.
Matthew Tuckey – photo credit Von Fox
What types of folks require your services?
Matthew – Anyone wanting to tell a story with sound! Whether that’s theatre companies, film makers, podcasters, visual artists, museum curators, or marketing teams. For example, I’ve never worked with an organisation on creating a sonic brand (think Windows or Mac start up. Or Netflix “da-dum”!) but would love to hear from anyone interested in developing that side of their marketing strategy. My clientele is only limited by imagination – it’s fairly niche at the moment but more and more organisations are offering immersive audio experiences (see Land Rover marketing or Formula 1 teams or Bastille album launches).
The Culture Vulture – holy moly, the Bastille album launch was truly amazing (google it folks)! So innovative. And as someone, who had kind of forgotten about them and their music, it worked in getting me to notice them and reconnect.
Matthew – There’s a range of technical proficiency out there already when it comes to things like recording a podcast or sound for video, not forgetting musicians with home studios. But my skills really lie in marrying specialist technical knowledge and creative expression. When I was working in recording studios, one of the most important lessons I learnt was how to create a workflow that allowed natural movement between ‘left brain’ activities (setting levels, patching signal chains, organising your space) and ‘right brain’ activities (creative ideation, abstraction thinking, meditative listening) – I think that’s one of the biggest offerings on a project.
I also offer consultancy and training for organisations looking to improve their sound infrastructure and skills. Whether that’s theatre and cinema workshops exploring sonic creativity or venues looking to improve their sound system. I’m yet to work with a restaurant that want to improve the sonic side of the dining experience (I’ve been lucky enough to go to some nice restaurants and notice how uncomfortable they are sonically!) – maybe one day!
The Culture Vulture – I really love what you’re talking about there. 1. The brand sound – as someone who works in marcomms, this would interest me greatly. We often talk about how colours and visuals feed into branding- but sound isn’t something explored in the mainstream and I think, it has such potential. 2. Enhancing audience experience through sound – I would love to visit a restaurant or bar that has invested into this area.
Tell me about some recent project highlights?
Matthew – Just before lockdown I was nearing the end of an exciting new show with Mortal Fools called ‘Relentless’. This was the first time they had worked with a sound designer and we had/have a really ambitious vision for using sound in this production (Relentless was cancelled just before touring and is set to tour in 2021). I couldn’t help feel a touch of nostalgia with this project as it reminded me of similar devising processes I was part of as a teenager. We’re all determined that this show WILL have a life beyond lockdown!
Another recent highlight is ‘Wolf’ a winter story by Kitchen Zoo in association with Northern Stage which was performed in Stage 3 over Christmas 2019. Kitchen Zoo are a fantastic team making brilliant shows for little people and their grown-ups. It was my first time collaborating with the talented Katie Doherty who was the composer, we both found this collaborative effort very rewarding.
WOLF by Kitchen Zoo – photo credit Von Fox
What makes a “good” sound designer? What skills do they need?
Matthew – I think the main thing that is relevant for all types of sound designers, and sounds a bit obvious but I really do mean it, is you need to LOVE sound and really experience the world through a strong awareness of sound. Whether it’s noticing an interesting acoustic effect, experiencing new music (live and recorded), or being drawn into a film through the sound design and score. I’m pretty evangelical about people watching/listening to collaborations between Hans Zimmer and Christopher Nolan (current personal favourites – Dunkirk and The Dark Knight Trilogy – both making awesome use of Shepard tones which is one to ‘Google’!) And also, Joe Wright’s Atonement and Darkest Hour are great examples of sonic repetition and punctuation. But I’ll stop short of some of the more obscure ones…
The Culture Vulture – As a real film fan, I love sound in film and really appreciate its usage; 1917 had a fantastic use of sound and Ryan Murphy productions use sound (and populist music) fantastically; American Horror Story, Pose, Versace!
Matthew – Another important skill is developing a language alongside your awareness of sound. Being able to describe sound in a way that communicates clearly with a range of clients/collaborators – whether that’s a producer, a director, a performer, or videographer or painter. Having a common language is really important and is the first challenge in every new collaboration.
There are other skills that are really more specific to individual practice. Such as live sound reinforcement, microphone techniques for live and recorded sound, field recording, effects design, music composition, QLab programming etc. The depth that you go into these more practical skills really depends on what type of work you are designing.
The Culture Vulture – It’s interesting that you brought up commonality of language. I think it’s a real barrier to lots of collaboration where technology and more technical roles could come together. It’s the same with technological solutions and innovation that could make creative businesses function better – we (I class myself in that) often don’t have the words to describe effectively what we want or to do the research to understand what we need and the ones with the technological solution aren’t able to communicate to people who don’t understand tech speak! It can be overwhelming and disempowering!
What kit do you use? What kit would you recommend to folks wanting to invest in sound for their work?
Matthew – So I use a combination of field recording, studio equipment, and electronic instruments.
For field recording I have a multitrack recorder with a vast range of microphones, from ambisonics (useful for VR and surround work) to contact microphones (useful for acousmatic compositions). I also have a handy mini field recorder with built-in and external mic’s which I use to grab interesting sounds that I come across day-to-day (this pretty much goes everywhere with me, and it’s not uncommon to spend the first 30mins in a new Airbnb recording another extractor fan or boiler!).
I have yet more microphones for studio recording (such as voiceovers and acoustic instruments) as well as a few acoustic instruments and Foley props that make great source material for designing effects. I recently got hold of a mini Roland synthesiser based on the classic Juno 60 and 106 which is very fun and versatile – I like being able to get hands on with this, as a lot of my work happens in audio editing software, and if all else fails you can just entertain yourself trying to make things sound a bit more Stranger Things!
It’s important to say though that you can buy the best equipment in the world but use it terribly! So the best resource straight away is either investing time and money into learning the skills to optimise what equipment you can lay your hands on, or bringing in a collaborator like me who already has not just those skills and equipment resources, but thinks and creates in a heavily sound orientated way.
The Culture Vulture – When learning something new or feeling out of your depth, there is an impulse that can lead to buying ALL the kit possible as a solution or assuming the best kid will compensate for the lack of skills. I’ve been guilty of that for visual stuff and learnt the hard way!
You worked on an Enchanted Parks’ piece – I didn’t know you back then, but I worked on EP that year and remember your name, it was a wonderful piece– can you tell me about the piece?
Matthew – That was a lot of fun collaborating with Molly Barrett on her sculpture piece ‘Smoke & Mirrors’ in 2018. I got to play around with some new ways of manipulating the voiceover that was part of the wider Enchanted Parks story and working with some theme music from the wonderful Roma Yagnik.
I’m really hoping that Enchanted Parks makes a come-back after their hiatus. It’s a fantastic event and my involvement in 2018 left me with big ideas for a parkwide sound installation.
The Culture Vulture – Me too – both as someone who visited every year as a punter and lived along the top of Saltwell Park, it’s a proper visitor gem! AND as someone who worked on the event for a couple of years – it’s a big miss to my yearly calendar.
Can you tell me a career project highlight so far?
Matthew – That’s a tough one!
I really enjoyed working with Selma Dimitrijevic on ‘joey’. It was a preview tour and Selma’s first point in the brief was ‘very lo-fi’ – we were literally touring to venues that had the most basic of sound systems. The piece was performed as a monologue by two performers simultaneously, one in English the other in BSL (the very talented Scott Turnbull and Faye Alvi respectively), and so we decided to make the soundscape quite low-frequency heavy in order to maximise the effect for our D/deaf audience members. These very strict parameters helped me to focus my attention on the source material inspired by the script and manipulate these in a really creative way that supported and scored the performances on stage.
Joey – Photo credit – Bish
I also have to mention working as Associate Sound Designer for Northern Stage’s production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ and working alongside sound designer Nick John Williams. That show was a lot of fun, not least because of the sheer scale of the production. Nick brought me onto that project to help with some particular tasks, which included recording various sound effects such as church bells – a first for me! I was also responsible for creating vocal effects chains for the different types of ghosts and narrators in the show. Both of these challenges were a lot of fun and we were very happy with the outcome.
The Culture Vulture – Great answer and it gives a real overview of how broad and diverse your work can be!
A Christmas Carol – Northern Stage – photo credit Pamel
Can you tell me how COVID-19 has affected your work/practice?
Matthew – As soon as the PM suggested people stay away from theatres (prior to ordering them to close) the theatre industry pretty much shut down over night. My diary for the foreseeable cleared overnight simultaneously. Which was a shock to the system to say the least!
I had already been developing my practice in the digital art scene and making commission applications and funding bids in this area. Now with social distancing in place, a lot more people are contributing to digital art galleries which is great but also means the competition for funding and commissioning has jumped up!
The Culture Vulture – I hear ya! But from knowing you and chatting briefly to you about what you’ve got in store, I’m extremely excited to see your ideas and work unfold!
What challenges have you faced and how have you responded to them?
Matthew – The most immediate issues for me were the worries of financial loss and losing momentum in my practice. As a freelancer, I struggle with this mentality that if I stop for too long and lose momentum then it’s game over – I’ll lose clients, I’ll miss opportunities and I’ll forget how to do what I do.
I dealt with the financial worries by taking a few days just to gather my thoughts and assess the situation – fortunately I wasn’t in any immediate trouble and since then I’ve been successful in securing an individual ACE emergency support grant. I’ve also got some online workshop facilitation work for the lovely Mortal Fools and some online tutoring for Newcastle College’s FdA Stage Management and Technical Theatre students, which is also a lot of fun.
In terms of my practice – I started off by setting myself small, short term goals. I created a mini series of daily-ish ‘Mystery Sounds’ giving people 24 hours to guess the sound from a short recording clip. This helped me feel productive while I adjusted to the new circumstances. I’m still finding it difficult not being able to go very far with my recording equipment and to see people, but the cacophony of birds in our garden are more than obliging recording subjects for the time being. Listen here!
The Culture Vulture – I loved your mystery sounds and I think it is a testament to your creativity with sound. In a busy digital space where everyone was suddenly pushing out content – I genuinely found yours fun and interesting! It also drove me insane trying to guess!
You’ve been successful in receiving ACE emergency support funding – so firstly, BLIDDY WELL DONE PAL! Can you tell me what was the application process like? How did it feel to find out you were successful?
Matthew– It was a fairly simple process and I had some great advice from people who have a good track record with securing ACE funding. I’ve also been through a few bids over the past year, that were all unsuccessful in this ever increasingly competitive sphere of funding, so it was a real relief to find out I was successful. I was having a bad day when I got the email so just dismissed it without reading it in a moment of negativity and pessimism – thankfully I went back and read the email properly!
It was also very encouraging – I’ve basically spent lockdown juggling what little work is done remotely, applying to commissions for digital art, and trying to maintain some sort of routine! Now this help from ACE can give me some structure and purpose for a brief period of time.
YAS! Proud of you pal! What will the funding enable you to do? What can we hook into?
Matthew – It’s buying me time really. The Arts Council asked how I would use this time to plan and stabilise for the future. And my answer was two things: take some sections of my original sound library and create collections to be bought online, and also to host webinars and discussions for collaborators who want to find out more about the sound design process and how they can collaborate with a sound designer in their work.
The webinars and discussions are largely going to be promoted through my existing networks with the help of regional theatre companies, but if anyone would like to get in touch to hear more about these events then they can find my contact details on my website.
Count me in for the webinars and discussions! So, I know it’s hard to plan during the uncertainty right now – but what’s next for Matthew on the horizon? What projects/happenings/things should my fellow Culture Vultures look out for?
Matthew – I am currently working on a mini album of sound art made during lockdown. It’s largely inspired by sounds I’ve noticed more since social distancing measures and sounds I am missing too. This will be available on my Soundcloud page (and other platforms that I will announce via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@MGTuckey, @thesoundportrait)
As soon as I can safely do so, I will be recording more pieces or ‘episodes’ for my Sound Portrait ‘Podcast’. This is a long-term project that I am running through a Patreon page that is all about hearing someone unfold their thoughts in a type of one-sided conversation. For me, it’s the sound artists portrait photograph of an individual. I’m steadily growing a following and patronage for this project, and I’ve recently created a new lower tier (just £1 per month) on my Patreon in order to try and encourage new followers to support the life of the project. It’s a slow burner, but my hope is that we can create a series of portraits that collectively amount to a sonic time-capsule of people, a kind of living oral history if you like.
Other than that, things are fairly uncertain during lock down unfortunately, particular with regards to theatre work – who knows when this will pick up again.
The Culture Vulture – a sound portrait of an individual…..I really love that. Just reading that has got me excited and I would love to be involved in some way!
Matthew – The other project I have continually running in the background is called The Rime and is my personal response to the epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and combines influences of field recording, acousmatic composition, and sound poetry. I am constantly applying to commissioning opportunities to take this work further and hope I’ll be able to share more about this in the coming months!
The Culture Vulture – Thank you Matthew; you can find out more about Matthew on his website or via his socials; Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@MGTuckey, @thesoundportrait)
One of the things I love about working in the cultural sector, is the rich tapestry of people, vocations and skill sets that exist within it; it truly is unrivalled. I am unsure if people outside of the sector, truly understand its richness or skill diversity. I often sit back during a project team meeting and look around thinking…..”bliddy heck – what a talented bunch of people we have here!?” Matthew is one of those people!
And I am truly excited to see the opportunities as I predict tech and digital will creatively collide due to the pandemic, connect and from that, exciting collaborations will unfold.
Until next time Culture Vulture.