Ruy Garcia is an award-winning Sound Designer best known for his work on Boardwalk Empire. Following on from his NUGEN user story last month, this is more of an informal chat about how his working practice has changed during the lockdown, how he used Halo Upmix on Midsommar and Wendy, and why Lost In Translation is best watched with headphones.
Hi Ruy, can you tell me a little bit about your usual workflow, under normal circumstances?
"Sound design is a contentious term, some people feel it's pretentious."
I do sound design, editing and mixing. I usually collaborate with a team of editors and other mixers. Sometimes I’m hired to create specific sounds or sequences and sometimes I’ll just come in to finish a project at the final mix stage, but regardless of budgets and deadlines, I prefer to be creatively involved during the whole project. Sound design is a contentious term, some people feel it’s pretentious, but I think everybody, from the person recording on set, to the last person finishing the mix, is making creative decisions and designing in some artistic form. Sound design is just like production design, you’re creating a world that can convey a story emotionally.
The way we work is mostly in the box, within Pro Tools, and I strive to start mixing from the very beginning. The editors will send me tracks, and I’m already working on the session that will become the final mix. That way we can make decisions listening in context and you don’t end up with a temp mix that you actually liked better than the final! It happened all the time when I used to produce music, you had a tracking mix when you were recording the musicians, and then you couldn’t get that vibe back on the final mix, even with all the extra resources. I try to keep that in mind and at hand on films.
And when you work as part of a team, how often are you working in the same room at the same time?
"We had two control desks so we could have two mixers working at the same time."
I have a studio in the country, which is where I am right now, and I also have a studio in downtown New York. And we have exactly the same equipment, the same speakers, the same software and hardware. I carry a little encrypted hard drive everywhere I go, with my projects and all my plug-ins. The only thing that changes is the acoustics of the room, and maybe the board. Working on a big Atmos project like Wendy or The Devil All The Time, we used a big theatrical room with a splendid projector, and we had two control desks so we could have two mixers working at the same time. At home I’m working with a smaller projector and one 24-channel console, which is the same sonically, you just have less faders to move.
So how have things changed? I guess you’re in the home studio all the time now.
"There’s a cliché with sound editors and mixers, we’re already used to being stuck in a dark room, so that hasn’t changed. But what has changed, I think, is the attitude."
My commute is definitely shorter! There’s a cliché with sound editors and mixers, we’re already used to being stuck in a dark room, so that hasn’t changed. But what has changed, I think, is the attitude. When we work in our studio in New York, we do have separate rooms, but we’re right there together. My assistant is in the room next door, the mix stage is two doors down, and the other editors have their own rooms. But now we’re working from home, people are listening to things remotely and there’s more time to think without being reactive. The focus changes, and priorities change.
I was working on a film due in March, we were four days from finishing, and we had to shut the whole thing down. We managed to push a bit and make a print of the movie, but it’s still not finished. At the same time, this has actually been useful for another film I’m working on right now - the deadline has changed, because there’s no cinema to play in. The movie was geared for the Cannes Film Festival, and the festival was cancelled literally the day before I was set to mix it. So now we have extra time to get creative, and we’re doing a beautiful detailed job. The director and I are exchanging files and ideas coast to coast over the internet, it’s an interesting workflow.
It can be quite a nice way of working, still having the back and forth, but with a little more breathing space. Face to face, it can sometimes get too intense, and you don’t have as much time to process what you think or feel about something. So are there any resources you’ve found particularly helpful, online tools you’ve been using, or software you wouldn’t normally use?
"You end up trying to match this richly textured dialog from production with a phone recording of someone at home in a closet. But there’s software that helps with that."
I’m using the same software I always use. But we’ve been testing some internet options and remote options for recording ADR, for example. You end up trying to match this richly textured dialog from production with a phone recording of someone at home in a closet. But there’s software that helps with that.
We’re also finishing things here. Right now, I don’t have a machine room recordist to help me with the deliverables, so I have to do it myself, and test it myself. Right now, achieving the different specs that you have for Netflix, for Apple, for whatever studio or TV network, that’s very important. They say you should mix with your ears, not with meters, and we do, but I still have to make sure that it’s done to the proper specs. So I have the NUGEN loudness meter on during the whole thing, and it’s good to see it in the corner of my eye.
It matters, because when you hear the finished product, it gets judged next to other products, right? People watching at home, they change the channel if it’s too loud, or if the dialog gets lost under the music and FX. The medium becomes the message, and now so many people are listening on headphones. The other day I listened to Lost In Translation with headphones, and I heard so much extra detail! I really enjoyed the movie when it came out, but all the work they did with music and ambience, like when he walks through the hotel corridor and he hears a remnant of a song from before. You may only notice it subliminally, but in headphones you can appreciate all these extremely nuanced touches.
I actually need to watch Lost In Translation again. I remember I liked it, but I can barely remember anything about it. If I watch it again soon then maybe I’ll have to use headphones, just to get the full experience.
Definitely. Sonically, it’s amazing!
So you mentioned VisLM, the loudness meter. Are there any other NUGEN products which you’ve found useful during this time?
"You can have a scream just in the back with echo in front, or go from full forest ambience to a single tree leaf crackling. Some people might say that’s distracting, but sometimes you want to distract, and even stereo can be distracting for that matter."
I used to hate upmixers, whenever somebody brought in a session with an upmixer I would think it was lazy. If you listen to any of the movies I’ve worked on, the music and the effects are always panning around. I like having stereo stems, not necessarily 5.1 or 7.1 stems, so I can have the score move around us creating extra space as needed. What I didn’t like about upmixers was that, even though they would help you save time, it was just something you set artificially, and there was no creative decision-making. But now I’ve used the NUGEN Halo Upmix, and I like it a lot! It can be very transparent or add extra character. I don’t tend to use one setting, I’m always playing with it, tweaking the faders, making something go front and back and up or down by moving it in real time on the actual upmixer without worrying of how it will translate to stereo.
In Midsommar, we took advantage of that since the camera is always panning and booming, so we followed the camera movements with the music. I mixed the Atmos version from their original 5.1 version, and we played a lot with height. You have those shots which boom, tilt and roll around, the sky becomes the ground, the ground becomes the sky, and we would flip the music and FX. When the airplane starts shaking and you go in through the window, sound follows you all the way from the front to the back, we had the voices pan over you as it happens and the wind and engine turbulence surrounds you. What’s particularly interesting about Midsommar is that it’s immersive by its silence. There were tons of layers available that were carved out to the most essential, so you seem to hear only one element at a time. You can have a scream just in the back with echo in front, or go from full forest ambience to a single tree leaf crackling. Some people might say that’s distracting, but sometimes you want to distract, and even stereo can be distracting for that matter.
I think you can make it tasteful. Like you said, sometimes you deliberately want a distraction, you want a noticeable effect. It’s interesting to read about mixing in the 60’s, when some people still thought that stereo was a gimmick, and obviously now stereo is the standard.
It can be part of the emotional connection you have to what you are experiencing. I’ve listened to Pink Floyd records remixed in surround, and I don’t like them at all! I really like the original sound, and it’s not because I’m antiquated, I just think it worked better the way they had it at the time, rather than in surround with a kick drum over your head. But there’s other music I’ve heard remixed that I love! I have a Nine Inch Nails record mixed in surround, and what they achieved with atmospheric textures is really expressive.
I’ll look that up. Is there one piece of advice you would give for audio professionals right now?
"When we make movies or music or whatever, we have to work together, treat each other with respect, and try to understand each other."
Take care of yourself. Realise that there are other priorities in life. There is always such an urgency to our work, you forget to leave, you forget about your family and friends. You have to remember that you’re human, so approach the people that you work with as humans. I hope that we will all learn from this experience, I’ve already noticed that people are being more empathetic and compassionate. When we make movies or music or whatever, we have to work together, treat each other with respect, and try to understand each other. I think if we learn to listen, we can create much better art. Even with all the limitations we’re currently having.
I agree with you there. Thanks for chatting with me!