Backstage – Jake Roberts about Sound Design for Animation Films - Modal Electronics Skip to content

Backstage – Jake Roberts about Sound Design for Animation Films

Have you ever wondered what it takes to work in Sound Design? Jake Roberts takes you into his wonderful world covering everything from cueing sound to picture, recording steam trains and the benefits of structuring your hard drive!

Jake, tell us about your journey becoming a musician and sound designer.
I’d always been interested in sound and music. I went to university and studied architecture. I wasn’t enjoying that, so left and did a course on sound engineering in Manchester, UK. Then, I managed to get a job in a studio in Birmingham which no longer exists called Rich Bitch Studios. Although this was the 90s, the studio had a very 80s vibe with its focus being rock and reggae. You learn so much on a course, but in real life studio situations is where you really learn how to manage a room full of musicians off their heads, and figure out where the drum mics go!

From there I joined a band with one of the guys who’d been an engineer for Roger Taylor from Duran Duran. We formed a band together, Freebass. We got signed and did a few underground tracks and a great cover of Love is Like Oxygen by The Sweet. That all fell apart but I kept in touch with Roger Taylor DJing and doing bits of music. I ended up doing an MA in Sound for film at the National Film School. That allowed me to work on animations, drama, documentaries, I climbed a volcano in Java – some really good opportunities which made me very rounded. There I met Barnaby and we started Fonic, our company doing sound for a lot of animation. We did some feature films and commercials.

Three years back he offered to buy me out. I took the opportunity and decided to go on my own path a bit more. I was finding I was doing too much running of the business and not enough of the sound design that I really enjoyed. That’s my brief history!

Was there a moment, at Fonic, when you felt sound design for picture was what you wanted to do?
I enjoy doing it and other people thought I was good at it. Like a lot of things, you don’t think about whether it’s the right path. Then suddenly you think blimey, I’ve been doing this for ten years and I’ve been successful, I must be doing something right.

It seems that Thomas The Tank Engine was your first really big sound design gig?
Peppa Pig was the first big series we did. When we started it wasn’t that popular. But everybody’s heard of it now. We got to work on Thomas The Tank Engine because someone we worked with on Peppa went that way. Animation is a very small world, especially in England. We got to work on the first Thomas 3D animation. It used to be stop-frame animation and models on tracks. Then it went into this world of 3D which meant a lot more sound because it didn’t really have that much before then. With a 3D world we went full on, recording trains and the full monty.

Sounds like now you’re a train expert – how and where did you record real steam trains?
We arranged to go to a special train museum where it was just us and the trains. It was a great day out!

I can imagine. So, what was your recording setup? Has the equipment changed since?
I think the only thing that’s changed is that recorders have gotten smaller and cheaper. Back then it was on DAT, porta-DAT and SQN mixers. We still use the same Scherps MS microphones. But we also had other recorders we could ‘sacrifice’ if you needed to! Those were the ones we didn’t mind being at the wheels or hanging out of the train!

I imagine recording a drum kit is different to recording a steam train. How did you decide on mic placement? Was the process instinctive or one that needed figuring out beforehand?
There were five or six of us, all editors, so we knew what we wanted and needed. We took the whole studio with us. It was a case of assigning roles: one would record the wheels, someone would record the cab (or someone in the cab), someone would be on the tracks for getting the passing-by sounds. It’s a case of making a kit up; getting one great sound of a train isn’t good enough – when you have a close up shot of the wheels then you want to hear the wheels, so you need that as a separate sound. It’s breaking down the elements, like in a drum kit.

It’s better to create sounds from a synth
than from some dated libraries.

There are more than steam trains in Thomas The Tank Engine… aren’t there electric and diesel too?
There aren’t many electric trains. There are a lot of diesels. These are good characters, more aggressive, more stroppy! You can use different diesel engine sounds to represent a diesel train: start pitching a big truck engine and then turn it into a diesel engine. There isn’t really anything else like a steam train. There are lots of diesel engines in sound libraries from boats to cars, so you have a good starting block.

My sound effects library is 6 TB. It’s big. I’ve bought a lot of sounds so I can always find the sound I want. With a steam engine you can put in some real niceties with a bespoke sound you’ve recorded which is great.

Do you find yourself layering sounds a lot to create the different characters when cueing to picture in the studio?
Yes, definitely! You layer sounds just like you do in music. In Thomas the Tank Engine you’d have different elements. The tracks (clickety-clack), a weight track (rumbly heavy sound), the steam and something else in the high-mids.

Once you’ve got all those working you have to do speed ins and outs, left to right, start stops. So you build up a kit that you can apply to one train. You’ve got 20 trains. Some are bigger, some smaller, some diesel, electric, some steam. Some had more carriages.

Did you have to find a specific approach to sonically represent the character of each train? For example, with the more arrogant diesel trains, how would you make it sound more aggressive?
Well, luckily diesel does sound aggressive by its nature! It’s pushing that element of the sound. You can do the classic racing car and roaring lion. It’s easy to do. Get a sound of a racing car and layer a sound of a roaring lion on top and it literally does sound like it has a growl. It’s an old-fashioned trick.

In cinematic libraries you can get a lot of sweetener tracks. So you could have bass sweeteners, which could be a simple sine wave going in and out, to whooshy stuff which could be made from a blow torch. Organic tends to sound more real and if you record ten of them they’ll all sound slightly different as opposed to processing one and triggering it.

With Dave Spud, what are the differences for you doing this kind of sound design compared to Thomas the Tank Engine or Peppa Pig?
What’s great about Dave Spud is that it’s wacky. You could have one episode where you’re in the belly of a whale or a completely different world. In one episode they travelled back to the time of dinosaurs. So, the characters could be anywhere! It makes things more fun. Thomas is more often than not on an island with trains. After 100 episodes it’s pretty much the same.

The Dave Spud episode I did last week saw them go to see their second favourite band called The Whippets who are playing rave music in a school hall. You’ve got two whippets on old school computers nodding away and keyboard whippet who gets exchanged for Dave Spud because he realises his bones are musical. It is very random which makes it good fun to do.

Does a 6 TB library become handy when you have such varied episodes to create sounds for?
Yes. There’s another episode where they go to France on a ferry. A ferry in Thomas the Tank Engine would be more layered to make it sound realistic. On Dave Spud it needs to be quick and give the impression of a ferry in a more ‘cartoon’ way. So using one or two sounds, like the horn of the ferry and the ferry moving is enough.

So, you’re sketching an impression of the ferry rather than painting a full picture using sound?
Yes. Then he knocks on the door to find a French man doing a poo. So you have to make a toilet sound. If you get a fart sound then you’re half way there… there’s a specific library CD called ‘Pull my Finger’ that’s very useful.

Tell us about the technical process of cueing sounds to picture.
I use Pro Tools. It’s the industry standard. I can go to any studio with my iLok with all my plugins on it and fire up my session and it’s right there. You know where you are within ten minutes. For looking at your library, it’s important to name it when you build it. I use an app called Soundminer which interfaces with Pro Tools and asks if you want the audio files in a certain folder, etc. So you can audition audio files in Soundminer or send part of it, and even pitch it. You can also put plugins into Soundminer before you import into Pro Tools!

Pro Tools is really good at organisation and managing your workflow. Also, Pro Tools is great for audio but a nightmare with MIDI. I use Ableton for the music side of things because it is so instant.

I used to use Cubase back in the day for MIDI sequencing in studios. When Logic came along it seemed very similar. But working with audio in Pro Tools feels much better than in Logic or Cubase. Pro Tools just locks to picture, so I have a separate screen for my picture like you’d see in a theatre. Pro Tools allows you to adjust the sync by sub frames so you can get cues dead on. Great for ADR cutting. For animation you can stop the frame and make sure it’s dead on, but ADR you need to get the feel as it’ll never be completely spot on when you’re replacing voices. It just needs to look right.

You have a lot of hardware synths in your studio. How do they fit into what you do with Dave Spud and Peppa Pig?
I use synths more in Dave Spud because we’re going into different worlds where synthesis sounds more natural. I needed bleep stuff when Dave Spud went to an arcade. It’s better to create sounds from a synth than from some dated libraries. The Modal ARGON8 is great for pads and basses too!

Do you layer the ARGON8 with other synths or hardware effects?
If I’m using it musically I’ll layer with other synths. When creating sounds for animation then you might use that as the key element. For the arcade episode it was simply that sound from the ARGON8. The reverb would be the reverb of the place.

I like Moog synths too and will pick synthesisers because of their tone. I got some nice sample and hold bleepy sounds out of the ARGON8, like when in a spaceship. It’s fun to make your own.

Peppa Pig is set in one world and where they don’t go to outer space… so maybe the more zany the animation the more space there is for synthesisers to be used. I don’t think we’ve used any synths in Thomas the Tank Engine.

You can find sounds and textures that 

you just wouldn’t think of.

Jake Roberts about ARGON8

Are deadlines an issue when working on sound design jobs?
Animations are very good at scheduling. You don’t get ridiculous timelines. Commercials and feature films are where you’ll find super stressful deadlines. We did Residue, a series for Netflix which was quite stressful because they were meeting deliveries to get money released. It’s the way films and big productions work. Animations tend to have the funding in place from their inception.

Sometimes finding the right sound takes half an hour, sometimes it’s instant. Interestingly, with post-production it works differently to music. You can spend weeks doing music. With post you have to find 300 sounds for this programme. You can’t spend 30 minutes on each sound. You need to know your library, knowing that the sound will be fine. Also, it’s about knowing how to manage your sounds.  

Do you prefer working on animations?
I enjoy them both. They’re different. With a series it’s nice because it’s small, compact, done and then you see something finished quite quickly before you move on to the next episode. For a feature film is completely different because you could be on before they’ve shot it, and then a year later you’re doing the post on it – It’s often more passionate because it’s often the case for the director that it’s a passion project, their baby, that’s taken such a lot of time and effort to get to the point of making it. With animation the people are as passionate but they’re less stressful, more realistic.

Are deadlines an issue when working on sound design jobs?
Animations are very good at scheduling. You don’t get ridiculous timelines. Commercials and feature films are where you’ll find super stressful deadlines. We did Residue, a series for Netflix which was quite stressful because they were meeting deliveries to get money released. It’s the way films and big productions work. Animations tend to have the funding in place from their inception.

Sometimes finding the right sound takes half an hour, sometimes it’s instant. Interestingly, with post-production it works differently to music. You can spend weeks doing music. With post you have to find 300 sounds for this programme. You can’t spend 30 minutes on each sound. You need to know your library, knowing that the sound will be fine. Also, it’s about knowing how to manage your sounds.

Do you prefer working on animations?
I enjoy them both. They’re different. With a series it’s nice because it’s small, compact, done and then you see something finished quite quickly before you move on to the next episode. A feature film is completely different because you could be on before they’ve shot it, and then a year later you’re doing the post on it – It’s usually more passionate because it’s often the case for the director that it’s a passion project, their baby, that’s taken such a lot of time and effort to get to the point of making it. With animation the people are as passionate but they’re less stressful, more realistic.

Looking at movies, what’s your experience working with big-budget, large-scale productions?
Although it sounds exciting working on films like Batman it can be very stressful. You can be a little cog in a big machine. Sometimes it can be more fun to do lower budget stuff because there can be two or three of you working on sound design so it’s a lot easier to collaborate – like being in a band.

Is there more freedom with the creative process on lower budget projects?
Yes, absolutely. There’s less people to answer to. You might have the director. That’s his passion, but he’s picked you so he’s on your side so you’re doing it together. Even with the Residue project there were a number of producers with input. As soon as you get a few people with input everything takes ten times as long. The same with commercials.

We did some music years ago as an ident commercial for Sex in the City I think. We submitted the music. Everybody loved it. The agency loved it. Then it came back rejected because the wife of the director of the chemical company that owns the lipstick on this ident didn’t like it! So, we had to tweak it and change it to get it approved. Then there’s unspecific feedback or requests. So you might ask how you want something to sound for a commercial and the response will be, “I don’t know until I hear it”.

Can you share some tips to help those wanting to become sound designers for picture?
Don’t give up! It’s very hard. When we want new sound assistants at Fonic we put an advert out and literally get hundreds of responses. It’s so hard to go through and find out who is good. So, always make your CV short, impactful. Don’t waffle. And be very persistent. That’s on a practical level.

You mentioned the ARGON8 earlier. What features do you particularly enjoy when using it?
It’s quite refreshing after being on more traditional analogue synths that you have so many waveforms to go through. You can find sounds and textures that you just wouldn’t think of. With more traditional synths by Moog, for example, you know what you’re going to get. So with Modal synths you can get sounds that can pleasantly surprise you.

Thanks so much Jake for taking time out to explain your creative processes with Dave Spud, Peppa Pig and Thomas The Tank Engine.

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