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Scott Plunkett about sound design and HALion

Keyboardist Scott Plunkett has been working in the industry for over three decades. Since the early ‘80s Scott has toured with high-profile artists the likes of Stevie Nicks, Don Henley and Chris Isaak, as well as music-directing tours for Chicago’s Peter Cetera and Boz Scaggs. Scott also designs sound patches for Yamaha and Steinberg.

Starting as a musician you toured with a lot of well-known artists such as Boz Scaggs, Michael McDonald, Steve Nicks, Don Henley and Chris Isaak. As a sound designer you contributed a major part to the success of the Yamaha Motif series from day one. How do you find the way from the stage to the sound design lab?
It's funny to me that so many musicians think that sound design and playing music are unrelated fields. I was around when the Minimoog first came out and there was no such thing as a preset. We were forced to learn how to make sounds! So, it was just part of the job. When you learned a song, you learned the right notes and you figured out how to get the right sounds. I guess I was lucky to always enjoy doing both things. Early on, I found that once I created a sound I liked, it inspired me to play, so sound design and playing music have always seemed like complementary jobs. I can't imagine doing one without doing the other.

You were involved in the Motif sound design from the very beginning. What is pivotal when you start to design a complete sound library from scratch? What do you have to consider?
The most important thing is to try to determine what kinds of musicians will be most likely to use the product and think about the sorts of sounds that will be most useful to them. A workstation is tough because it's sort of designed to appeal to everyone. But, we always had a great team of sound designers working on the Motif series and most of them are also playing musicians. Since we all assumed we'd be using the Motif on our own gigs, I suppose we all selfishly started pushing sounds we thought were important for our own work, which naturally included the music styles that were popular where we lived. Since we had a fairly big group of programmers from all over the world, we quickly found our areas of agreement and disagreement and a hierarchy of what was important evolved. The biggest challenge was that we had a limited amount of memory in the original Motif, so there was a lot of negotiating to meet everyone's requirements!

"HALion 4 has the power to do pretty much everything I want to."

How has the art and techniques of sound design changed over the last 20 years? What are the big differences when you compare contemporary sound design with the work in the late eighties?
The big change in sound design over the last couple of decades is that we've really made the leap from analog to digital audio and digital audio opened up a candy store of sounds that was almost unimaginable 20 years ago. It's like we went from politely visiting the corner store with a few chocolate bars to mugging Willy Wonka and taking over the entire factory. You can do just about anything you can think of. Want to hear that sound played back 150 times slower? Done. Want to hear an instrument with traditional oscillators but with a filter that's modeled on the sound of a trumpet? No problem. Additive synthesis, subtractive synthesis, resynthesis, modeling, sampling, FM, granular — the list is endless. It's really an exciting time for sound design and it's damned fun! My only complaint is that there are too many choices. It's easy for me to get lost in all the latest virtual instruments and plug-ins to the point where I don't actually spend enough time making music. Maybe that's why I like playing gigs where there's a lot of piano and Hammond. I don't get distracted with sound design on those gigs!

You work with hardware as well as software like virtual instruments. You did a lot of the sound design for the HALion Sonic library and have been one of the first to put hands on the HALion engine after it was completely reworked. What is your experience with software sound design in HALion 4?
Sometimes it's hard to articulate why you like one thing over another. It's sort of like trying to explain why you picked your girlfriend. I've looked at or used most of the major software samplers and many of the hardware ones. Most of them are very good, but for some reason, I just like HALion 4. It conceptually makes sense to me. I was able to establish a productive workflow early on and that made using it very comfortable. If I had to say what I like in one sentence, I'd say HALion 4 has the power to do pretty much everything I want to do without making it overly complicated to do it.

"Sound design and playing music have always seemed like complementary jobs. I can't imagine doing one without doing the other."

What do you like most about sound design with HALion 4? Where do you see the strength of the software?
As I mentioned above, I'm finding that the problem with all the new virtual instruments and plug-ins is that it puts the user into perpetual "learning" mode. Each one has its own UI and special features and ways to access the special features and then you use it on a project and come back a few months later and can't remember how any of it works! HALion 4 starts out with a great-sounding virtual analog synth and really powerful sample playback engine and, guess what, they both use the same UI. Once you learn how to work with one of them, you can easily work with both of them.

Specific things I like:

"I really like how easy it is to navigate around and make selections. All the editing depth in HALion would be a total waste if it were inconvenient to use it. Since I often spend hours working with HALion 4, I really appreciate this aspect of its design."

"I do my own sampling and have to map sample sets. This can be a ridiculously tedious job. HALion 4 has a fantastic set of import and export options that make this job about as simple as possible."

"I love the modulation matrix. It's one of those things that sometimes gets left out of a product or is needlessly restricted. That's not the case in HALion 4."

"The CM and XOR oscillators are a lot of fun, especially when you start using envelopes and LFOs to modulate them."

"The distortion filter types are great for warming up a sound or making it just plain nasty."

"I'm a big fan of the new 4.5 additions, especially the navigation buttons, multi oscillator and Audio Warp section."

What is the future of sound design in your opinion? Are there notable trends and tendencies?
As computers get more and more powerful, it will get easier to be able to tear sounds apart and put them back together in different ways. Just as in the past, things that now must be rendered offline will eventually happen in real time — especially the kinds of things we currently have to do in spectral editors. The ability to analyze and edit existing audio recordings is becoming so sophisticated that we can now alter audio performances with nearly as much precision as we used to edit MIDI performances. I expect this trend will continue and will become faster and more accurate. Unfortunately, the increased power can come with a heavy price tag in the form of increased complexity. Like most musicians, I don't want to have to be a computer programmer in order to make interesting sounds. I think one of the big challenges for developers will be coming up with clever interfaces so that musicians can get musical results without having a math degree but that will also still be flexible enough to allow people to dig in and get something unique if they're willing to do the extra work.

Do you have an advice for future sound designers? What does it take to create outstanding sounds?
I suppose the simple answer is, like all jobs, you have to have a love for it and you have to have some talent for it. Let's face it — you probably won't get rich being a sound designer, but you won't get bored either! It's always a challenge to come up with a good sound, whether you're trying to copy an existing sound or come up with something new. There's certainly a technical component to being a sound designer. Knowing about the physics of sound, how the harmonic series works, what filters do, what envelopes do, how sample rates and bit depths affect the quality of the sound can really help you to move a sound in the right direction. And, like any job, it's important that sound designers really understand the tools they use. But in the end, the most important talents a sound designer can have are a good ear and a good imagination. If you can imagine an interesting sound and bring a detailed version of that sound to life, you're a sound designer.

"It's really an exciting time for sound design and it's damned fun!"