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True Movie Sonics – Interview with sound designer Robert Dudzic

By Markus Thiel, June 6, 2018

When it comes to sound design, Robert Dudzic is without doubt one of the most creative craftsmen in the business, whose works have enriched myriad Hollywood films until today. His specialities range from sound scapes to attention-getting movie trailers to blockbusters like ‘Transformers’, ‘Avengers’, ‘The Amazing Spiderman’, and ‘Ready Player One’.

Robert is also known for his great behind-the-scenes show reels on his incredible work, giving us all an insight
into what he does and moreover how he does it.

A man of many trades, Robert also produced three successful libraries named ‘Cinema Sound Tools’, distributed by Warner Chappel targeting TV networks around the world with highly satisfied customers like NBC, CBS, ABC, Disney, SKY, and HBO, GrooveWorx’ ‘Trinity HDFX’ specialized to the needs of radio networks, and the movie trailer package ‘Raid’ which was already featured in successful movies like ‘Deadpool’, ‘Mission Impossible’, and ‘Black Panther’. 

What microphone technique do you use when hunting for new sounds?

I usually rely on a Røde NTG-3 with shotgun-grip for the main signal, pointing right at the source I want to record and supplemented by at least two additional microphones on the sides for catching the ambiance signals. This setup comes in really handy because I always go out on my own to ensure total control over unwanted noise and the environment I’m recording in. In the studio I use a bunch of NT-6 to catch the room signals. Usually there are at least five microphones plus two contact microphones involved when recording indoors.

Do you have a detailed concept in mind of the sounds you want to record?

Yes, at least most of the time! Lately I recorded some sounds for a trailer which were intended to be very low key, but on the other hand to bring some pinching intensity you can still perceive in the next room — door closed. So basically what I did was to create some very high-frequency sounds. The main idea behind that was the fact that not everybody will watch the final trailer on a perfect home cinema system on which you have the possibility to shake up people with a lot of sub-bass. Playing the whole thing on a tiny system in your kitchen affords a completely different approach. That’s why high-pitched sounds are so perfect. It’s like that sound you expect to hear inside your brain after getting hit hard on the head — just before fainting.

A lot of times I simply mix this kind of sound in a subtle and unobtrusive way into other sounds, so that people hearing it later on in the final trailer can’t really designate what it was that caught their attention.

As heard in several of your works, it seems you’re using reverse sample playback a lot…

Yes indeed. For example, if you’re banging two metal rods together you’re getting a very unique high frequency clanging sound. But it’s much to short for my purpose, so aside from reversing the samples I also use the time-stretching tool in Cubase Pro to extend it to a point where it still sounds natural. I usually refer to this as the “Play Doh” feature because, for me, it feels just like playing with modeling clay.

Because there’s a story behind every sound I create, there is no such thing as coincidence. I guess some people wonder about the reason for recording a specific sound until I reverse and stretch it into what I had in mind. Then all of a sudden everything makes sense!

What does your daily business of cooperating with editors and screen composers look like? How great are the differences in the working process?

I usually get a full scale of the comprised compositions. Today, most screen composers are going hybrid in simply combining orchestral work with special sounds, while sticking to the same approved building-block blue print of like ‘first part’, ‘breakdown’, ‘climax’, ‘breakdown’, ‘riser’, and the ‘end’. It’s a simple formula, and if you listen closely, they all do it one way or the other. Even trailer editors want it because in the end it’s what they expect.

Being a sound designer, I have a different approach as my compositions are based on sound design. When
I compose scapes and rhythmic patterns consisting of elements like shutting doors and metal clangs, I experience that it is highly inspirational to editors. They can cut a whole scene fitting perfectly to one of my compositions.

If you compose a piece based on sound design, it becomes unique, even if you integrate classical sounds like a cello. To be honest with you, I have really no idea how to play cello. If you look at all the synthesizers in my studio, do you really think I know how to play them? The answer is: I don’t! For me it’s not about doing it right but playing the right notes. Not being able to read a musical score or having learned how to play all these instruments in a proper way gives me the freedom to come up with something completely new, beyond common dogmas. When
I was in Poland I went one year to music school to learn drums, until they kicked me out telling me that none of my attempts had anything to do with music. On the one hand I think they were right, but on the other hand meanwhile the school no longer exists, and here I am making a living from my music. Obviously I did something right!

So it was beneficial to you for never having internalized all these musical rules.

For me there are absolutely no rules! For many musicians it must feel natural, for example, not to combine Icelandic with Chinese instruments.
I simply don’t care! If I need some specific sounds I mix African drums with percussion from Pakistan, add some wooden boxes or even spoons and forks. In my upcoming new video, ‘How I Do What I Do Part 3’, I will show to people how I play banjo using sticks. If you cannot play banjo like everyone else, it doesn’t mean that you can’t play banjo at all. You just have to find your own way! What people will love about the finished sound is the fact that in the end it feels like a banjo, but without that common playing style. What’s wrong with playing a violin using an electric razor instead of a bow? Nothing!

How important is it for you to have multiple microphone signals at hand for the mix?

While the shotgun-signal remains in the center, each of the other microphones I position gives me a different color and perspective of the sound I’m recording. When recording clangs with, for example, my door handle, it sounds very different depending on your listening position. If I attach my ear directly to the wood of the door, I can pick up sound parts you won´t hear standing a few steps away. You can perceive the sound of a closing door like the door itself would hear it. Now imagine mixing those inside sounds with the signals of several room and directional microphones with one on the other side of the door. The outcome is a rich, thick and multifaceted sound beyond the usual. When you hear it, you will still know that it’s a closing door, but the impact is completely different.

So you’re recording something like a sonic walk through the object itself?

Exactly! For example, I recorded the eject mechanism of an ordinary slot-in DVD drive using a contact microphone. The captured sound consists of an isolated bizarre, high-frequency texture, the human ear wouldn’t normally notice. And listening to it, it already sounds somehow modulated to me. Yes, but it’s nothing else than a pure, picked-up signal that is already included in the sound we usually recognize as a normal DVD drive sound. But it’s just a single component of the sound fabric.

Based on your description, it really sounds like you have to invest much more time in the preproduction than in the postproduction process. What is your usual workflow?

No matter what it is I record, it all ends up in Cubase. After recording, time-stretching and reversing samples, my work enters something I call Lego stage, meaning I just start playing around with my bricks. Collecting all the new sounds is the time-consuming part of my work that, especially in the summer time, requires several months.

I have the suspicion you’re not so much into “fix it in the mix” at all...

Only in means of blending the different microphone signals together. I try to get it right in the first place! And there’s even another practical reason for not touching the sound too much: the trailer editor is going to mix my sounds with other musical stuff, and if its overproduced with likely too much bass or treble, they won’t use your sounds because they’re making work needlessly complicated. Don’t forget, most musical stuff is also being mastered after final mixdown, adding up even more EQing and compression. For that reason, I’m sticking with not touching a single EQ at all.

Sounds like your private library is constantly growing. That also needs some good organization, I guess.

Oh, yes! Right now, I have about three terabyte of edited sounds divided in many categories like bells, doors or very special sounds like bowed metal. Recently I developed a predilection for medieval sounds because I really like medieval movies.

You also produced content for some very successful commercial libraries.

Seven years ago I recorded a bunch of samples and did some really cool sound design for a Kontakt library called ‘Damage’ that was produced by Heavyocity together with Native Instruments and luckily it became an international studio standard for special effects used in movies until today. Actually, it became that famous that if I would have been paid one cent for every sample from this library I heard in a production over the years, I would have been a very rich man by now. On the other hand, it was a really good reference that led to worldwide recognition of my work, which resulted in several jobs and recommendations in the industry.

You also allow other people an amazing view into your working process with your own documentary movies called ‘How I Do What I Do’. What’s the idea behind uncovering your sound secrets to the public?

The whole thing started almost two years ago when when my friend Dylan while studying at the filming school in Boston asked me if he could do a documentary on me and how I do sound design. I asked him if he really thought that people were going to like this stuff? He said that he didn’t know but wanted to do it anyway! So, I agreed to the project, not foreseeing what impact it might have on my life and work. Actually, we didn’t know what we were doing except for our own parts. So, we just went out to places like junkyards and had some fun!

When I went to NAMM I showed the video to a bunch of people from Tascam and the response was amazing. When Røde got wind of what I was doing they offered that from now on I can use whatever microphone I want
from them, free of charge, despite the fact that I already bought a lot because I really like them. The reason why
I meanwhile feature so many brands on my website is not that companies pay me to do so — it’s because I want
to show people what I really use, and I’m very strict when it comes to the right tools. 

The first video became a great success...

During the first hour after releasing the video on my Facebook account I got more than 2,000 views. It was incredible and rose up to 10,000 views and 100 shares by the end of the day! From then on, the domino effect
set in, and we decided to do a follow up and after that we created the first part of ‘How I Do What I Do’ with the intention to focus on the tools I really use.

You reach a point in life, where you feel secure and satisfied with what you have achieved. For me it was the right moment to share my given talent with other people and inspire them because when somebody like me can do it, you can do it too! When I’m able to change just one person’s life with this, I think I’ve done a really good job on opening myself up.

Meanwhile I’m getting so much feedback via Facebook or YouTube resulting in meeting and talking to people on Skype, explaining that you don’t have to invest a fortune to start what I started. You just need to be yourself and use your imagination. The important point is to find your own way of doing your stuff, to find your own signature. In the beginning it’s OK to copy other people’s techniques because it will help you to learn and master your tools and enable you to develop your own sound in the end.

And there isn’t really a chance of doing it wrong. After all, it will be your sound — even if it is a little distorted. And it’s absolutely natural that same people will like it and others won’t. That’s OK! Look I’m a music school reject because they didn’t like what I was doing and now I found a bunch of studios and movie producers who seem to like what I do nonetheless.

Is there any more advice for aspiring sound designers?

Try to record in the best quality possible and invest your money in good microphones and recording gear instead of buying tons of software tools. I usually don’t use much audio plug-ins at all on my sounds because every process degrades the quality of the sound. You don’t want to take away the originality of authenticity!

Never give up your dreams. Make it happen and good things will follow. Everybody has his or her own different story on how they came to where they are today. What all the successful artists like Richard Devine, Diego Stocco or Hans Zimmer have in common is the fact that their art comes from their heart and creative mind. It’s all about who you are — but there is nothing like a recipe! If you are authentic and different in a good way, your work will surely catch attention and start to open the right doors.

People in the US tend to say “money is in the street” and it’s true! See, I go to junkyards looking for things others don’t want anymore, bring them home for recording and make a living out of it.

Isn’t it sometimes strange to hear your own sounds all over the planet in so many trailers and movies?

You probably know from my bio that I started doing sound design for radio spots and commercials. I remember
the first time listening to something I did coming from another car next to me at a red traffic light. That was awesome! That was stage one. When I started doing TV and movie trailers it became different. If you tell the person next to you at the cinema that you did the sounds for the movie trailer shown on the big screen, everybody goes like — yeah, right! So, you start keeping things to yourself. It’s still a great but also weird feeling I have to admit.