Gavin works in the space where motion meets sound. Fertile ground for a graphic designer, slash cinema fan, slash music and electronics aficionado. Founded in 2001, Echolab focuses on creating audio for commercials, film trailers, films, brand identities, VR experiences and anything that moves. This has resulted in trailers for Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, Mad Max, Ex Machina, and a client list that includes Nike, Sony, Apple and Dolby. His work rattles sound systems and minds around the globe.
Let’s go right back to Gavin Little the boy and teenager…what did you engage with culturely and probably most importantly listen to ? Did anything particularly resonate and have a lasting effect on you choosing a creative profession?
The first music I can remember listening to was Thin Lizzy. Growing up in Sutton here in Dublin you would often see Phil Lynott walking his alsatian on the beach, so they were the band that everyone in the area loved and listened to. Wanting to be as cool as Phillo, I started playing guitar! By my early teens I was developing my own musical tastes… moodier music, prefect for a teenager! I was into bands like The Cure and then stuff like Bowie’s Low.
I was reading a lot of fantasy books like The Hobbit but after my dad took me to see Star Wars I became obsessed with films, especially sci-fi films like John Carpenter’s The Thing and Escape from New York and other masterpieces such as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. I would listen to the soundtracks on my Walkman and they were a great escapism from dull suburban life!
I discovered Kraftwerk quite late but their combination of electronic breakbeats and synth melodies really resonated with me and that got me interested in early hip hop that took Kraftwerk’s beat programming and layered sounds in a cut & paste style over the drum loops.
In 1990/91 I started DJing at raves and parties (the music I was playing was too dark for clubs!) I put together a very basic setup (ATARI ST/AKAI Sampler/Analog Synth) and started making my own music. This was the first time I had ever used computers to create and manipulate audio.
Can you describe your creative professional route to your current position?
I’ve had a few different careers over the years! but each have contributed to what I do today in different ways. I never applied for or went to college and just went straight from school to a job with a company who trained me as a computer programmer. Once I was trained I got a job at a software company in Dublin who shared an office with a small design studio. They needed someone who knew about computers so I started working with them and started to learn more about graphic design.
I then spent a year in Sydney working freelance where I had my first experience of advertising as a creative on a team. When I returned to Dublin I met with the guys from Image Now who by 1997 were starting to expand. We got on great and I spent a few years there. It was a great studio to be in at that time as they were exploring motion design, animation, film and vfx with great clients like MTV and U2. We started to create our own content and I had the opportunity to create the audio. I had never created audio for visuals before and the minute I started, I knew it was for me!
“Luckily I’ve mainly collaborated with people with a lot of respect and see sound design and audio not only as a craft but as an art form.”
Your client list is as astonishing as it is diverse, mixing blue chip brands with side projects with young designers and even squeezing in the odd opening title for design conferences (cough – thanks for that by the way!). Coupled with all the globetrotting involved, is it true that you have discovered 10 extra hours in the day that no one else knows about? How do you create so much?
I’m really a ROBOT! The truth is that, luckily audio doesn’t have the slow process and long render times that animation/motion graphics have, so I can take on a few projects at one time. I also only really work on very short form clips like :60 commercials or :20 tv promos. I used to work a lot of weekends and late nights when I was doing everything by myself but I started to really manage my time much better… plus… I have an amazing assistant, Joe McHugh, who helps free me up to focus on the more creative parts of each project. He’s been working with me for a few years now and is taking on more and more creative sound design.
I’m sure each project is different but at what stage do you normally get involved? Can you describe the working relationship for example, the 4seven idents for 4creative and MansvsMachine, were you shown roughs and given a tight brief?
That was/is a great project! It was actually a pitch and I try to avoid pitch work – A wise man once told me… “Pitching is the Devil’s business – that’s why the fucker has a pitch-fork!!!” – but alas, 4Creative wanted a few options. The combination of Man vs Machine + 4Creative + it was a paid pitch! made it irresistible!!
They sent me styleframes for each ident and then we did a call to take thru the overall tone they felt it needed. They were looking for something a lot calmer than the typical Echolab work but it was a really interesting sound design project so I was excited and really wanted to win the pitch!
I collaborated with the Swedish composer and good friend, Tobias Norberg. I asked him to create some very minimal musical explorations – all very loose and organic as I felt the solution to the music on these was the same design solution as the visuals… it needed to feel like this was the soundscape for the corner of the world 24/7 and the idents were as if you switched to a camera that was always there filming that location. That to me was really interesting. I kept the musical parts back in the mix and created very heightened sound design, full of subtle details like butterflies, water sprinklers with a very wide spread. It was probably the most work I’ve done for a pitch and it definitely paid off as the ident that we worked on for the pitch stage ended up not changing at all in the final package!
A new project lands on your desk…take us through your initial process?
I work on TV commercials, feature film trailers, VR projects, audio brand identities and short films, so each project is very different – which I love! On a typical TV commercial project I would receive a PDF deck with storyboards and a script. Sometimes there would be some mention of music/sound. Some briefs are really specific and reference not only music genres but existing music tracks. More and more the references are to previous works by Echolab, which is flattering but it means I have to make sure that I get to try something new and different but it is good that the client is commissioning Echolab because they have listened to and like what they have found!
The projects that excite me are not only the ones for cool brands or with very creative concepts, but the ones where it really is a collaboration. As there is usually an advertising agency and a client involved, I have to make sure that the audio gives a solution for the client and agencies needs while also keeping with the director’s creative vision… this can sometimes be the most difficult task in a project! As the majority of my work comes from the United States, there often is no opportunity for a face to face meeting so I always try to have a phone call with the director to talk thru the project.
The earlier in the production schedule that I am involved, the better! Being brought in too late can really limit the creative possibilities.
At this stage I need to start experimenting with sound. If the project requires a football boot crushing into ice… theLAB is going to be full of ice blocks, screwdrivers and other madness for a few days of creative recording!
Then I would usually work up some initial sketches to see what I felt was working and then share these with the director/agency/client. As clients often like to hear different options, I usually let them know which of the options I feel is working best and why. Failure to do this can lead to the client picking the most conservative option instead of the brave one… If they understand why you’ve done something interesting and that you have a confidence in that you have done it makes it much easier for them to buy into that idea.
Once the overall direction is approved the fun begins as it is the details I love. As the edit gets updated and visual effects are created, I get to be creative and respond to the visuals with audio right up to final mix and delivery.
When you look back, is there a project that represents a real breakthrough moment in terms of business but also in terms of creativity?
When I established Echolab in 2001, I was full of ambition to produce really creative sound design and it was great to be working on TV commercials and working with great people at Irish ad agencies, but the majority of projects that came my way were just to create sound-a-like music tracks and basic sound design. It was paying the bills but by 2009 I was really feeling a lack of creativity.
I decided to create a self-promotional teaser/trailer with my own style of sound design… this was a lot more atmospheric and a lot darker than what I was getting commissioned to do, but I wanted to do something that pushed my creativity. Luckily it was right at the time when the internet finally started to speed up (a bit) and creative blogs started appearing online. I sent the clip to a few of the ones that I followed and they posted it online and it went viral (well as viral as web clips went back in 2009!)
This one reel changed everything. Suddenly I was getting contacted by International directors, Global advertising agencies and some amazing production companies. It was mind blowing and a big turning point!
Sound Design is an incredibly important element in the whole production of an advert or brand film and certainly a vital emotional layer. But in your experience, within the creative process, of the industry as a whole what level of respect and value is placed on sound design?
There are some people in the industry who see the audio industry as “suppliers” and that we should be lucky to be getting work from them /-:
Recently I was contacted by a company who were creating a commercial for one of the world’s top luxury goods brands. They wanted a full music score and sound design created but they were only prepared to pay the smallest fee for the work! It looked like it was going to be a really lovely animated film. I replied and told them that I would love to work on it but that the budget was not realistic or fair for the work involved. They said they respected my decision but that was the budget. They also approached another sound designer I know and he also declined, explaining as I did that it was not a fair fee for what was involved. I recently saw the project online… Another music/sound design company had done the work. This just devalues the craft for the industry. That brand will never pay fair rates if people are prepared to accept low to no pay for their craft. They use the promise of ‘great exposure’ to tempt you into accepting but really all you are doing is enabling them to shit on you and others more and more!
Walter Murch describes how he loves echo, “as it creates atmosphere around an actors voice and tells you something about the room or space you’re in”. What kind of sounds and effects excite you and can you give some examples in the work of yours and others of where the choices a designer is creatively transformative?
Great question! Sound Design is part technical / part creative. A big part of sound design is editorial – deciding what sounds or combination of sounds to use and then how they are edited to picture. I really like using big contrasts in sound between shots in an edit.
I love using effects creatively – I’m a big fan of using distortion as a creative tool to add texture and intensity – although there is a fine line between good and bad distortion!
Using low sub frequencies with very high frequency sounds has kind of become a signature style that I use. The fun challenge is to constantly create new sounds and reinvent how I use them each time so it is a stylistic signature and not just using the same sounds OVER an OVER!
What is your essential studio toolkit? Are there any new (or old) technologies that have a big impact on shaping your practice?
I recently custom built a modular drone/soundscape synth at Analogue Haven in Santa Monica which is deadly! and I’ve also started getting back into using guitars (with a shitload of effects) to create organic textures.
I’m a total synth geek! Analog/DIgital, I don’t care. I just love to have a variety of noisemakers. I’ve been collecting synths for so long that some of my synths are now considered vintage!!! TheLAB is becoming a museum!
I use Apple Logic Pro X as my main tool – it’s just such an intuitive tool for being creative with sound. A lot of people in the industry use ProTools which is a great tool but I find Logic’s powerful midi and musical components fit with my workflow. A lot of what I do is a hybrid of music and sound design/audio editing and Logic really just handles that combination so well for me.
How important are “non-industry/work” related influences on how you think and produce work? Can you give an example of an important “sound-design” influence for you?
It may sound like I’m a total weirdo but I’m mainly inspired by the world around me. if I’m out of the studio for a walk or a cycle I’m constantly inspired by what I hear and see. Sometimes if I’m listening to music on headphones in the city or by the sea close to where I live, I’ll lower the volume or take earbud out to hear the environment around me mix with the music.
I travel a lot and love the details that make up a new environment… from the sound of the traffic lights to the insects at night in a warmer climate. A lot of what I do with my work is about transporting the viewer/listener to another place and really focussing on individual sounds within that world and it is something that I have always been aware of. I try to have a small field recorder with me when I travel to record stuff that then gets used in projects.
Do you still have time to produce personal work? I’m hesitating asking this, as I know you have 5 kids but do you have any hobbies outside of work?
Haha! Yeah, well it’s full-on but full-on great! Free time is pretty much spent with family. I finally have a pretty good work/life balance… but it could always be improved. I work from a home studio which helps and I always make sure I stop work to spend time with the family from 6pm dinner time until the kids are asleep. I spend about 1 week in every every 6 over in LA meeting directors, supervising final mixes and seeing blue skies!
As for hobbies… I’m lucky as sound, music, synthesisers and film are my hobbies as well as my work!! Apart from that, I do love my coffee and my sneakers! so… perfecting making the perfect espresso (does that qualify as a hobby?!?) and being a hunter/gatherer for fresh trainers!