Sound Designs: Interview with Ester Ellis of Station Blue (and more)

Welcome to the third interview of Sound Designs, monthly blog about audio fiction sound design by Brad Colbroock and Tal Minear. Today we’re talking with Ester Ellis of Station Blue, The Goblet Wire, and the upcoming Whale Song pilot. She’s also the lead editor of Dungeons and Daddies, and has worked on Arden and Hit the Bricks. We know Ester as an incredibly talented artist and creator. The range of genre she’s worked across is so impressive (seriously, check out the shows linked in this paragraph), and we were excited to get some tips and tricks for our own work. Talking with Ester is always a joy. (Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)

Do you have any general tips for beginner sound designers?

Do not be stubborn, make the best thing you can with the tools and audio that you have. If one actor gives you pristine audio, another gives you rough audio, and you do not have the tools or experience to fully repair it? Mess up the pristine audio. If one actor has a fan running in the background and the other actor doesn’t, find some fan FX and run it under the entire scene.

Work on understanding what compression and EQ are early, they can be arcane to new designers but will be your best friends once you’ve grasped them. It took me a year to start using compression, and two years before I properly understood EQ enough to manipulate it confidently (and there’s always more to learn about EQ).

Assuming this is not a project you are being hired for, punch outside of your weight class. Set a bar you do not know how to clear, then figure out creative solutions on how to clear it. Limitations in tools or experience often create the most interesting and specific sound design.

Pick apart songs, particularly songs you find to be immersive. When do new instruments come in? When do the lyrics convert to chorus? Feel it out, embody it, apply it to your sound design. Let the scene speak to you, don’t paint by numbers, add a new sound when the scene requires it.

I know you’ve used several DAWs across your work. Do you prefer different DAWs for different work? If so, do you use multiple across a single project? For sound design specifically, what is your preference?

I used Reaper originally and I think it should be the go to if you aren’t making money, but I have since fallen in love with Adobe Audition and use it for everything. When I was training with Freddie Wong he pulled up Reaper, Audition and ProTools to demonstrate the differences while working on narrative podcasts, and Audition edged the others out in terms of speed and flow.

Personally the only time I’ve used multiple DAWs is if a plugin only works in one (in which I will process the audio using that DAW/Plugin, render it as a WAV then plant the WAV in my primary project). It also helps that most people I collaborate with use Audition, so we can pass project files back and forth without worrying about losing anything in translation.

You mentioned a few months ago that the setups of the original Station Blue project files are upsetting in retrospect (such a mood for all sound designers). How do you set up projects these days? For new sound designers, what beginner’s editing habits do you recommend avoiding?

Oh yeah, the Station Blue files are a nightmare, my regrets know no bounds.

The first thing I do is lock down a naming convention for the project files and episodes, usually Project_Season_Episode_Project
So for Station Blue, Season 1, Episode 9 I’d have
SB_S1_Ep9_Takes.sesx and SB_S1_Ep9_Master.sesx

Each project gets a folder, each season gets a folder within that, each episode gets a folder within that.

So Station Blue > Season 1 > Episode 9
In the Episode Folder I’ll have a Music Folder and an FX folder, then within the FX folder I’ll have folders for different types of FX.
Episode 9 > MUSIC, FX > Storm, Gore, Ice (etc)

I used to have my FX organized in a master folder by type, and I’ll still do that for specific recurring locations (like Kitchen, Floor 1 Bathroom, Control Room) but I find myself losing the FX that I need if they’re in a giant group, so picking them out of the actual episode I used them in is more useful for me.

As for habits when you’re new, try to keep things as clean and organized as you can. You might not know the best way to sort things, and that’s fine, but at the very least make a folder for every episode with everything thrown in it. As messy as that is, at least you’ll be able to find them.

You’ve done a lot of great work with horror on Station Blue. Sound design wise, what’s one thing that can take a scene from scary to SCARY?

Call and response.

A monster knocks on a door, the character jumps.
The character gasps, the monster cries out.
The monster starts charging, the character throws a plate to make a noise.

The audience needs to be able to anticipate what might happen next, they need to hope for some results and fear other results. So you need to keep a clear back and forth audio conversation going between the Threat and the Protagonist.

When you start playing with time between those calls and responses, you get tension. The monster is looking for the character, they make a frightening monster cry, and the character holds their breath. And holds… and holds… and holds… then bam, GASP FOR AIR.

You’ve stretched out the consequence, you’ve created tension, and for a split second after that Gasp finally comes the audience is now actively afraid of how the monster will respond.

Breathe with your scenes. I mean that literally. Breathe along, pay attention to your hearts beats, place a sound, listen back, and wait, wait, wait until that final split second where your brain goes from interested to bored, place the next sound right before that happens. Do it again. Embody the emotional experience you want your audience to feel, then do everything you can to cultivate it in the strangers who will be listening.

What makes you really excited to work on a show or a specific scene in a show? Is there a type of sound design that you’re super passionate about?

The creator, their dedication, and their vision. If I think they have something personal and unique, if the show is saying something, and if I can channel those feelings and that vision into audio, I’m in.

I’m doubly interested if they have no idea how to pull the audio they want off, and if I have no idea how to pull the audio they want off. Hit the Bricks in particular constantly threw things at me that had me scratching my head… and then I kind of just made it work.

I’m very passionate about any kind of sound design that involves weather. Storms, wind, ice and water, I don’t know what it is about weather that really suits capturing a mood.

How does using synth hardware fit into your workflow for sound design?

Well first of all, using Analogue Hardware Synths helped me really understand what was happening in my DAW. This is obvious to some, but Digital Audio Workstations are meant to resemble actual, physical workstations in a studio. I have difficulty making mental connections from one digital tool to another, so having a physical device with very obvious cause and effect helped me make those mental connections. Particularly using analogue EQ and Compression tools.

Graduating into Modular Synths took this to another level (if you don’t know what a Modular Synth is, pull up a video, it’ll be a series of boxes with dozens of colored cables hanging out of it like entrails) In order to make them work you need to patch cables from one module to another, often dozens of times until you’ve got an alien pasta of wires hanging off of them. It’s done wonders helping me do complex plugin routing within DAW’s.

Hit the Bricks takes place (mostly) in the land of Oz, a place that has books and movies and musicals and near-endless visual art and adaptations made of it. Did that affect your sound design at all, in how you approached it or the outcome thereof?

Not too much, I’m not very familiar with Oz material though I did use old art pieces for reference on how audacious the design should be. I talked to PJ (the creator) a lot about what Oz meant to him, and found pieces of media that made me feel the same way. My goal was to do design that evoked the same sense of wonder and nostalgia that PJ felt for Oz and that I felt for things like The Labyrinth, Dark Crystal and Hook.

The music helped as well, PJ collaborated with some wonderful musicians and their music was my audio North Star.

The Goblet Wire is releasing now, which is surreal microficiton podcast about players interacting with “realms not yet known to the conscious mind.” What goes into surreal sound design? Are there things you can do with the sound design for this show that you can’t do for other, more grounded productions?

To give some context, the framing of The Goblet Wire involves the lead character interacting with a strange character over the phone.

For The Goblet Wire, cultivating a surreal environment is all about doing as little as possible. I aim for precision and elegance, allowing the premise, the performers and the writing to carry their weight, then supplementing it with synth scapes and minimal environmental effects (filtered through our cocktail of plugins to emulate the feeling of a phone speaker)

And you can’t have surreal without some sense of the “real”, so we spent way too long collecting very tangible, “realistic” phone sounds, clicks and clacks, roomtones, etc to set the scene. Ideally the grounded initial seconds place the audience in the space, so when the character is whisked away to a narrated dreamscape, the audience is too.

That’s the goal anyways.

I (Tal) am going to be thinking a lot time about how to apply Ester’s advice for making scenes SCARY. I got goosebumps just reading it. Also please — someone hire Ester to give a talk on synths I need to know more.

If you enjoyed this interview, share it! If you’re an audio fiction sound designer who would like to be interviewed, let us know here! (This blog is on Tal’s Medium page, but it’s a dual effort between Tal and Brad).

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