Interview with Sound Designer Robert Arturo Ramirez
Award-winning sound designer Robert Ramirez has worked on Family Guy, American Dad, Arrow, and Titans among many other titles. We caught up with him to find out about his background, work, techniques and how he used the Krotos Weaponiser and Dehumaniser 2 plug-ins in Arrow and Titans.
Robert Ramirez’s obsession for sound design began in his early childhood. He remembers a visit to the laundromat, where the TV in the background played a short special on Ben Burtt, which was when Ramirez learned he was the creator of the sounds in his favourite movies.
His father worked as a janitor at Stanford University Hospital, sometimes finding discarded old tape recorders and other sound equipment that he could salvage to bring home for Robert. Robert began to find opportunities to work in sound while growing up in the church, and by age 14, he was already helping mix the services and music performances.
A few years later, an ex-girlfriend asked him to compose soundscapes and create music for a theatre production. She called it ‘sound design’, a term that was new to Robert, but suddenly made a lot of sense:
“We didn’t have the resources of today. I recall liking the term ‘sound design’, and I had finally found a way to combine all my interests. After pursuing theatre sound design in the SF Bay Area, I quickly realized that sound technology in the theatre was mostly limited to CD playback at the time and was never going to get remotely close to Ben Burtt’s work. So, when I got the chance to move to LA, I did with the intent to get into sound post.”
Fast forward a few years, and Robert has been nominated for a few Emmy Awards and won several Golden Reel Awards. But what’s been the secret to his success?
“It’s a combination of perseverance and acknowledging all the great opportunities that have come my way. They can really come from anywhere. When I first moved to LA, my day job was at Starbucks, and I’m so grateful and fortunate to have met my co-worker, Dolly. Her husband, Curtis, worked at a post house. She thought I was a good worker, so she gave him my resume. He got me an interview for a runner position.”
Robert now had his foot in the door, and was able to work his way up from being a runner: he landed a promotion at a post facility named Miles O Fun [later bought by Technicolor and became their sound services division.]
“I was a runner for a year and then became a sound effects librarian and scheduled Foley. In those two years, I learned the Fairlight. While the company was still Miles O Fun, it was run very much like a ‘mom and pop shop.’ When a couple of FX editors moved on to bigger post houses, they needed someone who could cut on Fairlight. Most everyone else in town had moved on to Pro Tools. I was able to get in that way. When Technicolor bought MOF, the whole company switched to Pro Tools. If I had not taken the time to learn older technology or if the timing wasn’t just right, I’m not sure my promotion would have happened so quickly.”
Throughout his career so far, Robert has worked on a huge variety of projects at Warner Brothers, DC Comics and 20th Century Fox.
“I have to say I am grateful to Mike Lawshe (Sound Supervisor) for bringing me on to design DC Comics’ Arrow, available on Netflix. It is the main show I’m currently working on. It never gets boring. With new villains and heroes over the past seven years, there’s always new opportunities for creativity. I also had a chance fairly recently to help out with Titans on the DC Universe streaming network (also on Netflix). Very grateful to Peter Lago (Sound Designer) and Charlie Crutcher (Sound Supervisor) for letting me help out on it. These superhero comic book shows are really fun to work on. I’m lucky to have Todd Beckett as the Sound Effects Re-recording Mixer. He does great work with Dan Hiland, the dialogue mixer.
While at Technicolor, Robert worked on Family Guy, which taught him a lot about specialising in sound design for comedy, and his work there also won him a Golden Reel.
“That was a fun show. I worked on Family Guy because Andrew Ellard (Sound Designer) and Bob Newlan (Sound Supervisor) were also working on American Dad which was new at the time so because of scheduling, I was brought on to help out. I ended up working on both shows. They really taught me how Sound Design can be humorous and help with the comedy. I was nominated and won a Golden Reel along with Andrew for our work on an episode. There were all these opportunities to make things funny like certain Rube Goldberg machines sequences and things of that nature. But, the most memorable thing is how the producers’ instinct for using the exact same punch sound over and over helped make certain scenes hilarious. My instinct was to make it more varied but I was clearly wrong.”
Ever since those early days at the laundromat, Ben Brutt has been a huge source of inspiration for Robert: “For me, his work is the Gold Standard. For those who didn’t start off as musicians, he’s the reason a lot of Sound Designers go into this profession. So, Star Wars series, Wall-E, and so on.”
“More recently, I really liked Get Out, Black Panther, Ready Player One. The sound design was nice. Also, The Post as a more organic example. There are so many people doing great work out there. Sometimes I just sit there and rewind scenes and think to myself: ‘Holy Moly, I’m lucky to be in this industry.’.”
As for editing techniques, working methods and secret tricks, Robert has a few special methods that help him with his workflow:
“One thing I find frustrating is when you are looking through a library and they have like 12 impacts or whatever the recording is. But, for some reason, only one of the impacts sounds how you want it to.
I oftentimes will take that one clip and repeat it like 15 times. Then I run it through sound shifter or other pitch and time plug-ins, barely changing the parameters until they all sound slightly different. It helps so it doesn’t have a machine gun effect. The other thing I do is I use a lot of music plugins or software.
For example, we probably all use Kontakt but I also use Propellerhead’s Reason or Ableton Live to modulate parameters and make clips sound different. Lastly, I use Soundminer Pro to manipulate pitch and with VSTs, I send the modified files into Pro Tools. I think most of us do that.”
“My first impression was that it felt like Merlin had started making sound design plugins. I have used Dehumaniser 2 some, but on Arrow, I mainly used Weaponiser because it has a lot of machine gun and gun battles, so for all the background character guns I will print the bounced single file. For the close-up or main characters, I like to use it to make elements of their weapons so I can create a library for each character’s guns. Once I got Weaponiser, any new character with a gun will go through that process.
I also use Reformer from time to time and used it to make some tazer sounds in Titans. I made a library of electric shocking sounds and was able to perform it to picture. These stun batons were used for torture when a static tazer file wasn’t going to do it justice. By performing it, I was able to make it seem like the actor was reacting to the fluctuations in the sound design.
I also used it for some other weapons like an electric carving knife and some bear vocalizations, more of the stuff in between the roars. For the bear, I did a couple of takes and cut up the best stuff. For the weapons, I would perform different elements to picture then cut and lay them out on tracks for the FX mixer to have final control.”
Technology is always changing and evolving, so we wanted to know how Robert sees the future of sound design, and whether it’s affected his work.
“It’s an exciting time. I see the tech changing a lot. But, the core of the art is staying the same. I think it’s important that people learn about how sound design stimulates and affects a scene, especially now where anyone with a laptop has access to more tools than the pioneers did in their early stages.
I hear a lot of people trying to make things sound cool. It’s almost like the loudness wars of the music industry, but it’s the coolness wars for sound design where people are trying to make you say wow. But, is it what the scene called for? That’s the aspect of Sound Design that requires a person.
Technology is going to keep making things easier and amazing, things like iZotope RX can salvage old sound libraries or recordings in amazing ways. I’m no luddite, I love all the plugins and equipment. I just hope we all use it without losing sight of what the scene actually needs.”
For anyone starting out in sound design, we asked Robert if he has any advice for those new to the industry:
“That’s hard to say. With fast internet access available today, I’m not sure if companies have as many runner positions needed as when I started. Keep an eye out for opportunities and be prepared. Don’t expect people to wait for you to catch up.
I’d be wary of articles or YouTube videos where a professional says that your equipment doesn’t matter. Believe me, it matters. Not having the correct or highest caliber gear shouldn’t stop you from pursuing the field. But the software and gear you use make a big difference. It’s easy to say it doesn’t matter once you have access to it. You should work hard at any job and save up. You will slowly acquire what you need. Also, be careful with following the advice of novices on YouTube or the internet. They are good to spark ideas but they usually get the details wrong about how to deliver materials to the dubstage etc. Let’s put it this way. You’re not going to be able to deliver your tracks in Reaper at any reputable facility. Not yet.
I would avoid going into debt for school. Unless, you are certain they have a placement program and good connections in the industry. You’d be paying for that perk more than anything. And no matter how stellar a student you were, do not expect to land a great sound design position. I’d imagine you still have to earn your stripes to get into the union.
Lastly, do not stumble into sound design because some article says that it’s easy to repurpose the investment you made in your music gear by getting into sound for post or gaming. Yes, it’s similar and requires many of the same skills, but it also requires long hours and an unfathomable commitment. You can easily burn out if you’re only doing this because a music career didn’t work out for you. Mostly, you have to make sure you genuinely love it.