Nelson Has Sound To Go

SAN FRANCISCO, CA— Once upon a time, a sound designer was expected to maintain a studio jam-packed with synths, processors, perhaps even a $100,000 sampling keyboard, if he or she were to stay at the top of their game.
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SAN FRANCISCO, CA— Once upon a time, a sound designer was expected to maintain a studio jam-packed with synths, processors, perhaps even a $100,000 sampling keyboard, if he or she were to stay at the top of their game. Today, pretty much everything that such a setup could create can be reproduced, even bettered, with little more than a laptop computer and a MIDI keyboard.

Using Kontakt 4 within Pro Tools helps David Nelson at
Outpost Studios work fast and stay within budget.
David Nelson has a well-appointed setup at his Outpost Studios in San Francisco, but the heart of his system—Native Instruments’ Kontakt 4 sampler running within Avid Pro Tools—might easily be condensed into a laptop. Indeed, Nelson, who is an educator as well as an experienced sound designer, composer and re-recording mixer, reports, “I taught a class on film sound design yesterday at San Jose State and for the first time took Pro Tools 9 on my laptop with a little keyboard and a Canopus video streaming box, and it worked really well.”

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Samplers have been around for some time, of course, but Nelson believes, Kontakt 4 offers some distinct advantages, such as reducing the amount of time it takes to get sounds into a sampler compared to the past. “Once they were there, it was great to be able to play a keyboard and get them, but now, the fact that these sounds are streaming off a hard drive is such an amazing difference, especially in terms of how fast you can use them and how efficient they are.”

Nelson’s chosen collection of software allows him to work fast, mapping sounds across his MIDI controller so that he can play them from the keyboard. For example, he offers, “I’m getting a lot of jobs for animation, and a lot of jobs where sounds are repeated. The other day, we did a sound for a certain color box that appeared [onscreen]; we probably had 50 or 60 instances of it. After we were done, the client said, ‘I don’t like that sound.’ In the old days, I would have had to replace every single one of those instances with a new sound. In this case, all I did was change the sample in Kontakt 4. The same MIDI placement was still there; it just triggered a different sound. It took me one minute to do it.”

He continues, “We have banks and banks of sound libraries. We’re using Soundminer, which is another amazing part of where software is at in this day and age. I can take 25 cell phone rings and put them all into Kontakt at once. It’ll map them out for me onto different keys on my keyboard.”

KSP, Kontakt’s programming language, supports a variety of thirdparty software (plug-ins) that expand the host’s abilities. Two modules that Nelson favors are Sample Logic’s AIR (Ambience Impacts Rhythm) and Heavyocity’s Evolve.

“Evolve is designed as a music program but has sound-effect banks. They don’t show up as a file anywhere; they’re just part of the program. It’s interesting stuff, and they’re always updating them. They’re very sophisticated sounds; same with [Spectrasonics’] Omnisphere. There’s a lot of panning built in, a lot of variations. Many of these things evolve over a minute—as you hold the note, it continually changes.”

Kontakt integrates processing, including convolution reverb and other ADSR functionality, but that, too, can be expanded: “There’s a program called Scriptorium [by U.K. company Soniccouture] where you can apply these crazy scripts to every sound— it’ll slow things down the longer you hold the key down, loop things, pan them—all within Kontakt. And Kontakt is within Pro Tools. So it’s becoming a multi-mix situation, where you’re mixing in Kontakt and in Pro Tools, all at the same time.”

Stutter Edit from iZotope, developed by electronica whiz BT, also brings some fresh tools to sound design, even to dialogue, he says. “We see a lot of programs where the scene will be from a character’s point of view, and the scene will jump-edit. Or they get knocked to the ground, and we see the camera roll around. Stutter Edit, in that case, is really amazing; it does what you’re looking at.”

With Stutter Edit, every key does something different, and each of those effects can be tweaked and customized. Plus, Nelson points out, “You’re looking at it on your Pro Tools screen as a MIDI event. If you don’t like it, you can drag it to a different note and it’ll do a completely different thing.”

Nelson consistently works on a wide range of projects: cinematics for video games from the likes of Sony and EA; long-form films, such as Tiffany Shlain’s upcoming documentary, Connected; short student films, on which he’s often encouraged to experiment; and medical projects, via Duarte Design, for companies such as Genentec, applying sound design to training and presentation videos on the inner workings of the body.

Whatever tools he is using, Nelson makes sure that he is fully conversant with their operation. “When I get this software, I really start using it right away; it’s about knowing where to go, on a budget and in a certain amount of time.”

Because, ultimately, time is money: “If it starts to slow me down, I’ll go to something else. I get more work done in less time,” he says. “It increases my bottom line.”