Sound, such a vital aspect of any content from epic full-length films to social-friendly brand ads, is often overlooked. But it’s often the most intricate and delicate facet to create: what does the Mars expanse sound like? How do you evoke the tastes and flavours of a renowned chef through sound?
That’s where people like Iván Llopis come in. Llopis (who considers himself a music filmmaker) steps into projects as big as crafting National Geographics’ global identity and as original as his own debut album to create unreal soundscapes that make any moving visual more realistic.
This sound artist from Valencia, Spain, runs an artistic sound studio, Banjo Soundscapes, with partner Anna Segura, working with clients such as Nike, Givenchy, BMW, Ritz-Carlton, and many more. After creating sounds for others for almost twenty years, Llopis is stepping into the limelight as an artist in his own right – cue his debut conceptual album Nokepler.
We spoke to the sound maker about his discovery of sound design, finally releasing his own album, and his creative process.
Hi Iván, how’s 2022 treating you so far?
Lockdown meant that many projects were cancelled and this gave me plenty of time to reflect on my career. I decided to be more selective with the commissions the studio accepted and invested more time and energy in a personal project that I had put to one side for the last eight years: my debut album. So, 2022 is the year in which this shift of focus is now bearing fruits, which is turning into a great experience.
How did you first get into sound design and start creating soundscapes? Was there something you were listening to or inspired by growing up?
I was raised in a family of musicians, surrounded by synths, so music and technology introduced me to the art of sound from an early age. When I was 10, I left the house earlier than usual to attend a music exam and I suddenly became aware that the sounds of the city around me were clearer and brighter: the behaviour of different frequencies allowed me to appreciate how sound was reflected by the buildings. This realisation changed everything for me and from that moment on I needed to discover more about the mystery of sound.
However, it wasn’t until 1998 during the creation of my second soundtrack for a short film that I unconsciously started to merge sound design with music. As instruments in the same orchestra, sound design articulates rhythm with strings, harmonies and melodies, in a unified creation that is neither 100% music nor sound design. I think that was the first time I created a soundscape, but I didn’t realise it until 13 years later.
How would you describe your work?
I portray musical and non-musical ideas through contemporary and eclectic sound aesthetics based on the classic philosophy of putting the focus on finding the truest sense of communication through sound. Creating a monolithic and weaved soundscape when crafting music and sound design is highly important to me, and has always guided the critical side of my work during the creation process.
How has your perspective on sound changed since you started working in sound design?
My initial vision had a narrower scope. I had lower sonic resources so my interconnection between them was kind of clumsy. I have been (and still am) discovering ideas and inspiration from exosonic events that awaken my musical thinking, but have absolutely nothing to do with sound; contexts that push me to think outside the box and towards an oblique direction without getting trapped in genres, styles or categories.
Tell us about your company, Banjo.
In 2007, after many years of working as a freelance composer, my partner Anna Segura (CEO & Executive Producer) and I decided to set up Banjo. Our idea was to start a collaborative project: a place where we, as artists, and clients could work side by side to create quality soundscapes that communicate the meaning requested by the commissioning brands.
Our work with clients over the last 15 years has been mainly focused on finding the perfect balance between the commission and art. And this is always the greatest challenge for creative studios to achieve. We maintain an abstract approach, so when working with big brands and huge teams, it is difficult to convey our proposals without having to rely on pre-existing references. So from the outset, we make rough demos and conceptualise, in order to build a customised creative process from beginning to end.
Now we can say that some of the most high-profile directors and brands trust our way of understanding them through our sound. And that’s really inspiring and encourages us to keep going.
Tell us about your thought and creative process before starting a new sound project.
Some years ago, I came to the conclusion that using up mental energy on a piece of work, without managing it correctly, can harm the project. So I challenged myself not to waste it.
Now, when I embark on a project, I give myself time to use inspiration and intuition to start brainstorming ideas. If I can, I do this initial stage outside of the studio: I write down all my ideas in my notebooks and when I’m ready, I lock myself in the studio and exhibit my best performer and executive attitude in order to portray my ideas in the best possible way.
It is also very important for me to take breaks and have enough time to reflect about the work I’ve done and not lose sight of the focus of what I’m doing. I try to visualise the ideas for a project in the same way as iron. If they are too cold, they will be too hard to shape and cast. If they are too hot, they will melt into liquid, rendering them useless.
What does your debut album mean to you?
It means freedom. A real challenge that I was ready to take on.
What made you want to release an album at this point in your life?
After 20 years of dedicating myself exclusively to creating bespoke music and sound design, I needed to tell my own story and put all my favourite musical references in a safe place, as if it were a family photo album. To challenge myself to develop a quality album, which was a project that I had never taken on before, and at the same time unsure of what I was capable of, has been such a great (but tough) experience.
What was your lowest and highest point throughout the process of creating your album? How was the process?
The creative process of NOKEPLER can be summed up with the words “search” and ”quest” and it took a long time to get it right. My album contains sonic ideas that were sketched over eight years, very randomly and at very different moments of my life. When I decided to put these ideas into an album in 2021, the main issue I came up against was how to organise them and then make them tell a story in different scenes. I had to rethink most of them and went through some very low moments in the process, many of which almost made me give up. When I started mixing the album, I had the final sound clear in my mind, but it took some time and three different engineers to get it right.
I also struggled with the piano tracks. I recorded the demos with my upright Schimmel C116, which is a great piano, but I felt it sounded too tight and narrow in “Reflect”. So I rented a Shigeru concert grand piano and brought it to a big studio in Valencia. The result wasn’t anywhere as close to what I had in mind. I tried many different pianos and environments but none of them gave me the results. After a few weeks and totally by chance, I saw a 1972 baby grand Bösendorfer 170 on a second-hand selling app. I went to Madrid to try it out and I fell in love. It sounded warm, detailed, and silky but with a rough edge. I bought it on the spot and took it back to my studio, but I had finally found the sound I was looking for.
Were you listening to anything in particular that inspired the makings of this album?
My sonic imagination is quite odd and diverse. Classical and contemporary music makes up a large part of my musical references: from Bach to Ligeti to Ravel, Satie, Monteverdi, John Downland but also the music of Thom Yorke, Cluster, Brian Eno, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Vangelis, Aphex Twin. I think all of them inspired me in the making of this album; all of them are in there somewhere.
Has the pandemic affected or changed your perception of design and sound? How?
I realised that we needed to work hard and trust our creativity, always bet on the most risky ideas, and only partner with clients that are aligned with our essential core. Time and energy is not something to be wasted. 2020 brought this home to us.
How has your experience been working for big brands on more commercial projects?
First of all, when production companies put Banjo forward for huge projects for well-known brands such as these, it is a real honour. They have the capacity to hire any studio in the world, so to be chosen by them boosts our energy exponentially. Big brands have a very complex marketing structure with a hierarchy of many people, which can make the approval process quite complicated. Everyone involved has to be happy and sometimes that’s close to impossible, so managing that is almost 60% of the complexity of the work. But as I said, trust is the most important thing in any relationship, so if it is present bilaterally throughout the process, most of the time the results are great. It is a crucial learning process for all of us.
If you were to compare your album to a movie, what would it be and why?
It could be a movie or a book: Kafka’s character Odraked inspired me a lot, as well as the cinema of Tarkovsky. I also drew great inspiration from the tense and sad atmosphere of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive. And I think the way Kubrick handled the music in his films also gave me a huge eclectic scope for storytelling.
Tell us about this playlist you have curated for Sound of Life.
The playlist is as eclectic as I am. You’ll hear tracks that are very different from each other, just like my background: classical music, pop, contemporary music, and experimental. I hope you enjoy it.
Press play and immerse yourself in these songs picked by Iván Llopis.
Cover Credit: Production Dept. (Banjo Soundscapes)