Defacto Sound Creative Director Dallas Taylor on sound design, 20k Hertz podcast and more
Dallas Taylor is the Creative Director of Defacto Sound who cut his teeth sound designing and mixing for networks such as NBC, Fox, G4 and Discovery. He is also the host of superb podcast Twenty Thousand Hertz which focuses on the narrative and emotional impact of sound. Here Dallas tells Mandy News everything about his work, the realities of modern sound recording and what aspiring sound technicians can do to get noticed.
Let’s start with Twenty Thousand Hertz. Why did you decide to start a podcast?
We do a lot of passion projects for other people at Defacto Sound, and I realised over the years that we never had any of our own content. We’re dependant on everyone else to send us work, and we wanted to create something that was our own. Twenty Thousand Hertz focuses on the narrative and emotional impact of sound, so what better way to prove it than a medium that’s all sound?
I wanted to take the subject and make it approachable for everyone, because hearing, for some reason, has become this unapproachable sense. I want people to notice sound in their everyday lives. If, after listening to a podcast, someone goes and puts WD40 on their squeaky door, then it’s a success in my book.
What are some of your favourite stories from the podcast?
We did an entire show on the earliest recorded sounds, just explaining what was happening back in the day. The first transmitted words through a radio were, “The horse eats no cucumber salad.” Something random. We did a whole episode on accents because I was interested in learning if early Americans sounded more British than they do today. Did the British diverge or did the Americans diverge? We found, interestingly enough, that the British dialect veered more than the American dialect.
We’ve done all kinds of interesting stories, from talking with the voice of Siri to the chimes that play on NBC — a television network we have here in the U.S. Another fun one was examining the sound design behind Disney theme parks; surprisingly, they do a lot of sound design.
Was working in sound design always your goal?
I’ve always been sound-minded, but initially, it was more on the music side. I played the trumpet in high school, and that led to a scholarship for music. About halfway through college, I started struggling with performance anxiety, and I realized performing music might not be the right fit. I didn’t like the idea that my best performance would probably happen in the practice room.
At the same time, I was also getting into music/sound technology, messing around with MIDI and FruityLoops, recording things, manipulating things. Over time, I fell in love with post audio, what it brought to the story and how it enhanced visuals. I decided to make a career out of it. But, we all know it’s not as simple as saying, “I want to do that.” I took a weird path to get there, working as a camera operator at a local news station in Texas, which led to audio in L.A. for NBC, Fox, and G4. Those jobs led to work with the Discovery Channel in Washington D.C. as their senior sound designer/mixer and I eventually decided to start Defacto Sound after that, about nine years ago.
What were those transitions like? Was it hard to break into the industry?
It took a lot of bobbing and weaving. The traditional approach — get an apprenticeship, work for the same company for 60 years, retire with a watch — is gone. That’s not the reality of the world anymore. Everyone is busy doing their own thing, their own jobs, as best they can. I needed to get as close to what I wanted to do as possible, and the only opportunity I got was an internship pointing a camera at a newsperson. But, I knew the audio person was just 30 feet away from me. He took me under his wing and taught me a lot. I think he just loved that I showed so much interest in the work.
After working at all of these different audio jobs, I started to learn how the world works, how the culture works, what the needs are, and what the pain points are. Eventually, I realized I could solve some of them myself — that’s why I wanted to start my own thing.
What was it about your process that was unique?
Well, to rewind a little bit — a lot of people’s success is about being at the right place at the right time. For me, that was in the transition, not from analog to digital, but digital to digital portability. From a Pro Tools HD system with external processing cards to Pro Tools running natively on a computer. When that happened, I was one of the first adopters to mix commercials or short TV programs in Pro Tools LE, because I knew it had the power to do it. Everyone at the time was saying native power wasn’t enough, but I did it. So while everyone was using the $50,000 version, I was using the $1,000 version and was able to make more of a profit because of it. There was so much money being poured into gear because that’s just the way it had been done. I was doing the opposite.
Why do you think it took people so long to figure it out?
I kept it a secret for three or four years. I would dodge the question if someone asked me how I worked. I think a lot of people just get wrapped up in the flash and marketing of new technology. My biggest passion is the finished product. You’ve got to remember that most technology is a marketing play, just a company trying to make money. I’m not saying they make poor products, but you need to evaluate what you actually need to do the best work.
Does knowing that just come with experience?
Every high-end sound designer I know, the more they work, the more they go back to the basics. A voice on a microphone is not designed to need 15 plug-ins just to sound good. We have amazing microphones, signal flow, preamps, digital conversion, and tools. When it comes down to it, a lot of that manipulation is just technology for technology’s sake.
When it comes to post audio, an EQ and a compressor are the most powerful tools you will use by far. You don’t need 18 of them to do the job. Mastering those tools before you go to do anything else is the biggest struggle I have in training new people and new sound designers — even seasoned sound designers. It’s hard to break that reliance on adding more and more plugins and more technology. I love trying new things, and there are great tools to use in specific situations, but it’s hard to beat the natural sound of the human voice going into a microphone.
Here’s an example. Say we’re talking about a piece of art, a 10-by-20 foot wide masterpiece hanging in a museum. No one is talking about the paintbrushes you used, the bristles, or the material in your paint. You’re aware of all those things, but they’re simply tools used to help you convey something. Over time, you stop consciously thinking about every technical thing that’s happening, and you start to create. You’re just flowing. A piano player isn’t thinking about every single note. It’s just flowing through them, and they’re creating music in a much more visceral way. The technical aspect fades away with practice.
While I’m proficient in technical things, I don’t consciously think about them anymore. I’ll put on my technical hat when I’m demoing a new product, but at the end of the day, it becomes another paintbrush.
What advice would you give to someone who’s looking to get to that level? Is school the first step?
We’re living in the first generation of limitless human knowledge, paired with the reality that technology is relatively cheap. Schools were established in a different time. I’m not necessarily saying, “Don’t go to school.” But, it’s more important than ever to be discerning about not only where you want to study, but who you choose to study with. It can be a fruitful experience if you have teachers who are teaching the reality of “now,” not 20 years ago. Heck, we’re doing things differently at Defacto Sound than we did six months ago!
A lot of school and universities are also preying on students, and it’s really sad to see. I’ve hired quite a few new sound designers. I hate the idea of them coming into the work environment at 22 years old with $50,000 to $100,000 worth of debt that’s going to loom over them for the rest of their life. That’s not right. It’s not a good way to start your life. I have never seen anyone come in with that much debt and find that it was worth it later.
So what’s the alternate route?
You can do a lot on your own. If you want to be a sound designer, get Pro Tools, get the $20 subscription, start grabbing trailers and ads off of the internet, strip the audio and learn how to recreate it. Find a way to be technically proficient, make a lot of mistakes, and don’t get bogged down. There’s a lot of free education: watch a lot of videos; listen to podcasts; learn all the hotkeys. You don’t need super expensive microphones to record sounds. You can get a $100 SM58 or SM57, and it'll sound great. Start recording, start manipulating. The entire industry is about doing, not about talking about it.
The thing I see with young people is that they want to make their masterpiece immediately. It’s not going to happen. You’ve got to push and push and push, make what you think is your masterpiece, and then think it’s terrible in six months. You’re going to do that over and over again. We live in a culture where we believe if we haven’t become a superstar bt 25, then we’re a failure. That’s plain wrong. We think our life is over at 30. Again, wrong. We believe life gets worse with age. Nope.
It seems like mindset is key.
The secret is: there is no finish line. I’m always going to be pushing. You have to fall in love with the process of creating, not the outcome or the accolades. I’ve received more accolades than I deserve, and it's easy to believe they'll make you happier. It’s just not true. Your problems are still your problems after you achieve something. The result isn’t as fulfilling as you’d think.
If you love the process, if you love what you’re doing and love learning, then you’re going to have a fulfilling career. If it’s about the accolades or the Insta-likes, you’re going to be pretty unhappy. The industry is not as glamorous as people think it is. Not even close.
So, ultimately, it’s just about doing it. Being self-motivated. Every person who gets a job here at Defacto has learned how to do things themselves. You can tell they’re self-motivated. They go out and make things they can put on their reel. Don’t wait for approval; you’ve just got to do it. You don’t need permission to create. Go do it.