Thinking in sound: Liam Yelen on his passion for the art of sound in commercials.
Liam is an internationally award-winning dubbing mixer and editor with over ten years of experience in the world of audio post-production. His wide range of talents ranges from working with acclaimed directors such as Jim Sheridan and Terrence Malick, to adding footsteps to the feet of little cartoon bunnies.
Liam has also worked on many global, international and national brands such as Lidl, VW, SuperValu and Smyth’s to name a few. He relishes all forms of commercial work: “It’s the really exciting world of commercial advertising with its grueling nature and it’s the only form of media that allows me to use all of my audio skills that I’ve accumulated over the over the years – from VO recordings, dialogue editing, sound design, cinema mixes, ADR and complete mixing on one job”.
LBB> When working on a new brief or project, what is your typical starting point? How do you break it down and how do you like to generate your ideas or response?
Liam > For me there is no ‘typical’ starting point, but usually I start by sitting with the images or briefs for a while and just letting myself find the inspiration in them .
Whatever the job, there is always something that will grab me and throw me on the path. Depending on what that inspiration is, he will then describe how I respond to the piece.
LBB> Music and sound are in some ways the most collaborative and interactive forms of creativity – what do you think? Do you prefer working solo or in a gang – and what are some of your most memorable professional collaborations?
Liam > Being a post commercial engineer means there have always been times of collaboration and long times of being on your own to mix etc.
My performance has always been to work with as many people present as possible.
The energy and the exchange of ideas are for me the most valuable and enjoyable part of the job. Along with that, I also think sound and music can be one of the most subjective parts of the post-production process. This means that more participation from all parties involved will lead to an end product that will appeal to everyone, and therefore connect more broadly with the audience itself.
LBB> This has been, professionally, what I’ve found most challenging working during the COVID pandemic. I’ve always liked having a room full of people, I think the end product is better and also it’s nicer to get there. Working remotely has been amazing at keeping people safe, but I miss everyone.
Liam> I had a great time working on ADR with Jim Sheridan. There was a line that he thought didn’t need re-recording and he asked me to recite what I understood from the line. I got it wrong (thus proving it had to be re-recorded) and he started asking me every line of dialogue for the rest of the movie to see if I understood what they were saying.
I love Jim Sheridan’s work so much, it was a truly amazing experience to be slagged by man.
LBB> What is the most satisfying part of your job and why?
Liam> The most satisfying part of my job is having a happy customer. It’s great to hear my work, but there’s nothing like a room full of people leaving the studio with a rocking soundtrack and smiles on their faces after having a good time. It goes beyond the work itself in these cases. We all had fun, and that’s all we can ask for, to be happy with and in our work.
LBB> As the advertising industry changes, how do you think the role of music and sound is changing with it?
Liam > Sound and music is evolving with the whole industry as a necessity due to COVID. It’s very interesting to hear the quality of the VO artists’ home studios and doing remote sessions as the norm. Along with this, I feel we are beginning to realize that the online sphere deserves the same love and attention as a TV commercial.
LBB> Who are your musical or audio heroes and why?
Liam > I find it hard to consider someone I don’t personally know a hero, but there are so many whose work I love, so it’s hard to pick just a few. There are plenty of sound engineers in the Irish post-production space that I could choose from, but they are my direct competitors so I might leave them out!
LBB> And when it comes to your particular field, be it sound design or composition, are there any particular ideas or pioneers that you come back to frequently or that really influence your thinking about the work you do?
Liam > I will always come back to the work of David Lynch and Alan Splet on ‘Eraser Head’. It’s so present and can stir up such strong feelings in me that it really pushed me to look for an emotional response in my work, if any. Also, there is obviously Walter Murch! No one made me think more about using sound as a method of storytelling than his work. The opening of ‘Apocalypse Now’ (Insert chef’s kiss SFX)!
LBB > When working on something that isn’t directly sound design or music (e.g. reviewing client briefs or responding to emails) – are you the kind of person who needs music and noise in the background or is it completely distracting for you? What do you think of the sound and background music while you work?
Liam> Outside of my direct work, I will always have something in the background. I’m a fan of the dirtiest TV available, so this will play during general housework. If I do something during downtime at work, emails, etc., the headphones will continue and I’ll listen to music. I’m just the kind of guy that doesn’t distract. My wife, on the other hand, has to turn off the radio when I park the car!
LBB> I guess the quality of the listening experience and the context in which audiences listen to music/sound has changed over the years. There’s the switch from analog to digital and now we seem to be torn between immersive badass surround sound experiences and shoddy audio on the go (often audio competes with a million other distractions) – How does this factor into the way you approach your work?
Liam > Personally I think you have to take this work by work. When his TV is working, you better be “bad ass”, but really any TV ad that also gets transferred to the online space should have its own mix. But this “on-the-go” online mix shouldn’t result in a “low quality” sound, but a different one. Sure, we compete with a million other distractions, but there are a million distractions at our fingertips whether we’re on the bus or at the movies these days. It’s about creating an ad that can compete with all those distractions and a soundscape that helps that ad grab attention.
LBB> On a typical day, what does your “listening regimen” look like?
Liam> Well, right now I’m listening to ‘Western Island’ by Archie Fisher.
I’m a big fan of British folk music (mainly Old English and Scottish) but let’s take a Monday as an example.
I’ll be woken by the sweet tones of Marty Whelan, as my wife will play Lyric FM in every room of the house. On my work cycle, I’ll be launching the new episode of “This American Life” produced by Chicago Public Radio and PRX (amazing stuff, if you’re not already on it, then go for it. This is the first podcast to also win a Pulitzer Prize). Then I work and I usually hop on different playlists between jobs. The homecoming cycle will again be music, everything I had on heavy rotation that week. Then the evening will be devoted to some TV shows and before going to sleep, back to Lyric FM.
LBB > Do you have a music/sound collection and what form does it take (are you a die-hard vinyl fan, do you have hard drives full of random bird sounds, are you a hyper-curated spotify-er …)?
Liam > I have a diverse collection of lots of different music and sounds. At work, they are all perfectly cataloged. This is NOT the case at home. I can easily find my way through my personal SFX library, but I challenge anyone to do the same. I have a medium-sized vinyl collection of mostly folk and rock from the 60s and 70s, and an extensive collection of CDs from my childhood (lots of hard rock and metal). I also have 27 Spotify playlists of different genres and tone settings.
LBB> Outside of the world of music and sound, what kind of art or topics are you really passionate about and have you ever connected to music (eg history buffs who love music that can help you travel back in time, gamers who love interactive sound design…I mean it really could be anything!!)
Liam> I am passionate about many art forms. I’m an avid reader, casual gamer, and love contemporary art. I am also a great cinephile (my training being in film theory).
I think all of this can be related to the work in a way. People all over the world are creating art in all mediums that is so amazing it just makes you want to do better and be better. To do the best job possible within the perimeters you have.
LBB> Let’s talk about travel! It’s often cited as one of the most creative and inspiring things you can do – I’d love to know what are the most exciting or inspiring experiences you’ve had with sound and music on your travels?
Liam> What is it? It’s been so long since I forgot what it is! Just messing around. One event that will always stick with me is being in Spain as a kid and seeing a flamenco guitarist play amazing, I mean absolutely shred it. But he was making a weird mistake and you could see him flinch at those times, but he was still killing him. On the contrary, these unforeseen moments added to the magic of the moment for me. It doesn’t mean that I want to make mistakes in my work, but it is a good demonstration that there are accidental moments in sound and music where the real magic is hidden.
LBB> As we age, our ears change physically and our tastes change too, and life changes mean we don’t engage in our passions with the same intensity as in our youth – how your relationship with sound and music has- Has it changed over the years?
Liam > Probably the biggest change was my passion for sound art in commercials. I fell into the industry. I have always loved music and film and would have given anything to work in the film industry, but as I progressed in my career I came to terms with the fact that the cinema is my love as an observer, while commercials are what I love as a participant.