Making my own way is in my DNA. I grew up in the rural midwest on a working farm, where my father had a second business inventing and fabricating agricultural equipment. We often talked about the power of being able to conceptualize something as an engineer, and realize it as a machinist. I think this has been a guiding philosophy in my work as a sound designer, technologist, studio builder and entrepreneur.
I started out professionally in theater, doing sound design and live sound, and then went to graduate school at CalArts in the mid 2000s with the goal of transitioning to working in film. There, I developed my thinking and approach to working with sound as a design discipline, idea driven and collaborative, but also focusing on the technical side of audio post production. For example, learning acoustic tuning in Smaart and programming BSS systems. Following graduate school, several of my projects with classmates landed at Sundance and SXSW, through which I started to build an extended network of collaborators. In that period, Pro Tools V.9 and V.10 were released, which made working independently with feature film-sized projects on a moderately-priced system possible. The final piece was finding a house in the Valley with a converted garage studio in 2009, which I built out with a small 5.1 mix room and an ADR/Foley studio.
This first iteration of my company, This is Sound Design, grew as a natural response to opportunities I had through my creative relationships, and to what was possible with the emerging technology at that time. I think if it had been a few years earlier, I would have landed at one of the established studios.
The name of my company, This is Sound Design, speaks to a space in the sound post industry we are working to define. The technological innovation in post production, specifically in sound, has been amazing over the last few decades, but I feel that the post process hasn’t fully evolved to embrace it. Sound post has a long history of being considered a technical service rather than a creative discipline, which I elaborated on in a recent article. Don’t get me wrong, the practitioners of sound in our industry are incredibly creative people, but the way we think about and structure the work hasn’t embraced the potential of the software-based, digital post environment to reshape how we create and collaborate in the process. The name ‘This is Sound Design’ embodies a rethinking of sound in post production that questions the structures that are a holdover of a more industrial process that was defined in the analog era.
At This is Sound Design, we are fundamentally approaching sound post as a design process that is conceptually driven and executed from start to finish by a sound designer (a leader/practitioner role similar to that of the production designer and costume designer), integrating sound editorial and mixing. As the sound designer, I am working directly with my team through the sound-editing process, leading them creatively as both a sound editor and re-recording mixer, while also embracing a deeper collaboration with picture editorial and music. Within this process, we divide up the sound edit in the traditional way: dialogue, FX, Foley, etc., but with an “always-be-mixing” approach (credit to Wylie Stateman for naming this concept). This means that everyone on the sound team is leveling and sonically shaping their edits as they work, which is both more efficient and gives each team member more agency in the process.
Consequently, the transition from sound editing to mixing is more collaborative and fluid. This is due in part to the nearly unlimited track counts and live processing power that is now possible in Pro Tools, eliminating the need to premix down to stems. We can maintain total editorial flexibility and allow generative aspects of the design to remain dynamic rather than locked or rendered prior to the mix. When we reach the final mix, whether I am mixing on my own or with one of my team members, we already have an intimate understanding of the sound in the film, and what we need to do in the mix to fully realize it’s creative potential.
This sound design process is a natural and practical approach to the sound in most independent and mid-budget films, and can scale up to larger projects with a bit of planning. In short, this means a big studio, big budget sound post result is accessible to every production with a much smaller sound team, made possible through deeper collaboration and leveraging technology to its full potential.
This is Sound Design’s growth has been organic, a response to the needs and scale of projects the producers and directors we collaborate with are making, continuously reinvesting in our capacity and infrastructure. In 2014, we moved into a six-room facility with a mix stage in Universal City, CA, and also purchased one of the first Avid S6 mixing consoles in North America. Through the next few years, I expanded my team with other sound designers who embraced our creative/technical ethos.
By 2018, it was clear we were physically outgrowing our Universal facility, and started the process of building out our new multi-stage location in Burbank, which, due to COVID delays, was completed in 2021. The new Burbank studios were built into a completely open, standalone warehouse space, so I had total freedom in how I designed the physical, mechanical and technical footprint.
For the studio design, I drew on my decade of experience in other studios, but also looked forward, responding to trends in presentation and fully embracing the “always-be-mixing” approach with three stages: small, medium and large, which give us the ability to finish projects for every context — streaming, home theater and theatrical. Having three mix stages always available is having an amazing influence on how we hybridize sound editing and mixing as a holistic design process, specifically in how we are approaching immersive audio with Dolby Atmos. Having solved our capacity issues for the foreseeable future, we are turning our attention toward our process: integrating immersive audio into our editorial workflow from day one, developing new approaches to recording that allow us to capture sync Foley recordings outdoors and sound effects on-set during production, and bringing cinematic sound design to podcasts and interactive media.
Mentorship will be key to our future growth as a company and as leaders in the post production community, so we are developing an internship/training program that will foster future sound designers who can thrive at TiSD. I'm excited for This is Sound Design to continue our mission of reimagining and reinvigorating sound post in the coming years.
My professional experiences over the past decade have been vital in shaping my sound design philosophy, and I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to work with an incredible group of filmmakers and artists across a remarkably-diverse set of projects. A signature film from early in my career, the Sundance indie favorite It Felt Like Love, continues to inspire young filmmakers with its subjective sound design. One of TiSD’s recent films, The Voyeurs (Amazon), is an homage to the classic films Rear Window and The Conversation, and I love how we were able to pay tribute to those classics through the narrative aspects of the sound design, while also using evolving ambience to create an emotional arc through the film. Our work on several Screenlife movies with Timor Bekmambetov’s company, Bazelevs, such as: Searching (Sony), Profile (Focus) and the upcoming War of the Worlds (Universal), explores the immersive potentials of POV through a screen within a screen in an innovative way.
Another recent release, Violet (Relativity), similarly challenges the conventions of the voice in cinematic space. Our work on two upcoming biopic films, Sound of Freedom and Cabrini, are great examples of how our holistic sound design approach can bring remarkable quality, scale and detail to a film. Our sound design for Cabrini will embrace an immersive approach to the sonic world that I have not seen outside of the sci-fi genre. Also, check out our fiction podcast projects with Dick Wolf and Endeavor Content: Dark Woods and Hunted.
I’m very proud of our success and growth at TiSD thus far, but starting my own business presented many challenges along the way. Like most creative professionals, I learned how to run a business by trial and error. The struggle to get to this point was so often about reacting to the challenge of the moment, rather than part of any grand plan or strategic decision. That trial and error process grows its own special kind of resilience that is essential to persevere through uncertain times as a business owner, but has also made me a stronger designer and creative collaborator, giving me the confidence to embrace new ideas and challenge the status quo of how we create.
Equally essential was learning to use QuickBooks to track our finances, so I could continue to invest our capital in new technology on a quarterly basis. As the sole owner in TiSD, I had to bootstrap the business for many years. Once we had consistent year-over-year revenue, utilizing SBA financing was key. There are some great advisors to help with the SBA funding process. We worked with Keith Rodgers at the Los Angeles Regional Small Business Development Center (SBDC).
I’ve always believed deeply in the work that we do telling stories, and I have such an innate passion for how sound is this magical, alchemic part of transforming images projected or played on a screen into these profound experiences we have together. That belief in our work, in the collaborations I have making movies, also fuels a fearless belief in my business because it means I own the way we continue to tell these stories, and have a direct and tangible path to evolve and improve it year after year. If you can experience your business as an extension of the love you have for this work, that will help you through those tough moments which will inevitably come.
My early experiences showed me the power of collaboration and technology to reshape any creative endeavor in a positive and profound way. By understanding the fundamentals and history of our processes in sound post, it was obvious that the technology was opening up new potentials for how we work.
Digital tools can be reshaped and adapted to the creative needs of each project and to our own unique sensibilities and instincts. But it takes a deep knowledge to find your own way. You must understand, on a conceptual and technical level, the foundations of the work. For me, that was thousands of hours studying acoustics, drafting, networking, building mix templates, designing and programming sound systems, all while simultaneously creating and mixing the sound for films with hundreds of collaborators over the years. Those parallel technical and creative journeys informed and influenced each other, and ultimately led me to where I am today.
I believe that’s the future of our business, as technology and creativity speak to each other. I’m excited to see how this shapes all our work in the coming years, as we find our own way to tell these stories as individual creators and with our collaborators.
Nathan Ruyle is the Founder/Supervising Sound Designer/Re-recording Mixer of This is Sound Design (https://tisd.tv) in Burbank, CA.