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OTB: Meet the Audio Design Studio Building Worlds Through Sound


EP Alex Berner-Coe tells LBB’s Adam Bennett why sound design is so integral to immersion, and how only great, intentional audio can cut through modernity’s wall of noise

OTB: Meet the Audio Design Studio Building Worlds Through Sound

“Listen - listen more carefully to what is around

you, right now”

Out Of The Mouth of A Thousand Birds, a 14th century poem by Hafiz, was written as an observation on the contemporary world inhabited by the Persian lyricist. However, its central themes - the value of awareness and presence of mind channelled through what we hear - couldn’t be more appropriate to the noisy and chaotic world we share today. In fact, it’s hard to believe that lines such as “your mind is sometimes like a battering ram … shouting so madly inside and out about the ten thousand things that do not matter” were written almost seven centuries ago amidst an entirely different culture to our own. 

The prescient poem is also the inspiration behind One Thousand Birds (abbreviated to OTB), the audio design studio based out of New York, LA, Lisbon, and Bogota. Both directly in terms of its name, but also indirectly in the way it so neatly and proudly professes the power of the audio world. 

“Right off the bat, we want people to know that we’re thinking about things differently”, explains Alex Berner-Coe, executive producer at the studio’s New York branch. “First and foremost, we’re designers of sound - and we think about that work from a world-building perspective”. 

That characterisation of sound design - as an integral part of worldbuilding - is a philosophy which OTB applies across every project their team touches. “The best sound design is invisible, because you should be so engrossed in the world that the sound is not on your mind. It doesn’t pull away your focus, it only enhances the world”, explains Alex. “The crunch of leaves on the ground won’t help you to see that you’re in a forest, but it will help you to feel that you’re in one”. 

Looking through the studio’s past work, it doesn’t take long to see that approach come to life. For example, in one particularly standout campaign Sonos the creative agency Anomaly was set the challenge of creating the ‘world’s most perfect-sounding yule log’ on a fireplace - and they enlisted OTB to help. 

Above: Queer Eye’s Bobby & Karamo sing the praises of a beautiful-sounding yule log in this festive campaign for Sonos.

“It’s become pretty popular during Christmas time, when you’re hanging out at home or even at parties, to put up a visual of a yule log fire on your TV”, says Alex. “Anomaly also ended up putting a video on YouTube of Andrew Tracy, our founder, basically nerding out about sound on his way to bringing this project to life, which was super fun. And honestly, is there any better background noise than a yule log fireplace?!”. 

Elsewhere, the team has been busy adding its auditory expertise to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Having worked on the iconic studio’s Wastelanders series of narrative podcasts, Alex is able to reflect back on another example of world-building through sound. 

Above: The OTB team brought added sonic immersion to the story of Hawkeye in Marvel’s Wastlanders series of narrative podcasts. 

“It’s basically like creating a cinematic film for your ears”,says Alex. “And it being Marvel added an extra layer of enjoyment to it for us, since you’re imagining how these household name characters are behaving and what that sounds like”. 

And, as if to hit home the diverse nature of OTB’s work, New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) enlisted the team to lend their skills to an extraordinarily unique project. “In 2019, the museum underwent an enormous renovation which saw it closed for months”, recalls Alex. “When they reopened it was a huge deal - and they wanted to produce a behind-the-scenes documentary of the renovation and how they preserved all the art, which was absolutely fascinating”.

Above: The sounds of New York’s much-loved Museum of Modern Art were captured by the OTB team in a unique documentary exploring an enormous renovation project in 2019. 

And yet, despite the disparate nature of those three projects, it’s easy to spot that unifying theme: world-building through sound. Whether it be transporting audiences into Marvel’s universe or quietly art fans behind the curtains of one of the world’s top museums, OTB takes their philosophy remarkably seriously. It manifests itself, too, in one of the studio's more idiosyncratic creations: Hii Magazine. 

Saying Hii

In its own words, Hii Magazine - the brainchild of OTB with a remit stretching far beyond the studio’s walls - exists to “promote cultural conversations through the lens of sound”. As Alex explains, it’s an entirely natural project to emerge from within such a self-knowingly curious studio. 

“It’s something which was born out of how we reacted to the pandemic, where we seemed unable to stop ourselves from digging into topics around sound over Slack and Zoom”, says Alex. “We wanted to pursue that, because it felt like there was a richness there. Now, it’s a kind of community for people inspired by audio which has been amazing to watch grow”.

Fittingly, each article written for the magazine is recorded, sound designed, and mixed by OTB for playback online. “Hii magazine is absolutely an audio-first publication”, explains Alex. 

Above: Hii Magazine publishes a biannual print edition, in addition to the articles available online. As Alex explains, “we dig into all kinds of topics via the magazine, including sound, music, culture, politics, and migration”. 

The magazine is just one part of OTB’s wider values in reaching out to the broader sound community - often with surprising results. “Max Alper of la_meme_young hosted an in-person sound critique at our NY studio where people workshopped their sound and music projects together”, notes Alex. “Little did we know at the time, but a future hire for OTB was attending the event that night”.

It’s clear that what guides the Hii Magazine project - as well as OTB more broadly - is a keen and open-minded sense of discovery. This isn’t a studio which is happy to rest on what it knows, or to hit the repeat button. There’s always something new, something ‘next’. 

Perhaps that’s fuelled by the studio’s diversity, something which has been achieved organically and without a specifically-engineered drive. “Every person who works here has been hired for their unique perspective”, says Alex, “and it’s always been our approach to hire based on talent just as much as experience”. 

The result, as Alex testifies, is a uniquely enjoyable studio to work both for and with. “It sounds so cliche, but I genuinely look forward to coming in every day”, she says. “You can’t beat the feeling of going to bed excited for whatever the morning is going to bring”. 

OTB, then, is a studio which has absorbed that central message from Hafiz’s poem. The company’s work, from Sonos to Hii Magazine, is a testament to the power of listening. Amidst the audio-sensorial clutter of 2022 that might be easier said than done, but the results of a moment’s listening can’t be faked - or found anywhere else. 

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Genres: Music & Sound Design

One Thousand Birds, Tue, 22 Nov 2022 10:55:00 GMT