The Legend: Classic Interview With Joe Boyd Vigil
Back in 2006, Frederick Awich landed a lengthy interview with Joe Boyd Vigil. It has been rehosted here in its entirety, complete with expanded links and mirrored music files. For the record.
Joe Boyd Vigil – Yo.
Frederick Awich – Shall we get started?
Joe Boyd Vigil – Sure.
Frederick Awich – First question: what does a sound designer do?
Joe Boyd Vigil – A sound designer enhances, adds, or creates sound to a film, video, or live performance. In many cases, to make the sound seem ‘real’, to highlight a visual element which might otherwise be unnoticed, and to beef up diegetic sound. Sorry to use the term ‘beef up’, I am a vegetarian. ‘Tofu up’ just doesn’t have the same connotation.
FA – When did you decide you wanted to become a sound designer?
JBV – I began studying film and video in college. I found that I spent more time and was more interested in the soundtracks for my projects than the visuals. In many of my projects, I would cut to black, or have a scene in the dark to make the audience focus on the sound exclusively. I would say that at the end of my sophomore year of college I was working on sound 80% of the time. In case you were wondering, I studied at Massachusetts College of Art in SIM – Studio for Interrelated Media.
FA – And how does your expertise with sound design factor into your music production?
JBV – Well, my music has always been about shaping or sound designing the character of instruments, whether synthesized or sampled. I think this is an inherent trait of electronic music. There is so much flexibility in terms of synthesis and altering samples after it has been composed/recorded. That said, even before I was working on electronic music, I always appreciated rock bands who would make cool sound design elements on their albums, manipulate their recordings or play their instruments differently, i.e. The Beatles, Sonic Youth. Or the obvious, Pink Floyd. There are so many recording/sound design tricks that can be transparent the first few times you hear a new track but today when I hear an old recording I am impressed by subtleties that I may have missed in the past.
FA – And, what was your first professional experience (that pertained to your career) after college?
JBV – Mixing promos for the Turner Networks at Bair Tracks. Before that I was primarily working on music in my home studio and recording bands.
FA – What was it like, moving from Boston to Atlanta?
JBV – It was cool, I had never really been to the South before then. Atlanta definitely has a different vibe and energy than Boston. However, I love Boston for its culture, size, seasons and variety of neighborhoods. Atlanta is best for shopping and eating. Atlanta was and still is a very rapidly developing city compared to Boston in most respects.
FA – When did the offer come to arrange the background music for Toonami?
JBV – 1997/1998. I had done a few tracks for TNT Promos with Jason DeMarco before he was working for Toonami. He recommended me to ‘The Mad Chiller’, who approached me to work on new music for Toonami’s redesign/relaunch.
FA – That was about the time the original TOM rolled in, right?
JBV Yes. I miss the little chubby Tom. Designed after Sean Akins. :-)
FA – That’s interesting. During your time creating the audible mood for Toonami, were there ever any other artists complementing the block’s sound?
JBV – In the beginning, we were still using some of Tommy Guerrero’s tracks and the few Robotech Promos with operatic scores. Tommy did most of the music form the Moltar era, which is like ancient history now. I remixed a bunch of his tracks too.
FA – Such as Cricket?
JBV – Yes.
FA – And, all of those tracks became Cartoon Network property?
JBV – Tommy’s tracks already were, I believe. The contracts were generally buyouts.
FA – Around 2002, it could be seen that changes were going on around Toonami. One of the most noticeable was that your flow of new tunes was gone. What led up to that change?
JBV – In late 2001, AOL Time Warner was cutting back on creative budgets quite a bit. It was very frustrating for the Toonami producers since they had to reuse old material very often. I moved back to Boston in March 2002, went to Italy for a month then China/Southeast Asia for 4 months.
FA – But, during your time at Bair Tracks (now BT Post), how many separate tracks would you say you composed for Turner/Cartoon Network?
JBV – I’m really not sure. Probably around 100.
FA – After your left from Atlanta, where did you go and what did you do?
JBV – As I noted before, I travelled very extensively, which was necessary after looking at computer screens for 8 hours a day for 5 years! I knew that it was the right time to do it. If I didn’t go, I’d regret it and my motto is ‘No Regrets’. I was Chief Engineer at Soup2Nuts for a while working on O’Grady for Noggin’, various Cartoon Network shorts and a show that I’ll call, ‘That which shall not be named’. And I’ve been working on my new album, Deeper Space.
FA – At Thinking ‘Toon, our main focus is, of course, cartoons. Take us deeper into the sound design experience, and tell us what you did for Time Warp Trio.
JBV – Hehe, I sound designed and mixed ‘That which shall not be named’. The music was done by Terry Thomkins of Eggplant in Toronto. Working on ‘That which cannot be named’ was a very different experience than the Toonami shorts and promos, since it consisted of 26 22 minute episodes with no sound other than the actors who were also recorded in Toronto. I and my apprentice, Jon Day of the rock band Harris, used primarily library sound effects due to time constraints but definitely had some fun creative moments and a few meetings at ‘the office’. O’Grady was much more fun as we had the actors come to the studio and do a lot of improvisation. The sound wasn’t too literal in O’Grady and we had much more freedom.
FA – And, now you’re working on an album. For this kind of work, you have to have powerful equipment. Just what do you use to put all of this together?
JBV – I used to use ProTools almost exclusively. I didn’t even use the MIDI functionality as I always recorded synth parts from my Quasimidi Sirius, Yamaha CS6x, or Korg Karma, then chopped them up and effected them as samples. This certainly gave all of my ProTools tracks a different sound than what I’m working on now. Now, I use Reason, Nuendo and Wavelab on both Macs and PCs. The growth and flexibility of software synths is staggering but hardware synths still have an untouchable sound. It’s kind of like film vs. digital photography in a way, Canon no longer makes film cameras so you can see where this is all heading. I have a relatively modest monitoring setup at home with a couple of Genelec 1029s; I go to a professional studio for final mixes and mastering.
FA – A lot of people are getting into the business of working at home through ISDN. Are you still commuting to the studio or do you have everything you need?
JBV – Only voiceover talent use ISDN regularly. I always compose at home and go into studio if I need to do a final mix.
FA – The last interview I conducted was with a writer. Turns out he never watches the final product. Is it the same with you, or are you acute to what you do?
JBV – I’ve heard that before, I think it’s very common with writers. However, audio is almost always the final step in post production, so I watch everything whether I want to or not. :-) Seriously, I DO watch shows on-air to check out my mixes. Even ‘That which shall not be named’.
FA – I’ve listened to a lot of music… and, I’ve wondered one thing above all else. Are most composers able to play the instruments that we hear in their music?
JBV – I can’t say that I could play every song that I’ve written and this is one of my favorite aspects about electronic music. You can start out with a basic idea and speed it up or slow it down 200% design and arrange over instruments that you could never play. In some cases, instruments that you’ve never seen. Again, this is the very nature of electronic music and playing synthesizers. I think most composers are keyboard players and can’t really be expected to play the violin or oboe whilst altering its sound with two variable effects pedals.
FA – Deep Space Bass was your first venture into the marketplace. What went behind producing that album, and who got to choose the tracks?
JBV – Sean and Jason always wanted to do a Toonami album. They were the force behind getting it made. They had specific tracks that they wanted on there and I chose the rest. At the last minute after the covers were already printed Sean decided that he didn’t want ‘Darknight’ on there, since it was another down-tempo track and it had a little too much cat on the piano. We replaced it with the earsplitting [‘Hyperspace’] but couldn’t change the covers.
FA – Of course, Corey told you about the second album that never was released. It was my assumption that you had six tracks on there, but you say three (as does every other source). Either you had a fair share of imitators or I was wrong… did you compose tracks such as ‘Transmission’?
JBV – I’m pretty sure that I only had 3 tracks on the BHMM. I can’t recall if I wrote a track called ‘Transmission’ but I don’t think so.
FA – Your motto is ‘No Regrets’. To this day, have you regretted any of your actions?
JBV – I think I may regret answering this question. My second motto is ‘no comments.’ Professionally, my only regret is not thanking the people who helped me and appreciated my work as much as I should have. I’m pretty low key most of the time.
FA – Were you paid a salary or on a project-by-project basis while working with Bair Tracks? And, just how much was/is your work worth monetarily?
JBV – Both. I was paid a salary for my sound design and mixing work. Music contracts were negotiated separately with a percentage going to Bair. It is hard to say definitively what a JBV track is worth as each contract and budget is different and lengths of tracks are different. To give you an idea, it can run the range from $500 to $5000 per track. In the film business the disparity is even greater.
FA – Your wife is a meteorologist, if I recall correctly. That got me thinking, how does this life in the media work out for (the both of) you?
JBV – It’s good. We both enjoy what we do, yet try to maintain a media blackout from the bad aspects of television. I tend to watch more films. Speaking of which, everyone needs to see the documentary The Corporation about corporate corruption and malfeasance. Brilliant, saw it on Sundance Channel.
FA – We touched on this earlier, but you didn’t quite know what to make of it. I suppose I didn’t articulate well enough. Does any of this sound familiar? (All the way down are some Toonami MP3s in a .ZIP file.)
JBV – WOW, do you think they could have encoded those in a lower bit rate! They sound very poor compared to the originals and I thought 128kbs was bad. Anyway, I didn’t do the PC songs such as ‘Transmission’. Not sure who did.
FA – For your upcoming album, Deeper Space, do you have anyone working with you on it, or is it a solo effort?
JBV – It is a solo effort. Greedo asked to help but I fired first.
FA – And, what’s it like for an independent artist in the industry?
JBV – It is better than ever today for electronic musicians. Recording technology is affordable and anyone can release an album on iTunes or manufacture good quality CDs without major label support. However, mastering is still an art that most musicians still don’t really understand and require professional help. I require ‘professional help’ but not so much with mastering.
FA – Toonami’s music was often a mix of :15, :30, :45, 1:00, and lengthier tracks. Some tracks even went upwards of five minutes. Was there a certain point at which you would stop, or was there a certain standard that could be surpassed?
JBV – Generally Toonami was under a deadline to get new tracks for promos etc. I usually gave them just enough to fit in the promo lengths that you mentioned. If they requested or I really liked the track and had extra time, I would expand on them.
FA – In your career, do you consider yourself as having any ‘major accomplishments’?
JBV – The term ‘starving artist’ exists for a reason and I know of many struggling musicians without the technical skills to support themselves. I consider any instance of making a living doing what I love to be a major accomplishment. My work with Toonami is obviously one of those.
FA – Toonami is still running, to this day. Do you still support the brand, or have you moved on?
JBV – I haven’t worked with them since I disappeared. I’m not really a fan of the shows that Toonami is running these days. I preferred the Gundam series’, Batman and Outlaw Star. Also, the one day a week Saturday schedule is inferior to the weekday 3 to 5 block, which I think was ideal. Come on, what are kids to do?! Play outside during the day?!
FA – You made the general sound for Toonami, as well as composing the original soundtrack. What does it take for all of these sounds and visuals to come together so cohesively?
JBV – A keen sense of timing and sync and good AVID editors who have the skill to re-cut project revisions without altering the overall timing considerably.
FA – At the end of the day, what keeps you moving? A cup of coffee, or…
JBV – My wife and daughter, I’m always moving to spend more time with them. And dark chocolate.
FA – It’s 5:00 (or whenever). Time to get off of work. What do you do?
JBV – Usually I have a few ninja who I hire to surprise attack me on the way out, to keep me on my toes. Then I leave. I enjoy seeing live music but haven’t had many opportunities lately.
FA – It’s the commute back home. What are you listening to? And, why?
JBV – Chicago Underground Trio, a Joe Frank episode or Telefon Tel Aviv and the like. I need something distracting, relaxing and yet more involved than just background, especially when I work on repetitive projects.
FA – You’ve been one to move around. How many home studios have you had to construct?
JBV – Only 2 or 3. I never build anything too elaborate at home.
FA – Judging by your works, you’re one versatile artist. How often do you have to change up styles to give the client what he/she/they want(s)?
JBV – As often as they ask, but I think the record for revisions is 7, which isn’t bad. I think you’ll experience a little more focused JBV on Deeper Space.
FA – After your album is released, what plans do you have?
JBV – I have about 20 tracks that aren’t going on the album for one reason or another. Some of which I really like but just didn’t fit with the rest. I will probably repurpose those for a new album and possibly collaborate with other artists.
FA – And, all this time, I thought the name of that track was actually ‘Dark Knight’. “We replaced it with the earsplitting hyperspace theme but couldn’t change the covers.” What was the name of that theme?
JBV – ‘Hyperspace’.
FA – A lot of the songs that made it onto Deep Space Bass could be found in shorter form on the Internet… to this day, I find it quite odd that tracks like ‘Classic,’ which I felt defined Toonami, didn’t make it onto the album. No qualms here, but was that a coincidence?
JBV – Of course we wanted to use ‘Classic’. The original master tapes of ‘Classic’ were damaged and I couldn’t reload the split tracks. I think the string sample came from Zbignew Preisner’s soundtracks for one of the late Krzysztof Kieslowski’s films.
FA – Many artists have compilations of their own tracks that fans would die to have. Has there ever been a point where you burned your tracks and played them on your way to work?
JBV – I listen to tracks on the way to work occasionally to get ideas outside of a studio setting and to write new parts for them. There are many tracks floating around or lost to decaying ones and zeros which will never be heard.
FA – Loud music today is the norm. Just how loud does your music have to be for you to be able to feel it?
JBV – I usually compose at 40 to 60 dB but when I am mixing a pre-master or really proofing a track I prefer around 80 dB. To really feel it, I usually kick it in my tricked out Corolla.
FA – And, if you could choose one project that you feel personifies you the most, what would it be?
JBV – I can’t really say. All of my music personifies me in some way, whether it is serious or has a sense of humor, darkness or light. I guess I just defined myself as abstract there.
FA – Working in the realm of animation, how much of the actual process do you get to see, and how much of it intrigues you?
JBV – I’ve seen it all. It is really fascinating and the technology is ever-changing just as it is in the audio world. I really appreciate good illustrators like my friend, Amanda Clarke. I went to art school and can’t draw myself out of a diaper bag.
FA – I always liked your kind of music, mainly for the unique sound, but also because it was almost never adorned with vocals. How do you feel about the concept of someone singing (whispering, rapping, or shouting) over something you’ve composed?
JBV – Certainly, I have worked with vocalists in the past and will in the future. I enjoy albums of any genre that feature a balance of instrumental AND vocal tracks on the same album. Tom Verlaine of the band Television recently released an instrumental album simultaneously with a vocal one. Nice.
FA – Most of your works are original, but you’ve taken a sample here and there (mostly with the Gundam franchise). What’s it like arranging from a sample?
JBV – It can be challenging if the theme of the score that a client wants doesn’t have a constant rhythm or doesn’t really lend itself to sampling, like not being full enough or not having enough of the source material. The Gundam sampled tracks are definitely some of my favorites since I don’t have my own personal orchestra.
FA – For Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series, you created original sounds based on the series’ moods. How was that?
JBV – Batman was enjoyable and relatively easy since I have the mood of a troubled vigilante super-hero. Superman was tougher to work with since he is such a goody two shoes. I’m closer to Bizzaro Superman… still patroling the moon. Seriously, Superman’s score is one of those instances where the samples just don’t fit well with my style of music.
FA – Speaking of moods, I recalled that you also created mixes for The Flintstones [as heard here] (a personal favorite) and The Powerpuff Girls. What comes to the mind when working with properties like these?
JBV – The Flintstones and the other classic HB tracks that I remixed for Cartoon Network/Boomerang launch could more accurately be called deconstructions. For those tracks retaining the signature sound of classic HB was my primary concern and the direction given by Michael Ouweleen and others. I pulled regions of the tracks that were elements that I liked and were the most loopable. Then I used effects and mix tricks rather than adding new instrumentation to create a ‘modern’ feel. The Powerpuff Girls remix for Toonami was nothing like the original except for the drum loop. They didn’t really want anything too much like the original since airing PPG on Toonami was kind of an experiment and Toonami almost always wanted to differentiate itself from the rest of the network, ’cause Tom takes over. BOOOOOM!
FA – For the video game promotions Toonami would occasionally have (around 1999, 2000), you would design a track to fit in the backdrop. Properties such as Ape Escape and Crash Bandicoot were summarized in tracks called ‘Ape Escape’ and ‘Crashgroove’. What was the process there? Did you have prior knowledge of these games, or did you do some research?
JBV – Sponsorships on Toonami, or any network for that matter, usually have their own separate budgets which are wise to capitalize on as much as possible. This includes making new soundtracks for the sponsor. For the ones you mentioned or ones that I have composed for other clients, I usually would receive advance notice to compose before the video edit. As with most Toonami work they would give me a general direction or mood they wanted for the track and I just did my own thing. I believe the Bandai Gundam tracks were the only ones that Bandai cut their own spots to as well.
FA – With Deep Space Bass, you remixed tracks that you had composed… about one or two years prior. Of course, you’re not trying to lose the sound of the original, but some of them come off as having a different sound. Most specifically ‘Arabic’, but also tracks such as ‘Puff n’ Bass’, which lost a few subtleties in the background. Can we attribute this to creative freedom, or the lack of certain sound bytes?
JBV – Creative freedom mostly. I wrote the very first version of ‘Arabic’ as a hip-hop track a year before I even worked at Bair Tracks, so it definitely changed over time and application.
FA – You’ve given us a more focused JBV with Deeper Space. As I can see, you’ve taken the spotlight away from the snares somewhat and given us a ‘spacier’ mood.
JBV – For Toonami the focus was definitely on the drums. Deeper Space is certainly more ambient and textural though it’s still pretty obvious that the tracks are coming from JBV space. Also, the two tracks on MySpace aren’t necessarily representative of the entire album. There are a few tracks that are definitely more drum heavy, I think I used to mix the drums a bit too hot anyway since I started as a drummer. I still was nowhere near the level of DJ Crush who mixed the drums so loud on his first releases that they were unbearable to the point of ruining the tracks. On his subsequent compilations when he rereleased the tracks, he remixed them and they are some of the best of the genre.
FA – When creating a new tune, where does the inspiration start? And, how similar does your first (mental) envisioning of a new track sound to the final product (if it at all starts that way)?
JBV – Whoa, now you’re getting personal! I usually get inspiration from G.I. Joe issue 52. This is the issue when Storm Shadow reveals how he avoided death by using the sleeping phoenix trance. Like many artists, I often come up with ideas while in a trance. (i.e. while driving, on the train or working on something repetitive, like making cables) Sometimes I record a message to myself in my phone so I don’t forget. Later when I’m in the studio I’ll flesh the skeleton idea out. In fact I considered naming my new album Fleshy Skeleton, but I decided to reserve that for my death metal project, The Elimination of SLORC. Anyway, my initial idea is usually still very present in a final mix with a few exceptions where I completely twist it around soft pretzel style.
FA – I suppose I should wrap up this interview by thanking you for participating.
JBV – Thank you! Feel free to contact me with other questions. I will keep you updated with release dates and news of upcoming projects. Peace. http://joeboydvigil.com
Grab all the MP3s mentioned in this article here, including the now-removed tracks from the Cartoon Network site. It’s a great treasure trove, best served along with Robert Guzman’s Rare, Restored, Recut album and the Black Hole Megamix.
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