Thinking in Sound: ‘No Egos, No Elbows’ with Diederik van Middelkoop
Executive creative director at Amp.Amsterdam // The Sonic Branding Company on the changing role of music and sound and how brands can stand out in the clutter
When you’re working on a new brief or project, what’s your typical starting point? How do you break it down and how do you like to generate your ideas or response?
I generally like to do a lot of research with the team. This means translating and ideating everything that the brief could possibly mean, but also drawing a wider creative circle around it. Serendipity can be a great factor, too. You need an open mind. If we have footage to work with, we can usually start focusing faster, because the chemistry with the visuals is either there, or it isn’t. At the same time, and as much as we ask clients to involve us as early as possible – for numerous reasons, planning being only one – all our ideas may very well go overboard the second we lay our eyes and ears on a first edit. And then: more research. If all else fails, last-minute-brilliance-under-extreme-pressure has been known to work well, too.
Music and sound are in some ways the most collaborative and interactive forms of creativity – what are your thoughts on this? Do you prefer to work solo or with a gang – and what are some of your most memorable professional collaborations?
One of the main pillars at Amp.Amsterdam // The Sonic Branding Company as a company is ‘no egos, no elbows’, and I continuously ask the team to ‘leave your ego at the door’. Collaboration is key to creative excellence. Sure, as a composer or engineer (or creative in general), you may need time to focus clearly on a piece or a mix. Still, our collective knowledge and creative power far exceed any individual. For example, we worked together with Niña Dios – a young rapper in Mexico City – on a Sol brief. Our team was spread out over three time zones, and different cultural backgrounds working closely together, and the result was amazing. Especially for a brief on a specific (or exotic) music culture, it is all the more important to make sure that the team is represented by the best possible collective.
What’s the most satisfying part of your job and why?
The early part of the creative process is always the most satisfying to me, personally. I love the electricity of original ideas, the early sketches, and the rough demos. Perfection is obviously what we strive for with every project, and we want to see happy and ecstatic clients. But I enjoy the creation of raw ideas the most. Having said that, I generally hate surprises, and maybe the most satisfying moment is when a final result truly exceeds my expectations – and I find myself pleasantly surprised.
As the advertising industry changes, how do you think the role of music and sound is changing with it?
Today we are working more closely with brand clients than ever before, and that is no surprise if you consider some of the issues many brands face: Music seems available everywhere, and content abounds, but how can a brand stand out in the clutter? Brands also demand transparency, authenticity, efficacy, cost-effectiveness, and strategic use of their assets.
This means we must work closely with the brand teams, to understand them well. The ‘old’ model, in which the traditional creative agency would fully direct our briefs, has been replaced by a new way of working, whereby creative agencies act more as our partners and allies, in creating the brand vision, and the music strategies that go with it. Partnerships seem to be something of a new rule, which we applaud. It appears as a logical result of the changing dynamics between clients and their agencies.
At the same time, music – in all forms – is more democratically produced and made available than ever before. The influence of a platform like TikTok on global music consumption is omnipresent. It redefines how an entire generation enjoys music, and how music and visuals are being produced and consumed. As music specialists, we are called upon to guide clients, and help them find their way in that dynamic.
Who are your musical or audio heroes and why?
I have too many, but if I had to pick one, it would be Prince. A unique combination of spectacular musical talents. To this day, many artists still stand on the shoulders of his legacy and influence.
But picking any artist seems too limiting for a diverse and colourful art form. I have always loved all kinds of music, especially if I can sense its fundamental origin. The only music I hate is formulaic – music that is a robotic copycatting of beats and notes, the non-original regurgitating of something that may have been something wonderful when it originated. It’s lazy and redundant. Sadly, that noise is all around us, too.
And when it comes to your particular field, whether sound design or composing, are there any particular ideas or pioneers that you go back to frequently or who really influence your thinking about the work you do?
I have always been a huge fan of Ludwig Goransson. He is a truly original musical mind, and he dares to go where others won’t or cannot. Also a phenomenal multi-instrumentalist, and a true master of multiple genres, which is very, very rare. At the same time, he is a quiet and humble character, who can very well see past his own ego, including the talents of others, and form amazing collaborations. When you can produce a hit record with Childish Gambino, while creating an Oscar-winning score for Black Panther – that is something else. He is in a league of his own.
When you’re working on something that isn’t directly sound design or music (lets say going through client briefs or answering emails) – are you the sort of person who needs music and noise in the background or is that completely distracting to you? What are your thoughts on ‘background’ sound and music as you work?
I cannot work with background music. I start listening intently, and that obviously distracts me. I am also the only person I know who rarely plays music while driving. I like the sounds of the world around me as they are. Maybe it’s because it has been my job for so long to add music to a certain form of (artistic) reality, that I like real life to be without a soundtrack.
I guess the quality of the listening experience and the context that audiences listen to music/sound in has changed over the years. There’s the switch from analogue to digital and now we seem to be divided between bad-ass surround-sound immersive experiences and on-the-go, low quality sound (often the audio is competing with a million other distractions) – how does that factor into how you approach your work?
I am blessed to have an environment where our top team of engineers and producers can enjoy working in five state-of-the-art sound studios. No matter how ‘polluted’ the world of sound can be in general, our conditions are pristine. Our approach will always be the same: work for the best possible quality and create the best audio quality available, no matter the circumstances or designated platforms. I do enjoy some of the immersive initiatives that are out there, and it is worth noting that the healing powers of music and sound in immersive environments are significant – there is extensive scientific research to prove it. And when it comes to retail environments, for instance, I believe there is a lot more that brands can do to make the customer experience more enjoyable, more exclusive, and ultimately more profitable.
On a typical day, what does your ‘listening diet’ look like?
Most of what I hear will be work-related, i.e., music and mixes that we are researching, producing, or mixing. But that research can send me down a musical rabbit hole too, sometimes. I can happily get lost for a while, just like anyone else.
Do you have a collection of music/sounds and what shape does it take (are you a vinyl nerd, do you have hard drives full of random bird sounds, are you a hyper-organised spotify-er…)?
I have my playlists fairly organized, but my musical taste can take me anywhere, really. I have never been a vinyl nerd, but maybe I have been reserving that for when I’m really old – I do like the idea of being a vinyl nerd. Who knows if I will ever make the actual time for it.
Outside of the music and sound world, what sort of art or topics really excite you and do you ever relate that back to music (e.g. history buffs who love music that can help you travel through time, gamers who love interactive sound design… I mean it really could be anything!!)
I love to read, especially letters and biographies. The Letters of Note collections – by Shaun Usher – are brilliant. I was so happy to discover them, ages ago. But any art form can be compelling to me, honestly. We can never really understand art, which is why it is so personal, beautiful, and liberating.
Let’s talk travel! It’s often cited as one of the most creatively inspiring things you can do – I’d love to know what are the most exciting or inspiring experiences you’ve had when it comes to sound and music on your travels?
My favorite sound in the world is the sound of crashing waves on a pebble beach – the low bassy thunder of the wave crashing, the mid-range frequencies as the water disperses, and then finally, the high-frequency sound of all the tiny rolling pebbles as the water recedes again. I have been to Greece, many times. Thinking about waves, I once sat for hours on a rock below the LightHouse at Byron Bay (Australia), listening to waves crashing between the massive rock formations. And in The Netherlands, my favorite area is in the dunes or on one of the Northern islands, where I can hear the sea in the background. Okay, I guess it’s the sound of the ocean, wherever I am. I probably should not be in a landlocked place for too long.
As we age, our ears change physically and our tastes evolve too, and life changes mean we don’t get to engage in our passions in the same intensity as in our youth – how has your relationship with sound and music changed over the years?
I have just gotten ‘quieter’, I suppose. Although I have never really been a fan of huge crowds and big concerts. If we need to produce a banger of a dance track for a client, I can be happily and professionally involved in ‘the work’, and totally dig into it. But ultimately, enjoying sound and music for me is something very private, very intimate, and deeply personal.
Diederik van Middelkoop
Executive Creative Director & PartnerContact Diederik