Creative Lives — Meet sound designer, music producer and composer, Matthew Wilcock
When presented with jaw-dropping visuals in a film, or an ad on TV, you might not think twice about the sound accompanying it. But whether it’s the swelling sound of an orchestra, modern pop or bleeding edge electronic music, while you’re not seeing it, you’re definitely experiencing its effects. No one knows this better than Matthew Wilcock. As one-half of award-winning studio Zelig Sound, Matthew and his team create emotive sound and music for clients like Nike, HBO, Logitech, Squarespace, Microsoft and ManvsMachine. Despite dropping out of a fine art degree to study music, the course he attended actively encouraged him to read Aristotle, and develop the conceptual and critical thinking skills he still uses to this day. We caught up with Matthew to talk about keyboards, making music, and the skills needed to work in sound design.
Composer, Music Producer, Sound Designer
Creative Director, Composer, Sound Designer and Editor, Music Producer, Zelig Sound (2010–present)
Freelance Sound Editor and Designer (2009-2010)
BA Music Technology, The University Of Huddersfield, (2006–2009)
Microsoft, Logitech, Samsung, Sony, Nike, Adidas, Jaguar, Hyundai, Audi, McLaren, BBC, History Channel, BBC, Eurosport, Discover, Nat Geo, HBO, Virgin, Channel, A&E Networks, MTV, 4Music, BAFTA, Guinness, Clarks, Unilever, Wilkinson, McVities, Poulsen, Johnnie Walker
How would you describe what you do?
I produce and compose music and sound design for commercials and films. A typical day will start at 10am and usually finish around 6 or 7pm in Zelig’s main studio near Oxford Street, then I’ll do an hour or so of emails and admin from my set-up at home in the evening (sometimes I’ll work a lot later or start later). I spend around eight hours a day at a MIDI Keyboard and a regular keyboard, and usually work on one to three different projects a day depending on what stage they’re at.
What have been the most exciting projects of the last year?
There have been a few! My friend’s feature film Apostasy because it was so long in the making and has been so well received. It was very stressful, but rewarding to see it doing well. I worked with multi-BAFTA winner Howard Bargroff on it, which was a great learning experience.
We’re currently working with Microsoft, and I went over to Seattle for a while as a part of the project, which was super-exciting – the campus and culture were really interesting. I can’t wait for that one to come out; my experience there was so positive and everyone was really welcoming and engaging.
Currently, the projects we do with ManvsMachine are very satisfying, for brands like Nike (for which we won a D&AD), Logitech and Squarespace. They really invest and engage in the music and sound (everything else too) and really sharpen your focus on the concept and direction. We start really early in the process and do quite a lot of experimenting. People sometimes wonder how the films work so well; it’s because we work so hard on them.
“At uni, they didn’t teach you how to get any work. I didn’t know this job existed until I was in my twenties.”
The History Channel re-brand we worked on with Dixon Baxi was great, and we won a Music+Sound award for it. They’re really engaged in what we do also which is always fun because it challenges you to push them further.
I got to work with Dan Glass, a director who was the VFX Supervisor on The Tree of Life this year (my favourite film). It’s one of the few times I’ve been slightly starstruck on the phone it was also fun to receive a lot of nice feedback on the recent OFFF London titles. It’s been a cool 12 months!
How does your freelance work usually come about?
We will be approached, or we will introduce ourselves to people we admire and want to work with. Usually people are looking for emotive and interesting music, along with high-end sound design.
How collaborative is your work?
It depends on the client. Some directors and creative directors are very collaborative and really invest in what we’re doing, others only chime in if necessary. Only when we’re blind pitching for things (which we don’t often do), do I actually feel like we’re answering a brief as supposed to collaborating or discussing. Internally I oversee pretty much everything we create, and at the very least I mix everything we produce. At the moment there’s a feedback loop internally with works in progress, which ends with me and then the client.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
I have quite a bad work-life balance. Emotionally, it doesn’t always feel like work, which can be deceiving. The least enjoyable includes feeling like I don’t have enough time to do everything I want to do. Admin is also pretty mundane. Accounts and email can be pretty dull (not the content, more the quantity of it). I’m usually too busy or caught up in something else to do backend admin stuff. Al [Co-founder Aleah Morrison-Basu] looks after the accounts lady and accountants before me.
What skills are essential to your job?
Communication, sales and ideas – in various orders. I don’t think you need to be traditionally trained but some musical training helps. I had to do (and still do) a lot of extra learning and practising to keep developing. People rarely come out of uni with all the skills they need – that’s often why they start as runners at bigger post places first. Performers who are highly trained on instruments are usually lacking in production, composing and editing skills, so I would try and get somewhere in the middle of those extremes. The skills needed for music and sound design can require quite separate processes, and sometimes only very specific things will cross over, but because I do quite a bit of both they tend to inform each other.
It has to work as music first, though. With music, it’s a little easier to bring out and subvert different colours and emotions. There’s a huge cultural history of harmony and genre that can pick out decades, places, times, people, countries. Sound design has that too, but it's not inherently as tonal, which means it has slightly less edge.
“People come to us for emotive and interesting music, along with high-end sound design.”
Are you currently working on any side projects?
Yes, many. I produce under the moniker MODEL 86 and I’m working on a music release under my real name too. Making my own music is usually more difficult because there are little or no rules, deadlines, money, or time. But it is all risk and emotion. With commercials, there are rules that you can stick to, subvert and play with, and most of the time a visual to react to which can be fun and really satisfying. Film is somewhere in-between, but it's a different kind of pressure and the stakes are way higher. You have to really know how to read the drama; you have to serve the film but still make really good music at the same time. It's about finding a bridge between the two.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
An fine artist or a singer. I didn’t know this job existed until I was in my twenties.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I went to fine art college and dropped out after six months to study music. I was quite lucky with uni. I had really interesting lecturers and the course material was quite liberal-arts based rather than music theory and tech stuff. The prerequisite reading was Aristotle’s Poetics and a bunch of other wider art and philosophy reading, which I loved. So I developed critical thinking and general conceptual thinking skills while I was there. I also just did loads of wider reading whilst at uni; I almost wrote a book in my first year, I had a lot on my mind! But they didn’t teach you how to get any work (that might have changed now). As I say, didn’t really know my job existed back then.
Matthew and the team working on Apostasy
What were your first jobs?
I freelanced for about three months at a sound company that I wont name, because they were horrible. I got laid off, and then started Zelig with my then-girlfriend, Aleah.
What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
Aleah, my business partner, and my friend Danny for letting me sleep on his floor when I moved to London. But moving to London was the biggest step for me.
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
Not one in particular, but we learned a lot from working with certain companies and projects, which became obvious steps up.
What would you like to do next?
Do higher-end commercials and bigger films. And just music for music.
Could you do this job forever?
No, not sure, but could I do it until I’m an old man? Sure.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
Bigger projects, maybe TV, film or art.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a sound designer?
Figure out what you want to do and just do it. Be nice to people, be good to work with, and make friends.