Teacher, sound designer, and audio engineer
By Dustin Driver
Sound is everywhere. And it's Mark Vogelsang's job to find it. "On the first day of my class, I produce a list of possible jobs in the audio industry," he says. "Then I ask all my students to do their own research and come up with even more. Audio engineering is everywhere—it's a growing field and the possibilities are almost endless. It's an exciting time to get into the field."
Vogelsang teaches Sound Design at OIART, a course that explores the diverse applications for sound and music, from movies to video games to theater. It's a course that intrigues and inspires, one that encourages students to find new ways to apply their fresh technical and theoretical skills in the audio industry. "I attempt to encourage my students to invent their own jobs in the industry, to use what they've learned to create new sounds we have never heard before."
It's a perfect course for Vogelsang, a long-time sound designer and engineer for film, television, and the record industry. As a member of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians (NABET) unions, he's worked on blockbusters, documentaries, TV shows, and theater productions for nearly a decade. He's also an OIART grad and a lifelong audiophile. But that doesn't mean he's obsessed with million-dollar home stereo equipment. It means he's obsessed with sound.
Learning to Listen
"I grew up in a very remote town and didn't have access to music lessons," he says. "But my dad was a percussionist and he and his friends always had instruments lying around. I taught myself how to play drums, then classical guitar. Shortly after, I truly began to take interest in sound design, though I didn't know that's what it was called at the time."
Sound design back then comprised a VCR, an old Zenith TV, a tape deck, and some microphones. "For a long time I couldn't afford a TV, but I had a VCR. In turn, I would just listen to films a lot," he says. "Eventually I had access to a TV and started creating my own soundscapes. I had two VCRs. I would take a random scene from a film and record it into another VCR, but I wouldn't include the audio. Then, in real time, I would record Foley, or music or anything related to audio, while watching it. I would attempt to find out how to change the visceral component of the scene with sound. How can I make this sound ironic? If it was a chase scene, I'd play really slow orchestration to it."
The budding sound engineer wrote and produced his own scenes and small radio plays using the basic equipment, testing them out on his friends and family. "They might have thought I was crazy, but I wanted to see how they would react to what I created with the scene," he says. "It was the best way for me to learn how the sound affected various demographics."
That wasn't the only way Vogelsang gauged reactions. He was also a wallflower, but not in the traditional sense of the word. "When I was a wallflower growing up, I was watching what people reacted to, in terms of sound," he says. "If a soundscape changed during a party or large gathering, I would make a mental note of who reacted to what, what would make people fall in love, what would cause people to become affectionate, what would make them angry, or what people hated."
Vogelsang knew he wanted to work in the sound industry, but living in a remote location outside of Saskatoon was extremely limiting. He had zero access to professional studios and limited access to musicians. Eventually he realized that he would need an education if he wanted to get into the business. He found OIART through an uncle and knew right away he needed to sign up.
He joined OIART in 1998. "It was a very magical time for me," he says. "You're under the same roof with people from Istanbul, Japan, the United States, Luxembourg, from all over the world. And you laugh at each other on your first day of school because you all did the same silly things with tape decks and VCRs and TVs growing up."
Vogelsang's education at OIART was thorough, and key to his later success. "I really had to start from square one, learning new equipment, and how to produce not only what I had in my head, but how to produce sounds that someone else had in their head," he says. "It's a different kind of verbal communication with a vocabulary of its own. By Christmas, we were all speaking a different language when we went home to our families."
Working the Industry
Two days after graduating, Vogelsang headed to Toronto to volunteer with an independent film company. He used his newfound knowledge and skills to polish up the production's sound and make friends in the industry. He went to union meetings, eventually joined up, and before long got his big break. The head of the local union hooked Vogelsang up with an award-winning engineer in Toronto. "I had all these resumes together, and really wanted to impress this engineer," he says. "I went on set, handed him my resume, and he threw it on the ground. He then says, 'The current sound assistant is leaving for two days. You can fill in for him, but if you do anything wrong, I won't consider you coming back. If you do a good job, I may consider using you again.' I didn't screw up. Two days after the sound assistant returned, he decided it wasn't for him and he quit. The engineer called me and said, 'The job is yours.'"
From then on, Vogelsang grabbed a succession of union gigs. For almost a decade he traveled the globe, working on sound design for everything from films to television shows to albums. Between jobs, Vogelsang returned to OIART as adjunct faculty. In 2007, he joined the staff full time.
"I desperately wanted to teach the Sound Design course," he says. "To me it seemed as though a lot of people didn't understand the potential of sound design. You can design sounds that people have never heard before, as well as creating sounds to influence an audience to experience the entire gamut of emotion. And you can use those skills in everything you do related to sound."
Vogelsang starts with the history of sound in media. "I walk the students through the years. I play films from every decade since the early1900s and we analyze the soundscapes. I use film because it's easy to explain the sound with the visuals," he says.
Then the class dismantles sounds with no visuals. "If we have an explosion that consists of a tree falling married with a kick drum and fire and snapping of twigs, the students should be able to pick all those sounds out independently," he says. "Directors and producers will send you a complex sound like that and say, 'this is what I want it to sound like.' You have to pick apart audio, really listen to the sound, in order to recreate it"
After dissecting sounds, the students use state-of-the-art equipment to make their own. "We get into recording sounds, then manipulating them in all fashions," says Vogelsang. "We're producing sounds that have never been heard before, from a synthetic or natural source. This is where students begin to shine, this is where they really start training themselves to be different from other engineers in the world."
Finally, the students give their new sounds emotion. Using what they've learned from reviewing almost 100 years of film, they craft audio to move an audience. "You can make anything, even a tree, sound angry, you make it sound timid, or you make it sound sad," says Vogelsang. "It's marrying what I call emotional encoding into audio. You tell an audience how to feel, based on what is happening sonically."
Vogelsang encourages students to explore new areas of sound design with their new skills. "It's a very exciting time for OIART grads," he says. "There's a technology explosion. Not only do we have new tools that are accessible to virtually everyone, but we can work for anyone in the world. We're completely connected via the Internet. You can be here in Toronto and work for a producer in Los Angeles, Italy, Turkey, anywhere. If you have the skills and the talent you can work. The possibilities are endless."
Vogelsang grew up with music and sound, but he didn't know he wanted to get into the industry until a fateful attendance at a wedding. "I was invited by my best friend to a wedding in Toronto," he says. "I had only been to Alberta and Saskatchewan, so two days after grade 12 graduation, we took off in his car to explore provinces. It just so happened that his friends uncle worked with Sounds Interchange, one of the largest studios in Canada at the time, doing music, film, and television. He took us on a tour of this massive studio environment. At the end I listened to Pink Floyd's The Wall on one of the studios sound systems. I witnessed sounds in that studio that I never knew existed on that album, even though I had listened to it many times prior. At that point I knew I had to be involved with sound, and that I would do anything to get into it. I came home from that trip and I found OIART."