Having retired his plectrum after a not so serious bout of youthful gigging with his improvised/unprepared rock/pop band, Marian Mentrup struck a sweet note as a sound design student in his hometown of Berlin.
He’s now graduated, migrated and rocking it out full time in his small Hoxton studio; mixing and composing for big projects like his recent ad for Adidas/Stella McCartney.
With a bit of help from musical-sidekick-cum-studio-manager Francesca Colussi, Marian retraces his steps and takes us on his journey so far…
Tell me a bit about your background…
After school I studied communication, acoustics and musicology for just two years, but I decided to go to film school to study sound engineering and sound design in Berlin, where I grew up, and did it for like seven years.
Are you from a musical family?
My parents always liked the idea that their kids would play an instrument because they never could do it themselves. I think I was maybe six when I started in a course to play the glockenspiel! And then it was the recorder and clarinet and piano, then later I learned a bit of guitar.
What music did you listen to in your teens and twenties?
I always liked certain electronic music from the mid-90s, for example The Chemical Brothers, the sound they made in their first three albums - it was psychedelic, very aggressive and fast. And I always liked a lot of pop and rock like Blur, they were one of my favourite bands. And classical music like Beethoven and Wagner.
Can you listen to music without analysing it?
Yeah it depends on my mood. I mean yesterday me and Francesca were sitting in this falafel place and there was a big screen playing techno music, and we were discussing how to make these sounds because I get asked to recreate things all the time, so I'm like 'Oh that needs a bit of reverb or a bit of that,' it gets quite nerdy sometimes!
Do you ever take in other media to help you create output?
I realise the more I work, the less I consume music!
Why did you choose Hoxton as the home for your UK studio?
I don't live far away which is nice so I can walk here. And I knew the area and liked it; all my friends live and work around here - behind that door opposite is a friend of mine who runs a music label, so it's nice to have those types of people around.
Was collaboration important when you started out as a sound designer?
Yes, most of my relationships evolved with people from film school. Before I moved to London, I rented a studio space in Berlin with fourteen other people from my university - most of them were doing animation - and I'm still working with them under the banner of Talking Animals Sound Department.
And before film school I was already in touch with my now partner, Daniel Teige, who is Switzerland. We were doing projects together and decided to run Hammersnail Sonic Research together but remotely, and Francesca joined me here in London last year.
Any tips on good ways to network?
I’ve met a lot of people I work with now from festivals. Next week I am going to the International Festival of Animated Film in Stuttgart and there's also Annecy International Animation Festival in France - but it's a bit bigger and not so personal as they separate the pros from the students.
Aside from animation, what fields of sound design are you interested in?
I tried to do some interactive self-made sound that I could play with in a set up for theatre, but most of it now is film, commercials and installation sounds.
What is installation sound?
We call it audio scenography; you basically make a concept on how to work with sound in a space, and what that sound does to the ambiance, to where people go, where they look, where they interact. If it's an interactive installation, we look at how that sound can get people involved to get some kind of response from the installation. Last year we a very nice project for Hyundai – we made real time sound for a fluidic laser sculpture where the audio had to respond to and interpret the interactions between the visitors and the installation. I used analogue synthesisers which is definitely something I like the sound of especially for this project - it never sounds the same but it always sounds quite warm, it's very full.
Which project are you most proud of?
Last year we had a very nice documentary film called Song From The Forest - I was involved as the sound designer, supervising the sound mixing and editing. It's a film about a man called Louis Sarno who went to Africa to study pygmy music. He met this tribe to record his music, but he decided to stay there and become a member of the tribe and he never came back, not for twenty five years.
Francesca: Then he got married and had a son there, and then basically the story revolved around him wanting to take his son on a trip to New York - somehow they ended up staying at Jim Jarmusch's house. Which also helped to make the film more popular - it won an award in Amsterdam and should screen in cinemas here sometime.
Are your high profile clients your most interesting clients?
No! But recently this Adidas/Stella McCartney project was a really good one, it was with a design agency called Make Thought – we did a bespoke soundtrack for this where they would normally use library music.
And our work with GF Smith, they have been making paper since 1885 and have a product called Colorplan they wanted to do a film on which is not out yet, but actually that was so interesting because it was a typical task documenting a factory but it became some kind of art video installation that was very abstract.
Francesca: Yeah because it's all about the colours and the process of making paper - they have these huge tanks where they grind the paper, then they pour the colours into the pulp and have these massive basins filled with steam.
What sound did you make for that? How much did you manufacture yourself and how much were real sounds you'd recorded?
I went to the factory in the Lake District to record some sounds when he was deciding what to shoot, and then we added lots of sounds and made it more dramatic in a way. It's actually very rough.
Francesca: Remember you wanted to make music made with the sounds of paper in the beginning? But it didn't fit…
Yeah, but there was a film where we did manufacture sound - we took a hammer and just walked around and hit stuff like trash cans and doors. Then we recorded that and made the beat for the start of this film called Never Drive a Car When You're Dead.
Are there are any mainstream films you'd recommend for sound production?
Yes, I really like the way they mixed the sound for The Great Beauty that won a BAFTA - they really selected only the important things and created a magical atmosphere there. Then Apocalypse Now is the one of the sound design classics, so that's what you learn in university when you study sound and it deserves to be there. No Country For Old Men I think it's very good in terms of how it's mixed, how it's balanced.
What's the common denominator of the sounds those films use? What hooks you?
When there is some secret behind the sound - when you don't understand everything and you have to fill the gap of information. A sound that's ambiguous, that's not completely concrete, that creates a void between what you hear and what you think you hear. I don't like music that's too literal, I prefer not to have a clear view because then my imagination starts working in my head. If everything is obvious there is no surprise, experimenting creates a nice feeling in sound.
Do you think sound design is underrated in the industry?
I know that lots of sound engineers complain about the conditions in that they don't get recognised and are frustrated, but that doesn't affect me. It's always a bit like that, especially in films - most the times as an outsider you don't notice that they've even done anything, but that’s actually what I like about it, because it's subliminal you don't even know that it's deciding your responses.
Are there any trends in sound design that are happening at the moment?
You can see that analogue sound came back. Already at the end of the 90s people were a bit annoyed of working with the computer and wanted to have the controllers. So now there are sounds from the 80s like synth music that’s being merged with classical strings and film music, so you have soundtracks like The Social Network. I realised that raw sounds come out of high quality analogue equipment, and that really makes a difference to the depth. Computers would give you the same sound again and again.
Can you tell me what you know about the history of sound design and what you think the future will be?
It's interesting that something so creative came from a very practical and technical task - people in the job back then just needed to know the technology so they had backgrounds like being an electrician.
But now it's getting more and more creative, and probably it will be more people like me doing not just one thing but different elements, because technology has a tendency to merge - before you had to actually go to a certain venue to get certain parts of sounds done but now there is easier access to tools.
However I do think that in music production this democratisation of means is further ahead - kids make amazing beats on their laptop now - but for film sound there are still a lot of conventions you have to learn so it takes a few years to know how things work even if you have all the tools.
What is the future for Marian Mentrup?
At the moment we're working on this black and white football film for the world cup - they had the idea that every country should make a short film and somehow we ended up doing the German one! It's a German short film, for a Mexican client, made in London with my colleagues in Berlin, to show in Brazil! I don't know how they're going to use it but apparently it's going to be on TV which would be a very big thing.