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What is a sound designer? An interview with Merve Tokar

Photo provided by Merve Tokar

I got some pretty great feedback from our podcast episode featuring Gulce Turek, a marketing manager at Fantasy Records. I want to continue putting the spotlight on those who work in the shadows of the music industry so I decided to provide you information about sound design, which is a lesser-known craft often mistaken with the job of composer. While sound designers are responsible for creating and manipulating the various audio elements in a film, television show, or other type of media, a film composer is primarily responsible for creating the original musical score for a project. While there is some overlap between the roles of a sound designer and a film composer, they have distinct areas of focus. The sound designer focuses primarily on the sound effects, dialogue, and other non-musical audio elements, while the composer is primarily focused on the creation of original music. To understand this crucial role I contacted an amazing sound designer.

Meet Merve Tokar, a talented sound designer and musician who has been passionate about music since she was a child. Over the years, Merve Tokar developed a keen ear for sound and music, and later pursued her love of audio by studying sound design in college. With over a decade of experience in the industry, Merve Tokar has worked on a wide range of projects, from performances & studio recording sessions, to podcasting, and sound for films, she always strives to create soundscapes that transport the audience to another world. With her attention to detail, creativity, and technical expertise, she has earned an international reputation as a sound designer.

What is the story behind how your musical career started?

My music life started when I was 9 years old by taking piano lessons. I always wanted to learn violin, so after continuing the piano for a while, I started learning the violin in secondary school. We had a small school orchestra where we performed concerts outside the school and I was in the first violins.

Later, in 2008, I passed the auditions of Istanbul Technical University State Conservatory for High School and this is how my professional violin life began. My violin teacher was the internationally known violinist and conductor Dr. A. Hakan Sensoy. During my time in high school and university, while pursuing my studies with Dr. Sensoy, I also took lessons from internationally known violinist Prof. Dr. A.Cihat Askin. I performed orchestral and solo concerts.

I attended Masterclasses throughout my education life. One of them was Prof. Dr. Askin's masterclass is called "CAKA", and it was held in Dubrovnik, Croatia. Here I had the opportunity to work with Romanian-born Israeli-British violinist Ani Schnarch.

Upon an invitation of the Greek Republic Ministry of Culture and Sports State Conservatory, we attended the SGK-Bridges Festival in Thessaloniki (international music fest) as an orchestra (I was the concertmaster), and later on I got featured in famous Turkish singers music videos (Ece Mumay and Meryem Zengin).

I was a violin instructor at some point, and my students were able to achieve Royal Academy of Music certificates from beginner level to advance, which was a fulfilling and rewarding experience as a musician and as an artist.

I then founded the EVA String Quartet with 3 friends. The idea of forming this group is based on the fact that there was no female string quartet performing both Classical and Turkish music in Turkey. Our mission is to be a source of inspiration in the industry. We performed classical music as well as Turkish Music arrangements. We were featured in a commercial for a company called Banvit.

How did you transition from musician to sound design ?

I was always attracted to the idea of working in the film industry by using my musical skills. I just had no idea where to start, or didn't know if it was too late to start another career. Then one day, we (as Eva Quartet) had a recording session in a studio. I had a chat with the sound engineer about his work, how he started and about sound design. At the end of the day, I felt this strong sense that I should do something about my career if I wanted to move forward to the film-music industry. I couldn’t stop thinking about working in the film sound department. And I can say that the seeds of my journey as a sound designer were planted at that moment! Soon after I found the Sound Designer Master program at the Academy of Art University, an indescribable, exciting era began for me and I got deeply attached to this job with all my heart and soul.

What were some of your first inspirations in music ?

I have always had a passion for music for as long as I can remember. Right after I started learning to read, I started memorizing the lyrics to most of the Disney songs. I can say that Disney has a big influence on me being here right now ! My interest in films and my passion for film music are the reasons why I have a career in this field. I have always had a supportive family. Thanks to them, I took my first professional musical steps in my life by passing the audition of the Istanbul Technical University State Conservatory High School in 2009, and I guess I never looked back !

Do you still perform piano and violin ?

I never stopped playing and performing. Last November, I performed violin in San Francisco Civic Music Association Orchestra at the Herbst Theatre, San Francisco, CA. We played Copland Suite from Appalachian Spring, and Dvorak Symphony no.9 “From the New World”. I try to devote as much time as possible to my violin and piano practice. Even if I don't have an upcoming performance, I make sure to continue playing on a daily basis.

What is a sound designer ?

A sound designer is a professional who is responsible for creating and manipulating audio elements for various media productions such as films, television shows, video games, and theater productions. As a sound designer, I use my expertise in sound engineering and design to create sound effects, background ambience, and musical scores that enhance the overall audio experience of the production.

Explain your daily work as a sound designer:

As soon as they send me the project I first start by reviewing the project from top to bottom, taking notes of the sounds I need in line with my client's needs and wishes. Then I start brainstorming about the sounds. Accordingly, I check my sound library (or other libraries) to see whether I need to record it from scratch or not. When designing sound effects, the first thing is to focus on creating sounds that make sense for the video. Then, it comes to manipulating or layering the sounds to make it more engaging for the audience. Depending on the duration of the project, it may take years or on the contrary, it may take hours.

Is it necessary to be a musician for this position ? Why ?

Being a musician can be considered a plus. However, I think creativity and imagination are more important in this field.

How did your classical music background influence your sound design process?

Classical music and sound design are appealing to two different senses. While one is a world with discipline, and has eras and strict rules, the other consists of manipulating, changing, and imagining. However, there is one area where these two worlds meet in common, creativity. My background in classical music made me push the limits of my creativity and gave me insight and vision. I remember I read this saying "classical music improves mood, cognitive function, and memory", and I think this was the most important influence on me. In an abstract sense, it changed my imagination and perspective.

Can you tell us about your experiences working in the film industry ?

The film industry is certainly an interesting, instructional space to work in and a very fast-paced environment. Time management, being a team player, and being detail-oriented are the three most important skill sets you should have. The best aspects of working in this field are being a part of a team with high creativity and motivation, and being around inspiring people. Also knowing that a project that you have worked on for months and years touches millions of people is the best part of this job. Being a part of a process much bigger than yourself is absolutely priceless.

In the music-film industry, who or what were your first inspirations?

I have always been interested in and inspired by the film world since when I was a child. When Harry Potter was released in 2001, it had an incredible impact on me. I remember I went to see it lots of times in the theaters. Of course, it was impossible not to admire the visual effects with the music of John Williams. It was the first movie that influenced me as a soundtrack when I was 6 years old. Then the 2003 Peter Pan movie directed by P.J. Hogan was the second movie that stole my heart with its soundtrack. I found myself constantly listening to the music of James Newton Howard. I think this is one of the big factors that subconsciously prepared me for my career.

How is being involved in the film scoring different from a studio recording ?

Film scoring is a process where there is more creativity and imagination whereas studio recording is basically recording the music that already exists. For me, it's always been more exciting to be involved in the creative part of the process.

How do you work with the composer and the musicians during a film scoring work ?

Teamwork is very important for these projects in the industry. I am a part of the creative team to make sure the sound supports and enhances the storytelling of the production. The process includes planning and providing sound effects and organizing elements to portray emotion through sound.

How does a sound designer work for a live performance ?

It is mentioned in the job description of the sound designer that it mainly focuses on the post-production side of the industry. However, a sound designer also works with performers, producers, stage directors, and technicians to balance the soundscape and to create/enhance the aural environment of the production in live performances. In my live sound experience at Outside Lands, I was working with sound system design engineers, making sure that the sound levels are appropriate in order not to cause any damage to the hearing, and aiming to provide a pleasing experience to the audience.

Do you use specific techniques or softwares to create compelling soundscapes ?

I create music and sound effects for visual media using A/V hardware, software, and electronics. I’m an Avid Pro Tools® and Dante Level 1 certified.

What do you like most as a Sound designer ?

As a sound designer, I love the power of sound reminding certain images in our memory. For example, some games/movies have classic sounds (like the iconic lightsaber sound from Star Wars created by legendary sound designer Ben Burtt), and as soon as we hear them, we understand what it is. It's almost like you smell a certain scent and it takes you to the moment you smelled before.

Thank you Merve!

- Vincent Walter Jacob


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