Ad Chat- Keith Ruggiero: Synth loving composer and sound designer who paints moods

It's not everyday I get to chat with someone who has one foot in advertising and one foot in the music industry. (Note: don't confuse your ad agency battle of the bands or twice-a-month jam sessions with "being in the music industry.") Today is the day. Keith Ruggiero is the founder of Sounds Red, a Los Angeles-based sound design and music composition company. He's worked on brands ranging from Gymkhana and Samsung. He's written the score and did sound design for a piece involving robotics and projection mapping, called BOX by Gmunk, and conversely laid the music down for a Red Bull piece exploring the issues of living in a too wired world.

As cool as that is, In the early 2000's Ruggiero was at the helm of Soviet, purveyors of fine moody synth-based dance pop. Here he riffs on everything from the state of the music industry, sucking it up for bread and butter clients, and his dream of creating music for film and TV.

1. Tell us how you got into sound production?
I had traveled out to Los Angeles to start production on the second SOVIET record with Dave Trumfio at his Kingsize Studios in Glassell Park. I was surprised at how many industry people knew about SOVIET. Shortly thereafter, I became really close friends with designer Justin Harder, who was a fan and wanted to do a music video for us. He was really the catalyst, introducing me to several directors and motion graphics houses. In turn, I started to compose and do sound design for them.

I saw the writing on the wall with the state of the music industry. I wasn’t receiving the support I needed to continue on with SOVIET, so I decided to dive headlong into starting a sound design and music composition company; from there, it took off rather quickly, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

2. What has changed since when you began then and now?

When I first started there was a lot of creative freedom, so much so that sometimes it was fun to push the envelope. Budgets were much healthier and there seemed to be more trust in whatever the motion graphic house’s, or director’s, vision was. I think what killed it all was the birth of music libraries. Similar to digital downloading and streaming, music’s overall value decreased and budgets started to dwindle. With this I noticed that music became harder and harder to produce, while also becoming more political and safe. All of a sudden there were multiple people giving varying opinions on how the music should be, outside of the director. Music-by-committee really makes it difficult to produce something unique or innovative: hence the birth of the sound-alike!

3. What’s the one thing that excites you about making music and why?
I like to be able to experiment, especially with certain campaigns or directors. The pieces that really cut through the clutter are those that allow me to experiment with my various synths. I’ve been a synth enthusiast since the early 90s, so I embrace any excuse to incorporate my vintage synths into the work. Not everyone knows SOVIET, or that I was in a synth-pop band, so this allows me to shed those constraints and to explore cinematically and thematically outside of the SOVIET universe.

4. How do you approach bread and butter work where you might not have the room to be as creative as you’d like? How do you make it better?
Initially, I usually try to put as much of my own voice into a composition. Then, through notes and various versions, it gets molded into something that the client is happy with. But I always try to sneak in some signature sound or melody that makes it uniquely mine. It’s hard to say what would make something better; there are such strict timelines that there is often little room for fine-tuning anything I deliver. I take it on a project-to-project basis; some projects stand the test of time and resonate with an audience, while others are fleeting and for the moment. I aspire to resonate personally with all my projects, but I never can tell what people will remember or associate me with.

5. If you could create music for any brand or show, what would it be?
I would love to be in Cliff Martinez’s shoes and score for anything Steven Soderbergh. Really enjoying the score for The Knick. I also like the Halt and Catch Fire score. In reality, I would be thrilled at the opportunity to score for any television show. It’s kind of my dream to get into composing more for television and film. Outside of a few licenses and B-films, I’ve been hoping that my accomplishments in advertising might segue into that world, but it hasn’t materialized quite yet.

6. Do you get a lot of clients asking for “sound alike” songs? How do you tell clients not to do that?
This phenomenon is tough. I think this is a result of having to play it safe due to limited budgets and fast turnarounds. It’s disappointing, because I think innovation and unique branding cuts through the clutter, this can occur when the client trusts what you bring to the table. I try to convince clients to have me work with the creative team early in the process so that my music can work in tandem with the edit. Many problems stem from clients falling in love with the temp track that’s been living in the edit for months before it even gets to me. They later realize that licensing is cost-prohibitive, and then they need to find a composer to do something similar to maintain the cutting rhythm that the editor has already established to their temp track. It confines me creatively when this is the case. Unfortunately, music and sound is usually an afterthought and the very last consideration.

7. The musical landscape has changed in that music is more accessible than ever, but that doesn’t translate into a living wage. Has this been a concern for you?

It’s definitely harder to get noticed. When there is an oversaturation of content it takes that much more money and branding to make any form of impression. This is partially why I decided to go into sound design. I’ve had to learn to wear many hats in order to maintain a living wage. When I first had some success with SOVIET, I was actually able to maintain a frugal living wage. However, no record label support, coupled with the rise in popularity of streaming and torrenting, made the living wage no longer feasible. It’s incredible when you hear that major artists are getting pennies for an exorbitant amount of streams. There’s been a devaluation of music in general, and it’s hurting artists.

8. What music/bands have influenced you most? How or why?
Michael Stearns: Magical and enlightening, his scores for Chronos, Baraka, and Samsara are incredible. His body of work is breathtaking and a huge influence for me.
Brian Eno: Pretty much self -explanatory. Eno knows how to evoke emotions with the simplicity of sound and melody. Hauntingly unique and riveting.
Cliff Martinez: Love the synthetic-- almost tribal-- quality to Martinez compositions. In my estimation, he’s the most modern inspiration working in television and film.
Kraftwerk: The structured, simplistic nature of Kraftwerk changed the landscape of electronic music. Can’t help but be influenced by these masters.
OMD: brings the vulnerable, human side to the electronic heartbeeps.
Vince Clarke: adore the simplistic, melodic layers that Vince comes up with. There’s an innocence and playfulness that just makes me smile.
Stephin Merritt: A contemporary genius who, seemingly effortlessly, makes incredible songs with his heart on his sleeve.
Brian Wilson: Pet Sounds made me fall in love with recording. The layers, compositions, and harmonies are godly. It’s hard not to be influenced by this guy.

To hear more Soviet, check out their fourth album Ghosts, on Burger Records. Also check out his Soundcloud.

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