Sound designers Ben and Max Ringham: ‘Directors and audiences are more sound-literate now. It’s brilliant’
The London-based brothers set out to establish careers in music, but theatre turned out to be their true calling – and West End success has followed. The award-winning sound-designing duo talk to Matt Trueman
Ben and Max Ringham’s north London studio is stuffed with synths. Short synths, long synths, old-school synths, swish synths – a whopping 17 in total. They’re everywhere: on the desk, on the floor, hanging off every wall. There’s an old Minimoog with a retro finish and a Moog Liberation keytar on a stand. They’ve been collecting keyboards since they were kids, and they’re the secret behind the most distinctive sound in British theatre today.
At first glance, the two sound designers don’t look much like brothers. Max, 46 and older by four years, has a flop of sandy hair, tortoiseshell glasses and a geeky voice. Ben has salt-and-pepper locks cropped in a short back’n’sides and a beard that stays the right side of hipster. He’s more laid back; Max tends to fidget. On closer inspection, they’ve got the same laughter-lined eyes – and, apparently, the same taste in synths.
“Theatre was just something that happened to us,” says Ben. “Music was going to be our career.” Growing up in London, accumulating keyboards, the pair started playing together. “Our parents were really supportive. By the time I was 15, we had a room to write music in and argue about who got the next go.” By then, Max had a DJ slot, which Ben took over in his absence. Before long, they formed a dance duo and a band called Superthriller, and set up a studio in Shoreditch.
This was the mid-1990s. Shoreditch was still dingy and cheap. The YBAs were knocking around, White Cube was moving in. Stabbings weren’t uncommon. Prices were on the up and the pair struggled to make ends meet. “After about three months, we were sharing a tin of beans,” says Ben. “Everyone says there’s no money in theatre, but theatre’s what saved us.”
Thank their sister, Hannah Ringham, a founder member of the experimental Shunt Collective. “We were press-ganged into doing the music,” says Ben, only half joking. When the collective took over a disused space in Bethnal Green, they were roped into performing DJ sets after cabaret nights. It proved eye-opening. “You’d have an aerialist, then a stand-up, then someone sitting in a cage, blowing out a candle and reading German poetry.” Their music became increasingly integral and, as Shunt moved to the Vaults in London Bridge, performance and clubbing entwined. “Shunt was always a night out, as much as it was art.”
In Shunt’s shows – large-scale, surreal site-specific pieces – sound added to the strange sense of disorientation. The brothers made it up as they went along. Tropicana swung from woozy electro to lift muzak. Dance Bear Dance turned traffic into dance tunes. Their scores never settled for a second. They erupted into animal noises and buzzsaw choruses. They tipped from music into sound.
“We never defined it,” Ben insists. “We were never like, ‘This is sound design’.” The aim was just to create sonic environments – to match a spatial journey with sound. “We thought of it like an album.”
By 2005, the National Theatre was offering Shunt behind-the-scenes support. “We had a drunken evening, met Nicholas Hytner and suggested that he might give us a job. Three months later, he called us up and said, ‘Do you fancy doing something in the Olivier?’” That something was Henry IV Parts I and II with Michael Gambon and David Harewood – not bad for a first gig.
As Shunt members have moved into mainstream theatre, they’ve brought the company’s aesthetic with them. Just as Lizzie Clachan started building semi-immersive sets, enfolding audiences in designs, the Ringhams did something similar with sound. “The first thing we did on the Henrys was ask exactly what speakers were available to us – including all the reinforcements in the roof and in the corridors outside,” Max explains. “That’s a lot more common these days, but I don’t think anyone had asked them that before. We wanted to make the whole space come alive.”
It’s a practice rooted in the experiential, and it extends across their work. They’re not, as Max says, “traditional composers, scoring in a filmic way to chart an emotional journey”. Their sound tends to be more elusive – “nothing too prescriptive”, as Ben puts it. “It’s often imperceptible: lifting an environment or adding a tone, as opposed to saying, ‘You should feel sad’.”
CV Ben and Max Ringham
Born: 1971 (Max), 1975 (Ben), London
Training: Ben, none; Max, media studies, Kingsway College
• Tropicana, Shunt (2004)
• Henry IV Parts I and II, National Theatre (2005)
• Piaf, Donmar Warehouse (2008)
• Electric Hotel, Fuel Theatre (2010-11)
• Doctor Faustus, Duke of York’s Theatre (2016)
• Pygmalion, Headlong (2017)
• Olivier nomination for best sound design for Piaf (2009) and The Ladykillers (2012)
• Off-West End award for best sound design for Ring (2014)
• IMGA excellence in sound design award for Papa Sangre II (2014)
Agent: Nick Quinn and Laura Newman, the Agency
Back in Shoreditch, strapped for cash, the brothers survived on stock music. “We got these briefs for production music: five deep house tracks, five rock songs, five party tunes – £200 a pop.” Looking back, that was their training. The variety instilled enough versatility that they could turn their hand to any show’s sound – be it retro farces with Sean Foley, Jamie Lloyd’s poppy classics, or the dark, deranged dance shows of David Rosenberg.
That variety is showing itself in a season when the Ringhams will move from Jonathan Munby’s King Lear in Chichester – think Bristol indie-grunge a la Portishead and Massive Attack, with a new national anthem to boot – to the gameshow themes and hacking coughs of James Graham’s Quiz, about the cheating major on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. In Manchester, meanwhile, they are creating the soundscape for Our Town entirely out of human voices – an a capella score with spoken-word sound effects; pitter-patters for rain, crowing for cockerels.
It’s the sort of concept they enjoy – sound with vision; a score to a scheme. “It’s about being true to a process,” says Max – regardless of whether an audience clocks it or not. “Somehow the intention finds a way through – even if only on a subconscious level.” For La Musica at the Young Vic, a script that specifies not just the two tunes, but the exact recordings, they built a new score out of that limited palette, sampling and remixing the songs in question. Headlong’s Pygmalion, meanwhile, put sound at its centre; its world built out of recording booths, vocal manipulation and beatboxing emcees.
It’s rare to see sound take centre stage, but it’s happening. The Encounter did it with Gareth Fry’s binaural masterclass, as do Sound and Fury’s shows in pitch dark. But it needs sound designers to step up as artists in their own right.
The Ringhams do that. They’ve always sought their own singular sound – an ambition born out of the dance scene’s sampling culture. Describe it, I say. “Scratchy-sampley,” Ben replies. “Crusty and low-fi.” Mostly, it’s defined by the library they’ve built up over 20-odd years, full of odd recordings they’ve retuned as instruments. One “particularly creaky, squealing” Sainsbury’s lift recurs in their shows. Another was scored entirely from playground gates, one of which “bent up to a perfect A”.
“We’re much more interested in a sample that has some crackle and character behind it,” says Max. “The sound of a broken amp or a tape with delay.” The point, he goes on, is that anyone can do clean and shiny. As software gets cheaper, library sounds become more ubiquitous. They’ve sworn off low drones and vague rumbles.
That’s not enough any more, the two of them say – not even close. The culture is shifting. “Directors are becoming more literate with sound,” Ben says, and audiences are tuning in too. “It’s brilliant.”
What was your first theatre job?
Henry IV Parts I and II, National Theatre
What was your first non-theatre job?
Studio engineer (Ben), printer (Max)
If you hadn’t been sound designers, what would you have been?
Working in games design (Ben), or in a recording studio (Max)
What is your best advice for aspiring sound designers?
Try everything. It won’t break and, if you don’t, you’ll never know.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Trust yourself, relax – and what a DSM is (Ben). Make friends with Chris Shutt and steal all his sound effects (Max).
Who or what is your biggest inspiration?
Chris Shutt, Paul Arditti, Gareth Fry and Melanie Wilson. Also Prince.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Before every preview, we listen through every single cue in the space and again on a laptop.
For more on Ben and Max Ringham, visit benandmax.co.uk