Andy Newell

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When composer/sound designer Andy Newell was conjuring up a name for his San Rafael, Calif., music and sound boutique, he turned to Bob Kerstetter's stash. Kerstetter, then Black Rocket CD, still had in his desk drawer the dregs from the brainstorm that spawned the name of the agency. "Kerstetter and I were on the phone and he went through every single name that he had, from Fork to whatever, and Ripe kind of popped out at both of us," recalls Newell, a D.C. native whose surfer-like drawl hints at the nearly two decades he's spent on the West Coast. "It just seemed good. I don't know, maybe we were both kind of ripe that day, but I don't think so."

In any case, Ripe Sound nicely fits Newell's commercials accomplishments. His composing and sound design skills have added piquancy to work for agencies like Goodby Silverstein, Black Rocket and Venables Bell, for clients like Budweiser, HBO, DirecTV, and E*Trade. His sound effects have also supported Yahoo advertising since its nascent days, from the commercial in which a trailer-dweller cushions the top of his home with pillows to divert an oncoming satellite, to the recent Super Bowl smartass-dolphin spot, which also features Newell's island-inspired composition combining an orchestra with the exotic sounds of the shakuhachi and koto. Newell also composed the music for Black Rocket's Musco olives campaign, directed by Kerstetter, which won him the DGA Director of the Year Award. The lush, cinematic spots, which portray oddly believable scenarios of olive-fingered castaways and their chance encounters with similarly "digitized" folks are enhanced by Newell's poignant compositions, reminiscent of early European film scores. On "Birds," for example, the soulful descending melody of a solo clarinet, supported by a graceful string bed, illustrates the bittersweet pathos of a lonely old man sprinkling birdseed in the park with his olive-tipped fingers. He is treated with unexpected kindness by a "normal" woman pushing a baby carriage, and the music breaks into a spirited piccolo melody when he discovers the infant inside also bears olive-tipped fingers.

"I watched the Musco olive spots before there was any music," Kerstetter says. "They were fine. Adequate. Andy works on them for a week, brings 'em back. We play 'em. Suddenly I've got tears rolling down my cheeks. He's got this rare ability to be a creative genius even though he's bound in shackles. He's got mere seconds to work with. He's dealing with our dumbass opinions. He's dealing with our clients' wives' opinions. And yet he somehow manages to take all the bullshit and turn it into gold."

Newell's no alchemist, but his roots do reveal a touch of brainiac topped off with a generous musical endowment. "My dad was actually a nuclear physicist, but everyday he'd come home and play Chopin and Liszt on the piano." Newell himself took to the keys at age 5, eventually going on to study composition at Bard College, where he apprenticed with avant-garde jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd. Newell continued his academic music career with a doctorate from the University of Illinois, where he also taught and where both his visual and aural leanings were manifested in intensive study of "stochastic," as in random, music, for which he created massive compositions abstractly laid out on 3x5-foot pages, one of which was being performed at Carnegie Hall the same time it was on display at an art gallery in Beverly Hills.

Paradoxically, the long hours devoted to music were coupled with time in front of the tube. "I watched way too much TV as a kid, it's amazing that I ever made it to adulthood," he laughs. Perhaps that explains why after all the heady pursuits, he found himself moving out West. "I really wanted to do something with Lucas or Coppola," he explains. Newell dove in pretty quickly into what at that point was the alien territory of sound design after landing some freelance commercials gigs. "The only connection I had with sound design at that point was doing some research piece with John Cage where you'd just set up a bunch of radios in a room and just tune them in and listen to everybody else, all this chance music," he recalls. "I never really sat down and laid sounds to picture. It's always great to bump into something new that's going to challenge you and take you places that you haven't been before. It was kind of like Star Trek."

It might as well have been Star Trek, considering that Newell eventually landed some far-out creative launching the commercials effort at Earwax, a company originally affiliated with theater sound design. There he did snag assignments with his dream directors (doing sound on Lucas' Star Wars videogames and joining the sound effects editing team for Coppola's Dracula) as well as a whopping 55 Sega spots for Goodby, where he first hooked up with Bay area creative stars like Kerstetter, Erich Joiner and Tom Routson, who remain his collaborators to this day.

After more than a decade at Earwax, Newell, now 45, opened Ripe Sound in 2000, where clients come to him for his expertise in both music and sound. "The way I approach it, sound design is like composing in that you get all of your sounds together at the outset. Just like using an oboe or a clarinet in an orchestra, I know exactly what each sound is going to do, what the range is and how it's going to affect people. " Newell's recent jobs include an effects-heavy spot for Sara Lee as well as the Oz DVD spots from Venables Bell and the Yahoo "Critters" commercial, featuring the Lilliputian footballers. Currently, he's looking to add movies back into the mix, but has no serious beefs about his main charge. "It's a hard business, but I've been really lucky. Advertising, after all, is about selling; for an artist, I think you're fine once you can just accept that fact. "

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