Programme: Sound Design - MSc

Year: 2012

Varun Nair graduated from Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) in 2012 with an MSc in Sound Design.

He met Acoustics and Music Technology student, Abesh Thakur, through the Digital Media Studio Project at ECA and, together, they set up Two Big Ears in 2013.  The company creates audio technology that “helps you see through your ears”.

Tell us about yourself

I originally come from India, but moved to Edinburgh for the MSc Sound Design programme at ECA in 2011 and have been based here ever since.

I’m one of those people who haven’t done an undergraduate degree but began working right after school.

I decided to pursue the MSc programme after eight years as a professional, first in the music industry, then in post-production, then in a mixture of both; all in all, working on about 400 projects spanning games, movies and music.

After I graduated, I got lost in the world of interaction, audio programming, design and acoustics and co-founded Two Big Ears in Edinburgh.

I'm fairly active on Twitter and I blog: infrequently on my website; and frequently on the non-profit sound design website,

I also help design apps, do a bit of tutoring on the MSc in Sound Design programme at ECA, and am a guest lecturer on Pure Data at the SAE Institute in Glasgow.

I enjoy creative coding with Processing and openFrameworks when I get the time. 

I also enjoy reading science fiction, cycling around Edinburgh (yes, even in the cold) and cooking.

Tell us about your creative practice

I’ve always been interested in going after the more difficult problems and it is this that made me sign up for the Masters in Sound Design. 

I get inspiration from other practitioners in my field, my colleagues at work and many of the users of the technology we develop at Two Big Ears (the company I’ve co-founded).

At Two Big Ears, we care greatly about the role of audio in interaction, primarily with technologies like augmented and virtual reality. 

Sound is a truly powerful medium and we spend all our effort to ensure that sound designers have the right tools and technology to design great experiences.

"Sound designers need to break out of the boxes of linearity and fixed toolchains and move towards agile development and thinking"

Varun Nair, 2012 Sound Design - MSc

Why is your company called Two Big Ears?

I wish I had a hilarious story to tell. I probably should make one up!

The real story: my business partner Abesh and I had to come up with a name before incorporating the company. We shared random words and phrases on an instant messenger and picked the name that made us laugh the most (and had the least Google search results). This probably says a lot about our sense of humour!

How did it start?

It’s all thanks to the Digital Media Studio Project in semester two of the Sound Design MSc. 

Abesh and I were part of a group that ended up creating a location-based binaural game. 

We then decided to take ourselves seriously (while at a mutual friend's birthday party), and began developing a low footprint but effective cross-platform binaural spatialisation engine. 

We have since been supported by Launch.ed, Design Informatics and the amazing local start-up and business community in Edinburgh.

Why did you choose to study at ECA?

The structure of the MSc in Sound Design programme and Martin Parker, the course director.

Masters programmes in the UK are extremely flexible and challenging.

It was fantastic to be inspired and pushed into areas I’ve never explored. 

Two Big Ears
Image courtesy of Malcolm Cochrane
Abesh Thakur (L) Varun Nair (R), founders of Two Big Ears

What did you like about ECA?

It was a great combination of good staff, inspiring colleagues, a well-structured programme, access to great resources and ultimately a beautiful city that is easy to live in.

Where is mobile sound design going and what are the creative possibilities?

There are more than two billion active smartphone users in the world. That’s two billion consumers on the move with devices just as powerful as desktop computers from a few years ago. It’s a bit mind boggling.

There have been a variety of apps over the years that do generative music, musical/sound based games and contextual audio. I would say we have only scratched the surface of what is possible.

One of the major reasons for this is that majority of our commercial and entertainment systems are still locked in linear formats. Games and interaction have been changing this. But every single app and service fights for resources — CPU, battery, network, eyeballs and ears.

As designers and technologists, we have a universe of options available but we have to fight a bigger battle against falling attention spans and revenues. There are hundreds and thousands of 'apps' that don't get the recognition they should. This area is probably where we should spend most of our creative effort.

Sound designers need to break out of the boxes of linearity and fixed toolchains and move towards agile development and thinking. The tools don't matter, the experience for the customer/user/audience does. That said, designers still need to understand technology and its limitations. We don't have to become amazing coders, but a working knowledge can make a huge difference.

What advice would you give someone wanting to study, and have a career in, your area of expertise?

Technology in the media industry is evolving at an extremely fast pace. Distribution systems and content creation techniques are constantly being challenged. While it is good to specialise, it is equally important to pick up multiple skills and have a wider view of opportunities available. It seems to be important that people are not just good at one thing, but two or three things.

Are you interested in studying Sound Design - MSc at Edinburgh College of Art?