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Ko-pick: Introducing Korea’s Leading Audio Studios

Jun 28, 2024
  • Writer by KoBiz
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Film as a visual medium inevitably means that much focus is spent on aesthetics – the use of cinematography, visual effects, lighting, and choreography, among others. But sound is equally important requiring immense skill and innovation. Technology is central to this with pioneers such as Dolby, but it’s also understanding how audio operates in cinema, finding sounds from the most unlikely of places. A key element for the famous T-Rex roar in Jurassic Park (1993) came from a baby elephant. 


Korea is now seen as leading innovator when it comes to content with its creative industries now the subject of much attention locally and globally. But it’s also a pioneer in technology that encompasses semi-conductors, smartphones, home appliances, which also expands to studios that are heavily invested in film and television with its production, visual effects companies, aqua and audio studios playing a pivotal role in the content industry. 


Whether it’s the sound of Don Lee’s forceful punch in The Roundup series (2017 – 2024) or the reverberations of gun shots in 12.12: The Day (2022) or imagine the monsoon downpours in Parasite (2019) without the audio, the importance of sound in cinema and the wider content industry is undeniable. 


This week, we take a close look at three audio studios that are at the forefront of the K-audio industry providing the sound for Korean content: LIVETONE, Bluecap Soundworks and Plus Gain Studio.


Official Website  www.livetone.co.kr

E-mail  contact@livetone.co.kr 

Founded in 1997 by its current CEO Choi Tae-young(a.k.a Ralph Tae-young Choi), LIVETONE entered the Korean film industry orchestrating the audio for Kim Sung-su’s Beat (1997). It was a relationship that has continued to present day having also been heavily involved in 12.12: The Day. It has also been responsible for the sound design and mixing for close to a dozen films that have accumulated more than ten million tickets including The Host (2006) Train to Busan (2016), A Taxi Driver (2017) and Parasite (2019). It has been involved in more than 250 projects. 

The company is based in two locations with a studio in Seoul’s Sangam district that is home to the Digital Media City (DMC), a hub for Korean production with public and private broadcasters located there along with post-production studios and CJ ENM. The company became a subsidiary of Dexter Studios in 2017, which conveniently has its DI studio located in the same building in the DMC with the director of Exhuma (2024), Jang Jae-hyun able to move back and forth while co-ordinating the color and sound correction for the film.

 LIVETONE also has a studio in the satellite city of Ilsan, another popular location for Korean production companies and studios with its proximity to Seoul and Paju which is where many of Korea’s film studios are located. 

Yellow Sea

Along with Korea’s Aqua and visual effects studios, limitations are met with innovation to overcome technical barriers in pioneering the sound for Korean content. It produced Korea’s first Dolby Atmos sound for Kim Yong-hwa’s Mr. Go (2013) with the visual effects rendered by Dexter that was established to produce the necessary effects for the film. LIVETONE also played a leading role in producing the Dolby Atmos home theater sound for Bong Joon Ho’s Okja (2017), while it has also collaborated with local exhibitors in producing 13.1 channel sound for Lotte Cinema for Battlefield Heroes (2010) and CJ CGV’s 14.2 Channel D-Cinema 3D Sound for The Yellow Sea (2010). 

Its CEO, Choi, a revered sound supervisor and mixer with credits on more than 200 films, frequently works with some of the biggest names in the Korean film scene. He has worked with Bong Joon Ho on most of his films including Memories of Murder (2003) and Parasite. He told Kobiz, Bong “is clearly thorough in his field. Both the scenario and storyboard are written directly down to the smallest detail. However, when it comes to practical matters such as sound and lighting, they give us a rough concept and let us do whatever we want. That's more of a burden” thereby underlining the technical expertise they need to provide. 


In an evolving ecosystem, Choi stresses the need to see films in a cinema. “When listening with headphones, the spatial sense of the sound is not fully vivid. The fact that there are so many different playback devices also makes it difficult to establish unified mixing standards. In the end, the true intention of the creator can only be felt in a theater with a consistent and unified sound system.”

Bluecap Soundworks

Official Website www.bluecap.co.kr

Instagram @bluecap_soundworks

Also, very active in Korean films since the 1990s is the studio Bluecap Soundworks that has, like LIVETONE, been instrumental in providing the audio expertise and services on dozens and dozens of Korean titles. Its credits in the 1990s include The Contact (1997), The Quiet Family (1998) Swiri (1999) and Happy End (1999).

Led by CEO Kim Suk-won, a Sound Supervisor, it continued to work on seminal projects in the 2000s marking the beginning of several Park Chan-wook collaborations with JSA (2000) and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002). The studio recently worked with Park Chan-wook on his award-winning Decision to Leave (2022).  

The studio is located in Paju, North West of Seoul close to the North Korean border, which is where a significant amount of the studio filming for both films and mini-series takes place in Korea – along with the wider region of North Gyeonggi province - with Netflix also having leased production facilities in the area in 2021. It, therefore, makes Bluecap ideally located.

Decision to Leave

Akin to many studios in Korea over the past few years in the era of streaming, it has provided its services for mini-series content, which has included Yeon Sang-ho’s Hellbound (2021). A dark and intense drama that was produced with Dolby Home Atmos, mastering the sound behind the scenes was crucial. The studio also created the voices of the angels and creatures in the show. CEO Kim Suk-won said in an interview with Kobiz, “there was a process of creating a voice that has never been heard anywhere using actual sources.” He added, by going through “the process of sound morphing, such as changing the pitch or adjusting the speed,” several times, the atmospheric sounds of supernatural beings in Hellbound were woven. 

Bluecap has also sought to raise the bar introducing new technologies for film sound. It used the music software Pro Tools before it was widely adopted in Hollywood and purchased a license for Germany's IOSONO 3D special sound system even before Dolby's Atmos was commercialized.

Looking ahead, Kim expressed his hope that “the next step for Korea’s film sound industry will be globalization.” “I think that the status of Korean films has risen a lot recently, so Korean sound studios may be able to turn their attention to foreign countries.” He added, “As Korean films are often exported, collaboration with foreign countries is becoming more frequent in post-production due to OTT,” hoping that the Korean Film Council will play a “bridge role for joint work” in the film industry.

Plus Gain Studio

E-mail plusgain2007@naver.com

Emerging later than LIVETONE and Bluecap, Plus Gain Studio was founded in the 2000s by Gong Taewon after working with director and former stuntman Won Shin-yeon. Gong hadn’t initially sought to work in the film audio business having set up a music studio in Seoul but was approached by an acquaintance to be involved on a short film called Washing Machine (2001). It was the second short film by former stuntman Won Shin-yeon who would later make a number of features including spy action film The Suspect (2013), a project the pair would also work on together. 

A turning point for Gong came in 2006 when the pair collaborated on Won’s second feature A Bloody Aria (2006), which attracted attention not only from critics but also from those in working in the film audio industry. This then later led to the establishment of Plus Gain Studio.  

Its more recent projects include The Roundup: Punishment (2024), which has sold more than 11 million tickets. Speaking with Kobiz, CEO Gong Taewon said “the way of expressing Don Lee’s fist has changed.” Comparing it to the other films of the series, while “The Outlaws (2017) [which he also worked on] focused on reality, The Roundup: Punishment tried to embody dynamism and pleasure,” he added illustrating how the sound has evolved with the series.  

The Roundup: Punishment

Gong himself has around 100 credits to his name with films such as Sleep (2022), Rebound(2022), Honest Candidate 2 (2022), Nothing Serious (2021), Herstory (2017) and The Outlaws (2017). He’s been involved in independent film as well with titles including Drown (2022), Method (2017) and Merry Christmas Mr. Mo (2017), which was lauded by critics. 

The studio is also gradually expanding into the world of streaming. In 2023 it was involved in Kim Joo-hwan’s Netflix series Bloodhounds (2023) and Gong is collaborating again with the director on his forthcoming Netflix action-comedy Officer Black Belt (2024) starring Kim Woo-bin.

Gong who has worked until recently entirely in film says the OTT original series was a new challenge. “It was not easy to create an impact when mixing OTT original content because the sound level set by each company was clear.” Furthermore, unlike movies, developing sound mixing that was unique to OTT titles became necessary. 

Kong also emphasised that “we do not simply leave the entire sound to a compressor or limiter.” He added, “we develop the sound directly so that the sound does not change from what was intended,” and “we strive to create an impact while complying with the standards set by each company.” 

Edited by Shim Eunha

Written by Jason Bechervaise

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