Our Favorite Sounds Of 2013
The year 2013 has been one of changes, additions, and collaboration here at Designing Sound and we want to thank all of our readers for their attention, suggestions, contributions, and overwhelming support. There have been so many great films, shows, games and events this year that we thought we would share some of our favorites for you to go back and check in case you missed them!
This post is full of links and youtube videos, so please be patient on the loading. I assure you it is worth it!
“2013 has been a crazy year for me. I definitely didn’t get to see as many films or play as many games as I would have liked, but two experiences really stood out to me.
First, Criterion Collection finally released an NTSC version of Robert Bresson’s “A Man Escaped” (1956, France…original title “Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut”). Peter and I share a similar habit of buying and reading all of the film sound books we can get our hands on. This film is referenced in nearly all of them, and it was killing me that I couldn’t watch it (without tracking down a multi-region DVD player and foreign copy of the film). So, I had a lot of expectations going into my first viewing, and it did not disappoint. The film makes a point of stating that it presents the story as written in the original memoir, “without embellishment.” In some ways I feel that’s a lie, because a lot of care obviously went into the construction of the film’s sound track. It has some incredibly subtle usage, and is amazing at representing the perspective of the main character. The film is touted as a masterpiece, and I can’t agree enough! Please check it out.
Switching over to more modern releases, how can I not mention “Gravity”? When I heard about the concept of the film, I assumed they would be playing with the idea of sound transmission through physical contact. Of course, that’s what they did, but the execution was absolutely stellar. That wasn’t what impressed me the most about the film’s sound though. The thing that grabbed my attention was the use of musical score as a sound design element. Replacing the typical destruction sounds and explosions with panned musical elements was simply genius…even more so in the new Atmos format. The panned dialog (and the nuanced treatment it was given) also worked incredibly well in the film’s context. Hat’s off to the entire sound team.
My two other favorite sound moments from 2013 are a little more personal.
One occurred while I was recording morning ambiences in my neighborhood for the Audible Worlds “Our Ambient World” crowd-sourcing project. I was using a Neumann RSM-191 for some simple M/S recordings, and a dog barking a few blocks away just had this amazing quality. It was both present and so decidedly distant at the same time. It just completely trapped me in the moment. I didn’t get out to record as much as I would have liked this year either. So, that was an important moment that helped me reconnect with the act of simply listening to the world around me.
Lastly, I was asked by the Smithsonian to speak about sound for film at an event that was hosted in November. The room would be full of the general public…few, if any, sound or media people. One of my nerd fascinations is studying psychoacoustics. It was a real treat to stand up on stage and give a few demonstrations of the vagaries of our auditory perception system and talk about the importance of sound in story-telling. Observing people’s reactions to a few “magic tricks” is incredibly satisfying, and it left them ready to understand all of the work that goes into a well crafted soundtrack. I could see the light bulbs turning on in the audience, and that was one of the greatest moments I’ve ever had the fortune to be a part of.”
Living in Denmark there’s lots of movies which still haven’t come out over here – like the highly praised Inside Llewyn Davis, Her and 12 Years a Slave – and I’ve missed movies like The World’s End and La Vie D’Adèle which are both supposed to have terrific soundtracks. But here’s my 10 Favorite Sonic Moments of 2013 on several platforms and in alphabetical order:
All Is Lost
It’s been a pretty great year for sound design in movies. This brave film with almost no dialogue was a wonderful example, utilizing ambient sounds to brilliant effect, and shows how much one single human breath can mean in the mix – especially when coming from Robert Redford. A movie designed for sound.
Berberian Sound Studio/Silence
There were actually several films this year about sound people, these two being my favorites. Berberian Sound Studio feels a bit like David Lynch directing Barton Fink – if Barton did sound for Italian horror films. Silence is an Irish film about a sound recordist and is also extremely evocative – quite fittingly, it shows how powerful silence can be.
Boards of Canada: Tomorrow’s Harvest / My Bloody Valentine: MBV / Nine Inch Nails: Hesitation Marks
I feel slightly old fashioned when saying that these three comeback records were some of the highlights of my year. But they’re three excellent records by some of the most visionary and adventurous sound designers in the music business – who cares about age, anyway?
Nick Cave made one of his best albums this year combining powerful songwriting with lots of experimental sonics. It was a record filled to the brim with hypnotic textures which made the whole thing a true pleasure for anyone into sound.
”My name is Giovanni Giorgio, but everybody calls me … Giorgio!!!” To me sound is music, and music is sound, and this was the perfect track showcasing how dialogue, sound effects and music can work wonders hand in hand. And for a film fan, it was fun how much Giorgio Moroder sounds like Werner Herzog. Just the way he says ”synthesizer”!
Train sounds have been the foundation of many spectacular sound sequences throughout film history. This year this one was my favorite (the opening of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty gets an honorable mention in this category):
One of the most outstanding sonic revelations I’ve had in a cinema. It was such an intense physical experience floating around in space while the subjective sounds moved all around the room. A perfect movie for Dolby Atmos – a modern tentpole for this wonderful format.
A crazy, crazy record. The first time I heard it I couldn’t believe that a superstar like Kanye West would do a record like this – aggressive, abrasive, extreme. But slowly you get sucked into the extraordinary productions, the irresistible grooves and the melodies hidden in there – there’s something magnetic about it all.
There’s lot of great sound design being done in the documentary world and this film was the prime example – an astonishing film set aboard a hulking fishing vessel. The visceral soundscapes made it an extraordinary immersive experience.
The craziest film I saw all year. It reminded me of the first time I watched David Lynch’s Eraserhead. It had the same kind of hypnotic feel – and the unique and playful sound design was mesmerizing and fully integrated into the storyline.
2014, I’m looking forward to listening to you!
I am always behind the times when it comes to watching something when it’s “new”; even with games but especially with films which I almost never see in theaters. So although this article was my idea; there are only a few things from 2013; The Year of Luigi that I am qualified to talk about!
This indie gem came out some time ago, but the Vita version (that I am playing) came out in 2013 so it counts. Delightful voice acting and writing. The music is good but I also really really enjoy the minimalist sound design for the character jumps and so on. Doing more with less is definitely what this game’s development was about and they succeeded.
I think it’s mandatory I mention this.
Japanese sound design has always fascinated me. There is an aesthetic about much more about the quality of a few assets rather than the quality of variation and realism in Western media. Final Fantasy XIV and its incredible production value takes this to another level with super-sparkly and pleasant UI sounds, spells and some surprisingly excellent voiced dialogue.
Fire Emblem proves even Nintendo’s portable system can have great sound design and be an example of above but with even better voice acting.
MirrorMoon EP OST – Own but have never played the game. Too busy listening to the soundtrack.
It’s funny, as with most of us here (and I am sure with most of you out there), this year was a busy one and I had to continually remind myself of the need to pop out of my workspace(s) and into the real world to actually listen. To just stop everything and just listen to the beauty (or discordant nature) of the sounds around me.
I don’t make New Year’s resolutions usually, though in 2014, I definitely plan to spend even more time just listening to sound (both produced and naturally occurring).
Here are three selections from (circa) 2013 that resonate and will stick with me throughout this coming year:
Huge Coffee – Diego Stocco
Diego Stocco is a true sound designer and one of the few people in the world I am consistently blown away by their sonic productions and thoughts on sound design. A few months ago, he released “Huge Coffee” as an extra video produced while he was shooting a video series entitled “Sound Magician” for DTS. In less than one minute, this to me exemplifies the essence of sound design: active/engaged listening to your environment, a musical sensibility (taking rhythm and consonance into account), fundamental application of physics, recording technique, editing, manipulation, and above all, experimentation (and patience) while doing all of the above. These are the “ingredients” to producing great sound design (and a great cup of coffee as well it appears). If you have not heard of him yet, or haven’t looked into what Diego Stocco was up to in 2013, his collection of works (not just “Huge Coffee”) are my recommended listening (and viewing) to wrap your year.
Jogging Application – Reality Jockey
Reality Jockey, the creators of RjDj, Inception the App, and other reactive iPhone music-based applications are currently producing an application (in conjunction with Imogen Heap) that’s soundtrack/soundscape adaptively changes (or reacts) to your movement/workout and environmental conditions. I have not heard, or I should say used this “Jogging App” yet, but this idea, and the concept of adaptive soundscapes as a whole, is an area of media production that opens up so many new possibilities for sound designers and other creative media producers. This past year we saw a big jump in interactive content production, as well as more robust delivery systems. I expect 2014 to be a big year for sound design within the world of interactive media (and I am counting on this jogging application to get me jogging again. I guess I have two resolutions this New Year).
Homeland’s Show Open – Showtime Original Series (click link to see a video of the show open)
This last one is not a true 2013 original, it appeared on television screens a few years ago, though over time, it continues to grow on me and is now one of the most iconic show opens that I’ve ever heard. The opening sequence for Showtime’s “Homeland” made an initial impression and I thought it was well done from the first time I watched/heard it. The balance of the sound effects, music, and dialog made for an intriguing sonic experience, though at first, that is all it was for me. Over time, and as I (and the rest of the audience) learns more about the show, the organized confusion of this cinematic sequence (the show open) seems to somehow make sense and get the viewer ready for what is about to come. Every time I think of the show, or hear someone mention “Homeland“, the sounds of the show open immediately start to play back in my mind, not scenes from an episode, or any visual element, but the sounds from that one minute or so from the beginning of each episode. It stays with you, and when listened to, it can alter your state of mind, I can’t imagine asking for anything more from a “show open” or an “opening credits sequence”. The visual elements are interesting and add to the feel, though without the fantastic audio design and mix that accompany these images (as with most film), this open loses most, if not all of its emotional power. Take a minute to watch the show open for “Homeland” without sound, and then just listen to the sound from the open without looking at the visuals; I have a feeling the sounds will have a more lasting impact on you, and for me, that makes it one of my favorite sonic experiences from 2013. The sound designer, composer, and the audio post production team as a whole did a fantastic job with this and I look forward to hearing much more of their collective work in the future.
Here is a quick video about the music for the open from Composer Sean Callery:
Though as is the case with art, what one person thinks is ground-breaking, someone else finds contrived and terrible (something to remember as you design sound this next year as well). This show open is no exception, as you can see from the title of this recent blog post I came across: “Does Homeland Have The Worst Opening Credits in TV History?“. This is not specific to the sound design, though it just goes to show… “one man’s treasure…”
Thanks for reading and I wish you all a wonderful holiday season and an amazing start to your 2014. Let’s make this a productive year, one in which each of us makes a lasting mark on the world through some sort of sonic contribution.
Like the rest of the team, this year was pretty busy. Even though it felt like I spent more time on airplanes or working than anything else, I made it a point to stop down for a bit to go and experience some great stuff.
First up, something a little quirky and fun. While I was in New York for AES in October, I was reminded of a little sonic curiosity I had encountered in the past. I’ve always been a big fan of train sounds, especially subways, so I’m always listening to massive machines when I’m around them. While I was standing on a platform at Penn Station waiting for an uptown train, the sounds of a departing E Train (a Kawasaki/Alstrom R160, for the curious) caught my ear:
As the brakes released, a solid and unmistakable note, a G, was sounded, followed by an F, then an E. This tonal progression, a minor 7th followed by a major 6th, can also be heard in the opening lines to “Somewhere” from the play West Side Story. There really is music everywhere.
This year saw a lot of amazing sounding films come to theaters. Dolby Atmos was everywhere, with more theaters and more movies making use of the system. Some of my favorites were:
I’ve been a long-time fan of the franchise, and I thought that 2009’s Star Trek had some really great sound moments, like the sequence in which the Enterprise exits warp and finds itself in a massive debris field around Vulcan. With high expectations, I went into an Atmos screening of Star Trek: Into Darkness, and I wasn’t disappointed. In keeping with a lot of the sonic conventions set up in the first film, Into Darkness had some solid sound design and a surprising amount of dynamic moments. Without giving away too much story, there’s a sequence where a ship overtakes another in while at warp speed and attacks; the sounds of the ship closing in and the battle that ensues was one of the highlights for me. While it wasn’t the most powerful use of Atmos, it demonstrated how the added speakers could be used to separate elements and improve clarity and allow for more dynamic sound work.
With an excellent soundtrack and some massive monster and robot sound design, Pacific Rim was probably the most fun I had going to the movies this year. Everything in this movie sounded HUGE (as it should) and the inclusion of Ellen McLain in full GLaDOS treatment was a nice touch. After first seeing it in IMAX 3D with the 6-channel, full-range audio system (which is just as overwhelming as it seems), I caught it on a slightly smaller screen with Atmos a few days later, and it still remains one of my favorite Atmos mixes so far. The balance of the mix was superb, and the use of the added speakers made it even more enveloping.
There’s really no way I can talk about sound this year without mentioning Gravity. Combining some of the best 3D I’ve ever seen with a somewhat daring Atmos mix, Gravity was an amazing thrill ride. The panning of elements within the sound field actually helped me keep track of things, and the use of contact microphones for Foley recordings added to the realism that much more. If there’s still a theater near you playing Gravity in Atmos, go see it. Really.
1) This sound is a field recording gone wrong. I was hoping to record birds but ended up with beautiful rain on leaves. Recorded at Blackford Hill, Edinburgh
2) At the recent sound design symposium in Edinburgh, Chris Watson played recordings from the 60s of contact microphones on electrical wires. It was apparently one of the inspirations for the Star Wars lightsaber sound. I can’t remember who recorded it and I couldn’t find it online. It was amazing to hear how the sounds transformed as the weather and daylight changed. We often do not think of sounds beyond a few minutes.
3) Silence. I have spent time in a variety of places this year: resonant mausoleums, forests, hills, the Scottish highlands, cities and trains. Each of those places can be extremely noisy or quiet, but could still be described as being silent.
4) The invention of stereo sound. It has taken us 70 years to take it for granted.
The Drones from Oblivion
I have a soft spot for this film. It’s like a greatest hits compilation of sci-fi and in there, amongst the nods to Silent Running and 2001 are some great sounds, not least of all the drones. From R2-D2 esque chirping to full on foghorn synth tones (and something that sounds a bit like a cow) the drones continue the sci-fi tradition of using sound to give life and also some level of empathy to the machine. Whether it’s ED-209 in Robocop or WALL-E, the use of sound proves to be the essential finishing touch in selling us the character.
The cicadas from Man of Steel
I have to admit that I found MOS a bit patchy, and it’s sound, on occasion, to be a little fatiguing rather that interesting. But the apparently indestructible cicadas have been on my mind ever since I saw it. They seemed to be inexorably attracted to the more emotional moments in the film. Swelling in volume as Clark came to terms with his place in the world of humans. I found it impossible to watch these scenes simply because I was trying to figure out whether someone had chosen to add these sounds or if this was some heroic attempt to maintain a link to production dialogue. The Soundworks Collection profile would seem to indicate that the incessant chirruping is the result of a decision to go with what was recorded on the day and I have to applaud the attempt.
vimeo.com/68742675 – MOS Soundworks
The destructive nature of The Manchester Art Gallery
I’ve been scouting the Manchester Art Gallery for a while now. It has the most amazing creaky floorboards in it’s downstairs rooms and I’ve been attempting to build a collection of them. On my last visit I went for a wander through the central atrium which has a rather impressive mezzanine balcony affair. I was still recording at this point (forgotten to turn it off) and happened to capture a tannoy announcement. When I listend back I was startled just how completely destroyed the recording was by the acoustics of the atrium, to the extent that some words are completely obliterated by the reverberant nature of the room. In practical terms a completely useless recording however fascinating at the same time.
2013 was an amazing year for audio. With so many high quality film, music, and games released, it’s difficult to select just a few for special recognition. So rather than call attention to any one piece of media (though Gravity really was amazing), I’d prefer to mention a collaborative group that I found particularly inspirational.
I’ve been following the Disquiet Junto since its beginnings in 2012. Run by passionate audiophile Mark Weidenbaum of disquiet.com, the Junto describes itself as “a collaborative music-making group in which restraints are used as a springboard for creativity.” Each week, Weidenbaum organizes the group around a theme, directing members to a particular sample, or providing a specific set of constraints by which participants must adhere in order to create something completely original. The group now boasts almost 1500 members, allowing participants the opportunity to test their creative abilities, learn new production techniques, and enjoy the feedback of their peers.
Instructions for previous weeks have included: “decode the music in a phrase from a book,” “combine original three spoken texts into one track,” “make a phase composition with the sounds of three switches,” and “record an unlikely vocal trio with the sound of a bird, a kitten, and a pig.” Fun stuff. I haven’t participated nearly as much over the past year as I would have liked, but always make sure to check in and hear peoples’ contributions. A truly inspiring group of artists experimenting with sound for its own sake.
Like many of my fellow contributors, 2013 has been a busy action-packed year. Fortunately, it’s been peppered with a number of professional ‘firsts’. However, I have chosen my favourite sound-related moments from the world of sound art, as I continue have continued to be pleasantly surprised by the continued expansion of sound art into galleries, mainstream media, and our homes.
The MoMA in New York presented its first major exhibition of sound art in the form of Soundings, a three-month long showcase featuring 16 sound artists from around the world. One of the benefits of sound art is that you can experience it wherever you are, although, of course, you definitely miss a whole heap of context with site-specific works. That said, my favourite piece was Susan Philipsz’s Study for Strings, which is site-specific. Nevertheless, it is a very powerful piece of work that uses a simple premise to reflect on (among other things) acoustic ecology and our shared acoustic history.
In the UK, The BBC allowed a week-long ‘aural interruption’ at one of it’s peak listening times (at 9.02 am, just after the Today programme). Produced by ArtAngel, Open Air, showcased the work of five artists but, more than that, got people talking about sound art and brought it right into the ear canal of millions of listeners.
Frieze commissioned three audio works as companion pieces to the 2013 edition of its International Art Fairs. The works themselves, by Haroon Mirza, Trisha Baga and, Charles Atlas and New Humans, will not have been to everyone’s tastes (and were not necessarily to mine), but it is terrifically exciting that the proliferation of sound art gathered such momentum in 2013.