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Posted by on May 15, 2014 | 4 comments

Remembering Alan Splet

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One of the main reasons to start this site back in 2008 and also one of the things that keeps me motivated to do this is the impact that some people had in my life; curiously, people who I haven’t met in person, but I’ve deeply met with my ears.

I’m talking about those sound designers who created initial routes for all of us and started to develop a truly amazing way of working with sound, by establishing the essence of this art, not just from a technical perspective but an emotional, narrative and even spiritual one. I’m so glad to make this post about about one of those sound genius, a person that I know many of us deeply admire, Alan Splet.

He had the main faculties any sound designer needs to have, as described by Splet’s widow Ann Kroeber: “attention to detail, nuance, perseverance, ability to vastly influence the mood of a scene by the choice and placement of sounds”. 

This thing about “choices” is really what defines any sound designer and it’s what makes sounds to be truly alive in a film or just about any context. Tools become secondary at some point and what matters here are aspects such as the listening capabilities and the aesthetic vision, not even the thinking and reasons one may find when designing a particular sonic experience, as Splet wonderfully said in an interview about the sound of Dune, when the interviewer asks him for the sounds he uses:

A squeaking cable, slowed down, to make a roaring sound? Why this? “It just came to me,” he says. “There’s a point where you can talk about things logically and then, after that, you have to leave the world of logic. I don’t know where a lot of these ideas come from. They just do. In this case, I got the sound from guy wires, wires that support TV antennas and things like that, and they were vibrating from some sort of machinery running. I don’t know why I decided to do that, really.”

Those words have always had big impact on me, because sometimes one tends to think too much about the reason of the sounds or tools to be used, but the real deal is what’s being listened, told, felt and experienced, no matter what we could explain or talk about. It is about loving sound and not just conceiving it and Alan Splet is clearly a master of that, and of course the directors he had the fortune to collaborate with, who are also responsible of leaving him space to sonically revolutionize a film, as Randy Thom said towards commentaries of several directors on Splet’s work:

“I had the amazing fortune to have worked with, and to have been mentored by Murch, Burtt, and Splet in that magical time when the three of them lived within a few miles of each other near San Francisco. Alan was a kind and generous man, and a genius. The praise these directors give him is so well deserved, but I hope they realize the importance of the canvas they also gave him. As you watch and hear the excerpts from these films please notice that they are all written, photographed, directed, and edited in ways that give articulate and focused sound an opportunity to be heard. All these sequences were designed for sound before sound was designed for them. Notice the sparse music. Notice the use of subjectivity and point of view. The sparse dialog. These directors opened the door, and Alan walked through it elegantly and powerfully.”

I’d say that any sound designer needs to listen to Splet’s magnificent works and realize the consequences of his particular way of working with sound. We’ve previously talked about him on the site in several occasions and we even had a monthly special with his loved Ann Kroeber, who is a great person and really wise sound designer.

Actually, this post got started after reading a nice article recently published at The Paris Review and entitled “Snapping, Humming, Buzzing, Banging: Remembering Alan Splet”, dedicated to explore the sound work of this great artist, specially from the inspiring Splet-Lynch relationship.

Also recommended:

Directors on working with Alan Splet (be sure to also read Randy Thom’s comment on the article)

The sounds of Dune (also here)

Interview on Eraserhead

Alan Splet tag at Designing Sound

Alan Splet @ IMDb | @ Wikipedia

Sound Mountain

And last but not least, Tonebenders have just published a fantastic podcast dedicated to the work of Ann Kroeber, which totally worth a listen. Below is the promo, where she talks about Splet.

By the way, two years ago I decided to leave my editorial role on this site in order to focus on other projects, and casually (or not), the result of those adventures led me to came back as editor on this wonderful community. It feels great to be here again!

4 Comments

  1. It’s wonderful to see Alan’s name coming up again. He was a sweet man, with a charming dry sense of humor, and absolutely sincere and engaging no matter who he was speaking with, and of course he was so deeply creative. The creative process David Lynch describes is exactly the way the best work happens. It’s all about having the patience and intuition to try stuff until you discover something that works. You have a hunch; you do some experiments based on the hunch; often the experiments don’t produce anything useful for what you need at the time, but eventually if your ears and heart are open in the right way you’ll discover, often accidentally, a magical association between a certain sequence of visual images and a certain set of sounds. They enrich each other, and become one compelling thing, more deep and interesting than either alone. Alan was a true master at this process, and he thrived working with people like Lynch, Carroll Ballard, Phil Kaufman, and Peter Weir, who encouraged that approach.

    I have to say again that these directors provided incredible canvases on which Alan could work. They opened doors, and he walked through them. Screen the great Splet sequences, and you’ll find they have certain things in common: There is very little dialog. There is very little music, or the music is more like sound design than what we normally think of as musical score. And the visual images are full of mystery. They are sequences that are designed visually, and staged, and edited in ways that invite… beg… the participation of the ear. Alan seized the moment, and filled our ears with enchantment.

  2. And David Lynch is right about another thing… the sound you choose to begin working with should, with minimal or no processing, already have the emotion you’re trying to achieve. The hard work is always finding and choosing the right raw material. Trying to begin with mediocre raw material, and inject magic into it by processing it through a plug-in, is an attempt to deify gadgetry, not a good idea. Good sound design is like casting actors. You try to find someone with the right kind of innate character, you don’t rely on make-up to do the job. Splet was as great a caster of sounds as we’ve ever known.

    • Randy, this comment is fantastic and something I wholly agree with. I have become concerned with game audio recently where a huge effort has been pushed on interesting ways to implement content and have it manipulate in realtime. This has shifted the focus away from the content that goes into the game, and places the “skill” on how the content can be manipulated. This is leading to more and more people believing that their project only sounds good if they are doing (sometimes overly) complex things with their sound – they have completely forgotten that it’s the sound that should tell the story and convey the emotion needed to support the story and/or gameplay elements.

      • Very true the entire article. The small little details that are spread throughout this article really teach a lot of stuff you wouldn’t normally learn unless you were mentored by the likes of alan splet or randy thom. I totally agree with David lynch on how sound selection is so much important to begin with. The fact that we try to twist and process the sound so much is not right and the original sound should be what you want to begin with. I recently wrote an article on cutting backgrounds for film/tv/games on my blog – http://filmsoundreview.wordpress.com/ . I mentioned sound selection as the starting point to design anything good.

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