The year 2014 has been one of many great articles, interviews, and discussions 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!
This year has been a bit chaotic for me, and I’ve been playing catch-up on some of the things I missed out on last year. One big item on that catch up list was The Last of Us on PS3. Naughty Dog swept most of the major game awards last year, and with good reason. I finally got a chance to start playing the game in February of this year…and then finished it sometime in August. Like I said, it’s been a crazy year, but the game and its sound design were a stand out experience. I won’t soon forget the sound of a clicker, or the ambience of a city totally reclaimed by nature.
On the film side I have once again missed out on many of the films I was itching to see (Gone Girl is one example), or am hoping I’ll have the opportunity to see one or two that are still kicking around (Interstellar and Boyhood). I’m very happy I was able to go see Birdman though.
This film is one of the best I’ve seen in a VERY long time. The sound work in it is fantastic, yes, but to talk only about that is doing the film a disservice. I’ve seen few films in my life that are crafted as masterfully as this one is. See it.
Two of my favorite artists also released new albums this year. First, The Jezabels continue to impress me with their development as a band. Each disc (and I’m including the EPs here) has had a different tone, while still maintaining what feels like a unified aesthetic. The Brink came out early this year, immediately after I made the move to California and started 5 months of a cross-country relationship until my wife could make the move as well. Because of my fixation with listening to new albums over and over again, and the context of what was going on in my life when I did with this one, this album is forever going to have an association with a “seminal moment.”
Then there’s Devin Townsend…the man who is typically lumped into the metal genre, but consistently does whatever the hell he wants. Some of his music is ambient or house in nature, much rock or metal, and some has a fairly bluegrass. Thankfully he has a loyal enough following that he can continue doing whatever the hell he feels like; genres be damned! I’m eternally grateful for that, because I love EVERYTHING this man does. This year, he released what I would describe as a “B-Moive” rock opera album called Z2, which is a sequel to Ziltoid the Omniscient (released in 2007). Rather than embed the music (mostly because there aren’t any official music videos for the album as of yet), let me introduce you to the main character…
I also have two instances where a sonic event amused the hell out of me. The first came from Guardians of the Galaxy. In the first sequence with the adult Starlord, we see him dancing through alien ruins while listening to his walkman. He picks up a small lizard like creature and incorporates it into his little jig. The creature was pitched to match the melodic phrases of the music, and that fact just tickled me the right way. It caught me off guard somehow and made me laugh. The other is that cliched red tailed hawk scream. You know the one. If somehow you don’t know what I’m talking about…well…this isn’t it, but you’ll know what I’m talking about immediately…
I started a new gig in October at a fairly major post facility. I was walking around one day during my lunch break, and I heard that damned hawk scream…not once, but TWICE! If you’re surprised to hear that such a cliched sound was being used here (unless maybe someone was working on a comedy), I would be too…because I was outside. Yep, I heard that red-tailed hawk scream twice in the span of 10 minutes outdoors. It felt like some sort of absurd cosmic joke given where I’m working, and I think it’s an experience I’ll be in little danger of forgetting anytime soon.
Living in Denmark there’s lots of movies which still haven’t come out – like the highly praised Inherent Vice, Mommy and Birdman – and I’ve missed movies like Frank, The Tribe and Starred Up which are all supposed to have terrific soundtracks. But here’s my 10 Favorite Sonic Moments of 2014 on several platforms and in pretty random order:
Let’s start out with some of the most breathtaking sounds I’ve heard all year – not in a movie, not on a record, but from outer space. In October, NASA shared actual electromagnetic recordings taken from our very own solar system. From the ambient rumblings of Saturn and its rings to the more romantic Neptune, our solar system’s soundtrack is really cinematic – and really inspiring. I just wish NASA would release these sounds as wav-files as well. God is a pretty decent sound designer.
This is also about outer space in a way. In this hypnotic sci-fi thriller Scarlett Johansson is an alien seductress preying on men in Scotland – but you really shouldn’t know too much about the film if you haven’t already experienced it. What you should know, though, is that it features one of the most radical soundtracks of the year, by Mica Levi, and mesmerizing sound design by Johnnie Burn. It’s a very intense and thoroughly musical sonic experience.
Another of my favorite soundtracks this year was Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ mind-bending music for David Fincher’s Gone Girl. Once again, this film featured an outstanding collaboration between music and sound. Sound guru Ren Klyce utilized the background ambiences in wonderful ways, totally enveloping the audience in the dizzying paranoia that was the foundation for much of the Hitchcockian suspense story. I actually also had the chance to catch Reznor live with Nine Inch Nails this year and it was the concert of the year for me – one of the best sounding shows I’ve ever attended. So much live music nowadays is all about LOUDNESS but this was very, very dynamic. And very, very refined.
This brings me to another movie containing Reznor and Ross’ music – the Edward Snowden doc Citizenfour. The several dark, drony sequences of the film were pure sonic hypnosis. 2014 was generally another strong year for documentaries – I particularly enjoyed Citizenfour, The Unknown Known, 20,000 Days on Earth and The Look of Silence. The Unknown Known contained one of Danny Elfman’s best soundtracks in years and Skip Lievsay’s sound design was precise and, as always, very delicate. The Nick Cave doc 20,000 Days on Earth was the music doc of the year – extremely musical, and not just because of Nick Cave’s terrific songs but because of the beautiful, dynamic interplay between music, picture editing and sound design. And the multi award winner The Look of Silence was indeed very much about silence. Once upon a time, the focal point of most documentaries was the words and the journalistic aspects, but modern documentaries are much more focused on feelings and emotions – what is happening when nothing is said.
Just like Trent Reznor, Aphex Twin and Daniel Lanois are old heroes of mine. To me sound is music, and music is sound and the work by Aphex mastermind Richard D. James is in many ways the very embodiment of that way of thinking. Syro is his first album in 13 years but instead of feeling old and tired it was highly energetic and creative – I’ve been listening to it since its release in September and I’m still discovering new sonic details here, there and everywhere. The same goes for Flesh and Machine which is a more uneven record but still a vast collection of inspiring sonic ideas. In movie sound there’s so many rules and restrictions and it’s a pleasure hearing music that doesn’t follow any regulations.
The Australian Ben Frost is another amazing sound creator from the electronic music scene and his latest album feels like it could have been the soundtrack of very dark science fiction movie, like a modern remix of Blade Runner. Someone described it as ‘aural suffocation’, but even though it is at points unrelentingly menacing it’s also filled to the brim with creative sonic ideas. Frost uses distortion in a way that becomes almost physical. It’s sound pushed to new exciting limits.
And when talking about pushing sound to new limits I really have to mention Christopher Nolan’s terrific Interstellar. There was a lot of heated debate about some of the dialogue in the movie being difficult to hear but for me, it made perfect sense when Nolan stated that this was him experimenting with sonic storytelling – are the words really always the most important? Interstellar was such an emotional sonic ride and you could pretty much write a thesis on the way it used extreme dynamics and the sub-harmonic frequencies. And Hans Zimmer’s best score in several years helped create a truly terrific track.
I’m getting a bit exhausted by the constant bombardment of Hollywood blockbusters but this was another tentpole movie which I enjoyed. In 2014 I worked as a sound designer on a film where I had to build a new creature language and it’s incredibly difficult. In this latest Apes movie the way the sound designers created a believable language for all the apes was brilliant – the monkeys actually outshined the human actors! Most people in the cinema probably thought this was simply how the apes sounded on location – well, there were no apes on location! Sound is indeed the most invisible part of the film.
I love the Coens! This story of a depressed singer/songwriter was a new tour de force for the brothers and also for sound maestro Skip Lievsay who evidently had a blast with the whole musical setup. At the same time, the use of background sounds and dreamy ambient soundscapes was pivotal to this fascinating ride. And besides, it was damn funny. Making funny film sound is actually difficult but Skip and the Coens masters it to perfection.
10. The Past
This divorce drama originally came out in 2013 but it opened in Danish cinemas in 2014 – and it’s one of the most magical subtle sonic experiences I’ve had this year. It doesn’t feature any score – just like the equally awesome Two Days, One Night by the Dardenne Brothers – and the way it uses the pauses and quiet details is exceptional. There’s a sublime scene in a car where no one is speaking but two of the main characters are trying to get closer and more intimate with each other – and the tiny sounds of the rattling car plays out like music in itself. It’s minimal sound with maximum impact.
2015, I’m looking forward to listening to you!
PS. My favorite still picture of the year is probably this one with Swedish free jazz saxophone player Mats Gustafsson. I went to a couple of concerts with Gustafsson in 2014 and it feels like your brain is melting while listening. So much power! So much energy! So much sound!
With a yearly wrapup of favorite sounds it is difficult for me personally because I rarely play games when they are “new” or “current” but this year was a bit better as I had to justify my PS4 purchase. I don’t watch many current movies to speak much about their audio (Godzilla’s monster sounds were great though).
Shadow of Mordor
The SFX are a bit difficult to hear in all of their splendor the below video as it was made with the PS4 share function. The action sfx, UI sfx, and voice acting are all great. It is a bit jarring/weird when the (random or procedurally im not sure) generated orcs get into a duel and they use the same voice actor for their taunts at each other. The UI sfx when cycling through the enemies is super satisfying, though difficult to hear in the video. I have been playing the game about 3 feet in front of the tv and sound system due to tiny fonts and I get to hear all the detail that way.
Peggle 2 (especially Jimmy Lightning)
If you are able to watch Guy Whitmore’s talk in the GDC Vault about the adaptive score of Peggle 2 please do yourself a favor and watch it asap! Here’s a video of me playing a stage with the Luna character. Notice how the music and peg sounds change key as I remove the orange pegs (especially when I have 2 orange pegs left, notice how the music gets way more tense).
And of course I have to show a video of Jimmy Lightning in action because Jimmy Lightning is hilarious:
I made a video to show off some of the gun and speeder bike sounds which are some of my favorite sounds in the game. The ambiences are also pretty rad if the guns ever stop shooting long enough to hear them.
This one counts since it came out so late in 2013 and I myself didnt get it until mid 2014! I can’t really say anything that hasn’t already been said. Check it out if you haven’t.
Retro sound design can be deceptively difficult to get right. Despite what some developers believe it is not as simple as opening up sfxr and hitting random. Shovel Knight does a great job of audibly and visually portraying a slightly advanced if not anachronistic NES game.
This past year was quite an eventful and life-changing year for me (more positives than negatives, and for that, I am always grateful). At the same time, 2014 was also a year of personal examination and intentional deconstruction of my creative aesthetic; I wanted to look deeper at what has worked in the past (and why), and what I would like to revise, or reimagine as I proceed into future creative endeavors. That thought process seems to be (at least somewhat) reflected in my choices for favorite “sounds” of 2014 as well.
It’s been a great year, thank you for reading our blog, and I wish you all much joy and success in all you do in 2015.
…And now, on to my favorite “sounds” of 2014:
This year I chose to showcase a few less publicized (no major films or video games here), yet still noteworthy sound design projects (and even sound design advocacy) from 2014.
Virgin Atlantic’s Preflight Airline Safety Video
After countless flights in my (and most of yours I would imagine) lifetime, the preflight safety videos shown prior to takeoff lost their ability to capture my attention decades ago. Regardless of the fact that the information in these videos may actually save my life, it seems they are just too generic, dated, lacking in sound design, and overall, really just too plain boring to actually pay attention to (much better as sleep aids than safety videos)… until now.
On a Virgin Atlantic flight earlier this year, I happened to witness (for the first time ever) a preflight safety film that was truly engaging and thoroughly entertaining. I watched every second of this animation prior to takeoff, and though luckily I did not need to use any of the information provided, it was a wonderful and amusing way to start the journey. I was thoroughly impressed with the direction, production value, and attention-grabbing ability of this animated video.
This reimagining of the usually boring and drab preflight safety video came from Art & Graft. While the animation was extremely well done on its own, the whole project worked as well as it did because of the impeccable, fun, and fresh sounding audio mix that accompanied it. The sound design and music came from the London-based audio creative team at Brains & Hunch (Chris Branch and Tom Haines). Congratulations on an incredible job to everyone involved in this production. You are not just entertaining your viewers (and listeners) with this animated video, but you may save some of their lives in an emergency one day, and that is truly remarkable.
Theater Sound Design – #TonyCanYouHearMe
Earlier this year, the Tony Administration Committee voted to remove the sound design category from the Tony Awards. This decision was a serious blow to the (public perception of) creative credibility of the work our theater audio artist brethren produce. There was an immediate public reaction to this (and of course, a hashtag as well: #TonyCanYouHearMe) along with a petition initiated by theater Composer and Sound Designer John Gromada (here is an article from earlier in the year with a bit more information). Since then, the popularity of the petition and other public statements have caused the committee to reevaluate their decision (and I have a feeling sound design will once again be a Tony Award category in the coming years). Due to this snub by the Tony Administration Committee in 2014, I am dedicating my “favorite sound” for theater to… “the theatrical production(s) and sound designer(s) that were not recognized this year with a Tony Award, though deserved one”.
And truly, this spot is reserved to honor the actions of John Gromada for initiating the petition and to many others for speaking up along with him.
Honda’s Advertising Spots and Interactive Video
Honda’s creative teams at Wieden + Kennedy London (advertising agency) and Factory Studios (audio production) continue to reimagine and stretch the boundaries of their video-based advertising with each passing year. After the wonderfully sound driven “Hands” advertisement from 2013 (shown above), I did not expect them to outdo themselves this year. Luckily for Honda (and for all the odd folks out there that love ads, like myself), they did just that with their interactive youtube video “The Other Side*”.
*Given that “The Other Side” is an interactive video, it cannot be embedded into this page, please click on the link above to view/hear the project.
“The Other Side” doesn’t only have an engaging concept/story, compelling visuals and exceptional sound design (from Factory Studios team members Tom Joyce and Anthony Moore), but they added a layer of interactivity that is flawlessly executed, helping to draw in their audience even further into the world of Honda. Another great example of advertising excellence from all the creatives involved.
Congratulations on some fantastic work goes out to everyone involved in this (and all projects mentioned throughout the post). I will surely be watching, and more importantly, listening to what you produce in 2015.
Like many of us, I wish I could have taken the time to see more films and play more games this year, but as always, there were far too many things to do and far too little time to do any of them. I hardly played any games at all, and while I did make an effort to get to the movies more frequently than years past, crazy schedules and new jobs kept me busy and on stage most of the year. There were, however, a few standouts for me in 2014:
Being a big fan of movies featuring giant creatures wreaking havoc on the world (see my bit about Pacific Rim last year), I had a lot of fun with Gareth Edward’s Godzilla. If there are giant monsters battling it out, I’m pretty much there. As a big fan of the classic Toho Godzilla films, this year’s American reboot pays homage to the classics, including signature sounds like the Godzilla roar. Sound designer Erik Aadahl had mentioned that staying true to this was a major concern, and I felt that he and his crew knocked it out of the park on this one. The Dolby Atmos mix was immersive, aggressive, and a blast to watch and hear.
I absolutely loved Interstellar. Being a huge fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey, you could really feel Kubrick’s influence here, in both the Hans Zimmer score and the design of the sets and costumes. I had a chance to catch it in IMAX (70mm film) at the TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood, and while there were definitely moments where the room itself was shaking, they fit the film perfectly. I can understand why some people took issue with the film’s sound, with some sequences playing at incredibly loud volumes and others favoring music and sound effects over dialog. However, the hugeness of the sound really fit in with the hugeness imagery, and it never felt like I was missing anything in the spots with “obscured” dialog. There were some specific sequences that really stood out to me, but I’ll refrain from spoiling them for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet.
The Rover was a really unexpected and interesting film. A smaller Australian film, The Rover stars Guy Pierce and Robert Pattinson set in a bleak near future after a global financial meltdown. This was a really stunning film, both in the constant sweeping vistas of the Australian Outback and the sparseness of the film’s sound. Fitting with the barren, post-apocaylptic wastelands, there is very little dialog in the film, mostly filled with soft, meditative moments punctuated by intense violence. It’s definitely not for everyone, but I went in not knowing what to expect and came out really impressed by the entire experience.
I’ve recently found myself listening to old recordings and radio shown on archive.org. I stumbled across a radio show called Calling All Cars, a police radio drama from the 1930s. Sometimes I found it amusing, but at other times it is provides a rare peek at what society was like during those years. Listen to an episode here.
The BBC’s R&D team have been doing some cool work with binaural broadcast. Listen to a show here (not sure if the link will work outside the UK).
Some time last year I helped capture a few IRs for the New Radiophonic Workshop at the Hamilton Mausoleum, which has a 15 seconds (!) long reverb. Yann Seznec posted up a few clips from the session early this year. Here’s what the door slam sounds like:
A lot of my favourite sounds this year aren’t necessarily new, they’re just sounds I’ve found myself appreciating differently as a result of my work this year. In May I started a Masters degree in Sound Design and it’s been a fascinating experience so far. For a while, at the start of the year, everything was about synchresis. I started spotting it everywhere though my favourite example to date has to be in Lego Movie where President Business and Will Ferrell become inextricably linked by the power of footsteps! (Skip to 4m 12sec for the synchretic fun)
I have always had a great respect for Brian Eno’s musical and technical experimentation, even if I’m not always a fan of the end product. Whilst doing some soundscape work earlier in the year I dug out Music For Airports for probably the first time in a few years. The more I listened to it the more I became fascinated by the sounds between the notes. I realised the tape hiss was almost another musical element, a white noise lull between musical passages. It might have been produced in 1978 but I’m only appreciating it now.
Rounding out my year are two of my own recordings which essentially sum up my year in sound design. They are both the result of multiple iterations, numerous noodlings and swathes of trial and error. But in the end they were exactly what I needed and could only have existed as a result of the 50 previous failures. The first is my ‘Cereal landslide’. A 192kHz recording of me pouring my favourite cereal into a cardboard box subsequently wrangled into a 44.1kHz session.
For this one I was trying to create a celestial star scene and I eventually resorted to spinning coins in an empty biscuit tin (a £1 coin and a penny to be precise). As the coins spun I moved the tin around my 416 to get some movement into the recording.
This year involved numerous seismic shifts in my personal life including a graduation, the start of a freelance career, a proposal to my fiancée and a cross-country road trip from east to west to take an offer of an internship which has since turned into a job. Despite all that, I’ve had moments to come up for air to play, watch and listen to the latest releases in the world of games, film and music, as well as time to catch up on some missed classics of yesteryear.
Dallas Buyers Club
This has been an exceptional year for film, especially in this, the latter half of 2014. I honestly don’t remember a year in which there were so many reasons to go to the theater. From significant independent films, powerful documentaries though to well-written tent-poles, it’s been a great year which began for me in February with “Dallas Buyers Club” (which was still running in some theaters from a release at the tail-end of 2013).
Aside from the great subject-matter, screen-play, music and incredible performances, “Dallas Buyers Club” also had incredible audio. It may not have had flashy design nor bombastic action sequences with which to flex it’s audio-muscular system, but it had a effective, quiet sophistication that never interfered with the story. I was especially taken by the sound used for the moments when Ron Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey) lost control and succumbed to his illness. The sound was a different take on the over-used, perhaps clichéd high-frequency ring that often suggests hearing loss, but here it felt somehow fresh, unique and much to my surprise never bothered me.
You can hear about the post-production work-flow and location recording that went on to support the incredible soundtrack on episode 14 of the Tonebenders podcast.
Red Dead Redemption and the Mass Effect Series
I’ve been taking time to catch up on some games that I neglected over the past few years. I’m currently in the middle of my first play-through of “Red Dead Redemption” which I remember in the year of its release was lauded for its audio, winning numerous awards to boot. Well it seems the world knew I was playing through this exceptional game as within a month I got to hear one of the panelists at GameOn! in San Francisco speak fondly of the environmental world-building sounds within the game (I believe it was game audio composer Jesse Harlin) and this article was posted on Kotaku.
It’s been a fantastic (horse) ride so far and the more I play, the more I pick up on the environmental sounds, especially coming from the wildlife. I’ve learnt to listen to the sounds which tell me whether there’s a armadillo on the road ahead that I’m about to trample with my horse (an activity that results in a pained squeak), or a cougar growl informing me that I better get on my horse pronto and whip out my six-shooter if I hope to survive.
I also took the time (and quite a lot of it at that) to play through the whole of the Mass Effect series. Overall I loved all three games. Yes, yes, the ending did leave a little to be desired, but I’m not going to let that ruin what was otherwise an incredible journey. All aspects of the audio were fantastic, from the incredible effects, creature sounds, voice acting (especially Michael Beattie as Mordin Solus in ME2) and oh yes, this moment from the opening of Mass Effect 3. (Jump to 12:40 for the special moment!)
TED Radio Hour
I went on something of a podcast binge this fall and discovered the “TED Radio Hour”, an exceptional sounding, inspiring and informative podcast produced by NPR and hosted by Guy Raz. I’ve managed to work my way though every episode and I’ve often been struck by the effective use of music and sound design to aid the overall impact of the stories and interviews within the program. On occasion, in my opinion, it can go too far and feels like it’s hitting me on the head with a certain point, but even in those moments I appreciate that it’s trying to do something different in an area that’s often sonically stale. I strongly suggest this episode on “Making Mistakes”.
Partita for 8 Voices
Somewhere along my podcast binge, I discovered WQXR’s “Meet The Composer”, another gem. In one of the episodes, they interviewed composer Caroline Shaw and spoke to her about her work entitled “Partita for 8 Voices” which earned her a Pulitzer Prize for Music. I’m often guilty of listening to the same few CDs, albums and soundtracks over and over and much as I would struggle to order anything but Orange Chicken at the Cheesecake Factory, I struggle to find new music that excites me. I spent three years doing a radio show in which I played nothing but unsigned, independent artists from the UK, researching and discovering new music every day. I fear after all that, my inner-ear craves nothing but familiar music. Something about “Partita for 8 Voices” grabbed my attention though. It drew me in unapologetically and spoke to my inner-ear. A wholly acapella work, it explores a range of not often heard sounds and textures from the human voice, all within the framework of pleasing and surprising harmonic choices. It’s the perfect balance for me; a collection of music that excites and inspires me without being intimidating or pretentious. I can have it on in the background as I work or in the forefront as I close my eyes and take it in. No matter how much attention I give it, I’m always left satisfied.
July 4th 2014, Boston MA – God Bless America and Drum and Fife
Being from the UK, I’m always puzzled by the notion of national pride. Sometimes the chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A” each year on July 4th can irritate me. I’m also usually trying keep my head somewhat low in case anyone recalls the history behind the national holiday, hears my fading British accent, and promptly decides to dunk me in the Boston Harbor. That being said, I always took immense pleasure in the festivities and relished the opportunity to hear the Declaration of Independence read out publicly. It never failed to bring a tear to my eye for the beauty of the text and its significance to every person on this earth.
What brought a tear to my eye this year however was not the reading of the Declaration. Hurricane Arthur threatened us with torrential rain and forced the usual parade and speeches into the shelter of historical Faneuil Hall within which I heard the most hauntingly beautiful rendition of “God Bless America”. It’s beautifully sung to be sure, but what’s really special is the reaction of the audience about halfway through. I encourage you to watch it from the beginning, it was one of the most moving moments of my life.
I’m also a sucker for the Middlesex County Volunteers Fifes & Drums who come out every year. Here’s a short excerpt I captured.
Favorite Found Sounds
I was extremely fortunate to do a lot of traveling around the US, recording rig in hand, and found some amazing sounds on my travels. One of the best moments was at the Potato Museum in Blackfoot Idaho which by chance was housed in an old train station by tracks which were still used. A huge diesel train arrived and spent a good 20m going back and forth, uncoupling it’s carriages allowing me to capture some amazing sounds.
I found the most bizarre sounding automatic double door at a visitor center within Grand Canyon National Park.
On another occasion I managed to place myself 6ft below a suspended highway capturing the most amazing whooshes, approaches and aways that I’ve ever heard.
The most amazing sound I heard this year I couldn’t record however, I heard it on a hike down into the Grand Canyon. I sat eating my lunch and took a moment to listen and heard something I didn’t expect in such a grand space, silence. I don’t just mean there weren’t any birds cawing or people talking. No, the air was dead, still, as if I were in an anechoic chamber. There were practically no vibrations in the air and no surface in front of or below me for sound to reflect off of. It was as if I were standing on the edge of space, sonically speaking at least.