[Written by Tim Walston for Designing Sound]
Greetings, Designing Sound readers! As a fan of this site myself, I am honored, to be asked to contribute this month. The list of past Featured Designers is very impressive, and the thought of following in their footsteps is a bit daunting (by that I mean terrifying). I feel I must proclaim to you that I definitely do not consider myself an expert of sound editing and sound design – merely a continuing student. I have been lucky enough to work with, and learn from, many talented people over the years. I am fortunate to have a career doing something I love, but I don’t pretend I have any authority to teach, or preach to any of you readers (though I guess I will). All I can do is share my experiences, my approaches, and some of my techniques… in the hopes that there is something of interest and of value to you.
The following are semi-random observations, opinions and thoughts about sound and the work we do. A general note about all my musings: when I refer to sound design, I’m talking about any kind of sound for picture. I’m not including sound for live theater, and sound design for synthesizers and software instruments, because that’s not what I do.
Q: When is a sound designer not a “Sound Designer”?
A: Most of the time!
Q: When is a sound editor a sound designer?
A: Most of the time!
The term “sound designer” is so hyped and overused today. It’s catchy and sexy to some people, but it’s meaning is not defined in a standard way. So, then what value does it really have? To some, a sound designer is the one responsible for overseeing and shaping the soundtrack of the entire film. To others, a sound designer is someone who uses funky equipment and software to make weird noises. I guess it depends on the client, the task, and the practitioner.
Most of the time my work falls somewhere in the middle. I’m usually not the supervisor, but part of a team. Sometimes I’m hired to create sound design, sometimes I’m hired as a sound editor. The work is divided up and I’m given tasks to cover – either specific scenes or specific categories throughout the film. The final soundtrack to any film is the sum of the efforts of many people.
The reason I bring this up is because I often hear of people who start their career with dreams of being a “sound designer”, yet they seem to forget or ignore the necessary foundation for these skills: sound editing! When I first came to Soundelux, I was introduced to a veteran sound editor as “a new sound designer”. He rolled his eyes in response. I was embarrassed, but I understood his point of view. The basis of ALL sound for picture is sound editing, and one can (and should) devote years to learning and practicing this art. Every sound effects editor makes choices to use one sound for something else for creative, dramatic or practical reasons. This creative substitution, to fabricate the illusion of some kind of reality, is at the heart of what we do – whether we call ourselves sound editors, sound designers, sound artists, etc. (I like sound painter, myself). It’s my opinion that any sound designer creating sounds for an image needs to be a proficient sound editor first. Learn your craft! Before declaring yourself anything!
Shhh… Did you hear that?
Use your ears! Interesting sounds are all around us. I love the sound of thunder, or neighborhood birds echoing off the house, or our coffee grinder. I have a small portable recorder with me at all times, just in case. Listening to the world around us informs our work. Close your eyes and listen to the stories that you hear with your ears. For example, while waiting at a corner car wash, listen carefully and identify the layers of sound you hear: traffic, birds, people talking, air sprayers, bucket movement, bumpers scraping the driveway as cars enter, etc. Later, when you are building the soundscape for a similar scene, you can use your experience to help you tell the story.
Last week I was at the gas station and I heard a minor car crash about 20 yards away. The cars were both relatively recent models… so the sound was… like a big plastic CLAP, and then the tumbling of small plastic and metal pieces. It was not at all what I’m used to hearing in films, so I filed the memory away. Of course, a sound like this would not be enough in most action films, but in a more realistic style of film it could.
It’s interesting to note that there is no uncanny valley phenomenon in sound like there is with robots and computer-generated human images. A sound either works for the film or doesn’t, but it’s relation to the real world sound can be accurate or ridiculously exaggerated. Sometimes a gun can sound like a real gun, or sometimes it can sound like a cannon – if the sound serves the story, portrays the right emotion, and transmits the right attitude, then the sound is correct.
Another aspect I encourage beginners to pay attention to is perspective. Specifically, I’m referring to distance and environment. Close up, antiseptic recordings certainly have their place – they’re good source for sound design and processing, for example. But for hard effects, a recording made reasonably near to the actual distance shown on screen can make an effect dissolve into the production track and feel real. Not all events in a film are shown in extreme close up… your sound effects should not all be either. Of course you can play a sound at low volume, EQ it a bit and add verb to simulate distance, but nothing beats the real thing, in my opinion.
Early in my career, when I first moved to SoundStorm, my friend Lance Brown needed some glass clinks for a high society cocktail party scene in a film. No big deal, right? He surprised me by arranging 6-8 people in a line, inside the empty warehouse at the facility. We all held two champagne or wine glasses and performed the background clinks he needed. He recorded us in a large empty space and at a medium distance, to match the perspective and environment in the scene. This kind of recording is not always feasible or practical, but the results are much more authentic than layering some generic, close up CD library clinks. I learned that day that this attention to detail is a hallmark of Lance’s approach to sound supervision. His dedication continues to inspire.
As a fun experiment, I cut all the doors in a recent film using very realistic recordings with appropriate distance, rather than the usual ones. They weren’t the cleanest recordings either, but they felt real and required much less finesse from the mixer to make them fit believably into the scene. It took a little extra work to find doors that had the right action, the right quality, an acceptable distance and an acceptable environment – but I thought the results were worth it.
Real things in their natural environment have an authenticity and character that can really add something special. I’m sure most experienced field recordists would agree that the location and topography of a shooting range is a big part of the character of a gun or explosion recording. Sure, we have convolution reverbs at our disposal now, but using a real distant hall door when it’s called for feels so much more real. And – it’s less work. As sound editors/designers, we don’t want to be processing every single effect we cut. Pick something reasonably close to authentic and you’ll be using your time more efficiently. Mixers will appreciate it too. Also, when out in the field recording a sonic event, try covering more than one perspective if possible (as well as several variations of the performance). You’ll thank yourself later on!
Shhh… Did you record that?
Why not? How many times have you experienced something and said to yourself, “I wish I had recorded that”? Even a cool sound recorded badly is more useful than not having it at all.
I’ll discuss my field recording misadventures in another article, but for now I’ll touch on my basic practice – be ready. Not all of us have the connections, budget or expertise to arrange serious recording sessions with exotic subjects. Most of my recordings are opportunity based. Going along with the previous section’s theme – there are great sound sources around you all the time – catch them if you can.
I make a habit of bringing a recording rig with me whenever possible. Here’s a recent recording. Can you tell what it is?
Is it some kind of static? A record needle in the groove? A low bit rate processed sound? Popcorn pitched way up? The answer is: YES! It could be any of those things in the right context. It’s actually rain recorded from under an umbrella. Maybe that was easy to guess, but it could have many other uses as well.
Here’s another sound. What do you think made this?
Is it a cow giving birth? A whale song? This one is too weird to guess – it surprised me so much I had to record it immediately. It’s made by water draining out of my in-laws’ Jacuzzi bathtub. The drain was the button type with a rubber seal underneath. By pressing down on the button at an angle and controlling the flow of water down the drain, it made this moaning sound. The overflow opening above the water line proved to be the best place to record this – it acted like a sonic funnel for the sounds.
Bored yet? Here’s a bit of another sound I recorded a while back:
To me, parts of this recording sound like slow motion skids, some parts sound like animal or creature vocals, and some sound like a squeaky fan belt in a junky car. In fact, it’s a large squeegee sliding on the glass door of my in-laws’ shower. The variations came from my performance with the squeegee, the amount of water on the glass, and the amount of stickiness from water deposits, I think. I have 25 minutes of this stuff on DAT.
Just so you don’t think I spend an unhealthy amount of time in my in-law’s bathroom, I’ll play you one more interesting sound:
This could be source for a creature scream, electrical squeals, spaceship elements…
This comes from a pool noodle – one of those flexible styrofoam tubes that my kids play with in my in-laws’ pool. The spectral changes depend on how much is underwater. Yes, I’ve spent a lot of time during visits to my in-law’s recording stuff. It’s nice to have some time to play now and then!
NOTE: It’s very important to me, when I create or record a sound, to make notes in my library database as soon as possible. One of my tricks is not just to describe the sound, but to list off all the things it might be used for in the future. This is crucial to me for finding and using it later. The descriptions for my recordings of the pool noodle include something like “could be creature vocals, spark squeals”, etc. If I make some aggressive wind whooshes, I’ll include keywords like “fire, explo whoosh, vortex”. Some heavily processed palm frond crunches I made last year could be wood, ice, stone, or really nasty body ripping gore… so all of those words go in my sound library database. I apply the associative terms up front, so I don’t have to do a lot of tangential searches when I’m working later. I may not remember all the weird little recordings I make a year later, but my sound notes to myself make it a lot easier to find them.
The point of these examples is that they are common objects that can provide uncommon source for sound design. All of the above examples are unprocessed. The first two were recorded with a Sony D-50, and the last two with my trusty old Audio Technica 825 and HHB DAT recorder. Later this month, I’ll be sharing some more simple sounds I’ve recorded, and showing how a little processing turned them into something I’ve used in a film.
P.S. I welcome your comments and feedback throughout the month – not only for the “reader questions” article. If you can help me tailor my writing toward the things you’re all interested in, then please let me know.