Guest Contribution by Rob Bridgett who is (probably) the most Easterly Audio Director in North America. 47º 34′ N, 52º 41′ W. Since June, 2000 he has worked as a video game developer.
There are a lot of problems in the modern world with noise, and it is interesting the effect that the aesthetic of noise has had on media such as film, game, radio & TV production. It has effected the way we tell stories and convey experiences that relate back to, and resonate with an audience about the noisy reality of our world. As August is Designing Sound’s Noise month, I thought I’d take a shot at throwing some ideas around about our relationship with noise. It is a relationship that is not quite so easily definable or resolvable, but rather an essential, ever-present textural element.
The Miriam Webster Dictionary says of noise …
a : sound; especially : one that lacks agreeable musical quality or is noticeably unpleasant
b : any sound that is undesired or interferes with one’s hearing of something
c : an unwanted signal or a disturbance (as static or a variation of voltage) in an electronic device or instrument (as radio or television); broadly : a disturbance interfering with the operation of a usually mechanical device or system
d : electromagnetic radiation (as light or radio waves) that is composed of several frequencies and that involves random changes in frequency or amplitude
e : irrelevant or meaningless data or output occurring along with desired information
For a while now I’ve been curious if there was a way of thinking about noise differently, a way that would allow us to think of it not as an undesirable artifact (definitions b and c), but instead as a technique or process that was not only desirable, but in some cases absolutely necessary. Can we perhaps start thinking of ‘noise’ as a desirable, and deliberately added impurity, whether in a sound signal, or perhaps even in the introduction of imperfections to ‘dirty up’ an otherwise pristine sound or idea (definition e comes closer to this), and in this way to re-think of NOISE as a useful creative term, rather than something technical and engineering-related.
Subtle degrees of noise, for me at least in production, have become a way of applying REALISM to sounds, images and performances. The world we live in isn’t clean and tidy. It is messy, imprecise and chaotic, and so are the ways we experience the world, through senses and memories. By realism, I mean, well… that’s a tricky one actually, bear with me…
Realism really needs to be split into two broad approaches to be thought about effectively in production terms.
Put simply, realism can be divided into subjective reality and objective reality, this could also be thought of as ‘internal’ or ‘external’ to a character’s (or in the case of documentary, a director’s) point of view. First let’s tackle subjective realism.
An approach to production that emphasizes a subjective internal reality arguably has its heart in Stanislavski’s ‘method’ and of psychological realism; a well-documented process of gaining believability for the actor and subsequently for the audience which completely changed theatre and later film in the 20th Century.
Production elements, such as CGI, production design and sound can also work in this way, from the inside out; foregrounding the psychological point-of-view of a character, to produce an overall convincing effect on the audience. If some element of the production, say perhaps a familiar object or hiding place for a central character, feels used and lived-in, not factory fresh, it may be said to have the ‘currency of the real’ in terms of a particular character or context (more on this objective realism later). But to really spend this currency, there often needs to be a deeper level of storytelling going on. One in which there is a convincing and believable reason for specific imperfections, usually such details cannot simply be randomly added in to convince an audience of authenticity.
With co-ordination, all disciplines working together may create what Stanislavski defined as a ‘scenic truth’. Scenic truth is essentially that which originated ‘on the plane of imaginative and artistic fiction.’ (the subjective) This he differentiated this from truth that was ‘created automatically and on the plane of actual fact’ (the objective). I think a lot of great movies, radio and some great narrative games (most recently The Last of Us) have achieved this effect really well.
The messy, destroyed space craft interior in Tarkovsky’s Solaris is an example of a production design geared towards the psychological realism that springs to mind. Certainly it is an antithesis to the white, clean way we might imagine space travel and all things ‘futuristic’ – in contrast we need only to look at the surgical cleanliness of the ship in 2001 a space odyssey.
MOTIVATION BEHIND THE DIRT
In Jeremy Birn’s book, ‘Digital Lighting & Rendering’, in the chapter on decals and dirt, he mentions that you could “choose dirt maps that add specific, motivated detail to your objects. Think through the story behind all of the stains and imperfections on a surface – something has to cause any dirt, scratches, or stains that you would see”.
I love this quote, and there is an approach and a way of thinking here that we can borrow, of thinking through the story and psychology behind the dirt on an object, that can also better inform the way we approach adding or processing similar acoustic dirt to sounds. How did a particular detail of wear-and-tear get there? How can we apply that to the sound or the entire scene? Is there a particular stammer, skip, misfire or jump that can be implied into the sounds of a barely functioning machine? Are the cogs sounding rusty or grating through exposure to water or the elements for a long time? Is the way we hear all the sound in this scene affected by external noise form the street or from a neighboring location? Is the poor quality material used in the construction of the room affecting the reverb in the room? The way the weight of a body shifts around in the room. Or is the room so noisy that the characters have to talk or shout in a certain way?
This adjective-based sound design (also often referred to as point-of-view design), is a kind of anthropomorphism of objects, whereby not just a sound effect is described (a door opens), but the adjectives, story, context and ‘personality’ of the sound is also described (an ancient door, that has not been opened for a thousand years, perhaps containing the magical item that will bring the character’s father back from the dead, opens) is the basis for much of the storytelling art of sound design, and indeed is one of the primary approaches for collaborative work across disciplines.
Implied ‘noise’ and imperfection in sound in these production scenarios, can also be used as a dramatic element by writers and directors, by having characters whose dialogue, and perhaps pivotal plot lines, cannot be heard because of another louder sound or a less important ‘noisy’ conversation occurring nearby – this is noise working as a plot device. Sometimes the imperfections of the recorded medium is central to the entire plot, as in the final scene of Brighton Rock (1947) (kind of ruined when you think that she may eventually listen to the whole record when she gets a better gramophone needle, but still, an incredible piece of writing and production co-ordination that relies on a broken recording making the ‘real’ message undeliverable. Not only that, it makes the incomplete message repeat over and over again, saturating the audience almost completely in the subjective perspective of the main character’s obsession.
Obscuring sounds through other sounds, or framing them as noise in a plot is also commonly used ‘noise design’ – the phone line or cellular signal cutting out on important location information has added tension to many a crime plot – and obfuscation even used as a great sound joke – as in Indian Jones & the Last Crusade and rarely can anyone now produce a scene in which someone gets on stage to use a microphone without having it feedback adding a subjective layer of nervousness and insecurity to the character about to speak.
On a broader level though, these kinds of processes are also about adding real-world believability through imperfections and errors. Many of these areas of sound design can also be thought of as varying degrees of ‘desirable noise’. Whether that ‘noise’ is subjective or objective is an important distinction, as psychological ‘noise’ often needs to be thoroughly coordinated with other disciplines, whereby objective noise usually needs to meet a minimum required technical level of ‘believability’ in order to be convincing to the audience.
OBJECTIVE NOISE : INVISIBLE SOUND DESIGN
Sound, of course has moved and often pushed the trends towards realism, particularly in terms of erasing the methods of its production from the final work so that a single, polished coherent spectacle is experienced by an audience from start to finish. It is a key mechanism in removing the ‘means of production’ from a film or game (which in itself was an approach that was heavily challenged in theatre and later cinema through Marxist approaches from Brecht to Godard). In production, adding this often incredibly subtle, patina of linear realism onto something that is very deliberately ‘produced’ and ‘edited’ is one of the most essential elements of the art of ‘invisible sound production’. ADR / looping techniques rely heavily on such subtleties, matching studio produced dialogue to a production dialogue track, through mic placement, mic choice, EQ and potentially impulse reverb and room-tone recorded in the original location.
‘Invisible’ sound production depends heavily on this additional layer of processing and mimicry, of dirtying the clean signal, and creating or re-creating imperfections in order to convince the listener that it was ‘actually recorded’ and really happened. Worldizing is one such form of degradation of sound that takes what was probably a pristine recording, and adds in the errors and problems of a real-world acoustic space through re-recording. The effect of adding these imperfections and reflections to a sound, or all the sounds in a scene, is the ‘convincer’ for the audience – and there is a fine line between over-egging these effects into something unrealistic and getting it present enough to be convincing, yet consciously unnoticed.
Similarly, adding noise, distortion, compression and frequency curbing to sounds or voices is the convincer layer that says to the audience that the sound was either broadcast, recorded and played back later, or is live over-the-air radio scanner material.
Even Foley may be considered a category of ‘noise’ in this sense, being the incidental sounds generated as a by-product of movement within a space. (Interestingly, white noise, mixed very low and automated, has occasionally been used as clothing Foley on some movie sound productions). And realistic dialogue performances themselves rely heavily on a degree of added imperfections, ad libs, overlapping dialogue, stammering and repeated words to convince a listener or viewer of their authenticity. The creaking noises and pedal thuds added into piano sample libraries also constitute this kind of sonic convincer of authenticity.
All of these types of production-added, controlled noise can be thought of as subtle ‘convincers’, the sleight-of-hand magic tricks that sound designers, directors, actors and Foley artists perform on an audience. But they are also heavily dependent on the listener being previously aware of similar sounds and similar environments within their own cultural context. For example, a time traveler from 1845 who came to the present day and heard someone talking on a VoIP call, would presumably be completely enthralled by the musical lossy-compression applied to these disembodied voices (although we’d likely be equally enthralled by their time traveling antics! )
Controlled, subtle production noise, or convincers, have become a shorthand for authenticity in visual, sonic and performance realms. If it sounds too clean and produced, it is immediately unbelievable to our ears (tangentially, I’m reminded here of those fake live albums bands used to make in the 80‘s). We have grown accustomed to hearing real reflections and real conversations through ‘reality television’ and documentary forms. Wire and phone taps and emergency 911 calls, radio communications (‘over-the-air sounds’ – which I noticed appeared on nearly every triple-A ‘realistic’ video game shown at E3 this year), have all become accessible and have bled into our aural culture in the 21st Century. So we have this notion of what is ‘real’ and it involves lots of noise, lots of unpredictability, lots of imperfection.
It almost feels like these methods of treating and degrading sound for the pruposes of authentication or dramatic purposes of convincing realism were largely exploited and popularized, in film at least, by the Bay Area Sound Designers Walter Murch and Ben Burtt (among others) in collaboration with directors Francis Coppola and George Lucas. “American Graffiti, 1973, began what was eventually called ‘worldizing’ – the process of making the sounds and music feel like they live in the same space as the film’s characters.” – (from ‘The Sounds of Star Wars’). This technique was in accordance with George Lucas’ idea of the ‘used future’, which you very much see, and hear, in THX1138 and Star Wars. It was certainly through these sound designers and film makers that many of these terms and techniques have entered the production culture with which we are familiar today.
PROMOTING DESIRABLE NOISE
All in all, controlled, desirable noise, or the adding in of seemingly irrelevant or meaningless data or output occurring along with desired information is an essential trick in the sound designer’s (and film / game maker’s) tool-kit. It is one we’ve all probably used or marveled at in various forms, but perhaps rarely thought about as an entire broad artistic category of its own. It is certainly one of the biggest creative considerations when it comes to creating anything that requires the aura of ‘realism’.
Whether used for the simple convincing effects of believability that the sounds are emanating from the things on screen, or as a device of psychological realism in the form of enhancing, or dirtying up an object / character’s inner workings, or over-emphasizing reverbs to re-enforce the psychological state of the character’s performance, noise is very much desirable. The difference is in the intention.
A final thought to perhaps end on, having come this far, is that we could boil storytelling, dramatic narrative and creating an experience down to these broad components…
Sound (light). Silence (dark). Noise (chaos)
These could perhaps be thought of as three elements, or pillars of sound design. Maybe the broad strokes from which sonic narrative can begin to be expressed. At the very least, they do describe the world we live in and experience, both subjectively and objectively, quite well.
While noise as a creative category is an area of production and design that fascinates me, I’m sure there are better, more coherent and more eloquent pieces written about these ideas, but I have as yet been able to stumble upon them. If any one has any suggested reading on this subject, even a similar one in a neighboring craft, please share in the comments!
Special thanks to Rob for putting together this article for Noise Month. We are always looking for more guest contributions. Please contact shaun at designingsound dot org
Andreas Alexandersson says
Great read, defiantly got me thinking! I was reminded of something I saw with Ren Klyce talking about how they created sonic little short stories to make the gritty city in Seven come alive. Unfortunately I’m not in a place where I can look it up but it might have been in the extra material for the film.
Thanks for the article!
Thanks for a terrific article, Rob! I immediately thought of the use of “noise” filters in programs like Photoshop and the like – also a way of dirtying up reality in a (sometimes) inconspicuous way.
With images, there are of course some well-known ways to add grit or perceived realism/authenticity (like Instagram filters or Lomo cameras). Movies shot on real fim also sometimes benefit from the imperfections of the media – which is a trick used in music production too, of course. Analog tape or 8-bit synths spring to mind.
An effect I like a lot, is that of the momentary loss of hearing in relation to explosions. As heard in many newer war movies. Not noise per se, of course, but definitely a degradation of subjective sound.
Douglas Murray says
That is a wonderful article.
Excellent observations about noise and realism. As we get better and better at eliminating noise from our productions we develop a greater and greater appreciation for what it adds. Disk surface noise in pop music. Film grain on digital video. Film makers have always (it seems) added haze with smoke machines and gone for rain and snow to help create a sense of depth and texture that seems more real than if the air were clean. Many examples of what you are talking about.
I love your note about how dirt is not applied randomly, but rather from some previous event or customary usage. That really does help tell a story, and since we are in the business of telling stories, that’s a really good thing to point out. Every object in the scene has a story, and the sounds that are made should tell those stories.
Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts here, Rob.
Michael Theiler says
This is a subject close to my heart and its been great to read it this morning. To me the power of noise is the signal (clear sound), flowing through its pipes, collecting the detritus of its time, having its frequencies rubbed off and banged up, and not being able to shake off the accumulation. It can be a deliberate obfuscation. It can be mist. It can be censorship. To me it is all these things, plus nostalgia, calming, Romantic.
For uses in music I like Christian Fennesz, and Burial. Old Jazz and Blues recordings that haven’t tried to remove the backgrounds.
Noise is the technology of the time. It is valve, or transistor or tape distortion. Lossy cabling, bad soldering, small speakers, punctured speaker cones.
In L.A. Noire we had to create the usual futzed dialogue lines. We briefly considered doing it all in-engine using FMOD, but quickly decided against this in order to do something a little more enjoyable. For the R & I lines (phone calls to the police receptionist at the station) we created a believable call center room tone, and placed this under the recorded lines. We cut up hundreds of the tiny futzes from genuine recordings of the old carbon microphone telephones being patched and picked up and put down and transferred. Beautiful sounds. Clicks and beeps, mechanical repeats. These were placed into the start and ends of the telephone dialogue lines, and scattered throughout. We then sent the backgrounds, dialogue and futzes through an Impulse Response of the old carbon microphone telephones, as well as some other subtle valve type distortion so it didn’t get too thin. Some of the most fun and rewarding sounds I’ve created.
For the dispatch recordings (in-vehicle CB style recordings) we took the recorded dialogue, and recorded it going through guitar distortion pedals, out a small auritone speaker, then recorded the results from various perspectives. While it was recording we rode the distortion levels on the guitar pedals for variation. The results were then taken and processed further, some futz added, and intelligibility increased. I love this stuff!
Thanks for an awesome article Rob. Its something I have been giving a lot of thought to recently, especially to the melancholic side of noise.