Monday, May 12, 2014

Art In The Unexpected - Basics of Sound Design

I often get the question what differs sound design from sound editing, and truth be told, there are different answers to that question depending on who you ask. Which regretfully is the reason why we can't win any Oscar as sound designers, only as sound editors and such.
My definition follows a pretty common opinion - it's the art of using both form and function to reach a desired goal by creating what's needed in respect for what it's intended for right there, right then. Where a sound editor might figure this nifty library door-handle sound might suit this here scene just fine, a designed approach to this could very well be based on the anxiety of the lead, striding nervously through the house, grabbing the handle with fear of what might be on the other side, meaning a careful grab of the handle with a slight grinding noise as it frictions against the un-lubed escutcheon plate, a snarling metallic yet discrete creak as it slowly turns the internal mechanism, and a firm, yet threatful, dark "clack" as the latch unlocks from the door-frame. All within approx 2 to 5 seconds, yet telling more in this time than words would ever do.

From Starlight (Mattias Titus Paar, 2011)

Sound design can also be an over-all approach. I often gets assignments where I'm to design entire soundscapes for entire feature length movies, and in these cases ambiance is a very key element for the very same reasons - a scene beginning very calmly, for example, with two friends walking through a fairly calm yet noisy midsummer urban surrounding, might very well begin with nothing but distant traffic and happy birds. Maybe some crickets or grasshoppers (I like crickets and they are most definitely found even in most urban settings with at least some kind of green areas). As the scene progresses, the two friends beginning to grind, and eventually annoyance turns into hostility.
Without even the audience noticing, I've snuck in dissonant ambient sounds gradually, replacing the happy birds and grasshoppers with crow-birds, dissonant metallic sounds, and droning aging fans. Completely changing the tone of the scene without anyone realizing, a feat almost impossible to do with music as we're extremely good at interpreting musical material instantly.

Sound design can also be just designing single sounds for specific applications.
In sound design vs. sound editing, a common question is - is one better than the other? No. A full design is very time consuming, and demands a full understanding of the director's intentions with the movie, but can (if used properly) enhance the feeling something tremendously, whereas editing can be very fast and still provide very good function. A good sound editor works every bit as much with feelings and emotions, just not as controlled and fine-tuned. It's a little like crafting a wooden chair - an editor might make an extremely comfortable chair in no time that you'll enjoy sitting on, but you don't really mind it until you need it. The designer might make an equally comfy chair, but looking great. Though that sounds like a good thing, it will take a considerable more time to make, and if the chair doesn't fit with the rest of the settings, it's just distracting.
A common way to deal with this, to get the best of both worlds so to say, is to employ both types for movies. Designers to make specific tasks and effects, and editors to make the over-all. Myself, I enjoy working with both methods depending on the project. Time is a luxury very rarely enjoyed when making movies.

Many loves them, but personally I hate working with library sounds though. When I record almost all sounds myself, I can more or less guarantee my employers unique and technically top-notch sounds as I have full control over everything from start to finish, but it also means I can find brand new sounds from old sources by just recording things differently. And I absolutely fucking love to record sounds.
I do, however, mean almost about me almost exclusively working with own material though. Sometimes libraries are downright lifesavers, and as such, I try to buy as much as I can just in case. As an often single working freelancer, some sound might be very difficult to acquire on my own, or even in assembled teams, and though I'll never give up trying, it's always good to have a back-up plan.
Being too rigid on rules just for the sake of it
is never a good thing.

All this might lead you to think sound design is very complicated, and truth be told, often it is. But not always.
We must always strive to get exactly what we intend and want, but we must also always strive towards simplifying the whole process as far as possible. Anything that doesn't enhance the intended application must go, but everything that's needed must be incorporated. That means I have made a single car-door from over 50 single sounds before finally getting it right, just because there were no other (good) ways to do it for that particular scene, but one of the sounds I'm most proud of was actually nothing more than one sound. Period.
This particular sound was a grandfather-clock in a surreal short I made years ago. I tried several different real clock-sounds, in different combinations and with different kinds of processing, but it just didn't feel right- It was an extremely important sound, so just putting a cool sound and say "meh, time to move along" was out of the question.
After about two hours I gave up trying for the real deal, and began from scratch, going for building the sound as a pure construct.
The first sound I fell for was actually nothing but a ratchet pawl clacking against the gear of a small saw-mill at a friend's place! I made a 25 frame long (this was PAL video, mind you) strip of one of the clicks extracted from the best angle, and repeated it through the first scene containing the clock.
Dafuq!? I realized I was almost there already! There was something missing, but this was without doubt exactly what I was looking for! As this was at the end of the day, I called it a day, rendered the scene, and sent it to the director before returning home and calling it a day.
Back in the studio the next day, and with feedback from a very happy director, I listened to the scene again. I had a "tick tick tick" I was very happy with, but I wanted a "tick tock tick tock tick tock". With fresh ears and head I wondered - what differs the "tick" from the "tock"? Pitch?
I marked every second segment and pitched it down 6 half-tones for good measure. I was home!
One sound, one half processing, a slight slight touch of EQ to shape it up for the mix and removing rumble, and absolutely no compression (unmodded Oktava 012, which was what I had been using during that original session, have pretty lay-back transients), sent in parallel to the already existing AltiVerb-channel (AltiVerb is sampled room-echoes) for that very room, was all that was needed!
Always do what you need to do, and not a single *beeping* thing more. No more, no less.
Unless you really wanna try it and will not get crap for it.

Me to the left and Andreas Rylander to the right during the filming of The Chicken Dinner (Eric Larsson, 2013).
Andreas not only being one of the main leads in A Broken Line and one of my closest friends, but also provider of both many film-clips and voice-effects for this here little project.
I didn't do post for Chicken Dinner though, just location sound.


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