SUMMARY OF SOUND DESIGN READINGS & EXAMPLES
Before we had paintings, photos, screens of all shapes and sizes people primarily told stories verbally. History was passed from generation to generation vocally. Even Socrates the father of western philosophy according to Plato, never wrote a word. In fact in the allegory of the cave, he distrusted and warned against the images on the wall. The sounds we speak come from deep within us, originating from our lungs and vibrating our vocal cords. Our sounds, our voice, our good vibrations. Microphones and ears both absorb those vibrations and convert them to signals. It is a natural conclusion to believe that if you desire to be a master storyteller, the sound of the story must be your first and foremost consideration.
But before we discuss the editing process, we have to make sure we capture great sound in the first place for our storytelling to occur. Here are some quick tips by Filippo Gaetani. These are solid principles for any types of recordings:
- Get in the zone – You need to be as comfortable and relaxed as possible in any space your recording in.
- Hack your bedroom – Try to record in a neutral, dry room. You’ll want to avoid cavernous rooms with reflections and reverberated sound because it will affect the quality and the control later in the mixing process. Clear dry recordings really save you a lot of post production time and energy. I heard the phrase a thousand times from printers “crap in, crap out”, apparently the same holds true for audio. Blankets, curtains and heavy soft fabrics are all good sound absorbers. You can build a simple vocal booth using old blankets, curtains, mattresses and pillows. Avoid reflections and echoes typical of hard floors, empty rooms and large rooms.
- Position your mic and pop filter correctly – Listen with your headphones for the subtle differences. Try close (two or three inches) or mid-distance (one foot) mic’ing, depending on which sound works best for your track. Always use a pop filter in front of the mic to tame your “P” and “T” sounds.
- Get the right mic levels – Vocals should be safely below the red to avoid distortion.
- Do several takes – Better to have more choices to choose from in post. Record the practice ones too, you never know, you may hit it out of the park on the first take!
- Be careful with your vocal editing – Make sure you focus on the performance, not the pitch. Use parts that aren’t just sung “well,” but that also have personality. Autotune and Melodyne are great tools, but don’t overdo them
- Know when (and when not) to process your vocal sound – Try to make things sound as natural as possible. This takes experience and time.
Now that we have captured our raw files and we are sitting with our pre-production plans, storyboards, scripts and directions we begin the digital storytelling process.
In his article for Videomaker magazine Hal Robertson recommends taking a sound centered approach to video editing. He urges us to plan, capture and edit the sound separately and before the visual portion of the piece. Beginning with the audio portion “…your primary objective for now is to tell the story (through sound) in the smoothest, most logical manner, complete with a beginning, middle and end.” First, include the segments that explain the plot and main action. Next, use the clips that describe how the main story line developed, and finally, the resolution or conclusion and the essential descriptive audio for the final chapter. Collect all these elements using your A and B roll.
Create a rough cut. That is your story skeleton, then flesh it out with layers of background music, foley sounds, fades, transitions. This is my favorite part, when you get to be creative and make choices about emphasis, add, cut, mix and chop to your heart’s content.
Once you have completed editing your final video using sound as the guide, the final step is to smooth it out and finish the piece to give it some cohesiveness and shine. Think of it as “mastering” your piece. Video producers often use audio post-processing to sweeten their video soundtrack. With certain audio software, you can use the same technique. For example, in programs like Adobe Premiere, select the timeline, then click on File | Export | Audio. This allows you to export the entire audio program as a single file. Then, it’s a simple matter to open the file in audio software and apply some light compression, limiting and equalization. Then re-import the “mastered” file replace the existing audio layer once you are ready. Since it is at the same length of the previous, it should just be a simple swap.
I really enjoyed this Ted Talk by Tasos Fratzolas in Athens, who explains the beautiful lies that are crafted when engineers tackle tough sound design challenges. It really sets the stage for the examples below, so if you are still trying to grasp what sound design is really all about, this brilliant presentation pretty much sums it all up.
Research to inform
And now, here are some examples of the masterful union of sight and sound .
“Lady in the Lake” 1947 by Robert Montgomery – In this film-noir classic, a detective is hired to investigate a murder, the story is told from the first person view of the investigator. With the exception of a couple of times when Montgomery (in character) addresses the audience directly, the entire film is shot from the viewpoint of the central character. The audience sees only what he does. MGM promoted the film with the claim that it was the first of its kind and the most revolutionary style of film since the introduction of the talkies. The movie was also unusual for having virtually no instrumental soundtrack, the music in the film being instead provided by a wordless vocal chorus. This makes the sound and dialogue, both internally in the main characters mind and on screen, extremely important. I recently saw this and found the POV coupled with the use of sound fascinating.
“Blow Out” by Brian Depalma. This is an oldie but goodie, this 1981 film by Brian Depalma is coincidentally about movie sound recordist (sound engineer) who accidentally records the evidence that proves that a car accident was actually murder and consequently finds himself in danger. As you can see from this film it is an absolutely brilliant use of sound as it plays an integral part of the plot. In this scene tension builds from the rotating camera and industrial sounds as Travolta realizes that something is amiss in his workshop.
“He Got Game” by Spike Lee . The intro for this 1998 American sports-drama film is truly great storytelling. The weight and context of what you are about to see is established with a simple montage. The soundtrack for He Got Game was composed of numerous orchestral pieces by Aaron Copland with songs created by the political rap group Public Enemy. In the introduction, Spike Lee immediately communicates how basketball is a great and beloved great American pastime. Using Copland’s homage to the west, Lee juxtaposes the epic soundtrack against the graceful movements of the players. The begins with nature and ends with a passing subway. The horns as the players position, the strings rise as the they dribble and make moves to the basket, the shots are captured with winds. There is a sadness, beauty and inspiration from the choice. This was quite moving for me when I first saw it.
“Gravity” by Alfonso Cuarón. In this exclusive SoundWorks Collection profile we talk with Director Alfonso Cuarón and Re-recording Mixer Skip Lievsay about the sound teams work to create a dramatic sound scape to a dark and vast outer space environment. Academy Award® winners Sandra Bullock (“The Blind Side”) and George Clooney (“Syriana”) star in “Gravity,” a heart-pounding thriller that pulls you into the infinite and unforgiving realm of deep space. Cuaron is a modern master. The sound is so critical in this piece to connect with the characters, understand their emotional state, intensifying the action. Sandra Bullock’s breathing alone makes you feel as though you are right their in a visceral way.
“In Darkness” by Anthony Byrne. Netflix 2018 When blind pianist Sofia (Natalie Dormer) overhears the death of her upstairs neighbor (Emily Ratajkowski), she is drawn into a dangerous world of corruption, hit men and the Russian mafia—connecting Sofia’s own hidden past and secret revenge. Again, another example of how sound plays a the primary role in immersing the audience in the story. The vulnerability of the witness is expressed through the various soundscapes in which she finds herself. Superb editing and use of selected foley additions to intensify the experience and move the plot. That in combination with the high def, almost still photographic-like cinematography is pleasing both to the eyes and ears.
“Patreon for Motionographer” Promotional Animation. There is so much amazing work out there it can be overwhelming and time is limited. I could go on for days about great cinematic sound design but I didn’t want to limit all my examples to just movies. As i just learned, having shorter pieces can be even more challenging. Whenever I need to refresh my eyes, get inspired or see what the next level of creativity looks like. I head over to motionographer or stash media. In this promotional piece the added sounds really compliment the animation and works in perfect harmony and sync with the voiceover and music. Each scene has one foley sound which doesn’t make it feel crowded or busy. The sounds of things like the water hose, echo, reverb and distance on the mobile phone give the primarily flat 2D animation depth.
“Hearing Tarantino” Montage by Jacob T. Swinney . And last, but not least, Quentin Tarantino, another of my favorite modern masters uses sound so effectively that I would have to quit the course and dedicate the next two months just gathering clips. Luckily, somebody already did! Just watch and enjoy.
Shawn is an Information Technology manager in Washington D.C. and a graduate student at Quinnipiac University pursuing his masters in Interactive Media and Communications.
Sound Advice: Editing Audio for Video – Videomaker. (2002, July 01). Retrieved from https://www.videomaker.com/article/c4/8862-sound-advice-editing-audio-for-video
Sonicbids. (2019, April 01). 7 Secrets for Getting Pro-Sounding Vocals on Home Recordings. Retrieved from http://blog.sonicbids.com/7-secrets-of-getting-pro-sounding-vocals-on-home-recordings
Schroeppel, T., & DeLaney, C. (2015). The Bare Bones Camera Course for Film and Video. Allworth. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Bare-Bones-Camera-Course-Video/dp/1621535266
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