The key to great sound design

9 / 01 / 20

Behind the Scenes

Sound design encapsulates many things, and we pay just as much attention to it as we do to the visual design. The use of sound is an essential ingredient for the way we tell stories.

Great sound design is made up of many composite parts. Fundamentally, you incorporate sounds that go organically with the story. It's important to capture any key situational or ambient audio from the environment you're in. A scene which takes place in an office, for example, would benefit greatly from general office sounds being captured independently. Clicking keyboards, telephones ringing, printers printing, etc. These parts can all be composited to help create a more tangible scene when it comes to the final edit, especially when coupled with the appropriate close ups of such details. Sound design normally happens after filming and editing; when you think about this, it reminds you of how important it is. It has the potential to make or break.

Implementing sounds that marries with or compliments the subject of the shot is another way to enrich the scene. These may not be naturally occurring sounds at the time of filming, but sounds that you understand to be associated with the subject. We'll elaborate on this later.

As with any other process in production, there are some minimum requirements. It goes without saying that if you're focussing on a person speaking, it's a good idea to record their voice. The real craft of sound design is to think outside the box. Determining what noises to use and why to use them requires a lot of trial and error, thematic consideration and creative understanding.

The most immediate example of sound design is the soundtrack or score. The soundtrack, which is use of music or musical sounds, is a powerful way of provoking the audience's mood. More than just underlining the action on-screen, a good soundtrack can evoke a response that might otherwise not have been there. Understanding what type of music to use to encourage the desired emotional response seems obvious; you wouldn't introduce the theme from The Benny Hill Show when you want the audience to feel sad would you! What is less obvious, however, is where this comes from. That theme might not have been associated with comedy or silliness if it weren't for the comedy on-screen - and that's the distinction we have to consider when identifying the right music.

Why does the fast paced brass sound compliment comedy? Why does gentle piano compliment drama? There are a number of variables that answer this question. Pace is one of them. Does the pace of the music reflect the pace of the action? When we find ourselves in exciting or turbulent situations our hearts beat faster. Adrenaline kicks in. Maybe that's why fast music works. Tone or pitch are other variables. Does a shrill, jerking violin make you feel comfortable? Happy? Nervous? However it makes you feel, ask yourself: Do it make the scene better? There are countless other variables, but you get the idea. It requires thought.

Whatever the method, the chief concern of sound design is to foster an audience’s attention with sound. Why? Because most of us make sounds when we communicate. We speak. We listen. We use visual cues to interpret or enhance the sounds we make and receive. We move muscles in our body to make theses sounds and we feel those muscles moving. These senses are all tied together. Reflecting this when filmmaking ensures a more complete experience.

Sound provides vital signposting for the audience ahead of the crucial visual moments of the story. This is what we mean when we describe a score. It's still musical in nature, but it's not really a song. It is the use of instrumentation to support the footage, rather than a song that goes well with the footage. One only needs to think of the iconic score during the shower scene in Hitchcock's Psycho and its ability to heighten anxiety at the precise moment it needs to. Conversely, the absence of any kind of score in the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men has a similarly potent effect; we relied solely on the environment and ambient sound. What more do you need to evoke a feeling of solitude and condemnation than the breeze whistling across the barren landscape where most of the drama unfolds?

A score is recorded separately and mixed with the visuals in post-production. Sometimes, less is more. Other times, more is more. Understanding how to approach your design requires an understanding of how the score can be used and how flexible it is; how impressionable it can be and how, in turn, this might influence a reaction. The infamous theme for Jaws is only two notes - the way those two notes are used, however, is everything.

Voice capture, either as part of a shoot or as a voiceover in post-production, demands a good understanding for many of the same reasons. Most of the time the main objective is to capture a clear recording of the actor's voice, through dialogue or narration. Sometimes, however, a less than perfect style might be appropriate. Sometimes you may have to consider how this audio will be involved with the overall sound mixing, which will influence the methods you use. It all depends.


Case Study: Sound recording and reproduction - 200 Degrees Barista School Film

Britain has become addicted to cafe culture with new cafes, roasters and enterprises opening all the time. In our hometown of Nottingham, 200 Degrees is one of the most popular outfits in the city, having grown from an independent coffee roaster into a national brand in just a few years. When we developed our concept for 200, we knew we had to evoke all of the sights and sounds associated with the ritual. We needed to make our film aspirational and also pique the interest of people with the same passion for coffee. We wanted to evoke the experience.

Essential (to us at least) is the sound the coffee makes as the freshly brewed liquid hits the cup. The sound of the steam wand froths the milk. The grinding of the coffee beans when another fresh cup is made. Details play a major role.

To capture these sounds requires the microphone to be as close to the action as possible, which means it's in shot.
The solution was to perform two takes: One for the visuals and one for the audio. We put it all together in post and were able to create the evocative impact we wanted. You can see the final result here.

Capturing sound as a separate discipline

Towards the end of a typical project, we pay extra attention to nuance and how was can inject more character and detail to the scene. We think about how the sound can be made clearer or how we can introduce sounds that might not have been attainable during the shoot. Sometimes, we need to re-record or overdub ('dub') to fix an issue. We might need to eliminate rogue noises picked up during the shoot. Dubbing doesn’t have to be about fixing problems, though. Sometimes we need to use it intentionally. For instance, re-recording dialogue in a different language, or to add impact in specific genres, like comedy, parody or satire. There's a scene in the film Wayne's World 2 that springs to mind with this.

Then, theres the opportunity to take the enhance the scene by recording audio as an entirely separate process in an entirely different environment, which is referred to as 'Foley'.

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What is 'Foley'?

One of the pioneers of sound effects artistry, Jack Foley, created a technique that provided additional impact to certain shots via off-screen sound recordings. Today, this method is simply referred to by his name.

Let’s imagine we're making a horror film which contains a particularly gory or violent scene. A foley artist will use tools and physical items to create an approximate sound to match the action. For example, the artist may use a food item such as cabbage for a stabbing scene, as this has just the right resistance and moisture content to produce an effective sound when stabbed with a sharp object. Other food items can be used too; a stick of celery being snapped in two works well for broken bones - not because it's realistic but because it's over the top and gross!

Foley artists usually watch the footage and attempt to 'perform' the sounds in time, requiring all sorts of props or miniature set ups in a studio. If the scene shows close up of a cowboy walking along the dirt as he paces before a duel, the artist may set up a microphone over a paddling pool filled with similar dirt, walking over it in a pair of cowboy boots in time with the actor.

Foley can be really fun process, both surreal and imaginative, and add heightened, sensory sounds to poke the audience's senses. Crucially, though, the method is sometimes the only way to capture integral sounds of a particular scene for creative or dramatic effect. There are times when physically recording the audio needed isn't so straight forward. How do you get a microphone up close to the flapping wing of an eagle in flight? The answer is: you don't. You use Foley.

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Rather than mimicking sounds with objects, or capturing sound details in situ when filming, we often have to record genuine or environmental audio separately. We do this when we want to mirror the action taking place on the screen, as with Foley recording, but require real world sounds which cannot me recreated or simply cannot be recorded accurately in a studio / on set. Sometimes this is for practical reasons; other times, creative.

Conversely, we use artificial or strange sounds for a specific effect, or to apply a sound to something artificial. This approach often goes hand-in-hand with CGI or animation, and we might wish to experiment with unusual noises to create impact. Certain things don't actually exist, so we have to get creative; what should it sound like? What can we use to make that kind of sound?

We are constantly making these kind of judgements with all elements of sound design and it's an ever evolving discipline. We've recently produced content for Savoy cinemas, who use a Dolby 7.1 cinema sound system. This required us to not only develop the sound design of our trailer, but also design the way this sound integrates into a 360˚surround-sound experience.

Good sound design is an unsung hero and just like good cinematography, it should go somewhat unnoticed by the audience if it's done well. That said, the overall worth of sound design to the finished film cannot be overstated. It's the DNA of any effective production.