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The Subtle-Yet-Undeniable Importance of Good Sound Design

I'm a video nerd. I'm obsessed with cameras, lenses, dynamic range, resolution, soft, gorgeous lighting, Rembrandt triangles and backlit, beautiful goodness. But because of this, it's all too easy in my work to accidentally slip back to the Roaring 20's and make a silent picture comeback. I'm talking about sound, baby. Right out of the gate, here's a video I just put together this week that I'm rather proud of, sound-design wise:

Most of my work is in the small, micro-budget, mini-doc world, basically just me following someone around for a single day shoot, one-man-banding it most of the time, or with a single crew member if I'm lucky. Wearing so many hats at once — Writer, Director, Producer, DP, Gaffer, Grip, Sound Guy, I think you get the picture — means that unfortunately, sound just often takes a backseat to visuals in my work.

Speaking of too many hats, one of my favorite picture-books as a kid was "Caps for Sale." Little did I know the classic tale of the peddler would become such a metaphor for my life and career. I'll have to figure out what the monkeys represent... 🤔

But anyway, this year, I have two main goals when it comes to production: A, using less slo-mo (topic for a different post!) and B, incorporating as much sound effects into my b-roll as possible. It's funny, because I've told clients so many times that sound is basically more important than video — You'd watch grainy, black-and-white, shaky handheld footage all day long if it served the story, but you could be watching 70mm IMAX film with resolution exceeding 18k, blisteringly bright and lifelike HDR in a Dolby Vision theatre, or 8k on a massive OLED, and if the audio is even a frame or two out of sync? Or sounds like it was recorded inside of a tin can? You won't be able to stand it, gorgeous visuals be damned! Which is why it's quite tragic that it's so easy to lust after the newest lens, the newest sensor, justifying spending tens of thousands in the pursuit of a stop or two of better highlight retention, — on cameras that will be outdated by next year — vs. spending even a fraction of that kind of money on a high-end mic that will never be outdated and will likely last your entire career! Obviously there are some really high-end, high-dollar microphones out there in the Schoeps and Nuemann land, but the Hollywood gold-standard workhorse, the venerable Sennheiser MKH416, is what, $1200? Nope, actually I just looked it up, it's even cheaper, currently $999 from our friends at B&H. Either way, way less than what people spend on cameras, lenses, lighting, grip, etc,. Wild.

I got a taste of some of that goodness a year or two ago, when I sprang for the Senny MKH50, and I love it. For less than the price of your average lens, I can use the same mic that Nolan used for interior dialogue on The Dark Knight. OK, so maybe he is, um, not the best director to be touting for good, crystal clear dialogue, lol (even Bane sounds intelligible compared to some of those scenes in Tenet, sheesh!) but I digress, it's a mighty fine microphone, and I love the way it sounds. But OK, so I got an upgrade in sound quality but not not necessarily quantity. Too many of my projects still end up feeling basically like a music video; all slo-mo b-roll to a nice track with no immersive sound whatsoever. If you watch a lot of older movies — which I do, all of the new 4k restorations of classic films that have been coming out recently have been unbelievable, another future post, perhaps — but anyway, sound has really changed a lot of over the years. Go back to the Hitchcock days and yes, you've got dialogue, music, sound effects, etc., but so much less than we have and take for granted today. Lots of times back then, only the most basic and obvious sound effects made it into the movie, the punch, the thud and scrape of footsteps, maybe some howling wind, but a lot of old movies really do feel weirdly quiet. Anyway, if you've made it this far, I did want to talk about that firefighting video earlier in the post. I am by no means a sound mixer, I barely know how to use the limiter in my editing software, let alone get fancy with EQ, compression, etc., (I really, really need to just buckle down and focus on some of these more technical aspects of processing sound) But nevertheless, I had a lot of fun on this project, just going through and looking for every possible sound I could add into the background. It's really fun trying to find the perfect sounds — granted, I could have just recorded them for real, but whatever, just talking about post here — for example, the sounds of an ambulance door opening and closing. I listened to dozens and dozens of different vehicle doors opening and shutting, before finally settling on "Hydraulic Pump 12" from some random sound effects library I found moldering on a long-forgotten hard drive, and it's perfect. Ditto for the heavy sound of boots running, with a rustle of cloth that's just right, or the echo of a metal staircase, sounds we all know, but when it comes to actually finding them, is a lot trickier than I expected. What really helped me was to mute the music and VO completely and just focus on what sounds are missing; oh, there should be a subtle bass boom for this impact as a helmet falls, aha, or, here, I need some kind of outdoor subtle-birds-chirping ambience, ooh, this next scene, what about some radio chatter? Honestly the most difficult-to-find sound in the entire edit was the female exercise/panting effect during the rowing/workout scene at 2:00.

I could hear exactly what I wanted in my head — kind of a slow-motion sounding exhale/blowing air out kind of thing — while she rows back and forth with the mechanical whirring of the machine (interesting how air coming out of someone's mouth can "feel" male or female at all, but it definitely does.) But yeah, googling "female gasp" ehh, churned up a lot results that, let's just say, weren't quite the right fit for this video. Actually, I just remembered an edit I made a couple years ago, it was for a large fitness brand, some super high-end footage was shot (I was just doing the edit) of a dude just going crazy on a workout machine. We decided we wanted the video to have only natural workout sounds. After trying and failing for days searching through stock libraries and endless gasping, panting men, I ended up having my deskmate just start doing burpees like crazy right there in the office to get the right kind of heavy breathing/body movement vibe, and it worked perfectly. Foley achievement unlocked! Actually I felt a bit like John Travolta's character in the criminally underseen Blow Out, about a sound guy who is searching for the perfect scream to use in a cheap horror movie, who ends up recording the audio of a murder, and uncovering a political conspiracy. Seriously a must-watch. I didn't discover the next QAnon, but my workout sounds were pretty dope 👌🏻 But that's the other cool thing I'm noticing about sound design. The "right" sound for an edit doesn't have to be realistic, at all, it just has to feel right. I remember hearing about how in the first episode of Lost, right as the plane is going down, they put in like a lion or a tiger roaring or something like that, completely illogical to the scene but enough to just kind of elicit some sort of primal fear response in the viewer, however subtly. I mean anyone who has ever shot a gun knows that in real life a pistol is more like a loud, thin "pop" than the booming, ringing gunshots of Hollywood (I think my favorite gunshot sound effect is probably Indiana Jones's pistol, particularly in Raiders of the Lost Ark, in that bar room gun battle, the guns just sound amazing in that scene). Feast your ears:

But back to the firefighting piece, I'm also quite proud of how the scene from :53 to :57 turned out. Just four seconds of screen time, but it's probably one of my favorite sequences of the whole edit, you hear fabric rumpling from the firefighter and a heavy, slightly jingly thud of boots as he jumps down from the truck, slams the door (another great bass boom with some metal sounds) heavy-runs over, grabs something metal and drags it across the pavement, while a siren wails in the background and the heavy, crackling roar of a fire can be heard in the distance, sprinkled with a little bit of extremely subtle radio chatter, all while the music swells, and we still hear the VO. Fun fact (completely unrelated to sound) but I also like that shot because of the very cool horizontal/anamorphic-looking flares in that scene. While I did shoot the interview (A cam, anyway) and some of the b-roll authentically anamorphic with my beloved Aivascope 1.5x, this particular scene was actually shot spherically on a Sigma 18-35 with one of those vid-atlantic 3d-printed oval insert things on the back with the little thin fishing line thing for those streaky flares. Anyway, all of this talk on sound, and the OTHER project I have been working on this week is actually mainly in sign language! Since it's a PSA for a deaf-education program at a state university, the whole thing is basically silent. So needless to say, not having any sound at all has been very interesting, especially trying to figure out how to properly piece the different segments together, signed off a teleprompter, an interesting editorial challenge, to say the least. But anyway, I just wanted to share some thoughts on sound in movies and videos. These are always fun to write, I should do it more.


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