Thursday, March 24, 2016

Designing Sound

This essay by Douglas Murray is a guest article on the site Designing Sound, a multi-author blog for sound design professionals. Much of the site's content will probably not be very accessible or even of much interest to others.

Murray's piece is the exception. The article is on background sound (ambient or environmental sound) and is especially rich with information. It is also very accessible, and could easily be read even in conjunction with Hearing the Movies, chapter 1.

For example, where we say
If the foreground shows us where to direct attention, the background provides a sense of presence, of a continuous, uniform space that joins the sound and image edits into the appearance of a unified physical place, a “world.”  (HtM, 11)
Murray writes that
Movies essentially need to have background sound at all times. By adding background sounds to a scene we define what the scene is, where we are, and what’s happening around us, even off screen. 
Whether consciously listened to, or subconsciously heard, background sounds define the space, the time and the mood of the scene. 
Where we write
A background sound common to a series of shots helps convince us that each piece of dialogue comes from the same space—although, in fact, dialogue is typically edited along with the images and is often rerecorded after the fact.
Murray says
BG sounds even define the duration of the scene. We connect shots together in our mind if they have continuous sounds running behind them. For example, if we see a sequence of shots accompanied by a steady background sound, we will gather the shots together in our minds as being from the same time and place.
And, when Murray describes the function of background in this way,
Even though we hear [ambient] sounds, and can often describe what we heard if asked, we aren’t focusing on the background sounds in a scene because we are engaged in the characters and story.
That sounds pretty much the same as our description:
The foreground/background structure ensures that narratively important figures are placed in the foreground [—] image and sound tracks are arranged in such a way that we know what to pay attention to, what is important in order for us to understand the narrative. 
Here are some other observations from the article (quotes are slightly edited).

  • When the background sound changes with each shot, then we experience each shot as in its own place and time. 
  • [Expected environmental] sounds are not likely to attract a lot of conscious attention, but there would be a sense of absence if they or some other plausible sounds were lacking, especially at the beginning of the scene while we are orienting ourselves to the new situation. 
  • A marvelous side benefit of putting in these expected sounds is that the sound designer can think “musically” and use this palette of sounds the way a composer uses the available instruments in an ensemble.
  • Absence of sound can create a tension like holding one’s breath. 
  • Two tasks for the sound designer: Establish the location, then direct the audience’s point of view by withholding most sounds and selectively presenting just the desired sounds. 
  • Dynamics may be a sound designer's enemy in backgrounds. Our ears prick up when we hear sudden changes in sound level and we attend to the new sound, assessing the threat or import of this sudden change. So a loud sound like a car by or dog bark or door slam can take you right out of the movie.
  • Remember that the mixer will probably play your beautifully designed atmosphere track at an ephemeral or subliminal level, so that just a whiff of it bleeds into audibility. . . . This practice is so widespread that mixing a background track to a more than subliminal level becomes some sort of statement. Low level backgrounds are a convention today — perhaps to a fault.