I’m applying for a Masters in Sound Design at Leeds Metropolitan University! I’ll let you know how it goes 🙂

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Thank you and welcome!
Sorry for the lack of activity, but during my frantic job-searching I’ve been unable to update this site a great deal. I’d love to do so in future, so keep an eye on this space!
In the mean time, check out me and my friends’ new production company on Facebook!

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First, let me say (as should be evident from the title) that I really like 300. Ok, so the story may be a load of pseudo-historical hokum, but stylistically it’s wonderful, the colours tinged with desaturation makes it look very unique and interesting.
When it comes to sound, I think I’d be somewhat hard pressed to think of something I don’t particularly like about it. The sounds have the tendency to be wildly over the top, which suits perfectly a film adapted from a comic book where the common sounds are delivered in enormous onomatopoeic enthusiasm. THWACK.
Take a look at the scene in the introduction (at approx 2:50), where Young Leonidas is tied to a post and birched by his superior. There’s no sound except the music (rather distant and ominous), the narrator (the excellent David Wenham, Faramir from Lord of the Rings) and the loud, exaggerated Foley THWACK  from the rod on his back. The sound is held in isolation, there’s no background sound, no wind or muttering of the people watching from the inside of the scene, just the enormous sound of wood on flesh.

Immediately after that comes the wolf scene, a particular favourite part for me here; after the narrator says “Cold air in his lungs” we hear the whipping wind in greater focus, exaggerating the sense of chill even more. What thrills me about this sort of thing is that almost everyone who saw this scene will probably have been affected by this, yet not many of them will have noticed it. Combined with the grey-blue colouration and falling snow, the sound of an ice laden katabatic wind gives the scene an almost arctic feeling.

The comic book style Foley is present throughout the whole film and I greatly enjoy its exaggerated nature, all subtlety in 300 has a tendency to be thrown out of the window (for a film that is essentially a 2 hour fight scene, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing).
The next scene (Leonidas’ “coronation”) opens with a shot of a spartan soldier laying down his helmet with such a loud clunk you’d think it was made of lead, rather than bronze. Again, this scene shares the same sort of style as the birching scene earlier, the background sound is eliminated in favour of music, narration and loud Foley. When the two spartans kneel and place their spears on the ground, they thud as though they were boat oars, rather than fine spears.
I could point out examples of this until the cows come home, as the film is richly littered with them (and I have written 400 words about the first 6 minutes of the film…), but for a few further examples, see:

  • Whenever Leonidas draws/sheathes his sword there’ll be a huge, unrealistic SHING* (even though metal against leather would make very little sound at all, and definitely not a sound like that…)
  • When Leonidas kicks or punches something.
  • Whenever Leonidas does anything with his weapons or shield.
  • Whenever the spartans arrange their shields.
  • Whenever someone gets stabbed on-screen.

One of my favourite scenes is the one where the ships are broken by the storm, with a mix of thunder claps and waves; coupled with a great piece of music, the spartans begin shouting and going a bit wild. After their initial cries and whoops of aggression and happiness, the sound from them is cut. We see them dancing around and their mouths opening as though roaring defiance, but they make no sound. At that point, the only sounds are the music and the narrator. This gives this particular scene a very high impact and great feeling of tribal bloodthirstiness and aggression. For a moment they almost look like football fans celebrating a particularly impressive and important goal, the slow motion is very particular in creating a great scene.

My other favourite moment happens during the first fight scene, during the tussle where the spartans are pushing back the persians. The music cuts out completely, leaving just the shouting of the rabble and the lines of the actors, coupled with the sound of bashing shields, heavy footsteps and spear shafts clattering. The tussle continues and as the spartans find their feet and all the sound disappears except the noise of feet against loose earth which fades to nothing. The scene is without sound for almost a full second then returns with the spartans shield bashes full force.
I love this effect in particular, it has such a high impact and uses dynamics really really well, of all the battle scenes this is easily my favourite. The slow-fast motion fight scene that follows is a great example of using sound at different speeds to give different effects, too.

http://youtu.be/xvN7u7qEc9M < embedding has been disabled, but you’ll find what I’m talking about at 2:35 on this video. 

Well, that’s been a brief look at the first half of 300, hope it’s been interesting for you to read, it was entertaining to write whilst watching!
Thanks for reading

Oliver
*This has been discussed a lot as well, I might do a post on swords in the future.

Yes, don’t worry, I’m not dead, I’ve just been working super-hard on my dissertation, which is now complete and handed in. Hooray!
That gives me plenty more time to do more interesting things, like writing blog posts.

Today I’m going to talk some more about a few of my favourite scenes in film, TV, and anime and comment on their use of sound to
increase their impact.

Neon Genesis Evangelion – Episode 9 “Both Of You, Dance Like You Want To Win!”
Those of you that know me will know that I’m a bit of an Evangelion nerd (slight understatement, there). I think that some of the scenes in it are very high impact and excellently done.  Now, I know anime isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but bear with me – this scene is really nicely done.

From episode 9 “Both Of You, Dance Like You Want To Win!”
After the mechanical whoosing noises from the launchpads, the gorgeous music kicks in and all the other sound is forgotten. The music throughout is notably both diegetic and non-diegetic at the same time. The characters themselves can hear it (after all, the fighting is synchronised to the music, both in the narrative and out of it) and so can we, in fact it’s all we can hear.
It almost turns the scene on its head and gives a silent movie feel, which is rather “innovative”.
This provides an expertly done piece of subversion to the traditional fight scene, which you would expect to be full of noise and thunder.
These are some of my favourite parts of the scene:
At 0:17 we would expect to hear the mechanical sliding of the compartment opening and the subsequent gunfire, but we don’t. All we hear is the lovely music underpinning and driving the scene forward.
At 0:25 the music is perfectly synchronised with the back flips without any large crashes from the colossal feet to distract us from it.
At 0:35 Misato says something to her aide-de-campe, followed by a barrage of silent missiles and explosions
0:45, a heavy kick is timed with a percussion hit.
It’s no particular surprise that this scene constantly ranks highly amongst Evangelion fan favourites.

Lord Of The Rings – The Return Of The King “Battle of the Pelennor Fields”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D2C32OR8Nu4&feature=related

Youtube has declined to allow this particular example to be embedded, which is nice of them.
Anyway, this particular scene is a perennial favourite of mine, and has been ever since the films were released almost ten years ago. Watching this epic battle unfold on the big screen when I was smaller (whilst I am not too fond of cinemas these days) blew my tiny mind.
At 0:31 the sound mixer uses a technique called “ducking” to enhance the impact of the horn blast. The fighting sounds fade to nothing as the camera focuses on Gandalf as the focus resides squarely on the horn. Immediately after this, the focus switches to the orcs outside the city, and the sound returns. We hear them marching up and down and the snarl of the orc commander, even though the horn is still very present and evident.
The horn is traditionally used in late classical and romantic music as a symbol of purity and goodness, and as such the horn here is definitely to let us (the audience) know immediately that the heroes are coming. This is the main reason why those American WW2 movies (Saving Private Ryan is a prime user of this) use horns so much in their soundtrack, to emphasise the heroism of their main characters.

Compare the horn blast at the beginning of Pelennor Fields with this horn blast from the previous movie (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mLhvFSmhGC0 at 0:15). It should be clear that this horn is a “bad guy’s” horn, the note isn’t as pure or clean as the Rohirrim horn.
After this particular point, something incredibly beautiful happens, the horn is joined by other horns, which then fade together and are joined by non-diegetic horns in the soundtrack playing the Rohan theme. The perfect entry for our flaxen-haired heroes!
At 1:09, the camera turns from the heroes to the orc horde and immediately a drum sounds and the horns disappear, the soundtrack also features a baying mob sound, perhaps to emphasise the tribal barbarism and overall nastiness of the orcs.
It should perhaps be noted here that upon the pullback, the city looks to be over a mile away, in order to be heard inside the walls, the single horn blowing would have to be louder than a large open-air concert!
After a rousing speech (with those horns in the background, rising to a triumphant crescendo!) and a roaring crowd, we get a nice shot of a guy blowing one of the horns, followed by several more people doing some horn blowing (These guys are all about the horns).
As the charge begins, the music rises to the top and the sound effects are diminished slightly. One would expect 6000+ horses running at once to create an enormous, unbearable racket, but it’s lessened to a rather light rumble here, in fact, the armour clinks of orcs walking near to the camera make a louder noise than an enormous bunch of horses, regardless of the distance, that’s kinda strange.
That’s only a small part of the video, I might do more another time, but it would take ages to analyse the whole thing!

A somewhat slapdash blog post today, sorry, but it was fun to write.
As always, if you have any comments, leave ’em below.

Thanks for reading.
Oliver

So it’s been awhile since I blogged, so I thought I would tackle an interesting subject with regards to sound design, Effects.
It’s probably impossible to overstate the role of effects processing in sound, but I’ll try anyway. They’re really bloody important!

Effects typically fall into several categories:

  • Reverbs
  • Dynamic Processing
  • Modulation
  • Equalisation

There are more, but these are the most important for creating interesting sounds for moving image.
The first and foremost is probably reverb, which is used on just about everything. It is reverb which I will be discussing today. Go and find any piece of music you care to mention and unless it was recorded in a completely acoustically dead room (which is possible, though unusual) there will be evidence of reverb. The particular use of reverb in the field of sound design is creating the illusion of space. In this sense, reverb is almost a form of psychological trickery, you hear the sound and the reverberant quality of it immediately suggests the idea of space.

In the following examples, I used a free sound effect from http://www.freesound.org

Here we have the untreated (dry) footsteps:

and here are the same footsteps, treated with a simple reverb on a large tiled room setting.

With just the simple addition of a (fairly poor quality – I’m away from my usual computer/Pro Tools setup) reverb, the illusion of the footsteps taking place in a much larger space is created. This can be incredibly useful in creating the mood and setting of a particular scene. We are psychologically attuned to notice spaces and the difference they make in sound, and so this is critical for sound design. We can change various elements (room size, the amount of early reflections and the mix %) of the reverb to tailor it to our needs.

BANG!

Explosion with no extra reverb

Explosion with added reverb

Explosion with added reverb

The addition of reverb spreads the waveform and makes the sound linger longer (as you would expect). This can be seen in the waveform above.

Thanks for reading, sorry for the delay between posts!

Oliver

(Soundcloud seems to have botched the upload/transcode, hopefully it’l go through soon.)

I haven’t had a lot of time for researching and writing a blog article on something to do with sound design, but I can talk a little bit about my dissertation and what I’m finding out through the research. Perhaps most of the results are unsurprising; the flute is perceived as feminine, the drumkit is perceived as masculine. There was absolutely no confusion amongst the respondents with regards to that, all of them agreed. Interestingly, whilst only a few people said they had never been put off from an instrument based on how it made them feel (gender wise), women were also much more likely to say they had never been drawn to an instrument for the same reason.  The males, however, had a split amongst their results, a fair amount said that they had been drawn to their instrument based on how it made them feel.

Interesting, that.

Ok, so now that I’ve sent off some emails to tutors I can get a brief respite. So instead of talking about the Audio Black Hole, which I will save for later, today I’ll have a look into the sound of Doctor Who (The Rebooted Series). I was reminded of the latest series of Doctor Who by my American ladyfriend, who was watching it for the first time recently. Obviously, I saw all the episodes as they were airing, so it’s been quite a while since I’ve had a look at any of them, so we’ll see what I can dig up on the sound of this iconic series.

First things first, when you think of Doctor Who, the sound you think of is that of the TARDIS taking off/coming into land. It’s a noise that’s been programmed into the collective memory of every British child born after 1950, and is instantly recognisable. That pulsating bassy noise with harsh metallic overtones, wheezy and breathy, almost. It gives the TARDIS both a feeling of being a machine, but also a living object (Which it is.) The sound is as iconic as it is weird, and its origins are pretty strange too, and not perhaps what you’d expect.

To begin with, the TARDIS takeoff noise begins with a loud thud with a great deal of reverb, stretching the tail of the thud out well beyond what would be expected. As this thud tails out,  a hum crossfades with it and pulses gently underneath the main feature, it is probably reasonable to assume that this humming sound has a similar origin to that of Ben Burtt’s Star Destroyer sound, the hum of a household object such as an air conditioner or cathode ray tube, pitch shifted down to create that delightful rumble. Over the top of this comes the most specific and recognisable sounds, that of the key from a Yale Lock being scraped over the bass/mid wires of a Piano with a rhythm almost like the sound of quick breathing. This scraping is treated with reverb (probably aided by the soundboard of the piano) and with a variable delay that increases and lengthens as the effect continues, going from an almost slap-delay to a full and obvious one. The effect ends with synthesized beeps and whistles (treated with delay) which fade to nothing. The landing effect? It’s exactly the same, except the order in which the elements are used is reversed! Don’t believe me? Go and listen to it for yourself.

The next sound that everyone associates with Doctor Who is the classic “Dalek Voice” created by the wonderful Nicholas Briggs* using a Ring Modulator effect (Exterminate!). As to how a Ring Modulator functions, it’s complicated and not very interesting, safe to say it gives sound a “metallic sheen” – perfect for the inhuman, semi-robotic Daleks. Ring Modulators aren’t often used in music because the results are very hard-edged and aggressive, and mostly atonal. In other words, they sound nasty. Of course, this works in the favour of the sound design, since the Daleks are the ultimate evil masterminds behind all the problems in the Dr Who universe, it would seem strangely inappropriate if the scourge of the universe were honey-tongued.

As to other sounds, there are plenty that are somewhat iconic. The sonic screwdriver, for example. Treated as some kind of sci-fi magic wand, the Doctor uses the sonic screwdriver to manipulate technology, open doors and freak people out. It makes a sort of whistling synthetic sound, the sound isn’t as metallic as the Dalek voice, but it still has a metal edge to it. A fast repeating oscillating tone is played until it becomes like a buzz. Very sci fi!

Dr Who also features some things I’ve already talked about in previous articles, such as soundtrack dissonance. In “The Family of Blood” a private school is besieged by a group of scarecrow zombies and their masters, who are out to catch the Doctor (who is at that moment disguised as a human and does not remember his true nature). As is typical for boys of the age displayed, 12-18, they are expected to defend their school against the invaders. As the boys man machine-gun posts and ready their rifles, the Bunyan hymn “To Be A Pilgrim” begins to play. Coupled with the scenes of the boys shooting the scarecrow-zombies with their guns, this music becomes extremely poignant when we, the viewer, remember that the story is set in 1913. One year before the outbreak of World War One, and these boys will be some of those made to fight, and die.

Another moment comes in the Christmas Special following the climax of Series 2; The Doctor is despondent at the loss of his love, who is stranded in a parallel universe. Through circumstance and over the course of the episode, he finds himself at a wedding reception. What song plays? Why, it’s “Love Don’t Roam” an upbeat, peppy lounge song.. about a man who’s lover has vanished.

 

*Yes, I know Nick Briggs wasn’t the original Dalek voice, but I’m dealing with the rebooted series here, ok?