Today my friends, we are going to talk a bit about “the dark side of sound design”.
I witnessed a very interesting experiment recently and I want to share my experience with you. A random group of people is watching three different video clips of heavy raining. The lecturer, after presenting the clips, informs his audience that in one of the movies, the sound of the falling rain is switched with the sound of bacon, being fried. The people then think for a couple of minutes but ultimately they can’t tell the difference. Briefly after that, the lecturer announces that he sound of frying bacon is actually used in all three videos. Pretty amazing a? Here, you can take the test for yourself:
Now if that was as interesting for you as it was for me, I believe you will enjoy hearing about some other secret tricks, used in the magic of sound design. For example, the sound of breaking bones is imitated by breaking a bundle of celery. Fist punches are recorded after stabbing cabbage with a knife. Flying birds are just sheets of paper or flapping towels. The sounds of a cigarette burning up are actually slow and fluent unwrap of scotch tape. Now those facts are all very interesting, but why are those methods used? Do they actually influence the realistic pictures in cinema? How much of one modern sound production is recorded on set? Or out there in the real world and how much is a product of sound design?
Those are the important questions that will try to answer with the next couple of lines.
The emotional co-experience of any audiovisual composition is much stronger when we use and shape our pallette of tools (weapons), in order to achieve the desired effect. Although often underestimated, one of the strongest weapons in sound designs arsenal is SILENCE. Yes, you “heard” it right, Silence! In our work, we often get clients that want the”WOW effect”. Everything has to sound very epic and thundering, all the time. This type of sound design is very popular nowadays, but all this high noise is often very distracting and it renders the audience unable to experience and feel the emotional message of the movie. I honestly don’t understand the need for having it this way. Maybe the reason is in the dynamics and loudness of the modern sound environment, or maybe it lies somewhere else…
I will allow myself to quote the great Mozarts famous words: ” The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.” I’m only saying this in regards to sound design. I will have to leave the topic for the role of music in the end picture for some other time. Now let’s say we are watching just another Hollywood action, no matter which one. The levels of the sound can easily be compared to those of an airplane flying just over our heads. And all this extremely loud banging, shooting, crushing and smashing noise continues for at least two hours. How long do you think it takes for our ears to get tired and stop perceive the sound picture at all? You are right, not long.
On the other hand, there is the idea of ” complete silence” and this might be a little hard to imagine but no such thing exists. Neither in real life nor in cinema. Although it is now easily achievable by using the so-called DAW system. If you stop for a couple of seconds and just listen and explore your surroundings, you will find out that there are hundreds of sound attacking your ears at any point. Some of them might be too quiet to hear them without paying special attention, but they are still there. And what is really fascinating, you will find out that even your bathroom and living room have their own “voices” and they are whispering to you all the time. You just have to listen closely, to hear them.
In the end, I want to give you some food for thought by asking you one relatively simple question. Why the combined sound of traffic and noise in our beloved cities is so irritating and annoying but in the same time the sound of the birds singing, the frogs croaking and the chirping of the crickets soothes us and calms us down. Both sound backgrounds can get very loud and they normally go on forever, but the effect they have on us is very different. The answer to that seemingly easy question might be way more complicated than we think.