This episode was written & produced by Miellyn Fitzwater Barrows.
When you think of a movie soundtrack, you probably think music. And sure, that’s one of the many, many things going on there. What else goes into making a scene sound “natural”? It isn’t what you’d think. Meet a major motion picture sound designer who unpacks all the layers of sound that go into your favorite movies and a woman who gets tigers to sing... on tape. Featuring Sound Designers, Chris Aud and Ann Kroeber.
Music featured in this episode:
Washedway by Evolv
Spark by Eric Kinny
Take Me Home by The Analog Affair
Sommer by Longlake
Man on Wire by Steven Gutheinz
Eyes Wide Open by Tony Anderson
Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound and hosted by Dallas Taylor.
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View Transcript ▶︎
From Defacto Sound, you're listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz... The stories behind the world's most recognizable and interesting sounds. I'm Dallas Taylor. This is the story of how sound and film can bring a world to life.
[movie SFX montage]
When you think of movie sound, your mind probably goes to music. But you may not realize that there are about a million other pieces that go into making your movie experience sound amazing.
Chris: I’m Christopher Aud and I’m a Sound Designer and Re-Recording Mixer at Warner Brothers.
Chris has been on the sound team for quite a few films. More recently, Mad Max: Fury Road [play clip], Man of Steel [play clip] and Transformers [play clip] ...yea. Chris likes to break a soundtrack down into what he calls, the three main food groups; music, dialogue, and sound effects.
The first food group is what most people think of when talking about a soundtrack, music. It has the ability to heighten and define the emotional experience for the viewer [play music]. Music can be a subtle way to set the mood or it can be placed front and center. You only need to hear two notes from the Jaws theme to know exactly what it is. [Jaws theme]
Afterall, music was the first sound to be paired with motion picture and still today is the most widely recognized element of a soundtrack.
Ok, next food group, dialogue. It’s not as straightforward as you might think.
Chris: The dialogue is made up of all of the production audio. Anything the characters are saying hopefully has been recorded and recorded well. Like in the case in the project I’m on right now, they were smart enough to know that they were not getting the proper recording cleanly, so they shut off all their wind machines and had the actors re-do the lines right there on the set wild. Then the picture editor came in, pulled up those wild lines and cut them in-sync as best as they could.
The next thing that goes on with dialogue is what we call group ADR, where we hire a bunch of voice actors to come in and do all of the sound that not recorded on the set, [crowd SFX] but of the people that you see on camera, who are generally extras or voices that you might be needing to hear to tell the story through the radio or television.
We as reviewers are often hearing something completely different from what was recorded on set.
Chris: Say a gigantic club scene, [club scene SFX] lots of people talking, dancing, and yet on the set all you’re hearing are the main characters talk and everyone else is completely silent. They’re moving their mouths looking like they’re talking or yelling at each other, and they’re dancing to a song that is not playing in the room. And that all gets put in after the fact so it feels real and live to the audience, but for the actors and everyone on set at the time it’s a very different experience.
Now let's go to a sound designer's favorite food group, sound effects.
You might think something like an explosion is recorded by just that, an explosion right? But this is what a raw explosion sounds like [raw explosion clip]. And then, here’s what a movie explosion sounds like [movie explision clip]. Let’s break that down. These are a lot of different elements coming together to make that sound powerful. There’s the thump [thump SFX], the mid-range [mid-range SFX], the high frequencies [high frequencies SFX], the debris [debris SFX], and that’s just a small sample of what could be thirty plus sounds coming together to make that single moment.
Chris: Typically the dialogue track ends up being kind of sterile. You don’t really have a sense of place, an environment, so the sound effects provide that on a real basic level. So there’s backgrounds [backgrounds montage] that we put in, whether there’s winds and birds and traffics, or more interesting weird sounds [Sci-fi SFX]. Sometimes we’re just going for the emotional feel as opposed to the reality to help support the story that we’re trying to tell.
Sound designer’s have been able to create sounds that have become cultural reference points. So much so, that they sometimes become cliche.
Chris: Crows when the bad guy shows up. Sirens when something bad is about to happen, even if the cops aren’t coming in the movie, you’re hearing an off stage siren. Clock ticks in really quiet rooms. Sometimes it works. It all comes back to telling the story. Is it helping tell the story at that moment?
You might assume that most of the sound effects that we hear in a movie are sounds that literally translate to what’s going on visually. The sound of someone breaking a bone probably comes from just that right? Sound designer’s don’t actually break their bones or someone else’s just for the sake of their craft. Snapping celery *[celetry snap SFX] and other crunching vegetables [crunching vegtables SFX]*are classic tools for these gorey sounds.
Often times sound designer’s mix in sounds that are entirely unrelated in order to hit that sweet spot. And when they’re designing something that doesn’t exist in real life, that’s when things get really interesting.
Chris: Right at the top of Mad Max: Fury Road, the startup of Mad Max’s car out in the middle of the desert [play Max's car startup]. What a brilliant little cinematic moment visually, and to make sound for that was pretty cool and fun. And we’re not using just straight up car sounds in there, there’s other things hiding in there that make it fun and interesting.
I asked him, what was in the secret sauce?
Chris: There’s a couple of sewing machine type spin ups going on in there because you’re right on the belt of the motor that’s sticking out through the hood. So, there were other things to help sell that whine and start up that weren’t just car motor things.
Let’s listen to that again [play Max's car start up].
Chris: Almost nothing we do ends up being exactly the thing that you think you would pick up or grab or use to make the sound that you’re hearing. Sometimes that just has to do with the way the sound is recorded that we’re using. Sometimes we use microphones stuck way up inside of things, contact mics, and we’re getting sound that someone has never really experienced first hand. Because they’re not sticking their head inside a dishwasher.
That’s a really interesting thought. In movies, we’re experiencing sounds that most people have never heard first hand. But, in order to get the recordings, someone has to be out in the field capturing it. We’ll meet of os those people, after the break.
How do sound designers go about finding and recording sounds? To answer that question, I found someone with some really interesting adventures in the field.
Ann: My name is Ann Kroeber. I have been working in sound for movies and games for a bazillion years. I worked with my late husband Alan Splet and we worked together on a lot of iconic movies.
Ann has recorded sounds for Jurassic Park [play clip], King Kong [play clip], The English Patient [play clip], and a whole slew of other films. One thing she’s had a lot of experience with is recording animals.
Ann: All you have to do is just pay attention to them and be present with them and treat them with respect. They’re fascinated by the recorded and they talk to me. They talk into my microphone.
When she worked on the Harrison Ford film Mosquito Coast, Ann needed monkey sounds. So she went to the San Francisco Zoo.
Ann: They were hiding up on a big high rock and the zoo keeper told me, “Ok there’s two rules, you can’t look at them and you can’t talk to them.” And I said, “Oh listen, I can’t record that way. I’ll sign a release.” She had said “Ok, but be very careful.”
There’s one little monkey up on top of this high rock and he’s looking down and kind of watching me. And I said “Hey, come here a second I want to show you something. Come on. Come here.” He came down this rock and a whole troop of monkeys followed him and they made a semi-circle around me and I told the monkeys what I was doing. And they were like young children actually, and just by respecting them and just being present with them and talking to them, I just told them about the microphones and I told them about the tape recorder. I said “The sound goes in here and it comes around here.”
And they’re looking and they’re all fascinated by this. I had this sounds I had recorded of these dusty tiki monkeys, they’re like little chirpy kind of things. And I said “Hey guys, do you want to listen to this?” And they kind of nod their head yea. And so I turned it on, I played these dusty tiki monkeys [dusty tiki monkeys clip] and they’re listening really intently. And afterwards I said “You guys can do better than that.” And they all just jumped up and it was just incredible. They all jumped up and just started hooting and hollering and circling me and making this amazing racket [monkey sounds]. And one monkey would jump on my shoulder and howl into the microphone and I mean I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I was just so stunned by this amazing response from them.
Another film took to her the Mohave Desert to record big cats.
Ann: There’s this beautiful bengal tiger that was in a compound and he was very lonely. Usually, they’re kind of scared in the beginning they see this microphone and this big floppy thing on the end and they’re like “Whoa, what’s that.” Then I explain to them what it is. Once the tiger calmed down he would talk into the microphone, he would just go [tiger snarl]. And it would be like he was sort of telling me the troubles I’ve seen.
I found out that these big cats make this amazing sound at night [night SFX], it’s kinda of a chuffing chorus that they do and they won’t do it around people. So, I set up these microphones outside. Finally the cats started up and oh my god it was just so beautiful echoing through that place [cat chorus SFX]. So, when it was done I went over and listened to the recording and I just started crying. He’d gone right up to the microphone, right up and done, like an old jazz singer doing his solo to the chorus.
Ann started her own library with all the sounds she’s collected over the years. And she’ll continue to influence the way our movies sound, well into the future. If you turn off the picture and listen to the sound, it’s amazing to hear the great length sound designer’s go to build suspense, foreshadowing, emotion. All of these are essential pieces of the experience. They come together to make up a pretty fantastic whole. Whether it’s a simulation of real life [traffic and crowd SFX], or a fantasy brought to life [animal SFX]. They help us find a way to escape, even if it’s just for a little while.
Twenty Thousand Hertz is presented by Defacto Sound. A sound design team dedicated to making television, film and games sound insanely cool. Find out more at defactosound.com. This episode was produced by Miellyn Fitzwater Barrows and me. With help from Sam Schneble and Stephanie Wilkes. It was sound designed and mixed by Jai Berger.
We’d like to thank Chris Aud and Ann Kroeber for speaking with us. If you want to know more about Ann Kroeber’s sound effects library, visit soundmountain.com. All of the music in this episode was from our friends at Musicbed. Check out their incredible library at musicbed.com. We also have a public playlist set up just for the music we use in the show. You can hear that at music.20k.org.
Big thanks to Pocketknife for our website and Mast for the art. Continue the conversation by connecting with us on Facebook or Twitter, under the handle, 20korg. We’d love to hear what you think.
Finally, if there’s someone you know who might love this show, we’d be honored if you sent them a message, a text, or share the show on your facebook or twitter accounts. Thanks for listening.