Noise Factory

published in BeoMag (The Bang & Olufsen Magazine) Winter 2003, Melbourne
Walter Murch mixing Apocalypse Now (1979)

There's a lot that happens on a movie soundtrack. Yes, there's a lot that also happens with a film's image - its production design, cinematography, editing, etc. - but the soundtrack is invisible. It's harder to perceive exactly what is involved in a soundtrack - indeed, what defines one.

The term 'soundtrack' literally refers to everything that ends up encoded onto the soundstrip which runs along the edge of a film strip. Once a pair of squiggly lines, now a thick strip of densely compacted specks, the film soundtrack contains all the sonic activity which accompanies the screen image. Dialogue, sound effects, atmospheres and music are all combined in a film mix - sometimes with diplomacy, sometimes under duress.

Removing music - a commissioned score provided by a composer - and dialogue - the performance of scripted speech by actors - from the soundtrack leaves us with, well, sound. And this is the heart of the soundtrack.

How the heart of the soundtrack is kept alive and pumping is nearly as complex as open-heart surgery. There are a two phases of a film's soundtrack. First is the location recording - of dialogue predominantly, but also incidental effects and atmospheres, like the banging of doors as a character is chased down the dark corridors of an abandoned factory. Sometimes these incidentals are recorded at the same location, but not while the camera is rolling. This provides 'wild' (non-synched) sound for use later in editing. Atmospheres and room tones are also recorded on location to capture the aural feel of what the camera records.

In Europe, this approach to sound is known as edirect sound'; in America, a large proportion of sound effects and atmospheres - not to mention dialogue - are post-produced. This constitutes the second phase: post-production.

The merger between these two phases entails the art and craft of Sound Design. The term remains a controversial one - largely due to the erroneous notion that the creative decisions made in sound design somehow usurp the director's vision. But just as DOPs (head cinematographers) on a film shape the 'look' of a film in concert with the director, the 'sound' of a film can be similarly engineered.

Many directors have worked closely with their sound designers. Francis Ford Coppola's 70s collaborations with Walter Murch are of crucial historical significance here, resulting in The Conversation - a terse portrait of a sound taper whose life falls apart - and Apocalypse Now - the first Quadraphonic film, infamous for its mix of The Doors' "The End" with diffused helicopter whirling.

Murch recently supervised the DVD remastering of both films, allowing new audiences to discover these landmarks, as well as older audiences to relive their power via current audiovisual technology.

A pupil of Murch is now one of the most renowned sound designers in America: Randy Thom. "Apocalypse Now was designed for sound," stated Thom when in Melbourne for a special presentation of his work in 1999. "It's more important that you design the film for sound, than design sound for the film."

Thom studied under Murch and went on to sound design an impressive list of films, including Colors, Wild At Heart, Starship Troopers and three landmark works 'designed for sound' by director Robert Zemeckis: Forrest Gump, Contact and Cast Away. These latter three include Thom's mixing skills in Dolby 5.1 surround sound.

Dolby Surround is a buzz word everyone mentions - usually with misinformation and inaccuracy. One of Australia's official Dolby representatives and film sound mixer in his own right is Bruce Emery. "The making of a film soundtrack in 5.1 has nothing to do with Dolby," he stated at a special seminar on digital film sound in 2000. "As a sound designer or a sound mixer, you simply work with those channels. Dolby provides the technology to record those 5.1 channels and print them down the side of a piece of film and re-play it in a cinema."

Though The Conversation still ranks as one of Emery's top examples of sound design, he extols the advances digital technologies have made in the field. "Our work flow has become streamlined, allowing us to be more efficient. We now have time for more experimentation - from which we learn. Digital is also allowing television, home theatre and cinema to converge on one sound field format - 5.1." The mystical numeration of '5.1' Emery and all sound professionals refer to is a spatial template for the playback of sound: a centre speaker (for dialogue and noticeable on-screen sound effects); a stereo pair of front speakers and a stereo pair of rear speakers (for controlled dispersion of atmospheres and/or music); and a discrete sub-woofer (to add bottom end).

The 5.1 template can be encoded using the Dolby Digital licensed hardware/software (or the competing DTS system), and is employed in the technology sound designers use to construct, mix and master soundtracks, as well as in theatre playback and home entertainment systems.

Once the province only of audio professionals in the film industry, digital surround-sound playback is now a key factor in both consumers' choice of DVD players, amplifiers and speakers, as well as what constitutes the 'home theatre experience'. Some would argue that home entertainment systems are most impressive by virtue of their sound replay - something that would please sound designers the world over.

One of Australia's notable sound designers is Craig Carter: "As digital technology has become more affordable, it has allowed a more diverse group of interested people to have input into the way soundtracks are shaped." Carter links this to an increase of imaginative sound design in Australia - though he also cautions the industry's reliance on these technologies for their speed factor over the development of craft needed to use them. "This has come about by the changes in technology not being learnt well, most likely driven by the desire to produce faster with the technology, not better."

"As I see the soundtrack for a movie being one entity, working together with the composer is absolutely necessary," notes Carter, also a classical guitarist. "The disciplines of working with sound and music are obviously different, but each sound component needs to evolve with the others in mind if the soundtrack is to be coherent and successful as a story-telling tool.

"The working dialogue between composers and sound designers would appear to be integral to the filmmaking process. Unfortunately, it is rare, due to the film industry's many demarcations. Interestingly, there is hardly a sound designer or composer who does not declare this. Randy Thom's close collaboration with composer Alan Silvestri for Cast Away involved extensive discussions, resulting in Silvestri's music only appearing in the film after stranded Tom Hanks leaves his unchartered island.

Possibly more than any other director, David Lynch is the most acute director of sound in the modern cinema. Not only is he responsible for just about every aural weirdness allowed on today's soundtracks, he has also officially sound designed most of his films. Listen to Mulholland Drive, The Straight Story, Lost Highway and Fire Walk With Me and you will hear a tantalising amalgam of recording techniques and sonic poetry.

Lynch eventually gutted his own house - the one used in Lost Highway - and transformed it into a digital recording and mixing facility for his own films. Having received a grand tour of his amazing premises while he was mixing Mulholland Drive, his commitment to his artist-controlled theories in the film industry was evident.

But innovation in sound design through control of its craft and technologies has formed an invisible convey belt to cinema's forward momentum. Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein were extremely vocal about the power of sound, suggesting approaches to audio-visual montage in the 30s which form the basis of much sound film language today.

Orson Welles' control on Citizen Kane may have produced one of cinema's visual masterpieces - but its deeper majesty results from the preceding five years Welles spent in radio. There he pioneered many a modern film sound technique, from 'overlapping dialogue' (as promulgated later by Robert Altman's use of radio mics and a camera-synched multi-track recorder designed by Jim Webb) to allowing composer Bernard Herrmann to explore microphone placement in the recording of the score - something that only recently films are pushing with greater finesse.

Like many articulate sound designers, Carter is pro-active in his prescription of how sound contributes to a film: "Unless you're helping move the story forward, you're in danger of damaging it." This he was able to do on Phillip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence. The creativity and flexibility with which Carter achieved this was due not only to digital technologies, but also the contributions made by location sound recordist Steve Burgess.

A long-standing Foley artist and film mixer, Burgess freed himself from long hours in dark studios by going outdoors. "In the past I used a Nagra 2-channel reel-to-reel recorder. Today I use a Powerbook with 50 gig of recordable audio storage space. This is coupled to a portable firewired audio interface containing eight phantom-powered mic pre-amps of very high quality. I record into a non-linear audio editing program, creating audio files of generally 24bit/96khz rate, allowing me the opportunity to fit and check in the field."

Burgess clearly is wired for sound. "The replay of these recordings on the mix stage have shown a high amount of cohesion between all speakers giving a natural surround effect. The internet has also allowed the capability of high bandwidth connectivity that facilitates the hosting and transfer of audio and video files to anywhere in the world." Other recent films boasting Burgess' maverick mobility include Hearts in Atlantis, The Quiet American and Ned Kelly.

But at the role of the final credits, innovation in film sound is not due to technology alone. Films from diverse periods and cultures have created completely new ways of etelling stories' in the cinema. From Fritz Lang's morbid orchestration of sound in psycho dramas like M (1931) and House By The River (1950) to Chuck Jones's explosive Coyote & Roadrunner cartoons throughout the 50s; from Jack Clayton's chilling use of silence and volume in The Innocents (1961) to Alfred Hitchcock's incorporation of Oskar Sala's electro-acoustic bombast in The Birds (1963); from Shohei Immamura's saturated noise fields in The Insect Woman (1963) to Sergio Leone's careful orchestration of sound in Once Upon A Time in the West (1969).

Higher fidelity and technological experimentation become crucial factors in more contemporary manifestations of the film soundtrack. From Robert Altman's multi-tracked chatter of wireless voices in California Split (1974) to Steven Speilberg's atmospheric expansion of the audio field in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977); from Jean-Luc Godard's collage of Francois Musy's tactile recordings in Hail Mary (1985) to Martin Scorsese's fracturing of Skip Lievsay's 3-track voice-over narration in Goodfellas (1990); from P.T. Anderson's hyper-collapse between sound and music in Magnolia (1999) to the gloriously assaultive surround-sound delirium of Sogo Ishii's Electric Dragon 80,000 Volts (2000).

You might say you 'watch' a movie. But thanks to these and many more films - you listen to them to.

Text © Philip Brophy. Image © Walter Murch.