How we’ve refined the noble art of making a racket.
One of the most powerful tools filmmakers have to provoke emotion is sound. Any Sound Engineer will tell you that, and there’s a fair bit of evidence to back it up too. It follows then that great film needs great sound to truly engross and move us.
Many brilliant commercials over the years owe their power and success to their sound design – to the tireless efforts of someone with a good ear building the right audio landscape to match what we see. And this has never been as vital to the process of making great advertising as it is today. Listen to the soundtracks in the big winning commercials of the past few years – you can tell a lot of time and effort has gone into crafting what we hear, making sure these short films make a lasting impact.
Humans have been creating noises to enhance emotion ever since a prehistoric human worked out that banging two rocks together got people’s attention. We’ve come a long way since then, so it’s surprising that the concept of a Sound Designer is only a few decades old.
The terms Sound Design and Sound Designer were first coined in 1979 by Francis Ford Coppola in the process of making on one of the most notable examples of sound design in filmmaking – Apocalypse Now. Ensuring audiences felt like they were surrounded by skies teeming with helicopters and a jungle full of gunfire, it was the first multichannel film to be mixed using a computerized mixing board, and the first to be screened with three speakers in front of the audience and two behind, immersing us in the action like never before.
Coppola bestowed the term on the extraordinarily talented Walter Murch, who made the film sound as good as it did. The Director described the Sound Designer as “an individual ultimately responsible for all aspects of a film’s audio track, from the dialogue and sound effects recording, re-recording and the final mix of the final track.”
But while the concept of a modern Sound Designer working in motion pictures was born with Apocalypse Now, the idea of using sounds to complement visuals goes back much further. Maybe the true Father of Sound Design was Luigi Russolo, an Italian artist working at the start of the 20th Century.
Russolo was part of the Futurist movement that celebrated machines and technology. His work embraced the cacophony of new noises brought about by the new technologies that society had been encountering since the Industrial Revolution took hold.
He is generally considered to have invented the use of sounds and noise, rather than music, to enhance the emotional impact of a film or image – effectively, what we now call sound design.
One of Russolo’s Futurist friends was the composer Balilla Pratella. After hearing Pratella’s performance making use of strange instrumentation and mechanical noisemakers, he was so inspired he wrote a manifesto – The Art of Noises. The general gist of it was that since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the human ear has grown accustomed to more and more mechanical, unnatural and discordant sounds. He was inspired by these new noises and called for a complete revolution within music to expand the range of sounds it included from the four or five types of instrument people were used to hearing.
Russolo even created noisemaking machines of his own – what he called Intonarumoris – that tried to emulate the sounds of technology and machinery. He toured the world with his “noise music”, causing a public spectacle and outrage from many who objected to his methods.
As unusual as his work was, in embracing non-musical noises, Russolo was laying the groundwork for generations of sound designers, who now spend hours searching for the perfect bang, thud or crash to accompany a moving image.
After the Second World War, technology brought sound forward in leaps and bounds. With the help of computer samplers and sound synthesis machines, the human ear had to adapt to unfamiliar sounds once again. With sound files and libraries for music expanding, as well as more tools available to create artificial sounds, filmmaking began to experiment more with using sound as a tool.
The 1956 film Forbidden Planet was a threshold moment for soundtrack creation and design. Sound effects for spectacles like the spaceship landing in this clip were created in an exceptionally nerdy way, based on equations from the 1948 book Cybernetics: Or, Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine by mathematician Norbert Wiener.
Louis Barron was the man behind the “bleeps, burps, whirs, whines, throbs, hums and screeches” in Forbidden Planet, which he made using an electronic circuit he built called ring modulator, adding effects like reverb and delay afterwards. With all of this predating the invention of the Moog synthesiser by eight years, he was pretty ahead of his time.
Another landmark movie in the development of sound design was Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal horror movie, The Birds, in 1963. Using a combination of real bird sounds and electronically synthesised noises, the film created an auditory assault to match that of the vicious avian antagonists of the movie.
Of course, the equipment sound is heard on is important too. Great sound design can only be fully appreciated though good quality speakers. Since the development of surround sound in 1940, this equipment has been delivering sound with more and more impact. Cinemas today are upgrading to multichannel sound playback systems like Dolby Atmos, encapsulating audiences in sound, bringing us closer to the levels of 3D immersion the visual realm has achieved.
This is mirrored in people’s homes, where speakers on televisions and 5.1 surround systems have improved exponentially and become increasingly popular. On top of this, with the proliferation of mobile devices and tablet computers, people are spending more money on good quality headphones, leading to greater appreciation of sound design.
As sound design gets more impactful, technology has also made it much easier to do. No faffing around with tape is needed anymore and ever-increasing processing speeds have made tasks like auditioning, searching for and editing sounds much quicker. This means more time for experimentation – time to concentrate on finding the next new noise.
If Russolo was still with us he’d be proud of where we’ve got to – a world were experimenting with non-musical noises is not only tolerated but encouraged as a vital part of the creative process.