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Workflow | A Sound Plan

I had the pleasure of collaborating with the Shooting Fish Theatre Company again recently, designing sound and music for the production of The Murderess—a Victorian thriller that tells the story of Margaret as she confesses her sins to a ghost-writer from a prison cell on the eve of her hanging.

For this article I wanted to try something a little different and instead, as the title suggests, talk more about my approach to the preparation and planning for the project while interspersing with examples of the music I created for the production.

Foreboding Introduction created for The Murderess

One aspect of being freelance is the need to be self-motivating and organised, and with projects made up of so many small parts, such as sound effects and musical elements, it is useful to have a birds eye view in addition to the smaller, individual details. Having a road map ahead of time can certainly help to keep track of both specific items and overall progress.

My approach is based on past experiences and my own tendency towards order and logic as means to minimise stress and oversight, allowing me to get on with the job of being creative without the niggle of some potentially missed item. This process is one that has evolved with me over time and can be adapted to meet the specific requirements as I move from one project to another.

A scene transition created for The Murderess

First Impressions
Before any work can begin, I first need to understand what it is I’m working on. In the case of The Murderess, that started with the script. The first read-through allowed me to get a feel for the story and enjoy the plot, as any reader would, before even thinking about sound. It was a chance to familiarise myself with the overall tone and set my subconscious mind to work. For the second read, I went through the script scene-by-scene and made notes of any ideas that came to mind against specific lines or directions so that I had at least a few ideas to bring to the table for the next phase.

Spotting
The term spotting is one I borrowed from audio post-production, whereby the audio team will meet with those concerned, such as the director, for a spotting session and go through the program or film to discuss sounds to be added in post.

Similarly, for The Murderess I met with the director over Skype and we combed through the script highlighting areas requiring sound or music and discussed what was needed.

Background music for a sombre scene in The Murderess

Collating
Spotting invariably results in a lot of scribbled-down notes strewn across multiple pages of script and so now it was time to organise these into a neat checklist that I could access at a glance. For this task I used a spreadsheet and listed all the required elements from the script, with separate sheets for sound effects and music. I included the scene and page numbers before every item so that I could quickly reference the script again if needs be, and I included detailed descriptions for each list item as well as any notes on sound sources or methods that will aid in achieving the finished sound. I also utilised a colour-coding system to keep track of where I was with any particular sound; such as in-progress, completed, and delivered. I actually get a lot of satisfaction working in this way—perhaps from a life of watching on-screen progress bars fill up to herald a task’s eventual completion! The spreadsheet also helped to keep track of feedback on sounds and to record any changes required.

Sound effects checklist at project’s end (green column signifies all sounds completed)

Filing & Delivery
For the finished sounds I created a folder for each scene and numbered each sound therein depending on its order of appearance in the script. I do this to make the resulting multitude of sound files as organised and intelligible as possible. I then zipped each folder prior to delivering as an additional way to keep track of what’s been sent and to minimise hard disk space when archiving upon the project’s completion.

A scene transition created for The Murderess

Video Marketing | DL Cleaning Services (UK) Ltd

Earlier this year I was approached by a local cleaning company in Tamworth to create a short promotional video for their business. 

Although a sound guy, I had some experience with film as a student, and photography is a pastime I very much enjoy, so I took my DSLR and lenses and got to work.

The video was shot over the course of a few days, following staff around various sites in Staffordshire, making sure I captured footage of the various cleaning duties provided by the company.  Once captured the video was then edited and delivered using Blackmagic’s Davinci Resolve 15 app for Windows.

It was decided early on that the video would be cut to background music, so there was no need to capture any sound onsite. The music was created using Propellerhead’s Reason 10 where I played and recorded guitars and bass over a MIDI drum track with additional MIDI piano. The track was then mastered using an online service at Landr.

Theatre | 10:01 The Minute They Came

Set for production of 10:01 The Minute They Came.

Working with the Shooting Fish Theatre Company, I recently developed sound effects and composed music to accompany the production of 10:01 The Minute They Came, a psychological thriller conceived and created by FLARE students as part of a community learning initiative in Gainsborough.

The play incorporated fantastical elements that offered an amazing opportunity for a sound designer to get their teeth into: from Wiccan rituals to an alien abduction!

Below is a composition I created for one of the more pleasant Wiccan rituals in the play:

Being my first theatre project, I was keen to see how my experience in film and games would transfer to this medium. One challenging aspect came from working remotely since I would not get the instant visual feedback I’d become used to working with video files.  Fortunately, I had frequent correspondence with—and feedback from—the production team which helped immensely.  I was also able to sit in on rehearsals towards the end and hear my sounds alongside the action, allowing me to go back and make tweaks where needed. But for the most part, I would work from the script out of my home studio relying on daily feedback to steer my course.

Ambience
Environmental ambiences were created to underpin scenes and help describe the world beyond what was immediately visible—whilst in some scenes also functioning to create mood and atmosphere.

In one scene, set during the day at a farmhouse, two of the main characters are engaged in discourse.  Much of the drama in the scene comes from the dialogue between the characters, so the ambient sounds of the functioning farm are purely incidental: describing the wider environment in which the drama is taking place, without getting in the way.  Despite playing a more passive role, these sounds are important as they help cue the audience into the present location as scenes move from one place to the next.  In a film, these changes would be more obvious since there is also a visual shift of location to cue the viewer in.  But in theatre, the visual changes are more subtly limited to what you can arrange on a fixed stage during a transition, and so sound can help to bridge that gap when orienting the viewer.

Another scene, set late at night outside the farmhouse, required the ambience to take more of an active role in creating mood and supporting drama. Here, gusts of unrelenting wind created an ominous atmosphere as the characters frantically searched the exterior grounds following an abduction. These sounds would play loud, forcing the character’s dialogue to compete, and functioning as though indicative of a dark, unseen presence in the scene.

Alien Abduction
Designing sound for an alien abduction was one of the most creatively stimulating aspects of the project; a sound designer’s dream, indeed!  In the play, an infant is lifted from its crib via the machinations of a mysterious white light. Whenever I think ‘alien’ I always consider some kind of synthesis for its ability to create otherworldly, inhuman sounds not possible with conventional instruments.  The presence of a bright light also inspired the notion of shimmering, high pitched sounds, as well as the idea of something metallic or mechanical that would allude to a nearby alien craft not actually depicted in the scene—for, as a sound designer, I am concerned with describing that which exists beyond the confines of the frame, or set.

The basis for the abduction sound was indeed metallic: utilising drum cymbals but in an unconventional way.  By scraping across the top surface of a cymbal with a drumstick, you can create some interestingly jarring and otherworldly effects that shimmer and sing in a most unsettling way!  Synthesis played its part in the way I processed the original cymbal sounds, using granular sampling techniques to stretch and extend the samples, whilst pitching and modulating to address the various layers of the finished composite sound.  For example: using an LFO linked to a panner allowed for undulations in the low-frequency layer, suggesting the presence of a large craft complete with propulsion, while slight distortion in the upper layers suggested a sharp, piercing quality to the bright light.

Functions of Found Sound in a Horror Film Soundtrack

 

Demonstrating how found sound can be used to create musical cues and atmosphere in the short horror film, Slake.

Synopsis
In a world where vampires are all but extinct, a few wanderers remain. Moving from place to place, they attempt to evade the clutches of a mysterious organisation looking to investigate these remnants of a failing species—for they have begun to exhibit signs of weakness akin to the fragile humans on which they prey.  Meanwhile, Slake—after finding himself in the right place but for too long a time—does his best to balance his new-found thirst with his old habits.

Sound Design Concept
In keeping with the horror tradition of using unusual sounds and instrumentation, it was decided that the score for Slake would be designed from scratch using found sound sources. By definition, found sound offers practically limitless opportunities for unconventional timbres and textures through exploratory interaction with found objects—the scope of which can be further expanded upon with the multitude of editing and manipulation techniques afforded by digital audio processing.

Characterisation
The antagonist’s presence was heralded by a stinger created from the low, resonant tones of a metal lampshade that became affectionately known as the “chrome dome.” Striking the dome resulted in a satisfyingly ominous sound that was further enhanced using granular sample manipulation—which added interesting texture and harmony to the original recording.

Chrome Dome
The “chrome dome” required a very close microphone with a liberal amount of gain to capture its resonant but quiet tones.

There was a desire to incorporate the narrative’s themes of addiction and inebriation into the very fabric of the protagonist’s motif. Experimentation with a cocktail shaker (a vessel of intoxication) led to the creation of an instrument that could be tuned and manipulated into a musical performance using MIDI sequencing and was thus used as the basis for the character’s accompanying melodic cues.

DSC_0093 (2)
Cocktail shaker; its parts separated, suspended and recorded using an X/Y stereo mic’ configuration.

 

 

Sound Design Replacement Project | Dark Souls

Sound effects created using Foley recordings and some sound library content. Also performed vocalisations, added ambience and spatialisation with field recordings and reverb/delay effects.

Lettuce Play!
Among the various sound effects recorded for this project, the decimation of fruit and vegetables was one of the most effective—and fun. This classic Foley technique provided the gut-wrenching gore sounds consisting not only of lettuce but capsicum and melon-hacking. These sounds were layered together for added texture and effect. After an initial whoosh-sound to indicate the incoming blade, the chopped lettuce and capsicum provided the visceral slice, followed by some melon-flesh spatter on a stone floor to simulate blood and guts dripping in the game environment. As the vanquished drops to the floor, so too did half a dissected melon, providing an impactful closure to the melee.

Voicing the Undead
Using my own voice, I recorded vocalisations for the undead enemies. Some were sighs of exertion as they swung their weapons, while most others were death rattles. Pitching the final recordings down a little helped to make the vocalisations sound more monstrous and gritty. By automating the volume while sending (pre-fader) to an auxiliary reverb bus, the undead groans could be spatialised within the context of the game environment as well as reflecting the changing distance from the player-character.