A report on sound

Roland Barthes tells the narratives of the world are numberless. Among these numberless narratives lies sound, and within that, music. The use of sound within a narrative can help establish a context. A narrative is not the same thing as a story but the method in which a story is delivered. Used in coalition with the text, sound can have a variety of effects on how the the narrative is received by the end user the appropriate use of technology and delivery of sound allows them to become involved in an immersive, complex, emotional experience.

Film

This film example is of an intense fight scene from the film ‘The Matrix’ where the main character, neo, is fighting off hundreds of enemy agents. In this scene the enemy replicates itself, sending endless and unrelenting waves of foes to attack our protagonist, an otherwise hopeless and high tension situation:

Neo vs Agent Smith

However, neo while out numbered is not outmatched and is able to hold his own quite well. This leads to some sort of long, drawn out and epic battle. As such its only fitting to have appropriate sounds accompany it, in the video every hit, kick, punch and impact is delivered to us with a satisfying crunch or squish without end (aside from the occasional respite in the form of a slow motion jump or throw) which further emphasises the fast and chaotic nature of the scene as well as the ebb and flow of the characters’ position of power.

Now let’s see what happens when we change the sound composition of the scene:

Neo vs Agent Smith (banjo version)

Instantly the gravity of this scene and has been lost – the scene becomes comedic, an entirely different narrative to it’s original purpose. The removal of diegetic sound lessens the level of realism in the scene, thus a loss of immersive experience.

This next example is the music video ‘Dancing in the Street’ by David Bowie and Mick Jagger:

Dancing in the Street

The video is expressive and uplifting, the music synchronising well with the actions and words being relayed. Lip syncing is the only form of diegetic sound used. It feels real and spontaneous. Let’s take a look at the next video:

Dancing in the Street (No music)

Here, the musical overlay has been removed, and diegetic sounds have been added. With the music removed, the meaning of their movements, every twirl, kick, or pose intended to work in tandem with a beat or lyric, suddenly loses all meaning, and the result it quite comedic. What is interesting is that this is probably not too far from the truth of how it really sounded when being recorded on set. The more life-like version seems less real and more contrived than the published music video!

We can see from these examples, that sound directly affects the context of a story, and can change the narrative. Even slight adjustments influence the way an audience will perceive the text.

Animation

I’ve chosen the short animated film ‘The Lost Thing’ by Saun Tan as an interesting example of both foley and soundtrack working together to successfully create a fluid delivery of visual narrative. This animation was originally a book and it’s interesting to see how the addition of sound and movement adds another dimension to the narrative.

The lost thing

I really liked the level of detail in the foley, there was a sound created for nearly every visible action, including actions which might have gone unnoticed and/or taken for granted (for example when the boy’s hand brushes against the box in the garage, and when the lightbulbs lowered back into the ground in ‘The Department of Odds and Ends’ and their covers settled back into place). This made the experience of watching highly believable despite the surrealism of the piece. The soundtrack was quite natural (guitar/strings), and complemented the more reflective parts of the story.

In the animation ‘Nuggets’, the foley, soundtrack, and visuals contributed equally to the telling of the story and the impact of the narrative. The ending left me drawing comparisons to earlier events in the animation, how the music that played whenever the kiwi got his high gradually became slower, and more mundane; how the impacts of their coming down from the ever shortening high became less gentle, and began to have an impact on their life outside of the nuggets golden glow. At the end, the absence of music that had always been present during the kiwis’ phases of sobriety seemed more foreboding yet it’s a factor thats never changed, I would even go as far to say the the addiction to the nuggets music latched on the the viewer as well.

Nuggets

Games

The game of choice has to be journey. The music and sound effects in this game are especially important considering that the game features no combat or dialogue, meaning that the game must rely on environment and sound alone to tell a story.

What I find clever about this game is that its soundtrack is composed in a way that parts of the songs loop until the player reaches a specific point in the level, where the song will then progress into a crescendo that complements the action or scene.

This scene is an excellent example, the ambient underground music keeps playing until the chase begins. The music builds in tempo and intensity until the creatures chasing the character are thwarted by a magical barrier.

Types of microphones

What equipment to use is essential knowledge when you are recording sounds as it varies depending on the kind of sound you’re after.

Dynamic microphones

A dynamic microphone tends to be extremely robust and capable of handling high sound pressure levels, meaning it is ideal for capturing extremely loud sounds without distortion. It also requires the user to speak very closely into it, reducing the influence of background noise and making it the microphone of choice for lead singers, performers and reporters in high sound environments such as stadiums or concerts. The microphones renowned durability lies with its inner components, consisting of a diaphragm, a coil of wire, a magnet and a transformer, the microphone has no circuitry the could be damaged due to liquid or rough handling.

Condenser microphones

While less sturdy than the dynamic microphone, the condenser microphone is capable of capturing much higher frequencies and therefore more subtle sounds. A good example of its use can be for voice acting (although a pop guard tends to be used to stop the users’ breath affecting the recording), and capturing sounds through the method of foley. This microphone works by using air waves to move the front plate back and forth from the charged black plate, altering the charge and generating the electrical signal that is sound.

While brilliant at collection rich, crisp sound, this microphone is not only very sensitive but also requires “phantom” power as to provide charge to the back plate. The power gets its “phantom” status due to the fact that these kind of microphones used to require an external power supply. It want until 1960 that this necessity was internalised via wire, making the microphones power source more or less invisible.

References

Barthes, R. and Heath, S. (1988). Image, music, text. 1st ed. New York: Noonday Press.

Cook, P. (2007). The cinema book. 1st ed. London: BFI.

Filmsound.org. (2017). Sound Design of Matrix. [online] Available at: http://filmsound.org/studiosound/post_matrix.html [Accessed 30 Jan. 2017].

Sound Hub – Powered by Shure. (2017). What is Phantom Power & Why Do I Need It?. [online] Available at: http://soundhub.audio/what-is-phantom-power-why-do-i-need-it/ [Accessed 30 Jan. 2017].

Viers, R. (2012). The location sound bible. 1st ed. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions.

Yamahaproaudio.com. (2017). Microphone types | PA Beginners Guide | Self Training | Training & Support | Yamaha. [online] Available at: http://www.yamahaproaudio.com/global/en/training_support/selftraining/pa_guide_beginner/microphone/ [Accessed 30 Jan. 2017].

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