David Sonnenschein Sound-Design-Sonnenschein-David-EB2370002760850

Published on January 3rd, 2012 | by Jeremy Siegel

5 Keys for Using Sound Effects to Improve Sound Design — Part 3

DS 5 Keys for Using Sound Effects to Improve Sound Design   Part 3By David Son­nen­schein, author Sound Design: The Expres­sive Power of Music, Voice and Sound Effects in Cin­ema.

Key 3:  Descrip­tion of the envi­ron­ment gives clues for the sounds

Infor­ma­tion about the envi­ron­ment first appears in the scene head­ings, which are as suc­cinct as pos­si­ble to help the pro­duc­tion man­ager do the break­down and which denote three items:  EXTERIOR or INTERIOR, LOCATION (with per­haps HISTORICAL PERIOD) and TIME OF DAY.  Then there usu­ally is a mod­est amount of detail given in the first para­graph of scene descrip­tion, appear­ing some­thing like this:


The rows of corn stalks bathe motionlessly in the moonlight.  In the middle of the field, a single stalk begins to shake, slowly at first, then possessed with a nervous energy that spreads contagiously to its neighbors.

Part of your job will be to cre­ate the real­ity of these explicit loca­tions and times, but for now you should look for the sub­text that these envi­ron­ments may lend to the devel­op­ment of the story and char­ac­ters.  The above scene could belong to a ter­ror or com­edy film, and may mix the gen­res to have an even greater impact at the moment of ten­sion and turn­ing point in the nar­ra­tive.   Let’s assume this is  a pure ter­ror film, intro­duc­ing since the begin­ning of the script (with an appro­pri­ate title) a super­nat­ural, malev­o­lent force.

The words “Night”, “motion­lessly” and “moon­light” tell us this would be a quiet place, but what might be the type of silence that would con­trast well with the first break of that silence by the rustling of the corn­stalk?   To best hear the cornstalk’s shak­ing, which will be a ran­dom mix­ture of fairly high fre­quen­cies, the con­trast­ing back­ground “silence” could be a sin­gle frog croak­ing in a lower reg­is­ter with a defined peri­od­ic­ity. Atten­tion will be height­ened when the sounds of “silence” non-competitively fill in the tonal and rhyth­mic spec­trums, with our brains more read­ily reg­is­ter­ing the aural contrast.

SoundDesign 5 Keys for Using Sound Effects to Improve Sound Design   Part 3The dis­tance or inti­macy of the sounds can trans­mit a dra­matic intent by telling us where we are and what might be a threat­en­ing noise to be noticed.  We can decrease the frog’s imme­di­acy by fil­ter­ing out the higher fre­quen­cies in its croak and giv­ing a tiny reverb to lend a sense of calm­ness, dis­tance and sur­round­ing space.  By accent­ing the high fre­quen­cies of the corn­stalk shak­ing we cre­ate a greater pres­ence.  If we choose to make the envi­ron­ment sub­jec­tively and claus­tro­pho­bi­cally col­lapse, the frog croak can gain on the high fre­quen­cies, while mul­ti­ply­ing the croaks to have frogs sur­round us from all sides.  Or we can do the oppo­site with the corn­stalks as their move­ment spreads men­ac­ingly, by adding reverb and increas­ing the vol­ume to the point of fill­ing up the whole envi­ron­ment, and our sub­jec­tive head space as well.

Stay tuned for Key 4 next month, and visit www.SoundDesignForPros.com to sign up for info on sound design webi­nars with David Sonnenschein.

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