The Importance of Sound
Adam Lacey, for Film Ireland, talked to Patrick Drummond, Caoimhe Doyle and Giles Packham about that vital dimension of cinema: sound.
‘The last creative brushstroke that is put onto a film is the soundtrack. This can be a beautifully thought-out process, calling on the talents of many people working at this end of a film’s life. A real joy can be felt as life is breathed into a film story conceived of many years before…’
In these words, Patrick Drummond, Ardmore’s veteran sound editor with over 30 years experience, sums up the joys and motivations of working in the (often unfairly overlooked) sound department.
Can you imagine Jaws without that score? Apocalypse Now without its bombastic, visceral sound effects? Psycho without those grating strings as Janet Leigh is mercilessly knifed in the shower? Sound is undoubtedly a vital element of film production, but does anyone actually acknowledge this? From Jack Foley’s first tentative steps on The Phantom of the Opera and Dracula in the mid-1920s and early 1930s, to the highly developed sound editing of masterworks like No Country for Old Men and the scores of the Star Wars films, sound is integral to the film-going experience, but is not always treated as such.
Giles Packham, music composer and managing director of Waveform Studios in Dublin tells me: ‘Sound is 50% of the experience but it sometimes only gets 1% of the budget. Spending all the money on the visual aspect is short-sighted. Good sound and music can tell a story that the picture can’t always communicate on its own.’
Patrick Drummond elaborates on the collaboration between sound post-production and filmmakers. ‘The production of the soundtrack begins by meeting the director and film editor after the film has been shot and the process has moved to the cutting room. This is where the sound supervisor receives the director’s ideas on the film’s soundtrack and then goes away to create it. The looming deadline can put the creative process under huge pressure, but working all hours of the day can produce some happy results – if the coffeemaker can hold out! The ideas begin flying into the hard-drives of the Pro Tools editing computer, and soon dogs and cats and screeching animals of all kinds are swirling into the film in a unique way that perfectly fits the film’s life. That’s one version of the story. Of course, another version is pile-ups of crazy sounds landing in a heap onto the soundtrack. What helps this process is meeting with the director to show him/her the work in progress and see how closely it resembles their ideas.’
Caoimhe Doyle, Ardmore Sound’s vastly experienced Foley artist of such exquisite films as Eastern Promises, explains how most Foley is done at the end. ‘Mostly, we come in at the end, yes. With animation we might sometimes come in a little bit earlier. Our main job is to recreate the sound effects you can’t use from a library. For example, footsteps and incidental sounds like the kisses and the punches. They do exist on library CDs but they don’t always work because we as humans act so, well, randomly.’
Giles Packham has been onboard productions at various stages in his capacity as a composer and also as MD of Waveform. ‘As a composer, I have had different experiences with filmmakers over the last twelve years. On the majority of the projects, I’ve been onboard from the very start, reading the script and meeting with the directors and producers in pre-production. I have also attended many of the actual shoots. If I am mixing a project, I like to make sure I have all the extra sounds and bits and pieces rather than having to use too much Foley or sound libraries. It’s much easier to get the right takes on the day than having to bring actors back in for ADR (Additional Dialogue Recording) and recreate all the sounds in a scene. It saves time, and time is money. More importantly, it sounds better.’
Technology has advanced hugely in the last few years and one would imagine this makes things easier for those in the sound post-production field, but this is apparently not always the case. Caoimhe Doyle explains: ‘Well, specifically in Foley, we record in digital now so I can move the sync of sound and action very easily – that’s a bonus. Outside of that, we would perform in the same way it has been performed since the 1930s when Jack Foley first did it: we stand in front of the microphone and watch the screen and do it when the actor does it. The downside of the current technology is that people keep changing their minds. We could be working on a film and they’ll still be changing it. It gives them too much freedom, in a way. Often, I think, the right idea is just that – the right idea! But the process of taking things slowly and letting things sink in is eliminated now. Faster is not necessarily better.’
Patrick, on the other hand, remembers the lack of convenience of days gone by. ‘This whole process used to be quite cumbersome when we were editing the sounds on magnetic strips of film, rolled up into reels to play alongside the picture reel. Any changes that the director wanted would have to be worked on by an army of sound editors, taking days to re-do some sequences. But with the advent of digital sound, the editing has become more about the creative working of the sounds and far less about the mechanical process needed to manipulate the soundtrack. When I first came to Ireland to work on The Nephew in 1997, I was surprised to find that Ardmore Sound had already gone digital. This conversion would take Hollywood several years, so we really had the scoop here.’
Regarding the digital advancements, Giles laments the illusion that technology gives people about their actual talent. ‘Music has suffered a bit of a value crisis in recent times. In the past, you might have had to search the ends of the earth to find a particular track. Now you type it into a search engine and you get 50 versions! The reality is that it’s not as easy as it seems and there is a big difference between putting on the director’s favourite band and having an experienced composer guiding you through the process. I often get MP3s given to me in mixes, which can be worse quality than an old cassette. Filmmakers should bring their music on CDs or have their composer work to the same specifications as the sound edit. It leads to a better result.
Sound has been quite a few years ahead of video in terms of embracing digital technologies. Giles reflects: ‘I’m lucky to have worked in the industry for over a decade and have seen the transition from the tape-based studio to the digital studio. It is an exciting world to work in at the moment. An example is the Vienna Symphonic Library, which I use at Waveform for orchestral arrangements. This package features instrument samples recorded by members of the Vienna Philharmonic. You can then perform with these life-like samples using a computer, a keyboard, a controller surface and a wind controller (a controller you blow into, shaped like a clarinet).’
For filmmakers the most important place to start when you’re recording sound is using the best equipment you can afford. According to Giles ‘The key pieces of equipment are microphones, preamps and, of course, it is important to keep all the levels in check. Directors often get caught up in the image, and sound can suffer as a result. It is not uncommon to have distortion, dropouts and even people talking on set on sound recordings coming into the editing room. A good sound engineer will have their own set of tricks they have developed over the years to make a mix sound really good.’
Of course, getting to the actual sound mixing is now a quicker process. ‘When I started out, all music and effects tracks had to be loaded in real time. This is all digital now. Effects once had to be taken from a sound library, which would be catalogued like a phone directory. Now this is all off hard drive and can be searched easily. The final mix would be put to DAT (Digital Audio Tape). Now DAT isn’t used, it can be delivered digitally on disc, over the internet or even put on a USB key ring. Working on a project from Avid or Final Cut Pro is made easy by the OMF or AAF format (The OMFor AAF formats are similar to a video Edit Decision List. EDL, but they also contain all the digital audio media used in the project. This means a sound editor can receive a file from an editor and start sound editing within minutes), which exports the editor’s exact sound timeline to Pro Tools.’
Giles continues, ‘For the final sound mix, monitoring the actual sound is the most important aspect and having monitors set up that will represent how something sounds on all types of speaker is fundamental. There’s a lot to learn and it’s a never-ending learning process. Different projects throw up new and exciting challenges all the time. That is one thing I really enjoy about the studio, the endless exploration of sound.’
And as with most aspects of filmmaking, time is of the essence, often to the detriment of sound post-production. ‘I’ll be honest with you,’ Giles says, ‘in general, people never leave enough budget and time for music and sound. This is a massive problem.’ Caoimhe has been equally frustrated at times. ‘The schedule is the hardest part of the job. We used to get maybe 15 or 20 days. Now it’s five days. It’s killing the potential we have here in Ireland. I work in Canada a lot and the schedules there are double or even triple what we have here. You can’t produce the kind of soundscape that is necessary in five days and you hear it in some of the films we produce.’
But for unsung heroes like Caoimhe Doyle, Giles Packham and Patrick Drummond, the thrill of the job is what has kept them going through the good times – and the tough times.
Patrick highlights why they do what they do. ‘We want to see if we can get all our grand sound ideas built into a soundtrack that breathes exciting life into film without taking centre stage, without the audience even being aware that we were there.’ A noble cause indeed.
This article first appeared in Issue 127 of Film Ireland Magazine.