The Journal of Sonic Studies
Journal of Sonic Studies, volume 6, nr. 1 (January 2014)Isabelle Delmotte: TUNED IN AND HANDS ON: SOUND DESIGNERS BEYOND TECHNICAL EXPERTISE

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Disturbing the Workflow, mediating narratives' embodiments

The emergence of digital audio workstations (aka DAW) as a primary mode of production allows a technological capability known as "mixing in the box". Experimenting with sound effects, editing, mixing and giving an overtone to a story can now be performed by an individual using one tool and in one place. This process also allows sound designers to flesh out a story by giving it an overall sonic feeling, a texture, before, during or after the production of any visuals. It facilitates experiential explorations of narrative and expands the possibility of sound designers, theoretically, to increase collaborations with writers, directors and producers.

Heuzenroeder agrees with sound designer Randy Thom’s affirmation that movies could be devised around sound and sees this proposition as a "resistance to the conventional linearity of film construction" (personal communication, August 16, 2010). Heuzenroeder suggests that involving sound designers from pre-production onwards can also make some visuals redundant and cut lines of scripts, therefore adding to the creative potential of an audio-visual narrative (personal communication, August 16, 2010). This process can also save time and money for the directors and producers at a movie's shooting stage. Despite this economical incentive, the ideal of involving sound designers from pre-production rarely matches the financial constraints of most Australian productions. The concept remains utopian unless directors and producers have strong personal affinity with sound at large and want to experience the visceral intimacy that atmospheric sound can bring to a story.

Atmospheric sound, other than vocal or musical, is most of the time used as an indispensable filler. The common consensus is that the design of atmospheric sound should not distract the public unless its audible presence can be synchronised to a narrative. This component of sound designers' work is integrated in the final mixing of all sonic elements, a dedicated work that is often performed by a person who, most of the time, has had no role in the production of the different sounds, dialogue and music. This person, the mixer or re-recording mixer, is someone who is technically gifted and creative, and most importantly, someone who comes in "with fresh ears" as pointed out by most study participants. A particularity of this production step is that it happens in a large room, a space with the same type of speakers as those used in a movie theatre, allowing for all frequencies to be fully experienced.

The working spaces and personal studios of cinema sound designers have spatial limitations. Their work focuses on the narrative and on what protagonists hear and feel: they experience it first-hand from the "sweet spot" at the equilateral distance of all speakers and, therefore, in perfect stereophony. At that point in space, says participant to the study John Kassab: "It sounds fantastic!" (personal communication, July 29, 2011). Cinema sound design aims to relay to the skin of an audience a sensorial narrative experience through mechanical devices, and its live public does not include the cinema-goers. The publics of cinema sound designers are made up of themselves, other sound creators, directors and producers. In post-production the organisation of the working space implies that both performers and public are usually seated, surrounded by speakers positioned in a set manner, and most of the time both parties will gaze straight ahead at a screen.

Film theory and film sound semantics are usually absent from interactions between cinema sound designers, other sound creators, directors and producers. Practice is the leitmotiv, and when concepts and explanations are suggested, expressions such as "it feels like" or "it feels right" or "you know when" or "what about this?" are the norm. Some professional practitioners struggle with applied terminology. Sound designers participating in the study were able to generate individual views on their practice without needing to expand on semantics. Most of the study's participants had studied sound production and sound design in institutional settings. In commercial settings the precise cinematic nomenclature that film theoretician Michel Chion has elaborated since the mid-1980s (Chion 2009: 465-500) is not regarded as essential.

The use of the expressions "diegetic" and "nondiegetic" would be unusual in a mixing room operating in an English speaking country, for example. For some sound professionals, Chion's lexicon resembles name-giving to obvious and/or instinctive sound manoeuvres and physical interactions. Should terminology be important when "hands on", tuned ears, a receptive body, instinct and story telling are the traits of the trade and result in products that can, at times, relate to prescient knowledge? All the same, Chion's notion of rendering (Chion 1994: 109) embodies the emotional and physical atmospheric creations executed, thoughtfully or instinctively, by practitioners. Chion’s comments "because sounds are neither experienced objectively nor named, and through a magnetism related to all the vagueness and uncertainty surrounding them, sounds 'attract' affects for which they are not especially responsible" (Chion 1994: 112) tells of the impossibility to clearly regulate the content of a sonic narrative and its viscerality.

Regardless of its elusive definition, the practice of cinema sound design is more often than not a transmission of embodied knowledge, as we listen with the whole body, and our ears are "at best the focal organs of hearing" (Ihde 2007: 44). A focus on Murch’s reference to modelling sound for a three-dimensional space allows for an integration of a sound designer as a collaborator in the translating of fictional phenomenologies into experiential events. The instinctive awareness of affective reactions on bodies, starting with their own, can influence cinema sound designers’ experimentations in the spatial narrative of the story. Their experiments can also provoke pre- and/or post-production awareness for other members of the creative team.

Study participant Roger Monk recalled the experience of watching a movie he wrote, Walking on Water (Ayres 2002), screened in Berlin (Germany) where, Monk says, screens and sound systems are "bigger" (personal communication, October 17, 2012). Monk did not have any contact with the sound team during production. None of the previous screenings of Walking on Water (Ayres 2002) allowed such a detailed exposure of the sound work’s intricacies as in Berlin. In that particular setting, Monk felt the delicacy of sound making and its impact on his script and on himself. It is this element of surprise, of "what they have done with it", that sums up his view of films as organic matters that are the chronological sum of human involvement: the lived experiences of all collaborators have a creative cumulative effect (personal communication, October 17, 2012).