Articles of Interest

Breaking the Sound Design Barrier

Carefully and quietly, the cheetah sneaks up on his prey, who is leisurely lapping up water from a trickling stream. Suddenly, the cheetah's unassuming victim startles at the rustling of nearby brush. Though he can't see the cheetah, he senses his presence and abruptly takes off. The chase is on. The victim's footsteps rumble like a drumbeat as he desperately attempts his getaway. The pattering of the cheetah's nimble steps follows close behind. Then, in one outstretched leap, the cheetah ferociously attacks his prey, and in a furious, echoing thunder, tackles him to the ground.

This scene may be dramatic in and of itself, but imagine if the visual was all there was. No trickling, no rustling, no footsteps, no thunderous fall. It just wouldn't have the same impact, would it? Without the work of sound designers, the visual is all the scene would be. Most nature documentaries featuring scenes like the one described above generally contain few sounds from the natural environment, since camera crews are not close enough to the action-for obvious reasons-to catch the sound on tape. Therefore, once the footage has been edited, sounds that correspond with the visual need to be added. The importance of this step in the post production process is hardly limited to nature documentaries, however. In fact, whether you're producing a piece on jack rabbits or Jack the Ripper, the addition of sound design could take your program from acceptable to exceptional.

What is Sound Design?
"Sound design is one of those things that's more noticeable to the lay audience when it's missing," says Richard Humphries, sound designer at Henninger Media Services. "It represents all those things that are not in the forefront of a program, but significantly adds to the character of the piece." Depending on the budget and the specific needs of a piece, sound design can be implemented using several different methods. For instance, sound designers can choose from a library of sound effects stored on CD, they can go out into the field and record authentic sounds using sophisticated microphones and equipment, or they can perform Foley, which recreates sound effects using a variety of props, different kinds of shoes on different surfaces, their own bodies, and just about anything they can find.

Though not every production requires sound design, it should at least be considered, says Kennedy Wright, Director of Audio Services at Interface Media Group. Wright believes that those in video should take a lesson from those who work in film. "In film, the visual and audio are not directly connected - the sound must be created element by element, starting with sound effects backgrounds, Foley sounds, and so on," Wright explains. "But there is a mind set in the video industry that if a piece is shot on tape, the sound has already been captured, and therefore the only additional sound that is needed is voice-over and music." As a result, says Wright, many video productions don't take full advantage of Foley, dialogue replacement, and other sound design options, thereby compromising the quality that could have been achieved.

While there is no formula, per se, for knowing whether or not a piece requires sound design, there are a couple of basic principles to follow. For one, the type of production tends to dictate if sound design is necessary. "If you have a program that just features talking heads and music, for example, then you may want to first consider other aspects of the piece that could be improved," says Humphries. Otherwise, one of the best ways to determine if sound design should be implemented is simply to look for scenes that seem empty. If budget allows, a sound designer should be consulted to add life to these scenes.

Karl Kelbaugh, a veteran mixer and sound designer at The Park Group, was called upon to do just that for "Wings," an episodic documentary produced by The Discovery Channel. Kelbaugh went into the field to gather such sounds as F-18s, missle launches, helicopters, and control tower dialogue, among hundreds of other sounds. "I wound up using something from my field recording in every one of the seventeen episodes I was involved with," e xplains Kelbaugh. "Capturing the actual sounds on tape added an authentic quality to the program-one that could not have been achieved with stock sounds."

The Benefits of Foley
In many cases, field recording isn't viable. While sound effect CDs are an option, the most effective sound design choice, according to sound experts, is Foley. "One of the main advantages of Foley is that it tends to suck you into the action," says Kelbaugh. "You can lay down a track from a sound effects library, but Foley adds a completely different dynamic."
According to Mike Kelly, a sound designer/Foley artist with Rodel Audio Services who has been in the business for nearly three decades, producers nowadays want even documentaries bigger and more fantastic, and sound work through Foley can play a big part in making that happen. At the same time, Foley can create a better sense of reality and adds a richness of texture that cannot otherwise be achieved. "Sound is the short path to emotional response," says Wright. "Even more so than a visual, sound can create different moods-whether tense, nostalgic, mysterious. It's like a back door to emotional responses that video does not otherwise have." While you can create a successful piece that only offers a very basic sound and doesn't take chances, Wright contends that by not considering the benefits of Foley, you're missing an opportunity to make a great impact on your audience.

In spite of its benefits, however, Foley in the Washington DC market is generally more of a rarity than a norm. (Productions by Discovery and National Geographic are exceptions.) "Due to the nature of the business in this area-tight deadlines and tight budgets-people don't think about the sound aspect as much as they could or should," says Adam Hurst, Vice President of Interface Media Group. A 4-hour Foley session (without pro talent) generally costs $600. Because of budget restrictions, producers often feel they cannot justify this expense. Another reason Foley is not prevalent here is many producers simply aren't aware that it is an option. "Part of the problem is that there are a number of producers who don't realize that the sounds they can use in their productions are not limited to those recorded in the field or found in a CD collection," says Humphries. Furthermore, many veteran producers who know about, but have never used, Foley believe their productions have been just fine without it so there's no purpose in trying it now. "What they don't know is how much their productions could have been improved with the help of Foley," says Humphries. While Foley generally takes more time and costs more money than other forms of sound design, there are situations in which it is actually more cost effective. "A sound designer can use sound effects from a library on CD to match specific on-screen movements, but it can become a pretty labor intensive process," says Kalbaugh, a sound designer/audio mixer for fourteen years. "Let's say you're looking for the sound of movement through brush. You may be able to find something in your sound effects library, but you can't just lay it in against your picture since it's just a generic sound. You have to match it up with the specifics of the video, which can become a long and very tedious process." On the other hand, a Foley artist simply "performs" sound directly to the picture. Not only does this lead to a more accurate representation of the movement, says Kalbaugh, but oftentimes takes less time to complete.
The length of the program is also an issue, according to Kelly. "Normally, it's not cost effective to do Foley for a short piece that involves a lot of different sounds or has to be done at the last minute." A good rule of thumb: the longer the piece, the more cost effective and economical Foley will be, especially if a lot of similar types of sounds are needed, says Kelly.

I've Hired a Sound Designer--Now What?
The best thing you can do once you've hired a sound designer for your project is to get him or her involved as soon as possible. "It's always beneficial to include the sound designer in pre-production meetings," says Wright. "I pick up nuances that may have nothing to do with sound, but that help me capture the producer's vision and do my job far more effectively than simply reading the script." If the sound designer is involved with pre-production meetings, there is a much better chance that sound will play an integral role in the production-one that creates a sense of mood and involvement-rather than being just an afterthought or a time to fix other problems, says Humphries. "I can bounce ideas off the producers and make recommendations for what will and won't work from a sound perspective." Kalbaugh says that clean Edit Decision Lists (EDLs) are imperative and can save time and prevent headaches. He also recommends that producers consider working with Open Media Framework Interchange (OMFI) if the piece is being edited on the Avid. He says OMFI can save days of mix and sound design time. Kelbaugh also reminds producers that, contrary to popular belief, sound, not editing, is the end of process. "If there's one phrase that makes me cringe, it's 'We'll fix it in the mix.' In spite of the technology, there's just no such thing. I think it's important for producers to keep in mind that we can augment it or replace it or cover it, but we can't 'fix' it." "You hear a good film or a good tv program as much as you see it," says Hurst. "While most people won't notice that it's sound that's making the difference, they certainly notice it when it's not there."