As far as my film knowledge goes, one of my biggest blind spots (deaf spots?) is sound. I’ve been to festivals and seen the difference in audience reaction between movies that have quality sound and movies that don’t. You’d be a fool not to put equal time and money into the sound aspects vs. the visuals. Dialogue that has been “sweetened” truly sounds sweeter. But how do you sweeten audio? Since I’m tone-deaf (ask my junior high chorale director) I’ve always relied on others who have been initiated into the mystical arts of sound to carry the burden.
After some sound woes on Rain in the Mountains, my curiosity finally got the better of me. Even if I don’t dispense with other people doing the work, I want to know what to ask them for. So I broke down and bought two books on the subject, Sound Design by David Sonnenschein and Audio Postproduction for Digital Video by Jay Rose. Did they teach me anything? How do they stack up against each other?
by David Sonnenschein
Philosophical and even a bit mystical, Sound Design connects sound to a number of other senses and illuminates the subconscious effects of sound in a way that really opened my eyes (ears?) to the imaginative and creative possibilities of sound design. I haven’t watched a movie the same way since.
Sonnenschein is from the USC school of sound design whose guiding light is a man named Tomlinson Holman, creator of the THX sound system. This school is the prime “Hollywood” school associated with George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg and Robert Zemekis. The book covers most effectively how to turn a film script into a coherent and creative sound map, how to streamline and deepen the storytelling through sound, and how certain sounds and sound patterns have psychological effects that can be manipulated to produce audience reactions.
The book read swiftly. Probably intentionally, it reminded me of Robert McKee’s book on screenwriting, Story, in how it lays out the myriad of creative options available to a filmmaker in friendly, readable terms. (Story is mentioned in the book and Sonnenschein has just begun his own seminar series; Robert McKee’s story seminars were famously dramatized in the movie Adaptation). A great teacher, Sonnenschein’s generosity extends to offering his email address within the pages of the book. And yes, he will write you back.
I was disappointed to find little discussion of microphones and computer programs. When Sound Design offers tech talk, it does so in a non-specific conceptual framework (Sonnenschein recommends Tomlinson Holman’s book, Sound for Film and Television, for technical matters). This does keep the information in the book from getting dated, and that’s a plus. Luckily, the second book I ordered was nothing but technical…
Audio Postproduction for Digital Video
by Jay Rose
One of the things that attracted me to buy Audio Postproduction was that it comes with a CD. This seems obvious for a book on sound. You should be able to hear what the author is talking about. One can, in fact, read through the book without listening to the CD, but I don’t recommend it. The CD is worked in well enough that you are missing a great deal of the information from each section when you don’t listen to the corresponding track.
Audio Postproduction is practical from the get-go. The very first chapter is all emergency fixes for common sound problems, the author having surmised, probably rightly, that most people will pick up his book looking for a specific fix. Examples of some problems: tracks too soft, tracks too loud, eliminating electronic noises, sync drift, audio drop-out.
If you buy it for just one fix, it will probably be worth it. But the book has more to offer. Here is a collection of strategies and techniques that comprises “sweetening” — from sound-proofing and connecting your audio edit suite, to detailed chapters on file exchange, synchronization, music editing, dialogue editing, mixing, noise reduction and dozens of special sound effect recipes.
I say the book is technical, but I mean that in terms of detail about specific tools and programs. There were a few places (different timecodes and sample rates, circuit diagrams) where a layman like me couldn’t follow, but if you want a book that’s technical in the sense of describing the mechanics and physics behind digital audio Principles of Digital Audio by Ken C. Pohlman is your book. (I browsed my friend Brandt’s copy and quickly fell asleep.)
Audio Postproduction loses a point for some sloppy editing (several typos, and at least one track on the CD — number 66 — is missing some examples that the book refers to). Fortunately, this doesn’t subtract from the overall usefulness of the tome.
My favorite chapters were the later ones dealing with mixing, dialogue and music editing and fun filter effects. I also plan to put into use the chapters on designing and sound-proofing audio playback and recording spaces when I start setting up my new apartment. I can forsee re-reading the chapter on noise reduction just about every time I work on a project. Rose is careful not to say that any particular technique is magic. You’re always always always better off recording good sound on location than trying to clean it up later. (Speaking of which, his ideas for a cheap ADR and Foley are exactly what we used on Rain in the Mountains.)
As creative as sound editing can be, Audio Postproduction is really the practical half of the sound equation. Rose doesn’t get into his philosophy of sound until the final pages. It basically comes down to challenging yourself, experimenting and, above all, having fun. A good start, but a far cry from the spiritual and emotional power that Sonnenschein taps into in Sound Design.
When I ordered these books, I was planning to pit them against each other. Instead, they ended up being almost perfectly complementary. Sound Design takes the wide view; Audio Postproduction the narrow. They both earn my recommendation. However, if you need just one sound book, Audio Postproduction is the one to get. Its troubleshooting and recipe sections are too valuable not have handy at all times.