Archive for May, 2010

About two months ago I was asked to do the sound design for the intro and outro (story sections) to a music video. It was a zombie themed video, which I was excited about, but I had no experience with zombie movies or video games before, so I didn’t have much of a reference point to work from. I spoke to one of the Co-Directors (who was also the editor) about the feeling he was going for on the video. He mentioned “28 Days Later”, “28 Weeks Later”, “Zombieland” and the video game series “Resident Evil”. Before I watch anything, I put some preliminary sounds that I knew I wanted (some hits, footsteps, eerie tones, etc…) Then I spent half a day watching select scenes from “28 Weeks Later”, all of “Zombieland”, and playing around a bit on “Resident Evil”, to get some ideas flowing.

One thing I wanted to make sure that I did was to stick close enough to the established zombie theme, so that zombie movie fans would relate to it, while putting my own twist on it. I didn’t want it to sound like anything else out there. Also, because this is a music video, I wanted to keep more of a musical sound to my sound design so that it flowed very smoothly into and out of the song.

Here is the portion of the video that I worked on, the beginning and end of the video, edited together without the song part of the video: (the full video is at the end of this post if you’re interested in seeing it)

I was pretty happy with the way it came out. I might change a few things in hind sight, but overall I think it was a great project. I actually was able to present the project at one of David Sonnenschein’s online seminars about two weeks ago, and I was surprised at how well it was accepted. I was flattered!

One of my biggest goals in my sound design is to start transitioning from using solely commercial libraries into using a lot of my own personal library. That was key in this piece. I was able to use a lot of creativity in making unconventional sounds for this one. That’s the great thing about sci-fi. You are able to do anything, because almost anything goes, as long as it stays in the realm of believability.

So I basically started that project saying “I must find a way to make this specific sound work for this piece”. Basically an exercise in creativity. So here’s the sound I started out with. If you are a regular on my blog, you may recognize it from about a month or two ago:

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I love the quality of the reverb in that sound, and the sound of the water falling onto the wooden porch. Full, rich, lots of great sonic content in there. Luckily for me, I had recorded it at 192k, so I had plenty of flexibility with it. So, I decided to play with it. I had a few failed attempts, trying to mix it with other hits, hide it under stuff, just to say I got it in there, etc… Then I thought, what if I slowed it down and made it the “in your face” sound. What if I feature it up front. That would be an even bigger feat to accomplish. So I slowed it down 4x (to 48k). It just sounded like a big gunshot. Wasn’t going to work. So I thought about it, then had an idea. What would it sound like if I slowed it down 20x?

Here’s what it sounded like: (Click here to see a screenshot of the session)

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Awesome! I have my main sound! A sound to dominate the spectrum. And it sounds musical enough to make me happy. I just had to beef it up with a few drums hits and such to make it acceptable, then moved on.

I was happy with that sound, but it was missing something. It had a ton of low end response, but I had no high frequencies. I was at a gig one night, recording a seminar, when I had an idea. Everything was recording on my 744T, so that was good on its own, so I whipped out my laptop and started playing around (don’t judge – it was a single lav into my 744T for 3 hours straight… not much attention needed) Anyways, so I grabbed my laptop, pulled open Logic Studio, and started playing around. I was in an elastic audio mood, I just needed a source sound. So, I armed a track, using my Macbook Pro’s built in mic as the input (I feel you judging again – STOP IT!!!), and just recorded a few seconds of the speaker’s audio in the room. It sounded terrible, but it was a sound to work with. Here’s the original sound:

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Pretty terrible sounding. Although you now know that the speaker’s son is named Caleb. You learn something new every day. So, I now had my sound, and I started playing with it. With the use of Logic’s “Flex Audio”, some crazy compression, and some band filtering, I was able to get this sound to accompany my fire cracker:
(Click here to see a screenshot of the session)

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Sweet stuff! Now we’re cookin’ with gas. When I added this sound into my session, it was the first moment that I felt that the project was coming together in the way I intended it to. Now I just needed to fill out the rest of the backgrounds and then start on the Zombies. That was going to be an interesting one to tackle.

I started with animals. I’ve found the easiest way to make a creature sound organic is to use organic sounds that are just heavily manipulated. So, I started listening to animals. I found a few that I liked. I grabbed some pigs, lions, some goldfinches, I think there’s a few others in there too. I don’t have my own animal library, so I used my Hollywood Edge one for these. I wanted to combine animal and human though. I thought straight up animals would sound like just that – animals.

I remembered that I had a few screams recorded from a bit over a year ago. I was working this gig where we were pulling audience members for participation and placing them in a scene where they had to scream and act as if aliens were going to attack them. I had a whole location rig set up (for show) and I was only using the mixer, but I had a recorder there, it was just in “Vegas Mode”. Then this (gorgeous) girl got up there, and on “Action” she let out one of the most amazing screams I’ve ever heard in my life. Twice. And my recorder wasn’t hooked up because it was for “show”. CRAP! I hated myself for that. So I was on that gig a few more times after that, and each time I made sure to record every single scream. Most were lame, but I did get this one nice one. A little distorted, but it works for this application:

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So I did some processing, added it to a reversed pig squeal, and ended up with this: (don’t have a screen shot :-( )

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So there you have it. A bit of a look into how I made that piece. I hope you found it as informative as I found it fun to do. I apologize for my long-windedness, but I love talking about my work! Hopefully I’ll get the opportunity to talk about more projects in the near future! Please feel free to ask about any other assets that I used or processes I went through to get to my final product.

Thanks for reading!!!

Here’s the full video:

Co-Directors: Philip Walton and Caleb Mallery
Director of Photography: Zack Austin
Editor: Caleb Mallery

I’m a big fan of Sci Fi stuff. “Fringe”, on Fox, has quickly become one of my favorite Sci Fi / Drama shows. It deals with fringe science; things like time traveling, alternate universes, crazy strange biological things, shape shifters, etc… One thing I love about the show though is that it’s done in a very realistic way. It’s not cheesy. It’s very organic.


Anyways, I just had the amazing opportunity to interview the incredibly friendly Bruce Tanis, who is the sound designer on “Fringe”!

CH: How old were you when you discovered your passion for sound?

BT: I came to sound editing a bit later than most people I guess. I finished my degree in Forestry from the University of Nevada in Reno but this was in the early eighties when everyone through the seventies had wanted an “outdoor” job so the market was flooded. One of my professors at UNR was the film critic for our local CBS affiliate station and he taught a few film study classes which I took. He was kind enough to help me get an entry level production job at the station and I spent a few years there doing broadcast audio for both studio and live broadcasts. At some point I decided to go back to school because film and television were much more interesting and promising than my potential forestry career. I applied to all the standard film schools in the L.A. area and the only one who accepted me was the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. While there, I got sidetracked into doing more camera work than sound but only for a year until I got a job at Cannon Films in the tv & promo dept.

Most of the work there was in pulling sound effects for the picture editors, going to online sessions and dubs and otherwise working in the sound world again. So I guess the simple answer to your question is somewhere in my early twenties with a couple of detours shortly after and then settling for good around age thirty!

CH: When you were first starting out, what was your process of getting involved in a project?

BT: The process really hasn’t changed significantly for me since I started cutting back in 1992. I typically get hired on a project as part of the sound crew as opposed to hiring a big-name person as a sound designer who comes on early and builds sequences of the film as the picture gets edited. Most of the time, in starting a film project, I typically watch the film my first day on the show and get together with the sound supervisor to find out what my role on the project will be in detail. Obviously, we will have spoken previously regarding general information but it’s good to discuss what the pre-existing discussions with clients have dealt with and what ideas the supervisor has as well. We may also have a crew meeting to lay out what each of our specific areas will encompass such as vehicles, weapons, etc. Most supervisors like to divide the work up by category as opposed to reels or acts which allows for better continuity of cutting and, hopefully, a better command of the material on my part.

“Fringe”, as a television show with a limited schedule, pretty much just started with a turnover of the first episode! I’ll go through and create marks in my protools session indicating scene changes for background cutting and specific points at which effects occur and this process gives me a good overview of what happens in that episode effects-wise.

CH: Tell me about your transition from doing “freebies” to getting paid for gigs.

BT: I was very lucky! I didn’t really get caught in the whole “freebie” pathway. I really went from film school to ( rather minimally ) paid work at Cannon Films. Certainly, I have put in my own time on projects just to learn techniques and equipment or gain a familiarity with an effects library, so that I would be prepared when an assignment required something in particular but I never did a serious amount of work as an intern or anything like that. Although I’m glad I didn’t go through that process and I believe all of us should be paid for our work by all means, it did serve as an entry point into the business that allowed a lot of good people to get in the door and now it seems to have pretty much gone away. At least here in Los Angeles. There were both good and bad aspects to starting out doing freebie projects but at least it was one open door.

CH: “Fringe” has a unique library of effects, often dealing with subjects that we would have no knowledge of how they sound, yet the show remains very organic sounding. What is your approach to designing sound for these things?

BT: I usually try to use ordinary sounds and work on them through plugins and other devices to make them sound interesting. I use a lot of animals and natural events like wind and water to build different effects. Dry ice is my friend! At least as a starting point anyway but they don’t stay there long! Some of the effects, like the weapons or devices usually start from various machines but however big or small they start out, I try to keep their final scale appropriate to what we see on the screen so hopefully that makes them sound a bit more organic as well.

CH: According to the interview you did with Mix Magazine, the sound team from the first season didn’t leave you much of a library to work with. What did you do to ensure that you kept the same feeling to the show, while still allowing yourself creative room?

BT: Thankfully, there were a lot of independent, monster-of-the-week episodes that I was able to create new effects for based on what was happening in that episode alone. The joy of that is that there isn’t really a season-long recurring soundscape to worry about. Certainly, some locations such as the Walter’s Lab at Harvard and Nina’s office at Massive Dynamics would sound the same each time they occurred thereby allowing for some continuity, but a large portion of each episode was something new that we hadn’t seen before. Also, the picture editor and the producers would suggest what they wanted to focus on for that episode and I tried to stay pretty close to that and a certain amount of continuity came from that as well.

CH: What is your DAW of choice?

BT: Any more, I cut exclusively on a Protools system. I’ve used a Fairlight extensively in the past but they aren’t used in film or tv post-production much these days. In moving between different facilities and working for different supervisors, Protools is pretty much a common environment in Los Angeles.

CH: What are some of your favorite plugins for molding your sounds?

BT: I pretty much just use the basic ones. Serato Pitch ‘n Time, various Waves plugins like Renaissance Reverb, Metaflanger, & Mondomod, even some basic audio suite things like good old Delay! Of course, there’s always Altiverb. I use that a lot. And MaxxBass. Can’t forget that one! I try to make somewhat limited use of them so the sounds do stay a bit more organic feeling but still move a little farther down the spectrum toward being “Fringe-y”.

CH: How much do you pull from commercial libraries versus pulling from your proprietary library?

BT: The Warner Brothers library is quite extensive so I usually don’t have to go much beyond that. There are quite a few commercially released libraries within that, though, in addition to loads of material recorded for other projects, so there’s a certain amount of material in the show that came from one of them. As each episode is largely a stand alone event, there isn’t really a proprietary library beyond things like recurring vehicles or weapons so most things get baked fresh each week!

CH: How big is the team that you work with before the mix gets to the stage?

BT: I think “Fringe” must be one of the smaller crews out there! Other than myself, there’s one editor who cues and cuts foley, one editor for dialog, Paul Curtis, our Supervising Sound Editor, and the two dubbing mixers! We do have an assistant for turnovers and loading dialog and so on but we we share him with a couple of other shows.

CH: How much creative freedom does Paul Curtis, the Supervising Sound Editor, give you? What your relationship with him like?

BT: Paul gives me his spotting notes that he takes in a playback meeting with the clients and which usually specify particular things the clients are looking for in a scene that may not be quite obvious like: this room is supposed to be cryonically frozen so it needs to sound super chilled or this creature is breathing through liquid so it needs to sound gurgly. Things that don’t always show up just in the footage as shot. Also, a lot of our visual effects are an ongoing process and don’t get cut in until right before the dub so at the point I have to start cutting, major pieces of information aren’t visually there yet. Beyond those specifics, or in some cases that Paul knows he wants to use a particular effect for, he pretty much lets me run absolutely free with the effects and design elements of the show. He’s really open to seeing what I can come up with and that helps quite a lot. He’s edited sound effects on lots of projects before this so we can do things in a bit of shorthand language because he knows how to translate the client’s requests into what I need to do regarding some of the more exotic sounds that are required. And he’s a cool guy!

CH: You work on an incredibly tight schedule. How much time are you able to put into designing sounds before you have to settle and send them off to the stage?

BT: Part of the directive on “Fringe” is that the picture department is able to turn over sequences from upcoming episodes as they build them for me to create material for. I usually get anywhere from a few hours to a day to cut these sequences depending on how involved they are and how much detail they need. These are usually to be shown to the director or to the network for approval so they really need to be pretty completely done. Beyond that, each episode is scheduled for eight days of effects editorial and that typically breaks out as two days for cutting backgrounds, three or four days for general effects and two or three days for the design effects. Then the session goes off to the dub stage for a three day dub and I’ll usually get a few requests for ads or updates during the second and third days of the dub as more visual effects come in and as the clients hear the material and hone in on what they want the episode to end up sounding like.

CH: How often do you get the luxury of getting a few episodes ahead, allowing you to spend a little more time on a specific episode or specific sound?

BT: Umm. Never. The episodes typically turn over at such a time that I can only work on that week’s show either until it dubs or I finish my eight days of allowed time and then it’s on to the next episode. In fact, It usually works the other way around actually! Episodes turn over very close to their dub dates so not only can I not get ahead on anything, I usually end up needing help from another editor just to get that episode done on time! Some design elements take more time than others certainly, but they still all have to be done within the eight day framework which includes the advance sequence work I mentioned a moment ago.

CH: What has been your biggest “aha!” moment, your greatest victory over a pesky sound during your work on “Fringe”?

BT: That’s a good question and it has about a hundred answers! Each time I get something working ok for a monster or a device I feel like I’ve won a small victory! I think the biggest challenge from a pesky sound effect would have to be Walter’s bone saw! It’s a small effect and not really all that dramatic in and of itself, but it came up in several episodes because Walter likes to autopsy everything the Fringe team comes across! The difficulty was that the clients had very specific ideas about what the saw motor should sound like and also what the bone, flesh, whatever, that the saw was cutting through should sound like. Pesky is a good word for that one. There’s one other effect that took a little bit to work out as well. In one episode, the villain uses a particular frequency to transmit a signal to his victims which activates them to go to train stations and subsequently crystallize and explode! At one point, Walter and Astrid are in the lab and they calculate, by means of an exploding watermelon, the particular frequency that was used. So I created a tone wave based on whatever the frequency was that Walter came up with, I think it was 68.7 megacycles. Total sound guy geeky stuff but still kind of fun.

CH: Do you watch “Fringe”? If so, are you able to enjoy it? Do you ever have a “did I make that sound?” moment?

BT: Like most of the show’s viewership, I have it set to record on my DVR. I do actually watch them to hear how my material ended up getting used in the dub. That, and, while I’m cutting them, I don’t have time to just sit and watch the episode, so sitting at home is the first time I hear large portions of the dialog as well! Usually, I remember the sound of most things in the show from the trauma of having cut them but recently one episode aired in which the team intercepts a transmission signal from the alternate Universe that they analyze in the Massive Dynamics Computer Lab and when that scene came up I thought, ok, that sounds pretty good. Oh, wait, I cut that three weeks ago!

Thanks so much to Bruce for such an awesome and informative interview! “Fringe” airs on Fox on Thursday nights at 9pm EST. There’s a new one on tonight! Go watch it!!!! NOW!


So my A/C is out. And because of my whole situation (I’m renting a house, the owner was forclosed on, and we were given a 90 day notice to vacate), they won’t fix the A/C. So I went down to Home Depot to pick up two small window air conditioners to cool down the house until we move.

So I go into Home Depot and check out the units, then decide to go back to my car and check some other prices. I grabbed my laptop, tethered through my Blackberry, and started looking at other units. While I was doing so, it started pouring. So I decided to stay in my car for a while. While I was sitting there, I remembered I had my Olympus LS-10 recorder with me. So I pulled it out and started recording.

I got a few cool recordings, one in my car, ran back into the store once it slowed down, and got a few cool ones in the store too. While in the store, it started pouring again. I looked over at the garden center and could see it really coming down, so I ran out there to get some sweet ambience of the pouring rain on the half plastic greenhouse, half open roof. While I was out there, I got a very pleasant surprise. Listen to this!

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Pretty good for a cheap recorder if you ask me (never been too fond of it…). Next goal is to get an awesome thunderclap (with better equipment this time) without the rain in the background. That one’s a lot harder, but I’ll get it one day if it’s the last thing I do!

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