Sound Engineering for Film

If you walk into a movie theatre while the coming attractions are playing, the first sensations to hit you will likely consist of sound. Often you’ll feel a bone-shaking rumble that builds to a roar and ends in an abrupt sonic slam. The megawatt speakers in the best theatres will just about knock you flat with a wall of air. There’s a good reason for these lavish audio systems. Some of the biggest thrills a movie can deliver are in the form of audio. Sound effects range from the subtle to the spectacular, from the creak of a floorboard in a dark house to the percussion of depth charges exploding around a submarine. It wasn’t always this way. Although the earliest purveyors of cinema understood the importance of sound in dramatic entertainment, they didn’t have the technology to incorporate audio directly into the movie. Instead, a musical accompanist in each theatre would play a piano or an organ, improvising a melody to suit the action or following a printed score if the movie studio had supplied one. The more elaborate theatre organs had special levers to produce effects such as galloping horses and booming cannons. Theatres in Japan had a live actor performing spoken narration for scene transitions and giving voice to key characters. The 1920s saw the introduction of competing systems for synchronized movie audio. Some printed the soundtrack directly onto the film reel while others recorded it on an audio disc that would play simultaneously with the film. As in the 21st-century format war of HD DVD versus Blu-ray, the different technologies battled for studio contracts and consumer mind share. The sound-on-disc approach offered better audio quality but was mechanically fragile: the record would often skip, sending the soundtrack out of sync and making the projectionist scramble to adjust the needle. Sound-on-film methods put sound-on-disc out of business until the 1990s, when it reappeared in digital form. If you saw Jurassic Park at the movie theater, the blood-curdling dinosaur screams actually came from a laser disc playing in time with the film, following optical marks printed on the reel. The synchronized playback of the soundtrack is only the final step in a long chain of engineering wizardry that gives a movie its sonic atmosphere. To see how much skilled labour goes into a Hollywood-quality whistle or bang, pay attention to the credits at the end of a movie. Hundreds of the job titles scrolling down the screen belong to people who decide what audio effects to put into a film and how to make them sound good. They have skills that you, too, can learn at Recording Arts Canada. People who put the sound into movies work in specialized positions, some of which allow a wide degree of creative freedom while others put the emphasis on technical perfection. Consider the many specialties that come together in engineering the sound for a half-minute scene in which someone takes out a cell phone and orders a pizza. Most movie viewers won’t consciously register the sound of a phone being flipped open and the clicking of buttons as the number is dialed, but they would instantly notice if these incidental sounds were missing. It is impractical to capture such sounds while the scene is being filmed, so they are added by a recording specialist known as a Foley artist. A sound designer decides what other background noises are appropriate, such as traffic going past or people talking nearby. The actor’s voice is often recorded separately and dubbed in to match the movement of his lips because the location sound was poorly recorded, or affected by unwanted traffic, airplanes overhead, or chatter on the set. Back to the the scene where someone is ordering a pizza, the other end of the conversation requires further creative choices. What is the sound of the ringing phone and the call being answered at the pizza shop, and what kind of background noises do we hear at the other end? All these sounds have to be recorded, sampled, or synthesized. They are processed and equalized to make them seem like part of the same conversation. Then all the sounds in the scene are mixed, and a music bed may be added. When a movie contains dozens of simple scenes like this as well as some much more elaborate ones — a bank robbery, a holiday party — you can see how the audio post production work adds up. A proper cinematic sound design is so comprehensive that you don’t even have to see the screen to know what’s going on. Try closing your eyes for a minute the next time you’re watching a movie and you’ll appreciate how rich the soundscape is. All the people who make the sound for a film, whether they identify as artists or technicians, have in common an expert knowledge of audio technology. We have come a long way from theatre organs and phonograph needles. The equipment that takes analogue sound waves and encodes them digitally for storage and manipulation is quite complex, but in the hands of a trained user it can work like an elegant instrument. RAC Toronto Studios were previously used by Technicolor, a worldwide leader in Film Production. RACToronto facilities and include a stunning 5.1 surround sound mix theatre with a massive 160-channel Lafont surround mix console with automation, music recording and Foley studios, Pro Tools HD systems, and a classic Neve console. Our RAC Montreal facilities include 3 large format control rooms, and 5 small format digital mixing systems for post production activities. As a graduate of the Sound and Music Recording program at Recording Arts Canada you will gain hands-on experience with those technologies. You will expand your creative potential and gain the technical expertise you need to succeed in sound engineering for film and television. The next time you walk into a movie theatre, it might be your own sounds that are shaking the walls !