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A Sound Education

The Documentary Sound Quandary

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In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director.
Alfred Hitchcock

Should documentary sound be real? Manipulated? Fake? We dig into the controversy.

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Jar Fly Blues

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"Again and again, the cicada's untiring cry pierced the sultry summer air like a needle at work on thick cotton cloth."
Yukio Mishima

Recording location audio outside can be challenging at best. The video team wants an exterior shot because architecture or a landscape in the background can add to the image. But alas, there are often unwanted sounds like cars, HVAC blowers, and other manmade annoyances that we must work around. There's one sound though that is nearly impossible to eliminate, fix, mask, hide, or yell-at-to-be-quiet. It is guaranteed to ruin almost any exterior recording in the summer: the mating song of the cicada.

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How Hollywood Hears History

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"The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere."
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


What did Paul Revere's famous midnight ride from Boston to Lexington sound like in April 1775? If you were there, you might recognize the approaching horse as a Narragansett Pacer mare. This once popular breed of horse, now extinct, was known for its ambling gait: a smooth riding four-beat gait that is faster than a walk, but slower than a canter or gallop. You might also notice the calm surroundings interrupted occasionally by crow calls, trees rustling in the wind, or the occasional farm dog barking at the stranger barreling down the rough dirt road. Just someone in a hurry.

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The Shadow Knows

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Shadow: No, Mary. I suspected a trap, so after I opened the door, I walked across the room and stood behind them.
Apple Mary: But your voice.... it came from near the door.
Shadow: Ventriloquism. A simple trick of projecting the voice.

The Shadow
"The Blind Beggar Dies"
Radio broadcast: April 17, 1938


We're fooled by Mother Nature all the time. She uses light to conjure up a mirage on a hot desert day and Aurora Borealis on a cold Alaskan night. She also has a bag of tricks for sound, like flinging noises a hundred miles away. But one of her best is when she makes sound disappear. This slight-of-hand by Mother Nature may have even changed the outcome of several battles in the American Civil War. What are these shenanigans of sound? Magic? Illusions? Sorcery? As the old radio serial hero said, "Only The Shadow knows." They're called acoustic shadows.

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The Voice, Part 3

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"At one time there were voiceover artists, now there are celebrity voiceover artists. It's unfortunate because these people need the money less than the voiceover artist."
David Duchovny


What does it take to perform a voice-over? After talking with several industry veterans, it turns out that it's not as easy as they make it sound - and that's the whole point. In Part 1, we found out how these four voice-over artists got into the profession. In Part 2, we learned about preparation and technique. In this last installment of our series, our nimble-tongued pros have advice to budding narrators and writers.

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The Voice, Part 2

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"In voice-over work, you have to actually do more work with your facial muscles and your mouth. You have to kind of exaggerate your pronunciation a little bit more, whereas with live action, you can get away with mumbling sometimes."

Mark Valley


What does it take to perform a voice-over? After talking with several industry veterans, it turns out that it's not as easy as they make it sound - and that's the whole point. In Part 1, we found out how these four voice-over artists got into the profession. This month, we learn the nitty gritty of preparation and technique.

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The Voice, Part 1

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"One of the things that I love about voiceover is that it's a situation where - because you're not encumbered by being seen - it's liberating. You're able to make broad choices that you would never make if you were on camera."
Mark Hamill


What does it take to perform a voice-over? After talking with several industry veterans, it turns out that it's not as easy as they make it sound - and that's the whole point. We find out that each of these voice professionals have their own approach to achieving the nearly impossible task of a voice-over artist: making it sound sincere. Plus, find out what's been happening at Dynamix lately.

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Anatomy of an Audio Book, Part 3

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"Someone needs to buy a radio station, then play nothing but audio books, with a different genre of book played at set times. That way we can always have something new to read, no matter where we are."
Shana Chartier

We're wrapping up our series on the audiobook this month. In Part 1, we began our conversation with veteran actor and audiobook narrator Brad Wills. He talked technical details about finding the right studio, performance, editing, and quality. In Part 2, Brad shared his methods of character development and preparation, plus he had some tips for budding narrators. In this issue, we're looking at how an audiobook is actually produced, from recording and editing, to mastering and delivery.

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Anatomy of an Audio Book, Part 2

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“When you read a book, the story definitely happens inside your head. When you listen, it seems to happen in a little cloud all around it, like a fuzzy knit cap pulled down over your eyes.”

Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore


We're continuing our series on the audiobook, an older idea that has been reborn from new technology. In this issue we're talking with Brad about character development, preparation, and tips for budding narrators.

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Anatomy of an Audio Book, Part 1

Jun 2016sm

“I love audio books, and when I paint I’m always listening to a book. I find that my imagination really takes flight in the painting process when I’m listening to audio books.”

Thomas Kinkade


There was a panic in 2009 during the recession, and it wasn't about housing. Or at least traditional houses. Publishing houses were facing the pinch as sales were cut in half. When it came to audiobooks, sales were down 20 percent mid-year. One of the reasons was obvious – lack of disposable income. Millions of workers were laid off and even more were holding on to their precious cash reserves. But a few other reasons were staring the publishers in the face. One was the sky-high price of audiobooks. The other was the changing pace of life. Between carting kids around, going to work, and running errands, a book is a commitment of precious time.

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The Secret World of Foley


The Secret World of Foley from Short of the Week on Vimeo.

Broadcast and the Hearing Impaired

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"I hope I inspire people who hear. Hearing people have the ability to remove barriers that prevent deaf people from achieving their dreams."

Marlee Matlin


Did you know that more than 37 million Americans aged 18 or older have some kind of hearing loss? And 30 million Americans aged 12 or older have hearing loss in both ears? With a media-rich society, that makes listening to narration, dialog, and speech in general difficult for them. Before 1972, anyone hard of hearing had to watch television with the volume turned up.

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BOOM Go the Fireworks!

Recreating the Sounds of the Civil War

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Recreating the Sounds of the Civil War

Being in the "Horse Capital of the World," we surely have enough experience to know that a horse sounds much like it did 150 years ago. However, back then a horse's role was very different than today. In a new documentary, "Unsung Hero: The Horse in the Civil War," produced by Witnessing History, LLC for HRTV (Horse Racing TV Network), the role of the horse in the American Civil War is explored in-depth with rarely-seen photographs, documents and artwork. To a sound designer's delight, there are simulated battle scenes, troop movements, and other war action. Some are new videos of re-enactors, and others are artwork and photos. The opoortunity to bring these to life with sounds and music is why we love what we do. Dynamix Productions has previously produced soundtracks for two Civil War documentaries ("Long Road Back to Kentucky" and "Retreat from Gettysburg"), so our cache of sound effects has been growing. We even did field recordings during two re-enactments as well as studio recordings of Civil War-era weapons.

Every documentary requires its own approach as to how realistic or dreamy the sound effects are. In "Long Road Back," many scenes were very specific with close-ups of cannons, guns, and fighting. These took on an almost movie-like feel. In "Retreat," we backed off some and chose more ambient sections, with a sprinkle of realistic moments. It had many scenes of soldiers marching, so we created large troop movements from scratch by layering walking and marching with different shoes and surfaces. In "Unsung Hero," there are minimal re-enactments, so general background sounds supported by emotional music lift the visuals. More horse sound effects were used in this documentary than the other two. Each story is unique, that's why there were three different approaches to one era of time.

Dynamix Tech Notes


How do you record a cannon? Very carefully! Actually, it pays to buddy up with the gunners and learn the sequence of operation. During a Civil War re-enactment several years ago I needed to record cannons for a documentary. By talking with the crew I learned what orders were given during certain phases of loading, firing, and cleaning. I was located a hundred feet or so from the cannons, so I had to carefully watch hand signals. I also learned that the sound of live round cannons are very different that blanks. Thankfully they weren't going to shoot live rounds that day with a crowd, so I had to settle with blanks - still very loud.

The largest technical challenge was the extreme sound pressure, or loudness. You actually feel the shock wave hit you when a cannon is fired. A tiny, delicate, and sensitive microphone wouldn't handle this very well. I had to use microphones that could handle the loud sounds, the same kind usually used for percussion. To increase my success rate I recorded each shot at different levels, reducing it on each shot. The last bit of the technical puzzle was a recorder capable of recording high dynamic ranges. These cannons were definitely louder than the threshold of pain (130 dB-SPL) and a jet engine at 100 feet (150 dB-SPL). Because of tremendous advances in technology, my recorder was able to record at least 48 dB more sound level than what was available just 15 years ago. That's a factor of almost 100,000. It's pretty much the difference between a cannonball and a mountain.

Neil Kesterson

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