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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.

These little bug(ger)s come out of the ground periodically (mostly every 13 or 17 years here in the Ohio Valley) to anchor themselves to a tree and incessantly cry out for all to hear. It's not their little vocal chords that are producing these 120-decibel cries. The jar flies are contorting their torsos to flex in and out, causing two tymbals, or ribbed membranes, to vibrate 300-400 times a second. This produces a noise that's as loud as a jet engine and between 3KHz and 16KHz - right smack in the middle of the human speech range.

Human speech generally falls between 3KHz to 5KHz, like the sound of an old-time phone call. The nuances of intelligibility, such as the consonants S, H, F, and so on, are heard above 5 KHz. That makes removing the background sounds of cicadas difficult because you could also remove subtle sounds of speech. Noise reduction software has become very sophisticated today, but dynamic sounds like cicadas (their cry rises and falls in pitch and loudness instead of being drone-like) poses many challenges. We can painstakingly "paint out" some of the offending sounds, but it's best to leave some of it in so we don't lose key frequencies in the voice. If a dialog track with cicadas is heavily edited, then this can result in having cicadas in one clip and not the next. Or falling in one clip and rising in the next. This is jarring to the listener and is very difficult to fix. We sometimes actually add cicada song back in underneath to mask those continuity-challenged edits.

While recording, we can sometimes position the microphone and talent to reduce the cicada song, but inevitably a critter in another tree fires up his belly to blow the take. There's just no easy solution to this dog day dilemma. The sound is so hated, Japanese television has a Godzilla-like monster called "Cicada Man," probably created by a sound engineer. They're so passionately tired of them in Mexico that Raymundo Pérez y Soto penned the great mariachi song "La Cigarra."

But leave it to the U.S. Navy to find the positives in the piercing cicada death song. The Navy is no stranger to harnessing wildlife to help their efforts. They have a marine mammal program that uses bottlenose dolphins and sea lions for mine detection, ship and harbor protection, and equipment recovery. What on earth could they use a cicada for?

The Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Rhode Island has been studying this tiny creature's anatomy with a CT scan-like technology called microcomputed tomography to try and figure out how it makes its loud chirp. They've found that a cicada's two tymbals act as dual speakers when the insect contracts and releases their ribs. It's a highly efficient way of producing twice the sound with one action. And why would the Navy be interested in sound? Why sonar of course. Doubling sonar's efficiency is like seeing twice as far with radar.

It seems that Raymundo Pérez y Soto was ahead of his time in the 1950s when he wrote La Cigarra. He may have foretold the odd marriage of the cicada and the Navy:

Don’t sing to me anymore, cicada
Let your singsong end
For your song here in my soul
Stabs me like a dagger
Knowing that when you sing
You are announcing that you are going to your death.

Sailor, sailor
Tell me if it is true that you know,
Because I cannot distinguish,
Whether in the depths of the seas
There is another color blacker
Than the color of my sorrows.

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.

I wonder how Henry Wadsworth Longfellow heard it in his head in 1860? Longfellow brought the nearly obscure ride by Revere into the public consciousness with his poem "Paul Revere's Ride." For impact, he glorified the ride with creative license and literary tools to warn that our country was about to fall apart (it did with the Civil War). I would think that those hoofbeats were probably a bit louder and more urgent in his mind.

What about you? Now that you know the significance of that ride, can you hear the thundering hoofbeats, the snorting horse, the jingling bridle, and Revere snapping his reins and kicking his heels into the giant beast's sides? Maybe Tim Burton or JJ Abrams has influenced your imagination. We've been conditioned by Hollywood to "hear" history differently from what it probably really sounded like. Guiding the listener is the cornerstone of sound design, so a movie about the famous ride might have those hoofbeats sound more explosive than truthful. In the end, it may be worthwhile if we simultaneously entertain and bring light to Revere's contributions to the Revolution.

Liz Covart, host of the podcast "Ben Franklin’s World" and Digital Projects Editor at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture in Williamsburg, VA wondered in a blog post: how authentic should sound designers be with history? She points out that our environment is much different than it was 250 years ago. We have paved roads, differently constructed buildings, powered transportation, industry, and many more people. With the majority of Americans living in urban areas today (6% in 1800, 80% in 2018), our perception of a quiet night is quite different than Paul Revere's. We modern Americans also have a collective naïveté of what a galloping steed on a dirt road would really sound like because we have replaced horses with horseless carriages.

If there's one thing I've learned about sound design, it's that real sounds of life sound really lifeless. Like Liz Covert, I would also ponder accuracy while telling Paul Revere's story with sound. Do I record a pacer's ambling gate on a deserted country road? Hopefully I could find someplace free of airplanes, cars, machinery, and other people. (I wrote about the rarity of quiet places in one of my A Sound Education articles). Or maybe I take the Hollywood route and have the ride sound larger than life? I think it depends on the audience. If it's a room full of scholars who delight in historical accuracy, then go with the pacer. If it's a cinema full of families with popcorn and Jujubes, then go with the thunder. Or maybe a pacer mixed with thunder...but let's not overthink this.

Speaking of horses, here's a real-world example of blending authenticity with impact. I worked for several years on the crew for the Triple Crown Radio Network. We broadcast the three legs of the Triple Crown (Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes), and the Breeder's Cup races. One of our challenges was how to add excitement to the sound of the race. We had to do much experimentation within boundaries and rules to find the right sounds of each race. For instance, we were not allowed to mount a wireless mic on a horse of jockey to catch the sounds of riding. We were also limited to how many mics we could use trackside to capture hoofbeats. We tried a parabolic mic (those big dish-looking contraptions on the sidelines of a football game), but the sound was thin and the track too large for complete coverage. What we ended up doing – and this is like finding out how a magic trick is done – was to pre-record hoofbeats at each track under a variety of conditions, and then blend those into the mix.

We were very keen on keeping the race sounding as organic as we could. We installed several supercardioid shotgun microphones along the stretch run of each track and recorded races over several days. We would then layer a few of these and create an endless audio loop for that particular race track. We were also very careful to have different loops for different track conditions, so if it was raining and sloppy, we had that distinctive sound for that racetrack. When the race began, our mix engineer would subtly blend in the looped sound underneath live microphones we already had installed around the track. As the horses came down the stretch to the finish line, he would fade out the loop and fade in the trackside boom microphones for the authentic live sounds of hoofbeats, whips, and jockey shouts. This was the sound of real live thundering hooves making history.

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 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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The Secret World of Foley


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

Anatomy of an Audio Book, Part 1

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“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.

Despite the wrecked economy, smartphones and tablets started to infiltrate our daily lives. These little on-the-go media centers were a gift to publishers. Downloading and listening to audiobooks became convenient - and cheaper. Traditionally, publishers could sink upwards of $50,000 in production costs per title, with much of that towards CD packaging, production, and distribution. Companies like Audible (a subsidiary of Amazon) could produce titles for much less, thanks to downloading.

As a result, the number of audiobook titles have surged from 7,000 in 2011, to 35,000 in 2013. And that number is growing. Scribd subscribers logged 270,000 listening hours in two months when 30,000 audiobooks were added to their library in 2014. Faster internet speeds, better digital audio software, and more narrators jumping onto the bandwagon are helping to fuel the renaissance of audiobooks.

One of these narrators, Brad Wills, has been narrating audiobooks since 2013. Brad has recorded more than thirty books, a baker's dozen of those with Dynamix since 2014. He mostly reads in the historical romance genre, but also in historical adventure, gothic horror, and fantasy. Brad also has more than 25 years of professional acting experience, from Broadway to nationally acclaimed musical tours. I recently sat down with Brad and talked with him about his thoughts and experiences as an audiobook narrator and producer. Surprisingly, his three decades of professional acting did little to prepare him for his new role.

"I’ve never felt like I benefitted from any kind of training or acting," Brad told me. "Everything I do is instinctual. It’s stuff I’ve done my entire life. I’ve always imitated people, I’ve always had crazy voices ever since I can remember."

But being an audiobook narrator can be tough at first, even to the most seasoned stage actor. "I remember my very first session with my very first book," Brad lamented. "I thought 'this guy’s going to throw me out of the studio, and I’m never going to do this again.' It took me about a year before I was able to read with any consistency and not make any mistakes."

Now, Brad is not only a narrator, but a producer. When asked what this expanded role is, Brad replied, "To give technically the best performance and the best quality production that you can give. It’s a matter of clean editing, clean recording, rhythm, tempo. And I think what is also really beneficial is to have an engineer that you can really trust, offer good input." In this dual role as producer/narrator, Brad emphasizes that he must make sure that "you as the narrator deliver the intent of the piece - not to lose track of it, keep it clear for the listener, not lose track of the story, not lose track of the line, or where a paragraph happens to be going at any time."

Also as a producer, Brad must find the right studio and engineer. Having worked with two other studios besides Dynamix, his primary goal in finding someplace to record has always been to "look for an engineer that’s been in the business a long time. I look for somebody who has a more than adequate setup. I look for some place that's pretty much state of the art." A studio and engineer with audiobook experience is crucial. "It’s very, very different from doing a radio spot, because there’s no music, no sound effects," Brad explains. "It has to be clean, no noise, no background noise. Editing - someone who will take the time to finesse it down to the most minuscule control management points."

With hundreds of thousands of audiobooks out there now, it's not surprising that there is a huge range in technical quality. "I’ve read reviews by people who have listened to books that have been poorly edited and produced," he said. "They’ll mention it in their notes and reviews: 'It’s really bad,' 'a line is repeated here,' 'I could hear dogs barking in the background,' and 'It sounds like the person recorded this sitting at their kitchen table.' So people know."

No matter the budget, Brad cares "about the product that goes out there. It has my name on it, and it will have the engineer’s stamp on it as well."

In the next installment, we'll dig down deep into character development, preparation, and tips for budding audiobook narrators.

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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