Learning to listen

Un-Filtering Sound in Our Lives

ears Whether it’s produced by nature or created by man, our lives are cluttered with sound. We are so constantly bombarded with sound that we no longer hear it. Or rather, we hear what we need. Our brains can laser focus on only what we need to hear and block all of the rest of it out. Listening, true listening, has many layers and requires a shifting of focus to really hear what is going on.

I will pause for a moment and I’ll tell you what I’m “not” hearing right now. To my immediate right on the floor is a tower computer. It’s on at all times when I am sitting at my desk. There is a fan noise as well as a hard drive accessing. The sound of my computer is actually pretty loud, but I never “hear” it. Listening a little more intently, I can hear the refrigerator in the kitchen. Expanding my focus, outside my window, I hear people talking as they walk by. A car is stopped on the street, running, with a radio playing and two people speaking, a man and a woman. Listen further, I hear cars pass up the street in the distance. I also hear a fence chain rattle, maybe a gate, way down the street. I’m sure if I keep digging deeper with more intense focus, I’ll hear the high pitched squeal of electrical wires soon enough. However, back to focusing on writing this article. And back to blocking all of that out for now.

Humans are extremely skilled at blocking stimuli and focusing, depending on the situation and the particular needs of the moment. These are traits evolved over many millennia to best operate in a complex, challenging world. As filmmakers however, the tools at our disposal are not quite as sophisticated as the human instrument, so we need to be mindful of not only those things that we focus on and desire, but also those things that we are blocking and don’t notice due to extensive programming.

bicyclist 1355765edit Filmmaking, in particular, has a focus on the visual. That being the case, and with the capabilities of cameras and lenses, we are used to simply zooming in on a desired frame to only capture “the shot” that we need. The shot may be a serene long shot of a horse in a field, but in reality, for example, it may be a noisy, sophisticated, modern ranch out of view. Combined with all of the other aspects of filmmaking – costumes, sets, props etc., that horse shot can appear to be any time or place of our choosing.

Sound, however, is not such a convenient technology, as a camera’s zoom lens. Yes, there are filters, there are noise reducers, there are even “zoom” microphones, but in actuality it is not quite so easy to zoom into only a particular sound. Any filmmaker who has gone through post production will tell you exactly how vexing the sound recording process can be if not done correctly at the start, during the preproduction and production phases.

When filmmakers ask sound professionals – what is the one thing they can do to improve their sound, the answer is typically the same – hire professionals. They have great gear, know how to properly choose and place microphones, understand gain and how to record clean signals. But there is often an overlooked trait that really is the most key – the ability to keenly listen to their surroundings and understand how that will translate into recorded sound.

Since the visuals often take the priority, the best cameras, the best lenses and the best shooters are “required.” But many feel that the inexpensive audio technology is good enough to hand over to a PA or an assistant to record the on set audio. For many individuals there are deep misunderstandings about recording technology and audio in general. I advise anyone in production to learn how to listen, it will improve the audio quality of the production and help immensely in the post production audio phase of the process as well.

There are a few simple exercises to learn to listen with more accuracy and acuity. If you do these practices several times a day for a few minutes here or there, over a period of several weeks, you cannot help but learn to better focus your listening skills.

garden 1216086 The most obvious and useful start is to remove visual stimuli. This can and should be done under many various times and circumstances. Do this at home or work at your desk. Do it at night when the house is “quiet”, do it during the day when the sun is high and the birds are chirping. We are surrounded in sound and the variety of times will uncover a variety of layers of those sounds.

Sit quietly and close your eyes. Listen to the sounds around you. Start with a small circumference, say the confines of the room. What do you hear? Computers and monitors most likely to start. Concentrate on those sounds. Listen for variations. Is it a steady hum, or does it fluctuate? Is there a clock ticking, is air conditioning or a heater blowing, is there a curtain moving from an open window?

Now expand your awareness to outside of the space you are sitting. What can you hear now? Daytime, do you hear birds? Nighttime, do you hear crickets? Do you live rural, can you hear other sounds of nature or distant sounds? If you live in the city, do you hear cars, planes, other people? Take the time and intensify your awareness to really reach around with your ears. Finally now, try to listen to all of it at once – the computer, the cars, the birds, the distant street or voices. You’ve probably found that there is much more, very specific sound, surrounding you, than you heard just moments ago. By keeping your eyes closed it increases your aural awareness. Do the same exercise outside, do it at a mall, do it in the break-room, but most importantly, do it whenever you scout for locations to shoot.

new york city street 4 1255955 Let’s go a step further. Now close your eyes again and hear those same sounds. Now try to define them by determining their pitches. Is one a high pitched sound, or instead a low rumbling sound? For the purposes of finding sound frequencies, it can be useful to use the sound of “tone” as your reference. As digital content people, our lives are filled with tone. Well that’s actually changing a bit, but that’s a conversation for another day. Tone, is 1000 hertz, or 1000 cycles per second. It’s a high pitched sound used for censor beeps, slating, and sound professionals use it to check the signal flow. If you can “hear” tone in your imagination, then try to determine if the sounds you are hearing are above or below the pitch of tone. This exercise is useful in understanding how to use an EQ. I have a separate article on EQ here.

Digging deeper, listen to the dynamic range of the sounds around you, and their sound fields. The dynamic range is defined as the most quiet sound to the loudest. For example, a motorcycle zooming by – it starts low in the distance and gets quite loud as it passes and then eventually fades into the distance. The dynamics are the range from soft to loud. Intently listen to the sounds around you, and hear and learn the ebb and flow of their various dynamic ranges.

Focus in on the sound field of what you are listening to. The sound field is the placement of sound say from left to right, front or behind, or above and below. Can you hear the motorcycle as it “moves across” the sound field? Has it crossed you from left to right, or from right to left? Is the computer to your left or to your right? Are the birds above you or to the side of you? These exercises help understand the relationship of sounds in terms of their relative loudness and their place in space. All of that will become very useful in the post production process of sound mixing.

loneliness 1359702 Learning to listen is not a one shot exercise. Its something that should be practiced regularly. It is a key skill in every aspect of the filmmaking process. There will always be situations where mitigating sound intrusions is impossible. But many audio issues never needed to exist in the first place, if a competent person was aware of the sounds during a shoot. The finest directors are always photographed on sets with a pair of headphones around their necks. They understand the importance of proper location audio recording. They also know how to listen to the space around them.

Take these new found skills and use them to your advantage. When pre-producing, make sure to take the audio into account. Listen to the spaces as you scout, are there refrigerators, fans, and hums in interior spaces? Can you hear the outside intruding into the spaces and if so will it make editing difficult later? Exterior scenes – are there cars, trucks and traffic, people, airplanes, helicopters?

Use these skills to enhance and enrich the final show, and also possibly shave time and money off of the process from production to post. George Lucas has famously been quoted that – “sound is 50 percent of the motion picture experience.” I think any one of us who has watched a horror movie or a sci-fi film with the sound off can reasonably say that without the sound there often is no “experience.”

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Woody Woodhall, CAS is Head of Allied Post Audio in Santa Monica, CA and is an award winning supervising sound editor, sound designer and rerecording mixer. He has sound supervised and mixed feature films, documentaries…

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