Following is the full transcript of entrepreneur and sound designer Tasos Fratzolas’ TEDx Talk: The Beautiful Lies of Sound Design at TEDxAthens conference. Tasos Fratzolas is the owner and CEO of Soundsnap.
Tasos Fratzolas – CEO, Soundsnap
I want to skip the introduction. I want to start by doing an experiment.
I’m going to play three videos of a rainy day. But I’ve replaced the audio of one of the videos, and instead of the sound of rain, I’ve added the sound of bacon frying. So I want you think carefully which one the clip with the bacon is… (Rain falls)… (Rain falls)… (Rain falls)…
All right. Actually, I lied. They’re all bacon. (Bacon sizzles)…
My point here isn’t really to make you hungry every time you see a rainy scene, but it’s to show that our brains are conditioned to embrace the lies. We’re not looking for accuracy. So on the subject of deception, I wanted to quote one of my favorite authors. In “The Decay of Lying,” Oscar Wilde establishes the idea that all bad art comes from copying nature and being realistic; and all great art comes from lying and deceiving, and telling beautiful, untrue things.
So, I want to make this clear: When you’re watching a movie and a phone rings, it’s not actually ringing. It’s been added later in post-production in a studio. All of the sounds you hear are fake. Everything, apart from the dialogue, is fake. Not the only thing that’s fake in Hollywood, by the way.
When you watch a movie and you see a bird flapping its wings (Wings flap), they haven’t really recorded the bird. It sounds a lot more realistic if you record a sheet or shaking kitchen gloves. (Flaps). The burning of a cigarette up close (Cigarette burns). It actually sounds a lot more authentic if you take a small Saran Wrap ball and release it. (A Saran Warp ball being released). Punches? (Punch). Let me play that again. (Punch). That’s often done by sticking a knife in vegetables, usually cabbage. (Cabbage stabbed with a knife).
The next one – I’m not going to play the video but it’s breaking bones. (Bones break). Well, no one was really harmed. It’s actually breaking celery or frozen lettuce. (Breaking frozen lettuce or celery). Yeah. Thanks to my three friends who are laughing. Making the right sounds is not always as easy as a trip to the supermarket and going to the vegetable section. But it’s often a lot more complicated than that.
So let’s reverse-engineer together the creation of a sound effect. One of my favorite stories comes from Frank Serafine. He’s a contributor to our library, and a great sound designer for “Tron” and “Star Trek” and others. He was part of the Paramount team that won the Oscar for best sound for “The Hunt for Red October.” In this Cold War classic, in the ’90s, they were asked to produce the sound of the propeller of the submarine. So they had a small problem: they couldn’t really find a submarine in West Hollywood. So basically, what they did is, they went to a friend’s swimming pool, and Frank performed a cannonball. They placed an underwater mic and an overhead mic outside the swimming pool. We recreated the sound. So here’s what the underwater mic sounds like. (Underwater plunge). Adding the overhead mic, it sounded a bit like this: (Water splashes).
So now they took the sound and pitched it one octave down, sort of like slowing down a record. (Water splashes at lower octave). And then they removed a lot of the high frequencies. (Water splashes). And pitched it down another octave. (Water splashes at lower octave). And then they added a little bit of the splash from the overhead microphone. (Water splashes). And by looping and repeating that sound, they got this: (Propeller churns). So, creativity and technology put together in order to create the illusion that we’re inside the submarine.
But once you’ve created your sounds and you’ve synced them to the image, you want those sounds to live in the world of the story. And one the best ways to do that is to add reverb. So this is the first audio tool. I want to talk about Reverberation, or reverb, is the persistence of the sound after the original sound has ended. So it’s sort of like the — all the reflections from the materials, the objects and the walls around the sound. Take, for example, the sound of a gunshot. The original sound is less than half a second long. (Gunshot). By adding reverb, we can make it sound like it was recorded inside a bathroom. (Gunshot reverbs in bathroom) Or like it was recorded inside a chapel or a church. (Gunshot reverbs church) Or in a canyon. (Gunshot reverbs in canyon).
So reverb gives us a lot of information about the space between the listener and the original sound source. If the sound is the taste, then reverb is sort of like the smell of the sound. But reverb can do a lot more. Listening to a sound with a lot less reverberation than the on-screen action is going to immediately signify to us that we’re listening to a commentator, to an objective narrator that’s not participating in the on-screen action.
Also, emotionally intimate moments in cinema are often heard with zero reverb, because that’s how it would sound if someone was speaking inside our ear. On the completely other side, adding a lot of reverb to a voice is going to make us think that we’re listening to a flashback, or perhaps that we’re inside the head of a character or that we’re listening to the voice of God. Or, even more powerful in film, Morgan Freeman. So —