Sundance 2019: Creating sound for The Sound of Silence

By Jennifer Walden

Research has proven that music can stimulate emotions. Different notes together creating a major chord can promote happiness, for example. Those notes resonate at particular frequencies that are pleasing to the ear. If you consider that every sound resonates at some frequency, then perhaps different sound sources in an environment — like a refrigerator hum and radiator hiss — could be creating chords, and maybe those chords aren’t so pleasing.

Then the environment could cause the people in it to be depressed or anxious. Is there a way to alter a discordant toaster buzz, so that it resonates in harmony with the other environmental sounds?

Director Michael Tyburski explores this concept in his film The Sound of Silence, which premiered in the US Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Protagonist Peter Lucian (Peter Sarsgaard) is a “house tuner,” who tweaks the sounds in his clients’ spaces in order to alter their negative moods.

Harbor’s Ian Gaffney-Rosenfeld

Supervising sound editors/sound designers/re-recording mixers Grant Elder and Ian Gaffney-Rosenfeld of Harbor Picture Company in New York City helped director Tyburski translate this story idea into a sound idea by playing Peter’s sonic experience for the audience. “If Peter says the toaster was making a certain note and the refrigerator is making a different note, we actually tuned our sound effects to those notes to keep true to the situation that Peter is describing,” says Gaffney-Rosenfeld.

The film opens with Peter in a client’s apartment. The client is skeptical about Peter’s “house tuning” theory and so the audience only subtly hears the problem that Peter hears — that the radiator is resonating in a B-flat. But as Peter gets closer to the radiator, and the camera gets closer to Peter, the radiator sound becomes more apparent in the mix. The audience hears what Peter hears, an experience Elder and Gaffney-Rosenfeld call “Peter vision.”

Other times, the audience is meant to question Peter’s theory, so the sound is played straight. “We had fun with toeing the line of ‘are we inside of Peter’s head?’ Is this real? Or, is he crazy?” says Elder. “But it’s definitely clear when we’re in ‘Peter vision’ and when we’re not.”

Foley
The Foley team at Alchemy Post Sound supplied Elder and Gaffney-Rosenfeld with close-up recordings of appliances, which they then pitched via Serato’s Pitch n’ Time Pro to match the specified tones. “We cut this movie with tuners in hand, so that we knew we were in key with the chord or achieving the note that the script actually called for,” says Elder.

Harbor’s Grant Elder

The Foley team also created effects for the tools that Peter uses to adjust the sound of different objects. For instance, Peter wraps a foil-like material around the radiator to change its resonance from a B-flat to a C. “As he’s wrapping the foil, we are continuously bending the pitch to get to the note that Peter wanted. For this, I used Pitch n’ Time Pro in a variable setting. The sound effects were rendered out but I had timed it appropriately to make it go up in pitch to match the action and have it end with a specific note.”

In one scene, Peter visits a client’s busy office, replete with phones ringing, printers printing, faxes coming in and lots of people talking. For this scene, Gaffney-Rosenfeld and Elder wanted Peter’s experience to increase from unpleasant to overwhelming. They consulted withPoppy Crum, chief scientist at Dolby Laboratories, to find out what happens when a person experiences tinnitus or a painful overload of sound.

“She informed us that the person will lose all the low-end and what he or she is hearing will turn into this high-pitched, tinny, high-endy sound,” says Gaffney-Rosenfeld. “So as we were creating that scene of Peter getting overwhelmed by the office sounds, we were gradually removing all of the low-end using a filter sweep in Avid’s Channel Strip. At the same time, we were gradually pitching up all of the effects to a higher frequency, to the point where it’s uncomfortable. What you’re left with is a vacuum with just this harsh, tinny sound remaining.”

Peter is eventually pulled out of the experience by the voice of the client who he’s there to visit. Though Peter is able to tune out the office sounds, he’s left with a “ringing, high-pitched sound that drives him a little nuts. You see that throughout the course of the story and how that affects him as a character,” explains Gaffney-Rosenfeld.

Harbor’s Grand Stage

Dolby Fellowship & Dolby Atmos
Thanks to the SFFILM Dolby Fellowship, Tyburski and producer/co-writer Ben Nabors were able to collaborate with Elder and Gaffney-Rosenfeld prior to production. That’s a luxury for independent filmmakers, but for a film that uses sound as a story point specifically, it was a vital opportunity. One of Dolby’s goals for the fellowship is “to incorporate the sound process into a film’s creative development,” says Nabors. “The chance for us to connect and exchange ideas before the film was shot was special for us.”

The Fellowship also allowed The Sound of Silence to be mixed in Dolby Atmos at Harbor Picture Company’s Harbor Grand studio, which houses a Euphonix System 5 console and is equipped to mix multiple formats, including Dolby Atmos, IMAX, 7.1 and 5.1 surround.

“The Sound of Silence is really about our main character’s struggles and his view of the world, and the Atmos format provided us with this unlimited palette of ways to help the audience experience that,” explains Gaffney-Rosenfeld.

The Atmos surround field was especially beneficial on a scene in which Peter is visiting a construction site as a consultant for the architecture for a building in Manhattan. As he’s gazing at the cityscape through the window, the audience hears an orchestra of city sounds that Elder and Gaffney-Rosenfeld designed from effects like a horse and buggy going by, car horns honking, people yelling out on the street and birds flapping around. Through a collaboration with the film’s music department, they’re able to morph the effects into the sound of orchestral instruments tuning up before a performance.

During the mix, they “freeform with the Dolby Atmos panners and move those sounds in a circular motion all around the room. It showed that we aren’t in reality, but in Peter’s experience,” says Gaffney-Rosenfeld. “That was a moment conceived by the director that perfectly painted the way that Peter hears tangible sounds out in the world and experiences them as musical elements. That was a moment where Atmos gave us the flexibility to take what would have been a two-dimensional sound and gave us unlimited space to add depth and movement.”

Director Michael Tyburski

Another Atmos highlight includes a scene in which Peter goes to Central Park and uses a tuning fork to tune himself to the location, which happens to be a G-major chord. “Using a combination of the tuning fork sounds, our custom sound design and some elements from the composer, we were able to create in Atmos a moving sound that helps the viewer to get sucked into Peter’s head and to experience what he is in that moment,” says Elder.

Using the tuning forks is something that Peter does throughout the film, so having those tuning fork sounds was essential. “Michael Tyburski, the director, helped us get all the props from set that we wanted to record specifically in Foley. He even helped us with the tuning forks, to make the exact chords that are being described in the film and we recorded those in our studio here at Harbor,” says Gaffney-Rosenfeld. “That willing and highly collaborative relationship that we had with Michael really makes this soundtrack that much more authentic and interesting.”

Elder adds, “The whole team on the film really lent themselves to us. The production sound team did an excellent job. Also the picture editor Matthew Hart took a lot of time with Michael to try out some sound design. Ian and I had the chance to jump in early also and create sounds for the picture editor to cut into scenes. It was an amazing collaborative effort.”


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. You can follow her on Twitter @audiojeney.


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