The Squirrel – Part 2
The Technical Side: On Mixing and Combining Sounds
One important lesson I learned from Monster Cable’s Noel Lee several years ago is that in the movies, sound is just as important, if not more important, than the visuals. Even as a film school graduate and film geek in general, and as someone who’d mixed my own records, I’d never really thought of it that way before. Learning this helped me gain a greater appreciation for sound design in the movies and the effect it can make on the film’s emotional impact and ability to immerse the audience in the illusion of what they’re seeing. One only has to remember that most films are audio-recorded (and of course animated) on a silent soundstage to appreciate the role of the sound designer. Sound is especially important in sci-fi, what with all its alien creatures and futuristic technology.
The definitive film for sound design in terms of technical achievement, creativity and sheer impact is of course Star Wars. Our perception of the laser blasts, hum of the light saber, roar of the TIE-fighter, Chewie and R2-D2 was defined just as much by their distinctive sounds as they were by their appearance. I recently browsed the new book The Sounds of Star Wars, which features a speaker that plays 250 of legendary sound designer Ben Burtt’s sounds from the film. One page I stumbled on described how Han Solo’s light saber blast when he fries the bounty hunter Greedo was created by combining a cable and the screeching of dry ice against a hard surface to create this highly distinctive new sound. This page from filmsound.org further describes some of Burtt’s other combined sounds, but perhaps even more usefully for educational purposes, it also contains a very practical short list of those fundamental techniques for creating new sounds. Some of those include slowing existing sounds down, speeding them up, altering the sound or creating a new sound with a synthesizer. George Lucas’s direction to his visual design team was to make the film’s sets and costumes look beat-up, weather-worn, or rusty, as they might appear in the natural world, or “organic.” Burtt followed similar direction for his audio work, recording sounds largely from the natural world, then altering and combining them to create a new sound.
In my book, Indie Rock 101: Running, Recording and Promoting Your Band, I describe a number of techniques used by audio pro producers and engineers to make their musical recordings sound bigger, more polished and unique. I used practically all of them in my new single, “The Squirrel,” which you can listen to or free-download from this page on the Indie Rock 101 website. What sounds like one big rhythm guitar during the verses is actually several tracks—each with different effects and settings applied—combined to achieve that big power-pop sound. The snare and kick are two tracks each, but again with different settings applied to achieve a new sound. One of the kick tracks is a triggered sample, the other the recorded kick. The background vocals throughout and most prominent near the end (“your very last days”) are three vocal tracks recorded with different mics, and with me singing at different levels of intensity for that somewhat ghost-like, breathy sound that Mutt Lange’s made famous in songs like big pop tracks like the Cars’ “You Might Think” and Def Leppard’s “Photograph” (…And props to my IR101 technical editor and go-to engineer/bassist extraordinaire Ron Guensche for teaching this old dog Mutt’s trick about the breathy singing). Even the “woo-hoos” and “strings”-sounding synth in the beginning and choruses are multiple tracks combined to achieve new and unique sounds.
If I could provide just one more example I’ve always liked from an existing classic from my teenage years: listen to the jangly rhythm guitar mixed with the electric at 3:45 in Journey’s “Escape.” Your ear doesn’t think, “That sounds like two guitar tracks combined to make a new sound”—but the unique, combined sound evokes the passion and feeling of the song’s narrator boxing his way toward a better life.
Anyone can record and mix raw tracks and come out with a decent demo, but it takes a combination of sound creative and technical decisions to faithfully evoke and reflect the mood of the song in the final recording. The song I’m currently mixing, “Frostbites,” is a more intimate song than “The Squirrel,” which is why I’m completely starting the mix from scratch, as I typically do. It probably won’t have as many combined sounds as “The Squirrel,” but there will be doubled or “combined” tracks for sure. As it is in life and art in general, in audio production, the sum is often far more evocative, unique and interesting than its parts.
San Franciso-based indie musician/producer Richard Turgeon is the author of Indie Rock 101: Running, Recording and Promoting Your Band, published by Focal Press. You can keep up with his latest projects at his website and blog at www.indierock101.com.