Luca Fusi Sound Design | Implementation

15May/111

Behind – Post Sound

A quick write-up on a post project I took on with a few friends last term.

We three amigos were feeling pretty confident about our workload for Term 3 when we were approached by a graduating student from VFS' Classical Animation department about doing the sound for her final, the story of a day in the life of a young girl at play, and the magical backpack that protects her from harm throughout.

While we probably would have turned down just any old work to focus instead on our assignments, this animation was completely legit -- there was no way we could pass up a chance to get our sound on such a beautiful piece.

So we said yes, and threw ourselves into it amidst the rest of our coursework.

Going in reverse for this one. Here's the end result, and below that is some thinking/work that went into it.

Final Result

Early Planning

Our first look at "Behind" was a draft copy of the piece with temp music dropped in -- nothing locked yet, but close enough to completion that we got what the animator had in mind. The whole piece had a very Miyazaki-esque/Spirited Away sort of vibe to it, and we wanted that to come through unaffected in the final clip. Our job here was really clearly to support the visual and the mood just enough to elevate the movie, then get the hell out of the way.

Some early thoughts we had:

  • Less is more. Both the delicate visual style of BB's animation and the tone of the piece called for a really light touch from the sound department. We've been used to crazy psychic battles, fight scenes and explosions, so trying to create "soft" sounds was totally new for us. We decided early on to keep the sound effects and ambiences from being "over-real" and leave out a lot of the detail we'd otherwise put in.
  • Cede to the music. It's weird to say this, as sound people are usually jostling with the music guys to get their sounds played loudest in the final mix - but again, with a really delicate piece like this one, we had to concede that music could say a lot more than simple effects could to create the vibe we wanted. We were prepared to have our stuff played down.
  • If we can't get the crying working, we'll drop the dialogue entirely. It was a coin toss as to whether the girl was really vocalizing or not as she skips along, but we thought it'd be a great experience to get in touch with our acting campus and cast talent for the role, get some extra dialogue editing practice, etc. -- so we committed to putting dialogue in the piece, with the caveat: if it wasn't believable, if the crying felt false or got in the way, we'd strip it all out.

In all the student works (in-progress and final) I've seen so far in my time here, I've observed that dialogue is kind of a high-risk proposition. When it's good, or just average, it goes unnoticed and we simply absorb it, freeing up our brains to concentrate on the visuals/rest of the sound design that's gone into a piece. When it's bad, it hijacks our attention and basically spoils any chances of walking away from the piece thinking that it had good sound...

Recording and Editing

... Fortunately, we managed to find a couple of voice actors that fit the character we were looking for, and had one of those "Oh my God"/mutual turn-to-each-other moments after our session with Arielle Tuliao, who did the voice of the girl. That was a huge turning point in the process; after editing her stuff into sync and laying it on with our Foley, everything started feeling like it was really going to work out. Everyone else did a great job as well, with Brendan (one of the kids') voices also providing some neat source material for the bag roar when pitched down.

Apart from the music, the great majority of the sound that got played up in the final mix was our Foley -- all of it was captured with the Rode NTG-3 running through an FP33 mic pre into Pro Tools. Would've loved to have used the 416 on all that stuff, but didn't discover it until a few weeks later!

The sessions took us the better part of two days to fully record and edit. Notably "cool" Foley solutions were flicking our fingers with masking tape on them for the butterfly flaps, ripping pieces of cloth underneath a dirt pit for root tears/plucks, and a nice layer of fresh-picked green onions on our surface for some squeaky meadowy footstep details.

My buddy Gwen handled the BGs and SPFX , both of which I thought really had that soft sonic texture the piece needed, and were rich and full without being really showy.

Manuel took the animator's original Music, a simple piano melody, and really filled it out to score the entire piece with -- unfortunately, a lot of those changes didn't make it into the final mix, in favor of the director's starting piece. You gotta expect it.

Final mixes were done by a later-term student and VFS' Matthew Thomas.

Hope you enjoyed! Leave any questions or feedback in the comments.

11May/110

Find That You

I just wanted to share this, quickly - a post from my friend at RJCresswell.com.

He's been posting a bunch of bite-sized fiction exercises based around a Google Images search result, and this one, probably because of our shared experiences and talks all the time in high school, really resonated. The sentiment is beautiful.

My hands shake as I reach the podium. My palm slips greasily into that of the principal. I remember him from my time here. I hated him. The microphone protrudes accusingly, and I go over my notes. Tear them up. Throw them to one side...
-- RJCresswell.com, "My hands shake as I reach the podium."

Hope all is well with you!

3May/112

Say Hello to Kyma

The Kyma timeline environment. Not mine!

The Kyma timeline environment.

In balancing out such a crazy term, a few things were going to have to suffer. I present to you:

Sound Designing 2

Kyma Project - Scanner Duel

Part A
Using a microphone, record a vocal temp into protools to sketch out the sound design for the given quicktime (Scanners duel scene). Use as many tracks as is necessary and any plugin effects or audiosuite transformations that will make your design fit the scene.
Part B
Using any of the processes available in Kyma and any appropriate sound sources, create a sound design for the same scene, using the vocal temp that you created in part A as a template or blueprint.

Kyma Kyma Kyma. Such a wonderful and alluring word! I knew next to nothing about what this thing was or what it did, just that it was a device we had somewhere, buried in one of our back rooms, and that with the right level of arcane mastery, it could be used to create these incredibly techy, otherworldly textures and sounds that you couldn't get anywhere else. I knew we'd spent almost no real class time on it, and that however much each student chose to master the Kyma in the time given to him was solely on him. I was ready.

What is a "Kyma?"

This should start things off:

Kyma is a visual programming language for sound design used by musicians, researchers, and sound designers. In Kyma, a user programs a multiprocessor DSP by graphically connecting modules on the screen of a Macintosh or Windows computer.
-- Wikipedia, "Kyma (sound design language)"

Essentially, the Kyma is a very expensive, very powerful and -- in my limited experience -- very niche sound design tool. It is two parts:

  1. a sort of programming environment where one can set up large processing chains with which to mutilate your choice of source sounds, from loaded-in samples to stuff you synthesize yourself
  2. and the external Paca Rana box that crunches all the 1s and 0s that execute that processing chain. The box is essentially a tiny computer whose every cycle is devoted to rendering sound and nothing else.

All of the components within the Paca itself are of really high quality, and that dedicated processing power means that no matter how much you want to stretch out, granulate and murder that sound, it's still rendered very smoothly and naturally - and without messing with everything else your system has to do on its own, like run Pro Tools and whatever other plug-ins you have set up. It seems like it'd play very well in even crowded sessions.

Not as cute as the real thing.

Not as cute as the real thing.

The Kyma environment as a programming language is custom-designed for sound and sound alone, and genius founder Carla Scaletti has been at it for decades. It teases you in with seemingly infinite possibilities, a playful, hippie-ish sort of branding message and some very cool credits to its name.

If you've seen WALL-E, you've heard Ben Burtt's work on the Kyma in the title robot's adorably lilting voice. Video below, jump to a little past the 6min mark to see some of what the system's capable of in terms of voice construction.

That box, unfortunately, will also run you upwards of $3000 or $4000. And while getting started in that programming environment and making some very out-there sounds with it is pretty quick, it's not something you can jump into and use to go from a pre-planned Point A to Point B. Especially not in the one day timeframe I had left myself for this last assignment of the term.

Start to Finish in a Day

Fuck.

Fuck.

As I said, I was ready to kill this one. I'd heard what this box could do in the work of our badass late-term student, Javier, and I was ready to bend this thing to my will. But the film collaboration happened, the soundscape happened, the days rolled by without me learning much more than how to get the Kyma up and running.

Finally, I found myself at the end of the term, one day between myself and the deadline, and without a plan. Always a great place to be; I love working under pressure!

If you've been reading me, you know I can't work without a little planning. Here's what went through my head before I dove in on this one:

I made the decision to phone in the vocal temp. Yep, it was part of the overall assignment and grade, but I had missed the day's class we had been given to record and clean it up (ironically, because I had been up late learning the Kyma the night before and slept in). With 24 hours to go, it didn't make sense to spend the little time I had left polishing up the blueprint instead of the final actual piece. For better or worse, this needed to spring straight from my head to canvas in one go. Because of this, you're not hearing my vocal temp. At least without buying me a drink.

I watched the scene. Many, many times. Sounds obvious, but if you don't digest the hell out of the clip, even when you're in a rush, you're going to miss the visual cues and anchors you need to hit to create a really impactful sound design. This scene needed a lot of review here because of its extreme length and really slow pacing; there are no bullets fired, no punches or broken panes of glass or anything like that. A lot of it is just two dudes staring intensely at one another. I needed to find the moments where the stare intensified and hit them hard.

After watching and rewatching, and staying deliberately in the dark about the overall arc of the real movie, I decided:

  • This battle needed to feel dangerous, the wounds terrifying. I'd never seen Scanners, didn't know what led up to the point of these two guys clashing, but any time you're facing down a foe so strong that he can get into your head and make you tear your own face off, the audience should fucking fear a guy like that.
  • The psychic battle component should be synth-heavy, push myself a bit into the realm of synthetic sound design, which I (still) know almost nothing about. All my experimenting was getting done on this front, and I was counting on the Kyma to give me some great, unique source material to work with that sounded like nothing I'd ever heard but still resembled an epic battle of the minds.
  • Each character's powers needed to have a distinct voice, so that you instinctively felt when the battle was turning one way or another. Of course, the bad guy's should sound more powerful, a little darker, a little more focused; the good guy's more benevolent, but full enough to take him down.

I'd leave the recorder running and just hope I got something randomly brilliant out of the Kyma. Sad times, but I didn't have the luxury of setting up an elaborate custom processing chain to get myself exactly the sound I needed with so little time left. I ran what I thought was some cool source material (ice cracks, resonant metals) through some intro-level Kyma patches until I stumbled upon something workable, bounced it, then edited from there. The Kyma's contribution ended up being mostly in the form of its really nice granulation functions, which I used (and cranked up) on a slowed down oxygen mask sample that I kept running throughout the scene as a bed for the whole encounter. You'll also hear some of these effects on the wounds the bad guy sustains early on. Though I can't remember why.

In the end, though, nearly all the sounds for this scene came from the Massive synth and a few tweaked presets. I found a few representative synths (bad guy powers, good guy powers, general sub bass, general "scanner duel" atmosphere) and ran through the scene a few times and made multiple passes, scoring the individual layers "live" with my fingers on a bunch of parameter knobs. Recorded it to MIDI, bounced it out to audio, left it to edit the next morning. This got me a lot of good stuff that was already pretty in sync with the pace of the scene, which made editing it pretty easily.

Final Result

That's about all there is to say on this one - editing took it the rest of the way. Some of the plug-ins used here were WaveArts' Panorama for stereo movement, ring modulation, the excellent Waves Doubler and MaxxBass plug-ins, along with a suite of reverbs, eqs and delays. If you have any specific questions, leave them in the comments and I'd be happy to answer!

What Went Right / What I Learned

  • Voice distinction. I feel like I nailed down a sort of personality for each character based on the sound of their psychic attacks; that evil boy sounds evil, and the good guy sounds a little purer.
  • Pain! Was pleased with some of the burning/searing accents on the bad guy's points of focus. This was done mostly with some drastic volume automation on the sizzles combined with pitch shifts/etc. on the sound of his powers right when his expression changed.

What Went Wrong

  • Frequency content. Working with synth presets can be tricky, because they bring a ton of broadband noise/sound with them and sometimes fill up a lot more of the sound spectrum than you want. I didn't have a lot of time to mix this assignment before submission, which means that there are some points where that synth noise really, really builds up and gets harsh. Maybe that serves the scene, but I think it'd need to be tamed a bit before this could go into the mix with BGs, dialogue, sound effects, etc. It's a bit of a spectrum hog right now.
  • Not enough time to really use the Kyma. That device is capable of much, much more than I give it credit for in this assignment, and with a little more time I would have liked to make it do what I wanted, instead of just hitching a ride on the stuff it accidentally did.
  • Injury Foley. I had the brilliant idea to use a pan full of semi-congealed oatmeal and rake my hand across it to simulate the sounds of good guy pulling his face off - but this came a week after I'd finished the project. That sound could have used some love.
  • Flat Fire. With a little more time, I would've stylized the fire sounds a bit more - they were left pretty dry as is, and could have fit better with the texture of the rest of the mix.

The Sound Design community online seems to agree that the Kyma is a very powerful tool -- maybe the best -- for very specific tasks like granulation and cool vocal morphing, but that if you don't have a lifetime to spend mastering it, there are quicker ways to get to the sound you want. I also don't really see anything that it can do that Max/MSP couldn't do better, and for thousands of dollars less, if you're willing to sink time into mastering a sound design-oriented programming language one way or the other.

That all said, looking forward to spending some quality time with the Paca as the year rolls on, and maybe, finally getting it to do what I plan it to (and not simply something cool but unexpected) by the end of the year. I may never see one again, right?

Please leave any questions/thoughts/criticism in the comments!