I’ve been catching up on my podcast backlog this week and I came across something that struck a chord, but that has also come up in the general zeitgeist a few times over the last wee while. Over on the Knitsonik podcast – a podcast about knitting and sound art/design, it’s a niche interest group, but not as niche as I would have expected: I blame the golden ratio – there’s been an on-going discussion about ‘wrong’ sound effects in films, that was started off by a listener who keeps goats bemoaning the use of stock goat sounds that to her were really blatantly not belonging to the goats in question. What she termed ‘universal goat’. This in turn has led to lots of interesting stories and sound recordings of sounds in the wrong places and what the correct sounds should be. (Artic wolves in hill country that would actually be full of coyotes, tree frogs native to the Hollywood hills that turn up all over the place, and explain helpfully why I’ve never heard a frog go ‘ribbet’ in real life.) Additionally, last winter, there was a thread of conversation on Radio 4’s Film Programme about sound effects in the wrong place (Great Northern Divers are something of a short hand for frozen wastelands – shame they’re only found in the Artic and not in the Alps). Ammunition, if ever I heard it, for sound designers everywhere, when faced with a director insisting on their using a generic stock sound rather than hunting down an accurate one, to refute the ‘who’s going to notice’ argument. Clearly, not just us sound geeks.
My own personal version of the universal goat comes courtesy of the BBC Sound Effects Library. That glorious collection of CDs that lurked in the media departments of practically every university or college in the UK, courtesy of those fine folks at the Radiophonics workshop. The point towards the end of my Masters when I could actually pick out sound effects that I recognised in not only student films, but also actual commercial television and film, has probably shaped my attitude towards location recording, Foley and using library sound effects. Once you tune into a ‘wrong’ sound effect that is in common circulation, it becomes practically impossible not to hear it. Nearly a decade on, I’ll be watching an old Hammer Horror film or a Jon Pertwee Dr Who serial, there’ll be a storm and there it’ll be: ‘Frankenstein’s Castle (Rain, Thunder etc.)’. It’s a really good thunderstorm, nicely atmospheric, but by goodness does it get used a lot. It even turns up occasionally in modern low budget British horror films. I really hope that’s because sound designers are using it ironically – a knowing nod and a wink to genre savvy geeks in the audience – but I doubt it.
Part of the problem is, that sound is very powerful, it often completely bypasses our conscious brain, to press buttons in our brain we don’t necessarily even know we have. Particularly fear, it’s really, really good at fear. (Trust me on this. That was my dissertation topic; I could talk about it all day.) So we often come to associate particular sounds with particular emotional states when it comes to movie watching. Which is fine, but when it comes to making movies, both audiences and filmmakers come with a whole plethora of pre-conceptions – both conscious and unconscious – about how things ‘should’ sound. As a sound designer its very easy to get drawn into that trap, it would be very easy for me to forget, if I were recreating the sound of a forest at night that the sounds I associate with the woods of my childhood – deciduous woodland in the Lowlands of Scotland – aren’t necessarily going to be accurate to a pine forest in the Highlands. Because those sounds are familiar to me, they won’t sound obviously ‘wrong’ – the way a 1960s ambulance siren would sound out of place in a modern drama – because I expect them to be there. So it is with sounds that we associate with particular locales because we’ve only seen them in movies and they always have a certain soundscape. Audiences will sometimes find the ‘correct’ sound unconvincing because they’re so used to stock effects that are ‘wrong’ or over emphasised. Some directors will vehemently resist the use of a sound that is factually correct, because it doesn’t conform to their expectation, with their mental soundscape for how that location should sound. And still other occasions the actual sound just doesn’t sound dramatic or evocative enough – flesh tearing is actually a really quiet un-dramatic noise, you need to layer it with various other elements to actually get a sound with the right impact. Flesh is really good at deadening sound, meaning that punches mostly have more of a solid dull sound with very little echo, rather than the crisp neat bam of a lot of movie punches.
But, as with so much in sound design; the sign of really good sound work is when you don’t notice its there. If this discussion proves anything, it’s that audiences only really notice us, when we get it wrong. Which arguably, is how it should be.