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It's all in the soundtrack

There is one thing that exercises my ire when watching films more than anything else and that is the pointless over use of music and sound effects. Television is the main culprit, but cinema is also in the frame. I have railed against the ghastly wash of muzak as background fill with broadcaster and fellow producers and dared them to simply live without it.
A few years ago I produced a documentary for the BBC called Windfarm Wars. It was A four-part observational series that followed the shenanigans of a windfarm development in Devon. We had fantastic access to all the players and also the legal processes that the application had to go through. The project took three years to complete and the story, although very human was also complicated to tell due to the many narratives, legal issues and sheer complexity of planning law.
I had commissioned a composer to write all the music for the series, themes and incidental. He did a very good job, providing a rich palate of emotive content which, when used sensitively and with relevance had real impact in my mind. However, our commissioning executive at the BBC was worried by the idea of a Spartan sound-track. She wanted music all over the film, ‘to help retain the audience,’ – presumably because, like many in broadcasting, she felt the audience to lack staying power to follow a compelling narrative and that moments of silence would cause them to ‘switch channel’. I ask you!
Anyway, being the commissioner and paying the money, we did what we were told and made sure that, if in doubt, add more music. As we approached the end of production it was clear that we would still be editing the final episode when the first was going to air. This meant that the director could not be present at the dub for the first three programmes. It became my responsibility to finalise the sound-track and deliver the finished films to the BBC. For days the dubbing mixer and I sat in the theatre sweetening the mix. Yet, always there was music, music music. So I took an executive decision – one is allowed to do this as an executive producer – and made a bet with the mixer. We would simply remove half the music from the final dub and if anyone noticed or made a comment I would take the rap and buy him a very good bottle of single malt.
Needless to say, the films were signed off by the BBC and went to air and no comment was made. No one noticed. I rest my case. Less is invariably more when it comes to sound design.

For me it is always a great pleasure to be enveloped by a minimalist soundtrack, and none more so than in the recently released Lady Macbeth, written by the playwright Alice Birch – this is her first feature film script and directed by another star of the theatre, William Oldroyd, making his feature film debut. Superbly produced, the sound-track is a masterclass in less is more. There are no more than three music cues in the whole film and they have immense impact. The marriage of dialogue where no word is wasted, no sound indulged, and one cannot take one’s eyes off the screen for a second, makes this essential viewing for any student of film culture who wants to understand what great sound design really can be.

Perhaps I am just an old cynic, but composers and producers receive royalties from the PRS and publishers based on the amount of screen time that music is used. So, the more music in a show the bigger the pay-out. Maybe that is why there is just so much of it? I declare an interest here as an owner of music IP. Those royalty cheques are greatly appreciated. Should have used more music and I might owner a smarter car now.

Posted by author: Adam
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6 thoughts on “It's all in the soundtrack

  • I would like to add a comment from a different perspective: for anybody that has is hard of hearing the loud noise over the voices means that one is unable to follow the storyline and in the end you only watch the pictures. May as well turn off the sound completely!

    • Doug, I do know where you are coming from. There was a time when audio on TV was so basic – a 3-inch speaker, that when finalising a mix for a programme we would always play it back through a basic speaker to be sure we had the balance right for the worst case listening conditions. Today, with electrostatic and digital audio systems in TV’s the assumption in the dub is that people have better ears whereas, yet again, the triumph of style over content prevails, with mumbling actors and buried dialogue. Oh for more clarity and real high fidelity.

    • I agree. I went to see Finding Dory with my grandson, and I had to put my fingers in my ears all through the film, because the soundtrack was too loud from beginning to end.
      I have Tinnitus and Hyperacusis, but I still think the sound was way too high for people
      without these conditions, my other companions agreed.

  • Adam, I saw Lady Macbeth a week or so ago and was astounded by the fact that there is virtually no location ambient sound. I’d expect that a good deal of the dialogue is ADR and immense care has been taken with the sync effects. As an ex-sound mixer I’d guess the location recordist had an interesting time! A very effective and absorbing approach to sound design.

  • I too was once a sound recordist, when analogue ruled the waves. I guess in teh case of this film he/she was mostly recording guide tracks and ambient sounds. It’s an interesting point. However, one wonders just how much location sound is used on any movie these days? What matters for our ears and our enjoyment though is that sound design remains the triumph of content over style wouldn’t you say?

  • Moving off track slightly, speech radio (in other words, radio 4) are equally guilty of drowning out drama dialogue etc with sound effects. They’ve been told, many times, by listeners, but clearly they’ve got an extended contract with someone who’s fixated on creating their music and effects.

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