A generic sound wave.

Film production in 1929. Image from General Electric archives at the Schenectady Museum.

Students at EICTV, Cuba, filming a scene.

Vestry Hall - modern music recording studio mixing desk (studio at London College of Music, University of West London) (Courtesy of Simon Zagorski-Thomas).




Books on film sound

review by Michael Chanan

Mark Kerins, Beyond Dolby (Stereo), Cinema in the Digital Sound Age, Indiana University Press, 2011. 392 pages. $24.94 paperback.

Andy Birtwistle, Cinesonica: Sounding Film and Video, Manchester University Press, 2010. 298 pages. $72.21 hardback.

Here are two book about film sound which come at their subject from completely different angles. In fact there’s not much common ground between them, apart from a general principle—that the soundtrack is part of the constructed illusion of cinema—and a shared debt to the foundational work on the soundtrack by Michel Chion. Kerins writes about 5.1 surround sound, and therefore films like Fight Club, The Matrix and Saving Private Ryan. Birtwistle is interested in what he calls the “materiality” of sound, which he believes to be a neglected topic. He finds his examples mainly in experimental and artists’ film and video (like John Smith or the Whitneys), though he also takes in electronica in classical cinema and has a chapter on Hollywood cartoons and mickey-mousing (that is, matching music to action in the style pioneered by Walt Disney).

Both books get technical about sound, which is as it should be if the subject is to be properly understood. Kerins begins with a dry but useful account of the prehistory and technology of multi-channel sound before embarking on a theoretical analysis which engages writers like Chion, Slavoj Zizek, Jean-Louis Baudry and Noel Carroll in a discussion about “superfields” and “ultrafields.” Birtwistle, who borrows his title from Philip Brophy’s “elegant neologism cinesonic” to signal the essential double character of the medium, begins with a trenchant critique of Saussurian linguistics as a model for understanding sound, before also engaging with Chion as well as Deleuze. Kerins focuses on the sonic construction of the naturalism inherent in narrative cinema’s orthodox grammar, and the way that surround sound induces significant changes in the way it works. In contrast, Birtwistle is interested in how these codes can be destabilized to produce a different kind of film art, which “attempts to address the political dimensions of audiovisual practice” (p. 23). 

What’s interesting, reading these two studies together, is that they sometimes see the same phenomena from divergent perspectives. Take the question of system noise, the bane of all pre-digital recording systems, which intrudes on hearing in quieter passages or if the volume is turned up too loud, and which technical improvement has constantly aimed to reduce as far as possible. Birtwistle is concerned with the way that dominant theoretical models of film as signifying text suppress those aspects of sound that escape the process of semiotic coding. This includes (among other things) the actual sound of the technology, the audibility of noise in the system, and equally important, the “sonic specificity” of different carriers—from the crackle of the optical soundtrack to the hiss of analogue video. These become part of the grain of the recording and affect our apperception:

 “Listening to recordings of the past, the listener is struck by the presence of a technology inscribed within and upon recorded sound” (p. 91).

In fact Kerins also attends to the “materiality” of surround sound, including the differences between successive systems (mono, Dolby stereo, 5.1), but the story he tells is the obverse: precisely that of an industry intent on eliminating the system noise that Birtwistle analyses so sensitively.

Behind these divergent orientations, which are both theoretical and aesthetic, these two studies point towards different sectors of film culture that largely shun each other in public, although they sometimes consort in private. But if there are big and real differences between the mass audience superproduction, on the one hand, and independent low (or zero) budget film-making, on the other, this extends to how the viewer’s ears are situated. The activity of listening is one thing in a plush auditorium and another in your armchair at home with headphones (which I discovered from a recent class discussion to be my students’ preferred form of viewing). The record industry long ago learnt to treat these differences by producing different mixes for different formats, while nowadays television sets and computer playback programmes come with built-in presets for different types of music or sound. Neither writer provides a purview broad enough to cover the question of these simulations and their effects.

There are other gaps within and between the two accounts that one discovers by reading these two books together. For example, Kerins argues that the move from Dolby stereo to 5.1 surround sound produces a transformation of the space of exhibition because “digital surround sound eliminates all perceptions of the actual auditorium” (p. 283), or at least tries to. (Not when I’m sitting at the back of my local multiplex and something booms in my ear from just behind me.) In a small number of very carefully constructed films, this transformation produces some highly original and imaginative results, but these, by definition, cannot be heard if you’re not in a suitably equipped auditorium or watching on the full monty version of home cinema. This is different from before, as Kerins explains. Cinema was monophonic, the sound came in a single stream from behind the screen, and the aim of the interior design of the auditorium was to enable everyone to hear the same thing wherever they were sitting. According to this arrangement, sound emanates from the same fixed point behind the screen whatever the size and position of the speaking body. Even with the introduction of stereo, it maintains this position because sound engineers quickly realized that to have the voice move with the body across the screen was distracting and destroyed the naturalistic illusion.

Then there’s the paradox that in spite of technical convergence, digital production technology reproduces the old split between industrial cinema and independent film production, only now with a vengeance. This is because in addition to professional independents there are now also new tribes of aficionados who produce the most professional looking videos on a home computer and a shoestring. What they sound like is another matter. The technical quality might be excellent, but you cannot produce an elaborate mix on desktop speakers. And however accomplished the mix, these are the kinds of speakers these videos will mostly be heard on, or in the unsuitable acoustics of the classroom, which could well exaggerate the defects.

There’s another crucial factor that neither of these writers considers except in passing. And this omission effectively brackets out a huge part of film production sound practice over the last fifty years. At one point Birtwistle mentions a 1940s Hollywood screwball comedy where “the process of post-synching dialogue results in the removal of the ambient background sound,” an effect which gives the feeling of speech “dropped like pebbles into a pool of still water” (p. 95). A nice description, but this is not an unusual example—on the contrary. As Kerins is aware (he cites Chion and William Johnson in evidence), the problem with post-synchronising dialogue, nowadays using methods like ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement), is that it destroys the unity of body, voice and image. There is an inevitable gap between image and sound, integral to the apparatus as such, not only because of the fixed source of the sound but also the amplification of sound to fill the auditorium. Nevertheless, it matters how the illusion of cinesonic identity is constructed, as indicated in the distinction drawn by the French already in the 1930s between le film parlant—the talkie which used direct recorded sound—and le film sonore—the sound film where the sound was post-synchronised, which became the Hollywood way.

To follow Charles O’Brien in his book Cinema’s Conversion to Sound, the French preference for le film parlant privileged speech as performance, the better to exploit the talents of actors coming from popular theatre and their skills in improvization. The concomitant result was a highly fluid camera style that reached its apogee in the work of Jean Renoir in the years just before WWII. This preference resurfaces in a new context in the sound practices of New Wave cinema in the 1960s, in France and elsewhere, following the introduction of improved location sound recording with synchronised portable magnetic tape recorders. Liberated from the studios and building on the tenets of Italian neorealism, New Wave European cinema found new life in deliberate rejection of the Hollywood model of sound post-production. The Italians had been defeated by sound. When Rossellini tried using direct sound in Germany Year Zero the results were poor, and for many years the neorealists stuck with post-synchronization, which allowed them to mix the visual performance of non-professional actors with the oral skills of professionals.

With the reintroduction of direct recording in the 60s, the practice quickly provided the key for even more radical new wave film-makers in Latin America and other third world countries, for both practical and aesthetic reasons. Practically, it helped in keeping production costs down to a manageable level. Aesthetically, there are several benefits. It broadens and extends the inclusion of non-professional actors and children, who cannot be expected to perform post-synchronisation. Importantly, it also produces a strong reality effect by not suppressing the “accidental” sounds that studio recording and post-synchronisation are designed precisely to eliminate: the environment, the acoustics, the little noises and resonances and sometimes echoes that belong to the real place portrayed in the film. In short, instead of the acoustic cocoon constructed by Hollywoodian escapism, the soundtrack becomes the camera’s ears. 

In Kerin’s version, the desired results can only be achieved through extending greater and greater control over the soundtrack, beginning with the isolation of different kinds of sound to be recorded separately in acoustically neutral studios, and ending in the final mix, when all these different bits of sound are recombined, and in surround sound, precisely positioned. Kerins never questions this strategy.

Birtwistle, for his part, is not interested in controlling sound but in what happens when it’s freed from subordination to the image and treated as equal. This leads him to the opposite end of the cinematic spectrum, closer to the domain of musique concrète and modernist composers whom he mentions like Edgar Varèse and John Cage. What is left out of account in both, and lies in the wide space between them, is the practice of direct-sound narrative film-making which operates above all in two areas. That is, it not only underpins the production of independent cinema across the globe over the last half century but also television drama. Of that, we still need a proper account.

Images: TV and magnetic recording

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