I must be getting old, crusty and cranky. With apologies to my composer and sound library friends, there is something that is getting my goat.
For those artists that don’t work in audio, in the sound design community, there are things you can buy called sample libraries. They’re basically a collection of sonic elements that you can, if you are a sound track designer, use to make movie sound tracks. You pepper your music with these instruments, sound effects and single shot hits and voila, your sound track sounds like it came direct from Hollywood, via satellite. Consequently, these sound libraries excel at providing dramatic audio files that, if you add to a movie sound track, can be used to keep the audience on the edge of their seat. Or that’s the claim…
Here’s what I began to notice. Most of the so called “cinematic” sound libraries really consist of repurposed, ethnic wind instruments (for that wistful, forlorn sound), “prepared” piano sounds (scrapes and plunks with lots of close micing and reverb – very spooky), reversed and bowed cymbals (disturbing and eerie), but more commonly, they’re full of massive, metallic bangs, crashes, wallops and thuds, with dripping-wet, long-tailed reverb (shocking). All of them. To a man.
What does that tell us about the state of cinematic storytelling, when every aspiring movie sound track composer fills his music with these same, hackneyed, weary, sonic elements? Haven’t we done this to death? Do we really jump when we hear a loud, metal door, of overly large dimensions, crashing shut in a big empty warehouse, as part of a movie sound track we’re watching? Really? I mean seriously?
I can feel the yawn developing in my head, just by thinking about it.
Shouldn’t sound designers and composers of movie sound tracks be looking for the sound that everybody else isn’t including in their work? Does the world need a seventy fifth sound library full of these trite, cinematic clichés? Can’t we think of another way, as musicians, of reaching the emotional parts of a cinema audience, other than by exposing them to wrecking ball recordings or industrial objects being dropped from a height or assailed by sledge hammers?
Because these sounds have become a genre all of their own, maybe nobody in an ordinary audience notices that they’ve heard this all before. Maybe the familiarity of every sound track sounding like every other sound track gives comfort. I don’t know. Not to me. To me, it’s like hearing the same old story, retold in a bored monotone, over and over again. I need a movie to not contain those tired old bangs and crashes, superimposed over saccharine sweet strings and eerie weirdly reversed and flanged horror sounds.
When the movie “Midnight Express” was released, it was a revelation, to me. Here was a gritty, nasty story, told with an electronic sound track, which was at the same time sonically absorbing and utterly heart racing. You couldn’t make music that created tension like that today, while watching imprisoned desperados perpetrate all manner of inhuman acts upon one another. It’s been done. But, it still stacks up, even today. What made it special was what made it different. I’d never heard a sound track to a movie like that before. “Chariots of Fire” was a bit like that too. Bet you can’t even think of the film, without hearing the main theme play in your head. Or what about that dulcimer sound in “The Third Man”, with Orson Wells? Or “Forbidden Planet”, with its strange sine wave oscillator and echo effects? Or “Doctor Zhivago” with its tremulous theme tune? Not a saturated, reverberated “Stomp” imitation among them!
Today, somebody would add some lazy, dripping-wet reverb tails to a metal garbage can, cut them to the pictures and tell you it was art.
What’s the point of this rant? Nothing really, except a desire to hear something else at the pictures. Something fresh, vibrant and untried. Are we really out of sound design ideas? Have we lost our fascination for listening closely to things from a different aural perspective? I hope not. Maybe it’s time to return to tiny, quiet, intricate, detailed sounds, to drive the action along. The late Bob Moog used to say that it was much harder to make an instrument sound beautiful when played piano, as opposed to forte. There’s something to that idea, I think.
It could be that it’s time to fire up the old digital audio workstation and see (with my ears and my mind’s eye) what I can make. They say that sometimes the best way to invent something new is to scratch your own itch. At least I have an idea of what I don’t want to hear. Now to search for something I do.