The Screen Sound of Silence

When Director Bala’s Tamil film Naan Kadavul was released last year, major criticisms were that background music was more of a cacophony and that sound mixing was particularly bad. Many had raised the point that this carelessness with the sound had resulted in making the dialogues at important points of the film inaudible.

As a person who had worked in this movie, my reactions to these criticisms will not be appropriate. But from this background I believe I can certainly talk generally about sound mixing in films and its technology.

We can truly be proud of the Oscar Award that Rasool Pookkutty won for sound mixing. This is particularly so as this department has been one in which India had remained backward for decades together. To cite an example I can mention the fact that the songs recorded in India in 1980s never had the sound standards that we heard in the songs of a Judy Garland or a Nat King Cole released in 1950s. The pathetic inference is that we were at least 30 years behind the norm in sound quality. It was only after the arrival of A.R.Rahman that we developed a tone of our own in the recording of our music.

We know that sound has no border lines. We can hear any sound coming from all directions around us. Without turning around we can judge what is happening behind our back from the sounds that we hear. But the extent of our sight is a limiting factor for the scene. Through sound we can reach many levels of experience that scenes cannot give us. That is why the possibilities of sound mixing in media like cinema are boundless. They do not merely support scenes; they can enhance their meaning and beauty.

At times the sounds take us near the reality and at times it totally diverts us from it. Our experience of seeing becomes complete only through the process of unconscious hearing. Directing sounds thus to change the emotions of scenes is called the Sound Design of a cinema. Sound track of a film is created by appropriately mixing dialogue, music, other sounds, songs if necessary and silence. Dialogue includes the talk among characters at different tonal levels, murmuring to one’s own self and voice over. We can add to these also human sounds like crying, laughter and moaning.

Background music is used to highlight a particular moment in the film or change of emotion in characters. Though film songs are an art form beyond cinema, within commercial cinema they are used to enhance the enjoyability of cinema’s narrative in totality and thus ensure its success at box office.

All other sounds are used to convey the general environment of what ever is being narrated. With this flow of audio from the surrounding environment the noise of the crowd, the cries and sounds of animals and birds, engine roars and hums of vehicles, the sounds of windows and doors being shut or opened and natural sounds of the patter of rain, noise of winds, the roar of the thunder, flowing of the river the viewer gets the sense of time and place from the way they combine with visuals to render meanings unto them.

It is an important part of the work of a sound mixer to select in advance the appropriate sounds that are needed along with the main audio track and background audio track to help the narration. Sound recording, sound compilation and sound mixing take place in that order. In films that gives importance to music and songs, the work of a Sound Mixer doubles.

Recording of dialogues and other sounds simultaneously with the picturisation of the narration is called Sync Sound or Synchronized Sound. This is essential to synchronize the audio with the visuals and to establish the authenticity and naturalness of the dialogues. The entire unit has to maintain the discipline of complete silence for recording the Sync Sound. Even the use of any device that produces extraneous or intrusive noise is done away with. In spite of the difficulties that these restrictions entail, now-a-days the Sync Sound recording is becoming the norm. People like Manas Choudhury, Indrajit Neogi and Rasool Pookkutty have proved their expertise in this field and have become star technicians.

Iyan Tapp and Richard Pryke who shared the Oscar for Sound Mixing with Rasool Pookkutty were the technicians who did the Sound Mixing for the film Slumdog Millionaire. Rasool Pookkutty did the recording of dialogues and other sounds on the shooting floors. Sound compilation of other sounds created in the studio along the ones already recorded on the shooting floors is a highly challenging task. Carefully extracting the sounds from hundreds of tracks without mixing them up and synchronizing them with visuals is a task that demands technical competence and creativity of the highest order. The success of the process involves separation of sounds that cannot be easily recognized and making them ‘heard’ distinctly.

It is only after every sound is synchronized in their most natural tone in their different tracks that final mix down starts. Multiple tracks are mixed down to final one or two or five or six separate tracks depending on the system of sound reproduction. The final audio will be unified into Mono, Stereo, Dolby Digital or DTS formats. What are the specialties of these formats? How do they ‘sound’ clearly from the speakers of the theatres after reaching the Projection Room from the Studios?

The sound that comes out of a single speaker kept at midpoint behind the screen is called mono-phonic. This is the oldest sound technology in cinema exhibition industry. The sound coming out of two speakers kept on the left and right of the screen is called stereo-phonic. Raj Kapoor’s Hindi film Around the World released in 1967 is India’s first film with stereo-phonic sound.

Hindi film Sholay released in 1975 was India’s first film with 4-track Stereo-phonic sound. Sholay which had sounds in four separated tracks ‘resounding’ through 4 speakers in theatres became one among India’s all-time super-hit films. The director of the film Ramesh Sippy was to later remark that the sound mixing done for the film in London had greatly helped in the success of the film. The sound of the coin tossed by Amitabh Bachhan and the metallic sound of the old swing in Sanjeev Kumar’s home echoes in the minds of fans who saw the film then, even today.

Malayalam film Padayottam released in 1982 was the first Indian film to use the latest sound technology to great effect. In this film we heard the magnificent vista of six-track stereo-phonic sound. As the number of tracks increase the sounds separate as per the requirements of scene and reach the ears of viewers with all the glory of events taking place around us. Padayottam was also the first such film with the sound mixing done entirely in India.

Dolby Laboratory established in Britain by Ray Dolby in 1965 invented many new innovations in sound technology. Their continuous efforts to increase the clarity and fidelity of sounds yielded new systems of sound technology like Dolby A, B, C and Dolby SR. Hindi film 1942 A Love Story that was released in 1994 used the Dolby SR sound technology for the first time in India.

The sound technology named Dolby Digital that came in early 1990s is Dolby’s most famous creation. This 5.1 track sound technology has been installed in over 50,000 theatres all over the world. In this system sound emerges from 5 speakers and one sub-woofer. This gives the viewers an audio experience as close to reality as possible.

In the early days audio was printed on one edge of the film as Light Waves. This was called optical transfer. Later the system of printing the sound on the specially made edges of the film which acted as magnetic tape came into use. It was through this technology that it became possible to have more than one track in cinema audio. In Dolby Digital system also the audio is printed on the edge of the film. But the difference is that a special technique called Dolby Printing is used for this.

Digital Theatre System or DTS introduced in America in 1993 has practically wiped out the Dolby Digital system from theaters. We saw in films like Jurassic Park how in this system the sounds are separated into six tracks and reach our ears with great clarity and high fidelity. The sound track of the film in DTS system is not printed on the film. It comes in a specially made CD which synchronizes itself with the film during projection. DTS sound technology reached India through the Tamil films Karuppu Roja and Indian released in 1996. Today there are very few theatres without this technology.

Thus Indian cinema has reached the level of Western nations as far as the use of audio technology is concerned. We have also ensured a place for ourselves in the world of audio creation through the likes of Rasool Pookkutty. But, unfortunately, in the majority of Indian films the background scores are just noisy! Even in our realistically conceived films background music sounds over-dramatic. Looking at the farther shore, in completely commercial films of Hollywood we are unlikely to hear this kind of melodramatic music today. In 90% of the scenes of our films rather than having natural background sounds we get to hear an overwhelming kind of background music. Therefore, the depressing fact is that our Audio Directors do not get the opportunity to show their true creativity or undertake experimental innovations.

In the darkness of the studio, the sound mixing of a film is reaching its climax….some sounds are being raised….some are being toned down….Loud sounds become soft audio and faint sounds evolve into roars….sounds of distant bells….the lonely cry of a bird flying from foreground into the distance….the pleasantly flowing sounds of a mountain brook nearing us…. An entire new world is being created through sounds. They touch all levels of human consciousness and leave us awakened. And as all sounds mingle finally into the silence and disperse the theatre emerges into light.