7: Sound Design and Characterisation Through Mixing

The artifice of division between sound and music is continually cracked open and reassembled by modern sound design particularly those elements dwelling on the ‘embodied’ side of the spectrum. Non musical sounds are often used for narrative purposes where the the traditional reflex might have been to resort to the orchestral score. Likewise, a principally non-diegetic music source can set up a relationship between the diegesis, or the world in which the story takes place and itself that defies the normal boundaries between the sonic elements.  There are several clear examples of this in Lars Von Triers musical ‘Dancer in the Dark’ where the sound of the machines in a factory become the percussion for the musical inside the main protagonists head, [clip28]

or in the opening from the movie ‘The Watchmen’ where the diegetic music from a television continues past the diegetic sources destruction and becomes non-diegetic before syncing back together with the diegesis as a window is shattered and the descending chimes at the end of the music mix with and replace the falling glass. [clip29].

Another scene of particular note in this regard is the club scene from Darren Aranofskys ‘Black Swan’ where the dance music integrates with the psychosis of the protagonist, maintaining diegetic continuity whist exploring the subjectivity of her emotional state from her point of view. [30]

This exchange of roles between music and non-musical, diegesis and non-diegetic content is perhaps a reflection on Murch’s manipulation of these elements in Francis Ford Copolas ‘The Godfather’ and of particular note ‘Apocalypse Now’ where the mixing of musical content, dialogue and sound effects exemplifies the creative freedom and inspiration the new technology afforded him. It is of note that for the mix for ‘Apocalypse Now’ Murch had upgraded to a computerized system that allowed him to automate settings  on the desk, essential allowing him to have many hands at once whilst mixing. “In fact, it faded to the extent that it now became economically and technically possible for one person to do what several had done before, and that other frontier — between sound-effects creation and mixing — also began to disappear”.[1]‘
Apocalypse Now’ was the first film to be mixed using this technology and accounts for the complexity and slickness of the, Wagner, ‘Ride of the Valkries‘ soundtracked, helicopter attack scene. As is apparent from this scene Murch plays blatant disregard to the evident source of the music which narrative wise is being broadcast by a loudspeaker system on one of the helicopters in order to terrify the opposing Vietnamese.  For most of the scene Murch actually appears to mix the music non-diegeticaly, not attenuating for the distance to the source helicopter and in one instance momentarily dropping Wagner in favor of important dialogue, even though we are at that moment in the source helicopter itself. For these reasons it is hard to separate  music from other   audio elements in a conversation about the design of cinematic sound worlds when the elements can be so fluidly interchanged.
Open world games ‘Farcry 2’ and ‘Fallout 3’, both utilize an intelligent interactive approach similar to that of ‘The Proposition’s’ linear use of diegetic/non-diegetic dynamics, in that they devote equal priority to narrative and environmental immersion and choose  to express this through similar active shifts. In ‘Farcry 2’ we are generally treated to a vivid fully diegetic ambient soundscape depicting an African savanna. This only applies when we are not in danger. As a conflict or plot instigator approaches the sound world changes and an appropriate non-diegetic musical score is introduced that fluidly attenuates to the situation in an interactive response. It is interesting to note how the music still reflects the environment and cultural geography. [clip 31]

Likewise in a very different setting ‘Deus Ex’s music characterizes the ethnic and location quirks of  the  featured environments but also reflects the historical, cultural and human organic elements but contrasts them with synth textures that in many locations blend as the narrative thrust brings together these elements characterized by instruments that are neither organic nor purely synthetic but a combination of the two delivered through either blending or manipulating organic instruments so that they sound electronic. [15]
Similarly in ‘Fall Out 3’ we are subjected to shifts in interactive mixing dynamics, though this time in  reverse to the ‘Far Cry 2’ approach. As we wander the post apocalyptic wasteland we are often accompanied by an appropriately bleak and formless, drifting soundscape, that imitates the soft winds and emptiness that surrounds the player. “The key was to let the music provide a thick fog of atmosphere but also not get in the way or steal the show, and I think he (Inon Zur) did a fantastic job of creating the sound of the ravaged wasteland while still managing to retain a sense of curiosity for the player” [13]. [clip 32]

‘Dead Space’s audio team followed a similar path esquing strong melodies or even music that resembled song but instead building the music from orchestral and synthesis elements or drones. [11] In ‘Fall Out 3’ we also see choices of timbre that subtly inform us of the intended atmosphere of the diegesis “A lot of the instrument choices that you’ll hear in the public areas such as towns were meant to evoke ideas of Middle Eastern bazaars or the American western frontier”. [13] However when conflict is initiated or dangerous foes come within a certain radius of the player, the music is sometimes stripped away.
The choice of sonic texture and the emphasis of elements of instrumentation sounds is not necessarily just useful for the promotion of game mechanics but like in film can perform  a reinforcement of narrative undercurrents. ‘Deus Ex‘ for example  uses organic music to emphasize human interactions and electronic music to emphasize augmentation sides of characters. Therefore lots of the human interactions are soundtracked by low key drums and strings as opposed to synths. It is also clear that the weapons have organic sounds blended with synths to deliver the required narrative colour of the organic/technology narrative thread so central to the games plot. [15]
In other respects Deus Ex rejects overt characterization of players avatars as in the ‘Fall Out‘ games. This is due to the flexibility of perceived relationships dependent on player actions and circumstances so as Steve Szczepkowsk points out “It can’t be like Star Wars where a dark militaristic theme will represent an enemy and another lighter and positive theme will represent a friend. The themes in Deus Ex have to be very neutral and nonjudgmental.” [15]

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