Nathan Ruyle is a sound designer and founder of This Is Sound Design, where he has created the sound for 150 projects, including blockbuster studio films and beloved independent films. In this piece, he explores why sound design has always been separated from other cinematic professions, and why this is changing.
It was past midnight. I was supposed to write a high school essay, but I was suddenly mesmerized and terrified by a buzzing soundscape coming from my TV speakers. I was listening to 1977 by David Lynch eraser head, and even if I didn’t know it yet, it was the beginning of my career as a sound designer.
What I knew was that the sound of this movie had activated a new feeling in me and had taken me to a strange new world. It was magic and I wanted to know how it was possible.
Eventually I learned that the sound for David Lynch’s film was created by his long-time collaborator, Alan Splet, one of the few artists who, in the 1970s, took on the moniker of sound designer and redefined what that was possible with cinematic sound. We are still working to fully realize this redefinition today. Sound is most effective when it stays in the audience’s subconscious perception. We call it “invisible art” because almost every other aspect of the film appears on screen.
Sound in movies is the result of a remarkable collaboration between artists, engineers and manufacturers. What started with simple recording techniques a century ago became an industrial process after World War II, when an army of editors and engineers recorded audio, physically cut it and mixed it on a magnetic tape.
In the 1950s, the process was mainly handled by Hollywood studios, on their grounds. In fact, until 1959, the Oscar for best sound recording went to a studio. As cinema entered the New Hollywood era in the 1960s, individuals finally began to gain recognition. Technologies continued to evolve, especially with the adoption of surround sound in the late 70s. In the 80s, fans became more aware of who was responsible for the sound of their favorite movies. They discovered people like Ben Burtt (star wars, The Raiders of the Lost Ark) and Walter Murch (Revelation now, The Godfather), which drew inspiration from European cinema and eschewed Hollywood norms and hierarchies. Murch was the first person to receive on-screen “sound designer” credit, for his work on Revelation now in 1979.
The main credits you see today are for the “supervising sound editor” and the utility “re-recording mixer,” though they rarely get a front-of-movie card like other designers get. The Oscar categories eventually changed, so the Academy recognized Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing.
But the sound designer’s credit lives on and acknowledges the creators of some of my favorite cinematic sounds: Gary Rydstrom’s T-rex footsteps in jurassic park, the oppressive atmosphere of Ren Klyce in Se7fr, the haunting whispers of Craig Henighan in Black Swan.
During the 90s and 2000s, as computers became more powerful, sound went digital, as did many aspects of post-production. In the 2010s, sound teams could be smaller. On many films, one person could serve as both sound editor supervisor and re-recording mixer.
My own journey started in theater and then brought me to CalArts, the collaboration lab founded by Walt Disney. At CalArts, I loved developing the expertise of an engineer in recording, editing and mixing. But through constant collaboration, I engaged in a design process driven by ideas and experimentation. The key to achieving great sound is mastering the tools and sticking to a cohesive creative vision. I often compare this process to designing the production of a film, which involves overseeing many aspects of the production, including locations, furniture, props, and paint. In naming this role Production Designer, we recognize that the decisions and leadership required to create the physical world in the setting is more than a set of tasks – it requires design.
Thirteen years ago, inspired by my first experience screening my work at Sundance, and after meeting many kindred spirits eager to create and collaborate, I founded my sound company. I gave it a name meant to embody an idea-driven approach to sound:
It’s sound design.
When I built my first studio in 2010, I was limited to 128 tracks in Pro Tools. Today, for the same price, I would have 2,000 tracks available. My Avid S6 Modular Mixing Console can be programmed in minutes to get any of these tracks ready – something that wouldn’t have been possible in the analog era, even with the biggest and most popular mixing desk. sophisticated. What was once a multi-step process, involving different people with different skills and equipment, is now integrated into a single interface. Quentin Tarantino’s sound designer, Wylie Stateman, is one of the strongest proponents of this approach — he says a sound editor should also be a mixer, and adopts the ABM slogan: “Always Be Mixing.” The lines are blurring – and the divisions inherited from the process are unnecessary and creatively hold us back.
Last year’s Oscars brought a change you might not have noticed: the two Oscars for Editing and Sound Mixing were rolled into one Oscar for Best Sound. For years, Academy voters have expressed confusion about the two sound categories. In a ‘brutally honest ballot for the Oscars’ published by The Hollywood Reporter in February 2020, an anonymous Oscars voter shared, “I thought Ford versus Ferrari it sounded good, but I don’t vote in those categories because I don’t know enough about the difference between the two. The Academy has decided to recognize that the lines are blurring.
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Post-sound, like nearly every aspect of filmmaking, will continue to be a team sport, but roles and workflows must adapt to each individual project. While creating and finishing a soundtrack for a feature film will continue to require specialized, acoustically treated space and equipment for ADR, sound effects and mixing, all of this is more accessible. This is Sound Design’s new facility in Burbank is a great example of what’s possible, a footprint that until a few years ago only existed in large corporate studios.
In September, Amazon Studios released its latest feature film project, The Voyeurs. This movie, both in plot and execution, pays homage to one of my favorite movies with sound design by Walter Murch, The conversation. At the end credits, you will see that I worked with a small team of sound editors and a sound engineer. You will also see that I supervised this team and mixed the film. But at the beginning of the film, on a nice handwritten card, you will also see my name with the mention “sound designer”.
It’s always great to see your name on the big screen, but the idea of what that credit represents is the most important. Technology has brought us to an exciting new time. Sound is understood and celebrated as something more than a set of services. It’s something we design.
Main image: Sound designer Nathan Ruyle, working on a mix at This Is Sound Design.