Subjectivity is a tool used by directors, sound designers and filmmakers to give audiences insight into a character’s thoughts, feelings and emotions. By doing so, the way in which viewers absorb and react to stories becomes heightened. This tool is used effectively in Sound of Metal, which revolves around a musician losing his hearing. Director Darius Marder said “I wanted to use a language of perspective that I had never seen before” – so let’s jump into how the Sound Design for the movie achieves this!
What Is ‘Sound Of Metal’?
Sound of Metal is a 2019 American movie filmed and directed by Darius Marder. The plot centers around the character Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a heavy metal drummer who begins to suddenly lose his hearing. With this loss of hearing and Ruben’s previous addiction issues, he is forced to abandon his tour with his girlfriend to stay in a shelter for deaf recovering addicts. He struggles with accepting his diagnosis, and undergoes a procedure to receive cochlear implants to help with his hearing.
The film premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019 and was released in theaters on November 2020. Sound of Metal was also added to Prime Video in December 2020. The film was met with critical acclaim, receiving six Academy Award nominations and four BAFTAs – including Best Picture, Best Editing and Best Sound.
Sound Of Metal’s Sound Design: An Exploration
Sound Of Metal‘s Sound Designer Nicolas Becker’s task was to create a soundtrack that could be felt on a physical level. The various plot points of the movie meant the Sound Design needed to be handled delicately as well as being effective and realistic. Let’s take a look at how he achieved this and his Sound Design inspiration and techniques!
Inspiration & Research
Marder (Direction) and Becker (Sound Design) both visited the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music (IRCAM) to develop their understanding. During this time, the pair turned off the lights and experienced purely the sounds of their bodies, noting elements they hadn’t considered before.
Marder also spoke to audiologists and people from the deaf community, whilst Becker turned to Sound Design in films such as 127 Hours or Gravity to develop the idea of inner sound. Becker said “It’s really close from the description of people who have lost hearing… everything was based on the fact that the film had to be an experience, and everything needed to be very physical.”
Becker experimented with new techniques of recording through the body, looking at reconstructing sound into vibrations and researching how to mimic the way the cavity of the human body resonates. He also explained further research to “try to mimic the way the cavity of the body is resonating, and your brain is actually able to recreate part of the sonic spectrum through that. It’s what happens when you are immersed in water: what you hear, you actually hear from your body, and in your brain, it’s transformed. It seems like sound, but it’s vibration.
Process & Techniques
Using Foley techniques, Becker rigged highly sensitive microphones to Ahmed and the crew in order to provide an insight into what Ruben experiences. He used unusual microphones such as a DIY stethoscope mic and hydrophones, putting some mics into Ahmed’s mouth to record sounds of breathing from inside.
Actor Ahmed said “Nicolas would come up to me with some kind of hexagonal orb… and placed it against my chest. He’d say, ‘Okay, blink. Now breathe, inhale, exhale; now hold your breath so I can hear your heartbeat. Now swallow, lick the inside of your teeth with your tongue.’”
Referencing the different microphones he used, Becker compared the approach to a cinematographer changing camera lenses. He said:
“I’m recording two or three systems that are in sync, which are recording very different aspects of the sound. One will really define the space, one will be very nice in terms of color, one will work really well with the production sound… Each layer is quite complex in how it’s captured, so it permits me to move from one to the other to the other, without changing the sound, but with a change of techniques.”
Use Of Foley Sounds & Software
Becker used his experience working as a Foley artist, saying “Foley artists always touch the object, so they have a very intimate relation to sound, and the physical aspect of sound”.
Sound Of Metal‘s sound design had a lot of ground to cover – from the start of Ruben’s hearing loss to the muffled sounds of deafness, and finally the warped world that he hears when he receives cochlear implants. To achieve this, he tried various plug-ins and different types of software to mimic the cochlear implant sound.
He also described software named IrcamLab, where “you’re able to separate the harmonic contents from the noise content, from the transience. It’s a digital process, and the idea was, I’d try to deconstruct the sound, and reconstruct after. Because this software has a limit, when you deconstruct the sound and reconstruct it, it creates some very strange effects”.
Becker also served as Sound Of Metal‘s composer, generating a distorted world full of muffled sound and unsettling metallic tones.
In order to complement the film’s intricate sound design, Becker added small, additional music. A lot of the film’s music comes from Bachet structures, which are metal instruments that provide acoustic drones – almost like an acoustic synthesizer. This provided the metallic sounds, alongside metal guitars to create resonance, echo and anxiety-inducing peaks and troughs that mimic the character’s stress and confusion.
Sound Of Metal: Analysis / End Result
Instead of showing somebody losing their hearing, the film truly allows you to experience it. Marder cuts to a close shot to signify us entering Ruben’s head, combining this with muted, muffled sounds that allow us to experience what he is hearing. The film then zooms out to a wider shot, and hits the audience with bustling sounds of everyday life. As a viewer, this is an overwhelming shift from the underwater-like sounds inside Ruben’s head.
It would have been less effective to show us everything from Ruben’s perspective, and the dipping in and out is where the film truly has impact. The audience move between hearing inside Ruben’s head to the same conversation from another character’s perspective, creating a chaotic and unsettling experience that shows variety. Furthermore, the screeching, warped cochlear implants audio is uncomfortable to experience, and will truly have you touching your ears to try to correct it.
When the metallic sounds of the music are combined with the heavy vibrations and sound effects, it creates a powerful experience. Sound effects such as blenders whirring, blinds being pulled, and everyday sounds of movement are sharply taken away when Ruben loses his hearing. Visual sequences repeat – but this time, with muffled or muted sound.
All in all, this film is a powerful exploration of hearing, vibrations and the process of losing something precious. The Sound Design techniques are truly a work of art, and the film is a must-see for aspiring Sound Editors and Filmmakers. Go watch it now!