Director Darius Marder‘s award-winning debut dramatic film Sound of Metal (Amazon Studios) explores the struggles of heavy metal drummer Ruben (Riz Ahmed), whose life changes course abruptly after he loses his hearing.
Much of Marder’s experience in the film industry has involved documentary work. Most notably, he lensed, directed and edited the 2009 documentary film Loot (which won the Los Angeles Film Festival Best Documentary Feature award) about two WWII soldiers trying to recover stolen valuables that they had hidden during the war.
That documentary background is evident in Sound of Metal‘s cinema vérité style. The opening scene is of Ruben and his girlfriend/lead singer Lou (Olivia Cooke) mid-performance at a nightclub. Ruben is sweating, teeth bared as he attacks his drum kit with controlled precision. But he’s not miming his way through the part. He’s actually playing, as is Lou. And a multi-mic setup is capturing the tracks for use in the final mix.
“What you hear is what you see,” affirms supervising sound editor/sound designer/composer Nicolas Becker, who has worked on films including Gravity, Arrival, Ex Machina and American Honey. “We knew this would be very important for the audience to never question the diegetic aspect of it. When you put the audience in that position, afterwards they let go and don’t question other things. They just totally get into the story.”
No matter the project, Becker’s approach to sound is to start with what’s real, to “immerse myself in the real environment,” he says. “I put my body in the same kind of condition to keep the emotion of the sensation, and I think that was the link with Darius [Marder] as a documentary filmmaker—that first he worked with reality and then moved to a more fictional world. He has this idea to first immerse himself in the real environment, and that comes with real sensations.”
Becker’s post sound work begins with visits to the set so he can “feel the real mood of what’s happening on the shoot,” he says. While there, he captures field recordings “to nourish myself and the film with reality.” He uses those recordings to quickly construct sound for the realistic [non-subjective] moments in a film. “I never start with effects or the weird sequences but always with the real world then I can understand how to weave the real with the fiction. I think Darius and I have that in common, that way of working.”
Sound Deprivation Foundation
Becker and Marder first met up for Sound of Metal in Paris at IRCAM (a French institute dedicated to the research of music and sound), where they could be sealed inside the dead-quiet space of an anechoic chamber.
“We were in there for 20 minutes, with the lights switched off. We weren’t able to see or hear anything,” Becker recalls. “You are able to listen to your body movement. You start to hear your tendons and heartbeat and the pressure of your blood and the hiss in your ears—the level of your audition. This was our first experience together of silence.”
This physical experience provided valuable direction for how Becker could express Ruben’s hearing impairment through sound in the film. Becker also relied on first-hand descriptions of how cochlear implants compare to natural hearing from people who have undergone the procedure.
Instead of processing sounds with EQ and compression, Becker chose to use non-traditional recording techniques and tools to gather real sounds for Ruben’s experience of hearing loss in its varying degrees.
“I have a lot of weird sensor mics, like the Brüel & Kjær three-axis accelerometer, which captures vibrations, geophones and contact mics,” Becker says. “With those, I’m able to capture surface vibration. I worked a lot with hydrophones because the body is something like 70 percent water, so I think the hydrophone used to record sounds underwater made sense.”
Becker worked closely with Foley artist Heikki Kossi and his team (Foley mixer Kari Vähäkuopus and Foley editor Pietu Korhonen) at H5 Film Sound in Kokkola, Finland. Together they built a “stethoscope microphone” using a basic stethoscope with added mic capsules in both ear-tips to capture body resonance.
Kossi says: “I tried a contact mic and it was okay, but the stethoscope mic had an organic feeling that was totally different. I moved my body and tried to find resonating parts, with or without a heartbeat. I also used this same miking technique for recording the resonation of different objects, looking for possible resonation that Ruben could feel.”
Becker points out that instead of artificial filtering, “the processing was the flesh on Heikki’s bones.”
The stethoscope mic also came in handy when capturing Ahmed’s own body movements on-set. “There was a sound booth in the scene when Ruben has a hearing exam with the audiologist,” Becker explains. “That was very quiet, and we did a recording session in there with Riz [Ahmed]. I created a whole library of movement sounds with him during the shoot.”
Because body resonation sounds were key to expressing Ruben’s experience inside his head, Becker and Kossi often discussed ways to capture resonance and sonic textures. For instance, when they wanted the audience to just feel the resonation of Ruben’s footsteps, Kossi used Schertler DYN UNI P48 mics inside his boots.
“We tried to focus on performance and organic elements of the sound more than heavy processing and many layers,” Kossi explains. “My favorite memory on this project is Nicolas saying to ‘imagine that you’re drawing a portrait and if you draw one line and do it right it looks like someone’s face.’ One line! That is a huge demand for performance.”
That level of simplicity requires detailed execution. Kossi credits help from his team at H5. “With this kind of film, where we really need to be aware of the different worlds and perspectives, the planning is the key thing. Pietu [Korhonen] kept note when spotting the cues, and Kari [Vähäkuopus] did a great job of recording different perspectives. It’s teamwork for sure,” says Kossi.
Music as Vibration
In the film, Ruben is welcomed into a deaf community where they encourage him to accept his condition. He slowly begins to find his place among the residents, and in one scene he is sitting at the bottom of a metal slide and a child is sitting at the top. They make a game of tapping out rhythms for each other to repeat. For that sound, Kossi used an eight-foot long metal tube. But instead of miking the tube, Kossi used the stethoscope mic to record its metallic resonance as it traveled through his body.
“It was interesting to hear how the huge vibration of the tube turned into body resonation,” says Kossi. “The resonation is the language; it’s how Ruben and the small kid communicate together and feel the connection.”
Being a composer on the film as well, Becker chose to enhance the Foley slide sound with a unique instrument called a Baschet Sound Sculpture—a large metallic instrument created by French brothers François and Bernard Baschet in the 1950s. “It’s like a really weird, big metal flower and you activate the metal through a crystal bar,” says Becker. He also used it in combination with Ruben’s metal band performance to create “internal music for Ruben” during a bout of severe tinnitus at the start of his hearing loss.
Metallic sources were important sonic elements for Sound of Metal. Ruben played in a metal band, yes, but there’s also this idea of resonance and resonating—physically and emotionally. Metallic sounds (like life) can be pleasing, overwhelming, and sometimes harsh.
Near the end of the film, Ruben sits alone on a park bench in Paris. His cochlear implants magnify the sound of church bells ringing nearby. It’s an intense, painfully irritating jangle that Becker created by splitting the sound of bells into three different sonic layers (transients, harmonics, and noise) using a standalone application from ircamLAB.
Becker says: “Each part of the software has a slightly different filter to recognize or separate different layers of sound. When we reconstructed the sound, we had cut everything into pieces before putting it back together, kind of like Frankenstein. It was very difficult to re-create what the cochlear implant would send to the nerves. The fact that we were using specific tools to separate the sound into layers, as opposed to using EQ or other tools that worked with spectrum and dynamics, made a huge difference.”
Immersion into a real physical experience and discovering the sensations and emotions that come from being in a specific reality are such an innate part of Becker’s process that it even influenced his choice of editing and mixing environments for Sound of Metal. He decided to do the majority of his sound editing in Los Angeles at the studio of his good friend Mario Caldato, Jr. (former producer of The Beastie Boys).
“For me, it was important to be in that kind of noisy environment, in a music studio listening to people playing all the time,” he says.
In contrast, the final mix was finished in a quiet desert environment devoid of sound, just outside onTepoztlan, Mexico, at the post production studios of renowned director Carlos Reygadas.
“It’s an incredible and beautifully wild place—an artistic bubble,” says Becker. “I feel it’s important to create an experience of work that is linked to the film. I think about where we should do the film, where we should edit it and mix it, in which environment with what people around. I think this has a very big impact on the way you work.”