This is a classic rant from me: it starts out as one thing but by the time I am ready to ‘publish’ it, it’s totally about something else…. And so it started off inspired by the idea of DYNAMIC RANGE DAY the incredibly admirable idea of encouraging increased dynamic range. Easy to state, far more complex to fully consider…. The issue is one of perceived loudness and this document is a good starting point, but with a caveat…


And that caveat is where I begin to diverge from what is obviously intended. Well…… I am presuming but I understand the original intent is to draw attention to the slowly diminishing dynamic range of popular music. But the more I thought about it the less I really cared. Popular music? That’s like discussing the nutritional value of junk food; best left to those who consume it.. When I downloaded that PDF above and rotated it so I could read the song titles, it took me less than 10 seconds to realise they are fighting a battle I have no vested interest in: pop music. I listen to none of the songs in that chart and as with junk food, I suspect the issue of decreased dynamic range is symptomatic of a desire to appeal to the lowest common denominator… Now if historical data was available that was genre specific I might be more engaged. Is reggae getting more compressed? Jazz? Dubstep? Electronic? And this starts to point to what I see as the real value of #DYNAMICRANGEDAY…

It is a valuable reminder that I am personally in love with less…. more said with less, reductionism, call it what you like, and equally not at the expense of dynamics, but when the outcome excells, it IS self evident: LESS IS MORE, but how so? Maybe, for once, the Oscars acknowledged it: a US$11million film takes out a US$290mill film… I would happily acknowledge the quieter film won; but not by genre expectations, because you would expect a bomb disposal film set in Iraq to be as loud, louder or at least equal to a science fiction film. But no, defying expectations the quieter film won. And not just for sound design and for sound mixing – also for best film and best direction. Now that really IS fighting above your weight. To me that says emotional gravitas won over spectacle and my total respect goes to Kathryn Bigelow and Sound Designer/Re-recording mixer Paul Ottosson. The quieter film won, on all fronts and THAT is a MASSIVE achievement!
Frankly I don’t know how anyone makes & mixes those huge action films. God bless Transforminators & their ilk, but when you turn them down to a normal/personal monitoring level I am not sure they really work as films any more. I watched the first Transformers on the plane home from Japan a few years ago & it came off to me as a caricature or parody/comedy; just going through the motions… all its power was lost. And I suspect that also was what lost Avatar the Oscars it so so desperately wanted to win: it simply doesn’t scale. So what does that say about art universally? Nothing, absolutely nothing. Great loud films will succeed in the future just as great quiet films will too. I know which I prefer to work on but referring back to those pesky Oscars its helpful to remember that genre does not dictate dynamics – artists do. It was the creative choices made by Kathryn Bigelow & Paul Ottosson that led The Hurt Locker to not be a loud film and for that they should be applauded.

In terms of dynamic range as a consumer you choose what you enjoy – you vote with your attention, but as a contributor to the creative process it is something you have an obligation to both inform & be informed about. It is an important part of your creative skill set and it is also your responsibility to consciously discuss and clarify the intent & implementation with the decision makers that you work with. So the first conclusion of this rant is to both support & encourage us all to make informed choices about the dynamic range & shape of whatever form of art we work on, at every stage of its creation, because in hindsight there are no uninformed decisions. Finding the quietest moment is every bit as important as addressing the loudest…

quiet please

But the more interesting way (to me at least) of supporting #DYNAMICRANGEDAY is to think about the concept of dynamic range in ideas. If we were to consider LOUD music as being overt, attention seeking and unsubtle then today let’s celebrate the quiet, subtle art forms that require active contemplation to engage with them. I’m going to suggest a few artists (musicians, artists, film makers) in the comments over the next few days, who I think you should take some time out, slow your breathing & your heart rate and engage… Please feel free to contribute others…

A final anecdote & question about silence in art: a few years ago I attended a screening at the NZ International Film Festival where an acclaimed electronic minimalist musician was performing a live accompaniment to an equally minimalist film. I was totally open to the approach taken but I left incredibly frustrated, simply because from frame one until the end of the credits there was droney minimalist music, but not one second of silence. How could someone be a minimalist & not engage silence in their work? If I was to consider the dynamic range of ideas in that particular live score I would say it was similar to some of the cursed pop music blaring from radios… But ever since I have wondered, are we afraid of silence?
Directly related to this question; I’m currently working on a commissioned remix of a beautiful classical piece and there are definitely momentary silences in my version of it, but I got to thinking: if it was performed live as a concert is the fear that a silence might confuse the audience that the piece is finished? Is that part of the fear of silence in creative works?
Over at the Social Sound Design site I asked the question: In my opinion some of the best film sound is not loud or overt, so I am interested to know what your favorite use of silence or near-silence is in a film? The answers are interesting & it has prompted some films worth revisiting but my question was partly motivated by reading someone say online that “you can’t use silence in a film – it could be mistaken for a technical fault” which is such wrong-headed thinking… The use of silence is about context – of course if you cut in a burst of silence inappropriately into a film soundtrack it will be ‘read’ as a mistake, but migrating a scene to silence in a very carefully considered & evolved way would never be mistaken as a fault, because by its very nature it is intentional and if implemented correctly (ie so the audience don’t quite realise it) then you end up in the most amazing place where the absence of sound is everything. I’ve been there on at least half a dozen films and no one has ever claimed it was a mistake. But when people I know say they saw the film I ask, did you notice the silence? Almost always the answer is no. Success!!!
A few articles worth a read on the subject of silence: Silence in Game Sound Design and a PDF article: Sound, Silence and Horror and The Sound of Silence

And a final quick anecdote: I took that photo of the Quiet Please sign at a temple in Kamakura and it makes me smile every time I see it because of the subtext. A slang term for westerners in Japan is gaijin but there is also a variation commenting on Westerners long nose so it amuses me that the Quiet Please sign features an icon with a big nose! In a subtle way it actually says: QUIET PLEASE TOURISTS!

7 Responses to In Love With Less #DYNAMICRANGEDAY

  1. Great article, and thanks for the link to that NPR blog too.

  2. Robin says:

    Just one note: Minimalism is not about silence, and in fact can be rather dense and loud. To expect a minimalist to be silent is… to expect pop music to care about dynamic range.

    Actually, I do care about this issue in pop music, especially when I buy a series of remastered classics only to find the music has been completely butchered.

    • insomniacNZ says:

      Enjoyed reading that.. Have been considering this issue lately, being in the midst of writing an album.. I feel somewhat forced to push the levels a bit so that it doesn’t get annoying when shuffling with other tracks.

      Hypothetically.. it would be useful if there was a meta-data entry implemented for popular music formats that could suggest a relative playback level to digital media players. Unless you’re turning your player up to 11 all the time there is a lot of amp headroom to play with.
      Then a loud and squashed mix can be played quite comfortably next to a more subtle one.

      One could do this retrospectively by analyzing each track before playback, but it might be better as a setting that the mixer or mastering engineer had access to.

      On second thought, you’d probably end in the same situation anyway.. “That’s not playing back loud enough compared to the other bands.. increase the relative playback level!”

  3. Dan Foley says:

    I know it’s quite obvious, but the most powerful use of silence in a film I can think of is in 2001: A Space Odyssey – in that case, the silence was amazingly effective, bringing you right into the vacuum during a passage of action that normally would be clanging with loudness. Actually, it’s remarkable that despite the number of movies set in space, there are very few that embrace the silence…

  4. Pingback: Saving Dynamic Range #DYNAMICRANGEDAY

  5. rene says:

    One of my favorite films for use of effective silence is House of Flying Daggers.

  6. Peter DuCharme says:

    There were wonderful moments in the film ‘No Country for old Men’ where the Cohen brothers choose to not have any music and let the assassin’s footsteps be the only sound to carry the scene.

    As far as minimalist compositions using silence I have to point out the grand daddy example of all time
    4′ 33″. John Cage composed a piece where the performer just sat in front of a music stand for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. The ‘music’ was derived from the reaction of the audience. People shuffling their feet, nervous coughs, sniffles.

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