SD101: Backwards Reverb

We’ve all heard the effect – they used it lots in the movie Poltergeists and also in a great Simpsons episode involving Homer in a 3D space he found behind a bookcase. I call it Backwards Reverb and have occasionally used the technique since back in the day when I was working with analogue multitrack tape. It was a bit trickier then, since when you reverse the roll of say 24 multitrack tape, you had to remember that what was on track 2 was now on track 23….. if your maths was a bit screwy then you risked erasing something crucial!
So, what I’m talking about is creating an effect where the reverb (or delays) precede the sound ie ramps up to the sound. This is different to the plugins that do reverse reverbs – this is a non-realtime process….. We obviously aren’t aiming for realism here, unless there is some technique to make time run backwards that I dont know about… but I think why the technique is very useful when applied in an appropriate context, is because it essentially generates interesting tonal sounds that are directly related to the sound they precede. In case you still dont get it, heres what I mean, take this piece of dialogue for example:

Its relatively easy to do, the only tricky part (especially if you are applying it to dialogue) is the resyncing part… so heres a step by step method:

1. Take that bit of dialogue from the previous example, heres what it normally looks like:

2. Ok so drag a copy of it onto track 2, immediately below and then reverse it:

3. Now insert a reverb on track 2 (i’m using a TLSpace mono-stereo reverb),
We want to record the reverb onto another track so change the output of track 2
to stereo bus 1 and add a new stereo track 3 – set its input to stereo bus 1
Now record the reverb of the backwards dialogue onto track 3, like so:

4. Now drag a copy of that reverb onto a new stereo track 4 and reverse it, like so:

5. Now that we have the bits we need, we need to resync our backwards reverb on track 4 to the original file on track 1… so ignore track 2 and 3 for now (mute/hide them)
We need the end of the two regions to line up, as below:

Do this by either doing it roughly & then zooming in on the end of the region & tightening its position… or if you are in ProTools, you can use some sneaky command keys to do it perfectly: Put the cursor on track 1 and hit TAB until the cursor is at the end of the region… Hold CONTROL down and use the GRABBER tool to move the region on track 2 instantly in sync to the cursor position. Now hold down COMMAND and CONTROL and use the GRABBER tool again to automatically move the region backwards by its own length. Hey presto its perfectly aligned with the end.

This all might seem a little confusing – and if someone bugs me, I’ll try & use a screen capture program to do it in realtime & upload it on youtube but it takes some explaining so thought I’d try this way first. Do you understand? The same process works well using a delay instead of a reverb, so you can get delays ramping up to a sound….

The idea of recording reverbs is a handy one, for a number of reasons, the first of which is it frees up that reverb and/or CPU for other uses… Also if you were taking your session to another facility to mix it also means you dont have to worry about them having the same plugins. But the main aspect I really like of recording reverbs (whether they are forwards or backwards) is you are then able to edit and/or process them further, as we have here but also in other ways… A beautiful room reverb (eg a hall) sounds even more beautiful slowed/pitched down a bit!

As an example of using Backwards Reverb in sound design, I used it for the very first moments in the movie Perfect Strangers – the first frame of the film shows an extreme close up of someone cutting onions. When I started working on the film I realised that when its seen in a theatre that onion would be HUGE so I started experimenting with accentuating the sound of the knife cutting into the onion and the pieces of onion almost dancing as they came off the knife. I recorded a lot of very close up onion cutting sounds, at various speeds & got the sequence working kind of as I imagined… After I played it to the director, she liked it so much she decided to extend it prior to the film starting, starting off very slow & almost abstract & then becoming more real until it reveals onscreen… So I pitched down some of my onion cutting sounds and recorded more, slower ones but I needed a means of pushing them away from reality a bit – ahar! Time to try a backwards reverb on it. So I reversed a number of the sounds – the cutting sound and especially the wooden clunk as the knife hit the cutting board – applied various length reverbs, then reversed those reverbs & resynced them with the other ‘real’ effects… magic! It took some manipulating to make the elements all feel a part of the same moment, but it worked a treat and i remember playing the sequence to the composers on the film and they couldnt work out how I had done it…. when we mixed it we also had some fun by placing the start of the onion cut in the surrounds, so the slice basically passed through the audience, until it impacted at the front…. have a listen, its not quite as coherent without the images but you can get a feel for merging backwards reverbs with real effects…. You’ll notice we start introducing elements of the ambience during the transition from surreal to real, by the third chop you can hear the fridge and then you start to hear the kitchen etc…. bear in mind this is a stereo crash down of the 5.1 FX stem… crunched to mp3….

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Play

The first time I saw this I thought brilliant! Clever, creative art designed for the (then) low bandwidth interweb… funny thing is, its still as clever as it was then! ps it requires flash or shockwave or something… anyway its made by dust films and check it out here

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Metal door tones

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How to Finish 2/3 : Development


‘The best part of one’s life is the working part, the creative part. Believe me, I love to succeed… however the real spiritual and emotional excitement is in the doing’

This quote is from writer and director Garson Kanin, and reflects something important about the idea of completion. While its important to finish a project it is also important to savour the development process. What is that old cliche about the journey being as/more important than the destination? Well if its true (& cliches often are) then it also represents a danger ie enjoying the process so much that the destination is never reached. With music I would be guilty of this – jamming is the fun part! Experimenting with the form, structure & content of a piece of music is endlessly entertaining as it also provides a good dose of instant gratification. But it is also important! Back in the day, when i used to play in bands (everything was steam powered back then) every song went through a process of development through it being played, in the practice room & live. Being a studio based musician means replacing that process with…. noodling around in the studio… which is sometimes productive & other times isn’t. A few times I have messed with a track, overdubbed new layers & altered the structure until I finally realise I didnt actually like it any more! Thankfully my workflow for sound design has instilled my musical experiments with the concept of backup & archiving, and so its often enlightening to go back a few versions (which may be days or weeks or even months) to find the version that had the core reason for its existence – what excited me about it in the first place – then its a process of being pragmatic as to the value of each of the elements that have been added… and start subtracting!


‘Genius is the ability to edit’
Charlie Chaplin

Editing is an intriguing process. Physically it is often driven by intuition and experience, but the path to finding the right solution or option is often a diverse one. Its the main reason that when I am working on subjective elements for a films sound design I prefer to work alone – I need to know I can go down the wrong road, hit a dead end & try something else, without having to consider someone elses observations… Apart from the distraction, often the only way to find a solution to a difficult or subjective problem is to try the wrong thing, because at the point you realise it is the wrong thing a sudden burst of inspiration or insight into what might be the right solution can become apparent.
Its also significant that an audience never sees or hears the many wrong elements that were discarded, which is where the above quote is so correct. It could be rewritten as ‘Genius is in what you leave out’ and so it must always be a careful consideration as to whether in each step of development addition or subtraction is required. And how does one arrive at those decisions? Objectivity.
Wikipedia says “To be objective is to adhere strictly to truth-conducive methods in one’s thinking, particularly, to take into account all available information, and to avoid any form of prejudice, bias, or wishful thinking.” Theres a conflict there, as wishful thinking is part of what gets a project made ie it doesnt exist but I am going to will it into existence… But equally there are two means of gaining objectivity that I know of & each achieves different results. The first is sleep on it. Put it aside until the following day & have a listen with fresh ears, your first reaction/instincts about it in the morning will be very telling. The other way is to invite someone you know to come & have a listen. This approach is a double edged sword, but in my opinion the important part is achieved by them being there to first listen – you will realise all sorts of things about your work before they even get a chance to react… aspects that were debateable in your own mind before will become rapidly apparent & it is worth listening to yourself as to whether you are apologising for any elements eg ‘I plan to re-record the beat later’ etc… But the double edge sword comes down to what they DO say and whether it has any relevance. Advice I have heard given to many young screenwriters is that you must be careful of (a) who you allow to have input on your work and (b) how much significance you place on their comments. Friends & family can be misleading as they often times will be supportive first, critical last… and I always have respect for the person who when dissecting their own work asks not only what did you like the best, but also what did like the least… Yes-men & women are not much help for anyone except those with ego/insecurity problems.


‘There are no shortcuts to any place worth going’
Beverly Sills

You dont have to look far on the interweb to find plentiful advice on how to get things done, including literally that but I’m going to list a bunch of ideas I have come across and/or experienced to be worth consideration, so think about what relates to you & ignore the rest!
Development = hard work. Lots of it. Some of it sure isn’t as much fun as the joy of the initial inspiration, but it is a means to an end. So when work needs to be done, best to refine some processes that let that work happen as easily possible. Everyone is different and the most productive process vary even within the same individual at different ages/days of the week/times of the day. I remember in my youth almost resenting my inherent list-making nature, but as soon as I started to work on more complex projects (eg supervising film soundtracks) I began to embrace this side of my personality & develop it.
Starting is an interesting issue. Sometimes I think the only difference between those who DO and those who just talk about it, is that the former start… and the funny thing is it matters less WHERE you start than IF you do. Start anywhere! If you arent sure where to start then start with the wrong thing. You will soon realise what you should do instead of the wrong thing, the important thing is that it sets action in motion. You simply can’t wait for inspiration to strike or for the perfect situation. Most of the best photos I have ever taken were when I wasn’t consciously trying to take photos, other than being somewhere with my camera and an open mind. Its true that inspiration comes from perspiration because the subtext of that statement is that inspiration comes from action, being in the moment. I always smile (& then despair) when I hear someone saying how WHEN they have X they will do Y… their subtext is they aren’t here now, they are living in a projected future that may never exist. They are creating barriers to starting and to hell with those barriers!

A dear friend of mine returned recently from a trip to India with his two sons & as he is a very thoughtful person I was more than a little intrigued to catch up with him while his experiences were still fresh in his psyche. And his first words have become etched in my mind: ‘Time is elastic!’ – of course there followed a lengthy sake-fueled rant about the virtues of travel & culture & experiences & life, but the fundamental theory is a sound one. Although the clock may tick a second off with each tick, how we humans perceive it has everything to do with context. I have a very good book which I have read a dozen times or more called Ten Thoughts About Time by Bodil Jonsson which refers seperately to “Clock time” and “Lived time” and as a simple example of the dichotomy asks “How many ‘soons’ make up quarter of an hour?” But perception of time is also a good indicator of conscious state. You just know you are in your creative zone when time becomes meaningless and while you well know “just before” was maybe two o’clock, now could be either three o’clock or six o’clock…. Its about flow; working/expressing yourself unhindered & slightly unhinged. I suspect anyone creative experiences it, but their understanding of it varies greatly. What does it take to get yourself in the flow of a project, so caught up in what you are doing that time becomes irrelevant? The one thing I know is that when I am in that flow, it only takes a small interruption to pierce that bubble. In the process of learning about my own creative flow I have slowly tried to identify those interruptions and isolate them. As a simple example, at my studio when working on a film I often have a couple of other sound editors working in adjoining rooms and it is an unspoken rule that if my door is firmly shut then don’t come asking me questions about things that can wait…. One person asking ‘what would you like me to do next? And the idea I was chasing may have gone…. same applies for the phone/ichat/email…

So time management is crucial – when is your best time to do specific tasks/processes? And where is your time going? No one wants to track every minute, but if your first hour every morning is never productive then assign it some tasks that don’t matter whether you are in the mood or not: edit/tag samples or new recordings or whatever is productive but not creatively taxing…. As you get older I think there is an onus to observe & learn about your own behaviour – what do you avoid & when/why? You don’t like tweaking drum patterns or editing horse hooves or whatever – find someone who does & collaborate with them!

Another aspect of time management is based entirely on deadlines. I well know that there is a trajectory of every project where what you do at every stage is important, but what you do in the final preparation is CRUCIAL. At the start of a project the stakes are often lower, experimentation is encouraged & the main focus is about beginning to form the vocabulary to express what the final form might be…. But by the end of a project you have the knowledge of every thing done up to that point, you know every detail intimately, you know what is there & why… And yet you must remain open to the possibility of very deep insight making itself apparent. I used to totally exhaust myself by the time we started premixing on a film but I now know better, its not a sprint, its a marathon and you have to retain the creative energy to be open minded (& preferably have a sense of humour) until the champagne pops at the end of the final day…
But this concept is also valuable as a short-term motivator, if the only deadline is at the end of the project then its one very long run up to the finish whereas if there are many intermediate deadlines then major advances can be achieved through the push required to meet those deadlines. I have done this with music a number of times eg deciding well in advance that I will mix a version of a tune I have been noodling around with forever by the end of this weekend. That usually means working late on a Sunday (one of my favourite times to make music – when the drones are all in bed, preparing for their next day in nine to five hell) but the advances made in the final hours of that push often outweigh the previous weeks noodling!

OK so rant over for now & prior to part 3; some links to articles in a similar vein:


Get your temporary To Do tattoo here

The Dip is a book about the trajectory of successful projects: “Every new project (or career or relationship) starts out exciting and fun. Then it gets harder and less fun, until it hits a low point – really hard, really not fun. At that point, you might be in a Dip (which will get better if you keep pushing) or a Cul-de-sac (which will never get better, no matter how hard you try). The hard part is knowing the difference and acting on it. What really sets superstars (his word, not mine) apart from everyone else is the ability to give up on Cul-de-sacs while staying motivated in Dips. Winners quit fast, quit often, and quit without guilt – until they commit to beating the right Dip for the right reasons.”

“I-never-finish-anyth…” via metafilter

“How can i focus my ability to focus” – also via metafilter

Not-to-do lists via here and here and here

Scrum development = divide work into “mini projects” – fixed time frame/limited number of detailed tasks… also on gamasutra

Art from Start to Finish is a book which “gathers a unique group of contributors from the worlds of sociology, musicology, literature, and communications—many of them practicing artists in their own right—to discuss how artists from jazz musicians to painters work: how they coordinate their efforts, how they think, how they start, and, of course, how they finish their productions.”

“This is a stone from the endless beach” is an interview with acclaimed NZ artist Max Gimblett which is very interesting (& also appears in the previous book) including sections titled: “The completion is in the beginning”, “Poets teach me ways to begin and complete paintings” and “Ways to stop rather than finishing”

Productivity is Overrated! is a great read and a welcome antidote to all the people who’s instant fallback in any such conversation is quoting Getting Things Done… “From my experience, the most common trait you will consistently observe in accomplished people is an obsession with completion. Once a project falls into their horizon, they crave, almost compulsively, to finish it. If they’re organized, this might happen in scheduled chunks. If they’re not — like many — this might happen in all-nighters. But they get it done. Fast and consistently. It’s this constant stream of finishing that begins, over time, to unlock more and more interesting opportunities… Introducing Completion-Centric Planning…. Here’s the reality: Real accomplishments require really hard pushes. GTD style, “one independent task at a time” productivity systems make it easy to avoid these pushes by instead doing a lot of little easy things…..”

And finally, the thoughful Don’t Start What You Can’t Finish!
“Before you attack any project dig deep and evaluate your chances of a satisfactory completion. It’s all too common to begin something that, when you really think about it, you’ve got a very little realistic chance of finishing….. Know the goal at all times…… Perfect is the enemy of the done…”


‘All I know about method is that when I am not working I sometimes think
I know something, but when I am working it is quite clear I know nothing’
John Cage

UPDATE: if this was useful/relevant have a look at part 1 and part 3

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Two Cats

Apologies that this blog has become a temporary MTV for strange music clips – normal sound design subjects will soon follow – but this video is one I actually made… well more correctly I should say I found this crappy animated gif of two cats which had some tedious techno as a soundtrack, so I recreated a “real” soundtrack for it…

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