by Steven Winn


San Francisco Chronicle; September 10th, 1989

The real Darth Vader spoke out last week, in a screening room at Director George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in rural Marin County.  Instead of the reverberant basso profundo of James Earl Jones, the audience heard through the famous black mask, some muffled muttered lines delivered by a stunt man with a Welsh accent.

The occasion of this auditory masking was a stimulating invitational conference on sound design that had drawn representatives of the radio, video, theatre and music industries from across the country, England, Europe and Australia.

Ben Burtt, the Lucasfilm chief sound designer who worked on Star Wars, the Indiana Jones films, “ET” and Howard the Duck was conducting an object lesson on how much sonic massaging a film undergoes once its been shot and edited. To prove his point, Burtt played the original on-location sound track of a Star Wars scene.  To call that initial track crude would be a polite understatement.

In addition to the music score and sound effects, the designer explained, as much as 80 percent of a dialogue in a film is added on after the fact – redone, actually in a laborious process called “automated dialogue replacement.” The masks in Star Wars lightened that core somewhat, because there were no visible lips to match.

But the search for techno-veracity created other dilemmas that few Star Wars viewers might have imagined as the finished adventure poured into their eyes and ears in the theatre. The spaceships, for example were all constructed of wood, for economic and other practical reasons. Every Star Wars footfall, as a result, had to be recorded later on a metal surface.

For three days in Marin, the layman who had devoted only a marginal portion of his consciousness to sound in the media and performing arts had that consciousness raised again and again. The conference, presented by Bay Area Radio Drama, certainly opened new widows on the technology of sound recording, reproduction and transmission in the fast changing computer age. But the presentations and resulting conversations went well beyond that.

Rather than talking shop about the latest developments in high density microphones and computerized mixing boards, the participants engaged each other on such matters as the aesthetics, philosophy, psychology, politics, even the ethics of sound. In one prolonged heated exchange, San Francisco bio-acoustician and sound sculptor, Bernie Krause was taken to task for his use of wild animal sounds in a fabricated pop song, Ape no Mountain High Enough, a cut from his recent album “Gorillas in the Mix.”

More than a few listeners were disturbed by the implication of Kraus’s “manipulation” and “de-contextualizing” of natural sounds. Wasn’t there something “cynical” about using animal calls?” asked West German Radio drama producer Klaus Schöning, in the same trivializing way we use wild animals in captivity? Others rose in defense of Krause, a committed environmentalist.

But the discussion didn’t stop there. It expanded into the issue of audience responses when Bay Area Radio Drama’s Erik Bauersfeld related a slightly surreal anecdote about (inadvertently) playing the taped sounds of dying (slaughtered) chickens to a coopful of live chickens.  “An awful silence came over those birds,” Bauersfeld said, "they knew what they were hearing.” 

Les Gilbert, an Australian who designs sound installations for museums, zoos, and aquariums around the world, amplified the point with a story about an “environment” he’d done for a nocturnal mammal house. Through a series of refinements, Gilbert and his collaborators derived a tape that was so successful in decreasing the “neurotic” behavior of the mammals that it was played for them 24 hours a day.

But even that seeming triumph needed to be examined. Perhaps a sound score that mollified the bats and sloths wasn’t the optimal solution.  Maybe the creatures actually needed a little auditory agitation to be truly healthy.

The designers did eventually abandon the animal kingdom for other topics. Indeed, no sonic stone seemed so small or insignificant that it didn’t require turning over and examining closely for its implications.

Randy Thom, a Lucasfilm sound designer who also has worked extensively in radio drama, launched a tightly reasoned argument in favor of having radio actors actually perform physical actions, whenever feasible during the taping. In one example that Thom played, the actor was digging with a shovel in some sand.

“That provided a reality that wouldn’t have been there otherwise,” said Thom. The body is an instrument, a resonator. Movement and exertion affect the way that instrument behaves, the stresses and the sound quality, and we can all hear the difference.”

In an utterly trivial but delightful little videotape, Lucasfilm’s Burtt traced the recurrence of an identical gun ricochet sound through 50 years of movie making. After its first occurrence in a 1934 Gary Cooper film, sound engineers pirated the ricochet for everyone from John Wayne and Clint Eastwood to Burt Reynolds and the Three Stooges.

And how could Burtt be sure it was exactly the same ricochet? Like any detail-obsessed fanatic in his field, he’d made a sonogram of the original gunshot sound, and matched it, peak for peak and valley for valley, to the others. And then as one keen-eared listener detected, he’d turned around and used it himself in Indiana Jones and the last crusade.

“How’d you hear that?” asked a slightly flustered Burtt.

One issue that emerged repeatedly, in different forms, was the use of real as opposed to synthesized or otherwise artificially rendered, sounds. Movie designers Burtt, Thom, and Zoetrope Studios designer Richard Beggs, who addressed the conference the second day, all expressed a strong preference for real sounds, even if they’re altered or used in contexts that disguise their origins.

An ominous hum in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Rumblefish” Beggs revealed was not machine made, as the listener might have guessed, but rather the sound of a finger on a Gumps crystal goblet played at a very low speed. Burtt’s sound library is a collection of unlikely conversions. The crunch of an apple being bitten is the snap of a vine Indiana Jones yanks from a rock in Last Crusades.  Walruses and bears were mixed into the voices of the Star War aliens.

The BBC’s MacLoughlin weighed in on reality’s side as well. For a radio drama series on Oliver Cromwell he said he and his crew went to the considerable pains of recording the thrumming psalms of a male voice chorus on location in a deep valley far from the nearest town. Not only had they evaded the anachronistic intrusion of airplane and automobile noise, but captured to MacLoughlin’s thinking, a deeper sense of historical specificity—real singers in a real reverberant valley.

For people who take sound very seriously—all the participants at this conference, presumably—this sort of auditory hair splitting needs no defense. Burtt put the case succinctly: “All sounds carry associations with them, on both a conscious and unconscious level.  The more we can lap into those associations with sounds that the listener recognizes, the richer our work will be.”

On the final day in Marin, this century’s celebrated patron saint of sound—and silence—delivered a quirky and oddly affecting benediction on the proceedings. Seventy-six year old composer, John Cage, whose works include a piano solo during which the performer plays no notes, didn’t have to speak at all to make his mark. The mere presence of a man, referred to again and again as a primary influence on their work, seemed more than inspiring enough for the conference participants.

But Cage did speak, in his halting, delicate voice, delivered something closer to a verbal performance piece than an address. Using his favored “chance operations” to determine their order, Cage tossed off a series of 10 “improvisations” on various topics, most of them relating to his own musical compositions.

As each improvisation was spoken, it was captured on an audio cassette and then played back as Cage began the next. Each subsequent cassette caught not only the live Cage, but the previous generations of recorded sections.  By the end of the talk the Skywalker screening room was a babble of Cage’s voice.

The listener was invited to find whatever connections he could in all the random concurrences of words and phrases. No one in the room failed to pick up on one thought that emerged clearly from the sound and served as a sort of provocative challenge. “Do we have new ideas,” Cage asked, “or do we simply repeat ourselves?”

That very question had surfaced earlier in the day, with Klaus Schöning’s intriguing history of experimental radio in Europe. The use of montage asynchronism, text-free soundscapes and other innovations dated back 50 years of more, Schöning demonstrated. The challenge for makers of contemporary radio drama—the “new Hörspiel” in Germany, the New American Radio series in this country—is to use that long established language in fascinating new ways.

Sound technology may have advanced remarkably during this century, but as listeners we probably haven’t changed much. Innovation for it’s own sake soon becomes just so much noise. Artists who work in sound must find new ways to touch us, not just the surface of our eardrums.

Gregory Whitehead, who creates his experimental radio pieces in Philadelphia, put it this way, “I’m looking for a light, vaporous touch in my work, something to play off against the weight of all the electronically mediated messages in our culture. I know how dependent I am on technology, but I also have this urge to subvert it.”