What Listening to Loss Feels Like in ‘Sound of Steel’

Creating an audio landscape for a movie about a musician who has lost his hearing is more complicated than it seems. The filmmakers of the new drama “Sound of Metal” wanted to involve the audience in the experience of its main character Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a punk metal drummer who is forced to look at life differently when he goes deaf.

Judging from the mostly positive reviews, the filmmakers have accomplished this difficult feat. In the New York Times, Jeannette Catsoulis raved about “an extraordinarily complicated sound design with which we can borrow Rubens ears”.

The film (streaming on Amazon) often puts us in Rubens’ acoustic perspective as he navigates through his new reality. (It’s worth watching with headphones or a good sound system.) “I’ve had a lot of conversations with people who have lost their hearing and not two people’s experience is the same,” said Darius Marder, co-writer and director of the film . “But one thing that is pretty true for all people who are deaf is that they don’t completely lose the sound. It is not a silence. “

Instead, Marder and his sound designer Nicolas Becker wanted to capture these low-frequency vibrations and other sounds. The approach was adapted for different moments in Rubens’ experience. In separate zoom interviews, Marder and Becker focused on three scenes as they discussed some of the techniques and ideas with which they used Rubens’ listening experience, including inserting microphones in the skull and mouth.

One of the first times there is a notable change in Rubens’ hearing before a show when he sets up the counter with his bandmate and girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). At some point there is a high-pitched ringing, then the voices are muffled.

Ahmed’s answer right now isn’t just acting. The filmmakers had custom earphones made for the actor so that they could feed him a high frequency sound they had created.

“He’s responding to a very physical process,” said Marder. “And that process gives way in real time to a white noise in Riz’s ears that doesn’t allow him to hear his own voice, which is a very specific experience for not being able to hear your own voice. This leads to a loss of balance and a real loss of control. “

This moment signals to the audience that the film is much more first-person, that we will often hear through Rubens’ ears. The sequence continues with the band’s appearance, when Ruben is on the drums and the loud beats slowly fade into deep, distant notes.

In the next sequence, Ruben gets up in the morning to find that his hearing loss has increased. The sound here is soft and rumble, a bit cavernous and very internal.

This inner feeling is a specialty for Becker, who has created haunting, personalized sound experiences in many projects, from the astronaut drama “Gravity”, for which he put on a spacesuit to understand the sound in it, to the deep-sea disaster film “The Command”, for which he recorded underwater in a submarine for two weeks.

“If I can put people in a real ambient sound environment, I can do something very specific,” he explained. “It’s about how you relate sound to your body memory.”

Becker said that a year before the shooting of “The Sound of Metal” he invited Marder to Paris to visit an anechoic chamber. The room should eliminate sound and reverberation.

“After 10 minutes you can hear your tendons, the pressure of your blood,” said Becker. “You are reaching the physiological limit of your hearing system.”

In order to delve deeper into this body-sound connection and conjure up Rubens’ listening experience, Marder had to call it a “real experimentation with damping”. Becker microphones the insides of surviving skulls and helmets to get the feeling of being enveloped. He also used stethoscope-style microphones, as well as microphones that fit in a performer’s mouth, to create a mix of audio that shows Ruben experiencing sound from the inside out.

Later in the film, Ruben gets cochlear implants. In this scene, he meets with an audiologist who helps set up the equipment. It adjusts them in different ways, with each result being more pronounced but still accompanied by a sizzling distortion, like a radio dial not getting quite the right frequency. The audiologist explains to Ruben that it doesn’t sound the way he remembers it. Rather, the implants pretend his brain is listening.

From a narrative point of view, the film draws a connection between the noises Ruben makes as a drummer, which some listeners may find uncomfortable, and the noises from the implants, which Ruben now considers unpleasant.

“It had to drive this line of inconvenience but not unbearably,” Marder said of the audio in that scene. For this purpose, the tones were heavily processed; Each layer of clay also had to be treated individually, with each element provided with filters. Then these layers were distributed around the channels in the mixture “to create the experience of a loss of balance,” Marder said. “Because one of the fascinating aspects of this listening experience is not only that the sound sounds different, but also that our brain does not understand the directionality. All of a sudden, this surround sound, you’re lost in it. “

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