Monday, 19 November 2012

THX 1138 - Sound Design and Musical Composition

Musical Components

            The music was very simple in progression but effective nonetheless.  At the beginning of the piece the string ensemble is playing legato in the key of F minor with long pulsating chords gradually building tension.  As the video progresses, the adding of subtle dissonance as well as, the introduction of the bass string section further enhances tension.   To enhance the timbre a choir is added to thicken the sound. These sections gradually grow louder to provide a dynamic variation, which coincides with the mind lock and subsequent android carnage!

            Once the mind lock takes place the camera focuses on THX and at this point the violins join the piece.  The high pitch shrills indicate the mind lock has taken place and carnage is about to ensue.  At this point the other members in the control rooms run off; to emphasize the point of dissonance and discord I chose not to add footsteps so only the alarm and strings could be heard.  The subtle recurring theme occurs at this moment through the bass arpeggio.  It is heard later without the violins and choir at the very end of the piece, as THX is being led off by the police.  I chose not to add footsteps again here so the theme could take centre stage without any ambient or digetic sound detracting from the menace of the situation.

            The only other variation of the piece is shortly after the initial violin shrills where a second violin part can be heard playing the same arpeggio variations as the bass part only 3 octaves above.  This adds further dissonance and adds a pulsating feel to echo that of the alarm and further menace to the piece. 

            In film many composers have used dissonance to emphasize context and add dramatic feel such as Bernard Herrmann in 1960’s Hitchcock classic Psycho.  In Psycho the dissonant stabs of the strings make the audience experience the brutal murder without seeing the image graphically.  In THX1138 the context is obviously different but the approach is similar.  In my video I have attempted to build up tension gradually and then release it just as Herrmann does in Psycho. 

Non-Musical Components

Sound Design and FX

            Initially my first thoughts turned towards the robotic arms that THX is controlling as well as the hot metal rod that burns through the android.  In order to make the movements of the arms seem real I used a sound clip of a camera shutter moving and layered it with a car sun-roof opening.  This is then panned from left to right accordingly to generate a magnetization effect so the arms are followed around the screen. To get the right movements I used Logic Pro 9’s Flex-Time function to stretch the audio at specific points were the arm moves or changes direction. I found that if a piece of audio was stretched too far then artifacts would appear, however, I used one instance to my advantage as the dialogue and subsequent number sequence fitted in time.  The resulting audio acts not only as the characteristic digetic sound of the mechanical arm, but also the non-digetic sound bridge in time with the numbers.

The next digetic sound I made was the metal rod burning through the android and rolling to an eventual stop.  The sound of the rod was created by layered audio clips of steam and bacon frying in a pan.  I shifted the pitch of the clips down 4 semi-tones using Vocal Transformer to give a slightly lower tone quality to the clips.  This ensured the transformation from bacon sizzling to metal sparking.

Then using EQ I manipulated the audio clips to sound more like there were sparks flying off the metal by removing the very highest frequencies with a low pass filter.

In the above manner other effects made during the clip were the electrical sparks, keyboard typing sounds, and the metal rod rolling around the bottom of the sealed control room.  To synchronize the audio clips with the video I used Logic’s arrange page, which involved using the smallest divisions available to correctly align the sounds. 

            As well as digetic sounds some suggestive and subliminal audio clips are also effective in video.  The first in THX-1138 is the electronic sweep that comes from an unseen computer in the CCTV room.  To create this I used ES2 subtractive synthesizer.  By combining 3 triangle waves, all pitched at different semi-tones the resulting sound thickens but also has less musical qualities.  Then by adding a large amount of glide the result is like a computer signaling that something is either getting faster or slower, which, is used during the sequence where THX’s read outs are being transmitted across the intercom to emphasize his illegal drug intake.  Finally I routed the pitch of the 3 oscillators to LFO1, which would add a vibrato effect that subliminally suggests that something is wrong following the dissonant sweep so is therefore an example of empathetic sound.
            Similarly other suggestive clips of audio used ES2 such as the background computer noises.  These are also triangle waves but this time the oscillators are pitched up at various semi-tones to give a thickened high-pitched bleep.  These along with some audio clips of hissing and air conditioning filters whirring created the ambient sounds of the different rooms.  The hissing more industrial sounds of the air conditioning unit fit perfectly THX’s control room environment, while electronic bleeps and tremolo printing noises work well for the control tower, booth and CCTV room.  I used different combinations to create a unique soundscape for each room to provide continuity and overall texture.

 To make the alarm I layered 3 traditional alarm sounds and then used automation to alter the volume to give an impression of the alarm being further away or near by.  Each scene has a slightly different mix to go along with the soundscape continuity.  In the picture to the left the multi-colored markers at the top indicate each scene.

            The final example of sound design is the ticking clock.  It has variation through the film clip and incorporates different sounds such as the mechanical arm as a sound-bridge, however the main theme of the clock is a slightly contrapuntal sound, due the low bass frequencies within the sound.  The sound itself is a rhythmical drone that I stretched using flex time to fit in time with the duration of the clock ticking.  I then double tracked the result and split the frequencies; one has exclusively a bass end and the other a treble.  To the bass half  (right) I added some overdrive to give a powerful timbre and I fed the treble half (below) through a ring modulator to modulate in time with the ticking.


            Foley is the recording of sounds that resemble the sound source.  For example a bone breaking could be the sound of snapping a carrot in half! In my video though, the Foley design is limited to the picking up of the telephone and the metal rod both hitting the android initially and the impact when it melts through the second time.  The telephone sound is the recording of me flicking a PS3 game box with my TV remote control.  The result is a slightly far away click that resembles a telephone being picked up.  The first impact of the rod hitting the android was created by dropping a beer can onto my desk.  The metallic qualities and density of the rod are consistent with the sound recorded.  Finally, the impact of the rod bursting through the android was me puffing into my hands!  The sounds were all recorded at home using a SM57 microphone, which is a great all round dynamic.  The frequency graph details how the response is relatively flat, yet the high frequencies are emphasized, making it great for recording just about anything. 

Vocal Dubbing

            The dialogue was recorded through SM57’s sister microphone the SM58.  My parents and myself were the actors!  The synchronization of the vocals was achieved by a click track cueing up the actors to record in time.  However, as the actors weren’t the original characters it proved much harder to keep everything in time!  Some of the audio is slightly asynchronous due to this and the fact that chopping the best clips and moving them in logic would involve taking each syllable as an individual slice.  The result of this experiment was very disjointed and inappropriate!  

            Once the dialogue was recorded I fed various portion s through the vocal transformer to change pitch and also the phase distortion to give the impression that the vocals were sent through a dysfunctional futuristic intercom!  The computer voice (‘the radiation rate is…’) was equalized with a louder mid range to sound like it was emanating from an unseen device in the background.   The clean vocal is given clear vococentrism to contrast with the slightly muffled effect of the intercom and computerized voice.  This is achieved by cutting frequencies at around 1200Hz and boosting at about 4000Hz.  This makes the syllables clearer and the vocal sit comfortably in the mix. 

Friday, 18 May 2012

ES2: Part II - Filter, Distortion, Phase, Chorus etc.

The second part in the series of videos exploring ES2 synth in Logic Pro 9.


ES2: Part I - Oscillators, Mixer, Tuners and Voice Modes

Here is the first part of my video series explaining the functions of ES2 Hybrid Synth located in Logic Pro 9.


Thursday, 17 May 2012

The Harmonic Series and Basic Waveforms

Harmonic Series

A sine wave is an example of a pure tone; it is at a fixed frequency but doesn’t contain any of the harmonic series.  A guitar though would contain elements of the harmonic series and would be determined as of the pitch that is being played.  In fact any pitched instrument will contain harmonics.  The harmonics are essentially placed at equal intervals in terms of frequency from the pitched tone. The harmonics of an A at 110hz (above) (first harmonic) would be 220hz (2nd harmonic), 330hz (3rd), 440hz (4th) etc.  The placement of these harmonics is at an interval equal to the main tone.  The amplitude of the harmonics will determine the timbre of the sound and also the shape of the sound wave.

Basic sound wave shapes

The harmonics present in a sound wave can determine its shape.  The sine wave is the purest tone so will act as a pure sound wave does; a perfect wave. 

The triangle wave contains harmonics at an interval of every odd harmonic.  So the first, third, fifth etc. harmonics will be present.
The square wave is essentially the same as the triangle but its harmonics are higher in amplitude.

Finally the sawtooth wave contains all of the harmonics series, which essentially stretches the appearance of the wave to resemble a saw blade.

Here is an example of all four waves’ appearance.[1]

[1] Both diagrams taken from

Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Opening

The Art of Simmonyms is opening to provide a space for my musical ideas, college work and any other creative insights I gather on the way! I hope to provide an area which contains helpful tips in making all forms of music so please enjoy! :)