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Lessons from an AIRster’s adventures in sound design

July 17, 2017—Editor’s Note: There’s pitching, outlining, interviewing, and editing. Then, there’s crafting an entire environment to create an immersive experience—sound designing. What’s in the sorcery behind it? In this week’s installment of “How I Made It,” AIRster Molly Segal dives into her latest piece for CBC’s The Doc Project, “A Hard Place for a Wolf,” and shares her inside tips in this Q&A with AIR.

1. Tell us a bit about your project.
The documentary, “A Hard Place for a Wolf,” is about a wolf pack that was living near the town where I live. So here’s some context: I live in a busy tourist town right in Banff National Park in Canada’s Rocky Mountains. A lot of the stories that make the news here have to do with the local wildlife. Last year this particular wolf pack—that locals call the Bow Valley pack—took a series of hits. In spring 2016 there were at least nine wolves in this pack. By the end of the summer, Parks Canada staff shot and killed two of the wolves for showing signs of food conditioning. There were reports that they had been accessing human food at campsites and approaching people. On top of that, at least four of the wolf pups were killed after being hit by trains in the park.

I had reported a news feature on these events, but it was clear that there was more to the story. This wasn’t the first wolf pack to live in this area close to the town of Banff. Other packs had come and gone, largely because of issues related to people—food and garbage, cars, highways or trains. That was the seed of the idea. I wanted to look at this one particular wolf pack and the deaths that left its future uncertain. The sequence of events added up to a story with the last chapter uncertain: would they survive through to another busy summer tourist season? So from there I wanted to move beyond the news stories and go more in depth into the wolves’ world—and that’s where sound came in.

2. How did you utilize sound design to add depth to a more newsy subject such as the rising struggle of wolf packs in Banff National Park?
When I set out to produce this documentary I decided to treat sound as another character. I wanted the audience to imagine how the wolf might experience Banff. Instead of just hearing clips of people talk about the wolves, I wanted to take listeners into the space wolves live in. And since a wolf can’t give an interview, sound seemed like the best way to share their story.

There are limitations. I can’t actually know what it is like to experience the world as a wolf. So I started with what I could confirm with biologists: wolves experience sound far more intensely than humans. Each scene with the wolves is based in fact, then colored in with sound. In the end, rather than making these scenes entirely point-of-view, I wrote and narrated the script for these sections. I tried to keep it as minimal as I could; I wanted to give the impression that you’re right there with them.

To link the wolf scenes together I selected three human characters who each offered a different perspective: a resource conservation manager with Banff National Park; a wildlife photographer who’d documented the demise of a previous Bow Valley wolf pack; as well as a biologist and wolf activist. I placed these voices surrounding the wolf scenes to reinforce their story.

3. What are your tips for creating a sense of space and place using sound?
Just go for it. Try some stuff out. I think very often as producers we gather much of our wild sound when we’re out doing an interview. Producing this documentary taught me a really important lesson. For this documentary, I went on many outings specifically to gather sound. I had a “shot” list, and I went to specific sites I mention in the documentary to record sounds I knew I needed. But going out sometimes without an agenda also gave me the freedom to just listen and then record what wasn’t on my shot list, but sounds that I hadn’t thought of that would also make up the scenes. I recorded way more wild sound than I needed—from very close-up sounds of spring to wide ambient tracks of a valley. So really, my best advice is to spend some time in the space you’re trying to emulate. Get out there and record. Even if you don’t use it all in the project you’re working on, you can start a great catalog for future stories.

When I started this story, I didn’t want to use music. I only wanted environmental sounds. I modified some of them, using them in a musical way throughout the documentary. I found a couple of sounds I gathered had naturally ambient and musical qualities to them. I altered a few and reused them throughout for tone. A couple of ones that reoccur a lot are a track of some lodgepole pines squeaking in the wind as well as the sound of the train. There are times where I used the train echo (with effects) underneath other content unrelated to those scenes but that carried a similar tone.

4. For those who don’t have immediate access to the sounds that they need, what would you recommend as a work-around? (For example, what would you have done differently if you were unable to record the wolves’ sounds?)
I think if you don’t have immediate access to the sounds you need, you can still just get out and start recording. Depending on the subject, there’s a lot of DIY Foley art you can do right at home. Put your headphones on, turn on your recorder, and start seeing what sounds you can make with what’s around you. I recently just tried this for another story and recorded the whoosh of an internal watch mechanism that ended up becoming one of the main sound features in the end product. I’d recorded it on a whim because it sounded interesting.

Even in the middle of a national park, I didn’t have all of the sounds I needed. I visited a wolf sanctuary and recorded wolves howling, but I couldn’t get up close to them. The sound of the wolf running is actually from a lavalier microphone harnessed to a dog. I fact-checked the sounds with a biologist—most of the sounds dogs and wolves make are the same, except wolves don’t bark.

5. For those who can’t get firsthand sound, are there specific services or tools that are helpful?
Beyond creating them yourself, there are some good resources out there. You can find a lot on freesound.org (but be aware of the terms an individual has stipulated on each post). Yellowstone National Park has some downloads you can use (with credit). For birdsongs, Xeno Canto is a great resource where recordists will upload and label their work from around the world under various creative common licenses. There’s also YouTube or subscription-based sound effects libraries. Just like Free Music Archive, things like Xeno Canto and freesound.org say what credits are needed or what terms of use are on each track. For YouTube, I believe fair use covers a short clip about 30 seconds long. And other work-arounds are playing with objects that sound like other things (i.e., making your own Foley art).

6. What are some pitfalls in sound design that are easy to get trapped in but difficult to identify at the outset?
Being too literal! Sometimes it works and is fun, but it can also often be too cheeky or kitschy. You probably know the stories I’m talking about, where the sound matches up very vividly and exactly with the script, step by step. I’ve definitely made those stories. Sometimes literal is helpful or works in the context, though.

Recently, I’ve had more conversations on this with other producers. I think in large part it’s really subjective. I think there are many sounds that are overused. One producer recently mentioned the sounds of an in-flight announcement/airplane taking off is one of those clichés; I’d never really thought of it, but since he mentioned it I keep noticing it.

Often, I think, these rules are more to push us as producers than they are for the listener’s benefit. I think some good questions to ask are: does this sound add anything/make me feel anything/take me somewhere? Have I heard this sound before?

But ultimately I guess a big one is who the sound is for: the producer or the audience? Who is the audience? What sounds will intrigue them; what sounds will make them want to shut your program off? Some things are fun to throw in as a producer, but at a certain point if it’s hard to listen to, it may be in your own service rather than in the service of your listeners.

7. How do you keep from overwhelming listeners with an abundance of sound that might not adequately contribute to the story?
I was definitely thinking about this when producing “A Hard Place for a Wolf.” My best suggestion is: step away. For a full day, if you can. Two is even better. You’d be amazed how your ears adjust to your story and what new things you hear when you listen again after you’ve let your ears rest. With tired ears, you often overcompensate with sounds or levels. Returning after a break allows you to hear the flaws in the mix, where things are sounding too busy or incomplete.

8. How did you navigate the use of sound design to turn a nonhuman subject into a character in the piece?
It was helpful to have a specific wolf pack to focus on. These were real wolves that lived (or a couple of them still live) in the park, so it made sound gathering and writing much easier because I’m very familiar with the area.  

As often as possible, I tried to use sound that evoked pictures. I thought the more vivid the sound, the more alive the wolves would become for the listeners. I also repeated some of the same sounds, like squeaking trees and a faint echo of a train, throughout the various wolf scenes so that it would be an auditory clue we’re entering that space again. In the end I hope it evoked that feeling and was ultimately not noticeable.

9. When shaping a sound experience, silence can be a powerful tool. How do you make the most use of silent moments?
When I approached the sound design for this documentary, I set out to use silence as punctuation. Wild sound was the default backdrop of the story. With that in mind, I wanted to use silence sparingly and with intention so that when listeners did experience it, that moment would carry more weight.

10. Last thoughts?
Everyone has their own set of “rules” when it comes to using audio. I think the most important thing is to break those rules sometimes, even in a small way. Also, have fun and include something in the mix for yourself (you know, that little additional sound that you think takes the piece to the next level but others will not notice).

To learn more about Molly Segal, and to find other producers in AIR’s network, visit our Talent Directory.