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Symphonic Sound Design

What is it?

People call them extended techniques, gestures, textures, atmospheres, or just plain noise. A basic example comes at the end of nearly every modern movie trailer when you hear a big rise in the orchestra from low registers to high. Another examples is the classic horror movie sound where you hear a high note that bends in and out of tune. It is noise made by an orchestra but not really a tune or theme. While there are a few libraries on the market that provide these effects, notably Symphobia, most serious film composers want their own collections. They often need custom material that works sonically for a particular project.

I got my start doing this type of thing on a film called When a Stranger Calls. Jim Dooley, the composer, wanted some special effects. We had a chat and shot around some ideas and the general direction was “slimy and slidey, very soft and in D minor”. Example 1 is one of the things I came up with. Sometimes I write the material, we record it, and it is mixed, cut up, and put into a sampler before the composer starts on the project. Other times the composer will have started already and I can hear what they have done and use it as a starting point. In the past few years I have also had calls to add the SSD after the composer is finished. I work with several composers such as Paul Haslinger, Cris Velasco, and Sascha Dikiciyan, who blend industrial music with orchestra. When I work for them I listen to what they are doing and add textures to it. I started doing it just for fun, filling in the gaps, but these little experiments often ended up staying in the score, and soon it become expected that I would add it.

I first started exploring these extended techniques while working on a TV show called Invasion for composers Jon Ehrlich and Jason Derlatka. It was all about aliens, so it required lots of effects. It was not a huge orchestra (34 players), but it was big enough to make some noise and see what we could do. I conducted the same players for 22 episodes. I was being paid to experiment!

I have made some demos using the material from some of my projects. Each one uses only sounds from that collection, and no other third-party samples. Apart from some pitch bending and some reverb, the samples are all raw. With some of the new audio mangling plugins out there, these sounds could be taken much further while still retaining their organic quality.

  • 1 is a single gesture from When a Stranger Calls. As mentioned above, the brief was “slimy, slidey in D minor.”
  • 2 is from another Dooley project, the game Infamous. He wanted some big post-apocalyptic dissonant chords and doppler effects.
  • 3 is from Resistance 2, a military game scored by Boris Salchow. He wanted siren effects and long, grinding rises.
  • 4 is from Prototype, a Velasco and Dikiciyan score. They wanted lots of low-ish scurrying effects and some high bending pulses.
  • 5 is from a Velasco game: Clive Barker’s Jericho. He wanted some Ligeti-like effects, murmurs, whispers and sustains.
  • 6 is from Sony’s Infamous 2. There were several composers on this and I created some ‘glue’ to link the score together. To get a gritty sound, I used a string quintet.
  • 7 is a piece I wrote while we were recording Prototype. We had some extra time so I tried out some things. All the strings and brass are live.