Audio Black Hole!

In one of the previous articles, we talked about how different shot sizes and framings bring different level of intimacy and tension. Well, another interesting way of looking at this is in terms of contrast and dynamics.

Master shot juxtaposed with medium shot or close-up creates contrast. Contrast creates drama and drama is interesting to watch.

Now, contrast is not only interesting to watch, but is key to storytelling. Look for example at the painting by Rembrandt below, where dark blacks are contrasted with bright light:

Rembrandt: The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp
Rembrandt: The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp

We naturally tend to look at the brightest spot. In this case, the brightest spot happens to be the dead man on the table. And this is exactly where Rembrandt wants us to look at; this is what the painting is all about – an anatomy lesson.

Now, there is an infinite number of ways how and where to create contrast. But in this article, we’ll take a look at one specific example in sound design.

Audio Black Hole!

Audio black hole is one of the more subtle, but highly effective sound effects. It involves insertion of a short interval of absolute silence in the audio track just prior to the explosion, gunshot, hit, blast or any other kind of impact. (1)

Needless to say, the most potent sound is the single perfect sound played against silence. (2) This creates not only beautiful contrast and dynamics, but also helps to enhance and accentuate the resulting impact in the mind of the listener.

I prepared a short video to show this sound effect, but before you’ll watch the video, read what sound designers Ben Burtt and Erik Aadahl said in their interview for about this sound effect.

Ben Burtt (Star Wars: Attack of the Clones)

I think back to where that idea might have come to me…I remember in film school a talk I had with an old retired sound editor who said they used to leave a few frames of silence in the track just before a big explosion. In those days they would ‘paint’ out the optical sound with ink. Then I thought of the airlock entry sequence in 2001. I guess the seeds were there for me to nourish when it came to the seismic charges. (1)

Erik Aadahl (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen)

One of my favorite scenes is the “hut scene”. Sam and Mikaela are hiding out from Decepticons on the hunt. It’s the silence that I like. We tried to get very quiet, so we could hear the terrified kids trying to suppress their breaths and not be heard. We wanted the audience to hold their breaths too. We go as quiet as we can, before Starscream rips the roof off of with a BANG! Dynamics are the key to both storytelling and sound.

It’s fun to make audiences lean in, have them strain to hear something, and then give them a jolt. I like this kind of filmic emotional manipulation, and I think anyone who enjoys a ride on a roller coaster does too. (3)

How about you, do you enjoy the ride on roller coaster?




As always, if you liked this article, please, leave a comment, share it with your friends on Facebook or tweet it to your followers, or everything! 🙂

9 thoughts on “Audio Black Hole!

  1. this is wonderful, you’re cerebral – which is what I love about analysis, it requires a sense of reverse engineering something to get to the bottom of what it’s all about. Wonderful work, I’m reading all of this and you’re talking about these things I’ve sensed and noticed before many times consciously!

  2. Another good one Jan. I am particularly interested in this concept and was excited to see your post about it: in my spare time I am actually writing, recording, and producing and mixing a techno-rock album with my friend singing vocals, (just yknow, in my spare time I do that sort of thing!). And in the mixing process I have been experimenting with this exact phenomenon, using not just loudness to emphasise certain parts, but RELATIVE loudness. I have been using these audio black holes for about a year now without realising that this was an industry sound editing technique.

    Another thing I have been working on too is the use of deliberate clipping (which is what guitarists use to distort their guitars – overloading causing fuzzy sound). In this one particular song for example, we are trying to make it really, really, really, really, really rediculously LOUD. However with all audio equipment there is of course limits to the amount of gain you can boost the signal with. So the way I have worked around that is to add the tiniest little light distortion effect to the whole project. To the listener, they hear a song so loud that the signal is overloading and their equipment distorting before exploding – I’m trying to literally blow their ears off! But it is in fact just an audio illusion like the black hole, a subtle and clever way of tricking the ear into hearing something that isn’t necessarily so.

    Thanks for your post!

    Here is something that is quite relevant that relates not only to audio loudness but also to graphic violence as in my latest Skyfall post!

    1. Hi Andrew!

      “Relative loudness” is a perfect expression. Everything you wrote sounds really exciting! Do you plan to make it available to others as well? I’d love to hear that recording! Thx for the link! I know about loudness war and read already few articles about it, but will definitelly read more…it’s an interesting topic…

  3. It is very interesting that you’ve explored sound dynamics in relation to art (Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp as an example). I just love the way that you visually illustrate concepts! I have read about art having musicality (what with the rhythms of visual elements and the such) and now you’ve built upon that foundation in a novel way. Thanks. I love your blog for sure!

    1. Hi, I skimmed through your blog, you are graphic designer, right? These concepts (contrast and dynamics) can be applied almost everywhere. Especially in graphical design (with scale/size, brightness, saturation etc. etc.). It’s like learning a musical instrument, once you master, say piano, it’s easy to play other instruments…

      Thanks a lot for the nice comment! 🙂

      1. Yes. I was reading about your awesome passion for filmmaking and I admire you. You are putting out there your observations, knowledge, and insight for everyone. That is great. I have just started learning graphic design in school and I think that I can learn a lot from you.

      2. I do it mainly for myself, but if others can benefit from this, that’s even better! Writing about stuff that really interests you is a great way to learn (and meet like-minded people). Cheers! 🙂

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