Deep Listening: A Production Sound Mixer’s Practice

In her groundbreaking work from 2005, Deep Listening, A Composer’s Sound Practice, Pauline Oliveros defines Deep Listening as “a practice that is intended to heighten and expand consciousness of sound in as many dimensions of awareness and attentional dynamics as humanly possible.” Her book outlines this practice as a form of sonic meditation to aid composers and sound artists in their work. Throughout its 100 pages are detailed exercises to help differentiate between focal attention vs. global attention and hearing vs. listening. However, this experiential meditative state of aural awareness is not limited to the trained composer. In fact, it’s something that we as production sound mixers employ on a daily basis.

Composer Pauline Oliveros 1932 - 2016

Composer Pauline Oliveros 1932 - 2016

Production sound mixing for television and film is often viewed as a technical craft. The main responsibility of this job is to facilitate a director’s vision through recording and mixing the audio from on-screen sources. There are two key components to this role: record desired sound as clearly as possible, and eliminate undesirable sounds as thoroughly as possible. While filmmaking is generally regarded as a collaborative process, the contributions from a production sound mixer must be objective, easily discernible, and exist in a state of both present and future context. The present context concentrates on “does this sound good now?” while the future context worries about “will this sound good later during the editing stage?”. One would rationalize that the present context of a recorded sound dictates its future. However, the post-production process of editing audio for video or film into a finished work is done non-linearly from its original recorded context and thus subject to a number of complications unless careful considerations are made during the initial recording.  Here, Deep Listening is used as a tool to determine which aural variables need special consideration rather than as a meditative exercise to condition a holistic artistic practice.

There’s no such thing as a typical day at work in tv and film production. On any given day, I could be standing in a creek in the woods, in the basement of a homeless shelter, in the kitchen of a 5-star restaurant, or on a red carpet with famous actors. For the purposes of this argument though, let’s use an example of a sit-down interview at a home inside a city center. I will arrive about 15 minutes early to find parking, unload my equipment, and be standing at the door of our shooting location before the actual call time. My intention is two-fold. First, being punctual is simply essential to maintaining professionalism. Secondly, I want to have as much time as possible to understand the sonic landscape of the space in which I am to record sound. My goal is to create the quietest environment possible amidst the chaos around me. For any production sound mixer this is second nature. We turn off air conditioners, loud refrigerators, computers that have loud fans, fish tanks that have air circulators, and we will even convince a producer to pay off the landscaper next door so that we have a few hours without a leaf blower. Anything that makes noise must be dealt with to create a present context where the only recorded sound is the interviewee’s voice. If there is too much background noise the recording’s future context could be marred by tonal inconsistencies that are too noticeable in its new anachronistic edited state. An obvious yet frequent example is when a scene will feature the audio of a car passing by in one shot but no car in the following shot. While your brain processes a linear line of dialog you will subconsciously also notice something amiss. Our goal is to do our job so well that nobody notices we’ve done anything at all. Such is the nature of working with aural modalities in a visually dominated field. We are often overlooked and misunderstood. In fact, this reality is a caveat foreshadowing how difficult it is to do our job as film sets are anything but quiet leading up to when cameras actually role. How can you hear subtle hums and buzzes in a room’s tone when you’re surrounded by multiple people talking and various crew members doing their respective jobs. How can deep listening offset the normal and reasonable conditions of our work environment?  Audio specialists like production sound mixers don’t just hear sound, they are trained to listen to both a specific sound and the space around that sound simultaneously. We do this by constantly balancing between focal and global attention.

Keeping attention while on a film set

To keep focal attention is to simply focus in on a particular noise maker. As Oliveros suggests, it’s like zooming in and focusing a lens. For the subject of an interview the primary focal attention is on the overall volume, dynamic range, and tonal characteristics of the voice. The subject matter and content of what is being said is of no real importance in many cases. In fact, it’s often better to not focus too intently on the subject matter as it can distract you from listening to the audio quality of the recorded voice.  Secondary attention is then shifted to immediate distractions of the voice such as fabric noise rustling on a hidden microphone, jangling jewelry, a clock ticking in the background, etc. These immediate distractions are often easy to identify and reduce or remove. The more difficult aural elements are the ones that require global attention, developed over time through Deep Listening. Global attention, as Oliveros puts it, is “diffuse and continually expanding to take in the whole of space/time continuum of sound.” For the production sound mixer at work, global attention keeps us keenly aware of minute and incredibly subtle changes in background noises that could ultimately impede the editing process. When outside, this often manifests in listening to broad tonal shifts like the undulating tide of insects like cicadas and crickets or changes in the faint roar of distant traffic. When inside, like with our interview example, this global attention is often awarded to household mechanisms that can’t be turned off or even the mechanical fans from video production cameras. It’s not uncommon for our own tools to work against us sometimes.

A film set is seemingly the last place one would expect a crew member to practice a form of meditation. Yet, for the production sound mixer, it is, in a sense, a daily occurance. Given average circumstances for healthy individuals we all may be able to hear the sounds around us from a physiological standpoint, waveforms that enter our ears and travel into our auditory cortex to await processing. However, actual listening, which as Oliveros points out, is influenced by cultural history and life experience. Through the practice of patiently and deeply listening to our environments we can quickly identify a multitude of sonic variables that would otherwise be unnoticeable until a future context like the editing state. For this reason, employing practices from pioneers like Pauline Oliveros are vital to our profession.