What do sound recordists do? True to their title, they record sounds, but that is just one of the many things they must juggle on set, both in terms of their equipment and their various responsibilities. They are typically the most conspicuous crew members, carrying around the iconic boom microphone while fully equipped with gear, including heavy sound mixers, headphones, radio microphones, and skin tapes tucked away in their bag pockets. Their responsibilities include setting up all sound-related equipment, such as microphones and cables, and they must always remain on their feet during the shoot.
Manny decked out in his recording gear
With their sound mixer, they need to be prepared to adjust volumes on the fly, whether to mask stray noises from non-speaking actors or make any necessary fine-tuning. This highlights the considerable effort that goes into ensuring natural sound quality. However, one of the most crucial steps occurs before the shoot even begins. The moment they arrive on set, whether in a studio or on location, their ears must begin to work. What sounds fill this space? Is there a constant drone of cicadas becoming increasingly rhythmic, an occasional melody from a distant songbird, or the rumble of an aeroplane overhead? The sound recordist must diligently identify, to the best of their ability, all the sonic intricacies of the set, categorising in their mind which are noises to be isolated and removed and which are significant elements of the environment that should be recorded and added to their sound library. The trick is these categorisations can change from shoot to shoot.
About a third of the way into Tim Carlier’s Paco, sound recordist Manny stops to record the sound of bats sleeping in a park. The shot is pure serenity. Sonically, it is so alluringly quiet that our senses of hearing are engaged; our ears stand at attention to drink in every subtlety, every cheep and chatter becomes a reward. Visually, the slow pan into the trees and the lingering static shots reinforce that drowsy afternoon vibe. A sense of comfortable silence envelopes this scene. Soon later, the same chittering transforms into intrusive noises in the soundscape of a music video filmed in the same park, as the bats cry en masse and crowd out the sound of music. Again, this is reinforced visually: the shot widens out to capture the bats in frame, and consequently, the singers’ silhouettes become minimised. The music remains somewhat distorted for the rest of the shot, and we are left straining to hear the vocals and instruments clearly amidst all the noise.
The film therefore captures the very multifaceted process of film sound recording through Manny’s adventures. Zooming out, it starts with a deceptively simple goal — Manny must retrieve a radio microphone left on Hebe, one of the actresses from a shoot. All he needs to do is put his skill as a sound recordist to the test, listening carefully and following the radio signal emitted by Hebe’s microphone using his recording gear. However, as we soon realise, this is not as easy as it seems. Manny constantly gets dragged into a whirlwind of tasks, from getting pulled in as a last-minute sound guy for shoots, to recording some very important soundbites of leaves crunching underfoot. Everything he records, we hear. Or, more accurately, everything we hear in this film was recorded by Manny — whether it is the rumbling of traffic or the mix of music and voices in disarray. Each scene has its own unique soundscape that we enter and leave along with Manny and his gear, and each soundscape carries unique elements that identify that space. So, what happens if we lose these soundscapes?
Manny recording the crunch of leaves underfoot
Back in 2021, the National Library Board initiated SoundscapeSG with the goal of collecting and cataloguing vanishing sounds of Singapore across five broad categories, from “local accents and dialects” to the sounds of “festivals and celebrations” (National Library Board). The driving force behind this endeavour was a keen interest in capturing the “soundtrack to [Singapore’s] history”, echoing the work of sound scholar R. Murray Schafer. Schafer introduced the concept of the “Acoustic Community”, defined as a community delineated “along the acoustic lines” (215). In his view, the soundscape of a community contains “soundmarks”, which are sounds that are “unique or [possess] qualities which make [them] specifically regarded or noticed by people in that community” (10). Locally, these may include multilingual conversations at hawker centres, the cries of Asian Koels in the early morning, or the distinctive tooting horns of karang guni as they announce their arrival. Each community generates its own soundmarks, which hold little value beyond their designated space. The boundaries of these communities are marked by how far these sounds can reach — when a soundmark can no longer be heard, you have left the area of that community. The absence or loss of a soundmark thus threatens the communal identity of that space. Consequently, soundmarks should be “protected”, or otherwise “recorded before they disappear” (Schafer 10; 209).
Meanwhile, David New’s short film featuring Schafer feared that the rise of recorded sound has perhaps led to a decline in people’s ability to listen.In other societies, one had to exercise one’s memory for sounds, there were no recordings. Every sound committed suicide, you might say, and would never be heard again, not exactly the same way. And, in some ways, that made people more perceptive, and more considerate of the soundscape that they were living with. (Listen, 2:55–3:15)
The irony that Paco illustrates is that the entire skillset of a sound recordist hinges on their ability to listen, honed over years and years in their field, opening their ears to every single sonic detail of the environment around them. And their work, in recording a whole library of sonic elements from that environment, essentially preserves the sounds that the average inattentive individual might easily overlook. In essence, these recordings represent a collection of sounds intrinsic to specific spaces, which we might never have truly appreciated without someone like Manny to point them out. In fact, this film itself functions as a sonic archive for the city of Adelaide, documenting the diverse sounds that fill its parks, from the calls of bats to the rustling of autumnal leaves, or the curious cacophony of people engaging in communal workouts. Unbeknownst to himself, Manny has made a substantial contribution to preserving the sonic history of various spaces within his community, simply by being a sound recordist.
- Schafer, R. Murray. The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Destiny Books. 1993.
- Listen. Directed by David New. 2009.
- National Library Board. “Collecting the Sounds Unique to Singapore.” The Straits Times, 2 Mar. 2021, www.straitstimes.com/singapore/collecting-the-sounds-unique-to-singapore. Accessed 16 Oct. 2023.