by Andreas Russo
Learn why rhythm and musicality in sound design matter more than technique and a few simple tips to reach out to fellow filmmakers.
Danish sound designer Peter Albrechtsen's work ranges from stretching the sonic possibilities in documentaries to recording sound effects for a tentpole like Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, all the while building connections that expand well beyond his nation's borders.
He discusses his approach on The Killing of Two Lovers, his love for sonic textures, and his philosophy about fostering meaningful relationships in this business.
Writer/director Robert Machoian decided not to employ any music track on The Killing of Two Lovers. What was the discussion about the sound of the project like?
Peter Albrechtsen: Robert is really adventurous. He wants to explore what you can do with sound and film. We did another feature film before this called When She Runs, co-directed with his pal Rodrigo Beck. That too had several of these very long shots for which I started building up a lot of ambiences and textures, and they were both like, "We should have kept these shots longer because we loved your sounds so much." Then when Robert did The Killing of Two Lovers I think that he wanted to explore that further, to see how far we could go using only sound, both in an atmospheric way, but also with a musique concrète approach, which is this music built from sounds.
It feels very musical throughout the film.
That was something that Robert talked about from the very beginning. He's very much into using sounds for their musical qualities. So he wrote to me when he was going to go out and shoot the film that he was thinking that he could only do this film if I did the sound. [laughs]
That must be nice to hear.
It’s quite a statement. He cut the film himself, and when he sent the first cut over I did some first sketches and one of those sketches was the opening sound collage and I remember being really nervous about it. I went all in, I had a very abstract and expressive approach. A week after I sent the collage to Robert, he had taken it and put it in five places around the film because he loved it so much. So that was really the beginning of that whole musical approach to sound design.
So much of the movie takes place around the main character's car, so I thought it would be really interesting to build this collage that is essentially his inner sound from sounds that related to the car: car doors, car alarms, a lot of different metal scratches and screeching. We did a film a few years back where a monster attacks a car and we went out to the scrap yard and smashed up a car. Many sounds on The Killing of Two Lovers actually come from those car wrecks. It was a lot of fun.
"I often try to [give myself limitations], to put some rules onto myself, because I feel that the world of sound is so open, so rich that you can do everything."
Sound designer/re-recording mixer Peter Albrechtsen
It helps to give yourself limitations.
Exactly. Trying to be thematic about things. I often try to do that, to put some rules onto myself, because I feel that the world of sound is so open, so rich that you can do everything. So that was the starting point.
The collage did a masterful job in building expectations as to what was about to unfold. It reminds me of what Ennio Morricone used to say about music conveying what dialogue and visuals couldn’t. That’s exactly what sound design is doing here, adding an additional narrative layer.
There was definitely tension and this idea of feeling all of David’s inner demons, that you could really feel his inner frustration. There's a lot of emotions that aren’t explicit in the film, so sound gives you the rage and the frustration that is inside of the main character. And I found it really interesting to describe his inner world only through sound. I think that was a very bold choice by Robert.
You touched upon the ubiquitous long shots. Sound plays very well with them. Was there a discussion about the way the film should be shot so that you could achieve what Robert had envisioned?
I think from the very beginning, he was like, "I want to do these long shots because I know that Peter can do something for them." So he has this immense respect, but also trust in what I and my sound group deliver. And then at the same time, I think he has that in the back of his head and it's interesting because when he edits the film, he uses some of these sound sketches, but he’s also leaving wide open spaces in the film to just fill with sound because he just knows that I'll be coming in and coloring everything. So that also leaves a lot of room for very evocative ambiences in the film.
Robert picked this amazing location, a very small town in Utah, which is surrounded by these amazing mountains and very, very open landscapes. He really loved that location, so when we started talking about sound there were two things we talked about. One was the small abstract things, which was very much the inner voice of David, but then we were also like, "How do we describe the environment in this small town through sound?" After the shooting ended, he went back there and recorded lots of ambiences on a Zoom recorder and some of that stuff is actually in the film, but it also inspired me because it reminded me of all these recordings that I had done in previous years that only came to mind because of the material that Robert had gathered in this town. So there's a lot of different textures and small elements playing around.
The sound collage has a lot of rhythmic elements. But I also work a lot with rhythm when I do background ambiences. So having a cow moo at a specific time in between dialogue lines, or a crow call, or all these different elements that were fundamental to the whole town. It was very interesting.
"I also work a lot with rhythm when I do background ambiences. So having a cow moo at a specific time in between dialogue lines, or a crow call."
Sound effects editor Mikkel Nielsen found the perfect excuse to demolish a car
Many of the shots are very wide, which forces you to rely a lot on lavaliers. Was that a challenge to mix?
I mixed it together with David Barber at Juniper Post in LA. He was recommended to me by dialogue editor Ryan Cota, and when I met David it was a match made in heaven because he also has a musical background and for me it's so important. When I look for people to work with I don't really look too much at their technical skills, I look way more at their musical approach to sound, because I think that's incredibly important. And I feel that the more musical sound design can be the better the movie gets. David had the same musical approach and the way that he mixed the dialogue was incredible because a lot of it was just recorded with very few lavaliers. Maybe sometimes just one mic placed somewhere. But then Dave managed to split up these different dialogues and pan them all around.
Panning is very bold in this film.
Yeah and it's pretty amazing because there are scenes which were recorded with one or two mics and you have kids running around from one side of the frame to the other, and he used iZotope RX for isolating voices, so even though he only had one recording he was then able to isolate and remove the kid’s dialogue from one side and pan it on the other, even when he just had one microphone.
That’s unbelievable. I didn’t notice any of the artifacts usually associated with spectral editing.
It's pretty extraordinary. He's incredible at using RX. It's like total magic. And then of course it's really about matching the different dialogue tracks with their own Foley. I work with this Finnish Foley artist, Heikki Kossi, who was really amazing and he did different layers so that we could also pan the Foley with the voices so that it feels like it’s a complete character that you're moving around.
Did you do the whole sound post in LA or just the dub?
We only mixed in LA. I did the sound editing in Copenhagen. Ryan Cote edited dialogue in his studio in Sacramento. Heikki Kossi did the Foley in Finland. So it's very international. And then Robert came over to Copenhagen for a few days to coordinate during the sound edits because we needed to go through the film. Sometimes you can do a lot of things by sending files back and forth and chatting and talking on zoom, but at some point with these kinds of things where it's so much about the emotional content of the sound and how you react to that, it really feels good to be in the room together.
"When I look for people to work with I don't really look too much at their technical skills, I look way more at their musical approach to sound, because I think that's incredibly important."
Video by Ryan Cota
I’m curious about your workflow. You worked on several projects with international directors. Do you rely on tools like SourceConnect, or do you prefer sending files around?
I feel that often sending just Quick Time videos with stereo fold-downs is good enough. And of course that'll always be rough, but it works okay for the process of listening to stuff and just getting an idea of what we're playing with. The good thing about working with people in the US is that then usually I have a day where I can work because there's a nine hour time difference with LA, so when I get in the next morning there'll be a lot of notes, comments, ideas. I do this quite a lot, sending things back and forth. Of course SourceConnect and similar tools are amazing inventions, but I find it really important for the director that the process is not too technical.
During the mix you need to be in a room together though. When you finish a film, especially when you are doing something that is more abstract and emotional, you need to figure things out together.
That's also a great thing about Robert that he's actually asking a lot of questions instead of telling you exactly what to do. So he's finding some music that he likes, he's talking about the emotions of the film, but he's not giving me descriptive directions. It's really about inspiring me. And I really like that communication. I think it's a very creative way of working together.
How do you approach directors that might not be fully aware of the potential of sound?
Every director has his or her own way of working. Some directors like to be in the studio a lot and be there and play around with things together with you. Other directors are much more likely to come in when you have something to show them, and I feel that both of those ways can work well. If a director feels insecure about working with sound, then it's often quite good to have more time together to establish a connection. So much about the creative process is really about creating trust and building that relationship together where you can experiment and play around with things without being worried about what the other person will say, because it's a very vulnerable process. When I’m playing around with things some of my experiments are really, really, really bad, and some of them are good.
"It's about making mistakes, it's about being very honest, it's about trust and it's also about being allowed to make a fool of yourself."
Left to right: Peter Albrechtsen, director Robert Machoian, lead actor/producer Clayne Crawford, re-recording mixer David Barber
It’s just part of the process.
That's how it is. You need to be allowed to make mistakes when you work together with people. And I feel that if you don't have a close connection with the director, building that trust is a great way to create a great creative environment. And the funny thing is that the better you know each other, the less you talk. Because you get to know each other in a very instinctive way. And by being in a room together and hearing something together, you can feel what the other person thinks without having to say anything. It's quite amazing.
I feel that's also because sound is so much about the emotional reaction to what you're hearing. So it's very interesting how creative collaborations work in that way. It's about making mistakes, it's about being very honest, it's about trust and it's also about being allowed to make a fool of yourself.
That's also why I love to be part of the process very early on. So with a lot of directors they send me the scripts and I read them and I start getting ideas before they even shoot the film. At the script stage we are already talking about the sonic identity of the film. So I feel that I've been part of the process for a long time, it's not just something that I have to invent at the last minute. And then I always do several sound sketches while they're picture editing, it’s a great way to discover the DNA of the soundtrack. I also work closely with the composer.
You can also act as an interpreter between director and composer.
I've been music supervising some feature films because I have a background in music. I've been playing and writing about music for many years. I'm also able to read notes and so on. So in that sense, I have a musical language. That means that I can have great communication with the composers. And I feel sometimes a director and a composer can have a hard time communicating and I can be almost a translator and it’s great developing sketches for the scene together with the composers.
How long did the sound post take on this project?
The process was pretty short. A couple of weeks for dialogue editing, then six weeks for effects and two weeks for mixing, or something like that. So it's a quite short one, but then I often spread that out a little bit so that I have longer time, because then I can record stuff early on. I worked with this amazing sound effects recordist, Mikkel Nielsen, who has his Sonic Salute company. And he's also helping me out getting new sounds for every project. So we spend a lot of time just gathering sounds, recording sounds. I feel that it's incredibly important that every film has its own unique sound.
"That's also been my experience from going to Skywalker Ranch, mixing there, meeting people that you think... You would never be able to meet them! Do they even speak your same language?! And then you meet them and realize they are sound nerds, just like you."
Your studio is in Copenhagen, but you work with people from all over the world. I’m assuming there is no shortage of sound designers in LA, so for you to be able to pick up these projects is a testament to the quality of your work. However, you must be doing something right in terms of putting your name out there.
I remember 10 years ago, for the first time I got contacted by a director in the US, asking if I wanted to work on his film. And I was like, "Yeah, that sounds very interesting, but how did you ever hear of me?” and he said, "Well, we watched some of your movies on iTunes." And I feel that the distribution of movies has changed, which means that it's much easier to see films from around the world. But at the same time of course I've been really privileged to get to meet a lot of people who have then recommended me to other people, who have recommended me to other people. I also feel that social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have made the world much smaller in a way. So suddenly it's much easier to get in touch with people from around the world.
And then of course I'm super curious and if I hear something that I really like I find it really interesting to hear about that person's process. So that means I've also been reaching out to a lot of people who I respect and admire. And a lot of these people have been so down to earth and so open and inviting. And that means that I've met a lot of these people and became good friends with them. People who I greatly admire. For example, Richard King, Chris Nolan’s sound designer, and getting to know Richard. And I'm such a big admirer of his work, and you realize that when you do sound for movies, we're all doing the same work. We're all trying to find ways of communicating with sound. And I feel that in a way we’re much more connected than we think.
That's also been my experience from going to Skywalker Ranch, mixing there, meeting people there that you think... You would never be able to meet them! Do they even speak your same language?! [laughs] And then you meet them and realize they are sound nerds, just like you. There's this wonderful feeling of just being passionate about sound and being passionate about movies, and I feel like the film sound world is really getting smaller and smaller in a great way and we are all so much more connected now than we were 20 years ago.
It still blows my mind that Randy Thom would reply to my comments on Facebook.
Exactly. Yeah. And I think that if you're passionate about what we're doing, then people can feel that and it's not just me getting inspired by the work of Richard or other people at Skywalker or whatever. It goes both ways. We inspire each other and that's amazing. And I love that and I feel that sound people are really down to earth. It's very rare that I hear about someone who has a really big ego. It feels like there's a camaraderie. We are all in this together, that's the feeling, you get.
"There's no real limit to what you can do in a way, I feel that we often put a lot of these limitations on ourselves [...] But it's really about reaching out and connecting with people because there's nothing to be scared of and there's nothing to lose."
Other than reaching out to people, if you had to give suggestions to up-and-coming sound designers about expanding their network outside of their close circle, would you suggest they took trips to certain cities to see what’s going on there?
Absolutely. Also try and travel with your film. If there’s a film that you've done that gets premiered in other countries, try and go there and meet people. There's no real limit to what you can do in a way, I feel that we often put a lot of these limitations on ourselves, like, "No way, that's too much. I can't relate to that guy. It would be weird." But it's really about reaching out and connecting with people because there's nothing to be scared of and there's nothing to lose. And the only thing you usually get from this is inspiration and the feeling of meeting new people. There are also many organizations like the MPSE, the AMS in the UK that connect sound people, which I really recommend.
Do you find that cutting sounds from your studio and then flying out and spending weeks to mix the film in another country only works with large budgets, or can it also be a viable solution for smaller indie films?
I don't really do really big budget things, so this is much more for indie films. Sometimes there's money for mixing at a big facility, sometimes you mix at a smaller place. Sometimes people come to Copenhagen because I can get a good deal at a mixing stage. We try to make a solution for any budget that you bring. But of course then at the same time sometimes the budget can be so limited that it's hard to do something big, but mostly I really prefer that there's the budget to mix together on a proper stage. But the thing is also that the directors I work with are really into sound and it's not just something they say, they actually spend a big part of the budget for it.
They put their money where their mouth is.
Yeah. And that's amazing. On The Killing of Two Lovers a very big part of the budget went to sound and I'm so incredibly thankful for that. It feels like someone is really believing in you and there's a trust and also an interest in what sound can do to the movie.
"Something that I'm really in love with in sound is textures. [...] I love the texture sound gets from a delay or from a distortion, or from the way you mix it. It has a really big emotional impact on the film."
Nagra IV-S tape recorder. Photo by DRs Kulturarvsprojekt (CC-BY-SA-2.0)
Is there anything I should have asked you about this film, the gear, or anything you’d like to add?
This film’s sound was done more than a year ago and at that point I was really exploring Slapper from Cargo Cult. And there's a lot of things in the film where you have all these weird delays of words and dialogue and sound elements. I just love how that plugin can do all kinds of amazing, weird creative things that I could never make up. It’s really a playground for sound. So if I were to do a little promo I would say that The Killing of Two Lovers has a lot of Slapper in it. [laughs]
Sound post seems to be the only place in audio where the hardware vs software debate is pretty much dead on arrival. We love our plugins and nobody wants to go back to a tape and analog console kind workflow, other than for specific tasks.
Actually a couple of years back I did a thriller which was about a radio journalist from the '80s. And back then they recorded everything on a Nagra. So we bought a Nagra for that. And now my assistant Mikkel Nielsen actually has it in his setup, so we take some sounds and re-record them onto the Nagra and back into Pro Tools. And there are also places in The Killing of Two Lovers where I did the same for explosions and then working with the tape speed before sending them back to Pro Tools. It created these interesting textures.
Something that I'm really in love with in sound is textures. I talk about textures all the time and I feel that in The Killing of Two Lovers there are so many scenes where there's very little dialogue and it's so much about creating this feeling of texture where you almost feel the sound. So a lot of it is quite gritty and dirty and has a lot of small, tiny details happening all the time. I love the texture sound gets from a delay or from a distortion, or from the way you mix it. It has a really big emotional impact on the film.
I always find it very important that there's a constant development of what's happening in the background, by moving things in the surround channels, by having some sounds evolving through the scene. What in the beginning may be a cow and a crow might turn into some distant, weird waling of some metallic stuff that is playing far away in the background. There are also a lot of train sounds in the film, just in the distance. I love those distant sounds where you can’t really make out what the sound is anymore, because it's just become an ambient element. I found these weird metal scrapes, and I can't even remember anymore what they originally were. But then putting that through Slapper with some of these exterior delays they turn into this weird texture of distant noises. It sounds awesome.
But yeah, I know that even now when some of the sound effects recordists in LA go out and record loud sounds like explosions and gunshots, they sometimes bring a Nagra because when it distorts the sounds, it has this warmth to it which is amazing. So it's a beautiful machine and it's also visually beautiful. So we've been playing around with that. I love those kinds of elements where you take a sound that was once something else, and then just by playing it on a tape recorder, it suddenly turns into something new.
Jóhann Jóhannsson's Heptapod B from Arrival
Makes me think of the approach that someone like Jóhann Jóhannsson used to have, with the vocal manipulations in Arrival for instance.
Yeah. Well, Jóhann was a friend of mine.
I didn’t know.
He lived in Copenhagen for several years before he moved to Berlin, so I knew him quite well. And I mixed the film that he directed, Last and First Men, which was interesting because I did a film with him more than 10 years ago, and a couple of documentaries which were much more minimal, but you could already feel that he's always been this amazing… The more he developed his style, the more he really got into experimenting with sounds, and for Last and First Men all the elements in the music were there. 100 tracks, and a lot of that was just pitches. So he has the musical instruments, but he also had weird sounds that were just something that he invented, and for me that was incredibly inspiring. I really like to approach sound design in the same way, to have elements in the foreground, but then underneath that to have a lot of textural details, which is really hard to make out what they are. And I think it makes the ear more interested in what's happening because it feels like you're constantly exploring what's going on.
Jóhann was often minimalistic in his composition, but had all these textures that made a simple drone feel like it was this rich, always evolving element to explore.
He was truly an artist.
Thanks to Andreas Russo for conducting this interview, and to Peter Albrechtsen for participating!