silence by schillesfly / deviantart

Every now and then I have to remind myself about silence. It seems to be so simple but when creating sound effects for games, movies or adverts I am normally so caught up in finding the right sounds or making impacts more powerful and aggressive that I completely forget about silence. It is a shame really, as silence really is one of a sound designer’s most powerful weapons.

(See what I did there? 🙂

Relative and absolute silence

So what kind of silence am I talking about? I am not talking about silence in an absolute way, one of my favourite authors for sound design literature David Sonnenschein (2001) explains that silence must always stand in comparison to noise:

„Put yourself in an anechoic chamber with absolutely no external sounds and you will still hear your own blood pumping and the high pitch of your nervous system. So silence is always relative to some sound that is louder than the ‚silence‘ of which we are aware.“

What does that mean for us sound designers? Should I mute half my sounds in my Wwise project for my next milestone to create a greater impact on the audience or the player? It would be funny indeed but I don’t think neither audio directors nor players would be enjoying themselves. One of the great examples of modern games which deal with silence in an incredible way is Alien: Isolation. I was lucky to work in the same building on Total War while the other audio team was working on Alien: Isolation and it was great to get an insight in a game which was rewarded with not only one, but several audio achievement awards (BAFTA being one of them).

Silence in Alien: Isolation

My workmate and great friend Byron Bullock (Senior Sound designer on Alien: Isolation) recently explained in his GDC talk:

“Players of Alien: Isolation find themselves in an environment where silence is constantly surrounding them. It leaves space for the foley to be an important part of the story telling, the player has to concentrate to produce as little noise as possible. The alien listens constantly and when the player can perceive the enemy close-by it’s probably already too late.” (Bullock, 2016)

It’s very interesting that Byron speaks about the importance of the quiet sounds like foley to be such an important part of their game. It becomes very clear that we can only hear those sounds, those fine nuances if the rest of the game plays ball and leaves space to breathe for these quiet elements to come to live. Additionally, louder sounds will automatically double their impact and really take the player by surprise. Another interesting addition to Byron’s explanation can be found in Murray Schafer’s “The Soundscape” (1994):

„Man likes to make sounds to remind himself that he is not alone. From this point of view total silence is the rejection of the human personality. Man fears the absence of sound as he fears the absence of life.“

What do we take from that?

As I said at the very start of this article, I really do have to remind myself every now and then about the impact silence can have on sound design. We need to remind ourselves that relative silence can be a powerful tool in both interactive and linear media and we can very much use it to our advantage. Finally, who would be a better person to speak out about the absence of sound than sound design legend himself, Walter Murch (2011):

„The ultimate metaphoric sound is silence. If you can get the film to a place with no sound where there should be sound, the audience will crowd that silence with sounds and feelings of their own making, and they will, individually,
answer the question of, ‚Why is it quiet?‘ If the slope to silence is at the right angle, you will get the audience to a strange and wonderful place where the film becomes their own creation in a way that is deeper than any other.“

Let’s use silence to our advantage and create many calms before the sound storm hits once more.

If you are interested in Byron Bullock’s work hit the follow button on his twitter @byron_bullock. While you’re at it feel free to follow myself as well @sndarchitecture.