Shared dreams, indeed: welcome to Hollywood. And in 2011, the music and soundscapes of blockbuster films suddenly seem very much like the future of our dreams, from ground-breaking surround sound to interactive music to scores combining low-fidelity and high – and one breaktakingly-terrific score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that stands on its own.

The Internet, as the subject of one Oscar-nominated film, is full of short attention spans and flirts, social dysfunction and lust. But there’s another side of the Internet. Someone interested in finding expressive inspiration, in learning the craft of music and sound, can virtually apprentice themselves to artists and engineers they love. There may be no substitute for stepping into a studio with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, or sitting face to face as Greg Russell to talk mixing. But barring that, for the aspiring sound and musical creators of the future, you have immediate access to astounding hours of collected knowledge, to the same technologies that produce the films grabbing the Oscars, and even to simulated, augmented-reality dreams on your phone.

That revelation might not make a good movie, but it’s sure a great thing. And who knows, from Indiana to India, the next studio to craft a great score could be your own.

Rounding up some of the better resources on the Internet, I’m in particular indebted to a couple of great sources, particularly on the previously-unsung craft of mixing and sound. I don’t have a statuette to give them, but I will introduce them:

Designing Sound by Miguel Isaza and Jake Riehle is a fantastic, advertising-free blog dedicated entirely to the craft of sound design in film, television, games, and other media. I’m honored to host the site on Noisepages for CDM, and equally pleased to get to sit back and just read (and not write or edit) the content. This is a perfect opportunity to cull some of the sharp, savvy analysis and exclusive interviews from that site. You might find you have something to do during ad breaks on the Oscars, film lovers.

Soundworks Collection tells the story of sound production in extended-format, high quality videos. You can watch video about just about every major release. In fact, their collections may become to those of us who are sound enthusiasts as invaluable a companion to movie-watching as popcorn.

And from the world of paper, Mix Magazine has been doing loads of coverage on the production side in film.

You won’t see it walk down the red carpet, but the Swarmatron – a strange original synthesizer by Brian and Leon Dewan – was a big part of the Reznor/Ross nominated score for ‘The Social Network.’ And it is a thing of beauty, isn’t it?

Forgive me for not looking at the “Best Original Song” category this year; arpeggiators everywhere lament the absence of Daft Punk’s “Derezzed,” but what can you do? (I definitely didn’t envy Daft Punk the challenge of trying to live up to Wendy Carlos’ landmark original score.)

Original Musical Scores

‘The Social Network’
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

I’ll come right out and say it: I think this is the film, out of this extraordinary bunch, that deserves the award. In a way, the score embodies the ideas of the film, emotionally and conceptually, more than the movie itself can. From the now oddly-famous small batch synth invention Swarmatron to air conditioners and pianos, Reznor and Ross concoct a sonic and compositional world. It’s relevant, topical, and now, like Facebook – but it may have greater lasting power.

Speaking of dreams and lost, The New York Times got to do what I imagine we all would love to do: step into the Reznor/Ross studio.

And long after the movie is forgotten, I expect this soundtrack will have a beloved spot on the playlists of many readers of this site.

Mashable Interviews Trent Reznor

As it happens, I wound up by coincidence in a conversation with Jeremy Peters, who does licensing for Ghostly International. His thoughts on why this score deserves special mention:

It was great to see them go a bit outside the box and hire Reznor, and I felt like it did what the score was meant to, which is tell the story that is not being told in the visuals and dialogue, and it did it really, really well, so my vote has to go to that score.

Peters also laments, as a person in the licensing business, that so many original songs “stick out like a sore thumb,” when better musical collaborations and licensing are possible. That makes it doubly nice to see fresh faces in the nominee category here.

More Swarmatron, for good measure:

‘Inception’
Hans Zimmer

It’s hard to say much about Zimmer’s stunning score for ‘Inception’ that hasn’t already been said. But it’s worth noting that, outside the film, a ground-breaking interactive app took the dream space into mobile, generative and reactive form. Built on open source technology at RjDj, Inception is the first app to use the libpd embeddable Pure Data library seen here previously. Aside from the musical achievement here, the technical advancement is that delivering interactive music to nearly any platform is no longer just a dream.

In fact, ‘Inception’ could be seen as interactive music’s first blockbuster, topping the charts on iOS. on iTunes

’127 Hours’
A.R. Rahman

Boy, it’s a tough year to compete in soundtracks – and a great year to listen. A.R. Rahman’s fluid, genre-crossing ambient soundtrack is as expansive as the film’s desert landscapes. And it’s another achievement for the connection between India’s titanic film industry and Hollywood’s. (Rahman also contributed “Slumdog Millionaire,” a process about which he spoke to Apple’s Joe Ceillini, since it was done entirely in Logic, from laptop to studio.) The first interview that follows is more specific to this film, but the second, Indian-produced interview I think is … well, better.

‘How to Train Your Dragon’
John Powell

So, the adult dialog was Scottish, the kids are American, and the music was Celtic, even as all the characters were Vikings. It was nonetheless a lovely score (though I’m sorry that last year’s animated ‘The Book of Kells,’ set in historical Ireland with Irish accents and Irish music, didn’t get more coverage, as far as Celtic scores). For more on this movie’s sound – even if Randy Thom didn’t need another nomination this year – see Designing Sound’s interview.

Composer John Powell himself comes from a Scottish background, and says he was influenced, too, by Nordic folk music. In an interview, he explains how he lent the film a lot of its character:

John Powell Goes Epic to Score ‘Dragon’ [The Wrap]

‘The King’s Speech’
Alexandre Desplat

Understated and elegant as the film it scores, Desplat (“Deathly Hallows”) has another beautiful soundtrack. The only bad news: he’s partly overshadowed by one Ludwig van Beethoven. (Desplat says that was originally a temp track. You try out-composing Beethoven.)

Interview by Scott Holleran

Sound Mixing, Sound Editing

‘Inception’
Sound Mixing: Lora Hirschberg, Gary A. Rizzo & Ed Novick
Sound Editing: Richard King

Known in particular for its use of Edith Piaf in the score, Inception is clearly our star here (and perhaps a shoe-in, as a result), a film that creates entirely different imagined worlds. Videos and interviews, via Designing Sound:

“Inception” – Exclusive Interview with Richard King

I feel it’s very important to get new sounds for each film. It’s so important to get the sounds which you feel and imagine could be there. There’s always a lot of manipulation afterward of course, but recording new raw material is so important. I’d love to record everything every time, but the most important thing is to find the sound which provides that feeling you’re looking for regardless of where it comes from.Richard King, to Designing Sound

Gary Rizzo Talks About “Inception”

Mix Magazine on the Sound of Inception

Bruce Tanis Answers Reader Questions (a foley and sound effects editor on Inception)

‘The King’s Speech’
Sound Mixing: Paul Hamblin, Martin Jensen & John Midgley

‘Salt’
Sound Mixing: Jeffrey J. Haboush, Greg P. Russell, Scott Millan & William Sarokin

Greg Russell has an astounding fourteenth nomination for ‘Salt.’

Interview: Greg P. Russell on “Salt” and Mark P. Stoeckinger on “Unstoppable”
More About the Sound of “SALT”

‘The Social Network’
Sound Mixing: Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michael Semanick & Mark Weingarten

Some of the grand achievements in sound may not be immediately noticeable – like making a loud club party scene where you can actually hear the dialog.

Ren Klyce Talks “The Social Network” Mix

‘True Grit’
Sound Mixing: Skip Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff & Peter F. Kurland
Sound Editing: Skip Lievsay & Craig Berkey

Skip Lievsay Talks “True Grit” Mix

‘Toy Story 3′
Sound Editing: Tom Myers & Michael Silvers

Toy Story 3 may have gone unnoticed by many this year, but it required major innovations in surround sound, making the interviews below must-read. (For the opposite, low-fidelity end of the spectrum, see the exclusive interview for a fascinating story about the “futz boxes” used to make the little snippets of dialog the toys produce.)

“TOY STORY 3″ – Exclusive Interview with Tom Myers, Michael Semanick, and Al Nelson

With Gary Rydstrom we continued the conceit that when the toys are interacting with humans, (when they are inanimate objects), they should sound smaller in scale compared to the human “real” world. But when they are interacting with each other, and walking and talking, they have a larger, almost human scale to their sounds.
Tom Myers to Designing Sound

Dolby Surround 7.1, Toy Story 3 and The Future of Sound In 3D Films

‘Tron: Legacy’
Sound Editing: Gwendolyn Yates Whittle & Addison Teague

More About the Sound of “TRON: Legacy”: Score and SFX Mix

More About the Sound of “TRON: Legacy”

‘Unstoppable’
Sound Editing: Mark P. Stoeckinger

Yes, even Vanity Fair cares about sound editing.


Vanity Fair: Mark Stoeckinger Talks Unstoppable’s Sound Editing

  • Blob

    Amazing round-up Peter! Thanks for the links. 

    Just a couple years ago, few would think that Trent Reznor would be nominated for an Oscar (I know I'm pleasantly surprised!), or that a soundtrack like Inception would be integrated in an interactive phone app. Exciting new territory for the craft of original movie soundtracks!

  • http://noisepages.com/members/dmlandrum/ Darren Landrum

    The Swarmatron just gave me an idea on how to expand on the drone synth thingy I've been playing around with…

  • Christopher Penrose

    It is really really hard for me to give Trent Reznor credit where credit is due.  I was at a Nine Inch Nails concert in Tijuana, Mexico back in 1990 or 1991, I was there because my friend's industrial act was opening for him.  When it was NiN's turn Trent came out on stage wearing a huge sombrero, evidently smashed, and proceeded to badly lip sync his set for about 2 minutes.  When he stopped pretending he repeatedly swung and smashed his microphones for another 2 minutes and then simply just left the stage.   It was appalling to see an American act like that in Mexico.  I left at that point and can't remember if he came back on.  At the time, I thought his music was a very poor imitation of Jim Thirlwell and didn't understand the hype.  I need to forgive and forget I guess.  The Social Network soundtrack is excellent work.

  • Augment

    Stories like that are certainly in the minority; it's actually probably the only negative thing I've ever heard about the man! I suppose it can just be chalked up to being someone barely in their 20's and being a bit overwhelmed with things.

    While NIN (especially the early output) is referred to as "industrial lite" by some, Reznor's built quite a fine catalog of material over the years. In my opinion, the criticisms from the industrial camp are a bit unjust; tracks like "Mr. Self Desturct" hit just as hard, if not more so, than any example that can be brought forth. The difference is Reznor figured out a way to balance the extreme and the accessible.

    As a producer and musician, he's got talent to burn. Now that he's put the NIN 'brand' on ice for the time being, I think that talent is going to become a lot more apparent to the rest of the world now that he is no longer forced to create music in that style. The Social Network score is probably just the tip of the iceberg.

  • Christopher Penrose

    Fair enough, he seems a different person now in many ways.  I guess I might fall into the industrial camp though, and tend to agree with the "industrial lite" moniker, particularly if you consider predecessors like Skinny Puppy (especially their VIVISectVI album from 1988). But I really like the attention that is being generated by his score as it will hopefully help re-legitimize electronic music in mainstream film making. 

  • Rupert Lally

    Seconding Christopher's comment about the score for "the Social Network" hopefully opening the floodgates for more electronic scores in mainstream movies, ironically, I've just written a blog post expressing much the same sentiment…just over a year after a previous post lamenting the seeming death of electronic scores in movies …

    Here's the post if anyone's interested:
    http://rupertlally.blogspot.com/2011/02/synthies-

  • Blob

    @Christopher Penrose

    I'm not doubting your story, but I think Reznor is clearly a different man now, and has been for the past 10 years or so.

    I saw NIN live at the kickstart of his 2007 European tour, in Lisbon (Portugal). There was no lyp-synching or fake backing tracks (apart from samples and electronic loops, obviously). The band was tight, his performance was great and his stage demeanor was extremely professional – at one point there was a power failure that cut out almost all stage lights. Reznor cursed a bit on the mic, but soldiered on through a couple of songs until light was restored. Great gig, and no complaints about his professionalism.

    As for his music, it's a matter of personal taste of course, but I actually think it's improved over the years. I favor NIN's more recent output, which has become less song-oriented, but sonically more layered and complex, and Reznor's work in The Social Network really surprised me in a good way.

  • Chad

    [Side note: Trent had a very important partner in the Social Network score, Atticus Ross.  People keep acting like he did it alone.  It's weird.  Can you imagine being Atticus?]

    My opinion: I think Trent is a very smart and talented guy, but the problem with NIN was that the persona ultimately came to be limiting. It had some aspects that were juvenile, for lack of a better word.  The relentlessly gloomy, s&m, power-relationships-are-nasty thing had a slightly cartoonish vibe at a certain point.

    He made an attempt to expand the subject matter to the political ("Year Zero"), which was smart.  But I do understand why he decided to shelf the brand.  It had come to signifiy a specific mood, a specific emotional terrain and that terrain did not seem vital anymore.

    I really liked that "Ghosts" set, though.  There was a freshness to it.  I imagine that's what landed him the Social Network gig.

    I liked Skinny Puppy's "Vivisect VI," — that record's great at a musical level — but the "industrial" genre as a whole doesn't have a lot that lasted.  Most of it plays quite dated today and many people who liked it then don't admit it now.  It's only the extraordinary stuff that shines out, which is like any genre, I guess.

  • FreakWithoutACause

    With this latest success Mariln Manson is becoming to Trent Reznor what Dave Mustaine is to Metallica.

    (Oh snap!)

  • Blob

    @Chad – you're right of course, about Atticus. Credit goes 50/50 either way, but since there's a bit of a history with Reznor people (myself included) have been talking mostly about him only, which isn't fair.

    @Peter

    Your instincts were spot on! I wasn't expecting Reznor and Ross to win at all, that was yet another surprise! – I think it was deserved, like many have already said, the Social Network electronic-tinged OST breaks the current movie soundtrack mold in several ways.

    In any case, I was actually thought Zimmer would win because 1) he is a "classic" Hollywood veteran; and 2) the Inception score was a bit out of the box as well. Brilliant combination of dark and haunting harmonic arrangements and clever use of electronic sounds (and Johnny Marr's guitar!) – it is wonderful music and the movie wouldn't have the same depth without it.

  • blizzack

    umm, am I the only one who thought the soundtrack to 127 Hours was terrible?…like really bad, sounded like a cheap sample CD…