Nicolas Becker: I think we spent nearly half of the time working on the score on that first concert. That’s because if, as an audience, you believe in that stunning scene, then you can go anywhere, we can bring people everywhere. It was important to put the people in the situation where they feel that the actors are not acting, they are not faking playing instruments — that everything is real.

We also tried to understand and simulate what you can effectively hear when you have this kind of problem. We went to field journalists, and I spoke with people who knew about cognitive perception.

Some are born deaf and others become deaf, so after those who become deaf try these implants that Ruben eventually gets, from their memory of sound they can describe what they can hear from these implants. And some universities have dialogue and music treatments to try to simulate, and this helped us understand what kind of information this implant is sending to the brain. It reminded me of software out of IRCAM, the music research institute in France, where they are working on the modulation of the voice and acoustic space — they really go into it. They have a tool where you can actually decompose sound into different things like noise or only information — you can also deconstruct audio and then reconstruct it. The deconstruction and reconstruction process was creating a lot of interesting artifacts which were very close to the materials I heard with Darius, when we were exploring simulations of the implant experience.

Darius Marder: Everything in the movie is leading up to that point when Ruben gets those implants. It’s literally in the title of the movie: Sound of Metal. The first part is “sound,” so we’re dealing with organic sound and the sound of their music and it has to be real so that you feel it. And then you have the “of” piece which is being part “of” that group and “of” the deaf community. And then you have the third act, which is “metal.” And the metal is literal metal in Ruben’s head at this point. We know, in fact, the sounds that you hear, that we created in the movie to approximate that experience, is actually much nicer than the sound you would actually hear, if you got one of these implants. If we had actually gone into the full realm of what we understood of the experience, it would have been almost impossible to listen to. As it is, it’s pretty grueling. It has to be.

The Sound of Metal Nicolas Becker Darius Marder Darius Marder Nicolas Becker The Sound of Metal Riz Ahmed Riz

For the concert that opens Sound of Metal, director Darius Marder and sound supervisor Nicolas Becker worked to create an authentic music performance. Riz Ahmed and Olivia Cooke star.

The process we used was to actually take all of this production sound, and we systematically broke down each and every layer. And when I say each and every layer, I’m talking about maybe 20 to 30 layers of Atmos that we had recorded on set. We took every single layer of sound, and we decoded. We did a digital pass, and a very specific composing for each and every layer of sound. At that point, we had this colossal mess of sound that was starting to approximate this implant experience.

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Then we went further, which was to diagram the sound in the mind. One of the interesting aspects of this process when you get these implants, is that you lose directionality. The ear is such a sophisticated instrument: We take in sound, and then our brain makes sense of it. And our brain organizes it so that when we hear something, we go, “Oh, it’s over there.” That’s why our sound relates so much to our balance. In this process we have processed each and every sound in a way that we thought was interesting and true. (Again, it’s turning natural sound into a digital monster.) Then we actually moved the sounds around in Ruben’s brain, because you’re in Ruben’s brain, and we moved them around so that you have no orientation.

If you listen to this in surround sound, you will be lost within his mind in a way that you can gain no purchase. And that’s what people go through when they get their hearing “fixed” like this. For people that have never heard before, who go into this implant world, it can be pretty interesting, exciting, and even moving, because they’re literally hearing sound for the first time. But when people who knew sound like Ruben, especially musicians, return to sound, it can be devastating. There is no listening to music again — it doesn’t work. The brain can’t process that; there’s no beauty in that. So it’s a profound loss. MM

Sound of Metal, directed by Darius Marder with sound supervision by Nicolas Becker, is now on Amazon Prime. This story originally ran on November 19, 2020 and has been updated.

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