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Cooking up an iconic soundscape

Nov 03, 2019
When we consider some of the greatest shows in television history, it’s not just the characters, storylines and visuals that are celebrated – but their iconic soundscapes too. The current golden age of TV drama is prime example of this, proving how visual mediums rely heavily on audio, too. But one of the most interesting developments to have emerged from this trend towards painting narratives with a vibrant sound-palette, is the purposeful use of not only soundtracks – but sound itself.

It’s easy for films to keep the audience entertained, where the action is unpacked within a few hours. But for a TV series to keep an audience captive over several seasons, more attention to detail is owed. And no single series dials in on the details quite like Breaking Bad. From its plot consistency, to its unrelenting focus on the 99.1% purity of Heisenberg’s Crystal Blue – Vince Gilligan, its genius creator – leaves no stone unturned on his path to critical acclaim.

Where most hour-long shows average up to 42 minutes of music per episode, Gilligan asked sound editors to keep the music to a mere 10 minutes in his scripts, which contained an intimidating level of detail. Sound Editor Nick Forshager, then, had to take on the herculean task of filling the space with carefully calculated, cookie-cutter precise sounds. Some are more noticeable than others, namely Hector Salamanca’s bell, or the haunting hydraulic suspension system of Jesse Pinkman’s bouncing Chevrolet. Others, however, are more subtle – and it’s the subtlety that speaks volumes. But what’s the purpose? What does a repetitive, isolated sound achieve?

It imbues the story with verisimilitude, because the sounds chosen are no different to the sounds found in the viewer’s own daily life – allowing you to revel in its realism. Yet, it also serves to keep you trapped in the tension of its claustrophobic narrative. In the episode entitled Crawl Space, the sound of heart pounding provides a life-like pulse for the story, mirroring the viewer’s suspense. And, even as some episodes end, the closing credits contain the defining sound of the episode, because Giligan wants you to experience the atmosphere of the narrative even after the story is over.

As the highly anticipated El Camino was recently released, following the story of Jesse Pinkman after the finale of Breaking Bad – it’s interesting to see how it stays true to the Breaking Bad universe. Although many fans notice the differences between the cinematography and story-telling, one way it stays consistent is through its calculated and minimalistic use of sound. Just like in Breaking Bad, when songs are used, they match the story perfectly in their lyrics.
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We can learn a lot from reducing soundtracks to their individual sounds, and figuring out why a particular sound creates a particular effect. Why do minor chords sound darker than major chords? And how can this be utilised to represent brands? From innovative and modern synths, to warm and classic strings - every sound represents a myriad of possibilities. This attention to detail, coupled with on-tone copy, can paint any picture a brand wants for their image.