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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
From left: Darling (Screenshot: Shudder), The Ranger (Screenshot: Shudder), Bliss (Photo: Katie Cleese/Dark Sky Films), VFW (Photo: Fangoria)

The acoustics of axe murder, and other insights from 2 horror sound experts

From left: Darling (Screenshot: Shudder), The Ranger (Screenshot: Shudder), Bliss (Photo: Katie Cleese/Dark Sky Films), VFW (Photo: Fangoria)
Graphic: Allison Corr
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In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders to shed some light on how the pop culture sausage gets made. In this installment, we talk to sound designer Josh Ethier and sound editor Shawn Duffy about the ins and outs of designing sound for the genre that depends on it the most.

You can tell that Josh Ethier comes from a DIY background simply by the number of times his name appears in the credits. Ethier primarily works with his friend and creative partner Joe Begos through their production company Channel 83 Films, whose most recent projects are Bliss (2019) and the upcoming VFW. Ethier served as editor and sound designer for both of those films, and worked with sound editor Shawn Duffy to implement that design for the final product. Duffy is the owner of his own studio, Dufftone Sound, located in Burbank, California; he works on a variety of projects, from trailers to Blu-ray special features to feature films and TV, but indie horror is where his true passion lies. Along with his work with Ethier and Begos, he also frequently collaborates with Darling and Carnage Park director Mickey Keating, and did the sound for Jenn Wexler’s 2018 punk-rock slasher The Ranger.

Both Ethier and Duffy know quite a bit about creating discomfort, confusion, disgust, and plain old terror using sound. So we asked them about it as they hung out at Duffy’s house the day before Ethier took off for Colorado to screen VFW at the Telluride Horror Show.

The A.V. Club: Josh, you’ve exclusively done sound design for horror movies, right?

Josh Ethier: Yup, all horror.

AVC: And Shawn, you work in a bunch of different genres?

Shawn Duffy: Yeah. But the horror stuff is the most fun.

AVC: Why is that?

SD: It’s the most fun because it’s the most interactive. It’s the genre where the sound is important—not that it’s not important in a drama or a comedy, but the sound is actually supposed to push you in horror.

JE: Right, like if you’re watching There’s Something About Mary, your ears aren’t necessarily perked up. But if you’re watching The Blair Witch Project, you’re going to be paying more attention to the sound.

SD: Sound is more woven into the actual nature of the thing [with horror movies] than it is with comedies. They’re not saying to me, “We were thinking about the sound design when we were cutting, can you put a cool drone here?” with comedies—or dramas, really.

AVC: In horror, it seems as if the sound works two ways: It enhances what’s on screen, and it relays information about what’s happening off screen. Do you guys find that to be true?

JE: A good example of that is in Bliss. There’s a scene where [the protagonist] is trying desperately to get ahold of anyone who will listen to her, and then directly after that she’s having a meltdown in her [painting] studio. The visual aspect of that was a lot of fun to do as an editor—I’m picking up the pace, jump-cutting through a conversation. But then when I was doing the first pass of the sound design on that sequence, I reached out to Shawn and was like, “Hey, can you send me some sounds that have nothing to do with anything she’s doing in the scene?” Like, completely avant-garde and ambient sounds, different noises and pads and rises and drops. All this different stuff.

Then I just started dropping those into places that made absolutely no sense, assigning them visual continuity with sounds that, again, don’t belong with anything that you see happening on screen. It created a very strange feeling. And in that scene specifically, there are also a lot of sounds on the edge of the frame that actually fit the space she’s in, pulling her out of the weirder stuff into something that is real. All these different things clue [the character] into, “am I imagining this, or is it real?”

AVC: You were establishing layers of reality.

JE: Yeah, exactly. It was an anchor to give her when she was losing her fucking mind.

SD: I hate to say this, because it seems bad, but in horror I feel that the sound design can be more manipulative than in any other genre. It’s all about what the director wants you to be feeling right now, and what the director wants you to be focusing on. Josh mentioned There’s Something About Mary—I can’t see [the Farrelly brothers] being like, “Well, we want to disorient everybody right here, so put in some thumping sounds.” But in a horror movie, we want the audience to feel uncomfortable. So we’ll put a low drone in there, or a high piercing noise to knock everybody off kilter.

AVC: Do you ever add sounds that are subconscious? Like really low or really high tones that you can’t fully hear, but make you feel weird?

SD: The problem with doing that is speaker limitations.

JE: Yeah, you can’t hear those on a cell phone.

SD: You can’t predict what someone’s going to watch the movie on. In Mickey Keating’s Darling, I put in this super, super low bass tone that I read somewhere was the resonant frequency of the human eyeball; when you hear it for an extended period of time, it’s supposed to make you really uncomfortable. I didn’t use it throughout the whole thing, but it’s in the flash cuts [in the movie] in the submix. But it’s so hit or miss whether a movie theater is even able to go down that low—it was like 18 hz [anything below 20hz is considered “infrasound” out of the normal range of human hearing—Ed.]—which is way below what your typical theater spec would be.

When you do something experimental like that, you have to do something else with it also. It’s like, “We’re doing this really cool thing, but we also have to put something else here so that it’s not dead empty if you’re watching it on a TV that stops at 120 hz.”

AVC: When you’re mixing, are you doing it for ideal circumstances, or are you also thinking about people watching the movie on their phone? It sounds like you do take the latter into account somewhat.  

SD: My setup is, I have a nice pair of 5.1 surround speakers, but I also have a pair of these specific junky car stereo/TV speakers. And I like to give everything a listen on those, just so I can hear what the movie’s going to sound like if it goes through a TV. [But with their films], Joe [Begos] and Josh are definitely like, “Let’s mix this for theaters. Let’s stick with the big 5.1. Let’s not worry about what it’s going to sound like on VOD, or on somebody’s phone.”

JE: Yeah, I’ve always operated on the idea that if I can afford a decent hi-fi and upgrade it and upkeep it and enjoy the beautiful sound, I can expect the same from anybody else who’s watching my movie. I think of what most of what plays on smaller devices is all part of the final mastering phase. Shawn gives us a really good stereo mix, and we listen to it on a laptop, and on a TV with big floor standing speakers.

SD: Ideally, a good mix should play everywhere.

JE: Exactly.

SD: It’s just those little things. Like the subwoofer—what’s the sub doing? Because it’s not going to do that on a TV.

AVC: One thing I love about good theatrical sound—and Bliss does this really well—is when there’s a three-dimensional aspect to it, and you can hear sounds coming from behind you and on either side. How do you create that effect?

SD: So, in the Pro Tools mixer, there’s just a square. If it’s a stereo sound, there will be two points; I can just move those two points anywhere in the square, and that’s where the speakers will represent it as being.

JE: And when we mix in 5.1 surround, we can point to center, left, left rear, right rear, right, and then back to the center. You can pretty much draw a circle around the room. We did use that in Bliss quite a bit. There’s a scene where [the characters] are upstairs in the green room at a bar, and we pushed all the music to the back so it felt like you were standing over the bar hearing the music underneath and behind you.

There are all these different tricks Shawn can use to elevate what I do [as a sound designer]. I just work in stereo on the first pass, dropping in sounds. And then I’ll go sit with him, and we’ll fine tune every little beat: Different footsteps, how things fit together, changing the cues so everything around them sounds full. And then, from there, almost all of the work is spatial.

SD: In 5.1, you can say, “I want this to just come out of this one speaker.” But then the software will extrapolate. If I tell it, “I don’t want it to be in exactly the center of the screen. I want it to be halfway,” the software code tools will split the sound off between the right speaker in the center speaker in such a way that it sounds like it’s coming from the middle of those speakers. And then it just does that around the room.

7.1 just adds a little more detail in how precisely you can put stuff in the space, and Atmos is even more so, because that brings in height. In a regular 5.1 mix, you don’t have height. You can’t really fake something being up at the top of the screen or at the bottom of the screen. But if you bring in Atmos, all of a sudden you can have a guy walk over your head.

JE: Joe and I are big fans of enveloping movies, movies that welcome you into them. I’m a giant Tarkovsky fan. I love how quiet and purposeful all his sound is. And we’re both big fans of Gaspar Noé and Abel Ferrara and all these various, “you have to watch them loud” kind of movies. That’s why a movie like Bliss plays differently at home than it does in the theater, were we actually had the chance to go in and set the room for what should be—I don’t know if the word is “pleasurable,” but the experience of the movie. We had a lot of people telling us, “I got dizzy at times,” or “man, that thing was really jarring,” and saying that we should cut that stuff out. And I’m like, “absolutely not! That’s the point! I’m not walking you through a beautiful bed of roses, this is a woman who’s losing her mind!”

AVC: So Josh, you’re editing a movie and doing the sound design. When you first sit down and start cutting, are you working with the audio you got on set, and then you add to that? How does that work?

JE: There are editors I have worked with who work dry [i.e., without sound effects], and there are also lots of people who I have worked with who use totally burner sounds, meaning at some point they’re expecting these sounds to be taken out and removed, so they don’t really care that much about the presentation or the mix. They’re just placeholders.

When Joe and I sit down after the shoot—I don’t do an assembly cut while we’re shooting, because I’m on set as a producer—and we start editing, we cut the first scene. We add music, as well as any sort of background sound. For example, with the opening of VFW, I was putting in a song, mixing the song down, and then adding all the door smashes and the hits and the weapon hits. All that stuff. Every time we do another pass of the movie, it gets a little more refined.

Shawn will come to these early friends and family screenings where we have all our buddies come by, and order a bunch of pizza and get a couple of cases of beer. Everybody watches the movie, and they’ll give us feedback. “Wow, man, this sucks!” [Laughs] Or they’ll say, “Why did she do this?,” that sort of thing. So Sean gets the chance to see it early—with VFW, I was able to give him the timeline even earlier, actually—and that’s when he can start formulating where the stuff that I used wasn’t up to snuff, and start pulling those sounds, organizing foley, getting everything ready.

The way we do it, for all intents and purposes by the time Shawn gets it it’s a filled-out movie, but all of it is temp and all of it could be better. We’re open to anything he can bring to it. And then the three of us just—well, hang in a room together and fine tune everything. Shawn also has private time where he can spend a day on 17 seconds of the movie if he wants to.

AVC: So Shawn, what do you do first when you get ahold of the movie?

SD: It depends, because right now I’m working on movies where I wear a lot of hats. I’m functioning as the dialogue editor, the sound effects editor, and the music editor, as well as sound design and doing the mix. I usually start by trying to get a nice dialogue edit mixed together, because that’s the kind of thing you can get bogged down in real fast. Going through takes, looking for better syllables, looking for room tone, that sort of thing.

For Bliss, I tried to get into the dialogue sooner than later because you could hear the camera in everything. [The film was shot in 16mm.—Ed.] There’s one scene where [the protagonist] is talking to her landlord in the hallway; cut to the landlord, terrible, terrible film noise. Cut back to [star] Dora [Madison], can’t hear it at all. Back to him, terrible film noise. I go through and try to smooth that out. I have better tools for that than Josh.

Then I go through and I look for spots where there might be subtle little details that I can enhance with foley [added sound effects]. I’m always looking at that, because editors don’t have as much foley in their libraries as I do. So I’m looking for spots where I can drop in some cloth movements or whatever. On VFW, [which takes place in a bar], I must have cut in a thousand little sounds like somebody putting a shot glass down on a bar. Somebody taking a shot. Somebody putting down a beer bottle, or a liquor bottle. Somebody sloshing a liquor bottle. The more layers you add to it, the more cinematic you can make it in the process.

So yeah, I go through that kind of stuff and then I try to make a decent balanced mix. I don’t like to bring people in until they’re pretty happy with what I’m sending them stereo wise, because nobody wants to sit there and watch me sort through [audio] looking for just the right word.

JE: There’s so much tinkering involved that having people sitting on a couch behind you is really just a pain in the ass and isn’t good for anybody.

SD: Sometimes it sucks. And sometimes, like with these guys, you get along really well and it’s almost counterproductive. Somebody says something and that conversation starts and then half hour later you’re like, “Oh, we should try to get back to it.” Which is great, if you’re not on a super hard time crunch. But I don’t want filmmakers to come and listen with me until it’s at a point where if I got hit by a car tomorrow and you had to put this mix out, I wouldn’t feel like you were being screwed over.

AVC: What about the foley sounds: Are those stock things, or do you make them yourself? Where do these sounds come from, and how many do you have? 

SD: I use a databasing program, and the last time I looked I think I had 400,000 sounds in there.

AVC: Oh, wow.

SD: And those sounds are all licensed. Someone somewhere decided to put out a library of cloth washes, or footsteps or—you know. I’ve got one where it’s cars exploding. And for each film, I’ll look and see if there’s something specific that I might need to get for that film; right now I’m working on a movie with a lot of boats in it, so I’m probably going to end up buying a couple of boat libraries. If I was working on a higher budget movie, I might hire someone and say, “find a boat exactly like this one, and record me all of this stuff.” But we have to work with the time and the resources we have. I don’t have that luxury yet.

And then what I’ll do is I’ll look for anything that would feel better if I performed it, and I’ll do that myself. But I won’t add those to my library because I want them to exist only for this movie.

JE: The first thing Shawn and I did together was my short Gutter, and we were trying to get the head crushing sounds correct. He said, “I think I’m just going to get some fruit.” And then he sent me a picture of his young daughter in the ADR booth smashing watermelons and stepping on oranges. It was this melee of assaults on fruit.

Another good example would be on VFW, Shawn rented an actual concrete saw after seeking guidance from the guy who was refinishing his house at the time. He was asking him, like, “What would be the better saw? The bigger one? The louder one?” And then he actually spent a day recording it. In the movie, William Sadler totes it in the third act. That sound exists only for us.

SD: In a perfect world, I would record everything fresh because there are performative things that are such a pain to cut. I could get a great library of someone stomping on watermelons, but I’m going to have to search through that whole library for that just-right, split-second movement when she squishes his face just a little bit more. Whereas if I have a watermelon in my sound booth, I just step on it and make that same movement she does. It comes down to practicality and time.

JE: On Bliss, I borrowed a guitar with a whammy bar from a friend of mine and I went in with Shawn and I took this small little practice amp I have that’s really dirty and nasty with distortion. We turned it up obscenely loud and recorded all these different dive bombs and noises. And then we had that library ready when we were doing the mix. So [every time the protagonist] lifts herself off the ground or launches herself into the air, we were able to attach a guitar sound to it that we recorded freshly ourselves.

Another good example of the specificity of these libraries is that, in Gutter, there’s a trash bag [that’s important symbolically]. And I said to Sean, “I want the sound of like the flies.” All of my fly sounds were huge swarms of flies, but Shawn had a library where a fly got into a sound studio, and this guy walked around with a microphone for an hour and recorded this one single fly. So in the short there’s this one little bitty fly that you can hear buzzing around in the surrounds every time you see the trash bag. That’s because of people like Shawn who say to themselves, “This is weird. Let’s record it.”

AVC: You already touched on this a bit talking about stomping on fruit, but what kind of sound do you use for heads exploding? Or a whole person exploding?

SD: Again, in a perfect world I would just get an M80 and stick it in a watermelon and record it in my backyard. But I had a couple of sounds already in my library that we ended up using on both Bliss and VFW. I think we used one that was called “grenade in body.” It’s just a sound that someone recorded. A big fleshy explosion. [Laughs] It’s kind of fun to get a big general library and just search what things are called. There’ll always be weird ones, like “male urinating on metal.” Some of them get very specific, and some of them are very vague.

JE: We end up layering them a lot. In VFW, whenever Stephen Lang swings an axe at something—Shawn turned it into the just ungodly awful sound it is now, which sounds like a carcass being ripped in half. But even before Shawn got ahold of it, it was six layers of sound. There was the motion of the axe through the air. There was an axe into flesh. There was a bone break. There was a body punch sound for a quick punchiness...

AVC: Yeah, that nice solid thump.

JE: So Shawn takes all that stuff and layers it out with an extra layer of goop and slime. Like someone having their skin slowly ripped off over the course of a second. And then he’ll push a little bit into the sub, and keep some nice and high. The axe motion is stereo, but the rest of the stuff is centered so it hits nice and big. He just takes these ridiculous sounds that Joe and I come up with when we’re sitting in a room by ourselves for months and adds big, spatial, cinematic elements. Like a good punch or a stab or a body explosion or something. It’s always so enjoyable for me.

SD: That’s the best thing about working with an editor like Josh, who also does sound design and takes it seriously. Instead of having to come up with 15 layers of, you know, metal hitting the head and brain getting split and the spray of the blood, there’s already a good base. When I work with these guys, most of my job is, “It’d be cool if I did this.” It’s almost like I get to play with somebody else’s toys.

JE: When Joe and I are in the edit room, and it’s literally just just the two of us for like two, three, sometimes four months, what we do doesn’t have to have any basis in reality. But when Shawn gets it, it has to fit into a space, and that space is the theater. And so when I put something in there, it can be big and it can be loud, but Shawn’s the one that figures out where it belongs on the screen, and how it’s going to fit with all the other pieces. What I do with very aggressive, and what Shawn does is very subtle.

SD: Somebody else said this, so I can’t take credit for it, but you can think of editing and sound design like painting. And then mixing is sculpting, where you’re chipping away at something to get the clarity of the piece. It’s nice to be able to work with someone who’s done most of the painting already.

AVC: What is the scariest sound, in both of your opinions?

JE: The sound of Dora retching in Bliss was remarkably difficult to listen to day in and day out. A couple of times, it almost made me sick.

PD: Yeah, puke is pretty gross to listen to over and over again. For me, it’s quiet. In a horror movie, when everything gets quiet, I know as a professional that they’re doing that intentionally to manipulate me. It’s so that, when the next loud thing comes, it sounds even louder, and so you get even more of a jolt from it. So whenever a movie gets quiet, I find myself getting very tense. Like, “okay, where is it coming from? When are they going to hit me with it?”

JE: That’s why I love Antichrist and The Witch. They’re always quiet, so you’re always leaning forward and waiting for it. Hereditary does that really well too, where you’re always feeling like something could happen. In a lot of studio films. it’s like, “big music, big music, big music,” and then you hear the door slam. All of a sudden all the music is gone and the character looks at the door. And you’re thinking, “Well, obviously whatever’s behind that door is going to be giant and loud.” It’s just painting by numbers.

We tried the opposite effect with Bliss. Bliss is loud all the time. [Laughs] It’s meant to be experiential. It’s sensory overload, cause that’s what is happening to the main character. I always think stuff like that is much more interesting.

SD: Hereditary is like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible: Fallout, and Bliss is like Henry Cavill. One of them is elegant, and the other one just steps out and starts punching. Both methods are totally valid. People seem to really react to Bliss because it’s such an assault, but people also react to The Witch because you’re wondering where [the threat] is going to come from the whole time.

Your lizard brain is programmed to associate some frequencies with, “Uh oh, bad stuff is about to happen.” Bass suggests some large thing coming towards you, and so a lot of it will really start to get to you. And Steve Morris’ score for Bliss is right in there. Even when we don’t play it too loud, it’s got nice low synth stuff going on. It gives you this constant churning feeling, like, “Something bad is coming, and it’s going to get you.”

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