Sound Designer Nicolas Becker Gets Inside Experience Of Hearing-Impaired Drummer On ‘Sound Of Metal’

Matt Grobar
·12 min read

What does the world feel like to someone with hearing loss? And what does it sound like? On Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, supervising sound editor Nicolas Becker sought to answer these questions. His task was to capture the sonic experience of Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a heavy-metal drummer whose life unravels as he starts to lose his hearing. The brief, from the director, was to craft a soundtrack that would be felt on a physical level, tapping into the “body sound” that is experienced more acutely as one’s hearing of the outside world recedes. Engaging in an experimental foley process, Becker rigged incredibly sensitive microphones to Ahmed, to collaborator Heikki Kossi, and to himself, to achieve this goal, thereby placing viewers directly inside Ruben’s head.

Long known for innovation within his craft, Becker also served on the film as composer, alongside the director’s brother, Abraham Marder, rounding out the distorted, muffled world experienced by the character with anxiety-producing, metallic sounds. For the two-time Golden Reel Award winner, the opportunity to pull double duty on the drama was exciting, because from his perspective, the permeable frontier between sound design and music that is widely manifest today only allows for more complex and interesting work. “[In the last] 10 years, the vocabulary has really opened,” he says. “I think to be radical today is to work with this complexity, and this very open palette, and to also be able to collaborate with people.”

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DEADLINE: What attracted you to Sound of Metal?

NICOLAS BECKER: When someone is calling you to propose such a topic, for me, it’s like if you’re a costume designer, and there is the film about the wedding of the queen, and you have to do the dress. You don’t have so much possibility in your whole career to be able to work with a film where the topic is exactly about sound and hearing. It’s very rare. So, I was like, “Okay, this is something serious. I should do it, and I should take care about doing it well.”

DEADLINE: The film was in development for about a decade. At what point in the process did you get involved?

BECKER: Darius called me like two years before the shoot, and we had a very long conversation about sound, in general, and moviemaking. Then, he called me one year later and said, “Okay, I think we’ll shoot soon, so I would love to meet you.” So he came to Paris, and we spent like one week together, speaking about the film, about life, about music, about everything, trying to connect together. And it was great because it’s quite rare to have this kind of connection. When you work for the first time with a director, it’s quite rare that before [the work starts], they actually come to spend time with you.

So, for me, it was great, and even the DoP came for three days. So we spent altogether two or three days discussing the film, trying to understand how we could work with the idea of subjectivity, of inner sound. Then, after, we [also spoke] with the producer, to try to understand how we could do something—because the money was okay, but it was not a big film—how we could do what we want, knowing that we couldn’t have a huge amount of money to do it.

DEADLINE: When you first met Darius, you took him to an anechoic chamber, where he could directly place himself in the experience of the hearing-impared. Tell us about that.

BECKER: There’s this composer Pierre Boulez who was quite famous, and he built IRCAM [the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music]. It’s a musical research center, and I do a lot of work with them, so I was like, “Maybe I should bring you to that place.”

So we went there and closed the lights, and for 30 minutes, you could be able to feel what it is to not hear anything, just your body sound. Because it’s totally silent, you start to hear your tendons. You start to hear your heartbeat and your blood pressure, and the sound of your hearing system.

For me, it was great, and it was very important from the start. I think because Darius is also coming from documentary, there is this very naturalistic side, which is very important for him. So, all the work we have done on [Ruben’s] hearing loss, or even the [cochlear] implant, is very documented. It’s really close from the description of people who have lost hearing. They were born with hearing, and then they lost hearing, so they were able to describe that. So, I think everything was based on the fact that the film had to be an experience, and everything needed to be very physical.

DEADLINE: What kind of research or prep did you personally undertake, to authentically depict Ruben’s subjective experience?

BECKER: Because Darius is a very good scriptwriter, with his brother—who co-wrote the script and did the music—he had already learned a lot of things. They spoke to audiologists, they spoke to people from the deaf community, and so when they came to me, they already knew a lot. And on my side, through films like 127 Hours or Gravity, it’s really something I’ve tried to develop, the idea of inner sound.

So, I think for me, it’s kind of my natural world. Also, I did a lot of tests by myself, or experiments, a lot of weird techniques of recording through the body, [where] my body was the filter. I also did a lot of research to try to mimic the way the cavity of the body is resonating, and your brain is actually able to recreate part of the sonic spectrum through that. It’s what happens when you are immersed in water: what you hear, you actually hear from your body, and in your brain, it’s transformed. It seems like sound, but it’s vibration.

I also have another friend who [records] musical orchestras, and he’s actually been working [for] three years, [creating] a special thing for hearing-impaired people to wear. They can actually go see a concert, and see a film, and all the sound of the film is transformed to vibration for your body. He did a lot of research about how to reconstruct sound into the vibration world of the body, so I used all this information to try to do something naturalistic. Because I think that if you’re doing something right, you reconnect the audience to their own experience—being underwater in your bath, all these moments. Being very naturalistic is also a way to recreate a link between the story of the film and you, as an audience, your own body memory.

DEADLINE: You put microphones all over Riz Ahmed, which allowed you to get at a sense of inner sound. What kinds of mics did you use? And how would you describe the techniques you employed?

BECKER: I used all the unusual microphones you can find, like hydrophones and a DIY stethoscope mic. I even recorded sounds with soldian sensors like contact mics, accelerometers and geophones. Also, I have some mics you can put in your mouth, without any problems, so you can record those sounds of breathing from inside. I also have extremely sensitive mics [that] are maybe 200 times more accurate than the human ear, so if you go in a very quiet place, you can really get ridiculous sounds, like tendons moving in your hands, or the muscles of your face.

That’s something I used to explore, because there was a moment in my life where I was mainly a foley artist. Foley artists always touch the object, so they have a very intimate relation to sound, and the physical aspect of sound. The transition to sound design was a moment where I was spending a lot of time in music studios, to create material for sound designers, so during this period, I also got help from the music world with a lot of crazy ideas. For maybe 10 years, I was spending most of my time in the studio, experimenting with new miking techniques, or new ways of processing.

So, the film was exactly, for me, that way. Because on the films I’m working with, I never use commercial libraries. I’m recording everything on my own. Sometimes, I miss a sound, I know that a friend has it, and we do an exchange. [But] I always try to start a project from scratch. That’s also why I’m going [on set for] the shoot. I like to feel the mood of it; I always collaborate with the composer of the film, and with the editor. It’s a way for me to be able to really control the processing of the film.

DEADLINE: How did you tap into the distorted sounds created by cochlear implants?

BECKER: This is something different. So, the first part is really how it is when you lose hearing. But the second part, again, was based on the description. Because the audiologists, from what people say, have modeled the cochlear implant sound. So, I listened to that a lot, and I tried a lot of things, many different software and plug-ins, trying to find the best solution.

[There’s] a very interesting software called IrcamLab, where you’re able to separate the harmonic contents from the noise content, from the transience. It’s a digital process, and the idea was, I’d try to deconstruct the sound, and reconstruct after. Because this software has a limit, when you deconstruct the sound and reconstruct it, it creates some very strange effects. I think we wanted to create something really uncanny, and after doing a lot of tests, we decided with the director that this thing was really interesting, because it was like you could hear, but it was something so strange.

DEADLINE: As co-composer on Sound of Metal, what kind of work did you do in the realm of music, to complement the film’s sound?

BECKER: Most of the music is diegetic, but there is some small, additional music, and we were looking for a long time for what kind of sound it could be. I work a lot with these weird instruments called Bachet structures. They’re these crazy, metal instruments doing very weird, acoustic drones, but they are really acoustic. It’s a bit like acoustic synthesizer, so we thought they would also be very interesting, because they are a bit like ghost music. They are made of metal, and [we thought] it would be so amazing to use this material, knowing that we had this sequence with the metal slide. Instead of using the slide, we used this instrument to make the sound, and it was creating a nice architecture around that. Abe also found a metal guitar, which sounded really strange, so we ended by mixing this Bachet structure with this big-feedback guitar—a bit like this additional music was a resonance of the diegetic music, echoing that. It’s a bit like what Ruben had inside of his head, you know? It’s a big mess.

DEADLINE: Sonically, the film switches back and forth between the world, as Ruben hears it, and an omniscient perspective. Were all of those transitional moments indicated in the script?

BECKER: It was more free than that, in a way. Before the shoot, we made some tests and spoke a lot, between the DoP, me and Darius, about all the possibilities of how we could do it. So, I think Darius had a kind of toolbox in mind, when he was shooting, but he was shooting much more freely. If you see the first part of the film, it’s really about how to create a vocabulary between sound and picture, with the subjective point of view. So, we spent a lot of time working together to find the right arc of it, and we even decided to remove some sequences, because it was too complicated, so it was impossible to do it in a very nice way. So, for us, it was very important that the language would be very consistent.

Also, most of the subjective part is in the first part of the movie, and then when this part is finishing, some subtitles start to appear. Because in the first part, you’re more in the head of Ruben. In the second part, you’re out of his head, and you just follow him. It’s a moment where the audience can have more time to think about it, to really feel the film, and to understand the story. I think we spent a lot of time to really fine-tune all of this.

DEADLINE: What was the highlight of your work on this film?

BECKER: For me, to be able to work like that with a director was [remarkable]. I feel that more and more young directors are in the position where they want to really create an artistic team. They don’t only want to work with the person they know; they really want to create a particular experience around a film. Mostly, that’s happened with interesting independent filmmakers, and I really like that. So, for me, to be able to propose something very exciting for a director, like a real journey, was very important. He accepted that, and it seems like we did something nice.

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