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Case Study: Black Earth Rising

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A few years ago, when I first started becoming obsessed with Scandi Noir, there was one series that really inspired me: Wallander. I was already fascinated by the Swedish version, but this new British interpretation (starring Kenneth Branagh) was so beautifully shot (to the extent that when I directed my first short film, my style choices were very derivative of it!).

Plus, it had a rather wonderful score by Martin Phipps, which (I will confess) I became mildly obsessed with for a while.

Naturally, when Martin contacted me to do some sound design for a new BBC drama series called Black Earth Rising, I was very happy indeed.

It’s not often I get jobs where fairly specific types of sounds are required. In fact, if someone asks me to recreate classic synth patches, for example, I tend to run a mile… it’s a slipper slope towards utter madness, trying to copy sounds. Fortunately, whilst Martin had some pretty specific ideas, there was a certain amount of interpretation available in how I could make fresh versions of them.

We were looking to create sounds that had a blend of the organic and synthetic to them: tribal rhythms, scratchy string textures and haunting vocal scapes. Whilst these sounds have their roots in reality, there needed to be an unusual “sound design” vibe to them, so it wasn’t a simple case of recording instruments/voices and turning them into samples. We went with using Zebra and Omnisphere to add a synthetic element to them.

For the tribal drums, I focused on using the noise oscillators and comb filters in Zebra to recreate real drum sounds, looping them with the arpeggiator. To give a feel of real playing I used a lot of LFOs to provide randomised movement on the filters and envelopes (there are even delayed envelopes going on to deliberately add some timing issues), including having some LFOs control the rate of others to make sure that the timing was a little inconsistent. Fun.

The string textures required a tremulous, scratchy texture; rhythmic, but not tempo-synced, the movement needed to be inconsistent to create a feeling of unease. Omnisphere has a wealth of string samples in it, some of them very unusual, so it made sense to use these as starting points. Again, LFOs are doing a lot of the work. Fast LFOs creating the tremelo vibes via amplitude and the filters, then slower LFOs controlling other LFOs to get those natural timings going.

The soundscapes came in two flavours. Firstly, we had some high frequency vocal sounds (again with Omnisphere) and used LFOs to move the pitch around, adding analogue style effects and convolution reverb to give everything a haunting edge.

Then I went back to Zebra to provide some unstable, wobbly, pitchy analogue darkscapes, with a Swarmatron vibe. All of these patches were designed to slowly desintegrate and rupture using the modwheel, until they’re little more than an intense, distorted, broken mess!

All in all, a huge amount of fun. It’s a great show (have just watched the opening episode) with terrific music by Martin, and also fetaures music by Patrick Jonsson.

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