Oscar contender ‘Sound of Metal’: What happens when a musician loses his hearing

Written by Andrea Domanick, produced by Brian Hardzinski

Riz Ahmed plays a punk-metal drummer named Ruben who experiences intermittent hearing loss in “Sound of Metal.” Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Imagine you’re the drummer in a heavy metal band, providing the tempo, rhythm, and very heartbeat of your music. To do that, you have to rely on your hearing. What would you do if it was suddenly gone?

The film “Sound of Metal” focuses on experiencing hearing loss and navigating the world afterward. It has six Academy Award nominations this year, including for Best Sound.

KCRW speaks with Nicolas Becker, the film’s sound designer.

KCRW: How did you try to capture the main character Ruben’s hearing loss through sound design? Where did you start? 

Nicolas Becker: “It's a quite a long process because of course, Darius [Marder] and Abe [Abraham Marder], who wrote the film, were extremely documented, because they worked very hard on getting the most information possible about hearing loss. So when they came to me, what I could give on my side, it was more like my experimental approach about trying to record the inner world of the body.

I've been a foley artist for 20 years. So I spent like 20 years in the studio in silence to actually produce sound with my body. I think my relation to sound is very based on performance, and it's also very physical. So for me, I think I could totally understand what was happening to Riz. So we experimented quite a lot. And I had the chance to be able to record Riz Ahmed’s body sound through a lot of DIY microphones I built specially for that. And he was very nice with me. He gave me a lot of time to actually record his breathing, his muscle, his bone movement, everything from inside.”

I'm curious how you worked with people who had lost their hearing. How did you try to mimic what it would sound like for somebody to be going through this process?

“We were very documented … Darius prepared that very well. And also we had the chance to be able to communicate and to exchange with people who were born with normal hearing and had become deaf. So they are able to describe how it sounds and how you feel. And we also worked with audiologists. They did some simulations of how it sounded. 

In the first part, you want to create some things that people will be very familiar with, like hearing the sound from the inner body, like from the bones and the tissue. … Then after, for the cochlear implants, I decided with Darius that we really needed to find some things that nobody has ever before, because it's not possible.”

Ruben’s driving force is to have this expensive surgery so he can regain some shred of his hearing back. There is a scene when his cochlear implants are turned on for the first time. Tell me a little bit about what we're hearing there.

“You’re hearing something I call the ‘Frankenstein effect.’ ... With this software, I’m able to separate everything that is tonal and harmonic, everything that is noise, and everything that is attack and transient. 

So actually if you deconstruct the voice with these three layers and you reconstruct it, nothing is working. It's not matching anymore. Because the voice is so specific, because we know it so well, if you actually make it weird like that, it creates something really uncanny. But we didn't want to have like a robotic voice or a synthetic voice. You can feel that it's a natural voice, that it’s not totally recreated, that it's actually him talking or is a real sound. But it’s just the way you hear them, you have never heard that that way.”

There’s a scene towards the end of the film where Ruben is at a dinner party with the cochlear implants, and he can't hear quite the same. There's no differentiation between a lot of the sounds of the conversations. It's cacophonic and overwhelming, even as a viewer, to watch him navigate this space. Is that what it's really like in those moments?

“I think the sound of it is pretty realistic. … We decided that we're going to work to create this kind of impossible localization. So, in fact, what we give to the audience with the sound is totally contradictory. There are two ways to make you lost in space with sound. [One is that] you don't know where left is or right is, because everything sounds the same. And the other possibility is to give wrong information to the brain. So you don't exactly know the sounds, it’s sounding weird, and your brain isn’t able to localize it. So you're totally lost.”

You're also one of the composers of the music throughout the film, aside from the very top where Ruben has his hearing and he's playing in his band. Beyond that, the music is very sparse. Talk a little bit about the music decisions that went into this.

“For Ruben, I think the last moment where he is actually hearing correctly, it’s the first concert. And then … we understood that, if there is music, it can be a kind of distant or lost memory of this, the last moments of his life where he could hear properly. So in a way, it's not really a music, it's kind of, I would say, messy memories about how it was to hear before. 

And I think also the idea that the music is actually born in sounds in the film, or is actually melting into the sounds of the film, it's not the music of the director. It's the music of Ruben and the music produced by the film itself. A bit like the resonance of Ruben’s mood, in a way.”


Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios. 

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