How the Award-Winning ’32 Sounds’ Documentary Became a Masterpiece of Sound Design

Sam Green’s acclaimed “32 Sounds” documentary (currently streaming on The Criterion Channel; as at screenings, viewers are encouraged to watch with headphones) beautifully captures the importance of the audio experience with sound design at its most powerful. Taking inspiration from “Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould,” it helps us find new ways of listening to music, nature, and each other. Although it was snubbed by the Oscars, the meditative film essay earned both the MPSE Golden Reel and CAS Guild documentary awards for sound editing and sound mixing.

Asked about the importance of working on the doc, Oscar-winning sound designer Mark Mangini (“Dune,” “Mad Max: Fury Road”) told IndieWire: “That it opens a window onto an often ignored world of our every waking moment, listening critically, sheds light on how I think and behave and, perhaps, opens another window onto how we use sound as a vital narrative tool in cinema.”

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Green initially called Mangini and asked if he would serve as a consultant to answer questions that might come up during production. It was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up, as the film “explored sound in a much more expansive sense, asking questions about how we listen and the meaning of sound in our everyday lives,” he said. “These were questions I’ve been asking myself my entire career. I was all in. During that initial phase of shooting the film, Sam would call me to not only ask advice on how best to record his film but to discuss what kinds of scenes would or would not have impact.”

This included introducing Green to immersive audio with binaural mics, which he had not considered. “I have been preaching for years about the value of capturing production sound immersively,” Mangini continued. “I asked him why, when we hear in 360 degrees, do most documentaries record their sync sound with one monaural microphone? Usually a shotgun directional mic at that, designed to exclude the sound of the environment the scene takes place in. This seemed to me to breach some fundamental codicil of the documentary filmmaker code: to show some version of the truth in their work, to endeavor for verisimilitude whenever and wherever possible. From these discussions on, Sam asked production sound to capture shoots with a binaural and/or an Ambisonic microphone so that we had immersive audio from the location rather than fake it in post-production.”

One of the most memorable sequences was a byproduct of these discussions: Dr. Edgar Choueiri, the professor who discovers a tape recording he made at 11 to his future self. It was through their collaboration that Green met Choueiri. “He was already a friend and I just knew that they were going to find common ground,” added Mangini. “That Edgar is featured in three vital scenes is a testament to his importance to the film.

'32 Sounds' director Sam Green
’32 Sounds’ Sam GreenSundance

“First, I think he does a lovely job of de-mystifying immersive sound while simultaneously teasing us with its visceral impact, as he walks around an unsuspecting audience with his matchbox. Second, Edgar shares a deeply personal moment as we watch him listen to his 11-year-old self speak to him from the past. Edgar had to ask the crew to stop filming at one point because he did this in real-time before the cameras and he got emotional. That beat speaks so eloquently to the power of sound. Finally, we watch Edgar play with his young son in the backyard while running around the unflinching gaze of Johann Kristoff, the binaural dummy head, as it takes in a simple human moment.”

Then there was the sonic spectacle of the “In the Air Tonight” sequence, in which Don Garcia drives around New York City blasting the iconic Phil Collins song from his car. “During production, Sam pitched the idea of the Don Garcia sequence,” Mangini said. “We both felt that this should be a sonic ‘set piece’ that did everything it could to replicate the visceral experience he and many other New Yorkers got whenever Don drove by. As he was in early production and was only talking about ’32 Sounds’ as a headphone experience, I told him that we would need to figure out a way to reproduce the subwoofer thumping and pounding that is a big part of that visceral experience.

“We also wanted the audience to experience the music blaring out of Don’s car bouncing and echoing off the city streets and buildings and alleyways as one would as if there in person,” he added. “So we attempted to record that sequence with immersive microphones to capture Don driving around the city to create the verisimilitude we wanted. Unfortunately, the recordings themselves failed us. They were too polluted with ambient traffic noise and other environmental sounds, like the engine of Don’s car, that made the original recordings unusable. In spite of our sincerest intentions to represent a vérité like audio track, that scene had to be completely re-constructed from the ground up.”

Given that that they could not use the original sync recordings from the shoot, Mangini needed to recreate what it actually sounded like in post. This began with using a low-quality MP3 of the song rather than a proper clean master recording from the record company. “I then used a complex cocktail of reverbs, delays, and equalizers to mimic the various locations the sound was played in and approximating their acoustic signatures,” said Mangini. “This was our most complex sequence to the final mix, spending many more hours getting it right and second-guessing each other if we had it right at all.”

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