Thursday, August 16, 2018

Why and How I Created ANOTHER Blade Runner Ambient Soundscape



Okay Kyle. This is for you.

My Blade Runner Ambient Soundscape has grown more popular than I expected it to. What started off as a fun little project just for myself has (at the time of writing) 216,738 combined views/listens on YouTube and a combined watch time of 6.7 million minutes, or 111,666 hours. All of those big numbers are hard to fathom, but what's even harder for me to wrap my head around is that, since those videos were posted, I've gone from 17 subscribers to 655.

That's 638 more people who want to be notified whenever I post a new video. Reasonably, that's an oodle of people who are telling me that they love the soundscape and want me to make more. Unfortunately, I mostly use YouTube for uploading non-soundscape things like my relatively mundane and personal monthly 1 Second Everyday videos. Furthermore, I am not in any way, shape, or form, a professional sound designer, musician, or audiophile. Making soundscapes was not my true calling in life nor my passion. I just happened to have a clear idea in my head for a thing I wanted to exist that didn't exist yet, and I just happened to have the knowledge, tools, and skill set to make it myself, so I made it.

However, there's an anonymous quote that I try to live by. It goes like this:
"Whatever your talent is, don't be precious or stingy with it. Give it away to as many people as generously as you can to the point of exhaustion."
When I first heard that quote I decided that it should be my motto, but I'd never gotten a chance to put it into action. Naturally, this was my chance. Regardless of my own doubts, I needed to make another soundscape. Unlike the first one, though, this one wouldn't be for me. This one would be for everyone who subscribed or left a comment praising my work and thanking me for my effort. This one would be a gift.

This one would be tough.

Blade Runner 2049 is not the same movie as the original Blade Runner. It doesn't have the same legacy, the same tone, or even the same type of score. Whereas I created my original Blade Runner soundscape around the foundation the original movie set up – where the use of slowed-down music, ambient rain sound effects, and wind chimes came naturally from the film itself – a soundscape based on Blade Runner 2049 would essentially need to be shoehorned into the mold that the first one had set for it. I'm sure Denis Villeneuve felt exactly the same way about filming it as I did about making my soundscape from it. Yup. Exactly the same.

So I told myself what all artists should probably tell themselves before working on a sequel to a beloved work; "It will never be as good as the original. The very fact that it is a sequel diminishes its quality by taking away the spontaneity and uniqueness that is so necessary for any art to stand out. People will hate it. People may even hate me for making it. That's okay, because in the end I'll have made something that someone else might really enjoy."

With that out of the way, it was time to get to work.

This Time, Let's Start with the Art

Since I didn't want to forget how to Photoshop the album artwork because it took a while to figure out the first time around, that's the first thing I did. Aside from brainstorm, I mean, but I'll get to that later.

For obvious reasons, I wanted to use the same technique on the album art for the 2049 soundscape as I did for the first soundscape (which I'll refer to as the 2019 soundscape from here on out, since that's the year the first film takes place in, for the uneducated). While there was one pretty obvious candidate for which scene to adapt, I watched the movie again hoping to be inspired by something I hadn't thought of.

First I tried a scene that was somewhat reminiscent of the one I used for 2019:
While the result is pretty cool, I felt that it was lacking in some qualities that made the 2019 one work better. Perhaps the largest flaw was (aside from the text being nearly unreadable) that this scene isn't very iconic, so it's not easy to recognize that this is a scene from Blade Runner 2049. Realizing how important this quality was, I gave in to my initial gut idea and applied the same effects to the most iconic scene in the whole film:
I had to do some tweaking to the effect in order to make the text stand out, but in the end it was pretty obvious that this was the best scene to use. Now that that was out of the way, all I had to do was make the actual soundscape. You know, the actual hard part.

The Same but Different

Sequels are hard. Did I already say that?

Taking Kyle's request literally, I began brainstorming sound effects I could use to differentiate the 2049 soundscape from the 2019 soundscape. Since snow is unique to 2049 and is seen quite a bit in the film, the most obvious idea was to replace the sound of pouring rain with ... uh ... the sound of falling snow? Okay, fine. Because the only sound associated with falling snow is a chilly whistling wind, and that's not really as relaxing for most people to listen to, I decided that I'd make a minor concession in the uniqueness of the soundscape by keeping the rain – though I was determined to make the rain sound more like 2049 rain than 2019 rain, if possible. I figured I could do that by using the sound of a heavier downpour, pairing the rain sound with a cold wind, and alternating between different ambient sound effects layered on top of the rain such as Kyle's idea of crashing waves.

Because this project felt like a gift I was making for the fans (especially Kyle) rather than a little project for myself, I wanted to get an idea for what it was the fans actually wanted in a 2049 soundscape. To find out, I asked the r/BladeRunner community on Reddit what it was they would want in weather effects (as well as if anyone had a way to extract the 5.1 audio mix from the movie as separate files, but more on that later). Fortunately, I got replies that were both enthusiastic and clever. These ideas included heavier rain, subtle wind, snow hitting water, crashing waves at the sea wall, and the throat singing from the "Wallace" track on the soundtrack. Some folks even suggested ideas for the "sounds of the city" version, such as the clink of whiskey being poured into a glass, a dog panting, and bees buzzing like in the Las Vegas scene, or the sound of footsteps in the snow.

Fast forward to the actual creation of the soundscape, and despite all the great ideas being thrown at the wall, there was only one option that was really practical for making a sequel to the original soundscape while retaining the same relaxing qualities. I needed to stick with rain. Just rain. I tried pairing it with different cold wind sounds, but the results were either too creepy, too subtle, or too much. To make the soundscape unique, I went looking for an ambient rain track I could use that was heavier than the original while still sounding like it existed in the same setting.

To elaborate: some heavy rain soundscapes sound more like they were recorded in a jungle or from inside a car rather than in a city, and even then they might have the sounds of passing cars, leaking gutters, people talking, or too thick of rain hitting dense puddles. I needed the rain to be just right.

For a couple months I couldn't find the perfect rain, so I just used the 2019 soundscape rain as a placeholder. Fortunately, about a month ago, someone uploaded a brand new rain recording to the internet that fit my criteria just perfectly. The timing couldn't have been better.

Marking Time

Speaking of time, in the original soundscape I used the sound of faint wind chimes to mark every 10 minutes, which was meant to help those who wanted to track time keep it (such as for timed meditation) while allowing people who wanted to lose time ignore it completely, since wind chimes are featured in the movie enough to make them just another part of the experience. I wanted to do something similar for the 2049 soundscape, but I ran into the big problem that comes with doing a sequel such as this: there was no iconic sound that immediately came to me that could be used to subtly mark time in the same way as the wind chimes did. I managed to brainstorm several different ideas, all of which failed compared to the wind chimes when tested. These included:
  • A Singing Bowl — this was too harsh
  • Sound from beginning of "Pilot" — this was too soft
  • Peter and the Wolf — this was too distracting
  • BR2049 Chime (a singing bowl-like noise from the actual movie that I discovered) — this was both too low and too distracting
Much to my dismay, after testing out all of my ideas at different volumes, none of them worked quite as well as the wind chimes. I had to make yet another concession of uniqueness and keep the wind chimes.

Stretching the Score

As with the 2019 soundscape, the ambience in the 2049 soundscape comes not only from the pouring rain, but also from the sounds of the movie's score stretched out to nearly unrecognizable lengths. Personally, I love the Blade Runner 2049 score that Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch came up with, but it is very (intentionally) different from that of Vangelis' score for the original. While it fits the movie perfectly, it doesn't have the same beautiful dreamlike quality to it. It's darker, dirtier, not nearly as iconic, and doesn't stand on its own (without context) as well as the original. I knew that these differences would drastically impact the quality and tone of the new soundscape as compared to the first, and I had to come to terms with that being completely out of my control.

Still, I knew there were some profound moments of beauty in the score that would work perfectly for the soundscape. To find the right tracks, I simply listened to the soundtrack on loop and noted what songs I thought would do the job, or, in some cases, which songs would need to be edited in order to do the job (for example, I thought the second half of the track "2049" could work, but the first half was full of booming bass and eerie ambience that didn't fit what I was looking for).

I then stretched the songs out 6× using Paul's Extreme Sound Stretch and listened to those versions several times to see if any potential issues revealed themselves that way. I was especially listening for tones that might irritate others even if they seemed normal given the reference point, since my wife and I found out that we couldn't sleep to the original soundscape because there's a loud, high-pitched tone that wakes us up at around 1 hour and 50 minutes every single time – something I wish I'd noticed and corrected during its creation. This led to me eliminating tracks like "2049" because, although it contains the incredibly beautiful synth melody that sounds distinctly Blade Runner, that melody also sounds incredibly distracting when stretched out over what's meant to be a calming soundscape. 

In the end, I had to stretch out two tracks to 8× their original length in order to make it to my 3 hour goal (I chose "Rain" for its distinctly Blade Runner beauty and "Wallace" for its iconic throat singing) and I had to actually remix a small segment of "Wallace" to remove one of those distracting tones that would have kept my wife and I up at night – a blasphemous act, no matter how small the change – but in the end the stretched-out 2049 score proved fully capable of supporting the soundscape and providing the 2049 vibe it needed.

Capturing the Sounds of Los Angeles 2049

When I made the original soundscape, I was fortunate enough to have access to decades of fan-made resources, specifically the multitrack bootleg CD "Los Angeles - November 2019" By Esper Productions, which remixes the background audio from the original film to create audio vignettes of locations visited throughout. It proved incredibly valuable in the creation of my version of the soundscape with city sounds, and unfortunately there was nothing of the sort created for 2049, as the film hasn't even been out for a whole year yet.

Again, here's a case of me trying to shove a 2049 peg into a 2019-shaped hole. If I'd started out with a 2049 soundscape, I probably wouldn't even try making a city sounds version. I brainstormed all sorts of ways to get around the issue, such as including generic sound effects that are associated with the movie (such as footsteps through snow and crashing waves) and scrounging up whatever little bits of audio I could find in the movie without dialog over them to try and create some sort of ambient loop out of, neither of which was ideal.

Going back to my Reddit post that I mentioned earlier, I got a big break in the form of a user by the name of SleepyBacteria pointing me in the direction of a SoundCloud page where the sound designers for 2049 had apparently released eight whole minutes of sound effects from the movie without any dialog or score layered over it (the "BR2049 Chime" I mentioned earlier is what you hear in the beginning of this). On this eight-minute-long track alone, I knew I had a fighting chance to make my three-hour-long 2049 soundscape version with city sounds. It was discovering this resource that gave me enough confidence to actually begin developing the soundscape, and I quickly went to work breaking it up into smaller chunks (separating the scenes) so I could be more selective about what I was going to use.

My next big break came when another Redditor by the name of m0rp shared that they had gone and separated all the 5.1 audio channels from both films into individual tracks for sampling. For a few weeks prior to this I had been tinkering with the idea of trying to do this myself since my original plea to Reddit went unanswered, but I wasn't confident that I would be able to do it. Now, however, I had access to all the sounds from the movie that I could play around with myself. While some scenes were still useless to me due to dialog or score being present in every channel, this resource gave me much more freedom in designing my own samples from the movie's sound effects, which is exactly what I did.

With the separate audio channels, I was able to work around score and dialog to create new, "cleaner" ambient mixes to be used in my soundscape. The most challenging of which was the Chinatown scene (pictured above) in which I had to work around the "wub wubs" from the score as well as the dialog between K and Mariette by turning those moments down and replacing them with sounds from other areas of the same scene.

In the original 2019 soundscape with city sounds, I foolishly drag-and-dropped each city sound in manually, adjusting the volume levels multiple times for the same (repeated) sound, and had gaps in between each city sound track. For the 2049 soundscape with city sounds, I wanted the sounds of the city to never leave your ears, and I also really wanted to make work a lot easier for myself. As such, I next created my own 2049 ambience track made up of all the different city sounds that I had made so I could easily loop one track throughout the entire soundscape. I then imported that ten minute track into the overall project, adjusted the volume levels once, and then copy-and-pasted it back-to-back throughout the entire three hours. My suspicion had been correct; it was better to work smarter, not harder.

Wrapping Up

After months of work, I finally had the entire final version of the soundscape in front of me. It looked like this:
Cautiously, I exported both versions of the finished project and got to work on the final steps: listening through them on loop to make sure they work, adding notes (as lyrics), album art, and other information in iTunes, teasing the release to some Blade Runner fan groups, uploading them to Google Drive, creating the YouTube versions, and writing this blog post.

On listening to the non-city-sounds version, I was honestly a bit let down. It was too much more similar to the original 2019 soundscape compared to what I had originally imagined, and the 2049 score made it sound so much less compelling than I'd hoped.

On listening to the city sounds version, however, I was pleasantly surprised. The sounds of the city really brought the track to life in a way I hadn't anticipated. Whereas I prefer the non-city-sounds version of the 2019 soundscape to the city sounds version (and if YouTube views mean anything, so do the rest of you), I consider the version of the 2049 soundscape with city sounds to be far superior to its plain counterpart.

So here I am with one version that's not what I hoped and another that's better than I expected. You know what? After all the work I've put into it, I'm happy with that.

I hope you're happy with it too, Kyle.

Thanks again for reading! Stream them here or click one below. Download links are in the descriptions. And if you happen to like reading short stories or know someone looking for a freelance writer, please check out my true passion over at www.RyanMatejkaWrites.com.





Just the Facts:

  • Three hours long
  • Fades in and out for interruption-free looping
  • Consistent heavy rain throughout
  • Two alternating wind chimes every 10 minutes to mark time
  • Several short rain variations intermixed approximately in the middle of each chime

Elongated Background Music:

[All tracks stretched with Paul's Extreme Sound Stretch]
  • 00:00:24 Sapper's Tree 600% Slower
  • 00:10:00 Rain 800% Slower
  • 00:28:30 Wallace 800% Slower [Small Ear-Piercing Segment Removed]
  • 01:11:48 Memory 600% Slower
  • 01:24:50 Someone Lived This 600% Slower
  • 01:41:38 That's Why We Believe 600% Slower
  • 02:02:32 Her Eyes Were Green 600% Slower
  • 02:38:00 All The Best Memories Are Hers 600% Slower

Intro and Outro:

  • Clip of unaltered "Rain" by Hans Zimmer & Benjamin Wallfisch plays at start
  • "Tears In The Rain" by Hans Zimmer & Benjamin Wallfisch plays at end in place of wind chimes

City Sounds Version Intro and Outro:

[Taken from Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and The Wolf]
  • Begins with Joi Emanator Startup
  • Ends with Joi Emanator Shutdown

2 comments:

Arunkumar Mahadevan said...

Thanks for your efforts on these wonderful soundscapes! They will surely let me sleep better on flights.

antdude said...

Thank you for your thoughtful work on this new mix. I really am enjoying them both. I only have one question: Did you also do wallpapers for the 2049 mix? I really liked your 2019 wallpapers and the images you created for this mix are even better. They would make a lovely addition to this mix.