Sounding off on anime sound design

How important is sound in the shows we watch? Each season, anime journalists and fans alike watch and discuss the shows that grace our screens, generating thousands of words as we dissect the stories and characters of whatever we’ve tuned into (and sometimes, even the shows we’re not watching). Significantly fewer words are devoted to appreciating good cuts of animation, though it has gotten much easier for Western sakuga fans to connect with others with a similar bent. A number of fans might also comment on the voice acting, particular where it concerns their favourites, whilst others will rave or rant about the theme songs and musical soundtracks, especially the work of big names such Hiroyuki Sawano or Yōko Kanno. Rarely, however, do we see any in-depth discussions about a show’s sound design, and the way it influences our viewing experience.

Sound_composer
And who remembers this lady? If you don’t, here’s where I got the pic from.

Why is this? What we hear clearly affects our appreciation of a show. For example, if if a voice sounds too old or young, we can fail to connect with a character or even the work as a whole. This disconnect is probably why I cannot watch most dubbed anime—I can’t stand the way Japanese names sound when spoken in an American accent. Many of us also have favourite composers and soundtracks (or lament how repetitive and thus boring they are), as well as favourite anime artists and anime theme songs. But how are these disparate elements put together to greater effect? And is there another element of sound that we barely register, but whose absence would be greatly missed? To tease this out, this week, I look at what goes into the sound production/design of an anime series, drawing on examples from some of the shows I’ve seen over the last couple of years.

The three elements of sound design

There are three major components that go into the sound design of any animated production. The first is the dialogue, the lines that the voice actors speak to give voice to the characters. Choosing the appropriate actor for each role is important because, as I noted above, a voice that sounds ‘wrong’ can ruin a viewer’s experience with a show. This involves consideration not only of timbre and other qualities that suit the character, but also of acting skills. The latter is one reason that we often find veteran seiyuu voicing bit parts in long-running shōnen manga adaptations such as Kuroko’s Basketball or Ace of the Diamond, even when they arguably shouldn’t be voicing teenagers any more. A director will want actors that he/she can count on to deliver, without needing directions on each and every line, for they only have a limited time to record each week. Of course, there are other considerations, too… I won’t go into more details here, but if you do not want to watch Seiyuu’s Life, here’s a great write-up about “Seiyuu castings, earnings and everything in between.”

Chihayafuru_cast
The Chihayafuru cast clad in gorgeous kimono and hakama…

The second component is the background music (BGM). I’ve only read a few interviews with anime composers,1 but it’s actually the music producers and sound directors who have taught me the most about how this part of the process proceeds. The very first step involves the producers (and director, where applicable) agreeing on the kind of music they want, thus bringing the composer on board. After that, the series director and other key music staff (the music producer and the sound director, where applicable) come up with a ‘music menu’ with descriptions of the kinds of music they want to use. For example, Sound! Euphonium music producer, Saitō Shigeru, noted that the typical order given to a composer might include titles like “fast rhythm, stringed instruments” or “everyday 1,2,3.” Unsurprisingly, Eupho was a bit of an odd-man-out—on the episode 11 staff commentary, they reveal that one title asked of composer Akito Matsuda was for “music that conveys the girls’ ‘shining existence’”! Apparently, the orders aren’t too detailed—and composers don’t ask for further clarification either—because that might restrict the boundaries of the music they’ll come up with. But composers for adaptations will often read the original works themselves to get an idea of what they might want to do. Once the music has been composed and recorded, it’s delivered to the director(s) to be added to the appropriate scenes.

The third and final component—and the one that few people actively pay attention to—is the sound effects. In fact, I’d argued that SFX are among the most neglected elements of anime production. For example, the award for “Sound” at the Newtype Awards that are presented in October’s Machiasobi every year is actually for the music soundtrack. The “Best of Anime” series that Random Curiosity puts out at the end of every year touches on the music soundtrack, opening and ending themes, insert songs and voice actors…but there’s nary a mention of sound effects or the overall sound mix of a production. For example, did you notice that the sound of ERASED was rather unusual for an anime production ?

It might be just me, but I find it a pity that most of us don’t really pay attention to this aspect of the shows we watch. So let’s take a moment now to have a more detailed look at what goes into the creation of…

Sound effects

The category of sound effects (音響効果, hereafter SFX) comprises several broad types of sounds. As a base, ambient sounds—such as the background noise of a cafe, or the sounds of rain—are important for setting the scene. Another important type of SFX is Foley, the reproduction of everyday sound effects such as footsteps, movement (e.g. the swishing of clothing when someone is walking or people brush past each other) and doors opening and closing. Then there are the sounds for creatures or objects that do not or no longer exist in our own world, and these have to be created to sound realistic. As you might expect, this requires a lot of creativity. For example, the sounds of the Gauna in Knights of Sidonia were originally the sounds of an eraser being rubbed on a damp plastic bottle. As Yoshida Hisanori—who spoke with sound editor Koyama Yasumasa and sound director Iwanami Yoshikazu on the episode 3 and 4 commentaries—pointed out, “you can buy the sound of the Gauna from a convenience store!”

In the Japanese anime industry, the creation of SFX is usually outsourced to a dedicated sound production company. There, one person—the sound editor—is usually responsible for creating all the required SFX for a series or a feature-length film, though he or she will have assistants to help record the raw sounds to be used as a base. For example, they’ll collect the ambient noise in a cafe setting, the sound of running water or of a train on the tracks. They might also help create raw sounds from everyday items, such as rubbing metal bars together or chopping veggies. Cabbage is apparently a stock item in the average sound editor’s arsenal.

SFX are meant to be the last of the ‘raw materials’ created in the anime production process. As was revealed in SHIROBAKO, sound editors prefer to have a complete visual—one with all the digital cels coloured in—for their work. In the interview he did for the materials book, Koyama notes that he gets “irritated” when there is no colour, because that makes it more difficult for him to know what sounds to create/edit for the production. When this happens, sound editors will fall back to ‘safe’ options—but it frustrates them to have to do so. However, it is usually not possible for them to wait for a more complete version of the episode, not only because they’re typically working on multiple projects at the same time, but also because a lot of preparation is required. In order to create SFX, the editor and the sound mixer will first discuss what sounds are needed in each episode, based on where the director wants music to be used. The next stage involves a lot of thinking: how can that sound be created? What raw sounds are needed? The assistants are then sent off to collect them, after which the editor will sit down to do his work. Whilst one week is the minimum most editors will ask for, Koyama prefers to have two weeks to do all of this—which would mean that he might be working on two episodes for any one series simultaneously!

In any case, once the sound editor has finished his work, the team can move on to the final step in creating an anime’s sound…

Dubbing

No: not dubbing over the voice track, nor transferring an audio track. In filmmaking, dubbing is the post-production step where all three components of the sound—the dialogue track, the BGM and the SFX—are mixed together to create the final sound track. This step is carried out by a sound mixer, and involves more than just adding the sounds to make a single track. The dialogue has to be synched with the lip flaps, and the music matched to the beats of the scenes and shots. The volume of each track can also be adjusted so as to bring out certain channels more than others in any one scene or shot. This is probably one of the more interesting parts of the sound mixer’s job: deciding which sounds to emphasise and which sounds to ‘hide’. As Iwanami noted on the commentary for Sidonia’s third episode, you can’t add every single sound that you think people should hear, or the sound track would become too crowded. Contrast is another tool at their disposal: for example, to contrast with a scene that had a lot of SFX, they might have just have BGM playing in the next scene.

The reasoning behind this is that, in real life, people actually hear the sounds they ‘want to hear’, the sounds that catch their attention. But in the film and TV industries, the sound team gets to choose what viewers should be paying attention to, which also has implications for what they’ll notice on the screen. For example, in the first episode of Sidonia, when they send Tanikaze and co. out to that planet to do some testing, a little Gauna warning appears on the captain’s monitors and nowhere else…the sound was lowered slightly so that most viewers would not notice it until a second viewing! I now find myself wondering if a similar thing was done in Macross Frontier with the fold quartz sparkling, as it was only on my second viewing of the series that I realised just how important that was.

The sound team in the credits?

One of the reasons that fans don’t pay much attention to the sound team is probably that they take up a minuscule proportion of the credit roll. As mentioned above, there are three main people responsible for producing the sound track of any anime film or TV series: the music composer, the sound editor and the sound mixer/sound director. The main difference between a sound mixer and a sound director is probably that the latter also gives directions to the voice actors. Older anime tend not to have that credit, and voices actors have spoken of how the director worked with them to draw out the performances he wanted. But the engagement of a dedicated sound director seems to have become more common over the past decade or so, and he/she is basically the arms and legs of the director with regards to the creation of the sound of the show. You’ll often find a few other names as well, under titles such as “recording assistant” or “music producer”—do check out the Sound! Euphonium interview translation I linked above if you want to get an idea of what the latter does—but the fact remains that the list is pretty darned short.

Both Iwanami (Sidonia) and Yamaguchi Takayuki (sound mixer for SHIROBAKO) mention the contrast between this relatively short list and the longer ones you’d see in the West. According to the former, you might even find 200-300 people working on the sound for a single film. The problem in Japan, Yamaguchi and Koyama say, is that not many people seem interested in sound design as a profession—it takes years to learn all the tricks because few practitioners have the time to teach others. In order to succeed, you need to be incredibly passionate about sound, and driven in your quest for learning more about how to produce it. In fact, the two of them stress that pure anime fans wouldn’t have what it takes; their recommendation is that aspiring apprentices study film and drama, and also do a lot of reading, so that they learn how to develop a sound design that will enhance what is going on in a particular scene. It’s also important to get out and listen, for one needs to know what real life sounds like so as to be able to convince a viewer that what they are watching and hearing is ‘real’. It’s a long and difficult road, but pulling it off and thus helping to immerse an audience in a fictional universe is precisely what’s so rewarding about it.

Conclusion

And so, here ends my quick overview of what the sound department of an anime production does. I haven’t gone into who decides the overall sound of the show upon which all these smaller elements of sound design are based, because that’s part of planning and will probably be covered in my broader On Anime ‘Writing’ project one day. But of the three components that make up this overall sound, the sound effects are definitely what many people pay attention to least. Until now, even I have personally thought about it only after finding out that shows or films I’ve enjoyed have won awards for sound mixing or editing. But perhaps that’s the point: if a casual viewer notices the sound, that generally means that it’s standing out a bit too much, usually for the wrong reasons. Conversely, if we don’t even think about it, that’s a sign that the sound team has done its job well. Iwanami even mentioned that he feels a little bit depressed when someone tells him “good job!”—people like him get their pleasure from seeing the effect that their work has on viewers without us even noticing! Nevertheless, I think I’ll be paying just a little bit more attention from now on. How about you?

Iwanami
Yeah, SHIROBAKO‘s Inanami was based on Iwanami…

Disclaimer: I don’t claim to be an expert on this. My understanding of sound production in anime (and other media) comes from interviews I have read, commentaries I’ve listened to and the odd documentary that I remember watching. It hasn’t come just from my fascination with anime either—I’ve tended to buy special edition BDs and guidebooks of my favourite Western films as well, just so I can watch and read all the “Making of” extras. But I remain a mere fan, so please let me know if there’s anything I need to correct.

In any case, here’s the list of what I read and watched over the last two weeks specifically for this post:

  1. Knights of Sidonia S1 episode commentary (episodes 3 and 4), YOSHIDA Hisanori (MC) with Sound Director IWANAMI Yoshikazu and Sound Effects Editor KOYAMA Yasumasa.
  2. Sound! Euphonium S1 episode commentary (episodes 11 and 12), with Sound Director TSURUOKA Yota and Music Producer SAITŌ Shigeru.
  3. SHIROBAKO Materials Collection, Interview with Sound Mixer YAMAGUCHI Takayuki and Sound Effects Editor KOYAMA Yasumasa.

  1. Including this one with Kanno Yōko on Macross Frontier

About karice
MAG fan, amateur translator and political scientist in training. I also love musicals, photography, travel and believe it or not, the game of cricket. よろしく!

10 Responses to Sounding off on anime sound design

  1. Raven says:

    I dabbled a bit on sfx and mixing in college theater club. Fun stuff to try out dozens of clips, get the crew to listen to them and voice their opinion, and work out the sound cues for the script; lots of small but vital decisions to make.

    And yeah, I do think I also don’t tend to notice sound in a visual media production unless they really botched it. Seems like some major awards for this department (e.g. Oscars) tend to equate Best Sound=Most (in terms of quantity)/Loudest Sound, too. In anime, I positively notice it when they’re being especially creative about it (through neat twists/gimmicks) or if it’s an integral part to the narrative. Like… there’s an episode in Kaiba where a character plays a tune in the piano while reminiscing about stuff, and the sound that came out progressively reflects her mind state throughout. Brilliant stuff. Sound (or the lack of it) is also more noticeable to me in horror production, which relies a lot on atmosphere and ambience for the overall experience, or narrative that deliberately tries to evoke a sense of unease through dissonance.

    The first time I noticed sound design in anime is throughBoogiepop Phantom (*I swear I’ve read a great analysis on it at some blog but I can’t find the article now. Nearly every review of the show mentions and goes in-depth at the aspect, though). It genuinely feels like the sound is the best aspect of the production, which I also felt with Memories (the anthology film). From last year’s crop, the ones that stood out to me were Gangsta(the overall production is troubled as hell as I understand it, but the sound dept made a lot of great and interesting decisions to amplify, intercut, and go to silence), Euph, and Gakkou.

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    • karice says:

      Wow, that’s pretty cool! I must admit that it’s something I’ve never thought about (SFX for stage productions) — because our own school productions were musicals, and I was always involved on the music side of it. But I’m sure there there would have been people in charge of the sound, too.

      For the Academy Awards, I must admit that I’ve never really paid attention to what won the sound awards. Well, except when Black Hawk Down got one for Sound Mixing, and I thought back and realised that the sound work was probably one of the reasons it had struck me as being a really effective film about the intense combat experience of modern warfare. Looking down the list of winners, it does seem like you’re right: a lot of very loud productions. I’d like to think that we’ll one day see a somewhat quieter winner. If it happened in special effects (Forrest Gump back in the 1990s — I still remember how surprised I was when I found out!) then surely it can happen with sound too!

      Horror/Thriller and sci-fi are probably the genres where sound is noticed most often. After I started listening to those commentaries, though, I’ve definitely started noticing little things like the tinkling of ‘sparkly moments’ in Macross ∆! It’s become a little bit distracting now ^^;;

      Re: Boogiepop Phantom
      Interesting. I’ve never seen that show, though I remember seeing it on video store shelves and stuff. I’ve yet to watch Gangsta., but I’ll keep this in mind when I do (doing what Iwanami doesn’t want me to do as a viewer in the process!)

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  2. Frog-kun says:

    A few things:

    SFX are absolutely important! Like you, I only started paying more attention to it recently, but there are standout moments even in older productions. See this Little Women clip for an outstanding example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UgJ4TTwyGQY

    Also, if you’re curious about how sound mixing works in a Western animation production, here’s a short documentary about the sound production in Shaun Tan’s ‘The Lost Thing’: http://soundworkscollection.com/videos/thelostthing

    So yeah, lots of interesting stuff to think about!

    Like

    • karice says:

      I completely agree! (It was a rhetorical question!!) That swinging door in that Little Woman clip was great, but I also liked the ambient background sounds that placed it in a wintry little town. I did think that Beth’s crying towards the end was a bit too loud in one shot, but perhaps it would have been effective in context within the show, non?

      Thanks for that link about the sound production in The Lost Thing! Really interesting — I hear some of the same things I’ve heard Japanese sound staff talking about, but am also picking out a few differences in the way they work (e.g. it seems like the music comes first for most TV anime, which might greatly reduce the number of sounds that a sound editor has to create). It’s something I’ll definitely be coming back to the more I read or hear from Japan’s sound designers.

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  3. iblessall says:

    I think people might notice good sound design a bit more often than you’re giving people credit for…but not that much! For example, I actually did hear a lot of good things about Sidonia’s sound design before I watched it, but I suspect that was because Sidonia’s sound design is both exceptionally good and somewhat more tightly connected to the show’s overall ability to succeed in selling its setting.

    Yozakura Quartet: Hana no Uta is another show I’ve seen frequently—and rightly so!—for its sound design, but again, the sound design in YZQ: HnU is an integral part to the show’s appeal, specifically in its battle sequences.

    In other words, I suspect that good sound design is noticed at times—but only when it is closely connected to other elements of the show. Most of the time, really good sound design does its best work when it isn’t consciously noticeable to the audience, which is why I imagine it so often goes unnoticed.

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    • karice says:

      Hm…I honestly do think I’ve given about the right amount of credit, though, since I never say it’s never done! But maybe it’s also because I’ve never really been in the discussion on some of these shows as they are airing — I saw Sidonia way after everyone else, and haven’t seen Yozakura Quartet or many of the other titles that people name in this reddit thread, for example.

      But agreed on this:

      Most of the time, really good sound design does its best work when it isn’t consciously noticeable to the audience, which is why I imagine it so often goes unnoticed.

      Even now, I feel a bit guilty to be actively listening for what the sound team has done in Macross ∆, for example!

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  4. Enamelthyst says:

    Thank you as always for a great read—this site never fails me.

    I’m surprised no one’s yet mentioned Ghost Hound, which comes closer than any other anime to creating a true “soundscape” for itself. Years after watching the show, I recall its auditory elements far more vividly than the details of its plot or its visuals.

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    • karice says:

      And thank you for stopping by and for the generous comment—they’re pretty fun to write, so I think I’d do it anyway, but I’m happy that you enjoyed it ^^

      I did see Ghost Hound mentioned on that reddit link I posted above. However, I saw that show years ago, so I don’t really remember what it was like. Since I’m a seiyuu fan, what I remember most is the heavy accent that most of the characters had, especially Hoshi Souichirō because I found Makoto to be a really unusual role for him… Did you watch it subbed, or dubbed?

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  5. Pingback: Masterpost: On Anime ‘Writing’ Project | HOT CHOCOLATE IN A BOWL

  6. Pingback: Sound! Euphonium at the theatre: a performance to behold | HOT CHOCOLATE IN A BOWL

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