Monday, January 25, 2016

Kylo Ren Vocal Sound Design

I'm currently at three viewings of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens", and I have to say I call it quite satisfying. It’s like somebody un-paused the classic trilogy after a long time, upgraded the technical aspects, and made the welcome revision that women and people of color can be cast to portray characters of true agency in these films.

While I find its lack of Y-Wings disturbing, I'm heartened by the inclusion of Admiral Ackbar. I feel like the new characters have been set up for some fine adventures. And while to some degree I sympathize with the criticism that practically everything in the movie is a reimagining of something from the original trilogy-- especially from the first two films-- this appears to be an effort to establish a style guide, and also to ingrain some new quirks into established character types.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the persona of Kylo Ren, who clearly wishes he was Darth Vader. And that's what's great about him, since the fact is he's merely a pretender. Not nearly as good at keeping his cool, biding his time, fighting off Jedi rookies, etc. It makes his tantrums a lot more fun to watch, but he's got a ways to go before he achieves Vaderositude.

I'm intrigued by the sound of his voice through his helmet-- a mostly useless helmet, it appears. Unlike Grandpa Vader, Ren suffers no apparent disability and removes his headgear at whim, like the guy on SCTV who rolled around in a wheelchair but occasionally got up and walked around whenever he felt like it.

The subtle futz applied to Adam Driver's voice to achieve the tone we hear through his helmet sounds appropriately lo-fi and just a tiny bit buzzy, like some kind of dinky practice amp lamely imitating Vader's much more present vocal processing. And without the gas mask breathing sound, of course. I'm really curious to find out how it was achieved, since (like Ren's visual appearance, which I understand was one of the most fussed-over designs in the film) it appears to have been executed very carefully. I haven't found any explanations in my searches (although these folks seem to have some good ideas), so at this point the following is mere guesswork.

For starters, Driver's vocal performance "inside the helmet" is precise and clearly enunciated. That helps a lot, since the processing seems to amount to subtle distortion for the most part, and clear diction keeps the lines legible. One idea-- I really hope it's this, since it fits the retro approach of the production in general-- is that the treatment amounts to feeding the vocal performance through a specific speaker or amplifier. "Worldizing" it, as Walter Murch would say.

For one thing, I do think Driver's lines were pitched down anywhere from one to three semitones before further routing-- his voice inside the helmet just plain sounds deeper than when he doesn't have it on. Otherwise, I speculate that the sound was achieved by the judicious application of any number of effects, either analog or digital. (The "warmth" of the processing tempts a knee-jerk assertion that it must be analog, but the truth is we're way past the point of being able to tell.) Compression, overdrive, distortion, and EQ are all potential tools in the signal chain. And again, I think these effects were applied very subtly, since it doesn't come across as explicit distortion but rather as light processing. Perhaps one effect was applied heavily, but the rest very subtly. That sort of thing.

So we'll have to see. I nurture a fantasy that Ben Burtt will reveal the signal chain in a bonus feature sometime. But for now, Kylo Ren's voice remains one of many delicious mysteries posed by "The Force Awakens".

[UPDATE 2/7/16: Turns out I was pretty much right, according to this article in Post Magazine... not like it was that hard to guess, but hey!]

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