BBC Two Idents: Anatomy of a Soundscape

BBC Two Idents

Agency:

BBC Creative / Superunion

The Brief:

Whole new set of idents for BBC Two television channel

Each animation is visually inspired by a mood and relates to the programmes that appear before  or after them, as well as the programme trailers within the junctions.

A connecting thread and recognisable signature was required that linked all the moods (there are around 25 different films)

Each film had a “master” animation running at 42secs, with 8x cutdowns ranging from 2sec to 21sec. The “master” was also mixed in 5.1 surround.

The Idea:

Rather than producing something distinctly musical with a separate element of “sound design” my immediate thought was to create something that would blur the lines between the two. With much experience working on theatre productions as a composer and sound designer, I was keen to experiment with techniques I’d learnt in that medium when pitching ideas to the team.

We never wanted the viewer to recognise an instrument – or a sound – so much time was spent re-pitching and modulating recorded sound effects and foley into more “musical” forms – and performing musical instruments in unusual ways to create our own “sound effects” with a musical twist… ending up with an almost believable living soundscape for an environment you could nearly touch.

Most sounds are re-pitched, modulated, delayed and enhanced using a combination of vintage analogue studio equipment (tape loops, 70’s Yamaha and Moog synthesisers, analogue delays, Roland Space echo etc etc) and modern computer processing (plugins and digital manipulation, reverbs etc)… I would often take my piano apart and record noises whilst scratching or plucking or hitting strings with soft drumsticks. I scoured music shops for unusual sounding instruments to make noises from, recording them as unconventionally as possible. Nothing was safe around the house.. my wife’s pot plant became extremely useful in more than a few moods (including a starring role as a sneezing Christmas tree!).

I’ve dissected one particular film entitled “Charged” produced by The Mill, by separating out many of the sounds into layers – so you can hear how many of the different elements work together and blend into the finished soundscape. Every single film was produced and recorded very differently, but hopefully this will give you an idea of some of the techniques involved! I’ll look into other moods in more detail further down the line..

 

1: Chime – this starts every mood (and a reverse chime completes each of the cutdowns also). Different instruments were used as a chime for each mood. Lighter moods have lighter instruments like a triangle; darker moods would perhaps use a darker cowbell pitched down.

2: Harp Chord – the second part of the mnemonic; each mood has a slightly different chord (though always in the same key) and processed in the same way using reverbs and delays.

3: Textured String Swell – each mood features a slight swell after the initial chord, always using different instruments, but always the same chord as the harp. “Charged” uses samples of a number of small string sections from Spitfire performing “tremolo” bowing techniques (moving the bows up and down very fast in a shimmer).

4. Piano & Tape Delay – a couple of very simple piano notes were recorded on the piano in my studio and then put through a Roland Space Echo RE-150 (see photo below) – which is essentially a loop of tape of which you are able to control the speed and intensity of, to create some rather etherial and wonderful feedback loops (they date from the late 1970’s). Being analogue, rather than in the computer, ensures complete unpredictability which is what we’re always trying to achieve! I usually record the piano with Royer-121 and Sontronics Aria microphones. Thanks to Tony at Soundgas for recommending and sourcing the RE-150!

5. Roli Seaboard & Filters – the Roli Seaboard is a rather brilliant keyboard instrument that not only responds to which note you press, but with how hard you press it, and where, on the very rubbery keyboard (see pictures above and below). It means you’re able to “play” and manipulate certain sounds in realtime with your hands rather cleverly. Connected to a sound library called “Auras” by the rather brilliant Slate and Ash, some really expressive and fantastic sounds can be made.. In this case, the sounds were then pitched down an octave with a number of other creative reverbs and delays, and performed through a Moog filter (basically a creative equaliser for a synthesiser) which was then automated by hand in time to the visuals.. so the sound gets “brighter” whenever we see the curve of the number “2”.

6. Brushed Cymbals – using metal drum brushes on a Zildjian Constantinople cymbal, again playing in time with the light in the curve of the “2”.. recorded very close with a stereo pair of DPA 4006 microphones through a Neve 1073 preamp. 

7. FX: Underwater Rumbles and Delays – the sounds were sourced sound effects which were then pitched, equalised, with added creative reverb and delay to make them sound rather huge and menacing.. again, really working with the curve of light of the “2”

8: FX: Wind – this acts as more of a constant layer underneath – other than placing it into an acoustic space with reverb and moving the sound field around a little, the sound is pretty raw!

9: FX: Fizzing Bubbles – fizzing bubbles from a glass which were then processed through ambient reverbs to place them in a bigger space to work alongside the rest of the soundscape. These were then mixed with the sound of fireworks!

10: FX: Layers of Electricity – I’ve ended up with a lot of recorded sounds of electricity on my hard drive ever since working with the band Underworld on a show called Frankenstein at the National Theatre directed by the incredible Danny Boyle. So many of these spikes of electricity were taken from the same palette! Again all processed quite heavily through reverb and delays.

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Once all the elements are put together, the process of mixing all the sounds to create a continuously changing soundscape was completed (some screenshots of which you can see below, in Pro Tools). In the recording session you’ll see many greyed out tracks which were experiments and previous versions / ideas that didn’t make the cut! Almost all of the moods have at least double the used material recored and manipulated in the process of trying to find a sound that works.. In fact, I’d probably say that “Charged” was one of the simpler moods when it came to the sheer number of different elements involved!!

It’s exciting to see where these idents will go next (I’m presently working on the next small batch of them). I’ve also been working on some 3D Headphone mixes of some moods which I’ll hopefully be demonstrating on this site at some point soon.

All the moods were a real collaboration with the team at BBC Creative and Superunion who were all so passionate about making them as best we could do, and the finished product really shows. Special thanks must go to Susan Ayton, Kath Tudball, Stuart Radford, Suzanne Neal, Laurent Simon, Phoebe Bibbings, Georgina Merrick, Ken Rodrigues, Erik Brattested, Emma Hamilton and everyone else who worked so closely on their production. Hugest thanks must to go to Jennifer Baranowski, who worked tirelessly on all the moods helping to find a palette of sounds and ideas (she also happens to be my wife!). Also my brilliant mate Pete Malkin for stepping in with his advice and ideas every now and again.

Huge thanks also to the brilliant list of animators on the project; The Mill, Aardman, FutureDeluxe, Conlan Normington, David McLeod, Ari Weinkle, Helmut Breineder, Kenneth Robin, Mainframe, Kijek & Adamski (Strange Beasts). 

Do keep following this blog or find me on twitter for more updates. And feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions or ideas for a follow up!

 

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