Hypersensitivity to Repetition


I’ve been aware of it for a few years, but I’m becoming increasingly sensitive to sound repetition. Or, at least, my reaction to repetition has become more intense, usually resulting in me shouting at the TV and digging my nails into Mrs. Kenny’s leg with much gnashing of teeth and cries of “WHY?! WHY WOULD ANYONE DO THAT?!”.

I’m not talking about subtle variations of the same sound, I’m talking about playing the exact same sound over and over again without any attempt at variation and with no stylistic or contextual justification for doing so.

Cheap-ass TV adverts are a likely bet to set me off on one of my angry, spitty fits. Likewise for cheap-ass TV documentaries with their obsession of (badly) adding foley to old, silent stock film footage. But when you watch a Hollywood blockbuster you expect a superior experience to no-budget broadcast productions, because someone who cares has been paid a lot of money to put the soundtrack together.

There are exceptions of course. In the pressure cooker of post-production it’s understandable that re-using a sound might be the quickest solution, or perhaps even unavoidable when there are an army of audio personnel beavering away. So, last night when I watched Terminator 2 for the first time in many years and heard the same sound being used for gas igniting, a bullet ricochet and a tyre exploding, it intrigued me more than annoyed me; the events were half an hour apart and only a freak (or a specialist) (or a specialist freak) would notice such a thing. I recall that there is a squawk that is used in the Lord of the Rings trilogy for both a passing crow and an orc being shot in the neck by an arrow. The reason these events jump out at me from the soundtrack is that the sound in question is so distinctive that the first time it is heard it lodges itself in my mind as “a nice sound that was fitting and I liked and will no doubt steal that idea one day, muhahahaha”, and from that point on it is a marked man and any re-appearance is quite likely to be picked up on by my hyper-annalytical auditory system.

But when I was watching the unusually PR audio-hyped Wall-E last weekend and, on at least three separate occasions, a sound was used over and over again to score the same event without any justification other than pure laziness, I was a bit miffed. There’s using a sound again with good reason, as when Eve introduces herself and says her name twice exactly the same way to reinforce the fact that she is artificial, a robot/machine/computer; we’re used to hearing the UI sounds on computers being identical which gives us a grounded sense of familiarity that a task is performing as we would expect. Then there’s using the same metal impact sound half a dozen times in the space of 2 seconds to score a robot knocking repeatedly on a door because you are enormously crap at your job and are clearly open to the idea of me biting you in the arm and gouging away at your face. Repeatedly.

But why would a beautiful sounding film, albeit one with too much music for my tastes, let its standards slip? The same people who cut the sounds on cheap-ass adverts and TV documentaries are the same people who add multiple instances of library sounds at Pixar without even thinking; non-sound people who need to bring their mute creations to life during production but don’t want to pay for it or understand why it’s important to use someone who has a clue or gives a rats ass even when it’s “just temporary”. It’s the same people who add temp music as a quick fix and then moan at the composer when their shiny new music isn’t identical to the temp track:

“Dammit man, can’t you make this music sound more like Thomas Newman? The temp track we’re using is perfect!”

“I am Thomas Newman”.

Poor old Ben Burtt, it’s not his fault.

All of which makes me glad I work in games. Which is ironic considering how dreadfully repetitive sounding games are, especially if you are unfortunate enough to overhear someone else playing one in the same room [shudders]. But at least I have the convenient excuse of games being outrageously repetitive experiences. It’s a different kind of repetition though. Honestly.

I’m pretty sure my hypersensitivity is in part due to me actively trying to avoid repetition in my work. If an individual sound event has six variations and is set to have a certain amount of random pitch variation and I don’t hear that reflected in-game, then something is broken. As previously mentioned, UI sounds are the exception; not hearing the same sound would be confusing to the user (“why did I get a different result for performing an identical task?”) and, personally, I like to take that to the extreme. But if you work in linear media you have no excuse. Except perhaps for pecking-order politics. For that you have my sympathy.