How Tim Farrell used Sound Particles on Star Trek: Discovery and The Walking Dead
Tim Farrell is a Sound Effects Editor that has worked on big TV shows such as The Walking Dead and Star Trek: Discovery. He sat down with us to chat about how his career evolved, the most challenging parts of his job, and what he loves most about creating all types of sound effects - including what his surprising favorite sound effect is. Here's all about Tim and also how he loves to use Sound Particles!
Learn how Tim FARRELL used Sound Particles
on Star Trek: Discovery and The Walking Dead
How did you get interested in sound?
My first real exposure to the industry happened when I was a child and sort of fell into acting. It was something I did for fun almost like a hobby, albeit a very professional one. I was fortunate enough to land a few roles here and there in television, movies, and commercials. From there I knew I loved the film industry and filmmaking. I remember being fascinated when I was asked to record ADR for projects and learned how much things can change on a project after you finish filming. One project in particular was filmed entirely using IMAX cameras which at the time, were not designed for sound. As a result, almost all the dialogue in the film had to be redone in post to remove the sound of the camera from the set recordings, and that was when I really first realized how involved the sound process could be.
For college, I ended up being accepted into USC’s Film Production program and that’s where I really started getting interested, even more so, in the behind-the-scenes aspect of filmmaking. I arrived really not knowing what I would do or where I would end up, but USC film school does an amazing job at teaching the fundamentals for every department of filmmaking which helps students explore and figure out where they want to end up. For the lack of better words, that’s where I discovered I had an ear for sound which lead me to decide to pursue it as a career. I had a really great teacher, Don Hall, who was just the kindest gentleman who taught me so much and really inspired me to explore sound more seriously.
After college, I was lucky enough to land an internship at Soundelux, amidst some hugely talented editors. I’ve always believed good luck happens when you are in the right place at the right time, and at Soundelux, I knew I was in the right place, so I did my best to work hard and wait for the right time, and it all developed from there.
How did you get into sound effects?
When I was In college, I discovered my favorite part of the sound process was the mix and I really fell in love with mixing. I think I mixed around 50 or so student films while I was there. I loved it because it would result in the moment, where all the tiny pieces of every aspect of the process would finally truly come together, and the film would come alive. When you finish the mix, you become the first people to see the final movie. Also, I really enjoyed interacting with the filmmakers and solving problems creatively together. For some reason, the sound effects side of the console always interested me the most, so when I graduated my goal was to become a sound effects mixer. When I looked at my options I saw two paths. The first was to work in a machine room as a recordist, and the second was to work as an editor first, which is the path I chose because I felt it would help me better understand truly what pieces were most important and how to create them. So here I am. I don’t mix as much as I used to, but I’m hoping perhaps to start steering my career back towards that initial path again sometime.
I took a look at your portfolio on IMDB and I know that since 2006 you went from only working in film to working mostly on TV series. Was there any particular reason for that?
When I was working at Soundelux, it was the feature film branch of a larger company. It had many names but, at the time, it was called Ascent Media. So as I was working my way up, as an apprentice and then as an assistant, I developed a relationship with another key human being in my career, Jon Mete. He was offered a job at Todd AO, the TV branch of Ascent Media, supervising a television show, and asked me to come work for him on it and bump me up to a full editor’s position. I saw it as an incredible opportunity and I took it. The thing with TV is that you get on a show and it goes for several months. Eventually, I found myself in a position where I was just working a bunch in television and had made lots of contacts in television, and just had less time to do work on feature films.
I also love to travel so, when I was in my late twenties and I had some time in between shows, instead of looking for feature work, I would take the time to travel somewhere. I didn’t have many expenses in my life yet which gave me the freedom to just up and go somewhere for a month or two or three. And so, I would take the time between seasons/jobs to explore and recharge myself mentally abroad. By the time I’d come back from a trip, the next season/show would be starting up and I’d be excited about getting back to work. That was another hugely appealing aspect to working in television for me, it allowed me the freedom to travel because at the time, the work was seasonal and I knew I’d have a job in the fall, so I could travel all summer. However TV has changed significantly since then.
Nowadays, with the current trend of binge-watching, there is a constant demand for content. The good news is, we’re really in a second golden era of television with incredible content being produced all the time, but that seasonality of the job is no longer there. It’s become a full-time year-round job. And furthermore, in this race for content, the bar of quality for work being produced on television in all departments has been raised so high, as shows compete for viewers. There are so many amazing shows that create such incredible opportunities for sound people to do truly outstanding work. The difference between television and feature film work is completely blurred.
For instance, in Walking Dead you did almost 100 episodes, how hard was it to transition from one TV series to another?
It really depends on the show. Every job is different and has different needs, and I take different approaches every time. The process of finding sounds, creating them and putting them in sync to picture is very similar, but each show has its own kind of life, politics and perspective, and I just try to figure out what that is and proceed from there.
I remember on Walking Dead, every season I would try to start over, and wipe my palette clean. I didn’t want to just recycle the same sounds I used the previous season, so I’d make new punches and stabs every year. Also we had 3 different showrunners over the course of the time I was there and their tastes for how they wanted the show to sound would be very different from each other. One thing all the episodes of The Walking Dead had in common, was a lot of groups of zombies interacting with many different surfaces (a horde of zombies bangs on a wall, a horde of zombies bangs against a fence), and at a certain point I understood that I was needing to use a lot of the same kind of materials again and again, as my source for it was a bit limited. This lead me to look into using a sampler to create instruments of bangs/bumps on various surfaces with a larger variety, so I could start to perform the zombie impacts rather than cut them, and keep going back to the same sounds every time. That made the job a lot more fun and took a lot of the repetition out of it.
In the end, sound editing is all about transforming raw source material into something else by using it in different ways and applying different effects to make different composite sounds. On a show like Star Trek, certain things need to sound the same and become signature sounds that will become a part of the canon. When I’m creating a sound like the transporter, I know I’m not creating it just for that episode, I’m creating it for the show. Of course, sounds can evolve over the course of the season/series. For example, the sound of the ship flying/maneuvering might start off as one small piece in an early episode and in a later episode, we’ll need to develop it further as suddenly we see it doing a large number of maneuvers. So you start with just the small bit you have initially (there’s no time to try to develop all your ship movements for the season in one go) and you know that more pieces will be added later and that’s tomorrow’s problem.
How do you manage to avoid fatigue when doing so many episodes of the same show?
I will say that by the end of Walking Dead I was very fatigued from doing zombies and gore, and that was why I ultimately made the decision to leave the show. I loved the people I worked with and it was a wonderful experience - a truly incredible set of years. However, I’d gotten to a point where creatively I wanted to do something different, and so I decided to leave at the end of season 7. It was terrifying because I was really worried that I would end up on something I didn’t like as much, but thankfully I landed on Star Trek: Discovery.
Of course, that was really an example of “be careful what you wish for”, because now I get to be wildly creative, but that has its own set of problems. Being constantly creative and every day being met with the same mountain of creating new and unique sounds is fatiguing in its own way. Like anything, creativity is a muscle and it gets fatigued and it needs time to recuperate. Which is why I always recommend people take time off between projects, if they can. Travelling when I was younger and between seasons was fantastic because after a few months off, I’d be so excited to make sounds again. You need that time to recharge and get your brain ready to do the deep dive into the next creative universe of sound.
What are the sounds you prefer to create?
When I first started out, I had this concept that some sounds were more interesting than others - “Wow explosions are so much cooler than door closes!”. But the reality is, when it comes to doing the work and the process, it’s not that one type of sound is more important than another, it depends entirely on your story and the most interesting sounds are the ones that help tell the story the best, and clearly convey the emotional context of what the filmmaker wants to convey in the scene. Sometimes these sounds are huge spaceships ripping across the sky (which are undoubtedly cool), and other times those sounds can be much, much smaller. To use the example of a door close, let's say a character is trying to close a door quietly without waking up someone sleeping in the room. In a scene, if the sleeper does not awaken as a result of the close, I might try to find a small clicky latch, that plays nice and subtle, whereas, if the sleeper is supposed to be awoken by the door close, perhaps I’ll add a sticky wood jamb that makes a louder squeak and a larger thud. Solving these kinds of problems through the choice of different details is something I really love.
An example of a show where I really was able to have fun creating worlds out of small details was See, where the premise of the show is that everyone is blind. This was really fun as a sound designer because how the characters experienced the world sonically was hugely important, and we worked hard on getting into the character’s heads and portraying their sonic POV. For example, at some point, they were at a silk weaving factory. For most of the scene we’re just with our characters, but it was so much fun to build this detailed environment of a bunch of blind workers weaving silk by hand. There was the “chunk chunk” sound of the looms being operated as well as all the little movements of everyone else in the scene working this antiquated hand-spun machinery. I love to create environments that feel alive and rich and full of life. That’s where the challenge comes.
Lately, I’ve been having a lot of fun creating science fiction sounds for the Star Trek series, because a lot of them have so much impact on the story. So many things that need sounds are not based in reality so you have to really come up with a sound that communicates the story or the action of the scene, but also still feels like a real sound something that doesn’t exist would make. It’s a double-edged sword. There are no rules, so it could sound like anything, but that means it could literally sound like anything and there's a lot of trial and error before something really comes alive and sticks to the image. I think that’s my other favorite type of sound to create. Something that really makes something on-screen come alive.
Do you still record a lot of sounds or do you think that the industry is tending to use more and more library sounds, as it’s easier and it’s faster?
I love recording sounds when I can, but with TV we don’t have the time budgeted for this so it can be a bit sporadic. I do what I can when I can, but a lot of my sources for my work come from commercial libraries in addition to recordings I’ve done. Any chance I have to use something that is unique to me that I’ve recorded, I will definitely use it before turning to a commercial library. And like all things, my library of personal recordings grows and evolves over time. On The Walking Dead, there was a scene I did where a character was attacked by a pit bull. As an owner of one, it was super easy to just grab a rope and start playing tug of war with my dog and get her to start growling and snarling (she sounds vicious but it’s just her way of inciting play), and voila! I had a new unique recording of a sound I needed. Then later on Star Trek: Picard, again, there was a pit bull being featured, but in a very different context, so again, I started recording my dog and created a voice for that character as well. And now I have a much more complete recording of my dog. So in short, I love to use original recordings as often as I can, but when I’m up against a tight deadline and speed is of the essence, commercial libraries tend to be where I go first. There are some really amazing people out there putting out some really incredible libraries. We’re very fortunate to have access to them nowadays.
Can you tell us in which projects you used Sound Particles?
I was introduced to Sound Particles when I was working on The Walking Dead and was completely blown away by it. I started off with what I’m guessing is the most common quickly realized use for it, which was creating 5.1 beds for a battle scene. The heroes were inside this town and it was raided by the villains, and there was this huge battle taking place and I had to create the different perspectives of people fighting in different locations all over town, and how the battle around them would change due to different weapons being used while also maintaining this connection to the other battles taking place. Sound Particles was perfect for it. I could load it up with the specific weapons for specific characters and it allowed me to create different beds and perspectives very quickly for the various events happening all over town. That’s what really hooked me into it. That and I was blown away by how natural and real everything sounded.
Then when I started on Star Trek: Discovery, it quickly became an essential tool. In the second episode, there was a huge spaceship battle. Again, perfect use because I had all these custom lasers, photon torpedoes and unique battles sounds that I could expand and build across this huge epic space battle, which I had figured out how to do from my work on The Walking Dead. The finale of season 2 was another epic battle where we again filled out the space with unique battles sounds created in Sound Particles. It was especially useful for creating the distant battle sounds in the background when we’re with our heroes on an asteroid nearby. We could see the battle unfold in the distance and it was so great to be able to use Sound Particles to quickly create that perspective.
But Sound Particles gets really fun when you start to use it as a sound design tool for specific sounds. It can really help take a bunch of static source material and add so much life and movement to it.
For example, the Klingon ship cloaking device sound was created with sound particles using a number of electricity sounds cut very short and processed to move past the virtual mic inside Sound Particles. The mycellium spore network sounds (spore chamber, the spore particles, the spore movement) were all done by creating a source and feeding it into Sound Particles (in this case lots of tiny metal impacts pitched up) to create the movement of thousands of tiny pieces of energy working together and interacting. I used it to create a number of alien creature beds for various planets. Not only was I able to take unique creature sounds and build an environment similar to battles with creatures coming closer and moving further away, but I used it to create the specific sound of various creatures as well.
I made these awesome cicada-like insects for an alien planet using a bunch of individual dolphin clicks I cut up. There’s an episode that starts off inside of a replicator as it’s building a uniform and I used it to create the movement for the massive blocks of energy that were building up and forming inside the device. In Picard, I used it to create a number of the sounds inside the Borg Cube. Even though the cube was considered dormant and disconnected from the Borg network, there was still this notion that it was somehow alive. So I created a number of sounds for it with Sound Particles to sell the deep internal movement and life of the cube that was still permeating and lingering throughout the core. What’s great is you can use sound particles to create such a wide variety of material from very literal things like a swarm of bats leaving a cave (which I did for the Batwoman pilot) to expansive unique environments that could only exist in the sonic universe of your show.
The possibilities are endless.
Thank you for sharing your process with us, Tim. It's impressive to hear about the behind-the-scenes of such big TV shows, and especially gratifying to hear how Sound Particles helped you in the process! We hope you keep creating amazing sound effects and that you'll share them with all of us.
If you liked this interview, check out this interview we did with Paul Boechler, sound designer of EA Games FIFA, or this interview with our very own founder, Nuno Fonseca!