Baby Driver is a film that’s built on top of music and wrapped in sound. Award-winning sound designer Julian Slater wants to make sure you won’t miss a single sonic detail.

 

For even the most talented Hollywood sound gurus, the creative process can end on an agonizing note. No matter how much effort sound designers, engineers, and composers put into the sonic landscape of a film, they know how most of us watch it at home: On devices that just aren’t optimized to sound great. Televisions with cheap built-in speakers. Laptops. Even smartphones. In their quest to cram our lives with as many screens as possible, big technology companies often overlook an important detail: The way things sound.

Julian Slater, the award-winning sound designer behind Baby Driver and Mad Max: Fury Road knows this pain well. To help craft a immersive, multi-sensory narrative in Baby Driver, Slater oversaw the process of wrapping sound effects and dialogue around the music that’s woven into the plot of the action-heavy film. The result is an impressive feat of audiovisual storytelling—Not to mention three Academy Award® nominations.

But after toiling away for months on a movie’s sound mix and stretching the limits of his craft, Slater knows his work will show up in a variety of places—from state-of-the-art theaters with incredible sound systems to low-end smartphones. And few, if any, people out in the world will ever pay as much mind to sound as he does.

“Sound is actually quite a forgotten thing,” says Slater. “It’s a lot of work that goes into it. And yet, it quite often doesn’t get noticed.”

But there’s hope: We’re evolving beyond the novelty of portable, convenient tech and into an era where focused, immersive cultural experiences become the antidote to our screen-induced anxieties. Sound is a major part of this shift, as more people recognize that room-filling sonic clarity is not only attainable—It’s good for you.

Sonos, for one, does care deeply about how people experience sound at home. That’s why creators like Slater take the time to sit with our Sound Experience Leader Giles Martin and his team to help us ensure that the ones and zeros and hardware design are doing justice to their art. In effect, these people become the critical ears of Sonos, not just helping one company sell speakers, but making an impact on the future of how sonic culture gets experienced.

We recently sat down with Slater at our London outpost to learn about his approach to sound-driven storytelling and get his feedback on some of our latest products—and to double check that he’s happy with the way Baby Driver sounds through Sonos.

Baby Driver is unique in that it’s driven by music, with the rest of the sound wrapped around each song. How was your approach to sound design different for this movie?
I’d like to say day one I sat down and knew exactly how to tackle it, but I didn’t. It’s not really been done before, to do something where the existing music cues are driving the narrative of what’s happening on the screen and then everything else audio-wise is pinned onto that and either sunk to or pitched around it.

Normally, you have the music, and you have the sound effects, or sound design and the dialogue. And they’re kind of three areas that inhabit their own ecosystem until you get to the mix. And then you blend them all together to work as well as you can.

This was different: We had the songs, and everything was then hitched onto those songs. Sounds are tempo-matched to work with the songs. All the dog barks, police sirens, bank alarms, engine revs, it’s all pinned onto those music cues, so they all work together. It’s a bit of symphonia, with everything working as one thing.

Watching the film, it almost sounds like you’re in Baby’s head. Was that your intention?
That was always Edgar’s intention. [Writer and director Edgar Wright] had this idea for 23 years, he was saying. Baby is in every scene of the movie, and he submerses himself in music for a variety of reasons, not least because he suffers from this ringing in the ears. And he needs music to get him through his day, to help cover up this ringing in his ears. Part of the challenge was to tell the sonic journey that he goes through.

For example, things like pulling the earbud out of his right ear, and then playing music on the left-hand side of the mix for an entire scene. That’s something that one does not normally do, because that could be distracting. Everything that we’ve done is there to help enhance the story, and help portray what Baby is hearing.

Julian Slater, Dound Designer of “Baby Driver”
Julian Slater, Sound Designer of “Baby Driver”

What was the hardest part about doing things this way?
The challenge was doing it in such a way that you can relate to it, so you understand what’s happening through Baby’s perspective, but also that it’s not a tiresome thing. There are many things that are happening between [Baby’s] tinnitus and the syncopation that’s happening throughout the movie.

For example, if Baby’s not listening to music in his ear buds or music is not playing within the environment, we hear the tinnitus sounds. And they get louder in the mix the more stressed he gets, like what happens in real life for people who suffer from it. You’ve got to make sure if you’re going to do that over an hour and fifty-something minutes, that it’s done in a way that is not going to be tiresome to the audience.

And you matched the sound effects to the tempo of each song. Was that challenging?
Yeah, tempo mapping is something I’d never done before. I’ve been doing this a few years now, and to work in that way–working in bars and beats, and tempo mapping sound effects—is something I’d never done before. I had to learn how to do it, and had the help of far more musical people than me.

So, you put a lot of work into the sound of the film but, inevitably, a lot of people will be watching at home on cheap TVs, laptops or cell phones—devices that weren’t designed with the sound experience in mind. Does this make you cringe?
It’s such a wide spectrum of listening environments. Even when you say on the phone, if someone is listening on the phone on ear buds, I’d be happier on that than obviously listening off the phone speakers. And you can’t control those environments. Obviously, you aim for the top.

In that moment when you’re mixing a movie, you are primarily thinking about the [theater] format, whether it’s 7.1, 5.1, Dolby Atmos. But you cannot ignore the fact that the majority of people are going to probably see it at home, whether on their TV or on a larger screen. Someone could be listening on a very poor TV at home. And if there’s anything that we can do, that brings this up a few notches, so that the two are starting to meet, it’s something that I love to be involved in.

Which is why you’re here today, kindly giving us feedback on the sound of the Playbase. How did you first become familiar with Sonos?
I listen to Sonos for music. I have it in pretty much every room in my house. And then I also have a nice little setup in the den, which has a projector, the Playbar, and the Sub, and two Sonos Ones as surrounds. So, I use it whenever I’m home. There’s either music on, or there’s a movie playing, or my boys are playing Minecraft on the projector screen, and it’s all going through the 5.1 setup.

What are your impressions of what you’re hearing in our listening session today?  
For the first time, I heard Baby Driver on the Playbase, and it’s great. We’re in a pretty large room, and it’s filling up the environment. It doesn’t sound compressed. I can hear my mix back and I can hear the detail of what was done. And I can hear the low end and I can hear the clarity. If I close my eyes, it sounds like it’s coming way further left and right than the actual speaker itself. I don’t know what’s going on under the hood, but I’m all for it. Anything that helps bring that experience to the person at home can only be a good thing, right?

Very few companies actually do this. How encouraging is it for you that someone’s actually wanting to hear your opinion about things?
It’s very encouraging! It’s often said it’s 50% the picture, 50% sound. But sound is actually quite a forgotten thing. What someone like me and my peers do, it’s all very complicated, and it’s a lot of work that goes into it. And yet, it quite often doesn’t get noticed. So, to work on something where the sound is almost a character of the movie–it’s certainly been written into the DNA of the script–is great.

Obviously, if you’re going to spend months and months working on something, you want it to sound as good as it possibly can throughout the whole chain–Whether it’s in Dolby Atmos in an amazing sounding cinema, or whether it’s at home. So anything that can be done to narrow that dynamic range of in-cinema and at home, it’s all great. It helps the story-telling process of the movie.