Filmsound Articles - Ann Kroeber and Alan Splet

The work of film sound designers and field recordist Ann Kroeber and Alan Splet has left an indelible mark on cinema and, particularly, on the way sound is used to tell stories creatively. Together they worked on a number of films that have pioneered the use of sound and, in particular, sound design: Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Dune, and Blue Velvet - all directed by David Lynch.
A pioneer of film sound, Alan Splet is widely regarded as a genius. Reason enough to devote an article to the dynamic duo, Ann Kroeber and Alan Splet.
In 1980, Alan Splet received an Oscar for his work on The Black Stallion. He was also awarded a Lifetime Achievement Oscar before his untimely death in 1994.

Filmsound Articles - Ann Kroeber and Alan Splet Overview

Ann Kroeber talks about Alan Splet, David Lynch, contact microphones, and much more

Video: Ann Kroeber speaks at the AES Meeting in Boston 2009. Unfortunately, the poster on the lectern is not the only so-so job in this video - the sound and picture quality is equally dodgy. Bummer, AES!

Ann Kroeber was introduced to the world of sound by accident, when her former boss at the United Nations asked her to record some crowd noises. Ann, who had never before made a sound recording, was suddenly faced with the task of operating a tape recorder. To this day she claims to be a technophobe, easily overwhelmed by any technical device. Maybe this can be traced back to the fact that her father never even let her use the stereo system, afraid she might break something. So, when she was first given a Nagra and a decent microphone, she had no idea how to use those items.

After jotting down the precise operating instructions of a tape recorder, she went out and made recordings of the Chinese New Year celebrations.

Ann Kroeber

When I put on those headphones for the first time and heard all the voices, noises, and sounds captured by the microphone, a whole new world opened up for me!

After a few years in New York, Ann moved to San Francisco, where she met Alan Splet on a minor recording gig. Alan was working on the film Black Stallion for David Lynch. He took Ann to a horse farm (actually, Walter Murch's farm – god knows how anyone had the time to look after horses back then!) to record the sounds of horses.

Ann Kroeber about her first sound recordings with Alan Splet

Alan was guiding the horse, trying to make it do things we needed for the recordings. I was holding on to the recorder and the microphone. Soon enough, Alan started yelling at me: 'why are you pointing the mic there?' I noticed that I was aiming the mic in a way that no text book would ever recommend.

I became nervous, as I had never worked with Alan before. In the end I told him I was aiming the mic at the spot that sounded best.

Alan then took over the recording, and I ended up guiding the horse. Naturally, Alan pointed the microphone in a correct position, certainly from a logical or learned standpoint. But then he began to search with the mic and ultimately ended up in my spot.

Ann Kroeber about sound recording

I make the recording where it sounds best. Period.

Ann Kroeber about Alan Splet and Black Stallion

Together with Alan, Ann made many recordings of horses for the film Black Stallion. For this purpose, Alan custom-built a bracket to hang onto the horse. This way, a microphone could be mounted underneath the horse's mouth. Despite the fact that it was a cheap mic, the recordings turned out really well.

Image: Ann Kroeber and Alan Splet recording horse sounds for the film Black Stallion in 1979.

Ann Kroeber about recording horse sounds (1979!) at approx. 13:00

Thanks to Alan's bracket, we were able to make a lot of excellent recordings of the horses. One microphone was attached to the horse's belly; it gave us a completely new and unprecedented sound texture for the riding and horse scenes.

Thanks to the microphone mounted beneath the horse's mouth, we managed to capture very nice recordings of the animal's breathing. These breathing noises convey a great closeness to the animal.

In the presentation, Ann shows a clip from the racing scene in Black Stallion (at 14:26).

Ann Kroeber about the creation of the horse race – 16:30

This scene consists solely of sounds. There's no music. The entire energy of the race is conveyed through the horses' sounds, which create a very strong and immediate feel.

The scene basically demonstrates how much you can achieve by simply using sounds.

As racing sequences normally rely on music, Ann explains why this particular scene was mixed without a score.

Ann Kroeber about the creation of the horse race in Black Stallion – 16:30

This sequence revolves purely around the race, nothing else. That's why we decided – in close collaboration with the composer – to not use any music.

The best that can happen on a movie is collaboration: music and sounds should not be competing with each other; each element should be used where it fits best.

Sounds can enhance music or even take its place in some scenes. But other scenes might work better with music. It's this dance between music and sound that ultimately makes a movie work. It's pointless to discuss what's more important and why.

Ann Kroeber about recording animals

Ann became famous for her impressive animal recordings. In her presentation, she explains how she tries to establish a bond with the animals - such as the mustang she recorded for a Robert Redford movie.

In order to get a worthy and interesting lead performance from a cheetah in another film, she needed to record a wide range of sounds and noises made by these animals.

Working with predators is not exactly without its dangers. But Ann seemed to have a good working relationship with animals; unlike one of the photographers who was attacked on the cheetah farm, Ann managed to get the big cats to purr into her microphone.

Ann Kroeber about contact microphones

When dealing with field recording, we always aim to record things separately. When Ann heard about contact microphones for the first time in a documentary, she was excited by the idea of recording elements completely separate from each other. As it turned out, the inventor of the contact microphone - The Frap, as it was called (Flat Response Audio Pickup)—live in San Francisco. Ann contacted him and together they continued to develop the microphone. Eventually, Ann managed to test it.

Ann Kroeber about the contact microphone The Frap – 41:00

I attached the contact microphone to all sorts of things. It sounded as if you were actually inside the thing. As if you were inside a machine. When I attached the Frap to a ventilator, a whole new world opened up.

Ann plays the ventilator recording with the Frap at 41:54

The Frap contact microphone was used extensively on the David Lynch films Dune and Blue Velvet. For Dune in particular, Ann collected many Frap recordings.

Ann Kroeber about the David Lynch film, Dune

Ann Kroeber about Dune – 41:45

Contact microphone recordings are simply incredible. For Dune, we didn't know how the world of the film was going to sound. So, I spent almost a year traveling to various places, making Frap recordings.

Dune was a difficult film for David (Lynch). There was much studio interference; they often wouldn't allow him to do things the way he wanted. Many sounds from my archive were never used for the film.

When Ben Burtt was looking for sounds for Star Wars, he contacted Ann. She played him sounds recorded with the Frap. Many sounds, however, were too 'Lynchian' for Star Wars – they fitted the director's films much better.

At approx. 50:10, Ann demonstrates a recording of a Slinky, recorded both with a conventional microphone and with the Frap microphone. It's an impressive example of the hidden qualities captured by a contact microphone: so many sounds around us are never heard.

The Slinky sound eventually become one of Ben Burtt's staples, who used it for the laser shots in Star Wars,

Ann Kroeber about working with David Lynch

At 1:03:00, Ann discusses what it's like working with David Lynch.

Ann Kroeber about working with David Lynch

Working with David is great. It's a thrilling experience. For Lost Highway, he called me and said we needed 'dreaming wind'. So, I began to think about what he meant by 'dreaming wind'.

For me, dreaming wind sounded like singing angels or other spherical elements, so I made a few suggestions to him. When I told David about this on the phone, there was total silence on the other end. That's when I realised that David Lynch's idea of 'dreaming wind' was probably something more low-level and abysmal, not a singing angel. That seemed to cheer him up.

Ann Kroeber about working on Dune with David Lynch

I spent many months before the shoot talking to David about the sounds and noises of Dune. Many of my recordings were made long before the shoot.

about Ann Kroeber

Ann Kroeber is an American sound designer and field recordist. Together with Alan Splet, she became famous for her pioneering work on David Lynch's films. Ann later married Alan Splet, who passed away in 1994. Ann Kroeber continues to be a highly regarded sound recordist and sound designer.

More links about the subject:

Alan Splets Sound Design for Dune

Ann Kroeber Special - a Pioneering Sound Woman

Sound Designer Tim Prebble about Contact Microphones