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The Secrets Behind the Sound Design of Blade Runner 2049

Logan Baker

Here’s an in-depth look at the brilliant sound design and the incredible score that created the evocative tone of Blade Runner 2049.

Above image via Soundworks Collection.

A few of the minds behind the recent sci-fi neo-noir masterpiece, Blade Runner 2049, take us behind-the-scenes in this in-depth look at the creation of some of the sounds and orchestration. The film debuted this year to stellar reviews and maintained the spirit of the original while establishing its own form of masterful filmmaking. With a perfect blend of collaboration and direction, the post-production team created one of the best-sounding movies of the past decade. Let’s take a look at how they pulled it off.

Life in the Background

The Secrets Behind the Sound Design of Blade Runner 2049 — Background
Image via Warner Bros.

One of the revelatory features of the original film was the diegetic sounds living and breathing in the environment of future Los Angeles. The sounds vary from multi-lingual advertisements to a looming voice detailing the wonders of life off-world. The future will be loud, jumbled, and inescapable in the heart of the crowded, wet metropolis that makes up the world of Blade Runner. This detail was not lost in the sequel. The new crew made sure to capture the same tone and environment, and the director, Denis Villenueve, had a major say in which aspects carried over in his contribution to the franchise. The sounds making up the background in Blade Runner 2049 are just as, if not more, important than the visuals of the film.

The editor for Denis’s previous two films, Sicario and ArrivalJoe Walker closed his eyes and just listened to the audio of the film to figure out the pace and style. This precise attention to detail is how good films become great in the edit bay. The care and attention that went into Blade Runner 2049 is a testament to the importance of the relationship between directors, composers, and sound designers during post-production.

Creating the Soundscapes

The Secrets Behind the Sound Design of Blade Runner 2049 — Soundscape
Image via Soundworks Collection.

In terms of pulling directly from the original film and creating their own soundscapes, the team took one major lesson from the Ridley Scott classic by blurring the lines between sound effects and score. The film’s supervising sound editor, Mark Mangini, discusses what it was like balancing originality while staying true to a new project:

I began making very brooding musical textures that would underpin almost every scene. So if you listen in any given scene, even if its a talkie in a room, there are these languid kind of pads and tones that are reminiscent of things that Vangelis had done in the first film that you didn’t know were his score, and they weren’t really score they were his kind of sonic noodlings. So I created these sonic noodlings that were made from musical textures — things like wind chimes and guitars, winds, saxophones. But you wont know them as those sounds when you hear the film. But you’ll get this sense that there’s a brooding tone that creates an atmosphere, a mood . . . and you don’t know what it is, but it fills the scene with a kind of feeling.

This simplicity in instrumentation and methodology came directly from Denis. Perhaps the director’s greatest contribution to the post-production process of the film was his input for how Blade Runner 2049 would feel and sound. Luckily for all of us who have seen the film, the minimal approach was the right choice. If there are traditional science fiction sounds, like your bleeps and your blorps, Denis looks away. This simple-yet-profound take on telling stories in a different way is what sets Denis apart from the other directors working today.

Recording the Sounds

The Secrets Behind the Sound Design of Blade Runner 2049 — Recording
Image via Soundworks Collection

To create the massive soundscape, the sound editors curated a massive library of 2,600 sound elements for the film. Mangini went full-blown DIY, crafting some of the most simple, seemingly obvious sounds and turning them into something special.

To create the sounds for the car that K (Ryan Gosling’s character) drives, Mangini put a subwoofer in his wife’s car and let it rattle throughout the rough, weathered audio that makes the vehicles in Blade Runner feel so lived-in. The ingenuity didn’t stop there. In order to accurately capture the rain for the film, Mangini crafted his own recording device that avoided unwanted rain splatters on the microphone.

I wanted to be in the middle of rain so I could capture an immersive recording of seven channels of microphones. So I built a custom rig that would protect the microphones in about a 1 meter square of absorptive material and separation material so you wouldn’t hear the splatter on top of the microphone. So I captured an extraordinary array of heavy deluges and little trickles and drips in seven-channel discrete. With a Holophone H1, I ended up building a rig of my own with Schoeps CCM microphones to capture that.

The Secrets Behind the Sound Design of Blade Runner 2049 — Sound Absorption
Image via Soundworks Collection.

This type of thinking is what wins people jobs — and Oscars — but the creativity didn’t stop there. To record the sound of the new pistols that our hero would be using, the team was not particularly fond of the sound from the original. So instead they decided to record a .50-caliber sniper rifle and combine the sound with an EDM bass drop to capture the blast they were looking for. If you’ve seen the film, you know how loud and intense the blasts are. These loud, staggering sounds are almost as impressive as the beautiful and haunting score that supports the entire film.

Composing the Score

The Secrets Behind the Sound Design of Blade Runner 2049 — The Score
Image via Soundworks Collection.

Crafting the score of the new film was one of the most difficult elements of the original film to adapt for this go-around. The original soundtrack, composed by Vangelis, featured a heavy synth, futuristic, science fiction-tone that would be easy to replicate today. However, the composers for Blade Runner 2049 knew that they had to create something completely original — while honoring Vangelis’s score. Like the original, the team used the CS-80 synthesizer, which is half-analog, half-electronic. This allowed them to create a mesmerizing score that could stand out on its own.

(If you’re interested in creating your own sci-fi neo-noir low-budget masterpiece, check out our curated, synth-heavy Blade Runner-inspired playlist here.)

Denis’s film is a masterclass in everything from storytelling to cinematography to editing and, especially, to sound design. His work speaks for itself, ranking among the greats, and we’re only at the beginning of his career. One can’t help but feel the best is yet to come from this director, and if he keeps surrounding himself with inspiring, creative, and boundary-pushing individuals, we’re all in good hands.

(Final note, here’s one Hans Zimmer playing the CS-80 for what might be one my favorite moments in a video ever.)

The Secrets Behind the Sound Design of Blade Runner 2049 — Hans Zimmer
Image via Soundworks Collection.

Looking for more on Blade Runner 2049? Check out these articles.

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