SFX Lab #3: On Transformation
[SFX Lab, the laboratory of sound effects, a place dedicated to experiment and explore sound libraries. The main goal is to hear what happens when sounds of a specific kind are combined, processed, and transformed in several ways.]
Over the years, transformation of sound has become a giant field that barely touches the infinite. Sounds can be manipulated in a lot of different ways, using a lot of different things. Besides that, the different ways sounds can be recorded, and the variety of tools that allow us to gather sonic information from the world evolve so fast that we can never stop to find new ways to generate, listen, record, and process sound.
I’m not sure if it’s right to call this a golden era for sound transformation, or a saturated culture when the possibilities control us. Although, technological evolution represents new frontiers for what we can imagine and create. When it comes about transformation of sound, I immediately think about Trevor Wishart, composer and author dedicated -between many other things- to explore sound morphology and its transformation. In his great book “Audible Design”, he says that “the ways in which this sound can be transformed are limited only by the imagination of the composer.” (Suggested reading: Red Bird, Interview @ USO)
And that’s the point. Technology evolves and give us new ways of transforming sound, but there’s also a parallel evolution on the way we imagine and the sounds we know we’re able to create. However, many things remain fresh and undiscovered. Technology has risen the possibilities for creating and transforming sounds, but hasn’t changed too much things in the way we percibe sound and how we define the aesthetics of our work. I remember an interview Matteo Milani had with sound designer Richard Beggs and Matteo asked him about the impact of the technological evolution on his artistic approach, to which Richard said:
No, there isn’t any. I could speculate on how my work has been affected by new technologies, but I don’t think it’s that interesting. I feel my approach has always been fundamentally the same. It’s been the same as my approach to painting. My interactions with the track and the process by which ideas occur and develop is very similar to my interaction with the canvas as a painter. Light, dark, mass, line, contrast, color, texture, objects advance or recede, these visual properties all have sonic equivalents. These qualities, when used successfully, contribute to an emotional or expressive state that advances the story.
Let’s say a transformation is any kind of variation applied to a sound, in order to obtain a new object. It can be because of the narrative, because of the different qualities you attribute to it, its meaning, its emotional or musical characteristics, its context, etc. In the world of sound design, we could say sound effects are almost always transformed with the story in mind. Field recording material is processed and transformed in order to achieve sonic metaphors, create tension, put questions to the audience, change realities, influence the qualities of a character, recreate an era, tell a story. All these decisions create a fascinating link between technology and the storytelling; and the evolution of the tools, also gives more opportunities for discovering new flavors that can not only enhance the sound, but the story itself.
So today we’re going to focus on sound effects transformation, from the recording process to the extreme processing. The material to be used is the just released library of Twisted Tools, called Transform. Quite unique library created by sound designer Jean-Edouard Miclot and perfect for today’s our experiments, since it includes a wide variety of sounds material. It’s a gold mine; useful, inspiring, full of great sound ideas to learn from and also to use and re-transform in many different ways. Sounds are delivered at 96k and have a great job on the metadata, which is Soundminer friendly.
The library is composed by a diverse gallery of sounds, intended to be used as part of music and sound design compositions. The package is about layers, textures, and flavors. Tasteful pieces of sound created in a line between the organic and synthetic worlds, and developed with the goal of being used alone or inside a combination with other different elements.
This analogy of flavors and ingredients its actually something that Jean-Edouard uses as an inspiration on his approach to sound design and the creation of the library, whereas each sound is created as an ingredient, as Jean-Edouard explains:
We always tend to make an analogy of what we hear with something we know. Some people like using painting and colors as a representation for composing sounds, either it’s musical composition or sound editing. Being French, I prefer talking about cooking and ingredients :-) Imagine that you have to cook for all your friends coming over to your house. You can simply buy a frozen meal at the closest supermarket and it won’t take you too long to prepare it, but you also know that there’s a chance they bought the same one before. Or you can decide to surprise them buying all the ingredients you need to cook a unique meal. Would you be more interested in this meal or in the one that everybody can find in the frozen aisle of the supermarket?
I think of editing like cooking. You blend an ingredient with another one in order to create a distinct flavor or texture. But if you inappropriately mix too many of them, your taste buds won’t be able to distinguish anything and your meal will start to lose of taste. Ingredients can also be processed by crunching, scraping, mashing, steaming, heating, freezing or fermenting them. It just transforms a matter into another one like we do with sounds. Tasting is also very similar to hearing. It is just another kind of information that your brain can interpret. A wine for example is a complex combination of tastes and dynamics that change over time.
So, this library is about ingredients which can also work as a full meal if you like, but these sounds are mostly transformations for recordings that are intended to be part of your meals. We’re going to explore the whole process. From gathering the initial elements, to the process of combining and cooking the final meal.
Let’s start with the initial sound collecting. This library is a perfect example of how important is not only the process of alterations you can do to your recordings, but the experimentation and research on props, tools, places and objects to record, as well as knowing how to perform with them in unique ways, meaning that great transformations or sound not only depend on the process applied, but also on how the material is performed and recorded.
I think that knowing how to transform sound is important, but knowing what to transform is even more important, since the greatest sound effects comes from great recordings and disciplined recordists which are not only interested in the act of recording, but listening, researching and being aware for the accidents the real world always have. On the foreword of “The Sounds of Star Wars”, Ben Burtt comments something about this topic:
Many of the sounds have stories behind their origin that I love to recall for fans. Some of the most famous sounds were thoughtfully imagined and slowly crafted. However, many of them were surprises, “accidents” that came about during research and trough discovery. Some of the most famous sounds were discovered during the course of daily life. Most often, a successful sound came from an object with no real connection to the film object it meant to portray aurally. So I learned to record and stockpile anything that caught my attention-and, ultimately, I found a use for just about every noise in the collection.
In the case of the library, Jean-Edouard shared a fantastic video for the article, showing different examples of recordings, some of them used in the library.
You can watch more inspiring videos from Jean-Edouard on his blog.
Jean-Edouard’s recordings passed trough a wide variety of processes and editing, and ended grouped into 10 categories of ingredients for all kinds of recipes. Below you can hear two examples of sfx I did by just editing and combining sounds from the library. No plug-ins were used, just common editing processes that pretend to transform the original material into new one, by making a fusion of elements.
Hits - Created by combining sounds of the whoosh, impact, mecha, and crunch categories.
Transformers - Sequence of sounds from the Mecha, FX, Impact, and Bass categories.
Now let’s try with another method for combining the sounds, not depending on the timeline of the DAW and having the opportunity to perform and modulate the sounds in real time. I’m using Alchemy for that, blending several sounds with different sampling engines and modulations. Here are some quick creations with FX and organic categories of the library, layered and mixes in real time.
Extreme shots – Several LFOs and envelopes modulating the pitch and stretch parameters of the sources. There’s also a lot of movement in the main tuning control section. Four sources were used simultaneously.
Alien delays – Variations/repetitions created with modulation and filtering plus two delays and camel reverb (alchemy bulti-in effects). Four sources used.
Going to the Extreme
It’s fascinating to hear the amount of variations generated by the combination of devices. Effects chains that allow us to discover new sounds, most of the time suppressive. Sometimes I feel like the computer is actually designing the sounds for me, giving me ideas or even “finished” results that I never thought about making, similar to the approach of generative music and how the creator is put in the audience role, as Brian Eno said on a recent talk he gave (via musicofsound), using an analogy on composers as gardeners:
About 20 years ago I came up with this idea, this term, ‘generative music,’ which is a general term I use to cover not only the stuff that I do, but the kind of stuff that Reich is doing, and Terry Riley and lots and lots of other composers have been doing.
And essentially the idea there is that one is making a kind of music in the way that one might make a garden. One is carefully constructing seeds, or finding seeds, carefully planting them and then letting them have their life. And that life isn’t necessarily exactly what you’d envisaged for them. It’s characteristic of the kind of work that I do that I’m really not aware of how the final result is going to look or sound. So in fact, I’m deliberately constructing systems that will put me in the same position as any other member of the audience. I want to be surprised by it as well. And indeed, I often am.
What this means, really, is a rethinking of one’s own position as a creator. You stop thinking of yourself as me, the controller, you the audience, and you start thinking of all of us as the audience, all of us as people enjoying the garden together. Gardener included.
For sound effects experimentation, we can also setup systems that allow us to generate a new world of sound just by transforming another source and experimenting with it in many different ways. Not thinking about what we’re going to get, but creating and then listening for finally deciding what to use. Let’s put it in other words, from the composer Christian Zanési, who told the following in an interview at PRESENCES electronique 2009:
I don’t go from idea to sound, but the opposite, I go from sound to idea. That is I need to find the sound that touches me for different reasons. [...] Inside this sound there is a potential, and the idea born from the sound is not subjected to an idea, it is the opposite. We can consider the sound as some kind of fugue, which means that there is a potential for development, and to work I need to find a sound which will be at the base because there is an emotive shock, there is really something imposing, which will be the source of my work, and at that moment we can listen to the sound in depth not for what it is, but for what it can become.
Most of the time, sound effects are created based on initial ideas, on the story. However, there’s a big potential on experimentation and creative uses of technology that can alter the sound designer’s initial idea and can also feature a potential for development, as Zanési comments.
I wanted to include some examples of this kind of extreme processing, so I talked with a specialist in the area: Richard Devine, who kindly shared some experiments and comments for the article.
(demo song created with sounds of the library)
I was really excited when Josh from Twisted Tools asked me if I would be interested in creating a demo track for Jean-Edouad’s new sound effects library. I have been a long time fan of Jean’s work and sound effects blog. His sounds and experiments have been a constant source of inspiration for me lately. I was really happy to work with him on this piece and even more happy to contribute some sounds as well.
For the “Transform” trailer demo song I mixed a few of my favorite sounds from Jean’s collection and tried to create a short slow piece that really showcased the versatility of some these sounds in a musical composition. I also included a few additional sound effects and percussion sounds from my personal library that are also included in the collection.
Richard experimented using the GRM Shuffling and Valhalla Shimmer plug-ins to get different gestural cascading pitching effects, some of these used for the tails and breaks in the demo. Here is the example:
He also shares another experiment with GRM Fusion, Evolution and SoundToys EchoBoy, combined for getting pitch modulated metallic effects that sound as a beautiful and twisted concert of grains.
Transformation doesn’t mean complex chains and processes. Soft and subtle effects can make big changes into a sound effect, and sometimes even better results than those obtained with a big chains of the world’s most advanced plug-ins. At the end what you will get are just different results, and the use you give them will always depend on the story or the specific needs of project you’re working on.
For example, here are some textures and atmospheres created by time-stretching techniques, using +spiralstretch plug-in. I’m using one instance of the effect, plus some tweaks of Soundminer’s pitch control. The results are fun and always interesting with any particular sound, but I really liked how it sounded with the sounds from the Eerie category of the library.
This particular category feature long sounds recorded in large acoustic spaces or altered recordings that aim to recreate abstract tonal atmospheres. As Jean-Edouard adds: “it could be props clinked in a garage, a door squeaking in the washroom, a bowed spring, a wine glass rubbed underwater, a large metal sheet mangled like thunder or any spectral processing done with Kyma, Metasynth and the Michael Norris plugin suite that give musical and emotional qualities”.
Let’s explore another delicate work, this time with some of my favorite sounds from the library, those included in the micro category. As Jean-Edouard commented, the source are recordings of springs, neonodium magnet buzzes, wood stumps, door creaks, and mouth noises that manipulated into Kyma’s microsound sampler. The results are quite interesting and make place for a lot of cool things. Below is another simple but radical example, using GRM Delays to multiply the particles and define new densities and variations of a single recording. The source is a recording of an egg, looped and processed trough the delay.
And what happens if we want to go deeper and create a more complex cloud of particles? Added another delay, this time with soundhack’s bubbler, a free granular delay suitable for pretty dense and extensive tails of granulation.
Finally, I had time to torture some of the sounds from the library. I’m a big fan of spectral processing, which I implement in several ways, using Max/MSP, GRM Tools and SoundHack (both the free app and the effects) plug-ins. The latter are developed by Tom Erbe, who recently released a package called pvoc kit, and including plug-ins based on phase vocoder and granular synthesis algorithms. For torturing the sound effects of the library, I’m using two plug-ins from the kit: +pitchsift and +spiralstretch,. Simple but powerful tools that, combined, result in a lot of interesting sounds and really extreme results if you like.
+pitchsift is based on a phase vocoder algorithm and allows you to use FFT or sinebank engines to alter the pitch of a sound. +spiralstretch deals with up to 100x of time stretching, based on pvoc or granular algorithms.
The wide range of sounds you can get with these “small” plug-ins is amazing. If you’re a user of SoundHack or any plug-in developed by Tom Erbe, you already know how far you can go with the tools, always finding something new and interesting. Listen: