Perspectives on Sound Design
Guest contribution by Andy Farnell
This article is the second of two part series on two sound symposia that recently happened in the UK. Part one is here.
Perspectives on Sound Design Symposium 5 July 2013
The second of our featured symposiums took place on Friday 5 July 2013 at York University Department of Theatre, Film, and Television. Like the South Bank setting for the earlier gathering we enjoyed a huge and sumptuous space. Unlike the long established Lyttleton the cinema space at York is nearly brand new, with interesting practical technology features that reveal its design for academic film study, like house lights that automatically adjust when a clip is played on the digital projector. Unlike the the National Theatre facilities in the heart of London’s busy hubbub, our location this time was a semi-rural campus some two or three miles from the city centre. Again the architectural acoustics were excellent, but this time the upshot of remote location was an eerily low ambient noise floor with twittering blackbirds audible in the foyer, and perhaps because of this, and a smaller distance between the discussion stage and front row, it was possible to conduct the whole symposium with unamplified speakers.
The event was well attended with some 70 or 80 students and practitioners making up the audience. Again the doors were open to all at no cost, providing a diverse assembly of ages, professions and interests, including employment counsellors, lawyers and philosophers. Equally matched on diversity was the panel of speakers, again selected for a range of perspectives. This time the symposium theme was “Perspectives on Sound Design”. Through this title, the intention of chairman Dr Sandra Pauletto was to get to the bottom of ”what is sound design?”.
Exploring sound design in its broadest sense is not easy, as it quickly emerged that different artistic professions treat the phrase in their own way. A tendency for film/post-production voices to dominate was masterfully softened by Dr Pauletto’s interventions to keep the discussion broad, and at one point we amusingly committed to not mentioning the F-Word. The running gag became substitutes for the F-Word (film) popping up like “cinematic composition” and “audio-visual narrative” until the thought on everyone’s mind was “Just say f*****g film!”
First to the stand was the distinguished Larry Sider, who started the discussion with reflections on sound design as a culture to be passed on, in other words the challenges of education, training and induction to industry in a world that is fast changing. Larry presented different takes on learning methods, exercises and outcomes for students of sound. Battles in the loudness wars, proscriptions against the overuse of plugins and the fragility of maintaining artistic vision in a sea of choices were some topics brought up.
After some questions for Larry, Prof. Davide Rocchesso of Venice University was next to the lectern. The breadth and implications of sonic interactivity is difficult enough to communicate, even given an entire conference, and so Davide did a sterling job of summarising for a non-expert audience. Example film and audio clips demonstrated the importance of sound in performing everyday actions like chopping vegetables or opening a can, and then how an understanding of this theory can greatly improve electronic interactions like finding the activation spot on a touch screen or measuring quantities though audio-haptic feedback. Most people immediately see the advantages for sight or hearing impaired users, but of course many interfaces can be improved for everyone using such approaches.
After lunch and my own presentation the accomplished film and television sound designer Neil Hillman spoke on the subjects of recording and mixing. Themes included the importance of really knowing different microphones and techniques, the limitations of radio microphones and working in such diverse problems as intimate voice capture for close conversation and sports mixing for the football stadium. Neil demonstrated some concepts of immediate or implied realism through a few clips of well known gangster genres, showing the impact of mixing location and post sources on the sense of immersion and character identification for the viewer.
The final talk of the day was given by Prof. Gianluca Sergi of Nottingham University who spoke mostly about the politics of commercial media and put forward the suggestion that the term “sound designer” is so ill defined that it might behove practitioners to abandon the term. Gianluca described differing cultures within Hollywood and in its relation to other production centres in Europe, the myriad names used to attempt to define roles, the struggles for status and recognition, the influence of unions and money, and the funding of research and education based on poorly apprehended categorical divisions. This talk was uniquely interesting, because it was entirely about political context. Whereas all the other talks were about sound designer and audience, these subjects were totally absent from Gianluas exploration.
After the second break we reconvened to hold a free discussion with panel and audience. Hopefully it’s not a spoiler to say at this point; we never did get to define the term “sound design”. What we did do though, and perhaps this is more important prerequisite logical step towards an answer, was to discuss why the term is ambiguous and why it irks certain people.
I thought that perhaps it would have been best if Gianluca’s talk had been the first of the day, since its position and the thinking within the panel
afterwards had too much influence on the following proceedings. It was after all clear. We all agreed on the idea that sound comes first, not last. That sound designers should be involved right from the start. That it makes perfect logical, artistic and even financial sense to do things that way. And yet the Realpolitik, just as Gianluca pointed out, is that it just doesn’t work that way. The way it works is wrong, but that’s the way it works. I think the following discussion pivoted on a remark by Gianluca that instead of railing at the injustice we examine ourselves as sound designers and how using the word “sound” might limit us.
But a weakness within that discussion, a direct result of moving into the realm of politics which I found frustrating, was the inability of all concerned to step out of a person centred perspective (meaning anthropologically egocentric as opposed to personal). Thus much of the following discussion centred around the role of the sound designer rather than on sound design. Of course this point is philosophical; The idea of sound design makes no real sense outside the human context of designers and audiences. But without the willingness to let go of politics we were unable to move forward with abstract analysis. I had hoped we would have been able to take the issues of tribal differences for granted and move on, but we kind of got stuck in the familiar mire.
Some of the best input came from audience questions and comments. A theme was raised on education, employment and the futility of the epithets with which we adorn ourselves or construct educational programmes. Again the politics of the status quo, boxticking, beancounting bureaucracies of research funding and awards bodies clouded the powerful point that the world is changing far too fast to be worrying about brass and badges, one simply needs to discover ones calling and go for it without appeals to waning authorities. Another strong point was that a sound designer is quite simply someone who design sounds, in the most literal sense. A response to this was simply to reiterate the established orthodoxy that within Hollywood the term is used to denote responsibility for the overall sound in a media project, and unfortunately this potent and insightful remark was not explored further.
Like all great symposiums the problem came at the end when it felt like we could spend another three or four hours exploring the points, but we had to call time. Ironically “sound design” and what a “sound designer” does are no mysteries to ordinary folk. When I say my work in computer science is related to audio signal processing I get the blinky stare, but when I say it is sound design there come nods and grunts of “why didn’t you just say so”. If there is a crisis in sound design it is an internal one. Perhaps that is precisely because it is gaining popular understanding and there is suddenly more at stake for the old tribal factions. It is in times of change that the orthodoxy are most needed, to guide rather than oppose the progressives, to help recode traditional values and to warn of old mistakes. I doubt that any of the folks in radio production, film post-production, sonic interaction design, theatre stage sound, or product design are that worried about such definitions. Demarcations bother those who seek to control more than those who do. Whether we like to call ourselves sound editors, soundtrack composers, or noisemaker general, I feel no animosity, threat or misunderstanding between colleagues with slightly different specialisations. A broad church is a strong one. Badges, if they are to be worn at all, are at least well understood in the military; they are worn to help ones company identify how each can best help another, not as tokens of exclusion and vanity. Perhaps Gianluca is right. Perhaps those who work with sound are not casting the nets widely enough. Perhaps we are “interaction designers” but I do not think we should be telling the script writers how to hold their pens.
To conclude; it is wonderful to get such a depth of field by visiting two vibrant sound design symposiums in a few short weeks. One thing that continues to make this art, science and business the most interesting place to be is the diversity of souls and the joy of sharing something that is often just a little beyond words.
Andy Farnell – a familiar name in computer audio – is a computer scientist, sound designer, author and a pioneer in the field of procedural audio. He is a visiting professor at several European universities and the author of the bible on procedural sound - Designing Sound.