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Posted by on Sep 3, 2013 | 1 comment

Expectations of Noise


(This one fell through the cracks for our noise feature last month, we bring it to you now…better late than never. ;) SF)

I’ve spent most of my engineering career (the last 13 years or so) doing my best to eradicate noise from my work. Working to tape as a music engineer I became well acquainted with noise gates and expanders (equipment I haven’t made any serious use of in the last few years), but that was only one small part of the noise spectrum I had to cope with. Noise, in its infinitely varied forms, would creep into my signal chain through poorly maintained mics, badly thought out cable runs, and inadequately insulated recording spaces. 

When I found myself moving towards post production I became acquainted with new realms of noise, most of them inextricably bound up with vital dialogue recordings which simply could not be re-done and, no, ADR was not an option. So I swapped gates and expanders for noise reduction plug ins, notch EQ’s and (when all else failed) more noise.

Whether in music or post the end user generally retains the same expectation, that with the array of tools at my disposal I will be able to eradicate the ‘noise’ from their product. In this case they are working with a very clear definition of noise, i.e. an undesirable sound interfering with their material, regardless of it’s nature. So, whilst it may still manifest as unwanted hums and buzzes introduced to a recording via the signal chain it is also as likely to be traffic, trains, wind machines, planes, rain, air conditioning etc. Regardless of it’s nature, they simply don’t want to hear it so it’s up to me to get rid of it.

Another definition off noise is perhaps of more relevance to sound design; that of a sound which is lacking in musical quality or which is considered discordant and unpleasant. This is the definition which Luigi Russolo had in mind when he wrote his futurist paper, ‘The Art of Noises’ (100 years ago this year). In a letter to the composer Balilla Pratella he proposed a new direction for music, one which embraced the myriad forms of noise and expunged more traditional instruments (he considered the orchestra to be something of a farce (“Is there any thing more ridiculous in the world than twenty men slaving to increase the plaintive meeowing of violins?”). He found the newly industrialised world to contain infinitely more variation in tone and timbre than did any traditional musical instrument or ensemble. He went on to list the constituent elements of Noise Music as he saw, or heard them, creating 6 categories of fundamental noises that could be explored and combined by the forward thinking composer.

noises of falling water
driving noises



shrill sounds

percussive noises using:
metal, wood, skin, ,
stone, baked earth, etc.

animal and human voices
shouts, moans, screams
laughter, rattlings, sobs

I find it interesting that, despite writing his paper decades before anyone considered even uttering the phrase ‘sound design’ (and a number of years before the first ‘talkie’) we can find, within his noise categorisations, the building blocks of what we now consider the dark art itself. Indeed, he seems to have been so on the money that direct parallels can be drawn between a number of his noise categories and the newest breed of FX libraries being created by sound designers, for sound designers (Hiss & a Roar and Tonsturm spring to mind).

In the paper Russolo also walks a fine line between decrying the unimaginative nature of the music of his time and it’s preoccupation with “…caressing the ear with suave harmonies,” whilst at the same time noting the following of his brave new noise world;

We want to score and regulate harmonically and rhythmically these most varied noises. Not that we want to destroy the movements and irregular vibrations (of tempo and intensity) of these noises! We wish simply to fix the degree or pitch of the predominant vibration, as noise differs from other sound in its irregular and confuse vibrations (in terms of tempo and intensity).

Personally I find this quote to be indicative of what I try to achieve with my sound design, indeed, the entire process of my work where sound and picture meet. Sound designers would seem to be the natural inheritors of Russolo’s Noise music (though there are also clear indications of his theories being adopted by a number of composers and genres, consider Annie Gosfield for instance). In sound design, the expectation is generally that we will take noises; combine, manipulate and resolve them into something new and, perhaps, if we’re lucky, or good (or both), something that is imbued with a form of musicality. Here the expectation relies solely on our creativity as interpreters, narrators and, in no small part, musicians. The following are only 3 examples of many I can think of which fulfill all these criteria.

Ren Klyce from Panic Room (2002)

Walter Murch from The Conversation (1974)

Ben Burtt from WALL-E (2008)

My final expectation of noise is possibly the most annoying. This is another instance where the sound is definitely undesirable but it is also entirely out of the hands of the creator of the material, or indeed those of the recordist, sound designer, FX editor or mixer. It’s the noise of the fan in my Blu-Ray player, or the noise my otherwise wonderful LED TV makes in response to specific frequencies, or the rattling all houses seem to make when the sub kicks in. Or, it’s the one expectation you can guarantee will be fulfilled on every cinema visit you ever make, where, for some unknown reason, your fellow cinema goers will always choose to synch the opening of their variety of noisy snacks to the start of the film. And, it never, ever, sounds musical.

1 Comment

  1. I had lost this… Really nice article!
    I think you set out an essential, concise and accurate insight into the roots, the aims and the mindset of what we call “sound design”.
    I enjoyed also the reference to the thoughts of Luigi Russolo, really a theoretical forerunner on this subject. Can’t we see a “thin red line” leading through him to the research and the works of Pierre Schaeffer in the 40’s?


  1. Designing Sound article – Expectations of Noise | Restrike Studios - […] An article I wrote for Designing Sound as part of noise month. The first time I read Russolo’s ‘Art…

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