Exercising listening in a public outdoor space.
Sound designers by nature have an inherent curiosity towards sound. We explore the way sounds work every time we approach a project. With each new opportunity to design a sound, we ask ourselves questions such as: What object/event produced the sound(s)? Where is the sound source located in relation to the listener, and just as importantly, how does (or how will) the sound impact an audience’s emotional state when heard?
It goes without saying that the sheer act of producing our own sonic work, and by critically listening to and dissecting the works of others (as Berrak Nil Boya explored and extrapolated on in her recent post) will inherently make us stronger and better critical listeners. Though along with these practices, it is invaluable to also step away from evaluating completed, produced works and critically listen to some alternate sound sources, and in some potentially new ways; just like exercising a muscle, the more angles you can target your critical listening “muscle”, the stronger and more well-rounded it becomes.
The question then must be, other than by evaluating an already existing game or film’s audio as it was intended, how, and what, can we listen to in order to hone our listening abilities?
This post looks to add to this conversation by offering a few exercises I’ve picked up and augmented over the years and still use to this day. Once again, just like any exercise routine, training your critical listening is an on-going responsibility for any sound designer (though vitally important early in your career, continued practice is essential to maintain a high level of critical listening fitness).
Guest Contribution by Dan Lyth
The story of the ‘bedroom producer’ recording music at home has been told often and I myself have happily been that character for many years. But recently, a love of field recording (and my day job as a sound designer) tempted me towards doing something a bit different. What would it be like to leave the studio and record an entire album outdoors? What happens when you attempt to perform and record music in such uncontrollable environments? And would it be possible to weave together the unpredictable sounds of these environments with more traditional performances to create a cohesive whole? I found these questions fascinating. I have also always been drawn to creative work that has taken a considerable amount of effort and recording an album outdoors whilst living in Scotland with its devious climate seemed to fit the bill…
Guest Contribution by Pierce O’Toole
Writer/Director Pierce O’Toole shares his thoughts on music and sound design, and how they play into his creative process.
As a writer and director, my biggest concern on any project is the story. Every project has a story that you are trying to tell. When I approach sound, the lens I view it through – or the speaker I hear it through, I guess – is one of story. While this is true of every element of the filmmaking process, sound is unlike any of the others because it’s the only element that follows me through the entire process.
When I begin writing, music is very important. At first, it’s just something atmospheric or energetic, like The Album Leaf or Daft Punk. As I get further along in the writing process, I get a better sense of the story and the tone. At this point, the music has to match. If it doesn’t, it can make it harder to write. I build playlists that I listen to on repeat. I’ve had several roommates that hate me for this, especially when the playlist is less than ten songs. I don’t ever tire of the music, no matter how many times I listen to it, because that music helps put me in the world of the story. I’m not listening to the music; I’m absorbing it.
Jad Abumrad at PopTech 2010 – Camden, Maine (Kris Krüg/PopTech via Flickr, used under Creative Commons License)
I recently had the chance to chat with Jad Abumrad, creator and co-host of WNYC’s Radiolab. Each episode of Radiolab explores ideas in science, technology, and the universe at large through a seamless blend of expert interviews, sound design, and music. Together with co-host Robert Krulwich, the show has covered topics such as sleep, colors, cities, and loops, just to name a few. Recently, Radiolab has taken to the stage, touring around the United States and adding a visual element to the show’s already imagery-rich storytelling. Jad and I talked about noise, sound’s ability to create powerful mental images, and how all of that translates into a live show.
Designing Sound: I’ll start off by asking you about noise. When I say the word “noise”, what does that make you think? What does it mean to you?
Jad Abumrad: Honestly, the first thing I think is a particular style of experimental music which is loud and abusive and cacophonous and hurtful, but which I very sparingly employ in scoring the show. I’m thinking Merzbow and the whole “musical pain posse” that sort of tumbled out of him. I always like the idea that those stabs and bursts of noise could kind of catch someone off guard, almost like an idea that sort of hits you in the face before you’re ready for it. There’s something about the storytelling we do where I want those ideas to have that kind of impact. So I think about that kind of music.
Guest Contribution by Keith Lay
A special thank you to Keith Lay for this contribution which explores acoustics from the unique perspective of a musical composition and performance. Keith is a composer, producer, and educator based in Central Florida.
On October 20, 2012, musicians placed on rooftops, steeples, and lake boats in downtown Orlando, Florida performed “inSPIRE for 22 Brass, Carillons, C Bell and Distance” – the first experiment in “Distance Music”. The Orange County Arts & Cultural Affairs department supported the project as a part of National Arts and Humanities month.
Distance Music Concepts
As sound travels to a specific location, it is delayed by the distance in which it must travel to reach the target location or specific site. Distance Music accounts for these delays by having musicians farther from the audience play earlier, so as to make up for the time required for the sound to travel the distance.
A Distance Music piece is intended to be performed at a particular location, such that a listener cannot hear it correctly at any other place unless the distance, altitude, and terrain between the listener and music groups at that place are the same as those at the original environment. For example, inSPIRE cannot be performed in any other city than Orlando, or from any other rooftops, steeples, etc., than those for which I wrote it. Furthermore, the audience can only perceive the composer’s intentions in balance and counterpoint from a premeditated site (what is referred to as the “sweet spot” in this article).
A map of Downtown Orlando, the venue for inSPIRE. This map indicates the musicians’ locations within the city and each location’s distance from the listening “sweet spot”.