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Posted by on May 2, 2016 | 0 comments

What is Sound “Research”?

This is a guest contribution by Karen Collins. Karen is the Canada Research Chair in Interactive Audio at the Games Institute, University of Waterloo, Canada, and the director of Beep: A Documentary History of Game Sound. She’s been researching game audio for the past fifteen years, and in the process, published four books and nearly 100 research papers on sound. As Albert Einstein said, “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?” Karen proudly admits she has no idea what she is doing. @GameSoundDoc


Don’t we already know what sound is? What do we need research for? I’m often met by surprise or confusion when I tell people I do research in sound. It may help to explain a few research projects that I’ve worked on in recent years to share the types of research that can be done in sound. These were for the most part done in a university setting, although some of the projects received some funding or support from private partners (e.g. Google, Microsoft)—I’ll talk about the academic-industry research crossover below.

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Posted by on May 1, 2016 | 0 comments

Sunday Sound Thought 18 – Dependent Perception

As the year continues, many of these posts will be philosophical in nature. Some will be in contradiction to previous postings. These are not intended as truths or assertions, they’re merely thoughts…ideas. Think of this as stream of consciousness over a wide span…

I’ve had this one in the topic queue for a while, but couldn’t quite figure out how to approach it here…until a few days ago.

I walked into a restaurant’s restroom just as someone was leaving. The toilet, which had just been flushed, was refilling. I’m sure most of you can call up in your head the sound of a toilet basin refilling its water supply. This one sounded different. It was far more harmonically complex than the usual peaks you hear in the bed of white/pink noise, and it created this incredible drone in the tiled room. Then the toilet stopped filling, and I realized that the additional complexity was coming from a fan vent in the ceiling. This vent noise, 8 feet above and two feet to the left of the toilet, had sounded like it was coming directly from the toilet…like it was part of that other sound.

The way we perceive sounds in our environment can be greatly dependent on the presence of other sources of stimuli. In this case, both sound were affected by the other. One was enhanced by the presence of another sound, while the other was spatially altered by the first. This phenomenon was entirely dependent on the vagaries of the way our brain processes stimuli. As soon as the toilet stopped, my perception of the vent’s source changed to match its actual location. There are other examples. Michel Chion coined the term “entrainment” for the effect that visual elements in film have in our perception of a sound’s localization.

It’s just another reminder that everything, including sound design, is about context.

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Posted by on Apr 24, 2016 | 0 comments

Sunday Sound Thought 17 – Sonic Zoom

I struggled with the idea of posting one of these today. A friend of mine, and to much of the community as well, Jory Prum passed away Friday night. Ultimately, I think it’s important to keep moving forward in life. We’re working on collecting some thoughts about Jory to post later today/tomorrow. For now, here’s something I think he would have appreciated discussing.

Filmmakers love a good close up. The tight framing of an actor, prop or movement…in the right context…can really lend weight to a moment in the narrative. It’s a clear sign to the audience that “this” is important, “this” is something you have to pay attention to. There are two ways this is achieved in the crafting of a visual piece: the hard cut, and the zoom.

We have the same tools available to us in the auditory realm. If we want to highlight a particular sound element, we can strip the others away. If we want the hard cut, we simply cut the sounds out. To replicate a zoom, we can strip those surrounding elements away more slowly…deliberately…to draw the audience in to the experience of that one element.

What would really be interesting though, would be to explore the ways in which we might also replicate the “Dolly/Zoom” effect.

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Posted by on Apr 17, 2016 | 2 comments

Sunday Sound Thought 16 – Pushing for Physical Representation

As the year continues, many of these posts will be philosophical in nature. Some will be in contradiction to previous postings. These are not intended as truths or assertions, they’re merely thoughts…ideas. Think of this as stream of consciousness over a wide span…

I’ve talked about how sound is a physical event. This week, I was scanning through a little notebook I’ve kept of these types of ideas over the past 5-7 years, and I came across another little idea that sparked a thought for this week’s post.

“Sound has mass.”

Sound requires a medium to travel through. Most of the time, that’s air…though it can obviously be water, metal pipes, etc. While sound is in these mediums, it has mass…sort of. The feel of that kick drum when piped through a concert’s sound system is a great example. You feel that pressure wave hit you, rattle your chest. Air has mass, and it moves you. Sound is what moves the air. This isn’t really what I wanted to focus on this week. It’s just a necessary tangent for me.

The question that was bouncing around in my head this week, is how can we represent that physicality of sound in a film or game? There’s the clichéd bleeding ears shot, and there’s also this idea of “contact hearing” that I posted about only a few weeks ago. Those are two, and I’m sure there are plenty of others. The realization came that it’s necessary to have appropriate imagery to support the representation of a sound’s physical nature. This means buy in from the director.

Is there a moment in your project where the story could be bolstered by the display of the physical effects of sound? Have you spoken to your director or game designer about how it could, and what sort of visual would be needed to convey it?

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Posted by on Apr 10, 2016 | 0 comments

Sunday Sound Thought 15 – Fore | Mid | Back

As the year continues, many of these posts will be philosophical in nature. Some will be in contradiction to previous postings. These are not intended as truths or assertions, they’re merely thoughts…ideas. Think of this as stream of consciousness over a wide span…

I’m continuing the “visual vs. sound analogs” stream this week. I feel confident in expecting that everyone visiting this site is familiar with the concepts of Foreground, Mid-ground, and Background in visual media. That planar approach is also probably how most people think about fore, mid and background when it comes to sound. That planar approach, however, is an oversimplification of the complexities that exist in the way we hear. In cinema (and increasingly, games) the side and rears (sometimes overhead in Atmos and Auro-3d) are all background…even a sound 2 ft. directly in front of us can be background.

Foreground in listening is intimately tied to where our attention is, so vision…or, specifically, where we’re looking…helps determine what is a foreground sound. If you’re watching someone deliver dialog in a film, that’s likely where your attention is. That’s your foreground. If you’re focused on a car approach in the same film, it’s a foreground sound until it passes from view and that sound is panned off screen. Your eyes turn to a different portion of the frame and all of your attention (hearing included) focuses there. That’s your new foreground sound. The car sound, despite your previous attention, is now a background sound.

“But wait!” I hear you saying. “What about sounds from off-screen that are meant to draw your attention?” This is what I think of as mid-ground sound. Anything that steps out of the background and has an effect on the focus of your attention is a mid-ground sound; likely, it will quickly become Foreground. Imagine a silent character on screen, listening to an off screen event. Your attention is focused on this person. You hear the event happening off screen, but your focus is on that character. You’re watching them react, listening for little movements, breaths or sounds that help you interpret what that character is thinking. The character is still the foreground, and the off-screen sound is mid-ground. If it is able to affect the foreground, it is mid-ground.

Anything else is background.

Dialog is where things get tricky. We have a hard time not paying attention to dialog. It’s nearly impossible to hold dialog in the mid-ground…regardless of whether we can see its source or not. A quick loop group line punching through to accentuate a moment can be mid-ground. The longer it lasts though, the closer it gets to foreground. This forces us to quickly push dialog to either the foreground or the background. To keep it in the background usually involves some type of obscuring. That’s part of why loop group lines are usually delivered AS a group. With a bunch of people talking over each other, it’s hard to focus on any one voice. A few things will poke through and become mid-ground to help you grasp the tone, but most of it will be a wash…background.

Changing the way you think about foreground, mid-ground and background will have an impact on the way you design sounds to fit into those spaces.

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