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‘Ambience’ is a word with a broad definition. It is perceived differently and can mean different things to different people. We are constantly surrounded by a wide range of sounds – some natural, some man-made. Ambient sounds don’t necessarily have to exist in the real world. We’ve all felt the power of music and know how subtle changes in a mix of sounds can add up to affect us at a subconscious level.
Continuing on that train of thought, I dug into the world of ambience in interactive mobile applications with:
Yann Seznec: Musician, sound designer, artist and founder of Lucky Frame – designers of award winning iPhone apps – Pugs Luv Beats, Bad Hotel
Peter Chilvers: Musician and software designer, best known for the series of iPhone apps created with Brian Eno – Bloom, Trope, Air, Scape
Robert Thomas: Interactive composer and CCO at RjDj – The Inception App, Dark Knight Risez Z+, Dimensions
Stephan Schütze: Composer and sound designer, Director of Sound Librarian and creator of the iPhone app Carmina Avium
DS: What does ambience mean to you?
YS: From a sound perspective, to me ambience is really a situational thing – it is sound that is occurring whilst something else is happening. So my current ambience is the hum of the computer, the typing of someone else in the room, a plane passing overhead outside. Those same exact sounds would stop being ambience in a different situation, so it’s quite relative.
PC: I think of ambience as the set of near-subliminal cues that quietly define an environment. They might be continuous sounds, like the rush of a river or distant traffic noise, or occasional point sounds, like the drip of a tap or a car horn. They invariably carry information the conscious brain is rarely aware of in the reverberation of the sound; they tell the size of the room the listener is in, the materials on the walls, the distance and location of objects and so on. I sometimes contemplate wearing a blindfold for a day to increase my awareness of these sounds. Then I remember that I work all day with a computer screen, and think better of it.
Ambience can be interesting when it’s used to evoke an imaginary world. The same ideas of distance and presence still apply, but the sound sources are unreal while still “natural” sounding. Obviously Brian [Eno] is the master of this kind of domain! With Scape, [the app that we recently released for the iPad,] we’ve provided a library of these types of sources, which the user can recombine in any way they want; it’s as much a way of building worlds as it is building music.
RT: To me its something to do with a place (which may happen to be real or virtual) which forms your state of mind or shapes your perception.
SS: Ambience is significant for me for a variety of reasons and I will refer to an App I recently launched to cite some examples, but I want to start with a brief story.
Here in the southern hemisphere it is springtime. My wife and I rent a small unit on a block with four residences and each have a very small garden space; nothing amazing but quite pleasant. Our neighbourhood in general is quite good for trees and plants. A few weeks ago we had the perfect combination of season, weather and environment. As I sat in our garden with my eyes closed I could hear about a dozen species of birds across the neighbourhood and smell the glorious scent of dozens of different flowering plants. I could have been anywhere in the world, on top of an amazing mountain range, in a royal garden or a magic forest. It was the non visual equivalent of a stunning landscape. Ambience is not limited to non visual components of our environment, but because we are so visual based as a species we tend to gather direct information from our eyes and emotional influences from our other senses.
As audio designers this provides us with an incredibly powerful method of communication. We can suggest locations, time or seasons, emotional states, potential risks and other information by what we present as an ambience. Carmina Avium is an App I spent the last 12 months developing. At its core it allows users to select from bird species and create their own ambience. It uses generative audio to create non-looping, non repetitive personalized ambiences in real time. In this case I have created a product to allow a user to simulate a natural environmental ambience wherever they may be located. Most people associate the sounds of natural ambiences with relaxation and focus, but I could have easily created the same App to create scary or spooky ambiences for Halloween or dramatic ambiences to which to jog to.