A few months ago I came across a Twitter post made by Stephan Schütze (a recent Designing Sound contributor) that continues to resonate with me (no pun intended) and I wanted to share it with anyone in the sound design community that has yet to hear these sounds.
As a side note, Stephan’s tweet was unrelated to his Designing Sound contribution (which can be found here) that he wrote for our monthly theme dedicated to Vehicles.
The original Twitter post was for an article entitled:
NASA Probes Record Sounds In Space – And It’s Terrifying.
I was immediately enthralled as soon as I heard the sounds. Opposed to my previous beliefs, outer space actually does produce sound, and the sounds are quite remarkable.
What do you think of when you imagine the sounds of outer space? I know for me, it was mostly silence (and the imposed human interpretations of what outer space sounds like that I have from sound design produced for outer space based locations in media).
I do have to admit, I have always had a somewhat limited interest in outer space. As the artist and poet William Blake once wrote, “where man is not, nature is barren”, and for me, where man, and nature is not, well then that is really, really barren. I did not grow up with dreams of being an astronaut, or vacationing on the moon, for me, Earth’s mysteries were enough to consume all of my curiosity (both sonic and otherwise). And then, to top it off, I “learned” that there was also no (audible) sound outside of our atmosphere and that was all I needed to lose any shred of curiously I had left in the subject.
What type of inspiration could I ever garner from a place that was silent?
Thinking back to Practical Exercises for Critical Listening, if you were to stare at images of outer space and imagine what they may sound like in a visual medium (like a film or video game), that would be a nice spin on one of those exercises, but beyond that (or the necessary pre-production and planning for work on a film or game that was set in outer space), I felt that outer space was void of inspiration for sound designers. That was a mistake. There is inspiration in everything; we just need to find it.
Unfortunately, I even passed on the misleading notion that outer space was completely devoid of sound on the rare occasion that it would come up in a conversation; hopefully this post somehow makes up for that.
I suppose many readers already know of this, since this appears to be somewhat old news (the Youtube video was posted in 2010, and has almost 3 million views). Though for any sound designer out there (like I was) that is oblivious to the fact that there absolutely is sound produced in outer space, this post is for you.
While it is true that we may not be able to hear these sounds if we were actually in outer space, we can definitely hear and use them as inspiration here on earth. I know for me, just listening to these sounds has led to some interesting sonic ideas and experimentation already, and I hope they do the same for you.
As I sat and listened through each planet, I couldn’t help but start to find curious sonic textures in the tones which derived very specific feelings and changes in mood. These sounds or vibrations captured by plasma antennas in faraway locales brought about visceral and deeply emotional reactions. The mysterious and astoundingly unique beauty of each of these recordings seemed to open up my auditory imagination to new possibilities for future sound design experimentation; from the somewhat oceanic feeling of the sound of Neptune (seems oddly fitting), to the light ringing and phasing sounds produced by the Song of Earth, and the even more intense phasing and aggressive feel of Uranus, there is a definitive and unique sonic reality to each of these (and all the included) recordings that are worth some listening time.
The running your finger across crystal (or even tubular bell) type sound produced from the Rings of Uranus intrigued me immediately and has led to the bulk of my further exploration thus far (experimenting with that specific set of frequencies and amplitudes that were produced during that segment of the video – I did not sample the audio specifically, just studied the frequencies and amplitudes). This sound of the Rings of Uranus felt the most musical in many ways, though at the same time, the repetitive higher frequency ringing can be quite aggravating for many listeners (my wife walked into the room I was listening to this in and uncommonly for her, immediately mentioned how annoying and unsettling that specific sound was). I can see how the higher frequencies in that recording (and some of the other sonic elements in the other recordings) could be quite agitating or unsettling, though again, it (like the others) can be great inspiration for new sonic productions. Just remember to take inspiration from what you like, and leave the rest alone.
As an additional exercise that you can add to the few I mentioned last month in Practical Exercises for Critical Listening, I would advise listening to all of these several times and just imagine what you might be able to produce from similar sonic textures, or just let these sounds take your imagination in different directions. I would also recommend playing these for others as well and see how they react. Which ones are the most pleasing, and which are the most unappealing? Think of why the tones you are hearing make you feel the way they do, and I believe you can find a great deal of inspiration from these sounds, both in your sound design for outer space based productions, and even for earthly sound design endeavors. Enjoy, and happy listening.
Further information and additional resource:
A basic article about sound in outer space:
Is It Possible To Hear Sound In Outer Space?
A very interesting recording (captured and processed differently), but still extremely fascinating and worthwhile listening:
What deep space actually sounds like (and you won’t BELIEVE it!)
That isn’t sound.. it’s electromagnetic waves
So the title on the news paper is correct!
Sound requires moving gas.
Disappointing, and very misleading post.
Jack Menhorn says
I think any sort of wave that we can interpret as sound should count as sound. I found the post delightful.
We judge the world and beyond with our very limited senses and as a result we take very little into account before claiming something to be fact.
It is no different to someone asking you to smell something that is a mile away. You would say it smells of nothing but to an animal with a better sense of smell it might smell like dinner.
If your senses were better/different then space would have sounds.
Empty your cup a little and let a little wonder back into your life.
Thanks for this – it actually was news to me.
Fantastic sounds, and I personally preferred the Rings of Uranus part. Different strokes. All I could really think about, listening to this, was what Stanley Kubrick could have done with these sounds, had he had them when he was doing 2001. Wow. Space IS the place…
Jeff Talman says
Thanks for the piece Doron. In researching creating my own work with space sounds I came upon a lot of space-based radio transmission signals transduced into sound as you discuss.
Composers have been working with these signals for more than 20 years including the NASA Voyager Space Sounds. The recordings are credited to Fred Scarf, PhD a space plasma scientist, but they were then manipulated in studio – by whom is not clear. The recordings have been released by several companies including Delta, Laserlight and Brain/Mind Research between 1989 and 1992 as LPs and later CDs and finally as downloads available at the iTunes Store. Others who’ve used these electro-magnetic signals to create music include Charles Dodge (as data), Fiorella Terenzi, Gérard Griséy (live pulsar signals) and myself, among many others, I’m sure.
In the research I contacted NASA but after numerous queries to various of their agencies and some detective work on their part no one seemed to know anything about the recordings.
Otherwise, though there is no true sound in the near-vacuum of space, there are imprints, evidence of the actual sound of the Big Bang, on the cosmic microwave background. John Cramer at the University of Washington has emulated this sound (sped up in several versions so that anywhere from 20 to 500 seconds represent the first 760,000 years of evolution of the universe). http://faculty.washington.edu/jcramer/BBSound_2013.html
FInally, there are other sounds possible where there are atmospheres or some other medium for sound to pass through. By use of time lapse photography it’s possible to monitor the vibrational activity of a star. In doing this astrophysicists track the vibrational rate of the body as it’s ringing like a bell from all of the sonic activity that is roaring on the surface. It’s possible to model these resonances, though they are so low that they have to be transposed by thousands of octaves to made audible by humans. In 2011 I created a sound installation “Nature of the Night Sky” in the Bavarian Forest with sounds of 15 stars and last year worked with a NASA astrophysicist to create an installation using the sound of the Sun, which was produced at Rothko Chapel, Houston. The first work is on the CD, the Sun work is coming out later this year.