Monday, February 07, 2000

The Modern Soundscape

Consider this hyper infotainment age we live in. It's jam packed with man made sound, and I've actually had hand in creating some of it. Think of every place you hear sound today.

To name but a few:

–TV/Radio and Internet commercials
–Web Sites
–Feature films, television shows and electronic games
–Refrigerators, coffee pots, new fangled fans, air conditioners and anything with a remote control
–ATM machines and other electronic devices that feature touch screens
–Films, TV, Podcasts, Video Blogs and Radio all demand opening fanfares, themes and underscores
–Restaurants, malls and the retail shops within them
–Theme parks the adventure rides within
–Even museums and zoos are often packaged in aural ambience
–Trains, planes and automobiles feature clicks, bonks and alarms and other audible responses to human physical actions
–Even your computer requires a Power On and mouse movement sounds
–Grocery store check out aisles now sport sponsored video screens. Watch for grocery carts with Baby pacifying television sets coming to a Wal-Mart near you.
–Not to mention the ubiquitous cell phone whose worst feature seems to be not the sound of the phone it self, but the person using it.

I know, sometimes I wish I could turn it all off, too. Silence, it seems, is an endangered species.


Sunday, February 06, 2000

Contact: The Character of Sound

As a student of both the violin and viola, I used to slide my bow back and forth, fascinated by the kaleidoscopic tonal changes that occurred by ever so minute changes in technique:

Pull the bow perpendicularly across the strings so that it nearly touches the bridge, and one produces a wispy effect called sul ponticello. Tap the strings with the wooden portion of the bow, and one is playing col legno. Changes in tempo induce no consequential changes in pitch, but when accented by movements in the wrist or elbow, and depending on speed and strength of the accent, these actions can yield limitless variations in character and tone.

Similarly, tilt the bow along its central axis so that one is either pulling the bow towards oneself, or pushing it away, towards the head of the instrument where the pegs or tuning keys are placed, and you will also introduce a multitude of different tonal effects.

Changes of pressure –how heavy or lightly one rests the bow on a string as it is drawn– is yet another away to affect the character of the sound.

Guitarists intuitively understand the angle of the pick can have an equally significant effect on tone. Similarly, the choice between even using a plectrum, or using one’s fingers to pluck the strings will produce profound effects, not just on the strings, but on one’s life, one’s career, and perhaps one’s relationship to God as well. (Because as we all know, the devil loves rock’n’roll.)

Additionally, the method of contact of one’s left hand upon the violin's neck also produces several appreciable variations. And as with the guitar, the same pitch can be sounded from either a low position on a high string, or from a high position on a low string. The result this affords a player is one of subtle tonal difference between two or more otherwise identical pitches.

The application of vibrato –that is moving minutely on and off pitch– far from making the instrument sound out of tune, also creates an infinite variety of sounds framed by suckle sweetness on one end of the sonic spectrum and frantic anxiety on the other. But why would you do this, besides as an emotive effect? Well, as no two players make contact with their instrument in the same way, nor apply exact speeds of vibrato at the same time, nor can be said to be perfectly in tune with one another at any given moment, a rich choral effect is produced (when two or more string players perform as an ensemble). But strip away vibrato, eliminate dynamics, and though you may have cloned one violin into sixty identical units, what is left is not a powerful symphonic ensemble, but the syrupy singularity we often associate elevator music.

This instant access to variation, in real time, across the breadth of any work, by string players, is one reason why novice arrangers using modern electronic technology often fail to produce realistic string parts, even when working with recorded samples of real instruments. For in order to produce a convincing recreation –and it can be done– each facsimile must somehow be made different than its copies, reflecting minute variations in apparent contact between bow, left hand and strings, note to note, and even within notes.

Using samples from several different libraries is a common approach and aids in adding variety, especially if those samples are then further tweaked by the composer, and their expression modified via the application of high and low pass filters. Of course, it’s cheaper to do this than it is to hire a full orchestra, which is why professional composers will sometimes take the time to deal with such minutiae –or have their assistants do so. And if the budget allows, the samples will eventually be eliminated altogether, or 'massaged' into the mix so that they lay just beneath the surface of an actual orchestra.

It works the other way, too. I can think of many live orchestral dates, which I either produced or supervised, where when working with a small ensemble, we filled out the sound with samples in order to produce a grand orchestral effect on the listener. In this manner, an adept composer can capably convince an audience that a synth track with a soloist is a chamber ensemble and that a 16 piece ensemble is a sixty piece symphony.

Saturday, February 05, 2000

From Storyboards to Sound Design

As an young adult, my professional skill set was influenced by several teachers and colleagues: While at NYU, I had a wonderful opportunity to spend a year studying with Sergio Cervetti, a classical composer from Uruguay with deft electronic ability, global and melodic sensibilities; and an open ear to pop culture.

To my mind Sergio represented a model of what I thought a contemporary composer should be –someone who had access to all the inner workings of their soul and who could communicate it in their music. You know, some people spend their entire lives searching for a perfect sound, a funky beat, a cool groove, a hip riff, a nasty lick, a majestic melody, a divine cadence... but what I wanted from music all along was –and is– direct access to my own soul. Not to much to ask, is it?

I also learned a lot from the people I worked with over the years. Alexander Lasarenko filled my ears with Fauré, Mahler and Schubert, and sharpened my ability to transform flat storyboards into musical concepts. Michael Sweet and Chris Fosdick furthered my understanding of recording studio technology. I also worked with rock guitarist Eric Schermerhorn as often as I could, not only because he was the best man for the job, but so that I could watch how prodigious hands crawl around the neck of the guitar up close and personal. Some call it stealing, I call it learning. If there was any guitarist I ever wanted to emulate, it was Eric.

At Machine Head, Stephen Dewey deepened my appreciation for Sound Design. Stephen also gave me the freedom to break the old project management mold and define myself not as someone who carried out ideas, but as someone who conceived them; pitched them and then directed their development. By the time I left Machine Head to start Blister Media, I definitely felt like I could do anything I put my mind to. That's a good gift to give someone. I hope I can pass it along, too, to someone else along the way.

Thursday, February 03, 2000

Ear Training For The Electronic Musician

While a teenager working as an assistant to the choir master and organist at our church, Dr. Kitchen who played a Flentrop, I started programming on a microcomputer instrument that came out of collaboration between the music and mathematics departments at Dartmouth, and was distributed under the commercial brand name Synclavier, and which has since become a legend if also obsolete (although, that may be arguably not the case). With a small degree of understanding of Fourier synthesis, I discovered that the digital instrument could allow me to seemingly re-create any sound or combination of sounds: Inspired by an article I read about eighties electronic diva, Suzanne Ciani, I spent a week analyzing the sound of a soda can being popped open, in order to recreate it on the computer:

First I discovered that there is the sound of one’s fingertips on the top of the can, followed by the tab bending forward and backward; beneath and in between is the snap of the tab, the crack of the seal, followed by the carbonated volume exploding up along a skewed x/y axis, rising from below perceptible hearing range to a fast climax and fade. It moves across a three dimensional aural landscape from below one’s ears, to square with one’s ears, and then above one’s head and out to one’s sides, before finally subsiding to a quiet but audible fizz.

With practice, I became increasingly quite good at this sort of thing, and this was a few years before the common use of samples. In order to accomplish the synthesis of a complex sound, such as a soda can pop, I had to create small component sounds and then patch them together in a sequencer. After some practice I was soon able to recreate any sound I heard relatively quickly, sometimes in minutes. This is what I mean by ‘Aural Intelligence’. A singer with perfect pitch can hear a sound and identify its pitch. My practice was identifying the composite elements of any given sound so that I might reproduce it with whatever electronic tools were available. I often visualized an oscilloscope in my head; as I worked I would compare the waveform of sound I was working with to the waveform depicted on my inner oscilloscope. I don’t know what good this practice would do, when, in retrospect, one could simply record a soda can and be done with it, but regardless, it was incredible ear training of a sort.