Sunday, October 01, 2000

HBO ZONE: Creating a Sonic Identity

In 2000, long before the phrase 'Sonic Identity or ‘Sonic Branding’ was on everyone’s lips, Blister Media was commissioned to create a unique sound design treatment for a new HBO television channel, HBO ZONE, which was described to us as 'HBO for a GEN X audience'. Our resulting innovative audio packaging not only garnered us substantial acclaim, but the Television Industry community recognized us by awarding Blister with a Gold Promax statue, an award whose significance seemed all the more surreal since our competitors were some of the networks themselves!

While I had already won a couple of CLIOs, and Michael a mention in the New York Times for his work on games, it was this award that finally made me feel like we had arrived.

Both VIDEOGRAPHY and the online mag,, asked us to describe our process. What follows is one of the subsequent published articles.

–Terry O'Gara/ August, 2006

Creating a Sonic Identity for a Cable Network: HBO ZONE
By Terry O'Gara
First published by, October 1, 2000

Blister was commissioned to create a signature audio identity for the complete inner package introducing HBO viewers to the HBO Zone, an alternative urban movie channel. The package includes opens, closes, transitions, lower-thirds, bumpers, end pages and teases. In the opens, the camera flies through a maze of high-rise buildings to reveal the HBO logo glowing on a rooftop, then drops down below the city streets to a network of tunnels where individuals gain access to the HBO Zone through hand print identification. [Visual treatments were created by New York branch of the design firm, The Attik.] The 'story' behind each interstitial, Intro, Bump, etc. was that the viewer was to experience being transported from HBO to HBO Zone, or from a familiar world to an unfamiliar world.

The Network wanted a sound design treatment that was both emotional and visceral in content, non-musical, more sound design oriented than the typical Network logo. Our process for this project, the assembly of noise into something one might call a composition has it's roots in musique concrete, the process by which ambient sounds are recorded and then manipulated into electronic music pieces. (developed mid twentieth century by Pierre Schaeffer who was in turn influenced by Luigi Russolo's publication 'The Art of Noises'.

Our technique is a natural evolution of the 'art of noises': Our palette of sounds consisted entirely of a variety of noises, ambient sounds, found sounds and the like. And we could have accomplished it with comparable results using 1/4" tape, a reel-to-reel (or several) and a razor blade. But it would have been painstaking to do. So, we did not forgo the convenience of modern technology.

To accomplish our task we first created a palette of sounds from which to create our final electronic music compositions. To do so, we walked the streets of China Town with a Mini Disc Recorder collecting random ambient street sounds. Once we had about an hours worth of material we took it back to Blister and recorded the sounds into Digital Performer. Then we dissected each sound to its constituent parts so that, for instance, a sidewalk store clerk rustling through a barrel of live crabs was edited down to simply a rattle here, a shuffle there, scraping noises and the like. By repeating this process with each set of sounds on from the mini disc, we created a sound palette that sounded not like street ambiance at all, but rather like an endless variety of noise samples, each unique unto itself. Even the wind against the unshielded collar mic proved a useful sound once we sent it through a digital delay plug-in.

We then took the existing HBO fanfare most people associate with the brand and proceeded to 'dirty' it up. To give it a gritty overly compressed sound we recorded the logo from digibeta onto a 3/4" dub, and then again from the 3/4" dub re-recorded it onto a simple audio cassette. Then we sampled it off the audio cassette into the Power Mac G4 where we could use Digital Performer to edit it and add further crackle and pop to it.

Visually, transitions within the interstitial often looked as though they were interrupted by a channel change, or television static, or interference and the like. In today's world of remote controls those changes are often smoothed out by a soft and sometimes inaudible 'click'. So on a short trip to visit my retired parents in Florida I pulled out the old Panasonic black and white TV from my childhood (pre cable, pre remote, pre stereo) and proceeded to record random channel changing of otherwise static UHF channels. The resulting sounds are unarguably hard channel changes, perhaps an almost obsolete sound, certainly clunky, and now seemingly unique, but still immediately recognizable as interrupted transmissions.

We were also fortunate to be the recipients a DAT ostensibly recorded during the Gulf War of a transmission between a fighting crew in a helicopter and their command. It's mostly unintelligible but we garnered sounds from it, including beeps, crackle and feed back. We sampled as much of this as we needed, and again, put it into Digital Performer, and cut it up into components parts.

So, from China Town to the Gulf War and transformed in a digital studio 17 floors above New York City, we had our palette: literally hundreds of sounds which were then assembled via Digital Performer to correspond to, enhance the video, and also to stand alone as being recognizable as HBO Zone logos.

Again, not unlike creating a piece ala musique concrete, we basically created an audio collage out of hundreds of minute sound samples which were dissected and re-assembled using Digital Performer. After the usual presentation and revision process we were 99% done. Once our basic tracks were approved we then further sweetened them with electric guitar. But not with anything melodic. Rather we pulled out an old $35 electric guitar, plugged it in, and destroyed it in the stairwell of our building, running a cable back to the Power Mac G4 to record every step of destruction. The resulting sounds were hardly recognizable as a guitar. Again, splicing those sounds up into their component parts we then processed the lot through a Electrix filter factory to give them an otherworldly feel.

Once the final tracks were approved, we mixed them via the Mackie D8B, and mastered them using a DBX Quantum to make them 'pop' out on broadcast. We delivered the tracks on DAT at 48K.

Making the time and labor intensive project all the more worthwhile, we were honored by the Broadcast Promotions Industry in June 2000 which granted us the Gold Promax award for Original Music/Sound Design for Network packaging.