Friday, October 17, 2008

Of Space and Sound

Click on any link below to read all the articles in the Critical Noise Archive on SPACE AND SOUND, exploring the relationship between sound and environment:

1. Zoning Post Modern Habitats For Green Audio
2. Sound Spaces for Subway Systems
3. Soho Grand – Lifestyle Branding with Music
4. Tonal Rain Falling From Cathedral Space

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Zoning Post Modern Habitats For Green Audio

Strip malls are arguably ugly.

At first, clashing branding appears to be the cause of it. Then one considers image density. The problem is not that too many voices want to sing in the chorus, but that they do not sing in harmony. Signifiers and logos simply express brand attributes like different notes in a scale. So if the urban cityscape looks cluttered, the blame lies with a less than comprehensive audio zoning policy, not with the individual aesthetics presented by various design directors.

However, marketers (producing remote media for use in a public space) are at fault if they concentrate all their efforts designing the brand and zero effort analyzing the spaces where brand assets are positioned, played or displayed. Of course, one can't spend all one's resources auditing every location, but a sampling will provide enough generalities to strengthen the possibility that one's message will get heard. If getting heard isn't important to you, than spend your money elsewhere, like on pretty stationary.

A central part of my professional activity is predicated on prescribing both sonic and image solutions to communicate brand messages. Far be it from me to advocate turning the volume down. But I do advocate intelligible communications on all platforms, and in consideration of the acoustic ecology –natural, urban or otherwise.

Beyond predicable noise assessments, is it too much to ask music designers (and their clients) to consider the environmental status of our post modern human habitats –inclusive of competing audio sources– when creating sound solutions for a given site?

In this era of 'Green' and environmentally friendly solutions, might there also be A Greening of Sound? –Perhaps a Green Sound Initiative, whereby sound producers consider the given acoustic ecology of a specific site or experience before adding their own voices to the fray?

The process and the professional who engages in this task would not be too different than a film mixer who already considers music, dialogue and sound design in the formation of a completely intelligible and entertaining composite. But instead of working against picture, our audio ecologist is working with –and one might even say 'mixing'– the environment.

Make no mistake, mixing with a Green Sound result in mind is different from our current idea of location mixing. 'Green Ears' nether seek to maximize a preferred source, nor diminish other sounds, but rather intends to form an immersive, balanced experience inclusive of all sounds (even those beyond the music designer's or engineer's technological control).

Unlike typical location mixing, Green sound sources move, and green playback environments are in constant flux. For one thing, man made habitats fade at the edges into natural ecological source sound. This creates (both problems and) opportunities to change the way source sounds interact with habitat and with each other.

We are not mixing nor positioning sound sources for a specific static venue, but treating every space human beings inhabit as a constantly moving, webbed venue (without borders), and every electronic device as an intelligent, responsive source. Therefore we require every electronic device to communicate with one another within a given range, and also to be able to listen to the environment for cues on how to behave, and then emit sound accordingly.

Most movie goers are probably familiar with THX. THX is the trade name of "a high-fidelity sound reproduction standard for movie theaters, screening rooms, home theaters, computer speakers, gaming consoles, and car audio systems".

Green Sound, as I imagine it with my inner ear, would be for environmental audio and non-entertainment locations (equipped with sound makers) –inside and outside–, what THX is to the movie experience –a high-fidelity, quality assurance protocol.

The result might yet produce a full chorus of commercial or even industrial voices; but instead of an unintelligible or annoying sonic mash, each man-made audio source conforms to a site-specific filter establishing volume, frequency and tonality relative to a given geography or ecology.

We might even investigate source placement using spatial simulation algorithms and models for particular acoustic spaces that demonstrably and capably host the broadcast of multiple overlapping sounds from varying –even moving– points of origin, and do so legibly, –such as forest or fauna regions, which can seem simultaneously active with sound and, also, relatively quiet.

And we must certainly use any other applicable technology available to us to achieve the desired Green Effect (perceptible as simultaneously active with legible sound and relatively quiet), such us Holosonics Audio Spotlight product, which focuses sound (for one example) to single position.

And just maybe the sum of it won’t sound too bad at all.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Desaturate the Web (It's Only Fair)

In the nineties I founded a music company called BLISTER, so christened because I wanted to convey to Interactive art directors, animators and casual game makers (among our principal clients) the impact the strategic use of branded sound might play on the senses. This in the days when audio was often deemed 'too big' or 'too slow' (not to mention, 'unessential') in the construction of an online experience.

But in the last decade sound has gone from being considered too unwieldy for the Internet to being unquestionably integral to just about any and every interactive experience one can think of. And interactive audio production has become an art form and recognized profession unto itself.

The funny thing is:

We've all visited sonified web sites that provide an option to MUTE sound. But is there just one website that offers us the option to DESATURATE the color spectrum, so that we can view the thing in a more palatable Black and White? No, ha, but I wish there were, because the presumption still is that if anything is going to be annoying; it's going to be the sonic elements, not the visual elements.

Of course, they didn’t say that about my blue hair in 1983.

–But here lies a powerful argument regarding the weakness of design (and subsequent necessity of sonic enhancement). In a previous article I wrote:

"If design is the rocket, sound is the fuel that lifts it into our imagination, serving to imprint the image (of the vehicle it accompanies) into our memories, and even if the sound itself is goes unremembered."

Or vice versa: Practically speaking, Sound and Vision compliment each other, thereby creating an integrated experience; and by extension a seamless memory of, and emotional reaction to, a given event.

But in fact, visual fashions fade faster from our interest than even Top Ten Pop songs. The eye becomes jaded far quicker than the ear. TV commercials from the eighties look ancient. But today's kids and adults alike still enjoy dancing to Brit Pop Robo-Candy such as Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware's wonderfully askew Human League and Heaven 17.

Similarly, Leo Delibes 'Flower Duet' ('Viens Mallika' from the Opera 'Lakme') will likely outlast the famous Tony Scott Directed/ Howard Blake Arranged TV campaign for British Airways (that used the piece as a score).

Were the 'Flower Duet' actually commissioned by British Airways as its core audio branding asset, so much the better, but perhaps original commissions are no longer necessary to establish authentic branding. What I mean by that is, ideally, account executives at the airline, or attached to the airline's branding company, would have long beforehand distilled the BA mission, values and our corporate goals into an Identity Style Guide or Brand Manual that included parameters for execution of audio.

If initiated, the creative brief should have resulted in the commission of an original work that effectively conveyed the BA brand through music (Assuming, also, they secured a living composer whose talent was substantially equal to that of Delibes).

A few other pre-existing tracks have indeed managed to communicate a full breadth of a brand message. Chevrolet's use of Bob Seger's 'Like a Rock' comes immediately to mind. Yet, I think, overall, licensed (or otherwise non-commissioned, existing) pieces work best (in most cases) when they are part of a campaign, not when they are re-purposed as the fundamental branding asset. Although, as mentioned, sometimes such works can indeed be successfully retrofitted as a brand asset.

The argument does not apply to filmed or theatrical entertainment, for the simple reason that cinematic entertainment has longer legs than the advertising for it, or anything else for that matter.

Marketing, as with any campaign, is by its elemental nature, a temporary operation. In contrast, Fine Art, such as Music, is timeless, by default. Sure, any given recording will eventually sound dated, but rearrange the track using modern production tools –or simply play the thing yourself (if you're a musician)– and all of a sudden the music jumps back to life!

Pantone's 2007 Color of the Year was Chili Pepper. This year it was Blue Iris. Next year it will be something else. The eye continuously demands novel ways to distract it. And yet the western ear, give or take a few hundred years, will never tire of C Major.

Not to say some commercial art doesn't hold the same appeal as fine art. Some of it does, and I'd like to think that some of that which is held in such regard also included my participation. But note, a commercial cycle in the US might run for as little as 13 weeks –in the case of a Superbowl spot, ONE day– while every little ditty from a cheap pop song to a symphonic theme is routinely capable of surviving generations.

No doubt, shortly after the copyright runs out on many classic 20th century jingles, future composers will use them as fodder for more substantial works, much the same way Aaron Copeland borrowed the Shaker hymn 'Simple Gifts' as a theme for his ballet score, 'Appalachian Spring'.

Yet I would be surprised if any accompanying video (to those classic jingles) eeked out any further use beyond their value as vintage pop kitsch.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Buzz Versus Bang

Aristotle opens his philosophical treatise, METAPHYSICS, with the following introduction:

"All men by nature are actuated with desire of knowledge, and an indication of this is the love of the sense; for even, irrespective of their utility, are they loved for their own sakes; and preeminently above the rest, the sense of sight. For not only for practical purposes, but also when not intent on doing anything, we choose the power of vision in preference, so to say, to all the rest of the senses. And a cause of this is the following, –that this one of the senses particularly enables us to apprehend whatever knowledge it is in the inlet of, and that it makes many distinctive qualities manifest."

In other words, as far as senses go, the Eye/Brain partnership has been engineered with far more capable intelligence gathering capacity than the Ear/Brain.

Graphics (that interest us) appear to possess an innate capacity to cut through competing visual clutter. For this reason, design, good or bad, has an advantage over audio (so long as it rests within an available range of vision). The Eye/Brain partnership is quite adept at selecting isolated points of interest, like stars in a night sky. Meanwhile even a trained Ear/Brain pairing finds itself overwhelmed when attempting to discern unique single tones if emitted from multiple competing sound sources.

Every try to enjoy –much less actually hear– a street fiddler playing a quiet tune when a New York Subway train pulls into the station with a 100 decibel roar? It’s impossible, and yet no problem at all reading competing –even muted– signage on both moving train and stationary platform, or even this article if you happen to be on the go and have your face buried in a mobile device.

For more anecdotal evidence, just walk down your local Main Street, or stare across a strip mall. Even a three-year old child can easily discern McDonalds' red and yellow arches amidst an urban sea of other corporate logos. Alternately, consider words on a page, all are individually and entirely legible, even if not digested in the prescribed linear sequence. Similarly, few will report any obstacle identifying one or all of a hundred fast food joints on along a given strip –by design cues alone.

In contrast, substitute the neon signs indicative of any congested suburban landscape for equally loud sounds. The result isn’t just aural clutter. It’s noise: a morass of overlapping sounds whose component parts played in unison become indistinguishable from one another, and their points of origin also indiscernible.

Would there be any problem with a jackhammer at two in the morning if it sounded like a purring kitten instead of a machine gun on steroids? Compound an angry jackhammer with a middle-of-the-night traffic jam and it makes many a city dwelling musician wonder why every car horn can’t be factory tuned to A440, and coo instead of blare. Who uses car horns as danger alerts anyway? A few certainly, but equally true most people honk to voice impatience, not to warn an unwary pedestrian that they’re about to be flattened by a minivan.

For some reason, competing audio is perceived as a racket long before competing design becomes disordered hodgepodge. Even when design does cross the threshold into clutter, the brain is more willing to try and make sense of visual hodgepodge than it is of noisy racket. Walls covered in graffiti earn appreciation from a global group of aficionados that appreciates not just design, but densely compacted, competing design elements. And in fact, puzzles are fun.

Neither copious nor bright, contrasting nor clashing color use, random points nor competing lines, nor unsymmetrical shapes are necessarily annoying –much less painful to our senses (Art School grads included). But unharmonious rumblings, shrill emissions and discordant notes can be irritating. And sound blasting at an excessively loud volume can actually be dangerous and damaging.

But therein lies one key to the power of sound, and especially as an enhancement –or 'power boost'– in the promotion of a message conveyed by a visual element. If design is the rocket, sound is the fuel that lifts it into our imagination, serving to imprint the image (of the media vehicle it accompanies) into our memories, and even if the sound itself is goes unremembered.

Or vice versa, of course. To be fair, any gifted multimedia artist is capable of using one sensory trigger to 'push' forward and enhance the perception of an experience delivered by another. That's why film, theater, opera, propaganda and advertising work when they do. Somebody is pushing your buttons, and in the case of an action movie (or a sports car commercial) the result can be thrilling.

In fact, it might be inaccurate for me to liken noise to clutter, when a more appropriate visual metaphor for racket is probably that of a focused emission, such as a laser, aimed directly at your brain.

Of course, one needn't make a big noise to gain attention. The buzzing sound in your ear from a bug will certainly capture your attention just as much as any loud sound will. In some instances, that soft buzzing sound might even be considered a more effective medium than a loud bang. Because of its incessant, repetitive nature, the sound –indeed the entire experience taken as a dimensional 'snapshot'– has a very good chance of becoming indelibly imprinted into one's neural circuitry for future recollection.

And that might be why the sound of cicadas, or of even one mosquito buzzing in your ear –not to mention an old pop song– can trigger a cascade of archival memories from so long ago, that you thought you forgot them. And you did until one single SOUND took reign of your psychophysic reality and quite effortlessly transported you back in time.

Maybe not Quantum Physics, but I think it's AMAZING anyway, and it happens almost every day to each and everyone of us.

So, Buzz versus Bang? You decide.