Monday, June 01, 2009

The Greening of Sound

As a result of growing awareness over climate change, there has now emerged a trend whereby individuals, communities, corporations and even governments, are seeking ways to position themselves as in harmony with the planet and its inhabitants.

In what has become a global effort, businesses of every kind –from agriculture and textiles to energy– are actively asking the public to identify their concerns as eco friendly, organic, or 'Green'.

In some cases, a given company's effort may only extend as far as its branding campaign (green, blue, yellow, approachable, minimal, friendly, caring, feminine, concerned –you've all seen the new logo designs).

In sincere initiatives, efforts generally boil down to a statement of commitment to reduce a measured impact on the environment (which consumers must hope is thereafter acted upon).

The most common measurement we hear of is one's carbon footprint. As you probably already know, one's 'carbon footprint' is calculated by taking a full assessment of the greenhouse gas emissions produced by a given subject of study, be it an individual or a venture of some kind.

Reducing one's carbon footprint does not lead to the complete cessation of operations, but rather means taking into consideration what the environment can accommodate and not stressing it beyond that point. In order for any carbon footprint reduction scheme to be effective, it can not be implemented in isolation. Rather, it must be implemented as part of a grand, cohesive strategy in which all human sources of carbon emissions collaborate. In other words, information is shared and competing entities willing cooperate, for the sake of the greater natural environment.

Sound and Media both, can also be defined as a pollutants.

Can Sound be recycled?

It happens all the time in today's sample based music. But there is no issue of old sounds piling up in mounds of garbage (unless you count discarded CDs).

A better question is: Can Sound be Green?

And it's a question I've been mulling over a lot recently.

I think as populations get denser, producers of non-entertainment audio must include environmental awareness into their skill set. And in public areas where sound emerges from multiple, competing sources, devices need to learn when to speak and when to listen, independent of client concerns –this is what I mean by 'Green Sound'.

So, just as industrial centers are learning that they can minimize pollution and still turn a profit, I believe advertising and entertainment providers are bound to discover that they can also produce equally effective communications without making a big noise (or a big stink).

In 2008 I discussed the effect of Silence by re-framing it as a concept I introduced called Black Noise Branding. Black Noise Branding describes how the skillful and intentional use of negative audio space can prove a powerful platform from which to feature other audio assets.

Green Sound, also introduced in 2008, is a related concept, in so far as it describes an anecdote to noise pollution, without requiring media producers to minimize their messaging.

Not as pithy as I would like, but a formal definition of Green Sound might read as:

The sum effect of simultaneous and coordinated communications, so that they harmonize –or collaborate– with existing environmental audio factors and sources.

If we accept this definition, then there are at least two or three methods at our immediate disposal by which we can turn sound green.

• Include an environmental audit as part of our creative process (and then compose or construct any resulting assets with such evident considerations in mind).
• Create smart devices (devices that listen to the environment and to each other, and 'behave' appropriately)
• Create a 'Domestic Audio Code' whereby all interior sound emitting appliances speak with the same 'voice', regardless of make or manufacturer.

In regards to the latter two points: Essentially, we require the employ of a standard, thereby insuring that all sound-emitting electronic devices operate as part of a single network, and therefore communicate with one another, so that their communications to us will be organized and not interruptive, welcome and not intrusive, harmonized and not noise contributing.

Since technological considerations are out of our hands as audio producers, I will mostly focus this article on those factors directly under the control of a composer, sound designer, music designer or other similarly defined audio professional.


In many Sonic Branding or Environmental Sound projects, those commissioned to execute the task might first do a brand audit. They might even research a given space or platform. But few will actually execute an analysis of the immediate Acoustic Ecology.

In a natural environment the Acoustic Ecology might be typical forest sounds –birds, chipmunks, frogs, geese and duck on the water, etc.

In a domestic environment, the Acoustic Ecology might include sound emissions from family chatter, neighborhood noises, dogs barking, children playing, a TV, PC, music player, game console and various kitchen appliances.

In an office environment, the Acoustic Ecology might be comprised of mixed channels of verbal communication, perhaps a music system, or one or more TVs turned to the News or Financial cable channels. Consider also that todays open offices combine operations and creative departments into one single space, or that one's office might actually be Starbucks or where ever you can with down with a laptop and a mobile phone.

Does it matter if the telephony assets are branded if the sounds themselves compete with external sonic data? Should it matter? In an age when a phone call is often part of a multitasking experience it should matter.


So how should members of the creative class go about developing a corporate audio strategy?

Unless you haven't watched TV for the last four years, you already know that GE launched a 2005 'Ecomagination™' image campaign as part of a strategy to position the company as 'Green' .

GE's image strategy is arguable, but the Ecomagination™ concept itself has merit for music professionals who will find it well worth considering –and borrowing for execution their own assignments.

But first, what is Ecomagination™?

GE unfortunately does not actually define Ecomagination™ (as of 6/1/09) on the Ecomagination™ website (or they make the definition difficult to locate), although they do lead the homepage off with the question, "What is Ecomagination™?"

Rather they answer the question by suggesting the philosophical platform enables them to "solve the worlds biggest environmental challenges while driving profitable growth" for the company.

I'd like to adapt the Ecomagination™ concept for Music Designers, so therefore I'll define (or redefine) the it as follows:

Ecomagination™ for Sound, Music and Audio Professionals:

The consideration and implementation of gained results from the analysis of a given environment executed in the effort to compose or design audio for said environment, with the intention that the resulting audio will not compete but integrate into or cooperate with the existing acoustic ecology, without being constructed as so transparent that it is rendered inaudible or illegible.

Green audio designers therefore inquire not just of brand strategy, or what might be an effective means to enhance a story or deliver a brand message with sound and/or music, but how will the resulting asset/s work within one or more environments.

Note that with traditional assignments, the task is limited to the specific creation of a sound mark, score or music packaging. In those assignments when space or environment is also considered, strategy usually boils down to baffles, speaker placement and volume.

But Green Sound assignments will employ aesthetic judgment in tandem with algorithmic controls, with the result being a symphony of multi source audio emissions (and silence) engaged in a non competitive, comprehensive and collaborative approach that sounds if not musical, still anything but like noise. As such, these assignments will include not just a creative brief detailing the immediate task, but also an environmental and device brief that provides predictive assessments of how various sonic solutions will play and interact within an existing Acoustic Ecology.

Of course, such briefs might be de rigueur for device manufacturers, but are rare if non existent in the conference rooms of media creators. Not to mention that device makers have as yet to employ some systematic network theory so that all devices are governed by a cooperating set of communications rules.


So how do you begin working within a Green Sound framework or philosophy?

Using one's 'Ecomagination™', and composing audio from a Green Sound mindset suggests Music Designers consider as many such possibilities as they can before embarking on a given assignment. Analysis will resemble a quadrant composed of 4 areas of study:

• Brand or Message
• Arc or Story
• Natural Environment or Acoustic Ecology
• Gadget or Device Bearing Demographic.

In practice, analysis may require Brand or Story and not both. But sound does not go green without equal consideration given to both environment and device bearing demographic.

Otherwise, we would do well never to assume or define any sounds original to a pre-existing natural environment –the acoustic ecology assets– as sources of conflict. Conflicts only result when a Gadget or Device Bearing Demographic is introduced into an otherwise natural environment, or confined urban space.

In either instance, however, we can safely assume that whatever existent sounds there are play a supporting role in defining an environment as one place or another. For the moment, since these are easy examples, consider a carnival or casino. Creators of both carnival and casino audio are required to create sounds that contribute to existent environments (or 'experiences'). Therefore, in order to prove effective, new audio assets must function in way that simultaneously draws attention to the source without overwhelming or negating co-existing messaging.

But Green Sound designers will also think not in terms of site specific audio, but also how a transient audio set plays through a site and operates in play in multiple environments, whether momentarily positioned or in motion, whether public, private or domestic.

What if all the domestic appliances in your kitchen our household shared a common key and were drawn from a unified sound palette? Then the microwave going off at the same time as the coffee pot wouldn't sound like a racket, but like a symphony (albeit it on a micro scale).

Does the car alarm have to go off in the car and wake up the neighbors? Why can't a vandalized automobile transmit an alarm signal to your location so that you are instantly aware of events at hand.

Do you have to remember to turn your mobile phone to vibrate in a movie theater or court room? Why can't the phone know where you are and handle such accommodations itself.

We will as often as not learn that it is not simply that the bird's song that is so pleasing to our ears, but that our feelings regarding the reception of the song is the result of prior or simultaneous modifications to our disposition by other factors that may play upon all our senses.

That is, the bird sounds so magnificent because the stage upon which he or she sings (the environment) simultaneously appears magically or divinely ordered, with the result being that even random audio emissions seem performed according to some artful, intangible or supernatural plan.


Essentially, Green Sound is the study, practice and application of Soundscape Awareness.

Consider not simply what is on film or video, but who will be receiving a given communication, and whether they will be focused or multitasking during transmission.

Consider not only the voice of the brand, or how a device should sound, but how it will play (in a given environment), and how it might cooperate and harmonize with other brand messaging or devices so all sonic data is legible and none perceived as interruptive.

Likewise, ask (yourself) not only how the mix sounds in Mono, Stereo and Surround, but also where it will play in Mono, Stereo and Surround, and how it will play. We all well know that how and where a sound plays can negate a million dollars of prior production decisions. Simply consider the erosion of sonic value by poor mp3 compression.

But Green Sound is not medium specific. Rather a Green Sound mindset connotes a general awareness of environmental factors, and leads to the production of audio assets that 'collaborate' within a given Acoustic Ecology, and which neither contributes to noise nor gets buried by it. Green Sound designers take into account that some playback devices are positioned, while others are mobile.

And ideally, Green Sound strategies effectively coordinate man made sounds with natural sounds, and new sounds with pre-existing ones, in a way that resembles a nature and her cycles. It is therefore conceived and executed with both Music and Network theory in mind.

As such, sound can only be said to be Green when it is designed as both distinctive and collaborative. It does not require silence nor assumes constant or sustained focus on order for a communication to be effective (in contrast to long form entertainment). It does not intrude, it's not about being louder, but it's not so muted that the result is muffled.

Rather Green Sound is experienced as the simultaneous transmission of uniquely positioned, separate sound sources, working together like lines of counterpoint composed in a symphonic manner, so that multiple distinct messages are made nevertheless clear and comprehensible, via data awareness of proximal devices, and an intelligent, algorithmic assessment of the environment that takes into account what other humans and animals might also inhabit that same environment.

And Green machines have a built in intelligence so that they know where one environment ends and another begins, and makes suitable accommodations to subsequent sound emissions.

By taking into consideration the immediate Acoustic Ecology, story tellers and communications producers will no doubt be able to communicate far more effectively and economically than they ever have before, with the sum effect being quite the opposite of noise, and yet, perhaps only different than noise by nominal degree.

To advertisers, Green Sound is the strategic positioning of your message (or your client's brand mandate) in a given environment so that it will be heard, not by negating or overwhelming a competitor's messaging (or the natural acoustic ecology), but by carving out its own distinct space, customized to parameters provided by the space, with the net result being that both natural and urban environments feel quieter and more habitable, even though they may actually play host to more communication transactions than ever.