Recently I had the opportunity to participate in a research project undertaken by PH.D. Student Alison Walker, who is from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.
If you'd like to participate in the study, please email Alison here (by this August 2017) at alison.walker1 (at) students.mq.edu.au
With permission, below is our interview conducted for (In)Habiting Sound: Cinesomatic Narratives and Sonic Embodiments.
1. What inspires you about sound?
I'm inspired by giving sound a purpose, creating a sound with an intention. The creative process of sound design is progressive and very rewarding. It's not always about what sound we hear but in the context within which we hear it.
I believe and experience that sound offers clarity and emotional power in media, whether it's recording something with good engineering or creating a brand new sound that is felt on a deeper, different level, combined with visuals.
In sound synthesis, the process of creating a resulting sound is also rewarding and valuable to the musical experience. It might signify a preference that most electronic musicians probably take for granted - that their sounds, with the exception of premade ‘presets’, are developed over time.
2. What led you to work in the sound industry?
It came naturally after enjoying a lot of experimentation and playing with synthesisers and music software. I was first inspired by a PlayStation 2 electronic - music creation software, and soon I bought a MAGIX Music Maker for PC. It was fun arranging music loops together and custom recordings. I always enjoyed synthesising wild sounds and believed synthesizers were more capable than popular usage, at least from what I had heard at the time.
3. What kind of training did you undertake?
I studied Bachelor of Audio Production at SAE Institute Byron Bay. The training was a foundational audio engineering course that explored many areas of application, including Audio Post Production and sound design. Signal Processing and Post Production were my strengths and best subjects.
4. Can you describe what your work comprises of? What do you actually do and how do you do it?
As I freelancer I worked on every project I could. Predominantly my work included sound design for film and electronic music production. (For the most part I will answer project questions from the standpoint of film sound design.)
The main tasks include cutting sounds, mixing and signal processing with a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), called Logic Pro.
My work with music is predominantly electronic, ambient music production, which involves sound design and synthesis with the focus of timbre.
5. What are the challenges of your role?
The challenges are more physiological, related to working in between different listening environments. Whether it's listening to a project for a long time, at a certain volume or at different times, my challenge has been finding what are the most reliable environments where the sound (result) is most consistent.
The way I solve this for music mastering is by using acoustic treatment in the home studio, and listening in a few fundamental listening environments.
In film, the studio has been calibrated and designed for the correct mixing levels, and then re-analyzed with Loudness metering software, such as iZotope Insight.
Other times, it is helpful to take a break after a few hours, and sometimes a day for big projects, so that my perception and listening can be more neutral.
6. Do you have a favourite and a least favourite sound?
While a lot of sound can be fascinating, I can admit I do have a few couple sounds that stick in mind. The first is an interface sound used in the PS Vita program called Near, which uses a simple pitch rise when the user selects something on-screen. What really intrigued me was that there is a smaller, satisfying pop sound, like a sample that is being pitched up, but because it is short (probably only 30ms) and repeats rapidly, it creates a unique timbre, unlike other generic pitch-up sounds.
What has likely happened is that the small sound has a wave period in the low sub bass octave, but the main timbre of the period carries a lot in the upper spectrum (timbre), so that when the overall pitch rises, the sound is very characteristic. Usually these pitch-up sounds only have a few frequencies, or at least are based of a pure note rather than a sample.
Since nearly every sound is an object I can work on, I tend to look at them neutrally, however there is one metallic sound that makes me cringe. It’s the sound of cutlery screeching on stainless steel. It's similar to a blackboard scratching, although it feels associated with some visceral feeling from my childhood, so that whenever I hear it, somehow I manage to feel it in my body. I don't really know where though, it could even be in the back of my mouth, but it just feels like I am experiencing it.
7. What kinds of sound projects make you excited and why?
Projects that demand creativity and expression. The creation of new sounds can be very rewarding. In film the same applies, which is why I focused on narrative films that have story - some aspect of the story is conveyed through new and unique sound. Other cases of creativity can also be with predictable and familiar sounds, like the environment or door opens and closes.
Other projects that involved basic editing and mixing were still rewarding but in a different way. Making something sound clear and intelligible is still a great job.
8. Do you have a favourite film for sound? Can you describe why you love it?
Animated films like WAL-E and Up had very amusing and enjoyable sounds. The animated films have quite a number of unique and well edited sounds, which all have to be chosen individually due to the fiction of animation. It is also the fiction and visual predominance that brings a more child-like freedom into the sound. In other film genres, perhaps the footage demands more boundaries and expectations in the audience.
I also found Gravity very moving due to the way it used silence and music in the film, as well as Interstellar for its daring mix levels.
9. Have you ever felt that working with particular sounds has had a physical effect on you?
Apart from that screeching metal that made me cringe, generally I think it tends to alter my mood slightly. Listening to aggressive sounds might make me work faster or more fiercely, whereas working on relaxed soundscapes in music would in turn relax me. This is especially true in music production, where sometimes I may be very inspired. Working with a lot of synthesis, sometimes creating a certain sound will be inspiration to create a new melody or composition, which is normal. However I think this depends on the individual - their dealing with emotions may be extroverted or otherwise not physically expressed as much.
10. Would you say that your job affects the way you are in the world generally? For eg, do you hear things differently now?
Yes, listening to specific parts of the frequency spectrum, which is a common technique, will enhance this ability in daily life. As a reflective person I tend to think about this in regards to ordinary sounds. Sometimes I wish I had my handy recorder to capture certain sounds.
There are also Spectrum Analyzer iPhone Apps (e.g. Spectrogram Pro) that enable you to analyze the spectrum of the microphone input - a quick and powerful way to get an idea for the timbre of the sound, without recording it.
In other areas, sometimes listening to sounds more objectively means that you experience it with less labelling, for example there have been rare instances where domestic sounds have fused together into new, more alien-like sound, even just momentarily. But there is a chance that this was due to natural psychoacoustics and not necessarily my career exposure.
11. Can you give an example of a project that you worked on that you will never forget? And why do you feel this way?
A project called Mover - This was a short science fiction film that involved a protagonist who had secret telekinesis ability. The film was very rewarding to edit, as I used much of the production audio (from separate takes) to get very wide coverage in dialogue scenes, particularly in an alleyway fight scene, which had a lot of cuts, yelling, shouting and breaths. The final cut at the time, had a lot of gaps, silences and discontinuity.
Sound-design wise, I created a 'spinning bottle' effect with what is called a Chorus/Ensemble effect in the DAW, which made a simple bottle roll sound modulate, and sound like it was being kicked down the alley way. This just needed some Reverb automation so that the sound picked up more reflections (and less direct sound) as it went further away.
There was also a fist punch sound that finally sounded like a real good smack, and not artificial, 'hollywood' or ‘street-fighter’. It was hard work to create, even though it was probably only 0.2 seconds long.
Other sci-fi sounds that involved whooshes, synthesisers and an epic film score by Matt Rudduck, made a very expansive and enjoyable project. The enjoyment of film is not just from creating sound but seeing creativity from other departments come together and flourish as well.
12. How do you find the experience of watching a film as an audience member? Are you able to get ‘lost’ in films, or do you find yourself analysing it from the standpoint of a practitioner?
I do tend to enjoy the film and become lost in it, often becoming fascinated by the capabilities of sound, but also many other elements of the film production. I think the films story is usually sufficient to go along with it. I still tend to be a critic of what sound works well.
13. Do you ever imagine yourself in the body of the audience who will be watching the film you are working on?
Always! I think this is one of the most successful things to practice. It's useful to pretend you know nothing about your project when reviewing it. Watching the project at a later date can sometimes be surprising as well, but eventually the essential ideas start to crystallise.
14. What is the most satisfying aspect of your job? How do you know when you have nailed it?
This really depends, sometimes it is a simple sound, and other times it must be a characteristic sound. It is nice to have freedom to choose certain sounds by direction of the emotion or expectation, instead of the director being overly picky about the exact sounds and timings.
15. What determines a ‘good’ sound effect/capture/edit in the artistic sense? What are sound designers striving for?
It greatly depends. One of the biggest lessons is that 'less is more' in the soundtrack and we do not always need to add all sound elements, but let us focus and augment the most important parts of the story. This means that just a few sounds can be effective. There are many techniques of course, which may also include adding too many sounds for a deliberate feeling.
16. How much of your job is technical and how much is creative?
That would be half-half. The technical side is audio-engineering, signal processing and recording. The creative side overlaps on this, and gives it direction to what you can do with the material with the available technology. Whether the recording is filtered, played at high speed, played through a loudspeaker, played with echo, etc. These are creative decisions also based on certain science.
17. When you’re in the thick of doing your job, do you ever ‘forget’ about the technology you’re using? Or feel like it’s just an extension of your body?
Sometimes we forget that they are tools. The end result is most important. There is a famous saying that 'if it sounds good, use it' which can lead to a lot of experimentation.
18. Can you describe your physical relationship to the equipment you are working with? To what extent is it similar to, say, playing an instrument, and uses muscle memory?
I use software predominantly, so over time there tends to be areas of 'go-to' that give reliable results. I tend to look at sounds from a scientific, signal-level perspective and use tools very freely. However there is a lot to be valued from physical recording methods and more traditional foley experiments, which rely on acoustic, physical movement.
19. What skills and traits do you feel a person needs to have in order to master the role you do?
Patience - They need to have patience and the ability to detach from the sound a lot. While we can definitely find some sounds more pleasing than others, in practice we will sometimes have to comply with the client who still has a different feeling about the result. This can sometimes be quite surprising, while other times the desired result takes time to achieve either way.
Flexibility - Sound is extremely subjective and diverse, so sound designers need to develop flexibility and resilience to their work. That would lead to them being able to take on more challenges.
Critical listening - When we detach from the sound we can listen to it over many times when necessary and listen to discreet frequencies or problems that are also, not dependant on subjectivity but on the objective science - the waves that are saved on the computer.