A multi-disciplinary designer’s journey in field recording, sound design, and music.

Musical Sound Design for Installations

Posted: April 12th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: interactive audio, sound design, theory

Want a challenge? Try to play back interface sounds on the show floor at CES. [Intel Booth, CES 2012.]

Want a challenge? Try to play back interface sounds on the show floor at CES. [Intel Booth, CES 2012.]

For those that might not know,  for the last decade I earned my living designing digital installations: Multi-touch interactive walls, interactive projection mapping, gestural interfaces for museum exhibits, that sort of thing. Sometimes these things have sound, other times they don’t. When these digital experiences are sonified, regardless of whether they are imparting information in a corporate lobby or being entertaining inside of a museum, clients always want something musical over something abstract, something tonal over something mechanical or atonal.

In my experience, there are several reasons for this. [All photos in this post are projects that I creative-directed and created sound for while I was the Design Director of Stimulant.]

Expectations and Existing Devices

It’s what people expect out of computing devices. The computing devices that surround me almost all use musical tones for feedback or information, from the Roomba to the XBox to Windows to my microwave. It could be synthesized waveforms or audio-file playback, depending on the device, but the “language” of computing interfaces in the real world have been primarily musical, or at least tonal/chromatic. This winds up being a client expectation, even though the things I design tend not to look like any computer one uses at home or work.

Roomba

Yes, I strapped wireless lavs to my Roomba. The things I do for science.

Devices all around us also use musical tropes for positive and negative message conveyance. From Roombas to Samsung dishwashers, tones rising in pitch within a major key or resolving to a 3rd, 5th, or full octave are used to convey positive status or a message of success. Falling tones within a minor key or resolving to odd intervals are used to convey negative status or a message of failure. These cues, of course, are entirely culture-specific, but they’re used with great frequency.

The only times I’ve ever heard non-musical, actually annoying sound is very much on purpose and always to indicate extremely dire situations. The home fire alarm is maybe the ultimate example, as are klaxons at military or utility installations. Trying to save lives is when you need people’s attention above all else. However, even excessive use of such techniques can lead to change blindness, which is deep topic for another day. Do you really want a nuclear engineer to turn a warning sound off because it triggers too often?

The Problem with Science Fiction

Science fiction interface sounds often don’t translate well into real world usage.

This prototype "factory of the future" had to have its sound design elevated over the sounds of compressors and feeders to ensure zero defects. [GlaxoSmithKline, London, England]

This prototype “factory of the future” had to have its sound design elevated over the sounds of compressors and feeders to ensure zero defects…and had to not annoy machine operators, day in and day out. [GlaxoSmithKline, London, England]

My day job has been inexorably linked to science fiction: The visions of computing devices and interfaces that are shown in films like Blade Runner, The Matrix, Minority Report, Oblivion,  Iron Man, and even televisions shows like CSI set the stage for what our culture (i.e., my client) sees as future-thinking interface design. (There’s even a book about this topic.) People think transparent screens look cool, when in reality they’re a cinematic conceit so that we can see more of the actors, their emotions, and their movement. These are not real devices – they, and the sounds they make, are props to support a story.

Audio for these cinematic interfaces – what Mark Coleran termed FUI, or Fantasy User Interfaces – may be atonal or abstract so that it doesn’t fight with the musical soundtrack of the film. If such designs are musical, they’re more about timbres than pitch, more Autechre than Arvo Part. This just isn’t a consideration in most real-world scenarios.

Listener Fatigue

Digital installations are not always destinations unto themselves. They are often located in places of transition, like lobbies or hallways.

I’ve designed several digital experiences for lobbies, and there’s always one group of stakeholders that I need to be aware of, but my own clients don’t bring to the table: The front desk and/or security staff. They’re the only people who need to live with this thing all day, every day, unlike visitors or other employees who’ll be with a lobby touchwall for only a few moments during the day. Make these lobby workers annoyed and you’ll be guaranteed that all sound will be turned off. They’ll unplug the audio interface from the PC powering the installation, or turn the PC volume to zero.

This lobby installation started with abstract chirps, bloops, and blurps, but became quite musical after the client felt the sci-fi sounds were far too alienating. [Quintiles corporate lobby, Raleigh NC]

This lobby installation started with abstract chirps, bloops, and blurps, but became quite musical after the client felt the sci-fi sounds were far too alienating. Many randomized variations of sounds were created to lessen listener fatigue. There was also one sound channel per screen, across five screens. [Quintiles corporate lobby, Raleigh NC]

Music tends to be less fatiguing than atonal sound effects, in my experience, and triggers parts of the brain that evoke emotions rather than instinctual reactions (in ways that neuroscience is still struggling to understand). But more specifically, sounds with without harsh transients and with relatively slow attacks are more calming.

Randomized and parameterized/procedural sounds really help with listener fatigue as well. If you’re in game audio, the tools used in first- and third-person games to vary footsteps and gunshots are incredibly important to creating everyday sounds that don’t get stale and annoying.

The Environment

Another reality is that our digital experiences are often installed in acoustically bright spaces, and technical sounding effects with sharp transients can really bounce around untreated spaces…especially since many corporate lobbies are multi-story interior atriums! A grab bag of ideas have evolved from years of designing sounds for such environments.

This installation had no sound at all, despite our best attempts and deepest desires. The environment was too tall, too acoustically bright, and too loud. Sometimes it just doesn't work. [Genentech, South San Francisco, CA]

This installation had no sound at all, despite our best attempts and deepest desires. The environment was too tall, too acoustically bright, and too loud. Sometimes it just doesn’t work. [Genentech, South San Francisco, CA]

Many clients ask for directional speakers, which comes with three big caveats. First, they are never as directional as the specification indicate. A few work well, but many don’t, so caveat emptor (they also come with mounting challenges). Second, their frequency response graphs look like broken combs, partially a factor of how they work, and so you can’t expect smooth reproduction of all sound. Finally, most are tuned to the human voice, so of course musical sound reproduction is not only compromised sonically, but anything lower than 1 kHz starts to bleed out of the specified sound cone. That’s physics, anyway – not much will stop low-frequency sound waves except large air gaps with insulation on both sides.

The only consistently effective trick I’ve found for creating sounds that punch through significant background noise is rising or falling pitch, which lends itself nicely to musical tones that ascend or descend. Most background noise tends to be pretty steady-state, so this can help a sound punch through the environmental “mix.”

One cool trick is to sample the room tone and make the sounds in the same key as the ambient fundamental – it might not be a formal scale, but the intervals will literally be in harmony with one another.

Broadband background noise can often mask other sounds, making them harder to hear. In fact, having the audio masked by background noise if you’re not right in front of the installation itself might be a really good idea. I did a corporate lobby project where there was an always-running water feature right behind the installation we created; since it was basically a white noise generator, it completely masked the interface’s audio for passersby, keeping the security desk staff much happier and not being intrusive into the sonic landscape for the casual visitor or the everyday employee.

Music, Music Everywhere

Of course, sometimes an installation is meant to actually create music! This was the first interactive multi-user instrument for Microsoft Surface, a grid sequencer that let up to four people play music.

Of course, sometimes an installation is meant to actually create music! This was the first interactive multi-user instrument for Microsoft Surface, a grid sequencer that let up to four people play music.

These considerations require equal parts composition and sound design, and a pinch of human-centered design and empathy. It’s a fun challenge, different than sound design for traditional linear media, which usually focuses on being strictly representative or on re-contextualized sounds recorded from the real world. Listen to devices around you in real life and see if you notice the frequency (pun intended) with which musical interface sounds are commonplace. If you have experiences and lessons from doing this type of work yourself, please share in the comments below.

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“What Module Should I Buy?”

Posted: March 15th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: modular synthesis, music, synthesis

“I just bought [FOO]; what other modules should I buy to go with it?”

Ahh, the cliché question that causes cringes worldwide in the modular synthesis world. But let’s not disparage those who are just learning. We were all there once, right? I sure was. Heck, I still am.

But what bothers me about this question is that it is absolutely context-free.

If you said that you had a saw, and you wanted to know what wood would pair well with that saw, I’d best the most common question you’d get (besides a quizzical look) is, “Well, that depends. What are you building?” Asking what tools or materials to get without knowing what the end goal is feels completely backwards.

Let’s say someone bought a smart, complex envelope generator. Great, such things are always needed in modular synthesis. But then someone asks what to get next, be it an oscillator, a sequencer, a filter, or an effect. Well…are you a harsh noise artist? An ambient performer? A techno producer? A sound designer for film? A guitarist trying to use modular for effects? A trumpet player looking for procedural beats to play on top of? A sound installation artist?

Those answers don’t just matter. They’re ALL that matters.

This, of course, applies to microphones for field recordists, traditional synths for other musicians, or string gauges for guitarists. My advice is always, and will ever be, this:

Listen to your own music with what you have, and it should tell you what you need.

  • Does it sound thin, or do you feel like you want more layers? Oscillators and sequencers and VCAs and filters and effects…or some/none of them. Depends on what you want to hear in the mix, and what you’re trying to say.
  • Does it feel repetitive or too simple? Modulators and VCAs, possibly some randommess.
  • Does the sound seem too dry or stale? Modulators, filters, and effects.
  • Does the sound want more high-level structural changes? Modulators that can transpose, VC mixers for either/both audio and control voltage. LFOs and envelope generators that have very long cycles are great for that, too.
  • Did you get a few modules but you feel like you need more control? Attentuators, modulators, VCAs.
  • Do you want the machine to generate audio on its own? Envelope generators with end-of-rise/fall trigger outputs, maybe a quantizer, LFOs, comparators, random sources.

This is a radical oversimplification, but no single person’s advice is going to tell you the right next module(s) for you. Your system, studio, or mic locker will be far more effective (musically, and in terms of cost) if you know what you’re trying to achieve first.

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The Virtues of Virtual

Posted: October 2nd, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: music, synthesis
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Beelzebuzz on the bus!

I spend between two and three hours a day on a bus. I’m not proud. But one learns to adapt. And in that adaptation, surprising discoveries come about.

In my case, I rediscovered a love for an often-maligned audio application, and learned a ton about modular synthesis while riding over the Golden Gate Bridge ten times a week…one that ultimately led me to invest in modular synthesis hardware, which was the subject of my previous post. But if you’re curious about modular synthesis, for real, doing it in software first can be pretty darned smart. And cost-effective.

When I revised my studio hardware late last year, I decided that a MacBook Air would be a part of the mix. What a revelation that’s proved to be! So small, so light, and – even in its dinkiest incarnation – just as powerful as the older “proper” laptop it replaced. But as a guy who loves field recording, found sounds, and sound design, how could I use this tool on the bus creatively? Surely there must be a good way for me to spend time on my commute learning something. And I learn best through doing.

I explored what skills I could build on my bus ride to and from work, and decided two options existed: Learn more about music composition and theory, and learn synthesis at a seriously deep level. Being that the bus is a horrible listening environment, and I won’t ever be That Guy that brings a keyboard controller on his commute, I opted for the latter.

I forgot that I had a working, real license of Propellerheads Reason, sitting uninstalled. So I installed it on the MacBook Air and decided to set a few goals for myself.

  • No playing through the MIDI keyboard, and no MIDI notes entered on a piano roll. All sequenced as if on a modular synth.
  • No presets, ever. Clear all the settings (or find the most raw one) and always start with that.
  • Don’t stop until you can create at least the standard drum sounds, bass, leads, and pads using subtractive synthesis.
  • Don’t stop with just simple pure tones. Modulate everything so that it lives, breathes, and has some motion or unpredictability to it, even if it’s subtle.

I’ve become a solid user of analog synths over the years, but never directly set myself to learning them so deeply. Suddenly the “pre-wired” nature of Reason’s Subtractor synth became stifling, so I started using synths just for their filters or LFOs and patching them with other synths. Then I got a number of super-raw, purely modular Reason Rack Extensions from Ochen K. And then I started to get more parametric, procedural, and probabilistic sequencing Rack Extensions. My wallet was happy that I wasn’t buying modular synth hardware…but, of course, that came to a screeching halt.

Probability-driven drums, Euclidian synths, and waveform-controlled gates and velocities. Oh my.

Probability-driven drums, Euclidian synths, and waveform-controlled gates and velocities. Oh my.

Things got mathy quick. I have hours’ worth of glitching, burbling, super-weird virtual analog sounds and textures. If anyone ever needs alien telemetry sound effects, I’ve got a lifetime’s worth. (Pro tip: Throwing these aggressive textures into iZotope Iris is a whole other way to waste an entire day in sound heaven.)

But glitch, noise, and analog freakouts, my friends, are really relatively easy to do (and like many things, doing them extremely well is very labor intensive). Making melodic, rhythmic things in a modular way that don’t loop, per se, but yet still hold together over time…that’s even trickier. Focusing on that process really filled in my gaps in my synthesis knowledge. My main workflow now is sketching on the bus, tone sculpting once I’m in a better listening environment, and then rendering out stems of performances or patches for further work in a more traditional DAW. There, I often find that using a subtle tape saturation effect and physically-modeled compressor plugins can help bring in some of those overtones that analog gear is so renowned for.

Surprisingly few pro applications and virtual instruments offer the patching options of Reason and its modules.

Surprisingly few pro applications and virtual instruments offer the patching options of Reason and its modules. Here, U-He’s ACE semi-modular virtual synth bucks that trend. Madrona Labs’ Aalto is also superb.

And yet there, back in my powerful traditional DAW, I find myself missing all those little CV ports in Reason, allowing me to modulate anything with anything. Why can’t I take the pitch CV of a synth plugin and use it to modify a delay time parameter? Or use a buffer override or stutter plugin to retrigger an envelope generator? You can simulate these things with MIDI processors but it’s just not the same.

Suddenly my little MacBook Air feels like the world’s smallest, lightest, and maybe cheapest modular synth around. (Note that I didn’t say “best.”) If any readers are considering building a modular synthesizer, you could do a lot worse than learning your way around modular synthesis with Reason…since it costs the less than many single Eurorack synth modules.

Today’s sound combines edits of live programming and performance with machine-driven sequences, all centered around things made on my commute. What parts of your day could be more effectively used for focusing on creative pursuits?

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OUT NOW: New Album – “Drifter”

Posted: May 31st, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: music, news, synthesis

DRIFTER – Album Teaser from Noise Jockey on Vimeo.

The second in a trilogy of albums, Nathan Moody’s Drifter LP is now available as a digital download (Bandcamp, iTunes, and Amazon) and a limited edition of 100 signed and numbered compact discs.

Drifter is a more ethereal journey than his last album, Dissolver, with fewer beats but Moody’s signature balance between sound design and music. This makes it even more cinematic in mood. Its compositions are looser, often based on improvisations with field recordings, synthesizers, and guitar.

Nathan Moody – “Earthly Disappointments” music film, from the Drifter LP.

The upcoming Deceiver album will complete Moody’s trilogy later this year.

Comments from early listeners include:

“I was pleasantly unsettled by Drifter”
“Beautiful textures and tones throughout”
“It comes across as more confident, forward and assured”
“It’s simply beautiful.”

For more on the release of the Deceiver album this fall, stay tuned to music.noisejockey.net, noisejockey on Twitter, and noisejockey on Soundcloud.

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New EP Released: “Dissolved” Remix EP

Posted: April 19th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: music, news, sound design, synthesis

nm_dissolved_frontCover_1500px

Following 2015′s full-length album, Dissolver, I’m happy to announce the release of Dissolved, an EP with remixes by musicians from around the world. The US is represented by A Box in the Sea (WA), The Sight Below (NY), and r beny (CA); other contributors include The Heartwood Institute (aka Jonathan Sharp, UK), Hainbach (DE), and Fake Empire (NZ). The remixers’ techniques were as varied as their locations, from DAW-based arrangements to use of vintage hardware to recordings using dictaphones. The pieces exhibit a similar range of moods and styles as the original Dissolver LP, from lilting to tense, ambient to percussive, experimental to melodic.

Mastered by Rafael Anton Irisarri at Black Knoll Studio, Dissolved is available now via Bandcamp as a pay-what-you-like release.

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Limited Edition CDs are here!

Posted: October 29th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: music, news

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Just a quick announcement that my latest album, Dissolver, is now available as a limited-edition CD, hand-signed, hand-numbered, with an exclusive limited edition sticker. This run of 100 won’t last long, and when it’s gone, that’s it.

Nab you one today, son! More details here.

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Watery Creaking…and Aquatic Jazz

Posted: October 25th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: field recording

I found myself at Jack London Square in Oakland during San Francisco Fleet Week. The majestic Lady Washington was in port, so I skulked around with my Sony PCM-D50 field recorder (I was there for other purposes, so I wasn’t toting around my full field recording kit).

It was a foggy morning and the air was still, and the ship wasn’t really making any sound. Its dock, though, sure was. It wound up being one of my favorite sounds in some time, between the metal strains, the rubbing of rubber, and the lapping of water.

Even more interesting was the jazz quartet that set up mid-deck on the Lady Washington around lunchtime. I don’t know what they were playing, but here it is, regardless, recorded about 60′ away. Loads of people to the right of the stereo field, nothing but open bay to the left.

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F/A-18 Hornet Fly-Bys

Posted: October 12th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: field recording
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MY TAX DOLLARS…!!!!

When I was a kid, I loved jets. Like most boys, I seemed to love vehicles of all sorts. That all waned as I got older, but fast fighter jets are pretty impressive machine…even if the US Navy’s Blue Angels make my blood boil with their noise, and when I think that my tax dollars pay for all that jet fuel in their F/A-18 Hornets.

Nevertheless, as an audio recordist, jet fly-bys aren’t that easy to get on cue. So, every year, I try to record the Blue Angels over San Francisco during Fleet Week. I always say I’ll go somewhere and record them, but life gets in the way on the weekends. But Thursday and Friday beforehand, they do practice runs over the city.

I planned to go onto the roof of my workplace, but a bunch of tech hipsters got there first: Too much talking and reaction sounds. So I just stuck my Sony PCM-D50 out the window, in a small channel between skyscrapers.

When these things scream by, I was measuring between 40dB and 50dB over the background noise level…which, in an urban area is already between 40 and 70dBA. The PCM-D50 has pretty bad limiting – it actually is always recording at two different levels, and fades between the two, so it’s not even a real limiter. So you need to set your levels very carefully. I did a test on Thursday to get just two fly-bys on Friday that were relatively clean.

I liked how the sounds were rendered. The reverb off the tall buildings was nice, even though the background noise masked some of the jets’ approach. But in a city of 760,000 people, you take what you can get…

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Nathan profiled on CreativeFieldRecording.com

Posted: October 7th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, gear, news

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Paul Virostek of Creative Field Recording, focuses more on approach and technique than equipment, which I think is entirely appropriate. It’s all too easy to get caught in the vortex of gear over doing creative and innovative things with it.

However, it’s always interesting to know what people do use, and why, and what informed their decisions in doing so. To that end, Paul is in the midst of “A Month of Field Recording,” and yours truly was the latest to be profiled, among such field recordist luminaries as Frank Bry, Watson Wu, and many others.

I’m deeply humbled to have been asked to contribute to this series, and thank Paul for the opportunity. What’s more, I also need to thank the online recordist and sound design community, without whom I’d basically know nothing.  More than half of those being profiled by Paul this month are people who have exhibited nothing but excitement and patience in fielding my questions to them about gear, practice, and theory.

 

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New Album Released: DISSOLVER

Posted: September 14th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: music, news, sound design, synthesis
My first full-length album is available today.

My first full-length album is available today.

I’m thrilled to announce that the first album I’ve released under my own name, Dissolver, has been released. It is available now as a digital download on Bandcamp (with PDF booklet with additional artwork and liner notes, exclusively available on Bandcamp). You can also buy it as a digital album on iTunesAmazon, and Google Play.

I produced all the music and artwork, and it was mastered by Rafael Anton Irisarri at Black Knoll Studio. You can read more about this release at this blog’s sister site, music.noisejockey.net.

Work is already afoot on another releases, so stay tuned here, BandcampTwitterSoundcloud, and Instagram. Until then, please enjoy the noise, and reach out with what you think of Dissolver.

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