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

The Sound Design of the Microsoft Local Impact Map

Posted: August 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: interactive audio, sound design

Microsoft hired Stimulant to help convey the breadth and depth of their corporate social responsibility efforts; we designed an interactive online map that was cool, but we followed that up with a version for Microsoft Surface. I led the interaction design effort for both projects. This Local Impact Map, as it was called, was intended to show the positive human and economic impacts of Microsft’s global citizenship efforts.

When we created the Surface version, the interface’s lack of sound became glaringly apparent. As with any project, even for an outspoken advocate of sound like myself, audio often comes last when things get super busy. Surface is a highly sonified platform, though, with outstanding sound design. “A silent Surface app is a dead Surface app,” says fellow Surface developer Infusion. Too true – in fact, our first Surface application was a music sequencer. So, I set about trying to think about what sonic palette would be appropriate.

That was the wrong thing to do, actually. I stared, thought, listened, sketched. No single set of sounds came to mind.

Instead, I finally had a conceptual breakthrough: Rather than figure out how the application should sound, I decided to focus instead on how those sounds would be made. Given the message and brand, I decided that all the sounds had to originate with simple objects and instruments that are manipulated by human hands. This seemed to get closer to the organic and directly-human heart of the project’s message.

I arrived at an odd set of objects that human hands could make cool sounds with. I whittled these down to only two objects: a kalimba and a one liter water bottle. The kalimba, of course, was played somewhat normally, but the one liter water bottle was tied to a string and swung by a microphone dozens of times, clapped, crunched, and blown upon. From all of these samples came a fairly small and concentrated set of sounds for positive feedback, errors, and transitions. I altered the volume envelopes on most of these sounds to make them either more pronounced or less percussive, and then applied some equalization and compression to make them all fit together, especially when played together…this is a multi-user application, after all.

Since the video above shows the map being used but doesn’t feature the interface’s audio, here’s a compilation of the actual sounds for your listening pleasure.

Sound Design of the Microsoft Local Impact Map for Surface by noisejockey
[Røde NT1a mic into Sound Devices 702 recorder, Soundtrack Pro and Peak Pro for post-processing]

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