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

San Francisco Urban Ambiences

Posted: March 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: field recording
Audio recorder and the Mission District

Ready for recording in San Francisco's Mission District on a rainy winter day.

Urban ambiences benefit from focused listening. Every city has its own sonic palette, and every neighborhood’s aural character is as unique as a fingerprint.

I work right in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District, a culturally rich and very urban part of the city. Best known as the hub of the city’s Latino community, it has its good and bad sides. The good includes more eateries than one could possibly explore, great boutique shops, art studios, and amazing diversity. The bad includes drug dealing, prostitution, and gang violence. As you can imagine, that makes recording opportunities galore.

This post’s track is a compilation of urban ambience recorded out of my office’s windows, at varying times of day. This is only a small snippet of my huge library of urban San Francisco ambiences, every one of which reveals another aspect of the City’s character.

(A recent article on the human need for occasional silence by George Michelsen Foy, author of the upcoming book Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence,  is an interesting counterpoint to today’s sound recording. Give it a read.)


[Røde NT4 stereo mic into Sound Devices 702 field recorder]

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Phonography and Photography

Posted: March 25th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, theory

The deeper I get into field recording (or, in the words of some, a “phonography“), the more the parallels between it and how I approach photography comes into focus. I feel that the differences between these media, while significant, are outnumbered by the similarities.

Photographs are single moments in time and sound is a stream of realtime stimuli. They reach different senses. One could argue that cinematography has more in common with audio recording, in terms of perception of the media over time, but I think that’s more in how it is consumed than how it’s captured.

I actually find that the physical activities and workflow of field recording, specifically, is conducted far more like nature photography. The two activities are also among the few digital creative endeavors that actually can yield some degree of exercise!

For me, the parallels between field recording and photography are most visible in fieldwork, temporal abstraction, recontextualization, and introspection.

Read the rest of this entry »

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The Many Voices of Water

Posted: March 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, nature recording
Blackstone Canyon, my local refuge from Bad Things.

Blackstone Canyon, my local refuge from Bad Things.

I live at the foot of a number of hills that converge into a canyon not five minutes from my house. We have a very Mediterranean climate, so this canyon is dry in the summer. In the winter, the canyon is alive with creeks, streams, and small waterfalls. These winding watercourses have quite varied voices, from deeply resonant hydraulics to burbling, rock-strewn runs. Its sound never ceases to calm me.

This short piece is an aural tour of my local watershed. It crossfades from one water “tone” to another, from the rivulets at the end of the canyon to some of the waterfalls at its head. Of course, the limitations of MP3 encoding sadly adds some warbling and artifacting to the higher frequencies.

When doing this kind of recording, a medium to long boom pole is essential to get nice up-close perspectives without going into the drink yourself.


[Røde NT4 stereo mic into a Sound Devices 702 field recorder]

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More Guywire Shenanigans

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, found sound objects, sound design
Antennae on Big Rock Ridge, Lucas Valley, Marin County, California. I'm lucky to have found this damn thing in fog like that!

Antennae on Big Rock Ridge, Lucas Valley, Marin County, California. I'm lucky to have found this damn thing in fog like that!

As mentioned in earlier posts, Ben Burtt famously made the Star Wars blaster sounds out of hitting tensioned wires. Who wouldn’t want to do the same? My interest was really in how much or little processing it might have taken to get such an iconic sound, so I had to give it a go.

Well, it turns out that the answer is “precious little.”

Here’s some more audio fun from my recording session in dense fog and high wind with guywires that were stabilizing an antenna array. (I highlighted some wind-in-the-wires drones from this session in a previous post.) This very short collection of samples hasn’t been processed beyond than normalization for loudness. It makes a feller want to go around hitting everything with a wrench!


[OktavaMod MK-012 into Sound Devices 702 recorder]

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The Sound Design of TouchTones

Posted: March 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: interactive audio, music, sound design, synthesis

TouchTones, created by our crew Stimulant, is an interactive, multi-user, multi-touch music maker for Microsoft Surface.

Inspired by the work of Toshio Iwai and originally conceived (and entirely developed) by  the insanely talented Josh Santangelo, I led the creative direction and interaction design, and I also created all the sounds for the piece. Our goal in making TouchTones was to ensure that anyone could use it with only a few seconds of exploration, and create beautiful music without any musical training. It was all about immediacy and richness, and the sound needed to support this.

TouchTones is a grid-based music sequencer: the user sets a sprite in motion that, when passing over a grid node, makes a specific sound. Each sprite is a different instrument, moving at different speeds, but are all locked to a master tempo. There are four sprites (voices) and 32 nodes (pitches/notes).

The main challenge was placing notes on the grid. I started by composing short pieces of music that featured a lot of arpeggios of varying note durations, which mimicked how the nodes on the grid would get triggered. This helped me figure out the best note durations for certain sounds, and to establish a key to work in. Since the user is the one who creates the final melody, the only way to really stress-test the sounds and key was to prototype and have real people play with it.

The sound palette itself went through several iterations. The first featured somewhat realistic sounds with a pretty complex scale, so the likelihood of atonality was too high. The second iteration featured purely electronic sounds in a more harmonious scale, but the sounds were too aggressive (probably owing to my own past attraction towards angry music). The third and final iteration finally hit the mark: Cleaner, primarily acoustic sounds, a key that’s pleasant and even a bit wistful, and a note distribution that isn’t always linear, preventing unnatural shifts into inappropriate pitch registers. Internally, we jokingly call the final result the “indie film about autumn in Central Park” palette.

All the sounds were created in Logic Pro, primarily using the EXS24 sampler. A lot of tonal and envelope tweaking ensued. Rather than provide sound clips like I usually do, I encourage you to watch the embedded video above to get a sense of how the application feels and sounds.

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Social Sound Design

Posted: March 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: news, sound design
Social Sound Design screenshot

Andrew Spitz's new site, Social Sound Design, gathers great talent and attitude...a rare combo.

I’ve been using the new SocialSoundDesign.com for about a week or so, and I’m mighty impressed. It’s a strict Q&A format, but with some spiffy features. Most importantly, it’s got people way smarter than me involved, and I learn something every time I visit. (Ooh, plus it uses a fabulous red and black and white palette like another sound design website I could possibly mention. :-p)

While this is true of other forums (some of my faves are listed in the sidebar), so far SocialSoundDesign.com (SSD) has an extremely low signal-to-noise ratio of content to attitude. Everyone is giving with their knowledge. No one’s copping attitude. Questions range from the remedial to the advanced, and answers are informative and varied. It’s amazing to see many of the major sound design bloggers and active online professionals starting to gather in one place. It’s like a family barbeque for the Online Sound Clan…with very strange noises. Andrew Spitz deserves huge kudos for bringing this great resource to life.

As with any such website, the community is only as rich, giving, and patient as its members. If you’re interested in sound for film, games, and any other medium, it needs your voice. Check it out, register, follow it on Twitter for new-question updates, and join the conversation.

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Underwater Bowed Metal

Posted: March 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: found sound objects, gear, sound design
Bow, Wok Lid, Hydrophone

Horse hair, water, mic, and wok lid. Now we're cookin'!

My last post featured teensy finger cymbals being dipped in water while resonating, recorded with a submerged hydrophone. This time we go a bit bigger.

Bowed cymbals are one of the classic clichéd horror movie sounds…clichéd because they’re awesome! (coincidentally, just yesterday, Chuck Russom posted some great examples on his blog.) I recorded some a while back, borrowing some cymbals from a friend at work who keeps his drum kit at work. During that session I also realized that the wok lid from my kitchen made similar sounds, but with a different timbre: More groany, throaty, less musical, but with a quality I liked.

So, I played the wok lid with a violin bow as I moved it into and out of a tub of water, again with the trusty Aquarian H2a-XLR hydrophone tracking to a Sound Devices 702.  The H2a can be overly bright on some material, but for this stuff it was pretty good! (Next time I should record the above-water sound to a second channel with a small condenser mic for more mixing flexibility.)

The recording below is 100% unedited except for some slight compression and normalization.


[Aquarian H2a-XLR hydrophone into Sound Devices 702 recorder]

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Underwater Finger Cymbals

Posted: March 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: found sound objects, sound design
Dipping struck finger cymbals into water creates some great filtering effects.

Dipping struck finger cymbals into water creates some great filtering effects.

[Credit where credit’s due: This is a technique I’ve always wanted to try, and I first heard of it in a great video by Roger Gregg, at around 02:45. The entire series is worth watching.]

So a fellow gets a hydrophone. He’s excited, and starts recording all sorts of crap. But then he has a free hour to himself and realizes that he’s got a box full of sound-making toys and objects that could sound pretty interesting underwater.

Let’s say I’m that fellow.

Before work one day, I sifted through said toybox and decided to give this a whirl. In search for a large container to fill with water, I decided to record in the executive washroom of Noise Jockey World Headquarters, and the photos in this post will give you a glimpse of the sumptuous luxury in which we conduct our noisy business.

Since our high-tech executive spa didn’t have a stopper handy, I grabbed a plastic tub and filled it with lukewarm water. I put the hydrophone halfway between the surface of the water and the bottom of the tub, suspended from a boom arm so the cable would be isolated from noise and the mic element wouldn’t sit on the bottom.

An Aquarian H2-XLR hydrophone set into a tub of water.

An Aquarian H2-XLR hydrophone set into a tub of water.

The Aquarian H2a-XLR hydrophone is pretty heavy and holds quite still. One gotcha is that a high-frequency hiss can occur from air bubbles forming on the microphone casing. This can be a challenge if the water coming out of your spigot is highly aerated. I’m still working on solving that one.

I donned a pair of finger cymbals (truly something every sound recordist should own!) and dipped one or both of them in the water after striking them together. They went into the water at a 60°-90° angle, so that they’d not create entry splashes or secondary water drips. This created a really neat tone that combined a pitch bend with a very resonant filter cutoff.

I’ve attached an edit of the raw recordings to this post. Pitch-bent down or up, obviously, there’s a lot of sonic possibilities for sound design. As with all such experiments I do, I tracked at 192kHz to ensure enough latitude for further sonic malfeasance.


[Aquarian H2a-XLR hydrophone into Sound Devices 702 recorder]

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