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

How Tools Shape Our Creations

Posted: November 20th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: theory

Randy Coppinger recently wrote a great blog post recently about not getting caught up in tool choices or being dogmatic about approach, and just focusing on the problem at hand, tools be damned. I couldn’t agree more.

This reminded me of a corollary to Randy’s thesis: The tools we use shape what we create.

While that’s perhaps self-evident, that’s not always a good thing. Tools can be creatively inspiring, but they can also become handcuffs, blinding us to better ways of working. Or, even more sinister, subtly changing our work to be something other than we intended.

If you’re a woodworker, what you can do without a lathe can be pretty limiting. Or a jigsaw. Or a coping saw. If you have all of these things, your creativity can be freed from many restrictions, since you are removing constraints upon your ability to execute your ideas. Such restrictions can really get in the way of earning a living in a crowded marketplace. A car mechanic, for example, won’t get a lot of work if he doesn’t have a hydraulic lift and an impact wrench.

So it goes with digital creative professionals. A visual designer these days can’t operate without a computer, and it’s a tough life without Adobe Photoshop. An audio professional can’t work without a DAW, and it’s hard to be competitive if you don’t know ProTools reasonably well. A field recordist needs microphones. And so it goes.

But microphones or recording techniques can have certain tonal characteristics, just like how raster artwork (e.g., created in Photoshop) looks different than vector artwork (e.g., created in Illustrator). It’s important to realize that the tool choices we do make aren’t always going to be neutral. Every tool choice imparts some color to our output. Rendering one’s idea in charcoal will be emotionally quite different than rendering it in pencils. Different sizes and shapes of chisels affect the texture of a sculpture. Capturing a sound with a Rode NT1a will sound different than with a Neumann TLM-103, even on the same material and from the same perspective, yielding different emotions and tones when listened to.

None of us can afford a warehouse of infinite tools…the Tardis tool shed doesn’t exist. But neither is poverty an excuse to not be aware of your tools’ influence on your work. Knowing the attributes of your microphones lets you know what you might want to modify and sculpt audio recordings in post, just as a woodworker might use fine-grit sandpaper by hand for those last touches that really give a piece the personality of the artist, not just the texture of his or her tool’s “fingerprint.” A person on a limited budget and constrained equipment can achieve greatness by adding tons of knowledge and insight. A metalworker with limited tools might only be able to create things of a certain scale, just as a limited-resource recordist might pick only certain subjects to record due to the limitatons of his or her kit.

Randy’s point is one that I absolutely agree with: Properly frame the problem and establish a conceptual framework for solving it, and let that dictate the tools you use. Don’t always rely on the old standards. Expanding this line of thinking, however, forces you to also look long and hard at the tools you use. Always be slightly suspicious of your equipment, which influences and colors what you create. That can be wonderful and enhance the source material. Or horribly inappropriate and lose the character of the original. But there’s a big difference between being conscious of those differences and being blind to their influence on your work. That way lies ambivalence, which I’ve written on before.

A common phrase on Jeff Wexler’s production sound forum regarding equipment versus the user goes something like, “It’s not the arrows, it’s the archer.” Knowing your arrows’ quirks lets you play with the results. And that’s where a creative professional moves from being an informed craftsperson to becoming an empowered artist.

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Starling in the Chimney

Posted: November 20th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: nature recording

I was sick at home one fall day and I heard a European starling singing. Loudly. I didn’t see it outside of any doors or windows, all of which were shut anyway, and then realized that it was perched on my chimney, and therefore was singing right into my house.

All my high-end nature recording mics were in my closet; nothing was hooked up and my batteries might not have been charged. So, even with oodles of gear around, I just grabbed my handheld Sony PCM-D50 that was right on my desk, and started rolling.

Of course, the chimney did an equally good job funneling nearby road noise. Perhaps its narrow aperture did some pre-filtering on that background noise, as it was pretty easy to remove using iZotope RX. It also helped that the signal to noise ratio was very high, given the bird’s proximity relative to the ambient noise. (Tip: Ever use Strip Silence on birdsong? Try it. Super weird!)


[Sony PCM-D50, 90° capsule spread]

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Bar Walla

Posted: November 12th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, sound design

The Uptown, Mission District, San Francisco. Photo source unknown.

The Uptown is the closest bar to my office, and is a classic Mission District hipster dive bar. One hot, Indian Summer day in the fall, it was filled with patrons, windows flung open…but the jukebox was off. And everyone was concentrated by the bar and front door, leaving the back area empty.

Anyone who tries to record diffuse crowd sounds, or “walla,” knows that this is a golden moment. Human voices, but little intelligible conversation, no background music, not too far away from the noise source. I ordered a beer, sat as far away from everyone as I could, and started rolling on my handheld recorder.

I did a little trickery by taking a segment of the recording, swapping the left and right channels, and layering it with another segment, to effectively double the number of people in the room. Luckily there wasn’t too much background noise to also get multiplied. Perhaps not the most interesting of moments on its own, but the little details of the cash register ring, squeaky door hinges, and the general density of the human sounds represents (to me, anyway) a surprisingly hard-to-capture scene without the intrusion of music.


[Sony PCM-D50 recorder, capsules at 120°]

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