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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Ambivalence is Death

Posted: February 3rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: theory

The audience says "meh" when you say "meh." Image: Arch Wear/Zazzle.

When you’re creating something, nothing kills faster than ambivalence.

I’m not talking about ambiguity. When the viewer or listener comes to your work, it’s OK to be ambiguous. The best art and design only goes halfway: The viewers themselves must ideally step up to the work and actively engage with it (or be engaged by it) in order to leave a significant emotional impact.

This is where a lot of abstract art fails. Too much mystery with too little to draw emotional interest can render the piece inaccessible even to willing viewers, a reaction that many have to the works of Rothko and Pollack, and even the much-maligned Wolff Olins Olympic logo design. Music can do this, too, when compositions are too abstract and even alienating, whether it’s some of the later works of Autechre or the atonal and complex works of Ligeti. But by leaving a few things tantalizingly uncommunicated, the audience can really engage their senses and curiosity to create a lasting impression which they, themselves, have helped create.

Ambivalence doesn’t lie in the work, or in the audience…it comes from the maker of the work. Ambivalence can be the result of making arbitrary decisions for the sake “done.” It can also come from facing an issue with the work and ignoring it or punting on it for later, and never circling back around to it.

In sound, ambivalence often comes from not taking a stand on big issues, like representation versus abstraction. If one scene has a mix of both very literal and very abstract sounds, the viewer may not understand what emotional state the characters are in. A confusing mix of diegetic and non-diegetic sounds – a classic snafu by sound designers who are driven by the coolest sounds, not the most appropriate sounds – can seriously muddle the narrative message. In game design, this can mean the difference between a player being oriented properly in the game world to misinterpreting sound cues that can lead to poor decision making in-game.

You can recognize ambivalence when you say, “tsk, I guess this will be OK.” You can anticipate ambivalence when you hit the point of, “we’ll circle back on this sound later in the mix and see if we can make it better,” but it never happens. You can smell ambivalence when working with clients, producers, or directors who don’t have clear visions for the emotional content of certain moments.

How does one fight ambivalence? One makes a stand. One analyzes the context of the design problems, and creates a framework, theory, or design approach that all decisions can refer back to. One digs one’s heels in and says, “For this use, and in this context, this approach feels emotionally right, for these reasons, and all aural decisions should be based on this framework.”

It’s not all bad news if this decision-making framework fails to produce the right results. If it doesn’t solve the problem, you at least know it’s the core thinking that’s flawed, not the specific sounds you chose. It’s how you’re using the sounds that’s the problem. The great thing about discovering that level of failure is that you can revisit the highest level of the problem and discuss it…this keeps the discussion at a more strategic level, which will help to prevent the client(s) from micro-managing the actual sound design and implementation process. That’s where your expertise comes in, and is most relevant.

Sure, it’s important to be right. But I think it’s more important to have an opinion, early and forcefully, even if it doesn’t work out. Fail early and often, as so many creative professionals suggest. Get your co-workers and clients used to evaluating your approach and thinking than the nitty gritty details of implementation. The former can help “scaffold” your decisions as you revise, whereas critiquing only the latter may not ever resolve the core issues of how sound can support the visual narrative.

Being wrong is better than being ambivalent…as long as you do so early enough that you can reframe the problem and course-correct before the due date.

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Creativity and the Body

Posted: June 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: theory

Understanding your relationship, or lack thereof, to your body can lead to creative insights.

Denial of the Physical

In 2005, I heard a 1993 radio interview with Frank Conroy, a now-deceased fiction writer, and he described how he preferred writing in bed. He spoke with another author who did this also. Nelson’s own take on it is that he wrote best when his mind flowed without concern for his surrounding. Staying in bed was a strategy to disconnect his brain from his body to facilitate creative flow. The less he was aware of his body, the more his mind could reel and wander.

While Conroy might have had a self-destructive streak, something about this insight seemed familiar. I started to notice my own patterns and methods for staying creative and generating ideas, and realized that, indeed, the idea of disassociating the body from the mind is something that I also do.

Over the years, I’ve learned to obey these rhythms and how to use them in order to stay creative in a deadline-centered world.

Read the rest of this entry »

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