Here is my motion sensor circuit, triggering random audio for a soundscape. All ready to be installed in the Tea Dance for Little People interactive adventure next week!
Here is my motion sensor circuit, triggering random audio for a soundscape. All ready to be installed in the Tea Dance for Little People interactive adventure next week!
This summer saw the start of my soundscape collaboration with the National Trust. For those of you not familiar with the National Trust, I shall first talk a bit about them.
In 1895, the National Trust was founded with the aim of saving the UK’s heritage and open spaces. With an income of £436 million in 2012, the charity now has 4 million members and 52 000 people volunteer their time to work with them. Every year, more than 12 million people visit their pay for entry properties while an estimated 50 million people visit their open-air properties. Over 300 properties are open to the public and looked after by the Trust. As well as this, the National Trust protects forests, beaches, farmland, archaeological remains, nature reserves, castles and even entire villages and islands.
So, as you can imagine, I was delighted to be able to work with such a wonderful organisation that does so much good in protecting the UK’s heritage.
Over the past few years, the National Trust has been actively changing the way it interacts with the public. Rather than opening up stuffy museums that don’t capture the public’s imagination, they are focusing on creating interesting, interactive experiences that will make people want to come back. Rather than a ‘look but don’t touch’ attitude, the National Trust is now inviting people to interact with their properties and are finding innovative ways to attract new members and the public in general.
This relatively new direction for the National Trust is what prompted me approach them with my soundscape ideas. My soundscape work in bringing spaces to life using audio and interactivity seemed to fit their bill exactly. After my first contact with them, Gabrielle Gale got in touch. She was to open a property to the public, namely Leith Hill Place in Surrey, which had been closed since the 1960’s. LHP was to be given a trial season with a very limited budget and Gabrielle was given the task of making it work.
Being the childhood home of composer Ralph Vaughn Williams (RVW), Gabrielle wanted to create a soundscape tour that reflected his life. The soundscape tour was to be spread across four rooms in the attic, where RVW stayed as a child, and a First World War experience was to be included as part of the tour, as he volunteered to fight.
Among other volunteers, Gabrielle managed to secure the help of local talent in Virginia Mckenna, Brian Kay, Lindy Alexander and Brough Scott MBE to contribute dramatic readings of her script. To keep costs down and to contribute to the uniqueness of the soundscape we recorded the performances in one of the rooms at Leith Hill Place, with extra microphones capturing the ambience of the room. Working with such high profile talent was a fantastic experience; it was very interesting to see how they all worked.
The first soundscape section was to be played in room one of the attic. Here, Virginia Mckenna played the part of RVW’s childhood nanny and told the story of his pre-school years at Leith Hill Place.
In room two, the nanny continues her story of his time at school.
In room three, Brain Kay plays the role of RVW and Brough Scott, the role of his cousin Ralph Wedgwood. In this room, Wedgwood talks about their time studying at university and this is followed by readings of letters written in the lead up to and during the First World War. The Music of RVW contributes to the soundscape here.
Separating rooms three and four is a corridor and it is here that Gabrielle wanted to include a First World War soundscape experience.
In room four, the finale of the tour, various letters written by RVW are read out alongside letters from his mother and second wife, played by Lindy Alexander, again, accompanied by RVW’s music.
The audio files are all stored within a bespoke computer application created by myself. The playing of the files is triggered by the tour guide pressing buttons on an iPod Touch app. The app transmits the button triggers via Wi-Fi to the host computer which then routes the corresponding audio files to the corresponding speakers. Each room contains one speaker and the corridor contains six speakers and a subwoofer to create a surround sound experience of the First World War.
The first three rooms are triggered by the guide. The First World War corridor is triggered automatically after the main room three audio along with some dramatic music that is also played in room three. Once the bulk of the tour is hallway along the corridor, the guide then activates room four. This action starts a fade-out of the war section and is accompanied by a fade-in of emotive music from room four. This cross-fade creates much dramatic tension and also serves to beckon the tour on into the final room.
The soundscape project has been a wonderful success which has provided various challenges and has allowed me to work with some very interesting people. Budget was our first challenge; how could we create something immersive and impressive with just a fraction of the budget usually afforded to such ambitious projects? And being a listed building, installation was tricky at times but we explored possibilities and settled upon solutions. The other main challenge presented to us was how the Wi-Fi reacted to the building, which is full of (Wi-Fi unfriendly) hefty structural intricacies. Where there is a will there is a way though and after trying various different set-ups and dealing with a faulty router the problems were overcome.
Feedback from the public has been fantastic, with people coming from miles around to experience the tour on recommendation of friends and family. The wonderful performances given by all on the voice recordings combined with Vaughn Williams’ emotive music and Gabrielle’s script has created a very emotive experience. Combined with the right expertise, abilities and ideas from myself we have created a fantastic attraction that is actively contributing to the success of a property opened up on a trial basis. It is wonderful to know that my work is making such an active contribution to the success of Leith Hill Place and I look forward to contributing my work towards many such successes in the future.
A while back, story-teller and collector of stories Richard Neville asked if I would like to contribute my soundscape ideas to a book on his experiences in Deptford. Having wanted to work with somebody on spoken word for a while I jumped at the chance, especially as Richard had already heard some of my more abstract ideas and thought these would work well with his project. Using my stranger ideas is always a very exciting prospect!
Being somewhat of a local ethnographer in this project, Richard is interested in what people are actually like and how things actually are, documenting his findings through story-telling using dramatic effect as well as artistic subtlety. These ideals echoed very well with my interest in found sound and creating atmospheres that the listener cant quiet explain.
The idea was to create soundscapes behind, and around, an audio recording of Richard telling ‘Welcome to Deptford’. These soundscapes were to heighten the atmosphere and drama of the spoken word and also to provide a further element of intrigue beyond the role of just supporting the story.
The first step was to walk around Deptford with Richard recording the local ambiences, the real-life characters in the stories and the indoor spaces where they spend their time.
We did not know what would be recorded (apart from the obvious car sounds etc) but we knew that would provide a layer of richness to the project. As I mentioned in a post a few weeks back, natural events can provide the richest of effects. When things are allowed to happen, they happen randomly and in a variety of ways, not necessarily corresponding to your original intentions. With usual recording techniques ‘imperfections’ that arise are avoided, edited out and even feared. But like life, if you roll with the punches and react well to what is placed before you the results are so much more rewarding, providing further inspiration and new avenues for you.
This technique was also applied to how the recorded sounds were presented. Interesting soundscapes were created by manipulating the content of the audio but the timing of it’s ebs and flows were left to unfold naturally. This provided various points of drama that contributed to the story in expected and unexpected ways.
More depth and subtlety were added by including sections of natural recorded conversation. These sections feature characters in the stories but it is left to the listener to place who they are and exactly what they are talking about in the context of the story.
Below, you can hear the full version of Richard Neville’s Welcome to Deptford. You’ll need about 30 minutes to listen to the whole piece but you will soon find that Richard’s storytelling draws you in and comfortably wraps you up in the cozy blanket of his tale.
This is the second part in a series of blog posts talking about my soundscape work and play over the summer. Last weeks post talked about the sound art exhibition Audible Forces and what it can teach us about the structure of our creative works. This weeks post is all about ‘Ring’, a fantastic audio experience shown at the Battersea Arts Centre.
Essentially Ring is a play. There is an audience and a stage; and you sit down in rows with your fellow audience members, facing each other in two blocks across the central stage area. This is a play like you’ve never experienced though: you wear headphones and are plunged into complete darkness to experience its soundscape.
I wont give too much away though as it would be a shame to spoil such a fantastic production for you if you ever decide to go and see it. But I will tell you how it starts… The production starts off with you wearing headphones; various microphones are hanging from the ceiling and the director starts to talk about what you are about to experience. The microphones pick up his voice as well as whatever else is going on in the room. The darkness is then tested to make sure you are ok with it but the next time the lights are dimmed into total darkness, the production starts and you are immersed into a three-dimensional soundscape where the listener is the protagonist.
Ring uses binaural recording and psychological techniques to create an atmosphere so realistic it can be very unsettling at times although totally exhilarating.
You may have read about binaural recording in a previous post of mine but if not here’s a short explanation. With your stereo hi-fi, there are two speakers which output two slightly different audio signals allowing you place all the sounds in front of you at different points. Of course, this uses the fact you have two ears to place the sounds in different places. However, in the real world, even though you only have two ears on the sides of your head, you are still able to locate sounds from all around you. A stereo hi-fi system only allows sound to come from the front; various manufactures have tried to address this lack of 360 degree sound although their efforts are always very ropey. Surround sound systems used to watch films are a better step forward although they still don’t produce true 360 sound. Binaural recordings are made by taking the shape of the head and our ears into account. These two factors give our brains the information we need to sense where in the world a sound is coming from. Unfortunately this effect only works over headphones rather than speakers as headphones allow total control over the audio reaching your ears (ie. the room the speakers are in hasn’t changed the sound). Nonetheless, binaural audio is a fantastic phenomenon and the immersive soundscapes it creates will amaze you!
If you want to experience binaural recording for yourself, get a decent pair of headphones and listen to this:
Fast Tube by Casper
Aside from the curiosities of binaural audio, my main interest with soundscape is how to create the perfect atmosphere to totally transport the listener to a place of my choosing. Ring showcased a lot of what is possible in this area, using psychology as well as audio; it shows that audio perception is bound to our psychological make-up and past experiences and is far more than just pasting relevant sounds over visual actions. Strengthening a story and suspending disbelief is nothing new, as can be seen in film sound design, but to apply that to a live environment of total immersion requires a different set of tricks. Ring did this very well and I’m very pleased to see soundscape projects like this receiving so much popularity and critical acclaim; good audio has the power to totally seep into your mind in ways that visual stimuli just cant.
My next blog post will be about a soundscape project undertaken with storyteller Richard Neville. This project was fascinating for me as I had a lot of creative freedom to heighten the atmosphere of the narrative; such creative freedom has produced wonderful results from both my point of view and the client’s… but more about this later…
The past few weeks have been very busy, working on soundscape and music projects with the National Trust, Tea Dance For Little People and story-teller Richard Neville. Along with this I have been developing new systems to teach spatial awareness to young children by using soundscape (while having a lot of fun!) and developing wireless systems to be used within my projects. More about these in the upcoming weeks.
It hasn’t all been work though! In terms of soundscape curiosities, I went to ‘see’ the production ‘Ring’ at the Battersea Arts Centre and I went to the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival to check out Audible Forces.
Audible Forces was a fantastic example of what soundscape can do to enhance an atmosphere. The exhibition has been touring various festivals and consists of a number of sound-art installations that use wind to produce sound. On display were variations on the wind harp, homing pigeons wearing whistles, various installations with objects clinking in the wind, vibrating wires amplified by drum skins and a mirco-controller-based ‘field’ of fans that played synthesisers, reacting to direction and strength of the wind.
The latter two installations were particularly absorbing. Amongst other things, ‘Howling Wire’ by Dan Fox used long lengths of wire attached to drums of various sizes. When the wind vibrated the wire, the energy was transferred to the drum skins, causing them to vibrate, creating wonderful droning sounds of varying intensity. The drones were so rich that it was a pleasure just to sit and experience them, like bathing in a warm pool.
Mark Anderson’s “Phantom Field” consisted of twenty one computer fans mounted like head-hight weathervanes in a grid. Each one was attached to its own synthesiser. The direction and speed of the wind at each fan then influenced the synth: as the wind got stronger, pitch would smoothly increase and more and more fans would join in. The organisation of the fans in a grid meant that you could walk around the space being surrounded by the fans and their sounds. Check out the video below to see what I mean. Of course, a video just doesn’t do the experience justice; being totally immersed on all sides by varying, although related, sounds is a wonderful experience. You will see people lounging around just to listen to the soundscape and relax.
Fast Tube by Casper
For me, the most important idea to take away from Audible Forces is the fact that the wind is seemingly random and this lack of structure provides a very rich experience. With music, the listener is led on a journey dictated by structure that allows the composer to have a lot of control over how the listener feels. With orchestral and other complex types of structured music, the sheer number of sounds creates a rich soundscape to explore. The fact that nature works of its own accord in such a way that much of it seems random is a wonderful creator of this richness and this is an idea I use in a lot of my work. Leaving processes to their natural order creates both surprises as well as comfortable, stable themes. Nature, i.e. sound outside ordered music and sound design, is very complex and this provides a fantastic platform for the creation of rich and interesting works of sound.
Wonder around my website for examples of my work, starting with my homepage soundscape.
Check out my next post to read about “Ring”. This was an audio-only production that took part in a pitch-black room…
Nothing to do this Saturday (13th July 2013)? I’ll be at Lewisham People’s Day making some weird noises and laying down a blanket of cozy audio in the Indian Canopy. I should be on from about 1pm for some experimentation!
In terms of soundscape, space and sound both carry each other; without a space/sound interaction sound loses most of its meaning. An example is the use of space in music that we listen to every day. Using artificial reverberation, recording techniques and a few other tricks music producers create their own virtual spaces in which to locate their sounds and instruments; without such localisation, music sounds flat and lifeless.
By the same token, adding music to a different space completely changes the perceived meaning of the music (and, of course this works the other way around too). Imagine a folk musician playing some delicate guitar and singing a song just as delicate. In your mind, place the entire song close to the listener i.e. without much echo. I can imagine how personal that sounds, as if the musician is telling you about something meant for your ears only. On the reverse, place the entire song in a large reverberant space. Your brain will sense the cues and your minds eye might picture the musician alone in a giant, empty warehouse or cathedral. This gives a whole new angle to the message the musician is conveying: maybe it sounds more lonely now, or maybe it now sounds like somebody connecting to their god rather than with the listener. Of course, the information present in the lyrics could change these two soundscapes into a plethora of different experiences but this is beyond the scope of this post. However, this does show another very interesting variable, the way our episodic memories (or event experiences) interact with our senses.
Soundscape isn’t as simple as small and large spaces though; the objects within each space also make sound behave differently and we can perceive these minute changes. A forest sounds different to a city and a cave sounds different to a music venue and each of these scenes makes us feel differently, even if there is no memory to trigger an association. As you can see, these scenarios are very physical and this takes the ideas out of the realms of recorded music. Live sound for any event could take advantage of the thoughts and feelings that space-associated sounds conjure up. Adding artificial reverberation to sounds might go some way to creating a set of feelings but to truly immerse the listener in an atmosphere, they need to sense it in a natural way. Maybe it isn’t possible to create an entire event in a forest, in a cave or on a city street but using the same materials and shapes within a space will give an exciting approximation.
But why is thinking of soundscape in terms of space useful? Well, I’ve talked about the use of sound in creating emotional responses many times now. People connect to things through their emotions and it is the job of anyone trying to convince people to like their service or product to create a strong, positive emotional connection.
Understanding the complex emotional responses that different spaces give may not seem so easy but after a little thought it’s all quite straightforward. In terms of conveying a product or service, it’s just a case of deciding what spaces you want to associate with. Is your space powerful, calming, exciting, mystical? Related spaces could be a civil auditorium; a forest or beach; a sports arena; a church or temple. What does each of these spaces contain? Auditoriums are shaped in such a way as to bring power to the main speaker; forests soften sound by bouncing it around complex, curvy shapes; the open space of a beach allows sound to lose power without it bouncing around; a sports arena is functional and contains hard angular surfaces; churches are designed to add power to music with sound being bounced around hard, soft-angled surfaces. And of course, there are obvious sound sources unique to each of these spaces.
Thinking about the shapes and materials that make up a space will help towards creating such effects and of course, in this age of experiential marketing, it is very common to theme spaces to a specific ideal. However, the difference will be that instead of using cardboard cut-outs etc, which look cheap anyway, using wood or other relevant materials will add to the auditory experience as well as the visual.
Once you have the look and physical feel of a space, it is time to fill that space with the necessary soundscape audio. Having two speakers blaring sound from the front can be a usual audio setup, but this creates an imbalance of sound throughout the space that isn’t natural – too loud at the front and too quiet at the back. Use a larger number of smaller, less powerful speakers to evenly distribute sound without it becoming overpowering. Use a soundscape artist to fill in the space. Using principles of sound design, composing and technology they’ll be able to create the atmosphere you crave. Using an in-depth knowledge of how sounds work together and behaves the various elements of your soundscape can be brought together to create a totally immersive atmosphere that will affect people emotionally.
Sound is part of our everyday lives and is with us while we sleep as well as during our waking hours. Whilst our brains are clever at filtering out sounds, this does not mean that our brains aren’t processing and allowing them to have an effect on our emotional state. Even though we may not be consciously paying attention to bird song, for example, these sounds still have a calming affect on us. This idea can be very useful to those wanting to create atmosphere and influence emotion; think about the use of sound for events.
A good example of sound influencing emotion, consciously as well as subconsciously, can be seen in the huge part that sound design has played in film; from the early silent films utilising live musicians to the complex multiple layered, surround sound used in cinemas today. Cinematic sound designers don’t just add sounds to a film to aid realism but treat the sounds they use as an integral part of the story, changing the character of mundane sounds so they fit in with the action and emotional content. A good example could be the use of a telephone ringing: among other factors, the atmosphere will differ depending on how quiet the background noise is, the pitch of the ring and the gaps between each ring; it is possible to make the same sound seem relaxed or very tense.
A more obvious way we enjoy sound is by listening to music; the sound for events usually finishes here. Volume, style, mood, cultural preference, and even mathematics can affect this: two sounds played together seem harsh when the mathematical relationships governing them aren’t compatible. The rules we have created for writing music, such as the use of scales, harness such factors and this means that music can be seen as sound that has been tamed; human beings discovered how to structure and blend sounds to create entertainment. This shows that the factors making music enjoyable are actually present in every other soundscape we hear too: in a park, melodious songbirds delicately serenade us while the trees gently swish in the breeze to calm us; the crashes and fast-paced footfall at a train station during rush hour all serve to add to our sense of stress.
So, if it is possible for sound and music to have similar affects, what strength does one have over the other if we were interested in influencing emotion? Well, the weakness of music is that the effect it has on people is highly dependant upon taste but then listening to general sound does not really constitute entertainment. Identifying customer demographics can alleviate the taste problem with music, but the emotional affects of sound in general should not be ignored and can be sculptured into entertainment to provide something richer than plain music; and even if it slips under the listener’s radar raw sound will still have an influence upon emotion and should be thought of when choosing sound for events.
Sound can be used to intensify a theme or it can be used to influence emotion. Further to these subconscious emotional affects, when taken out of context, sound can be novel and exciting with these emotional affects still intact. Companies who offer sonic branding realise this and use sound as well as music to add one of the missing senses to modern branding: the auditory system. They can use the ideas and techniques cinematic sound designers use but instead of taking us on a narrative with their audio, they are bringing a brand to life and making it ever more relevant to our everyday lives while making the brand more memorable. We can experience emotion because of sound and businesses want us to be emotionally connected to their brands.
These ideas shouldn’t be confined to traditional advertising channels though; they can also be very poignant in experiential marketing and events. Every event is an excuse to show off in front of the public as well as clients and potential clients so why not manipulate sound for events using a soundscape to create a desired audio atmosphere? Sound can be used to steer the emotion of guests towards a desired emotion. As in sound design for film, sound for events doesn’t have to be obtrusive; it just has to be emotionally affective. It can also be paired with action or specific items of an event to instil emotion still further. Interactivity opens up the mind and leads to us becoming psychologically involved with the subject matter; an activity also becomes more attractive if pleasant emotions are paired with it.
How can these ideas be used in sound for events though? To use the example of birdsong, it might be desired that guests or delegates stay in one particular area to increase their exposure to visual advertising. Birdsong being played within a relevant surrounding would help this. A hallway or room could be given a strong-sounding audio sheen that breathes importance into the room. An audio reward could be obtained to increase a sense of fun and happiness by triggering a button or sensor, again, actively engaging the client with the brand. These are just a few examples of what is possible and really, we are only limited by our imaginations. Sound is becoming ever more important in consumers’ lives and this can only increase as more and more companies realise how powerful sound for events can be. An example of this focus can be seen through the inclusion of soundscape, or ‘design you can’t see’, in last years London Design Festival; and practical applications used by Bentley and BMW, for example, strengthen this through designing the sound of their car interiors. Sound shouldn’t be a luxury though; today’s technology and multi-channel communications mean the power of sound is open to all.
If you want to know more about sound design, books such as ‘Sound Design’ by David Sonnenschein can be very useful in understanding more about the emotional content of sound; books on sound art such as Alan Licht’s ‘Sound Art’ can also provide much inspiration in sound for events. There are also various academic texts available on the psychology of hearing and how sound affects consumer behaviour. Jay Harris is a sound designer and soundscape artist living in London who provides creative audio installations and soundscapes for events.
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