“The only real way to disarm your enemy is to listen to them.”
Writer, peace activist, former CIA Clandestine Service officer
Eavesdropping on the enemy in times of war can be essential to victory. During World War Two, a tucked away family farm in New England would save thousands of lives while being a key to Allied victories over Germany and Japan.
"The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere."
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
How authentic should sound designers be with history? If we were telling the story of Paul Revere's famous ride with sound, should I be accurate, or should I make it sound "Hollywood"?
"I have been at work for some time building an apparatus to see if it is possible for personalities which have left this earth to communicate with us."
Thomas Edison, 1920
What if you nonchalantly recorded something around your house, let's say a music practice session. Then when you played it back, you clearly hear someone whispering. You didn't hear it when you recorded it, so what was it? Many unfamiliar sounds throughout history can be attributed to nature, machinery, and even hoaxes. As our post-industrial society grows, so does the list of unexplained sounds, like trumpet sounds from the sky, humming cities, and ocean whistles. The proliferation of audio and video technology has generated its own tally of the strange. Specifically, weird voices that have been inadvertently and unknowingly captured. These recordings and transmissions sound eerie but have a very unsexy-sounding name: "Electronic Voice Phenomenon," or EVP.
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
Arthur C. Clarke
To the average person, audio can be a
mysterious "myth-terious" thing. Many people don't want to admit that they are intimidated by the technical side of it, and that makes sense. The closest most people get to manipulating audio is adjusting the volume on their stereo. I bust 10 common myths about recording audio.
Shadow: No, Mary. I suspected a trap, so after I opened the door, I walked across the room and stood behind them.
Apple Mary: But your voice.... it came from near the door.
Shadow: Ventriloquism. A simple trick of projecting the voice.
"The Blind Beggar Dies"
Radio broadcast: April 17, 1938
We're fooled by Mother Nature all the time. She uses light to conjure up a mirage on a hot desert day and Aurora Borealis on a cold Alaskan night. She also has a bag of tricks for sound, like flinging noises a hundred miles away. But one of her best is when she makes sound disappear. This slight-of-hand by Mother Nature may have even changed the outcome of several battles in the American Civil War. What are these shenanigans of sound? Magic? Illusions? Sorcery? As the old radio serial hero said, "Only The Shadow knows." They're called acoustic shadows.
"At one time there were voiceover artists, now there are celebrity voiceover artists. It's unfortunate because these people need the money less than the voiceover artist."
What does it take to perform a voice-over? After talking with several industry veterans, it turns out that it's not as easy as they make it sound - and that's the whole point. In Part 1, we found out how these four voice-over artists got into the profession. In Part 2, we learned about preparation and technique. In this last installment of our series, our nimble-tongued pros have advice to budding narrators and writers.
"In voice-over work, you have to actually do more work with your facial muscles and your mouth. You have to kind of exaggerate your pronunciation a little bit more, whereas with live action, you can get away with mumbling sometimes."
What does it take to perform a voice-over? After talking with several industry veterans, it turns out that it's not as easy as they make it sound - and that's the whole point. In Part 1, we found out how these four voice-over artists got into the profession. This month, we learn the nitty gritty of preparation and technique.
"One of the things that I love about voiceover is that it's a situation where - because you're not encumbered by being seen - it's liberating. You're able to make broad choices that you would never make if you were on camera."
What does it take to perform a voice-over? After talking with several industry veterans, it turns out that it's not as easy as they make it sound - and that's the whole point. We find out that each of these voice professionals have their own approach to achieving the nearly impossible task of a voice-over artist: making it sound sincere. Plus, find out what's been happening at Dynamix lately.
"The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings."
Ralph Carpenter, Texas Tech Sports Information Director
Richard Wagner, the 19th century German composer, would have loved Star Wars. He may not have understood what a light saber or X-Wing fighter was, but he would get it - even with his eyes shut. That's because the Star Wars films are rich with composer John Williams' scores that employ a musical tool that Wagner himself was a master of: the leitmotif.
"I like to be surrounded by splendid things."
Ever since recordings progressed from mono to stereo, audio producers have been trying to create the ultimate immersive sound experience. You won't believe what Japan has unleashed onto the world.
"The rockets came like drums, beating in the night."
From "The Martian Chronicles" by Ray Bradbury
Walter Gripp is the last man on Mars. All the rockets to Earth have launched without him. One evening in a deserted town, he hears a phone ringing. This creepy scenario from Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles has captured the fascination of science fiction fans for decades. The reader wonders, who could it be? The scientist wonders, what would it sound like? We're about to find out...maybe.Read More...
"Cooking is like music: you can tell when someone puts love into it.”
The transition from mono to stereo music recordings in the late 1950s had its challenges. Find out how Rudy Van Gelder and other recording engineers worked out the details.Read More...
"Every crowd has a silver lining.”
126.4 I think that's what will be inside a little oval sticker that I'm going to put on my bumper. I see "26.2" bumper stickers that marathon runners proudly display. Colorado mountain climbers have "14er" stickers. A lot of dads are number "1." Then what's so special about 126.4? It used to be a number for Kings, but now it's a number for Cats.
Before I start to sound like a broken record, let me back up and tell this story from the beginning. Team Cornett wanted to raise the profile of UK Health Care and their close association with UK Athletics, so they came up with a plan to get the attention of a sports crowd. There's no better place for a hyped up crowd than Rupp Arena in downtown Lexington. With nearly 24,000 people, its been known to get really loud in there. It would be the perfect place to try and break the world record for the loudest crowd roar at an indoor sports event. And what basketball game would have the biggest and loudest crowd? A made-for-ESPN-TV marquee matchup: Kentucky versus Kansas.
"New Year’s Day… now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.”
Have you made your resolutions yet? Why bother, no one keeps them anyway. So let's talk about resolution instead. In particular how low-resolution MP3s can affect your emotional reaction to music. In a study out of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), researchers found that the fidelity of an MP3 recording of musical instruments can affect their emotional characteristics.
"The key to this plan is the giant laser. It was invented by the noted Cambridge physicist Dr. Parsons. Therefore, we shall call it the Alan Parsons Project."
Here's something that will blow your mind and make you paranoid at the same time. Someone can listen to your conversations in your house or office from hundreds of feet away using light. The "light" is a "laser," and it's bounced off a window pane to detect sound vibrations. It's hard not to imagine Dr. Evil, played by Mike Meyers, air quoting "laser" when we mention that word. The theory was first proposed in the 1940s, but had to wait until lasers were actually invented in the 1960s to gain traction. By the 80s, the Cold War had us and the Soviets spying on each other using "lasers."Read More...
I was afraid that science-fiction buffs and everybody would say things like, 'You know, there's no sound in outer space.'
The universe, according to scientists, started with a big bang. Let me, the sound engineer, just gloat a little bit here -– they don't call it The Big Flash, The Big Light, or The Big Visual Thing That Was Really, Really Quiet. It was a BANG!!! It all started with sound. And the cool thing is, we can even measure its echoes.
“Square in your ship's path are Sirens, crying beauty to bewitch men coasting by;
woe to the innocent who hears that sound!”
by Homer in The Odyssey
I live on a busy street. My house sits roughly between three hospitals - all with helipads and emergency rooms. That's good for me if I have a really bad day, but my poor cat thinks wolves are after her whenever someone else is having a really bad day. I'm talking about the incessant sirens going up and down my street. And they seem to be getting louder – they penetrate my windows and brick walls with even more ferocity than ever before. It turns out that I'm not imagining this, because some emergency vehicles are now employing something called "low frequency system," or LFS. I call it "Loud F*@#$%^& Siren."
In addition to the regular high yelp of a siren, you may have noticed a lower yelping sound that seems to penetrate your car and go straight through your chest. That emergency vehicle has a secondary siren system that emits powerful omnidirectional bass tones from about 200-400 Hz. In this range, sound is "felt" more than heard - up to 200 feet away. These frequencies can penetrate auto glass and metal, wood and brick buildings, and human flesh and bones.
“When you read a book, the story definitely happens inside your head. When you listen, it seems to happen in a little cloud all around it, like a fuzzy knit cap pulled down over your eyes.”
Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
We're continuing our series on the audiobook, an older idea that has been reborn from new technology. In this issue we're talking with Brad about character development, preparation, and tips for budding narrators.
“I love audio books, and when I paint I’m always listening to a book. I find that my imagination really takes flight in the painting process when I’m listening to audio books.”
There was a panic in 2009 during the recession, and it wasn't about housing. Or at least traditional houses. Publishing houses were facing the pinch as sales were cut in half. When it came to audiobooks, sales were down 20 percent mid-year. One of the reasons was obvious – lack of disposable income. Millions of workers were laid off and even more were holding on to their precious cash reserves. But a few other reasons were staring the publishers in the face. One was the sky-high price of audiobooks. The other was the changing pace of life. Between carting kids around, going to work, and running errands, a book is a commitment of precious time.
Despite the wrecked economy, smartphones and tablets started to infiltrate our daily lives. These little on-the-go media centers were a gift to publishers. Downloading and listening to audiobooks became convenient - and cheaper. Traditionally, publishers could sink upwards of $50,000 in production costs per title, with much of that towards CD packaging, production, and distribution. Companies like Audible (a subsidiary of Amazon) could produce titles for much less, thanks to downloading.
As a result, the number of audiobook titles have surged from 7,000 in 2011, to 35,000 in 2013. And that number is growing. Scribd subscribers logged 270,000 listening hours in two months when 30,000 audiobooks were added to their library in 2014. Faster internet speeds, better digital audio software, and more narrators jumping onto the bandwagon are helping to fuel the renaissance of audiobooks.
One of these narrators, Brad Wills, has been narrating audiobooks since 2013. Brad has recorded more than thirty books, a baker's dozen of those with Dynamix since 2014. He mostly reads in the historical romance genre, but also in historical adventure, gothic horror, and fantasy. Brad also has more than 25 years of professional acting experience, from Broadway to nationally acclaimed musical tours. I recently sat down with Brad and talked with him about his thoughts and experiences as an audiobook narrator and producer. Surprisingly, his three decades of professional acting did little to prepare him for his new role.
"I’ve never felt like I benefitted from any kind of training or acting," Brad told me. "Everything I do is instinctual. It’s stuff I’ve done my entire life. I’ve always imitated people, I’ve always had crazy voices ever since I can remember."
But being an audiobook narrator can be tough at first, even to the most seasoned stage actor. "I remember my very first session with my very first book," Brad lamented. "I thought 'this guy’s going to throw me out of the studio, and I’m never going to do this again.' It took me about a year before I was able to read with any consistency and not make any mistakes."
Now, Brad is not only a narrator, but a producer. When asked what this expanded role is, Brad replied, "To give technically the best performance and the best quality production that you can give. It’s a matter of clean editing, clean recording, rhythm, tempo. And I think what is also really beneficial is to have an engineer that you can really trust, offer good input." In this dual role as producer/narrator, Brad emphasizes that he must make sure that "you as the narrator deliver the intent of the piece - not to lose track of it, keep it clear for the listener, not lose track of the story, not lose track of the line, or where a paragraph happens to be going at any time."
Also as a producer, Brad must find the right studio and engineer. Having worked with two other studios besides Dynamix, his primary goal in finding someplace to record has always been to "look for an engineer that’s been in the business a long time. I look for somebody who has a more than adequate setup. I look for some place that's pretty much state of the art." A studio and engineer with audiobook experience is crucial. "It’s very, very different from doing a radio spot, because there’s no music, no sound effects," Brad explains. "It has to be clean, no noise, no background noise. Editing - someone who will take the time to finesse it down to the most minuscule control management points."
With hundreds of thousands of audiobooks out there now, it's not surprising that there is a huge range in technical quality. "I’ve read reviews by people who have listened to books that have been poorly edited and produced," he said. "They’ll mention it in their notes and reviews: 'It’s really bad,' 'a line is repeated here,' 'I could hear dogs barking in the background,' and 'It sounds like the person recorded this sitting at their kitchen table.' So people know."
No matter the budget, Brad cares "about the product that goes out there. It has my name on it, and it will have the engineer’s stamp on it as well."
In the next installment, we'll dig down deep into character development, preparation, and tips for budding audiobook narrators.
"I used to judge the quality of music by whether I could make a 90-minute cassette and not repeat any artists."
What? Another old audio format is making a comeback? Yessiree! If you want to be hip, then dust off your old Sony Walkman. But like me, you've probably dumped all your old cassettes along with your floppy disks and Trivial Pursuit. These days, my pocket can carry the same amount of music that drawers and drawers of cassettes can. But there are people who want to drag this once noble king of convenience from its analog obsolescence.
"I hate modern car radios. In my car, I don't even have a push-button radio. It's just got a dial and two knobs. Just AM."
Maybe you haven't noticed, but AM radio has pretty much sucked the last twenty years or so. Maybe you didn't notice because you weren't listening. A lot of people aren't, and the FCC is out to change that. The FCC? You bet – this isn't your father's FCC. We're so used to hearing "FCC" and "restrictions" in the same breath, that broadcasters were pleasantly surprised last October when the FCC announced an "AM Revitalization" initiative.
"I throw more power into my voice, and now the flame is extinguished"
Physicist John Tyndall, 1857
There's been a recent breakthrough in fighting fires - using sound waves to extinguish flames. Since 1857, scientists have known that sound waves could put out a flame, but they weren't exactly sure why.Read More...
"As so much music is listened to via MP3 download, many will never experience the joy of analog playback, and for them, I feel sorry. They are missing out."
There's a growing trend in the music business - recording to reel-to-reel tape. Wait, I thought we got rid of that when we went digital. The truth is, it never went away. Much like the recent boom in sales of records and film, reel-to-reels are gaining new fans and bringing back old ones.
"I hope I inspire people who hear. Hearing people have the ability to remove barriers that prevent deaf people from achieving their dreams."
Did you know that more than 37 million Americans aged 18 or older have some kind of hearing loss? And 30 million Americans aged 12 or older have hearing loss in both ears? With a media-rich society, that makes listening to narration, dialog, and speech in general difficult for them. Before 1972, anyone hard of hearing had to watch television with the volume turned up.
"If it weren't for Philo T. Farnsworth, inventor of television, we'd still be eating frozen radio dinners."
Eighty-six years ago, three musical tones, "G-E-C," were played on a fledgling network of radio stations. What started as a technical cue for local stations, has become an instantly recognized trio of notes woven into the American identity.Read More...
"They number girl spies different. She's what you call a 36-23-36."
Max Baer, Jr. as "Jethro Bodine"
Double-Naught SpiesThis month, the new James Bond spy movie Spectre will be released. It's the 24th film in the long-running franchise based on Ian Fleming's novels. "Hot Dog!" as Jethro Bodine would say. James Bond and all his gadgets were hatched from Fleming's experiences while serving in the British Navy Intelligence Division during World War Two.
Gathering intelligence during any war requires innovative and clandestine communication techniques, especially deep within the enemy lines. In the Revolutionary War, invisible ink and garments on a clothesline were tools to send secret messages. The Civil War saw women disguising themselves as nurses, slaves, and even soldiers to gather and smuggle information. During World War One, the human body itself became a vehicle for secret messages via invisible tattoos. Read More...
"Podcasting - I swear to you - on its worst day, the podcasts are better than our best films. Because they're more imaginative, and there's no artifice, and it's far more real."
Podcasting RevisitedModern podcasting has now been around a little more than 10 years now. The roots go back much further, into the 1980's in fact. The idea of subscribing to an internet-delivered audio service dates to the early 1990's. But it wasn't until portable devices, such as the iPod, came onto the scene that it really took off. History shows that portability drives popularity – the battery-operated radio, the portable record player, the audio cassette, and the funky 8-track. I remember the iPod being described as a digital "Walkman," even though poor Sony already had moved beyond the cassette into portable digital players. Read More...
"Science is magic that works"
That Magic Sound
Researcher Dr. Diana Deutsch at UC San Diego has been studying the psychology of sound since the mid-1960's. Her findings illustrate how people can hear musical tones wildly different from each other. These "illusions" can cause great disagreements between listeners, even highly trained musicians. And interestingly, one group of stereo illusions has right-handers and left-handers perceiving them differently. Read More...
"If a tree falls in the forest, and hits a mime, does anyone care?"
Shhh! Quiet!Have you been hiking lately? Where'd you go? Red River Gorge? The Smokey Mountains? Yosemite? In the last 10 years, have you ever experienced a place devoid of all human sounds? Gordon Hempton, an Emmy-Award-winning recordist, claims there are less than a dozen places left in the continental U.S. that are "quiet." Hempton defines "quiet" as a natural environment that has no human-intrusion sounds for at least twenty minutes. Read More...
"In radio, they say, nothing happens until the announcer says it happens."
Legendary Detroit Tigers Announcer
The Fancy Pants AnnouncerThere was a time when Americans who wanted to sound important and upper class spoke with a half-American, half-British accent. They call it mid-Atlantic, presumably because the accent lands somewhere in the middle of the ocean between our countries. It was dominant in movies, on radio, in theaters, and on early television. Today, it sounds pompous. Some early practitioners were Franklin Roosevelt, James Cagney, Orson Wells, and Katherine Hepburn. Some more contemporary holdouts were William F. Buckley, George Plimpton, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Read More...
"Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning."
There was a recent study* that tried to understand how audio quality affected the perceived quality of the human voice. The researchers understood from the beginning that the results could be highly subjective, but they approached it using measurable methods. While tallying up the results, they were surprised by one finding they weren't attempting to measure. But it's something we in the advertising and production business already knew. Read More...
"What the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes."
Keeping an Ear on CrimeThe NSA is listening to our phone calls. The FBI is using face detection to catch wanted criminals. Apu at the Kwik-E-Mart is watching Bart Simpson with surveillance video. And now the police are listening for gunshots in neighborhoods across the nation.
Like GPS, radar, and the microwave oven, technology developed for the battlefield has found itself on Main Street. Gunshot detection is another military trickle-down technology that police are using to protect our citizens. Police departments all over the world are placing these listening devices in urban areas that have a history of or potential for high crime rates. Most systems detect, analyze, and alert police within five seconds of a suspected gunshot.
"It is a cliché that most clichés are true, but then like most clichés, that cliché is untrue."
You're watching a movie and somebody rides by on a bicycle. What do you hear? Ring-ring! Yep, it's a tried and true "audio cliché." I'm guilty of using it. Or how about when the scene shifts to London, we see the House of Parliament and hear Big Ben striking it's bell. Or a jet touches down on the runway and we hear the screech-screech of the tires.
We use clichés in everyday life, it's how we communicate. Sometimes it's just so easy to use a tired phrase like "next thing I knew." I cringe when someone says "at the end of the day," or "it's a win-win situation." I wish those people would just "think outside of the box" so they would have a "paradigm shift" and "take it to the next level." Read More...
"Before anything else, preparation is the key to success."
Alexander Graham Bell
Ring in the Old YearA new year always brings excitement and great expectations. What will happen? Will there be a big event that will shape the world for generations? What new technology will come? The 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2015) has already promised us a 3D-printed titanium bicycle, super thin 4K TV sets, realistic robots, and a plethora of miniature drones with cameras. And everybody's wanting to lay eyes on the first Apple Watch. One hundred years ago, people were just as intrigued with the promise of new technology. Read More...
"Any effects created before 1975 were done with either tape or echo chambers or some kind of acoustic treatment. No magic black boxes!"
Echo, reverb, delay, and ambience. There's a difference between them (see "Tech Notes" below) and they're often confused with each other or used incorrectly. But each one has an important place in recording with technology often dictating their use. Reverb/echo/delay can make or break a recording. Thanks to the American Legion Hall in New York City, Decca Records found the perfect effect for Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock." Columbia Records built their own "echo chamber" for such hits as Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" and Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue." And U2's Edge has created a patented sound for his guitar with electronic delay. Read More...
"People don't appreciate music any more. They don't adore it. They don't buy vinyl and just love it. They love their laptops like their best friend, but they don't love a record for its sound quality and its artwork."
Laura Marling, musician
2-Bits, 4-Bits, 6-Bits...We love convenience. Drive thrus, same-day delivery, automatic transmissions, instant coffee. Uh, maybe not that last one. Convenience often drives technology. And when it does, something has to go. What are you willing to give up for convenience? Taste, comfort, money, quality?
Convenience also influences new audio technology, and the result is portability, because we are a society on the go. By lowering the bit rate of audio, we reduce the size. But we also drastically reduce the quality. Find out more about it. Read More...
“There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.”
Homer, The Odyssey
Humans have long been documenting events with paintings on cave walls; sculptures; writing on papyrus; photographs; records and tapes; and film and video. One way we're doing it today is with oral histories. From John Lomax recording southern folk and blues songs in the 1930's, to modern digital recording of oral histories, historians have always had a problem researching the recordings...until now.
"I don't appreciate avant-garde, electronic music. It makes me feel quite ill."
When you think of electronic music, you often think of the straightforward synthesizer, electric piano, or loops and samples. But some musicians like to rewire, alter, or downright reconstruct electronic equipment to make sounds they weren’t originally intended to do. At the forefront of these experimentations was BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, a special music lab that gave us unique sounds and music for hit TV shows such as Dr. Who.
“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”
What young person really knows what they want to be when they grow up? Very few of my childhood friends are still on the path they laid out early in life. Most of us have zig-zagged through careers, including me. Unlike today, if you wanted to be an audio engineer in the 70's like I did, there were very limited educational opportunities.
“Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there.”
3D Audio on the Right Track
It's said that when an early motion picture was first shown to the public, women fainted and men ducked from an approaching train. The director made a bold new decision that would alter the course of filmmaking for the next century. Instead of just placing the camera in front of all the action like an audience watching a stage, the director moved the camera to a new position - within the action - to create perspective. That’s been happening in filmmaking ever since. But the same has been happening in sound as well. And now with emerging technologies, virtual 3D sound is now here. Read More...
The new generation is discovering what the old generation stopped loving - LPs. LP sales are the highs they’ve been in 22 years. Records aren’t just for hipsters anymore, everyone, including the older generation that gave them up, are groovin’ to them.Read More...
What if we could see sound? Aside from graphical representations of sound like waveforms and meters, we can't just look at an orchestra and see sounds flying out of the trombones. I wish we could watch the beautiful tones flow from Itzhak Perlman's Stradivarius. But we can - sort of.Read More...
They were named after the manufacturer, but I think it sounds very '60's Sci-Fi:
"I am from the planet Quindar in the Crouton system. We think your planet is just groovy, baby!" Read More...