Reimagining performances in centuries-old spaces. Read More...
Hidden messages are everywhere in music, film, art, prose, and architecture. Do they manipulate us into doing things? Read More...
"A hospital is no place to be sick."
Buford T. Justice: Breaker, breaker for the Bandit.
Bandit: Come on back, breaker.
Buford T. Justice: Bandit I got a smokey report for you. Come on!
Bandit: Well, talk to me good buddy.
Buford T. Justice: You got trouble comin...
Bandit: Well what's your handle son, and what's your twenty?
Buford T. Justice: My handle's Smokey Bear and I'm tail-grabbin yo ass right now!
Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
Just when you thought CB radio was dead, the Federal Communication Commission passed a rule that might have every "Smokey and the Bandit" fan yearning for another sequel. The FCC is allowing FM transmission on CB radio!
Captain of the 'Weser': What's it like down there, in a submarine?
Der Leitende: It's... quiet.”
Das Boot, 1981
Submarines need to be stealthy...and quiet. New technology like acoustic cloaking is on the horizon.
Mickey Mouse: Mr. Stokowski. Mr. Stokowski! Ha! My congratulations, sir.
Leopold Stokowski: Congratulations to you, Mickey.
Mickey Mouse: Gee, thanks. Well, so long. I'll be seein' ya!
Leopold Stokowski: Goodbye.
In 1940, before the world would be plunged into a half decade of devastating conflict, a larger-than-life cartoon creator teamed up with a wild-haired orchestra conductor and unleashed a fantastical film that would forever change the way we experience movies. The morning after the gala event at the Broadway Theater in New York City, The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther said, "The music comes not simply from the screen, but from everywhere; it is as if a hearer were in the midst of the music." Even with all the wondrous characters, vivid animation, and whimsical storytelling of this new film, it was the sound that stole the show.
"All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn't hurt."
Charles M. Schulz
Chocolate MilkThere's a phrase we use in the audio industry to explain to someone that doesn't understand that when something's been mixed down, like a song, it can't be unmixed. In other words, once all the elements have been married together, we can't easily pluck out the vocals and replace them. The phrase goes something like, "Here's a glass of milk, and here's chocolate powder. Mix the chocolate into the milk and you have chocolate milk. You can't take the chocolate out and just have milk."
Well, we are all eating a big ol' crow sandwich with chocolate sprinkles on top right about now.
"Well-timed silence hath more eloquence than speech."
Martin Farquhar Tupper
For the first century of our nation's existence, a very select few ever heard their president speak. 130 years ago, technology changed that.
"I think reincarnation is possible. Hopefully, we all get recycled."
We all should recycle. A look at repurposing old audio gear into funky new uses. Plus find out the latest news from Dynamix Productions.
- Lt. Werner: What's going on? Why are we diving?
- 2nd Lieutenant: Hydrophone check. At sea, even in a storm you can hear more down here than you can see up there.”
In the near future, submarines might be using sound waves to communicate through ocean waves.
"I got a chain letter by fax. It's very simple. You just fax a dollar bill to everybody on the list."
William G.H. Finch had a crazy idea. He liked efficiency, and he liked news. He imagined a future that would merge those together for the average American. Americans like Joe and Jane. When they woke up in the morning, this crazy idea goes, a box in their parlor had just printed out the latest news onto paper with stories and pictures, ready to be poured over while eating their breakfast. Wait – that kinda sounds like the here and now. What's crazy is that this brainchild was born in 1933.
"Well, folks, now we've got free baseball!"
Baseball announcer Skip Caray whenever a game went into extra innings
We're so used to living in a litigious society that when someone says "free," But now there are two exciting web sites for music lovers to explore that are...wait for it...free!Read More...
"In radio, you have two tools. Sound and silence."
As the world holes up in their houses during this coronavirus, as we absorb media like never before, as we listen to the news coming out of our television and radio speakers, we see and hear just how serious most of us are taking this. Journalists are broadcasting from their backyards, their sources are interviewed over Skype or Zoom, and the news now looks and sounds less-than-polished. It's like Sunday afternoons on FaceTime with the family three states away. These are the choices we are having to make these days: quality of content over quality of sound and video. But we don't know how good we got it.
"These fellows blow their horns just to see the people jump, I believe."
Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison, 1902
At the turn of last century, the automobile was poised to overtake the horse as the preferred mode of personal transportation. But there were detractors to the coming sea change. Much as we see driverless cars as a potential danger today, "horseless carriage" opponents saw the drivers themselves as dangerous.Read More...
"All that's to come
and everything under
the sun is in tune
but the sun
is eclipsed by the moon."
from "Eclipse" on the 1973 LP release "Dark Side of the Moon"
For generations, humans have been trying to link sound and light together. We have succeeded.
"Again and again, the cicada's untiring cry pierced the sultry summer air like a needle at work on thick cotton cloth."
Recording location audio outside can be challenging at best. The video team wants an exterior shot because architecture or a landscape in the background can add to the image. But alas, there are often unwanted sounds like cars, HVAC blowers, and other manmade annoyances that we must work around. There's one sound though that is nearly impossible to eliminate, fix, mask, hide, or yell-at-to-be-quiet. It is guaranteed to ruin almost any exterior recording in the summer: the mating song of the cicada.
These little bug(ger)s come out of the ground periodically (mostly every 13 or 17 years here in the Ohio Valley) to anchor themselves to a tree and incessantly cry out for all to hear. It's not their little vocal chords that are producing these 120-decibel cries. The jar flies are contorting their torsos to flex in and out, causing two tymbals, or ribbed membranes, to vibrate 300-400 times a second. This produces a noise that's as loud as a jet engine and between 3KHz and 16KHz - right smack in the middle of the human speech range.
Human speech generally falls between 3KHz to 5KHz, like the sound of an old-time phone call. The nuances of intelligibility, such as the consonants S, H, F, and so on, are heard above 5 KHz. That makes removing the background sounds of cicadas difficult because you could also remove subtle sounds of speech. Noise reduction software has become very sophisticated today, but dynamic sounds like cicadas (their cry rises and falls in pitch and loudness instead of being drone-like) poses many challenges. We can painstakingly "paint out" some of the offending sounds, but it's best to leave some of it in so we don't lose key frequencies in the voice. If a dialog track with cicadas is heavily edited, then this can result in having cicadas in one clip and not the next. Or falling in one clip and rising in the next. This is jarring to the listener and is very difficult to fix. We sometimes actually add cicada song back in underneath to mask those continuity-challenged edits.
While recording, we can sometimes position the microphone and talent to reduce the cicada song, but inevitably a critter in another tree fires up his belly to blow the take. There's just no easy solution to this dog day dilemma. The sound is so hated, Japanese television has a Godzilla-like monster called "Cicada Man," probably created by a sound engineer. They're so passionately tired of them in Mexico that Raymundo Pérez y Soto penned the great mariachi song "La Cigarra."
But leave it to the U.S. Navy to find the positives in the piercing cicada death song. The Navy is no stranger to harnessing wildlife to help their efforts. They have a marine mammal program that uses bottlenose dolphins and sea lions for mine detection, ship and harbor protection, and equipment recovery. What on earth could they use a cicada for?
The Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Rhode Island has been studying this tiny creature's anatomy with a CT scan-like technology called microcomputed tomography to try and figure out how it makes its loud chirp. They've found that a cicada's two tymbals act as dual speakers when the insect contracts and releases their ribs. It's a highly efficient way of producing twice the sound with one action. And why would the Navy be interested in sound? Why sonar of course. Doubling sonar's efficiency is like seeing twice as far with radar.
It seems that Raymundo Pérez y Soto was ahead of his time in the 1950s when he wrote La Cigarra. He may have foretold the odd marriage of the cicada and the Navy:
Don’t sing to me anymore, cicada
Let your singsong end
For your song here in my soul
Stabs me like a dagger
Knowing that when you sing
You are announcing that you are going to your death.
Tell me if it is true that you know,
Because I cannot distinguish,
Whether in the depths of the seas
There is another color blacker
Than the color of my sorrows.
"It's an interesting place to be. I recommend it."
Astronaut Neil Armstrong commenting about the moon
Every time I hear the timeless phrase Neil Armstrong uttered while stepping on the moon, I can't help but remember the first time I heard it. It was 50 years ago at about 11:00 PM on July 20, 1969. I was eight-years-old and had fallen asleep waiting for them to get out of their strange looking space craft. Our family was vacationing in a cabin on a lake in southern Ohio, and Dad had hauled our portable black-and-white TV from home. We had a lot of trouble getting any TV stations out in the country on that little box. I seem to remember him fiddling with the rabbit ear antennas and positioning all of us at different places in the room like chess pieces so the picture wouldn't flutter.
"Radio is a hungry monster that eats very fast."
Everything today seems to be sped up. We speed to work, we speed to pick up the kids, we speed home, we speed around the kitchen, we speed watch TV, we speed listen to podcasts, we speed, speed, speed...then we speed sleep so we can get up and do it all over again. And as if on cue, much of what we watch and listen to is also sped up.
For years, top 40 radio stations sped their turntables up so that songs played faster, albeit at a slightly higher pitch, to fit more tunes within an hour. They claimed it gave more energy to the station's sound, but profit was definitely the motivator because one or two more commercials could be fit into an hour. They also sped up those commercials for the same reason. Think this is ancient history? Nope. Some stations still do it with digital software that plays the songs faster without the pitch problem. Commercials are also still sped up, and pauses and silence gaps in talk shows are digitally removed so that they can - guess what? – fit more commercials in the hour. What's friendly for the station isn't always friendly to the artist. When the Go Go's released "We Got the Beat" in 1980, sales weren't very good in the UK. The band felt the low sales were partially due to the sped up tape for the 45 RPM release.
Television isn't immune to the speed wars either. Cable TV networks are notorious for editing and time compressing programs to jam into a time slot and – play more commercials. I remember first spotting this television trickery when watching a very long movie in just two hours with commercials. They really want to sell us more U.S. Mint Gold collector coins and life insurance.
The broadcasters aren't the only one thinking about squeezing media. The 78 RPM record, or "single," as the record company muckity-mucks now call it, was typically 3-minutes. So songwriters were encouraged to write nothing longer than 3-minutes, preferably 2. That same philosophy carried over to the 45 RPM record (which actually held about 4 1/2 minutes). You can hear this push for short singles in early Beatles records. "Love Me Do" debuted in 1962 and was 2:22 long. The moppy-haired head-shaker "She Loves You" a year later was even shorter, clocking in at 2:18.
One trick in getting song lengths down was to get to the chorus early. Sticking with the Beatles (and why not?), "Can't Buy Me Love," "Help," and "She Loves You" all start off with the chorus before getting into the first verse. Another composition method that may shorten a song is AABA, which harks back to the Tin Pan Alley days of simple phrase construction. The first two phrases (A & A) are similar, the third phrase (B) is different, then the last phrase (A) is similar to the first two. Songs with this structure are "Over the Rainbow" and "Blueberry Hill."
The time signature will sometimes shorten a song, though mostly unintentionally. Instead of the traditional four beats to a measure, 3/4 time has only three. The waltz, in 3/4 time, is a centuries-old method of getting people off their feet to dance. It (and its cousin 6/8 time) has been used in pop tunes such as "Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be Will Be)," What the World Needs Now Is Love," and "Take It to the Limit" by the Eagles. And we can't forget about 7/8 time, like the classic "Money" by Pink Floyd.
They say that what goes around comes around. Today, streaming services such as Spotify are influencing how songs are written based on the artist payout structure. Because physical sales (CDs and records) of music are way down, more and more money is made from streaming sales. Those payouts are based on listens, specifically if the listener hears at least 30 seconds. According to "Switched on Pop" host Charlie Harding, the average song length has decreased from 4:30 in the 1990s to 3:42 in 2019. Instead of long intros, artists are now introducing part of the chorus early in the song to get the hook in the listener's ear so they stay around longer. Albums or collections of songs also contain many more short songs than they used to. More songs listened to mean more money for the artist.
Surprised that artists are manipulating your buying habits? Well, the music business is just that – business. As Paul McCartney commented on the fortunes that "Can't Buy Me Love" brought to the Beatles, he said 'It should have been "Can Buy Me Love."'
"It was easier just to say it out on a tape than trying to write it because it will take a lot of writing paper in order to get it straight."
Private First Class Frank A. Kowalczyk
Long Binh Post, Vietnam, 1969
Back when it was expensive, or impossible, to call someone long distance, friends and family members would send messages on records and tapes to each other through the mail. Not only was it more affordable, it was a more personal way to stay in touch with each other and have some fun doing it. When I digitize some of these audio letters for customers, and feel like I'm transported back in time that a way that a letter can't take me.
"Nostalgia is not what it used to be."
Record stores all over America will be opening their doors on April 13th for National Record Store Day. But cassettes are sneaking in through the back. These portable petite plastic packs from the past now have their own Cassette Store Day each year in October, and they're winning over some fans that also shop for vinyl. In fact, annual sales of music cassettes were up 23% in 2018, and 70% since 2016. Artists and studios are rethinking this ancient format and not only re-releasing albums popular during cassette's halcyon days, but new music as well. What's with the retro rewind?
"TV gives everyone an image, but radio gives birth to a million images in a million brains."
The recent presidential elections in Nigeria and Senegal stirred fond memories of my childhood. Specifically the "sounds" of Africa I remember growing up with. I haven't had the good fortune to go to Africa, but I've listened to it from afar. In the 1960s and 70s, radio was perhaps at its peak. AM radio stations played the hits, FM radio played the albums, and CB radios were in kitchens and cars. A lot of homes also had a shortwave radio. Today it's the internet that ties us all together. Back then, CBs connected us with our friends, AM and FM connected us with the country, and shortwave connected us with the world.
10:40 p.m. “I got about 2,000 college students coming from Walnut Street to 30th to Center City.”
10:46 p.m. “It’s endless, chief. Endless.”
11:11 p.m. “They’re on top of trash trucks. There is to be no one on top of trash trucks, guys.”
11:14 p.m. “We have multiple people on Broad Street swinging on light poles.”
11:20 p.m. “Climbing the trash trucks at 13th and Market.”
11:25 p.m. “I need to get the fire extinguisher out of my trunk. I got a fire on Broad Street just south of South. Someone lit a Christmas tree on fire.”
Philadelphia Police radio transcripts after the Eagles won the 2018 Super Bowl
Do you remember the old movies from the 1930s when a radio in a police car would blare out "Calling all cars! Calling all cars!" The diligent policemen would zoom away in their car with the siren screaming. The dispatcher had no idea if the radio cars heard the frantic call because two-way radios were uncommon and expensive. So from the late 1920s until after World War II, most police departments relied on their cruisers having radio receivers only. Today, police use digital radio systems that carry data, video, and other information.
"Hostilities will cease along the whole front from 11 November at 11 o'clock."
Marshal Foch, the French commander of the Allied forces via radio atop the Eiffel Tower.
This week marks 100 years since the end of the war to end all wars, known today as World War One. In 1918, on the 11th hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month, 1,500 days of fighting came to an end. The armistice was agreed upon just six hours earlier in a railway car halfway between Paris and the Western Front. What's remarkable is the speed at which most troops were informed of the impending armistice. This war, like in so many other ways, forever changed the world of communication.Read More...
"Hello from the children of Planet Earth"
From the gold records aboard the twin Voyager spacecraft
Vinyl is the format that won't die. It'll probably still be around after humans are extinct and our sun has gone supernova. Perhaps in eons, Voyager spacecraft with the golden records aboard will meet distant stars and future vinyl lovers. But in this eon, people will not stop pushing vinyl to its limits. Mad scientists and crazy artists like putting something other than music on it - or in it. More on that later.Read More...
"He who knows that enough is enough will always have enough."
Father of Taoism
When is enough, enough? When do you stop finessing, polishing, correcting, perfecting, or otherwise fixing something important you're working on? When you're done – either because of deadline, budget, or exhaustion – are you satisfied? Don't overkill your project.Read More...
"My roommate got a pet elephant. Then it got lost. It's in the apartment somewhere."
The deep seismic audio world holds many secrets, including how elephants communicate over long distances. Find out how ultra low sounds affect how a recording studio is designed and built.
“My dear girl, there are some things that just aren't done, such as drinking Dom Perignon '53 above the temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit. That's just as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs!”
"Goldfinger" (United Artists)
The other day, someone said to me, "You must have golden ears." He was referring to my profession as an audio engineer. He assumed that I physically had much better hearing than the average person. I don't. In fact, I often have trouble hearing conversations at loud parties and can't hear high-pitched whines that drive 20-somethings crazy. But I do think I have better hearing than a lot of other middle-aged folks only because I've protected it all these years.
“The only real way to disarm your enemy is to listen to them.”
Writer, peace activist, former CIA Clandestine Service officer
These days, it seems nothing is secret. We can't talk on the phone, cruise the internet, or walk down the street without being snooped on electronically. Enemy anxiety, especially since 9/11, has driven governments to monitor everything being said. Think it's bad now? During World War II it was even worse. Everyone had to be careful about what they were saying and who was listening because "loose lips sink ships." There wasn't the level of electronic communications in the 1940s as today, but the groundwork was being laid for modern tech that we use every day. Even snooping technology.
"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
What did Paul Revere's famous midnight ride from Boston to Lexington sound like in April 1775? If you were there, you might recognize the approaching horse as a Narragansett Pacer mare. This once popular breed of horse, now extinct, was known for its ambling gait: a smooth riding four-beat gait that is faster than a walk, but slower than a canter or gallop. You might also notice the calm surroundings interrupted occasionally by crow calls, trees rustling in the wind, or the occasional farm dog barking at the stranger barreling down the rough dirt road. Just someone in a hurry.
"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.
People probably have more experience manipulating visuals. We create a picture with a camera, crop it, make it brighter, sharper, more colorful. We may even shoot a video and trim the beginning, cut clips together, or add a title in a simple movie editing program. But manipulating audio can be challenging and mystifying. It's rare that someone has competent audio equipment or software in their homes. Even some musicians with home recording gear will admit they know just enough to kill feedback or get something recorded on disk.
Most people are pretty adept at listening, though. We air-jam the lead guitar in our favorite song, or marvel at the sound of jets flying through our living room during an action movie. We also know when something just doesn't sound right.
When making a video on our smart phone, the most common problem is poor audio. What's poor about it? Most people will say that there's too much noise. Usually this means there is too much ambient sound because the microphone is too far away from the subject. The microphone is on the camera/phone, not close to the source. Next time you watch the news, notice the little microphone(s) clipped to the lapel or tie of the anchor. On the rare occasion that one fails, we hear the sound coming from one of the other anchor's mic. It's far away and sounds amazingly like a smart phone recording!
If you've ever watched behind-the-scenes videos of movie-making, you've undoubtedly seen the person holding a very large hot dog on a very long stick over the actor. It's not Oscar Mayer, it's the boom operator. That is a highly directional microphone that will reduce ambient noise but pick up the actor's voice with a natural balance between voice and background.
So let's put on our turbans, uncover the old crystal ball, and dive into some audio myths that you might find surprising.
Recording good sound takes years of experience.
Not true. Simply reducing ambient noise may be enough to get clear sound. But getting the microphone as close to the subject or source is the first thing to do.
Expensive microphones and recording equipment are needed to record good sound.
False. I recorded an NPR-like radio feature using a $100 microphone. It included multi-layered environmental sounds and an interview. I've found that the microphone on an iPhone 5 and above will record decent audio in a pinch. See Myth #1.
Because a microphone is built into my video camera, it must record good audio.
Busted again. The microphone was put there by the marketing department. If you're twenty feet away from the subject and you're zoomed in for a tight head shot, where is the microphone? Twenty feet away on the camera! Just because your eyes see something close, the microphone won't. Get a mic up there!
My ears hear the subject just fine, so the microphone will hear exactly what I do.
False-err-een-o. Your ears are connected to your brain, which selectively filters out what it doesn't want to hear. A microphone has no brain and is dumb. Here's a fun test you can do. Right now, one-at-a-time, listen to everything in the room and coming from outside. Do you hear a clock ticking? The furnace running? A siren? Yourself breathing? Did you hear those before I told you to listen? Your ear is just like that dumb old microphone - it heard everything. Your brain filtered out what wasn't important. When recording, choose the right microphone, get rid of the ambient noise, and get it close.
It's cheaper if I shoot my video using the onboard microphone. I can always fix it later in edit.
Nada. In most cases, you'll be dissatisfied. In some cases, you'll be calling someone like me to try to fix the bad sound. It can cost at least as much or more to help bad audio than hiring an audio recordist with good equipment for a day. Plus, it will never really sound as good as it could with properly recorded audio. It's still twenty feet away.
They put all those audio tools in my video editing program. That must mean I can get perfect audio using those tools.
Well...yes and no. If the audio was recorded properly, sometimes less is more. But they were really put there as a convenience (and by the marketing department again). Sometimes, all you need is a little equalization and dynamic control. But with the ever increasing formats and places we see video, the sound requirements can vary drastically. For instance, did you know there are different level and peak requirements (and metering devices) for television, radio, cinema, and DVD/BD? Plus, music, web, audiobooks, internal communications, and other formats have no standard level. Are you sure you have the right tools to confidently deliver to all those places?
I just have voice-over and music, I'll just lower the music so I can hear the voice and it'll be good enough.
Not so fast, partner. If you want to lasso that voice and still let the music have impact, you have to start by herding the parts of the music that are gettin' in the way. By selectively reducing certain frequencies that are stampeding the voice, you can bring the music level back up. But it doesn't stop there. Using some ace-high dynamic control, you can have the music ducked anytime the voice gets lost under the music. Try them spurs on.
Plug-ins, processors, etc must be used on recordings to make them sound good.
Oh, si faux. The holy grail for recording engineers is to record something that needs no manipulation whatsoever. If one chooses the right location, the right microphone(s), the right placement, and captures a truly perfect performance, then you're halfway there. The best recording is in the ear of the beholder. I was once told by a seasoned engineer that instead of using equalizers to boost or cut frequencies, they would chose microphones that had the sound they wanted. Magnifique.
You must have expensive and complicated audio software to produce great sound.
Of course I'm going to debunk this one. Ones and zeros are ones and zeros. The input into a recorder or computer is the critical part here. It must be able to record the strongest signal with the least amount of noise and digital artifacts. Although there is low-/no-cost software that can degrade audio quality, most offer a wide range of acceptable editing and manipulation tools. The most common distinctions between low-/no-cost software and higher-cost ones are support, upgrade frequency, and more control over parameters. One of the most powerful programs out there - Audacity - is free.
Digital is better than analog.
This is a loaded double-barrel shotgun question. It can only really be answered by the user. If one wants smooth, natural-sounding, and expanded dynamic range, then analog might be a good fit. If one wants cutting edge, fast workflow, and unlimited manipulation tools, then digital is probably a good fit. There are valid arguments for both sides. When cost-effective digital audio workstations (DAW) first came on the scene, they were integrated into existing analog rooms. After a decade or so, studios ditched most analog gear and fully embraced digital. Now, a lot of studios are re-integrating analog gear and techniques back into their workflow. The current ideal studio is a blend of digital and analog.
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.
John Campbell is a voice-over artist and semi-retired advertising and marketing writer and producer in Lexington. His voice has been hired by such clients as Klipsh, The NCAA, Valvoline, Fazoli's, and Brown-Forman. John is also a drummer in a classic rock band and enjoys noodling on the bagpipes. John describes his style as banks and hospitals to car dealers, and everything in between.
Kathie Stamps is a voice-over artist, writer, producer, sports broadcast engineer and is owner of Stamps Communications in Lexington. Her voice has been hired by such clients as Ocean Spray, Sports Illustrated, Grand Victoria Casino, and East Kentucky Power. Her background in music helped prepare her for a career in voice-overs. She describes her style as "smooth."
Tom Martin is a career journalist, reporting and anchoring on such news radio networks as ABC News, AP Radio, and RKO Radio Network, as well as being Paul Harvey's back-up host. Tom is also a lifelong pianist and keyboardist and currently plays with the Patrick McNeese Band. Tom says he inherited his deep smooth voice from his father.
Jim Jones is owner of Cherry Voiceworks in Dayton, Ohio. Jim specializes in commercials, narrations, politicals, broadcast promos, on-hold messages, and audiobooks. His voice has been hired for such clients as Arby’s, GE Jet Engines, Proctor & Gamble, Kroger, and Fasig-Tipton. Jim describes his style as "warm, buttered bread."
Preparation, from tongue warm ups to research, can be key to having success in a voice-over session. But sometimes life experiences unexpectedly work their way into the booth. Years ago, Jim worked a six-month stint in a shoebox factory. He probably wasn't thinking about how that experience would help his voice-over career at the time, but now it helps him while recording industrial narrations. "I learned about presses and machinery," Jim said. When a script might detail a mechanical process referencing movements, controls, and safety procedures, Jim can visualize the actions, "and it would help me with my interpretation."
In a perfect world, voice-over artists get a script beforehand so they can prepare. The reality is that copy is often being written and re-written right up until session time. But, as John points out, you'd better be able to correctly pronounce the name of the product. As he was preparing for a recording session for the spirit and wine giant Brown-Forman, he did some research on the scotch whiskey he would be selling. "Very few Americans,' John said, "even scotch aficionados, know how to pronounce Glenmorangie. So I made it part of my business to know how to pronounce the name of the product."
Physical preparation for a session is different for everybody. One actor I used to work with did push ups in the voice booth. Another sings scales. Others "purposefully hit the highest note they could possibly hit, then the mid-range, then the lowest note they could possibly hit," Tom chuckles. "If people only knew what what was going on in our cars as we were driving to the speaking gig, they probably would laugh." Jim chews bubblegum about 15 minutes before a session because "it loosens my jaws." Kathie brushes her teeth beforehand because she doesn't want to make excessive mouth sounds. John will do mouth exercises he learned in his Speaking for the Stage class.
Perhaps the hardest thing to learn and deftly apply to a voice-over is technique. Someone can have a lovely voice, but if no one can understand what's being said, it's a major fail. "My father always told me over-and-over," Tom remembers, "to always e-nun-ci-ate. And he would say it that way so that he got every syllable of the word in. That was his point, words have syllables for a reason."
I was a trombone major in college, and although I don't do voice-overs, I see many parallels between performing music and performing a voice-over. Two similarities are breathing and phrasing. Playing a wind instrument or singing correctly teaches you all about breath control. You learn to take in a quick, deep, and nearly silent breath. As you play or sing, controlling the flow of air from your diaphragm results in even tones and predictable air reserves. Phrasing is carefully planning your breaths around a group of notes while retaining musicality.
Reading a script is exactly the same way if done right. Kathie's music training allows her to see the parallels as well. "I think it's all very related," she says. "Music and voice-overs, singing and talking, writing and expressing. I just picked up that singing and talking were very related in the expression, the breath work, and putting the meaning across."
Sight reading, that is playing a piece of sheet music with little or no preparation, is another fundamental part of music training that can be applied to voice-over work. It helps Kathie to "give it the feel it deserves." When Tom was in live broadcasting, being handed cold copy was a common occurrence during a breaking event. "One of the tricks of the trade, especially in network news," he spells out, "you have to learn to read a couple of lines ahead of where you are. You're looking for punctuation marks and that sort of thing while you're reading along." Sometimes a script doesn't have natural places to breath or phrase, especially with long sentences. John notes that he looks for "places to breath, places to pause, and words you're going to emphasize."
And John adds, "What words you emphasize often makes the read." Much like playing music. You can have all the technique in the world, but if you can't get the meaning across, it another major fail. John scans a script with the questions, "What are the key words, what is the key thought, what are we trying to sell, and how are we trying to persuade an audience?" Kathie says she needs "the tiniest bit of 'who's your audience? Who am I?' I don't have that many styles, but if it's hyper-over-the-top salesy, or regular-medium-authoritative instructional, I just need a little bit of direction."
And that brings us to one of next month's topics: taking direction. Plus, our super-professionals offer advice to budding voice-over artists, and tips for writing narration scripts.
- "Nine tips to improve your speaking abilities" over on Voicebunny.com
- Very good guide to voice acting and narration at Backstage.com
- Voice-over guide on Gravyforthebrain.com
- Beginner's Guide to Voice Acting at Voices.com
- We partner with Voice Coaches to help aspiring voice-over professionals learn, practice, and market themselves.
"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."
1.0, 2.0, 4.0, 5.1, 7.1, 10.2, 11.1, 22.2 – the numbers get bigger and bigger, like monsters stomping toward us. Oh no, we're surrounded! And it's a good thing!
"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.
"Someone needs to buy a radio station, then play nothing but audio books, with a different genre of book played at set times. That way we can always have something new to read, no matter where we are."
We're wrapping up our series on the audiobook this month. In Part 1, we began our conversation with veteran actor and audiobook narrator Brad Wills. He talked technical details about finding the right studio, performance, editing, and quality. In Part 2, Brad shared his methods of character development and preparation, plus he had some tips for budding narrators. In this issue, we're looking at how an audiobook is actually produced, from recording and editing, to mastering and delivery.Read More...
“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.Read More...
"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...
"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
There 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.
"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.
"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. So what did we give up to take Elvis along for the ride? In the early days of records, players got smaller and smaller so they could be moved from room-to-room, house-to-house, and even house-to-car. As the players got smaller, so did the sound. In the 1950's, engineers threw away the large vacuum tubes (and the warm sound) in radios for the minuscule transistor. Now you could hold Elvis in your hand. In the 60's, a wonderful little pocket-sized storage unit called the cassette tape came along that allowed you to take 2 or 3 records' worth of Elvis with you - but not the big sound.
And then came the iPod. Apple wasn't the first portable digital file player, but they made it a household name. Small device, small earbuds, small audio files - what's not to love? I admit that as a fan of convenience, I'm a huge fan of the iPod. The mp3 had been around for a while when the iPod came to town. This unique way of compressing large audio files down to smaller ones was created to speed up file transfers (remember, we were still using pokey dial-up modems at the time). So we sacrificed audio quality for speed.
At least Apple tried to address the loss-of-quality issue by authoring their own codec (code-decode algorithm). The AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) codec offers much better audio quality with even smaller file size, plus it does so much more than the mp3. If it's superior to an mp3, why isn't it more popular? Because Apple wants to sell Apple products. They usually keep a tight control on their technology, but have relaxed a little on AAC. You'll find it on Youtube, Nintendos, Playstations, Wiis, and many smartphones and car stereos. But it still isn't as popular as the venerable mp3. Sorta sounds like the old VHS - Betamax war doesn't it?
The reason for all the audio codec wars is to save time and space. Not something Arthur C. Clark would lay out in a textbook, but something of convenience - faster downloads and more tunes in your pocket. At ground zero in this war is the bit.
You generally win and get higher fidelity with more bits in a digital media signal. But convenience wins when you have fewer bits. Fewer bits, less time and space. The digital audio CD spits out 1.4 million bits per second of data (1,411 kbit/s). The highest quality mp3 produces 320 kbit/s - or 23% of what a CD does. Is the sound quality 23% less? It all depends upon your perception.
Mp3, AAC, Dolby AC3, and all the rest use perceptual coding technologies. Basically, what's really important gets less compression, and what isn't gets hit heavily or thrown out all together. Think of it as a stage play with real props on stage and a painted scenery backdrop. We trick the mind into thinking something faked is real. In audio codecs such as an mp3, the parts of the sound that take up the most file space (like the bass), are highly compressed. When playing them back, those parts are faked, just like that backdrop. A long time ago, someone in a computer lab decided how much bass you won't really hear.
When you stick that audio CD into your computer to make an mp3, you must make a few decisions that will affect the quality of your future entertainment. Do you want small size, or big sound? Choosing a small bit rate (like 64k, 96k, or even 128k) will reduce the file size considerably, but throw out a lot of those important stage props. Detail is lost. When it's played back, it may sound watery, jingly, or muffled - not quite the real thing. It's kind of like a sloppy paint-by-numbers scenery backdrop. But if you use a higher bit rate like 320 kbit/s, more detail is preserved. Better yet, use a modern codec like Apple's AAC to preserve even more.
Of course bit rate isn't the only deciding factor in audio quality, but it's the biggest. Consider this. A full-fledged cinematic motion picture is recorded and mixed at 96KHz, 24-bit, 7.1 surround - 18.4 million bits per second. An mp3 on your iPod is probably recorded at 128 thousand bits per second. That's less than seven-tenths of a percent of that movie sound. That's like Weird Al Yankovich vs. The Avengers. Bits will be flyin'!
Did You Know?The mp3 format is, unfortunately, a standard file format to send audio over the internet. Even with blazingly fast internet connections, many radio broadcast facilities still prefer commercials and programs to be sent in the mp3 format. Once these files are downloaded, they are often ingested into the station's audio file server, recompressing them into a new compressed format. This original audio file has been compressed twice at this point.
If the radio station's transmitter is at a remote location, the main audio signal is often digitally compressed over a transmission line from the studios to the transmitter site. The original audio has now been compressed three times.
If the radio station is transmitting a digital signal such as HD Radio or satellite, the original audio has now been compressed four times. If the original audio program or commercial contained any material that was in mp3 format, such as the voice-over or music, it has now been compressed five times.
This is a lot like playing "telephone" in grade school - but in different languages for each person. Each interpretation and retelling is dependent on who is hearing an retelling the story. A lot can be misinterpreted.
- The mp3 codec is formally called MPEG-2, Layer III (1995). It was first introduced in 1993 as MPEG-1, Layer III.
- The mp3 format was developed by the Fraunhofer Institute in Hanover, Germany. It is actually a brand and requires a paid license to include it in software or devices.
- The mp3, AAC, and AC3 use "lossy" compression, meaning audio information is "lost" when encoded.
- There are "lossless" codecs that successfully reduce file size but retain 100% of the audio information. Some of these codecs are Apple Lossless (ALAC), FLAC, ATRAC, HD-AAC, and WMA Lossless.
- Compression codecs take advantage of "perceptual" coding, first discovered in 1894 by American physicist Alfred M. Mayer . He discovered that a tone could be rendered inaudible by another tone of lower frequency.
- Small file size is the "pro" of an mp3. Decoding is the "con." It takes a lot more processing power to decode and play an mp3 than playing the original uncompressed audio format.
- Susan Vega's "Tom's Diner" was chosen as a benchmark during the development of the mp3. It is considered the "Mother of the mp3."
“There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.”
Homer, The Odyssey
If you've read The Odyssey or The Iliad, then you know why they've been literary classics for almost 3,000 years. But did you know they date to the earliest origins of the alphabet? It's believed that Homer's poems and speeches were so revered that early scribes dedicated themselves to writing them down. In fact, half of all Greek papyrus discoveries contain Homer's works. Homer must have been one cool dude to influence all of Western literature.
Now put on your time-travel caps and flash forward to the 1933. It's the early years of recording audio. Huddie Ledbetter was incarcerated in a prison in Louisiana when a father and son recording team came by. John and Alan Lomax were traveling the south on the dime of the Library of Congress to record and document African-American folk and blues musicians. John had found the LOC collections woefully inadequate and got funding to buy a "portable" (315 lbs.) disc recorder. There in the Angola Prison was the singer and 12-string guitar player better known as "Led Belly." Their collaboration over the next several years cemented Led Belly's place as a folk and blues legend.
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. "Oral history" is a term used to describe recording someone relating personal experiences on audio or video. It's often used to supplement documents, pictures, artifacts, and visuals about an event or time period. Scholars say oral histories are a unique part of understanding history. Just hearing speech inflections and emotion in one's voice speaks volumes that printed text cannot.
Searching for key words in printed or digitized text is easy. Searching recordings can be extremely time consuming. In the past, recordings were done on disc or tape, so one had to listen to the whole recording. If they were lucky, a transcript existed. Recordings were usually only transcribed If funds, personnel, and time were available. But most recordings are in boxes collecting dust.
These days, oral histories are recorded digitally, an obvious quality advantage over analog. But the not-so-obvious advantage is search-ability. Doug Boyd of the Louis B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky has developed a novel searchable method called OHMS (Oral History Metadata Synchronizer). Any content in the Nunn Center's online files can be searched using current speech recognition algorithms. It's not perfect, as Boyd points out, but it's a step in the right direction.
Anybody that's used Siri or Google voice search will understand that speech recognition is not perfect. OCR (Optical Character Recognition) was at this stage about a decade ago. Now, document scanners can scan, ingest, and convert paper text to a digital file in seconds with few errors. But the complexity of speech patterns, accents, and recording quality will demand more intricate software solutions. This will come, and oral history repositories will reap the benefits.
All this bleeding-edge technology like the alphabet and records lead me to wonder what the next thing is? Thought recording? Memory mining? Oh boy, now everyone will know I really wasn't that cool in high school. I was really a nerd. Oh wait, you already figured that out.
Did You Know?
Four generations of the Lomax family have contributed immensely to American music through recordings, archives, productions, management, and journalism.
- John Lomax grew up and Texas in the late 1800's and was influenced by cowboy folklore and songs.
- Some of John's professions were as an English professor, college administrator and banker.
- John co-founded the Texas Folklore Society, a chapter of the American Folklore Society.
- During his travels in the south recording folksongs during the 1930's, the entire Lomax family was heavily involved in the recording and research.
- Alan Lomax, John's son, continued his father's legacy of archiving folksongs. He was also a ethnomusicologist, writer, and filmmaker.
- Grandson John Lomax III is a music journalist and artist manager, having represented Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle.
- Great-grandson John Nova Lomax is a music journalist and author.
- John Lomax's first field recordings were on wax cylinders. Fidelity was inferior to disc recordings, but disc recorders were not yet portable. Instead of a microphone, players performed into a bell or horn.
- John and Alan Lomax used some of the earliest disc recorders in the field. These were uncoated aluminum, in which the heavy vibrating needle would etch the surface. The discs were robust, but the grooves were shallow, and thus noisy.
- Alan started using lacquer-coated aluminum discs in the mid-30's. Fidelity was better, but the recording process was difficult. Spirals of shed lacquer and aluminum had to be continually brushed and blown away from the needle.
- Like the immediate feedback that digital cameras give us today, Lomax could immediately play the record back to the musician.
- These early disc recorders were so heavy that recordists often installed them in the back of old ambulances. They required alternating current (AC), so Lomax often used his car battery in conjunction with a portable transformer to power the recorder.
"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. Most recording engineers started as musicians or disc jockeys and fell into the job. As a teenager in the late 70's, I was into music more than anything. I hung out in radio and TV stations and got my first exposure to a "real" recording studio in a friend's basement. I was a child of tape. In fact, as a child I ran around my house with a cassette recorder taping anything that I found interesting. I would often shove a microphone into the face of a shy family member, who would naturally be at a loss for words. But when a teen nears graduation, the pressure builds into making that big life decision - "what will I grow up and be?"
“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. There were more changes on the way. About a hundred years ago, the first color and 3D films were being created. In an Avant Garde era when artists were distorting reality, most filmmakers were trying to recreate reality and immerse the viewers into it.
Realistic sound is no exception. In fact, stereo sound was first demonstrated in 1881, and multiple speaker playback in the early 1930's. These early attempts at locating sounds for the listener were impractical though, and required expensive and ungainly equipment. By the late 1950's, consumers could finally experience stereo with LPs and tapes. But until home theater systems became popular, most had to go to a place like a theater or theme park to experience anything beyond stereo sound.
Since digital audio and video have pretty much taken over the world, we've seen a rapid growth of new technologies. Virtual reality is one of those, like the Oculus Rift, a VR headset for the masses. This is a visual VR device. But what's lacking is auditory VR.
Enter the researchers at Microsoft. They've created a way to fool a listener into thinking sounds are coming from a specific location using ordinary headphones. To make it work, the listener's head and shoulders are scanned into 3D software, which then builds a custom filter. Add motion sensors and a camera to track the listener's position, and the fun begins. Sounds can seem to be coming from objects or areas in a room. Imagine making that stuffed Teddy bear in the corner of your child's room actually talk. That model hot rod on the shelf could rev its engine. The uses seem endless.
It's obvious that this new device will be used as a companion to a visual VR headset. But there could be many more uses. Theme park attractions could be revolutionized by creating more realistic environments while eliminating costly sound systems. The movie industry could enhance the viewer's experience. Music artists could create the ultimate mix, with that lead guitarist standing next to the coffee table.
I think the largest user of this technology will be the advertising industry. Imagine walking down the street with your headphones listening to some music when a voice from your left whispers, "Pssst! Hey buddy, wanna buy a watch?" You turn and see the sparkling Bulova timepiece in the window of the jewelry store.
Train photo courtesy Simon Pielow
Did You Know?
- In Paris in 1881, Clément Ader demonstrated the first two-channel sound utilizing telephone transmitters. As part of an exhibition, the Paris Opera performances were heard at a remote location by listeners wearing headphones. Scientific American immediately picked up on the aural spaciousness compared to a single receiver.
- Adre's process was later marketed in France for over 40 years as the Théâtrophone. These coin-operated devices were popular in hotels, cafés, and clubs. There were also many homes that had the Théâtrophone by subscription.
- Similar services were the Electrophone in England and the Telefon Hírmondó in Budapest. In the U.S., there were only one-time experiments.
- The Théâtrophone service also included short news readings, making it a prototype to the telephone newspaper as well as the first example of electronic broadcasting.
- The popularity of radio and the phonograph killed the Théâtrophone by 1932.
One of the fundamentals of recording and mixing is deciding what kind of spatial experience the listener will have. Creating a realistic one is difficult. If accuracy is not adhered to strictly, the result is a false space. An example of a near realistic auditory recording and playback is to place two microphones closely together in front of a performance. During playback, the listener is positioned in front of two loudspeakers at about the same angle and distance as the microphone were placed. This is a fairly pleasing experience, but isn't 100% accurate because everyone's playback system and environment is different.
A false spatial method is called "pan-pot" stereo. Mono or stereo tracks are "panned" in the mix away from center. An example might be a cowbell panned slightly to one side ('More cowbell!"). Most contemporary pop and rock songs are constructed this way because the tracks were built one performer at a time.
Recording engineer and producer Bruce Swedien (who recorded and mixed the biggest-selling album of all time, Michael Jackson's Thriller) likes to pre-plan his stereo mix. If Swedien wanted that cowbell on the left side of the mix, he would record it in stereo with the performer standing to the left. In the analog tape days this required careful planning because engineers were limited to a finite number of tracks. Most recorders had 16 or 24 tracks. If all instruments are recorded separately in stereo, then that limited the tracks to 8 or 12.
Most stereo recordings are intended to be heard on speakers. Once the listener uses headphones, the aural space changes dramatically. Instead of left and right sounds coming from forward of the listener (from the speakers), they are now coming from extreme left or right. Anything that was intended for the front middle (like the vocalist or lead guitar), is now coming from inside the head, right in the middle. It's a hyper-real experience, and immediately going back to front speakers elicits a lifeless experience.
There is one recording technique that requires listening only on headphones. This ultimate 2-channel spatial experience is called binaural recording. Two microphones are placed either in a mannequin head with false ears, or over the recordist's ears. Whatever the recordist hears is correctly translated to the listener. A common use for binaural recordings is an audio tour. How about a walk through Chinatown on a busy Monday morning? Or a walk through a submarine as she makes her dive to 300 feet. The listener is instantly transported to the locale.
I did this on a project that required me to be in a crowd at a sporting event. I wore headphones that had small microphones (lavalieres) clipped on the outside. To the unsuspecting person, I was just someone listening to some beats. To the listener, I was their portal to the game.
Some resources to listen to binaural recordings (be sure to use your headphones):
A studio music performance from the videographer's perspective
Binaural mixes on Sound Cloud
Sounds of Bach
Learn more about binaural recording
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...
“Within You Without You,” The Beatles
How would you describe a sound to someone without using descriptors that are unique to sound, like: loud, bassy, shrill, whining, atonal, or noisy?
Not a problem, because we most often describe a sonic experience with words related to our other senses: sharp, warm, angular, raspy, piercing, even, warbling, soft, smooth, or flat.
Buzz Aldrin subliminally making the flag fly straight.
"Fly straight, you beep flag."
When astronauts first walked on the moon, everyone was glued to the television. I was eight-years-old and can remember it like yesterday.
We copy you down, Eagle.
Engine arm is off. (Pause) Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.
What the beep? All those old NASA transmissions seem to have that beeping in the recording. What the beep is it? It's actually two, and they're called Quindar tones.
There was a recent AES (Audio Engineering Society) presentation at McGill University in West Montreal, Quebec titled "We Are the Robots: Developing the Automatic Sound Engineer." Brecht De Man from the Centre for Digital Music, Queen Mary University of London discussed the state of automatic mixing. I don't know whether to be happy some automation is on the way, or be alarmed that I may become obsolete.
I was recently explaining to our intern about how we used to synchronize sound and film together when I realized how many industry terms are borrowed from other tasks or re-hashed from another era. Most make sense, like "copy," "paste," and "edit." But with others you have to make an association.
The quest to create a 3D visual experience has revved up, sputtered, and stalled for almost a century. But the journey for a 3D experience in sound has steadily evolved for more than eight decades.
Replacing dialog in video and film has come a long way since Clint Eastwood had to dub dialog for his spaghetti westerns. Whether it's noise in the original track, a changed or new line, or even a different performance, replacing dialog on programs and films is commonplace today. Read More...
How Things Work
Inside an Engineer's Mind
- Star Trek
- Thomas Edison
- 2001: A Space Odyssey
- Alan Parson
- Am radio
- Am Radio
- Amateur radio
- Amy Winehouse
- Angels on Stage
- Artificial intelligence
- ATR Magnetics
- Audio engineer
- Bela Lugosi
- Bell Labs
- Big Bang
- Book on tape
- Brown noise
- Carrier pigeon
- CB Radio
- Civil War
- Dies irae
- dorian mode
- Dynamix Productions
- ear training
- Film Sound
- Fleetwood Mac
- Fritz Lang
- Gene Roddenberry
- George Clooney
- Guinness World Record
- Hearing aid
- Jack White
- John Mellancamp
- John Williams
- Ken Burns
- Led Belly
- Led Zepelin
- Lenny Kravitz
- Les Paul
- Mary Ford
- Morse code
- mykola Leontovych
- Noise Pollution
- Noise reduction
- Oculus Rift
- Peter J. Wilhousky
- Pink noise
- Ray Bradbury
- Recording arts
- Recording school
- Reel to reel
- Richard Wagner
- Rudy Van Gelder
- Rupp Arena
- Secret messages
- Silent film
- Sir Isaac Newton
- Smokey and the Bandit
- sony walkman
- sound effects
- sound level
- sound pressure level
- sound wave
- Star Wars
- surround sound
- Taylor Swift
- The Beatles
- Thomas Edison
- Time travel
- US Navy
- virtual reality
- Wax cylinder
- White noise