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A Sound Education

Chocolate Milk

chocolate milk

"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.


The President's Speech


"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.


Recycling Audio Cycles


"I think reincarnation is possible. Hopefully, we all get recycled."

Christina Ricci

We all should recycle. A look at repurposing old audio gear into funky new uses. Plus find out the latest news from Dynamix Productions.


Messages From the Deeps

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- 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.”

Das Boot

In the near future, submarines might be using sound waves to communicate through ocean waves.


Finch's FAX

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"I got a chain letter by fax. It's very simple. You just fax a dollar bill to everybody on the list."

Steven Wright

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.


Free Music!

The Sound of a Lockdown


"In radio, you have two tools. Sound and silence."

Ira Glass

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.


The Sound of Progress

"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. Many laws were passed to protect pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages that seem silly now, but these edicts were taken very seriously back then. For instance, a person was required to walk in front of a self-powered carriage waving a red flag; a motorist had to fire off a signal firework every mile; or a driver had to ring a bell or gong when approaching people or other vehicles.

In 1900, the race was on to find the best engine plant for these new-fangled contraptions. Most were noisy and smelly, particularly the steam-powered auto. The ubiquitous gasoline combustable engine wasn't quite developed or refined yet. From 1895 through 1905 the electric-powered vehicle (EV) was the best-selling automobile, partly because it was quiet, easy to operate with its shiftless transmission, and it didn't belch out smoke. But the noisy, smelly, and ultimately cheaper gasoline and diesel engines would win the race. EVs were expensive, technologically difficult, and recharging and range was limited because electric power grids were sparse and in their infancy.

That's a shame, because our world would be a much quieter place had EVs won out as the dominant transportation method. Imagine walking down Main Street USA and not hearing revving engines or loud buses and trucks. Imagine a NASCAR race where the pit crew wouldn't have to wear hearing protection. But would we be safer? Our ears would be, but maybe not our bodies.

In a recent study submitted to the British Parliament by the charity Guide Dogs, it was found that EVs and hybrids were 40% more likely to be involved in an accident that harmed a pedestrian. Blind and limited-sight people can be in real danger around EVs, not to mention all the distracted pedestrians staring down at their phones. I understand this problem because I once skirted serious injury from an electric vehicle. Downtown San Francisco has all-electric restored antique trolley coaches that ride on rubber tires and are very quiet. As I casually stepped off the curb, I just used my ears to "look" both ways. I stopped myself in the nick of time and within inches of a passing trolley coach.

The alarms, bells, gongs, and fireworks have been sounded regarding quiet cars. Starting this year in the European Union (and next year in the U.S.), EV and hybrid vehicles must make artificial noise under certain conditions. When traveling under 12 mph (18.6 mph in the U.S.) or backing up, these vehicles must produce a sound similar to a combustion engine, but no louder. The sound must also indicate speeding up or slowing down, comparable to what a combustion engine would do.

How are the manufacturers responding? Jaguar's first all-electric car, the I-Pace, has a very "Tron" like sound when it accelerates. Nissan's Canto "sings" as it drives. Mercedes-AMG is working with the rock band Linkin Park to find a sound for their luxury cars. And not to be outdone, Porsche offers a $500 option in their EV sports car Taycan called "Electric Sport Sound," which "enhances the vehicle’s own sound and makes it sound even more emotional — both outside and inside the vehicle."

The laws mandating that EVs sound like smog-belching, gas-guzzling cars has me wondering what EVs would be compelled to sound like if they had won the auto race a century ago. Would we be hearing a clopping and snorting Clydesdale? A stagecoach driver whistling and whooping? Time will tell if any of these new solutions work, otherwise we might have to go back to waving a red flag. In the meantime, I'll need to decide which sound my future driverless all-electric car will have. Right now it's a toss up between the Jetson's flying car sound and a horse-drawn carriage.

Listening to Light


"All that's to come
and everything under
the sun is in tune
but the sun
is eclipsed by the moon."

Roger Waters
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.


Jar Fly Blues


"Again and again, the cicada's untiring cry pierced the sultry summer air like a needle at work on thick cotton cloth."
Yukio Mishima

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.

Sailor, sailor
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.

One Giant Leap for M_-_//_ _nd

"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.

So, rubbing my sleep filled eyes, I watched a white Gumby-like figure bounce down a ladder and onto the surface of another world. The significance wasn't lost on a boy only eight years into life. Then Armstrong delivered what is probably the shortest, yet most famous speech in all of human history, "That's one small step for man...." We strained not only to see him, but to hear him. "One giant leap for," he continued, "m_-_//_ _nd." What? There was static at the end covering the last word. What did he say? Piece of crap TV we had. We always had to bang on its top to keep it tuned to a channel.

As much as I want to blame it on our TV, the static was in the broadcast from the moon. Even CBS's Walter Cronkite had trouble understanding it during his live coverage. “I didn’t understand,” he said, "'One small step for man.’ But I didn’t get the second phrase.” Communications had been a problem for much of NASA's early years. In the minutes leading up to the horrific fatal fire aboard Apollo 1 during a ground test, the crew was having trouble communicating with Mission Control. “How are we going to get to the moon if we can’t talk between three buildings?," Gus Grissom barked into his headset.

As the lunar module (LM) Eagle descended to the moon's surface that day, Mission Control in Houston had trouble receiving data from it. Just like Dad moving us around for a better TV signal, a switch to and reposition of a different antenna on the LM solved it. But they were beaming voice and data 240,000 miles, so there were bound to be problems. The Eagle had a variety of radios for different activities and purposes, but LM to earth transmissions while on the surface primarily used microwave that combined voice and data, at about the same rate as a telephone modem in the early days of the web. They also employed UHF simplex transmissions, but mostly between the LM and command module that Michael Collins was circling in overhead. Once Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were out of the LM, they deployed a larger dish antenna and pointed it at Houston for a stronger signal than what we heard Armstrong mutter his famous words on.

At the time, we all really knew what Armstrong said if we thought about it. But it seemed like there was another word missing. Armstrong always insisted that he said "That's one small step for (A) man,...," but nobody heard it at the time. The focus had always been on the scratchy part at the end of the speech. That one small word, "a," changes the meaning of the speech, if taken literally. "One small step for MAN" implies all of MANKIND in 1960s parlance, but we knew that he meant "one man" or "one mere human." Granted, Armstrong was exhausted and running on adrenaline at the time he said it. But studies have shown that it's entirely possible that he did say "A man," just very quickly. What's the last word? NASA's transcripts have the speech as "that’s one small step for (a) man,” so officially he said the "a." Maybe.

Our Sped Up Life


"Radio is a hungry monster that eats very fast."
Tyler Joseph

Everything today seems to be sped up. We speed to work, we speed to pick up the kids, we speed home. And as if on cue, much of what we watch and listen to is also sped up. Find out more as well as what's been going on at Dynamix recently.


Audio Letters to Home


"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.


Retro Rewind

Shortwaves, Long Memories

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"TV gives everyone an image, but radio gives birth to a million images in a million brains."
Peggy Nooman

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.


Calling All Cars

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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.


11th Hour Message

1-field op

"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.

Older, established methods of communications such as semaphore, flags, signal lamps, pigeons, and dogs were used throughout the war. But electronic communications, especially radio, rapidly advanced from wagon loads of equipment to merely bulky gear by war's end. Wired telephony and telegraph were still the primary communications devices, but there were major advances in those as well.


Some inventions that sped up the miniaturization of radios included the valve (vacuum tube), amplifier, and the superheterodyne receiver (a more precise way to tune in distant frequencies). As radios grew smaller, they moved around with the troops on the ground, went to sea, and took to the air. Transmitters were placed in dirigibles and airplanes for pilots to relay back battle conditions. By the end of the war two-way communications between airplanes and the ground, and from pilot-to-pilot was possible. To give pilots freedom, and to reduce the sound of the airplane's engines, a cap with a throat microphone and earpiece was developed. This was the world's first hands-free device. To control chaos at busy military airstrips, the British developed the earliest air traffic control.

3-field ops

But most ground communications was through wires. Many, many men lost their lives running cable in battle zones. The lines were often severed during bombings, requiring deeper trenches to bury them. Ladder-type runs were also employed to ensure that if one strand were broken, the other parallel strand would carry the signal. And early on many of these signals were intercepted by the enemy through induction from the electromagnetic field. Thus, insulation was invented to shield orders from enemy ears. Enemies could also tap in to lines to pick up morse code transmissions, so the fullerphone, a quasi-encryption device, was employed. This electronically changed the way morse code signals were relayed and required special equipment on each end.


Voice transmission was quicker than morse code, but noisy lines and battle sounds tended to obscure the messages. A phonetic alphabet was perfected to aid in distinguishing letters. For instance, my name Neil would be spelled "November Echo India Lima" in the current alphabet. It changed many times over the years and varied between countries and military branches until it was standardized in 1957. That's probably good. During WWI my name would be phonetically spelled "Nan Easy Item Love." Sounds more like a proposition than military communication.


The advanced communications developments weren't enough to prevent catastrophes, however. The famous "Lost Battalion" had to rely on their last carrier pigeon to stop friendly fire on their position. Cher Ami, shot down by German troops, returned to flight and delivered the desperate message to headquarters that pleaded "For heavens sake stop it." Cher Ami would be saved by Army medics despite being shot through the breast, blinded in one eye, and losing a leg. She was awarded many honors and is on display at the Smithsonian Institution.

As with most prolonged wars, technology advances at meteoric speeds, often benefiting civilization during peace time. Some inventions and improvements that came out of WWI that trickled into everyday use include the wristwatch, the compact camera, drones, zippers, stainless steel, plastic surgery, the sun lamp, and portable x-ray machines.

A hundred years seems so far off when you think about how far technology has advanced since then. But a lot of us have a direct connection to it. My grandpa fought in the last major battle alongside 1.2 million other doughboys in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive - just a month before the armistice. He was badly injured and disabled by bullets, shrapnel, and gas. A day earlier in a nearby forest, American hero Sergeant Alvin York singlehandedly killed or captured an entire German machine gun battalion. Since this Veterans Day marks the end of World War One, let's salute the soldiers who put their lives on the line running cable, hoisting giant antennas, lugging heavy equipment into battle zones, flying in airplanes and dirigibles to radio back information, and crawling through battlefields to telegraph enemy positions. And let's not forget the pigeons, dogs, and horses that continued a long tradition of carrying battle communiques and equipment in hellish conditions.

More information on technology and communications in World War One

First World War communications and the tele-net of things.

A history of first World War technology in 11 objects

Telecommunications in war

The science of World War I communications

Northern Ireland, the first to hear of the armistice via radio from Paris

A PDF of WWI military communications from the US Marine Corps Museum

The final hours of World War I

Video on Vinyl and Other Turntable Transgressions

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"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.

(Drop needle onto record, scratchy gramophone sound effect)
Let's start in 1927 with Scottish inventor John Logie Baird, the first person to demonstrate television. Logie, as he probably didn't like being called, was looking for a way to record and play back video. He turned to gramophone records, the kind that Duke Ellington and Rudy Valentino were on. We think of the 1950s as being the birth of video recordings, which were on magnetic tape. But the 1920s were right in the middle of the mechanical recording age, and it only seemed natural for Baird to attempt to capture this infant technology to a mature format. Ultimately he failed to play back video, but he was successful in capturing it to disc, a process he called Phonovision. Half a century later, Donald McLean rescued the images, as well as other video-to-disc recordings from that era.
(Heralding trumpet sound)

In the mid 60s through the 70s, RCA tried to put video on discs. Making a Capacitance Electronic Disc (CED) was a very difficult process that involved cutting grooves 10 times denser than conventional LPs and coating the disc with a thin layer of metal and silicone lubricant. Each side of this fragile CED held 1 hour of video, had limited playback life, and had inferior quality to VHS. By the time of its release in 1981, VHS was winning over consumers.
(Sad trombone wah-wah-wah)

And speaking of Voyager, NASA and Dr. Carl Sagan ("Billions and billions" sound clip) crammed 115 images plus 90 minutes of voices and music onto gold-plated lacquer discs. They included a cartridge, needle, and instructions on how to play it back. One spacecraft is headed to a star called AC +79 3888, the other to Sirius. Let's hope whoever finds it has ears.
(Drum kit "bucket-of-fish")

But experimenters weren't done trying to squeeze more than grooves into grooves. Austrian artist Gebhard Sengmüller created the VinylVideo format in the 1990s, and it has been revived today by the German company Supersense. For about $225, you can buy a decoder that converts VinylVideo on a special release LP into a video signal. There are four discs available ($21), one from Motorhead, and one from the Courettes, which feature a really creepy dancing skeleton with a top hat. The video quality is...ahem...artsy at best. One reviewer recommended watching only "if you hate your eyes."
(Psycho violin stabs)

In the 1980s, a few artists and bands such as Chris Sievy, Pete Shelley, The Thompson Twins, and Shaky Stevens put software on vinyl. These were usually simple programs that contained lyrics, games, pictures, or crude video that supported the music. The idea of digital data as audio was not a new idea, as home computers used cassette decks to store and retrieve data, and phone lines carried data back and forth via modems.
(Pac-Man sound effect)

Other interesting vinyl mods over the years include pictures and holograms on the surface, hidden tracks, backwards-playing hidden messages, double-grooved sides with two programs, and clear or colored vinyl. Consumers love things that are different, and some artists have pushed the envelope to satisfy their fan base.
(Ta-da music cue)

We've talked about trying new things on the record, but what about "in" the record? Several artists have attempted, with some success, to put liquids inside the vinyl, essentially manufacturing a clear LP with a cavity under the grooves that contain injected liquid. Jack White put blue liquid in his "Sixteen Salteens" album; Worthless put red and green inside their "Greener Grass" LP; the "Friday the 13th" soundtrack album had blood-colored liquid inside; and not to be outdone, the Flaming Lips put real blood inside the "Heady Fwends" album. All of these were limited-release, and thank God only ten blood-filled albums were ever pressed.
(Evil laugh sound effect with echo)

With vinyl records selling very well to new audiences, what will some enterprising artist try next? Putting their live Instagram feed on the label? Projecting 3D holograms from the grooves? Communicating with vinyl lovers on a planet orbiting Sirius?
(Morse code sound effect, fade out)

In the Moment

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"He who knows that enough is enough will always have enough."
Lao Tzu
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.


The Elephant in the Room

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"My roommate got a pet elephant. Then it got lost. It's in the apartment somewhere."
Steven Wright

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.


Golden Ears

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“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!”
James Bond
"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.

So I explained to my acquaintance that I have trained myself to listen for things that the average person might not hear right away. When I mentor students about ear training, I usually start out playing a few audio clips and have them tell me everything they hear. I then make my list of things I hear, highlighting the "back" sounds - things not so obvious like rumbles, backgrounds, clicks, etc. Once I point them out, the students' eyes light up when they hear them. I tell them to listen "around" the sound, to disregard the in-your-face front sound and listen to everything else behind it.

We all have the ability to use our senses to filter out the obvious and reveal something obscure. That hidden sound, smell, or taste is usually familiar to us (but sometimes it's something completely foreign to us). If you've never had Cincinnati-style chili, that first bite will have you pondering as to why this is so different than other chilis you've had. After 2, 3, 4, maybe even 5 bites you will start to shove aside the obvious flavors like beef, tomatoes, garlic, and peppers. You'll start analyzing the spices like the chili powder, cayenne, and cumin. Then it will hit you: it's the cinnamon. Oh, and there's a little bit of clove in there. And some vinegar, too. Now you will taste those on your next bite.

When I break down a recording and listen for faults, I am usually comparing my memory of an individual sound to what I'm hearing. I know what a ground loop buzz sounds like as well as a running air conditioner. I'm familiar with mouth clicks, throat gurgles, raspy breaths, sibilance, and plosives. I've created distortion, over-modulation, hiss, crosstalk, mic bleed, comb filtering, phasing, and off-axis positioning - mostly by mistake. So when I listen around the sound, I can usually pick up on most of these if they are there. That doesn't mean I hear more than someone else, it means that I listen differently.

I'm not always listening for bad stuff by the way. I enjoy being surprised by something new, like when I hear a guitar part I've never heard before in a classic recording. Sometimes an album that's been remastered or remixed will reveal these gems, or maybe it's from just being tuned in more to the background instruments. Whatever the case, it's always fun. It's a little less thrilling to be shown the underlying part, but still satisfying. For instance, VH1's "Behind the Music" series will often isolate tracks and uncover buried accompaniments. Sometimes they will mute that track, and the song all of a sudden becomes bare without it. You heard it all along, but you didn't listen to it before.

I spent a lot of my younger days playing trombone, most of it in ensembles like marching band, wind symphonies, and jazz groups. Although I can pick out the sound of a trombone instantly, I trained myself to listen to other instruments as well. Sometimes I would need to play counterpart to the trumpets, so listening was key. But I confess that sometimes it was from being lazy. You see, there were often long periods of time in a classical piece where the brass section just sat and counted measure after measure of rests. So I trained myself to listen to what was going on just before I had to pick up my trombone, blow out the spit, and put it to my mouth. I knew that when the clarinets did that little two measure run, I was my turn.

Ear training is not easy. You may be adept at picking out one type of sound, and fail miserably at another. Being a musician, I found identifying tones easier than identifying problems like distortion. It also took me a long time to identify narrow frequencies when adjusting equalization. Knowing that the human male voice resonates between 100-300 Hz helps in grabbing the right knob to adjust. But like playing music, the ability to be able to quickly narrow that down even further takes practice.

Want to train yourself? There are plenty of paid and free ear training courses on the web. For the best success, set realistic goals for yourself. If you want to run better live sound at your church, then buckling down and learning to hear common feedback frequencies will help. If you are just interested in listening to music with an educated ear, then playing recordings of solo instruments, taking a basic music theory course, and watching documentaries on the making of classic recordings will educate you. If your ultimate goal is to work as an audio engineer, then you'll need comprehensive training.

Ear Training With Elvis

Here's some fun stuff you can do right now to limber up your ears. Let's listen to an old Elvis classic, "Little Sister." It's important to play this through good headphones or monitor speakers – phone or iPad speakers won't cut it. Click on this YouTube link and listen to the first 30 seconds or so and then come back here.

Okay, great song, great players, and of course great vocals. Let's listen again, but this time ignore Elvis's vocals and just listen to Hank Garland's electric guitar. Notice how Hank goes from single note accents to chord fills on a distinctive-sounding Fender Jazz guitar. Come back here when you're done, I'll be waiting.

If you were successful, then you just listened "around" the sound of Elvis. Now, I want you to listen to Bob Moore's bass guitar. What's noteworthy is that it's electric, and Bob Moore and a lot of other Nashville bassists usually played upright acoustic basses. Listen to the hard picking style of his bass notes and how they compliment Garland's guitar riffs. Come back when you're done.

Now let's zero in on the drums, specifically the snare drum. The song is in 4/4, that is 4 beats on the quarter note to a measure. Which beats the drummer chooses to emphasize affects the feel of the song. In "Little Sister," the snare is playing on the 2nd and 4th beats, which creates a backbeat. In rock, blues, and jazz, a backbeat can give a song a relaxed feel. In more traditional music the 1st and 3rd beats are accented, as in the Sousa march "Stars and Stripes Forever," which drives the song forward. To give "Little Sister" just a bit of interest, the beat on 2 is double. Listen to the snare doing (1)-TAP/TAP-(3)-TAP, (1)-TAP/TAP-(3)-TAP. And while you're listening to the drums, listen to the closed high-hat keeping time on all the eighth notes: 1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and. It has the effect of keeping the song from relaxing too much. Go listen and come back when you're done, I'll be tapping my foot along.

Now let's go back to the vocals. Of course Elvis nails it. With all the movement of the guitar, bass, and drums behind him, Elvis keeps his vocals smooth and almost crooning. When you're listening this time, imagine no instruments behind him. Picture Elvis singing in an empty church acapella. At about 1:35, the extraordinary Jordanaires come in with backing vocals. And listen to Ray Walker's low, low bass notes. Come back here when you're done, I'll be flipping my collar up.

Here's one last test to see if you were really listening. The Youtube video I linked to was in stereo. This helped to isolate some of the instruments for you, such as the guitar and hi-hat in the left, and the electric bass on the right. Now click on this YouTube link and listen to the mono version. Mono was the choice of the day since stereo was a new fangled thing. Try to pick out all the parts again. It's a little harder, but I've revealed them to you in our listening exercise.

Here's another great song from the same session, "(Marie's the name of) His Latest Flame." This one's in mono, so try to pick out the instruments in this one. Also pay particular attention to the luscious natural reverb under Elvis' voice.

Ear Training With Edison

Here's one more ear training exercise - but with a twist. So far we've listened to music that was recorded with great fidelity. This example has the opposite - the music is masked by poor fidelity. It's a recording on an Edison yellow paraffine cylinder from 1888. It's a choir of 4,000 voices singing Handel's "Israel in Egypt." The overriding sound of the player's mechanics may overwhelm you at first, but stick with it. You'll hear the slow, sweet harmonies of the choir start to pop out from underneath the static and thwak, thwak, thwak of the cylinder spinning. Keep in mind that at the time it was a revolutionary recording. If I were listening to it in 1888, I would probably be amazed and hear the music over the static. See what you think by listening here.

If you've successfully heard everything I've thrown at you, then congratulations! You're on your way to having golden ears. For some ear candy, I recommend picking up remastered CDs of your favorite albums. Or better yet, pick up remixed albums. If done with great care, they retain the same mix levels of the originals, but have less noise and more punch. Some of my favorites are:

  • "Sticky Fingers" by the Rolling Stones (Deluxe Edition, 2CD) on Amazon (Remastered)
  • "Beatles Anthology" 1, 2, 3 & 4 Box sets. On Amazon (Outtakes, alternates, and new material)
  • "Chicago II" Steven Wilson Remix. On Amazon (Wilson deftly remixes the entire album to make it sound "right." Pick up any Steven Wilson remix for an amazing experience)
  • "Band on the Run" Paul McCartney & Wings, 2CD, 1DVD set. On Walmart.com (Remastered, alternate versions)
  • "Ellington At Newport 1956" 2CD. On Amazon. (Remastered version that never saw the light of day until now. Original release was a studio re-creation because of bad mic placement during the live set)
  • "Smackwater Jack" by Quincy Jones. On Amazon (Remastered. Includes "Theme from Ironside" and "What's Going On?")

Listening to the Enemy

How Hollywood Hears History


"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 wonder how Henry Wadsworth Longfellow heard it in his head in 1860? Longfellow brought the nearly obscure ride by Revere into the public consciousness with his poem "Paul Revere's Ride." For impact, he glorified the ride with creative license and literary tools to warn that our country was about to fall apart (it did with the Civil War). I would think that those hoofbeats were probably a bit louder and more urgent in his mind.

What about you? Now that you know the significance of that ride, can you hear the thundering hoofbeats, the snorting horse, the jingling bridle, and Revere snapping his reins and kicking his heels into the giant beast's sides? Maybe Tim Burton or JJ Abrams has influenced your imagination. We've been conditioned by Hollywood to "hear" history differently from what it probably really sounded like. Guiding the listener is the cornerstone of sound design, so a movie about the famous ride might have those hoofbeats sound more explosive than truthful. In the end, it may be worthwhile if we simultaneously entertain and bring light to Revere's contributions to the Revolution.

Liz Covart, host of the podcast "Ben Franklin’s World" and Digital Projects Editor at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture in Williamsburg, VA wondered in a blog post: how authentic should sound designers be with history? She points out that our environment is much different than it was 250 years ago. We have paved roads, differently constructed buildings, powered transportation, industry, and many more people. With the majority of Americans living in urban areas today (6% in 1800, 80% in 2018), our perception of a quiet night is quite different than Paul Revere's. We modern Americans also have a collective naïveté of what a galloping steed on a dirt road would really sound like because we have replaced horses with horseless carriages.

If there's one thing I've learned about sound design, it's that real sounds of life sound really lifeless. Like Liz Covert, I would also ponder accuracy while telling Paul Revere's story with sound. Do I record a pacer's ambling gate on a deserted country road? Hopefully I could find someplace free of airplanes, cars, machinery, and other people. (I wrote about the rarity of quiet places in one of my A Sound Education articles). Or maybe I take the Hollywood route and have the ride sound larger than life? I think it depends on the audience. If it's a room full of scholars who delight in historical accuracy, then go with the pacer. If it's a cinema full of families with popcorn and Jujubes, then go with the thunder. Or maybe a pacer mixed with thunder...but let's not overthink this.

Speaking of horses, here's a real-world example of blending authenticity with impact. I worked for several years on the crew for the Triple Crown Radio Network. We broadcast the three legs of the Triple Crown (Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes), and the Breeder's Cup races. One of our challenges was how to add excitement to the sound of the race. We had to do much experimentation within boundaries and rules to find the right sounds of each race. For instance, we were not allowed to mount a wireless mic on a horse of jockey to catch the sounds of riding. We were also limited to how many mics we could use trackside to capture hoofbeats. We tried a parabolic mic (those big dish-looking contraptions on the sidelines of a football game), but the sound was thin and the track too large for complete coverage. What we ended up doing – and this is like finding out how a magic trick is done – was to pre-record hoofbeats at each track under a variety of conditions, and then blend those into the mix.

We were very keen on keeping the race sounding as organic as we could. We installed several supercardioid shotgun microphones along the stretch run of each track and recorded races over several days. We would then layer a few of these and create an endless audio loop for that particular race track. We were also very careful to have different loops for different track conditions, so if it was raining and sloppy, we had that distinctive sound for that racetrack. When the race began, our mix engineer would subtly blend in the looped sound underneath live microphones we already had installed around the track. As the horses came down the stretch to the finish line, he would fade out the loop and fade in the trackside boom microphones for the authentic live sounds of hoofbeats, whips, and jockey shouts. This was the sound of real live thundering hooves making history.

Ghost Whispers


"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.


A Myth-terious Thing

2015-March Myth-terious

"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.


The Shadow Knows


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 Shadow
"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.


The Voice, Part 3


"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."
David Duchovny

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.


The Voice, Part 2

"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."

Mark Valley

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.


The Voice, Part 1

"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."
Mark Hamill

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.


Wagner, Vader, and the Viking


"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.


22 Bazillion ⚫ 2 Gazillion


"I like to be surrounded by splendid things."
Freddie Mercury

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!

Ever since recordings progressed from one channel (mono) into two (stereo), audio producers have been trying to create the ultimate immersive sound experience. The natural way is to add more channels, hence more speakers. But that usually comes at a cost, usually on the listener's end. If you have a surround system in your house, do you remember how much more expensive it was than a traditional stereo? Sure, you can go to a theater or theme park with a bazillion speakers for your listening pleasure. To get that same exhilarating experience at home you'll have to pay up.

Most television surround broadcasts are in 5.1, which is really six channels: a front stereo pair, a center dialog channel, a back stereo pair, and a subwoofer (the "point one"). DVDs, Bluerays, games, and some music releases use this format. Speaker placement is somewhat critical, but I've heard systems with haphazardly-placed rear speakers that are still effective. In the early days of surround, engineers mostly used the rear channels for precisely located content, like sound effects and ambience. Now, engineers try to evenly spread environmental sounds and music around the four primary speakers to immerse the listener. It's not perfect because the rear speakers are usually smaller, have reduced fidelity, and there are pronounced gaps between front and rear speakers.

OK, let's add a couple of more speakers, space them more evenly around us, and call it 7.1 surround. Most movie theaters, Bluerays, and some games are now in 7.1. Engineers are able to immerse the listener better with fewer gaps than in 5.1. Most new home theater systems come in this variety.

So far, all the speakers are line-of-sight...err...line-of-ears. What about height? 10.2 surround adds four more front speakers, two of which are over the others at a 45-degree angle. One more rear channel and subwoofer are added. The 11.1 and 11.2 systems are similar in that they create height by adding overhead speakers. These formats were designed for cinemas and are now creeping in to high-end home theaters.

And then we have this new beast – 22.2. Like Godzilla, this monster surround system hails from Japan. NHK, Japan's public broadcasting network, unleashed the new system a decade ago and have incorporated it into their new Ultra HD Television broadcast standard (UHDT transmits 4K and 8K video). What exactly is 22.2? It's three layers of sound utilizing front, side, back, and overhead speakers. With 22.2, engineers will have to learn how to place sounds in a three-dimensional space. Researchers have noted that early programs are using the three distinct layers similarly to the earliest days of stereo and 5.1, by placing specific sounds in specific locations:

Upper layer
- Reverberation and ambience
- Sound localized above, such as loudspeakers in gymnasiums, airplanes, and fireworks shows

Middle layer
- The anchor layer of the basic sound field, including surround environments

Lower layer
- Sounds of water such as the sea, rivers, and drops of water
- Sound on the ground in scenes with bird’s-eye views

Though still in its infancy, it will probably become the next standard because as of 2016, 6 million 4K TV sets have been sold, and there are already more than forty 4K TV channels worldwide. Is 22.2 surround sound just a fanciful idea? Apparently not, as major heavy weight broadcasting organizations around the world are testing and standardizing its incorporation into their new UHDT schemes.

The big question though, is "Will I ever have one in my home?" Probably not, unless I hit the lottery. I don't think the average home theater will for some time either because sound systems are really just another piece of furniture. Correctly installing a surround system is already a big commitment, I can't imagine having to deal with 24 speakers. Besides, I've rearranged my living room a few times in the last five years, and I'm not about to also move 24 speakers. My guess is that the format will just filter cinema movies down to those lucky enough to have 22.4 in their home. Remember how excited we were that DVDs would have multi-angle camera views, soundtracks in twenty-two languages, and multiple story lines? Didn't happen. Too much work. Like moving furniture.

Explore More

Hello From Mars


"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.


Pots & Pans: Cooking Up Stereo

Mar 17-Pots Pans

"Cooking is like music: you can tell when someone puts love into it.”
Taylor Hicks

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.


The Loudest Record!!!


"Every crowd has a silver lining.”
P.T. Barnum

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 Resolution


"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.”
Mark Twain

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.


Laser Listening

Laser Listening

"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."
Dr. Evil
Austin Powers

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."


The Big Bang


I was afraid that science-fiction buffs and everybody would say things like, 'You know, there's no sound in outer space.'
George Lucas

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.


A Siren's Song

Pasted Graphic

“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.


Anatomy of an Audio Book, Part 2

Jun 2016sm

“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.


The Secret World of Foley

The Secret World of Foley from Short of the Week on Vimeo.

Anatomy of an Audio Book, Part 1

Jun 2016sm

“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.”

Thomas Kinkade

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.

Is the Mix Tape Back in the MIx?

The Rebirth of AM Radio?


"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."

Chris Isaak

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.


The Sonic Snuffer

Pasted Graphic

"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.


Analog Rules!

Broadcast and the Hearing Impaired

closed caption complete

"I hope I inspire people who hear. Hearing people have the ability to remove barriers that prevent deaf people from achieving their dreams."

Marlee Matlin

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.


Bong, Bong, Bong.

Pasted Graphic

"If it weren't for Philo T. Farnsworth, inventor of television, we'd still be eating frozen radio dinners."

Johnny Carson

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.


Double-Naught Spies

Double-Naught news

"They number girl spies different. She's what you call a 36-23-36."

Max Baer, Jr. as "Jethro Bodine"

Double-Naught Spies

This 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.


Podcasting Revisited

Podcasting news

"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."

Kevin Smith

Podcasting Revisited

Modern 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.


That Magic Sound


"Science is magic that works"

Kurt Vonnegut

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.


Shhh! Be Quiet!!!

Shhh Be Quiet news

"If a tree falls in the forest, and hits a mime, does anyone care?"

Gary Larson

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.

In 1984, Hempton, who has been recording nature sounds since the mid-1970's, identified 21 locations in his home state of Washington that were "quiet." By the early 90's, there were only 3 places left, one of which is tucked away in Olympia National Park. He won't reveal where the other two are. Sadly, he believes there are no quiet places left in Europe.

The documentary Sound Tracker follows Hempton in his quest for these quiet places throughout the Pacific Northwest. His efforts over the last 25 years to preserve the sounds of nature have culminated in his campaign "One Square Inch of Silence." He seeks to identify and protect places that are totally free of human sounds. The focal point is that place in Olympia National Park's Hoh Rain Forest, which is marked by a small red stone given to him by an elder of the Native American Quileute tribe.

About five years ago, I took a portable recorder on a hike into the Red River Gorge. I wanted to capture long periods of natural ambience for my sound effects archives. It was a flop. You'd be surprised how often a plane or jet flies overhead, a loud muffler guns it up a hill, someone yells or whistles, or - gasp - a gunshot goes off. As anyone who has worked outside on location knows, it's nearly impossible to have even thirty seconds of silence.

The only time I can remember being out of earshot of any human for an extended length of time was on an island beach off the Gulf coast of Florida. This was in the late 1980's on a weekday before the tourists showed up. The loudest sound I heard was a flock of flamingos taking off. After about 20 minutes, the sounds of "civilization" started to ruin my solitude.

With all the debate over environmental pollution, sound is rarely included in those discussions. Maybe it's about time to address it. Airplanes, sirens, loud cars, loud traffic, loud music, generators, ships, trains - you name it, we have more of them. And coming to a quiet place near you, drones. The next generation of humans may never get to experience "quiet places." If they do, it might frighten them.

More about Sound Tracker

Excellent article and interview with Gordon Hempton in The Sun

Did You Know?

  • Gordon Hempton won an Emmy for his PBS documentary Vanishing Dawn Chorus.
  • Why does Hempton define "quiet" as 20 minutes? It's the approximate length of a 7" reel of analog tape running at 15 inches-per-second.
  • Before digital recorders, Hempton captured sounds in the field using a Nagra reel-to-reel portable recorder. The Nagra was considered one of the purest and most accurate reel-to-reel recorders ever produced.
  • Studies have shown that noise pollution affects some species' survival rates, especially those that rely on sound more than vision.
  • Oceans even have noise pollution from shipping, pipelines, and Navy sonar.
  • For decades, people around the earth have complained about low humming sounds. They have been wrongly blamed on power transformers, submarines, pipelines, and fish. But recent discoveries by seismologists point the finger at microseismic reactions from ocean waves pounding the sea floor. Our planet vibrates and hums naturally.
  • Birds in rainforests that imitate other sounds have begun to sing like cell phones, chainsaws, and car alarms.
  • The Hoh rain forest in Olympia National Park has an average yearly rainfall of 12-14 feet.
  • The popular philosophical question, "If a tree falls..." can trace its origins to 1710 from philosopher George Berkeley's A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. "But, say you, surely there is nothing easier than for me to imagine trees, for instance, in a park [...] and nobody by to perceive them."
  • The philosophical question has sometimes been turned into a scientific one, noting that sound is a human experience. Air molecules bumping into each other only become sound if they are captured by a human ear and transmitted to the brain via nerves.
  • Some funny twists of the phrase include "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, where are they?" by The Canadian Air Farce comedy troupe; and "If a man speaks in the forest, and there is no woman there to hear him, is he still wrong?" by singer Maura O'Connell.

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Voice Talk

voice talk news

"Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning."

Maya Angelou

Voice Talk

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.


Keeping an Ear on Crime


"What the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes."
Harry Houdini

Keeping an Ear on Crime

The 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.


Audio Clichés

"It is a cliché that most clichés are true, but then like most clichés, that cliché is untrue."

Stephen Fry

Audio Clichés

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."


Ring in the Old Year


"Before anything else, preparation is the key to success."

Alexander Graham Bell

Ring in the Old Year

A 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.



"Any effects created before 1975 were done with either tape or echo chambers or some kind of acoustic treatment. No magic black boxes!"

Alan Parsons


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.


2-Bits, 4-Bits, 6-Bits...

Low Bit Rate Sucks

"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.

Tech Notes

  • 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."
Neil Kesterson

Recording History

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“There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.”
Homer, The Odyssey

Recording History

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.

Tech Notes

  • 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.

Neil Kesterson


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"I don't appreciate avant-garde, electronic music. It makes me feel quite ill."

Ravi Shankar

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.


A Sound Education

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“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?"

I had many interests, but I gravitated towards the music option because music was fun and I was a decent trombone player. My grandmother, however, was blunt about my choice, "You'll never make it in music!" One day during this teen-fueled, soul-searching time, I saw an ad in a magazine touting a new recording school in Chillicothe, Ohio called The Recording Workshop (RECW). It was near us, so Mom and Dad took me up to see it. I was in heaven. I distinctly remember the crystal clear sounds being pumped from the speakers in the carefully soundproofed studio. RECW was the first of its kind, a concentrated curriculum aimed at the art of recording. Several options were available, but the core schedule was only six weeks long and cost about as much as a few semesters at a college. Money was always tight at my house, so my parents and I decided that a college education would be a better choice.

So, with student loans and a scholarship in hand, off to college I went. I majored in music, going to three different schools. After a while I realized that my grandmother might have been right. I wasn't a virtuoso, trombone gigs were rare, and I didn't want to teach music. So I seized the first job opportunity to work in a recording studio. I was mentored "on-the-job," as many of us were then. I just forged ahead, soaking up all I could by asking questions, reading books, and making a lot of mistakes. Do that year after year after year, and the schools that didn't understand our craft back then start asking you to teach their students. I've been very fortunate to share my knowledge with many young people that are eager to learn the art of recording.

Recording was never part of any college program when I started college. RECW was the only option, other than broadcast and engineering schools that focused more on broadcasting, announcing, and electronic training. It wasn't until the mid-1980s that some music schools started to add programs in music management, with some training in recording arts. Slowly, schools started to view our industry less as "button pushers" and more as a discipline. This is when the giant in the audio education world started to stomp on the naysayers. Full Sail University brought credibility to recording arts by offering 2-year programs, accreditation, and certificates. They pushed standardized testing, much like the medical and law community demand. Their graduates began working in the best studios, usually running from the get-go. They now offer 48 programs, including recording, video, media, entertainment, and marketing. Degrees range from certificates, associates, bachelors, and masters. And get this - right now, there are almost 16,000 students. Many graduates are at the top of their field and are highly respected.

Full Sail and RECW aren't the only schools out there now. I'm grateful that young people have so many options when it comes to audio education. Many also supplement audio with video, game design, web design, and announcing. Plus, many schools almost demand that students learn the basics of business. The well-rounded recording engineer is not a fantasy anymore, it's a reality.

What did all those years in music school teach me about recording? I learned how to listen and differentiate tones from each other. I concentrated on music theory and arranging, so I learned where to place tones against each other. I learned how to perform in front of people and how to continue playing when you make a mistake. I learned the discipline of practice, practice, practice, and that perfect practice makes perfect. I learned how to conduct and direct. I learned how to follow. I learned how to cooperate and blend with other players. I also learned that notes on a page are just lines on a map. It's the musician that turns the notes into music.

Did You Know?

  • There are nearly 200 schools for recording in 34 states in the U.S. Most are accredited programs offering certification or bachelor degrees
  • The Recording Workshop has had students from more than 70 countries attend its programs.
  • Many recording engineers use their studio experience as a springboard to the more lucrative position as record producer.
  • Some engineer/producers of note include: Phil Ramone (Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Ray Charles); Roger Nichols (Steely Dan); Al Schmitt (Jefferson Airplane, Jackson Browne, Neil Young); and Eddie Kramer (Jimmy Hendrix, Kiss, Carly Simon)
  • The Audio Engineering Society (AES) has a strong audio education foundation that provides learning, networking, and other opportunities for students around the world.
  • Sound mixing and engineering awards are presented by all the major entertainment organizations, including the Academy Awards (Oscars), Grammy Awards, and Emmy Awards.

Tech Notes

There is no certification required to work as an audio engineer, although certain training often helps in securing a new position. For example, one can be "Pro Tools certified" by taking a class or workshop that teaches the basic use of this most common audio software (Avid).

Some audio engineering job opportunities, like those in broadcasting, government or other industries with standards and accountability, require testing. These tests are generally technical in nature, but may include situational problems to solve.

Some organizations and societies, such as the Society of Broadcast Engineers (SBE) offer certification for its members to facilitate their job search. Most of these are technical certifications.

Audio engineer can mean many different things. It may include recording, radio deejaying, live sound, and even broadcast transmitter design. Many unofficial labels for specialists have been coined in recent decades to better describe their function.
  • Sound Designer usually describes creating soundscapes for film, video, or stage performances
  • FOH ("front of house") Engineer is a live sound engineer responsible for the overall amplification to the audience of a live event.
  • Monitor (or Foldback) Engineer is a live sound engineer responsible for what the stage performers and musicians hear.
  • Broadcast Engineer is responsible for anything from circuit design to complete radio/TV facility design.
  • Acoustic Engineer troubleshoots and designs spaces for recording, broadcasting, or performing. Many are also architectural acoustic engineers that help design public, commercial and living spaces.
  • Electroacoustic Engineers design microphones, loudspeakers, headphones, and mobile technology.

Neil Kesterson

3D Sound on the Right Track

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“Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there.”

Will Rogers

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.


Get in the Groove!

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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.


The Color of Sound

Sound Color
“Within You Without You,” The Beatles

The Color of Sound

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.

What about blue? I think of that as more of a style of music or mood instead of a type of sound. Why don't we use more colors to describe what we hear? Probably because a "yellow" sound could be cowardly. A "green" sound may be eco-friendly. A "purple" sound is probably regal. A "brown" sound - well, we'll leave that one alone.

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. As reported by NPR, we can see certain sounds using a technique invented in the mid-19th century. Click on the link above to read about and watch a short video describing this process to get a clearer picture. To simplify, scientists watch the disturbance of heat waves by sound. Ever look down a highway on a hot summer day and see the heat creating wavy images? Scientists have used this phenomenon to "see" sneezes and aircraft wing turbulence. But Michael Hargather at New Mexico Tech uses it to study explosives.

So what's next? I would love be able to put on some goggles and see sounds and where they're coming from. Loud sounds would be bright. Bass would be blue, treble would be white, and green, red, and yellow would fill in the gaps. Imagine seeing green waves and ripples emanating from the violas, bubbles of blue from the tuba, and distinct columns of yellow and white from the violins. It would be like Peter Max was the conductor. With technology advancing at such a rapid rate, this may not be so far-fetched in our lifetimes. Color me crazy.

Did You Know?

  • "White noise" in sound engineering describes randomly generating all the sounds in the frequency spectrum. SInce the sounds aren't generated at the same time, they are measured over a period of time. Each sound is at a consistent level.
  • 600px-White_noise_spectrum.svg
  • White noise sounds similar to a radio that is tuned to no station.
  • White noise is often used in large offices to mask sounds from workers, computers, and other office machinery. People also use white noise generators to aid in sleeping.
  • "Pink noise" is similar to white noise, but decreases in intensity each ascending octave.

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  • Pink noise is primarily used to measure the output of an audio device.
  • Sound engineers play pink noise over monitor systems to check frequency response and level of speakers. If measurements show that a speaker produces some frequencies differently than the pink noise (more bass for example), then it is considered to have a "colored" response. Pro audio speaker manufacturers strive for a "flat" response from their products. This way an engineer isn't fooled into compensating for the difference while mixing.
  • Live sound engineers use pink noise to reduce feedback and get maximum performance from speakers.
  • Other types of noise used in analysis are violet, brown(ian), gray, blue. Other informal names for sound used in measurement are red, green, black, noisy black, and noisy white.

Tech Notes

Reducing feedback in a live sound situation is very tricky, especially if good sound performance is desired. The "squeal" you hear when a microphone is turned on is from a buildup of a certain frequency. It's usually the point at which the microphone and speaker are the most efficient. If one points a microphone at the same speaker that is amplifying it, then serious feedback occurs. Most speakers are placed in front of or beside performers so there is no direct bleed back into the microphone. If speakers are placed behind the performers (think The Who), then eliminating feedback is a bigger chore.

How do you eliminate feedback? Let's use the simplest set-up as an example: one microphone and one speaker. A graphic equalizer (GEQ), a device that increases or reduces frequency by octaves, is inserted after the microphone channel and just before the amplifier. The engineer slowly raises the amplifier level until the first inkling of feedback. Using the GEQ, the engineer locates the offending octave, ex: 630 Hz, by actually increasing that frequency creating more feedback. That octave is then reduced until feedback goes away.

Next, then amplifier is turned up a little more until the next inkling of feedback occurs, usually at another frequency, which is then reduced. These steps are repeated over and over until the amplifier is at a suitable level without feedback. Of course computer technology has simplified this process greatly with devices that rapidly reduce feedback "on-the-fly." And with software, engineers for permanent PA systems in large venues can even predict where feedback will occur before installation. They can then program in filtering or make changes to the architecture, equipment, or speaker placement.

Neil Kesterson

Hidden Messages

Pasted Graphic
Buzz Aldrin subliminally making the flag fly straight.
"Fly straight, you beep flag."

Hidden Messages

When astronauts first walked on the moon, everyone was glued to the television. I was eight-years-old and can remember it like yesterday.

Beep. Beep.

We copy you down, Eagle.

Beep. Beep.

Engine arm is off. (Pause) Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.

Beep. Beep.

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.

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!"

In a nutshell, the tones signaled remote transmitters to turn on or off. Installing two separate lines of communications, one voice and one data, between Cap Com (Capsule Communications on earth) and the transmitters around the globe would have been extremely costly. So they went with a single channel, and that's why we hear them in the recordings.

This wasn't a new idea. All of us who had to endure a film strip in school remember the tones that told the teacher to advance the film strip. Radio networks used it to signal its affiliates, like the "N - B - C" chimes.

Later, radio networks adopted a different method to cue automatic playback systems at their affiliates with "sub-audible" tones. In reality, they were just low tones like 25. 35, 50 or 75 Hz that were filtered out of the on-air stream and redirected to playback equipment.

An announcer's voice can also be a cue for radio stations. In sports broadcasting for instance, how an announcer goes to a commercial break can cue the broadcast engineer at the local radio station whether or not to play local commercials. If a block of commercials will be all network spots, the announcer might say:

"We'll be back after this on SRN."

If the upcoming break should include local commercials, the announcer might say:

"We'll be back after this. You're listening to the Sports Radio Network."

But the ultimate in hidden sounds has to be subliminal messages in advertising, public address systems, and music. Remember "Paul is dead" from The White Album? How about rumors of hidden messages in department store music, factory brown noise, or even advertising? It's easy enough to do, but is it effective? Studies have found that visual stimuli are more effective than audible stimuli. But it doesn't stop people from trying. I think I'll try. Say the following aloud:

Isn't it a nice day. use You should really go to the country. dynamix Take a picnic basket along. for Enjoy the breeze. all Marvel at all the green. your Smell the blooming flowers. audio Enjoy yourself!

Did You Know?

"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind"

Neil Armstrong meant to say "That's one small step for a man," but flubbed his line in the excitement. The one word, or lack thereof, changes the whole meaning. NASA said that static obscured the one little word, but ground recordings are clear and audible. Armstrong hesitated after he said "man," probably realizing his mistake. Having been awake for 24-hours and being the first person on the moon, I would have probably messed up as well...and fell off the ladder landing face up and helpless like a beetle.

Tech Notes

When NASA Cap Com would initiate the conversation with a spacecraft, they would press and hold a button that would produce two tones. This simulated the push-to-talk (PTT) action on a walkie-talkie. The first tone was the "intro" or a "ready" tone for the automatic systems that controlled the transmitters. The next tone, slightly different, told the transmitters to un-mute the audio.

CapCom would then initiate conversation. When everything needed to be said, they would release the button. Once again, a ready tone would sound followed by a slightly different tone. This told the transmitters to mute the audio.

The spacecraft usually didn't hear the tones because a filter was applied that tuned most of the tones out. Unlike a walkie-talkie that mutes incoming audio while transmitting, Cap Com could always hear the spacecraft if they transmitted while Cap Com was also transmitting.

Neil Kesterson

I, Robot

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. Read More...

Walla, Ripple, Plop!

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. Read More...

Surround Sound

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. Read More...

Replacing Dialog in Videos

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...