Fridays at the Mic: Sound Design Background

First of all, sorry for the long delay. October was a busy month and this blog had to take a back seat to conferences, community theatre, podcast season premieres and other stuff. Sorry. I promised that the next blog would be the first in what could be a long series on sound design. I shall not disappoint. But I do feel the need to reassure any of you who aren't interested in technology that most of this discussion will be on the art of sound, and not on the tools that create that art, meaning gear. I'm not really interested in which microphone is best or which software package rules. I've used a lot of them and the software Icebox Radio uses now is more than enough for our needs. So that's my promise, art over technology. But before we even get that far, there's a little background discussion necessary.

For some time, sound design has been steadily moving from the world before the mic to the world after the mic. From the world of air and echo patterns and microphones to the digital world inside the computer, the art is happening less and less in the real world and more in the ones and zeros. Back in the day, it was the studio space that mattered. If you wanted things to sound a certain way, you had to change the space in which you recorded. Echo-filled hallways became caves, dead space (or 'silent') isolation booths became the great outdoors, even holding a tin can up to your mouth to take the place of a telephone.

But the real change wrought by the digital revolution is the end of studio necessity. There are benefits to a studio, of course, but a dedicated studio space is no longer necessary. Artists - musicians and audio fiction producers both - can now record in relatively aurally polluted spaces with just a few changes to the environment. Close a curtain here, move a cushy couch there, and you can make serviceable recordings that can then be scrubbed clean with software rendering them indistinguishable from the studio recordings of the past for all but a very small, sonically sensitive portion of the audience.

It wasn't just the spaces that used to determine sound design. Technology had a lot to do with it too. Most of the job involved making sure the dialog, sound effects and music was loud and distinct enough to be heard and understood. AM radio signals were low fidelity and record players weren't much better. Recording engineers were just that, engineers, technicians whose job focused on capturing the sound, not mixing and manipulating it. The whole history of mixing and manipulating only dates back to 1953 with the invention of the first 8-Track recorder devised by guitar legend Les Paul. From that point forward, audio recording started down the slope from reality toward imagination. We no longer capture sound to recreate it. Sound has become the paint and canvas of a new art form. Which leads us out of the background discussion to my central point: how SHOULD audio fiction sound?

The most exciting part of the recent rise of audio fiction is the possibility that we might finally get a cultural guideline for this question. As an audio producer, I never felt the culture at large had an opinion on how audio fiction should sound. It had opinions on music, movies, literature, but not old radio shows. And the thing about experimentation is that it only works if there is a baseline to move off of. I could put together a series of interesting sounds but if the audience has no framework for it, they cannot react positively or negatively. They can just absorb or ignore. So I suppose the conclusion of this introduction should focus on what the current baseline is.

Currently, we have dialog, sound effects and music mixing together. When things do become strange and experimental there's usually a justification for it in the narrative; a drug trip or brush with the supernatural for example. The listener plays 'fly on the wall' absorbing the story as if in the room with the characters. Sound effects tend to be background noise providing a sense of realism, or specific sounds that further the narrative like doorbells and explosions. And music is either a mood-setter under the scene, or a curtain signaling its end. Conclusion: the current state of sound design in audio fiction looks a lot like it did 80 years ago during radio's Golden Age.

We ought not be concerned by this. As I've said in previous entries, radio's Golden Age was marked by very demanding production schedules and the techniques for creating shows were standardized out of necessity. Just as the Golden Age was coming to an end, artists like Norman Corwin were beginning to experiment with the form. But the end of World War II brought television, and it would be another two decades before comedy records and public radio began to challenge and shape the landscape of audio fiction sound.

Next week, Getting it Right: Jeff's journey to Sound Design Competence.