Monday, August 15, 2016

Physics of Sound : Addendum

aka "We're doomed, doomed." c.f. "Kids these days..."

In my previous essay I emphasized how real-world physical acoustics leaves fingerprints in recorded sound. For instance; record in your living room, and unless you smother it with excessive post-processing, anyone listening will know it was recorded in a living room. Which is fine, unless you meant for it to sound like it was recorded on a wind-swept moor.

The corollary is that acoustic physics can be the easiest way to load desired information into a recorded sound. Want a cue to sound like it is coming from an iPod speaker? Play it back on an iPod speaker. Or play it back on that speaker, record the result, and play that back! (Leaving aside whether placement in space is also desired for that particular effect).


Your audience is increasingly not getting that necessary reference to the real acoustic world. They are increasingly surrounded by processed sound. By amplified sound, by reinforced sound, by manipulated sound, and more than anything else by recorded sound.

This is the latest serve in the volley between audience and sound designer. First one could be said to start back in the Mystery Plays. By the time of Opera and Vaudeville, a whole symbolic language had been built of artificial sounds, standing in for elements of the desired environment; mechanical effects from the slapstick to the thunder run and the wind machine.

This is a trend developed through the golden age of the radio play and the early sound films, advanced by creative directors like Hitchcock and Wells, and reaching fruition sometime in the 70's when film sound became a fully designed element; no longer thought of in terms of mere reproduction, but a canvas of substitution. Film sound has become akin to film editing in being a language the must be learned by the audience, until they accept without thinking that the cry of a red-tailed hawk means the mountain on screen (whether it is meant to be in Peru or on Barsoom) is tall and majestic.

A Hollywood gunshot or fist no longer sounds much like any "real" gun or fist, to the point at which the sound designer takes a risk in putting out a sound that goes against that programmed expectation. The otherwise unmemorable action film Blown Away went through expensive effort to record the actual sounds of explosives before test screenings forced them back into the stock, expected, "blowing on a microphone" effect that was itself a relic of earlier and more primitive microphone techniques.

The next volley is amplified music on stage and ADR dialog on film; an audience raised to expect the kind of pristine vocals and instrument reproduction possible in a studio (or with studio techniques laboriously introduced into every available cranny of production audio and married as seamlessly as possible with studio re-takes). The audience of 1940 heard mostly unreinforced voices on stage, even on the musical or in opera, from the pulpit and even from the podium and bandwagon. Now, reinforcement is omnipresent. And the vast majority of story and song that is delivered to the theater audience is outside of that still-acoustic space.

In short, the audience is used to hearing every syllable clearly, every finger pluck clearly. They don't have to pay attention, much less strain, when listening at home to radio or television or recording, and they aren't listening to unassisted voices in an acoustical environment in the movie house or concert stage. With rare exceptions.

And they have brought those expectations to live theater. They expect to hear dialog as crisply, and with as little effort on their own part, in that still-acoustic space. So the poor theatrical -- and even operatic -- sound designer is forced into ever more technologically sophisticated (and expensive) systems to reinforce and amplify and (usually less successfully) clarify.

So now we come to the last salvo. And that is an audience who spends a significant part of their waking life with earbuds in. They no longer have any first-hand experience with a physical acoustic environment. To them, the sonic cues that tell how far away a sound is, or how big a room is, are those created by designers -- by film and television sound designers, but even more frequently by game programmers.

Just as we can no longer trust our audience to understand an actual recorded gunshot -- how we need to present them with the fake, wrong, ersatz gunshot they expect -- we can no longer trust them to pick up environmental or physical acoustic clues that mimic or are taken from the real world. To them, increasingly, distance is reverb and a shout is merely volume.

We may, as designers, have to learn this new and artificial language instead if we wish to communicate with our younger audience.

But then, the way some trends are going, we might just put aside the microphones entirely and put the whole thing in the form of tweets.

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