by Michael R. Lee, Ph.D.

We live in an era of vast visual trickery. Images on screen, in movie theaters and on the printed page are manipulated in ways we can barely imagine. It is Peter Pan without wires, Armageddon without explosives, advertising images so clever that we don’t realize we’ve been branded.

The aural medium has also experienced quite a few new tricks. Random access digital recording, time domain manipulation, and the imminent advent of spatial reproduction technology are some of them. But since Stan Freberg suggested that we could drop a ten-ton marshmallow in a huge lake only in the aural realm, it has become no easier to accomplish in audio and eminently more feasible for our visual brethren.

To create compelling, imaginative sound is a fusion of art and science. Technology has been an ally in eliminating cumbersome tape machines and linear recording. Gone are tape hiss, synchronization problems between sound and picture, and processing that was so noisy it often became audible. Archiving of material has become both more reliable and more easily accessible. Location sound problems can be cleaned up to an extent never before possible.

But the more that we have relied on science for sound creation, the more we have lost the work ethic, innovation, and indefatigable spirit that the pioneers of sound brought to this challenge. Consider what was accomplished in early movies. With cumbersome analog equipment, an utter lack of multi-tracks or overdubs, no samplers, synthesizers or signal processors, they still did great work. It was effective, appropriate for the visuals, and relatively free from clanks, hums, and buzzes.

The difference is that early sound creators had to rely on ingenuity. How do you capture a great sound live with a minimum of microphones and effects? How do you make disparate elements, such as dialogue, sounds, music, and ambience cohesive when you only have one track to do it on? How do you create sound imagery out of whole cloth?

This is the primary challenge for sound creation in the next century. Push technology as far as it will go; let science be part of your arsenal of weapons. But return to the days of hard work and imagination. Don’t expect results in 20 minutes that require two days. Just like in the rest of life, nothing worthwhile comes easy.

Let’s look at the current state of sound creation. You have several creators of large sound effects libraries that provide comprehensive collections. Entire discs of car sounds, weapons, cartoon effects, airplanes, space sounds, etc. They all share something in common. They tend to be dry, flat, and one-dimensional. They not only lack depth, but they also lack life. This has been referred to as the documentary approach to sound. It is technically correct and artistically unsuitable. How much processing do you need to make these sounds come to life?

Unfortunately, when you slather delay and reverb on a flat sound, you end up with a sound that just washes out when it is combined with voice-over, dialogue, music, etc. This is the same result that occurs with excessive equalization and compression. You lose clarity; you lose quality.

What is the effective way in the modern world of creating super-sounds? How do you get sounds that are big and rich and powerful without resorting to corrective tricks? The answer is as simple as it is painstaking: waveform modeling. This technique combines the best of science and the best of art. It separates the lazy from the industrious practitioners. It takes ears, not brute force.

The most honored music recording engineer of all times is a fellow named Al Schmitt. He has won seven Grammys for engineering dating back to a 1962 movie called Hatari and subsequently for such projects as Steely Dan and Natalie Cole. I spent many, many hours watching him record in some of the best Los Angeles studios. They had half-million dollar Neve and SSL consoles. They had brilliant acoustic designs, elaborate outboard gear, and enough voodoo to satisfy a Haitian. When someone would ask him what kind of black box gave you the best sound, what tricks he used to get to the top of the craft, he had a simple reply: “You’ve got to know what you want to hear. Otherwise, you’ll never get it. And don’t stop until you do.”

Voila. Before you can create a spectacular airplane sound, you have to know what the end result should be. How much open air? How much exhaust trail? How much engine noise? You have to be willing to experiment. In some cases, you have to be willing to try the unthinkable. Years ago, we wanted to create an anvil sound. As you can imagine, anvil sounds are hard to come by in normal life. One of the experiments we tried was dropping a coin on a counter. Then we truncated the sound to about a fifth of a second. As we took that sample and began to detune it from itself across an octave, the clang of the anvil began to appear. But the attack was not what we wanted it to be.

We altered the envelopes of the strike of the anvil until we got the attack we needed. Thus, one of the great anvil sounds I’ve ever heard comes from a coin being dropped on a counter. It is the payoff for experimenting.

Let’s return to the idea of sound modeling. At Brown Bag, we are interested primarily in creating super-thick sounds that are somewhat bigger than life. We call them composite sounds. A perfect example is a drum hit. You can take a snare drum hit and add equalization, delay, reverb, compression and limiting. You will have a better-sounding drum hit. But it won’t be super-thick or bigger than life. Instead, take several different drum hits that all have one good quality to them, such as a strong attack, a low overtone, a fat snap. You then excise the best part of each drum to be combined into a super-drum. No single live snare drum could ever sound this good recorded. It is a laborious process that you might not have the time to accomplish. But it is what the leading sound modelers of our time are required to do.

Just remember that in an average movie scene, there are about thirteen audio elements often occurring simultaneously: dialogue, ambient sound, room effects, Foley, music, and post effects. Your sound isn’t going to be heard if it doesn’t have that super-thick force behind it. The same problems exist for radio and commercials. There’s a lot of audio clutter that your sound must fight through.

When it comes to creating great sounds, you must not forget the basics. You need earth grounded audio equipment, non ear-fatiguing monitors, such as the time-align designs, and you need the time to experiment. Sound modeling at its most difficult is both brain numbing and unsuccessful. You can labor for five hours on one sound and end up with nothing useful. At the other extreme, you can make a tremendous breakthrough by virtual accident.

Don’t give up, because the neatest thing about creating world-class sounds is that they endure over time. Unlike a program, a promo, or a commercial, the best sounds will live on after you die, preserved in an ever-more-realistic digital environment. For proof, check out SONY’s new enhanced audio compact disc.

Don’t make sound the enemy. Make it your legacy. We need dedicated sound creators more than ever.