The Nature of Sound

By John Pellegrini

All of my life, I’ve been fascinated by sounds. I can remember lying in bed late at night, as a child of 3 or 4, listening to the train whistles that ran near our house. The big old diesel horns that had only one tone are my favorite, not those multiple tone horns you hear today. We lived in Whitefish Bay, a suburb of Milwaukee, and the old Milwaukee Road passenger rail service line was two blocks away. Loud and different sounds always got my attention. I can also remember one day, walking home from school, hearing a load roar, and looking up, I saw a plane with a triangle shaped wingspan. My father later told me that it was called a delta wing jet fighter named the F-15 Tomcat. I can remember sonic booms shaking the house. I can remember how excited I was the first time I heard the new “warbler” sirens on the police cars, which up until that year, I’d only heard on TV cop shows. The loud diesel engines on trucks, the daily noon air raid siren test, all big sounds. Big sounds meant big things were happening.

Mind you, this was the early to mid 1960s, and I was under 10. Nonetheless, I could identify all the different noises that each of the Department of Public Works trucks made. The old street sweeper had its own special hum. The huge leaf vacuum truck that came around every fall you could hear from blocks away. The tree chipper truck with the really loud whine that rose and fell depending on the size of the tree branches it was grinding up. Even the Tree sprayer blowing DDT into the elm trees to save them from Dutch elm disease had its own unique noise. I was disappointed when they stopped spraying the trees, because I liked the sound the sprayer made (Hey, I was six, what the hell did I know about carcinogens and toxic death?); I’ve never heard its equivalent since. The same holds true for the old foghorn on the lighthouse that still stands along the north shore, across from the water pumping station on Lake Drive in Milwaukee (I don’t remember the name of the park where it’s located). It was the old kind of foghorn, like you hear in the old movies, with the real low two-tone sound. It’s one thing to hear a sound like that in a movie or on TV, but quite another to hear the real thing. We lived nearly 3 miles north of the lighthouse, but I could still hear it on those old foggy mornings. Some mornings, Mom would take us to the bakery in Shorewood on Oakland Avenue, and you could feel the rumble of the foghorn on the sidewalk. Now all they have is one of those annoying “beep” foghorns with the tones produced in Hz (it’s middle C if you ask me). The old kind was better.

In school, I got in trouble for jumping up from my desk and running to the window every time I heard sirens. I also got in trouble for trying to imitate the sounds I heard when I was supposed to be studying in class. There were several students in my class who refused to sit next to me because of this. I guess I was quite the geek. I was always trying to identify the source of the different sounds I heard, even outdoors. Mom would get mad at me because as I’d leave school to go home, if I heard something interesting, I would go see if I could find where the sound was coming from and what was causing it, which would sometimes keep me out for a couple of hours. I even remember at age 8, being disappointed when Holy Family Church began to build the new church (this was well over 30 years ago), and they brought in a big drill on a crane to make the holes for the foundation post beams. The crane and the drill had a quieter sound than I was used to hearing from that size machinery. I thought for a job that size, the noise should have been considerably bigger.

Everyone always thought that I would get into construction of some sort, because I was always fascinated with big machines. They were wrong. It was the noise they made that I liked, but I sure knew that I didn’t want to run one of those things for the rest of my life. I especially knew this when I went to work in my Dad’s steel fabrication plant. Loved the noise, hated the jobs. Still, to this very day I’m fascinated by sound. The noise of the CTA trains and busses as I ride to work. The construction sounds of buildings going up or coming down, the sounds of people, traffic, business, industry, city sounds, everything. I like noise!

Which is why I hate sound effects in radio production.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about the sound quality of sound effects libraries. I think most are marvelous recordings of real sound. What I’m complaining about is the way most radio producers use the sound effects. What usually happens is you hear the announcer or actor recite some copy, and then you hear an appropriate sound effect, and more often than not, there’s confirmation by the announcer or actor that you heard that sound effect. To me, that’s brain dead sound effects usage; the audience isn’t smart enough to understand that the sound they heard is a dentist’s drill, so we need to have the copy referring to that noise. NO, it’s not the audience who isn’t smart enough; it’s the producers themselves who aren’t smart enough to let the sound speak for itself.

Noise is all around us, constant and unstopping. Noise happens accidentally, unexpectedly, without warning. Noise never happens “on cue.” Noise never happens conveniently for being referred to in the spot by clever production types. Natural sound is supposed to mean just that, sound that occurs naturally. With the quality of sound effects libraries getting better all the time, there should be no reason or need to identify or refer to the sound in any way. For example, racing season is upon us (it’s early spring as I write this), and I just know I’m going to hear some commercials that will start with noises of cars racing, and then some idiot announcer will say, “we’re here at the track…” when there is absolutely no need to say it at all. The sound is obvious enough by itself. The additional line stating what you can already hear without any mistaking makes the spot start out stupid, and that’s not a good way to start a commercial, is it?

The other kind of commercial sound effect use that I can’t stand is the “sound on cue” method. Usually what happens is you hear a line of dialogue, then you hear an appropriate sound effect, then another line of dialogue, and another appropriate sound effect. Something like: (doorbell) “Oh, there’s the door. I’d better open it” (door opens) “Bill! Good to see you. Come in. I’ll close the door” (door close). “Thanks Tom.” (glass breaking) “Oh, sorry I just broke your glass.” “That’s okay Bill; I’ll just take it to Samantha’s Glass Blowjob where they can fix any broken glass.” Just like real life, where everyone mentions every sound they hear in every conversation they have because everyone has nothing else to talk about except the obvious, which is why most people think radio commercials sound so stupid.

Let the sound speak for itself. The obvious doesn’t need identification or explanation. Instead of the script for the race track above, why not start with a solitary voice saying, “Just how fast is 200 miles per hour?” and then blast out the Indy race car noises. (By they way, notice that the announcer doesn’t say anything about what 200 miles per hour sounds like—that would be another instance of unnecessary obviousness.) Instead of the glass repair script above, why not start with the dialogue saying, “Bill is such a klutz.” (glass breaking) “Sorry Tom.” This way, the sound occurs naturally as it should, and cuts down unnecessary dialogue thereby allowing you to spend more time on the client’s message, which is the real reason for the spot, no?

I’ve brought it up before in other articles, and here’s another great place to repeat the lesson: there is nothing interesting about overly explaining the obvious. All it does is make you, the person doing the explaining, look like a moron. Or, in the case of commercials, your client ends up looking like a moron. When you write a script in which you have dialogue that refers to the sound effects contained, you are guilty of being overly obvious. Remember, the art of Theater of the Mind is magic. Magic doesn’t work when you’re being obvious. Magic works the same way natural sound works in the real world, unexpectedly, accidentally, and full of wonder.

Go back and re-read my opening paragraphs. Every sound I described you heard, didn’t you? You heard them in your mind. That means you’re quite capable of identifying sounds without anyone having to tell you what they are. Guess what? Every single human being over the age of 3 can identify sounds without any further explanation than the noise itself. So why do you think you have to identify them in the scripts you write? We know what a car with a dead battery trying to start sounds like without you having to tell us what it is when we hear it. We know what a lawn sprinkler sounds like, a golf club striking a ball, a hammer hitting nails, a roller coaster, a baseball bat cracking a home run, a steak sizzling on the grill, a vacuum cleaner, an air conditioner, a jet airliner taking off or landing, a speed boat or other water craft cruising on the waves, a fishing lure being cast, birds in the forest, cars on the street or freeway… we know all of these sounds without you having to say one word about them. So DON’T! The sounds can speak for themselves. You should be speaking about your client and the purpose for the commercial. Which, hopefully, will tie in to the sound effects you’re using.

That last line is unfortunately not meant as a joke. I knew a guy who thought that the ultimate example of hilarity was to use inappropriate sound effects. Like for a car repair shop, he thought it to be wildly funny to have the car make the sound of a monkey screaming. “Gee, Bob, your car sure sounds funny. You should take it to Redneck Auto Repair.” Then the car gets fixed and sounds like a lion roaring. My goodness, how funny. It was so funny that the client wound up going out of business because the people who heard the spot thought that Redneck Auto Repair was run by a bunch of idiots. Would you trust your car to a bunch of idiots who thought a spot like that was funny? Remember the old saying, “that’s not funny, that’s dumb.” Stupidity is not a good advertising technique, no matter what your local SALES WAREHOUSE storeowner thinks. Besides, even if the spot had the correct sound effects, this would be another example of unnecessary obviousness. Using sound effects when they’re not necessary is just as worthless as explaining them. Here’s the example I’m thinking of: (engine cranking- no start) “Is that old battery worn out? Take it to Philo’s House of Batteries and replace it with a new one” (car starts perfectly). In this spot, the sound effects are completely unnecessary, and the listener comes away with the impression that “Philo’s House of Batteries thinks that I don’t know what a dead battery sounds like.” This is how commercials can create negative impressions unintentionally.

I know that most copywriters strive for the lowest common denominator when writing commercials, the idea being that everything is easily understood. However, there is such a thing as too much lowest common denominator. The lowest common denominator isn’t supposed to be outright stupidity. This winds up either making the client look stupid, or gives the impression that the client thinks all of his or her customers are stupid. Both are not exactly the best sales approaches a business could take.

When a client tells me that they tried radio advertising and it didn’t work, I always ask to see the scripts from the last flights they ran. Nine times out of ten, the scripts are loaded with the mistakes I’ve listed here. Nine times out of ten the spots are loaded with nothing but overstating the obvious. Why do listeners tune out radio commercials? Why do clients think radio doesn’t work? Why do commercials sound stupid? Nine times out of ten, the answer is obvious.

And the tenth script? It’s usually one that’s totally inappropriate for what the client offers. But, that’s a subject for another article…

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