A sample of trickling water gives rise to an entire album'sworth of epic noises.
Michael Oster's passion is recording common environmental sounds tocreate unusual, otherworldly ones. Oster is a musician, recordingengineer, and sound designer in Tampa, Florida. In 1993, he purchasedDigidesign's Pro Tools system, started a recording studio that hechristened F7 Sound and Vision, and produced two sample CD-ROMs of hissound effects - Concept:FX, vol. 1 and Concept:FX2."I was working on Concept:FX3 when I stopped to makeFluid," Oster says.
Oster completed Fluid in two months and used no MIDIdevices or digital audio sequencers in its production. Each of its 11tracks is based on a single 14-second sample of a water fountain. TheCD includes his source material, and the final tracks are ordered inthe same sequence that he created them. Oster mutated the water sampleinto a series of mesmerizing, sci-fi soundscapes that conjure upinsects, animals, mechanical hums, fire, howling monsters, and more."It's hard for me to describe what it sounds like. It's an offshoot ofthe Concept:FX idea, except that I wanted to make acompositional work based on the production processes that I'veused.
"I noticed that I was manipulating the same sound in different ways,coming up with new sounds," Oster says. "I started thinking, 'What if Idid this on a bigger scale?' I've never done sound design work on thisscale before. I wanted to make a statement about what I can do withsounds. I wasn't going for a certain sound or style; I made this on myown terms.
"I could have done this with almost any sound," Oster says, but hefelt that trickling water "had different dynamics and harmonics that Ithought would manipulate better. I put that into Pro Tools and I'd cutit up into little pieces, loop it, run plug-ins, and things like that.Whatever was coming out of Pro Tools was going straight to a CDrecorder or a DAT. I ended up with six-and-a-half CD-Rs, two DATs, anda hard drive full of materials that had come from this one sound, andthat's what I used as the palette for Fluid.
"Once I had those sounds, I might use pieces of them and equalizethem, or put in five different layers," Oster says. He processed asound until he found an interesting sound bite that lead him in a newdirection. Oster used a Pro Tools 24/Mix system on a 266 MHz Power MacG3, a TC Electronic FireworX multi-effects processor (but avoided usingits presets), 1/4-inch analog tape, and an Echoplex tape-echo unit.Oster recorded audio CDs playing back through his Apple iBook, a 1950sTelefunken radio, and an FM transmitter using an inexpensive contactmic from Radio Shack. "I might send something though that radio andthen put a microphone 10 or 12 feet away as opposed to using reverb,"he says.
He used BIAS' Peak 2.1 and Digidesign plug-ins, experimenting withtheir distinctive time-stretching algorithms for varied results. On thetrack "Frogs," Oster says, "I was stretching these things so far outthat it was taking Peak maybe 20 or 30 minutes to process the sound."Oster says sound design is "a lot easier to do in the digital domainthan with analog rack-mount gear, because you'd be left with nothingbut noise. It just wouldn't happen."
Oster mixed the album the same way he would mix conventionalinstrumental tracks, using the frequency range of each sound todetermine its place in the mix.
"Sometimes people can take aluminum cans and build a castle out ofthem," he says. "With sound design, you're taking a sound, turning itinto something completely different, and making it a new art form."