Listen and Learn

Read Gino Robair July 2008 EM Editors Note, Where He Writes About Listening to the Sounds Around You and Putting Them Into Your Pro Audio Production

I'm always surprised that people have so little interest in hearing the sounds around them. The ubiquity of portable MP3 players is great for a struggling tech industry, but it lulls people into thinking that we need distraction from the banality of everyday life. But I see such times as waiting in a shopping mall or an airport or traveling by bus or train as a chance to have unusual and unique auditory experiences. Before you accuse me of stealing a lick from the John Cage songbook, I dare you to remove your earbuds, turn off your iPod, and see if you can't take something away from your immediate environment. There are many practical things to learn — even enjoy — in our everyday soundscape.

The world around us offers not only interesting sounds, but also a chance to focus on production values. For example, sitting in the St. Louis airport as I write this, I hear a serendipitous symphony that provides an impromptu exercise in sound design, with interesting aspects in all three dimensions. In the vertical spectrum — frequency — there's the low rumble of jets taking off outside, sometimes noticeable in the subtly shaking floor. Other plane-related sounds fill in the lower mids when a door opens for departing passengers. Nearby, a man empties a garbage can, shaking open a new bag that creates a complex mélange of mids and highs. Narrow, band-limited voices and music, ostensibly tuned to the strongest parts of our auditory sense, come from various speakers. The highest registers are filled with electronic sounds, both intentional (cell phones, cash registers) and unintentional (door and wheel squeaks). How would I synthesize or process sounds to re-create this scene?

Examining the horizontal aspect, it's interesting to hear how the sounds surround me. Announcements overlap from various speakers in the ceiling, while carts and rolling luggage clatter by in both directions on a tiled floor, creating sublime polyrhythmic patterns. Hearing how the sounds bounce off of the reflective surfaces as they move through the terminal yields the perception of depth. I try to imagine them being processed in a digital reverb: how would I modify them to change their position in a mix?

Later, in an airport restaurant, I'm confronted by an intense walla (a term for crowd chatter used in film sound) with a hit parade of pop music floating on top. In front of me, a man talks on his cell phone. If I were mixing this in postproduction, how would I increase the legibility of his voice while keeping the intensity of the background? Or, depending on the plot, slightly mask his voice? How would I morph the song from a midrangy annoyance in the corner to its full-frequency glory front and center, say, right before my imaginary credits roll?

If you find yourself stuck listening to canned music that makes you cringe, try concentrating on the technical aspects of the song. (Why does a James Taylor song sound good even on crappy speakers?) It's one of the tried-and-true ways engineers get through sessions where the music is aesthetically challenging.

I'm not against portable music players or the mood-engineering use of a well-thought-out playlist. But it's a shame to miss the auditory opportunities your surroundings can provide when you really tune in.