Sound Design Explored at Hopkins’ First Sound Symposium

By Emily Trendle

Darkness fills the Mudd auditorium as two men sit on a stage lit by one green-tinged desk lamp.  The crowd’s presence can be better felt than seen. The strange feeling in the air that the darkness creates is quickly filled with a rich soundscapes as music and sound effects play through a quad of speakers, and singers pace through the audience chanting about the magical qualities of leeks and potatoes with little explanation as to why.

Listeners are submerged into a new world.  A world that is careful crafted by Matmos, a band known for their experimental music made with rat cages, washing machines, and sinks just to name a few items.

This is the opening event for Listening In: A Sound Symposium sponsored by the Johns Hopkins Center for Advanced Studies which was organized by Dr. Meredith Ward, a Johns Hopkins film professor, for the first time this year. The symposium brought together leaders in sound studies from a range of universities for in depth discussions on how sound influences audience members and how sound design has changed over time, from radio broadcasts to movie soundtracks created by foley artists.

Both Dr. Ward, a specialist in sound studies, and Professor Drew Daniel, a member of Matmos and  English professor at Hopkins met with Catalyst for an interview.


Emily Trendle: What first caught your interest in working with sound design?

Dr. Ward: It first happened for me when I was a grad student, I think it was my second year of coursework. I took a course that was on sound design. It was a production-oriented course, and because I was getting my Ph.D that was a little unusual. I did it purely out of interest and because I’ve always had an interest in the technical and actually making things. I had to make the sound design for film segments, it was an assignment I wasn’t that great at it to be honest, but the ideas behind it were so fascinating and getting to hear other people do it who were much better at it than I was, was  really great exp for me and that when I made this sort of sonic turn in my work and have been a sound studies specialist since then. So that would’ve been a while ago.

One thing I like about sound is that it does get neglected. People don’t think about it as much. That’s part of why I talk about it as much as I do in intro to cinema. So when you think someone’s being hit on the head by a bat, what’s really being done one the soundtrack to make you feel that way?  And the whole idea of auditory imagination and that everything you think you hear is actually something else but we get this sense of what it is that is completely in our heads.


Prof. Daniel: When I was a teenager I read the works of William S. Burroughs and he was writing about cut-ups, describing cutting up a text to make new text, but he also described experiments a tape recorder so I got a bunch of tape recorders and I started to make recordings when I was 15.  I started collecting recorders so that I can have material on like four tape recorder and record those onto a fifth so I can multi-track just in the room you know it’s like 4 things making sound and one recording. I don’t have any musical training I never played an instrument, I was always just interested in making recordings.


ET: Was this based on sound or texts?


Prof.  Daniel: I would make of recordings of my own voice playing on my own voice or like hitting objects and I would kind of musical compositions but they were made out of pause button edits and recording and repeating things. It was a primitive sort of noise music.


ET: Have your studies of the sonic world shaped your music?


Prof. Daniel: You know, the state of mind when you’re making art is very different from the state of mind when you’re making a rational argument in academic discourse. So I tend keep them a little bit separate but I’m very indebted to the example set by other musicians in the way that they were document their practice. So reading the liner notes of a really experimental records that describe the process you know I wouldn’t try to imitate that or imagine my own way of responding. There was a record from Germany that said that all the sound on the song was just the rubber tips on the bottom of the microphone stand. That was the only source of sound. So things like that challenge you when an artist suddenly does something abnormal and gets a cool result. It just affects you, you think to yourself ‘Well, what could I do that would take that further?’


ET: What are your thoughts on Foley? Can it exist without the visual distracting from the sound and vice versa?


Dr. Ward: This week with the symposium we’ve been talking about sound without images, which is just never done in the context of cinema studies. People who talk about film seem to talk about how sound is there to support the image but that isn’t really true and has never been true.  Visuals and sounds are separate world that interact if you make them interact but they’re separate like you’re saying. And so I think in some instances listening without looking is really useful because your mind works to create so many things it thinks it hears. For one thing you hear better because you aren’t distracted by looking. So where in the sound mix is something happening? If it’s spatialized and you’re hearing things over your right shoulder, or in surround sound. What are the tonalities, what are the colors, what are the pitches? You’re conjuring what you think you hear. The Matmos show is a good example because 90% of the time you don’t know what you’re listening to and you’re trying to figure it out. It’s kind of it’s own cool process of detection and understanding.


Prof. Daniel: I have so much respect for people who do movie sound because I’ve made some soundtracks and it’s really difficult. A lot of things that sonically I would do as just a sound piece become incredibly distracting and really hurt the picture when paired with images. A lot of the ways that we work become too funny, become too slapstick and they just don’t help. So I have a lot of respect for the restraint that goes into synthesizing a seemingly real world and how much work actually goes into that. It’s strange the poetics of that. A lot of people getting punched in the face are actually celery snapping. A lot of the sounds that you hear have nothing to do with the visual.


ET: Where do you think sound design will go from here?


Dr. Ward: Sound design is partly changing because people are thinking about it more and paying better attention to it. Part of it is speakers like Atmos and just surround in general, people are thinking about sound as an apparatus to play with and to produce different effects with, as opposed to straightforward ‘this is how things sound.’ Like ‘no no, we’re building things, we’re creating things’ and new schemas and that’s fascinating and definitely different than how the mainstream was talking about it while I was in college.


Prof. Daniel: I think that people who say we’ve reached the end and that everything has now been invented are wrong. I am curious to see if people develop more complex software for re-synthesis; if software might somehow intersect with neural networks to produce more organic way of thinking about sound creation and manipulation. I would love to see more interest in multi-speaker environments. That’s why our performance was in quad. Because I think that multi speaker specialization is just more compelling to me than the same old stereo. I think that we move in the world and sound helps us do that. And I want to see more technology that reflects that.


A lot of people getting punched in the face are actually celery snapping. A lot of the sounds that you hear have nothing to do with the visual.


ET: Do you feel limited by the number of speakers now?


Prof. Daniel: I have a friend who works at Dolby and we have done some Atmos mixes there with him. We’re close buddies. It’s Matmos and Atmos. So I think there are a lot of possibilities there. Of course the problem is that is a very expensive system that only movie theaters are going to have, you aren’t going to have Atmos in your home. There are still a lot of questions around who can afford what tech, what format is more accessible? That’s one thing I like that at the end of the day we aren’t composers we’re a band. We go on tour; we sell our records for pretty cheap. Everything is pretty cheap now, because no one really pays for anything.


ET: How do you go about choosing what to make sounds with, why a washing machine?


Prof. Daniel: That was my boyfriend’s intuition. We take turns of being in charge of albums and he just said ‘I want to make an album out of that’ and pointed the washing machine and it was just a moment of “aha!” I tend to get attached to a concept and then want to unpack that concept through sound. Even though I don’t think of what we do as personal expression, I don’t think of it as driven by my emotions. I feel like no matter what there’s always a baseline of the personal at stake in these kinds of choices. If you’re going spend years working on something why did you choose this over that? I feel there’s always an underlying emotion.


It’s not as if everything on a page can just become sound. They are connected but distinct.


ET: How do you express sound in a literary world?


Prof. Daniel: I mean poetry was originally sung, and it was sung to the accompaniment of stringed instrument. You know Greek poems we call lyric poems because they were literally lyrics for singing. So poetry and music were originally one, and they have separated because we have a different disciplinary attitude now, but that underlying connection is always there when phrasing. Something about cadence and rhythm, and how it is well formed when read aloud. Inner audition of reading in mind while reading is also a place where sound can happen. Plenty of things in text on page that sound isn’t good at doing. Experience of sight rhyme for example. It’s not as if everything on a page can just become sound. They are connected but distinct.


ET: Last question, what are magical qualities of potatoes and leeks?


Prof. Daniel: Actually, not quality in either of them. It’s the magic that they make together. It’s a recipe from The Joy of Cooking and I recommend that you cook it and try it and you will taste for yourself.