Dropping Everything to Listen
Yesterday, my boyfriend Jon and I embarked on several hours of power washing. The stairs leading up to our front doorstep were turning green from mold and the walls surrounding them were no better. Jon’s job was to man the power washer nozzle, while I was in charge of making sure the garden hose feeding it water didn’t tangle or that the gutter didn’t back up. But as soon as we turned the power washer on, I forgot my jobs completely. All of a sudden, I was standing next to an intensely powerful machine with a unique sounding motor that was vibrating so fervently it was hopping around and shaking a good portion of the house. And like any respectful sound nerd, I decided to run for my field recording rig, which is how I found myself wearing ear protection and holding a microphone next to a power washer while Jon cleaned our front entry way. (To be fair, after I got a few minutes of good sounds, I returned my rig to its place and took back up the mantle of gutter guarding and garden hose untangling.)
Why Should We Always be Keep our Ears Open?
As sound designers, we tell stories, create experiences, and shape emotions. How well we do our job is based on our ability to understand these things and to capture and shape sounds to fit them. And the capacity to understand and capture good sound is directly influenced by our being open to it hearing it ourselves. For many people, their job is done at a particular location. If they aren’t in that location, then they can’t be working. But for us, this notion of a ‘workplace’ is different. Our jobs happen all around us. For me, it’s the clicking of my fingers as I type this sentence, the quiet music playing in the background, and the soft sound of wind chimes outside from a gift my grandma gave me before she became ill. But it’s also the sounds of my daily commute, how screeching trains and honking horns contribute to my mood every morning or the exhaustion of a weekend of yard work and power washing following by that refreshing sizzle-pop from the opening of a cold beer. I don’t mean to say that these sounds are directly influencing my work. Rather, being open to the uniqueness of them is a source of inspiration as well as a way to better understand the emotional impact that these sounds can have.
Keeping our Ears Listening Holds us Open to Inspiration
The idea of ‘always keep your ears open,’ is not a new concept. However, it is something that I think we can always be reminded of. Sometimes I’m so focused on my task at hand that I forget to listen to the world around me.
A few weeks ago, I set out to record small rocks and debris. I got my field rig set up, gathered my supplies, and built a recording station in my garage. But as I started recording, I decided the rocks were too far away from the microphone. But alas! There was a half wine barrel nearby. ‘That would work as a good recording surface,’ I decided. Unfortunately, the wine barrel was so heavy that I had to slide it. But when I did, something amazing happened. I started hearing this wood vibration sound from the scuffing resonating from within the body of the wine barrel. It got me thinking, what are other objects with cavities that would resonate in interesting ways? Had I rejected the idea of the wine barrel’s sounds as unimportant or out of scope, I might never have learned the valuable lesson that I did about sounds taking on different qualities through resonating bodies.
Keeping our ears open inspires us. But how do we turn that inspiration into progress? With my wine-barrel example, I was lucky enough to have a recording station already set up. But what if I hadn’t? What if I wasn’t even home? For example, a few days ago, I was walking to my local train station when a bus passed me on the road. It was one of those Muni buses in San Francisco that is powered by a complicated network of high-voltage wires. And the sound that it made was amazing! It was sort of a high-tensile zip-zap as bus rushed by me. My initial thought was ‘Wow, I need to record this!’ But then, this idea was then followed by a frenzied string of consciousness… ‘But how could I isolate the sound? And when’s the next time the bus is going to pass again? Should I go home and grab my recording set up? But that’s pretty bulky to carry around all day. What about just the onboard mics on my field recorder? Crap, am I going to be late for work?’ … This brings me to my final point:
Just Record it, Dammit
We all understand that to be a good sound designer, we need good equipment. Depending on the type of sound we’re recording or what we’ll use it for, we generally end up reaching for different microphones. But when we’re out randomly and we hear something cool, there’s a pretty good change that we don’t have this resource available to us. Don’t let that stop you! Some amazing sounds have been recorded on very ad-hoc setups. Hell, I know a few sounds that ended up in triple A games that were recorded on smartphones. Yes, we need good sounding equipment. But we can’t let that need restrict us from inspiration. Even if you have to record the sound sloppily just to serve as a reminder that you need to find a way to recreate this situation (if you can), do it. Just record it, dammit.
A good friend of mine told me an interesting quote he had heard, ‘If it takes you longer than three minutes to set up your rig, you’re going to miss a lot of great stuff.’ Those are great words to live by. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves every day. Pressure to record the most interesting and highest quality sounds, and pressure to build entertaining, emotional experiences for audiences. But what if you could free yourself from that? Allow yourself to listen to the world and capture it with whatever you have available? No pressure. That is, I believe, how we break free from monotony and transform into true ‘creatives.’
Happy Sunday, y’all.