Sep 14, 2011

Prop Phone!

(crossposted from my personal blog)

It's tough to fake a mobile phone on stage.

In the old days of wired phones, there were some great options. Tele-Q boxes worked well, as did specials/recordings and hiding bells in secret places. Mobile phones, on the other hand, are much trickier. The tele-q option doesn't work, because there is no base station. Hiding specials doesn't work very well either, because people carry their phones with them, making the sourcing very tough. Plus, if you want get picky, the sound of a phone ringing varies dramatically as you pull the phone out of your pocket, purse, etc. That's a complex change that is tough to replicate.

I'm happy to announce that a friend (and former student) of mine has written an iPhone/iPad/iPod app called PropPhone that lets you use one iDevice to control the play/pause of audio on another iDevice. You can use the 'controller' device to send those triggers to the 'prop' device, and as you do it, the 'prop' device will change screen images to replicate an incoming phone.

Not only can you use it for phone rings, but if you attach it to a battery-powered loudspeaker, you have a very cheap wireless special (not including the cost of the iDevice, of course).

Here are some other things to note:
  • The audio does NOT stream from one device to another. The audio files themselves live on the 'prop' device. This cuts way down on lag.
  • Currently, you can only choose the sound file from the 'prop' phone, not from the 'controller' phone.
  • This is the very first version of the app, so expect big changes to happen as the developer gets feedback.
This is a great thing for our industry - something that we've been trying to solve for a long long time. I'm looking forward to using it soon in production! $2.99 well-spent!

Oct 5, 2009

Soundwalk 2009

On Saturday night, I went down to Soundwalk 2009 with some friends. Soundwalk is an annual event in Long Beach, CA. Every fall, on a Saturday night, four square blocks of downtown Long Beach are taken over by dozens of sound artists, each displaying a piece of sound art. Some pieces are big, some are small. Some are loud, some are quiet. Some are well-thought out, some are awkward. Some are thought-provoking, some are pretentious. Either way, it's an exciting night, full of sound, light, and plenty of new things for your ears to play with. Here are some shots from that night:

Mar 23, 2009

USITT: Sound Design Discussions

This last weekend, I was at the annual USITT convention. This year, it was in Cincinnati. USITT has two main components: a floor expo and panel sessions. It was a great event this year, and I thought this might be a good place to identify some highlights.

USITT stands for the United States Institute for Theatre Technology, and as you might imagine, a bulk of the convention's focus is on non-sound issues. The expo floor had booths from many companies, including Rosco, Cirque, ZFX, and Wenger. Universities were also represented, and there were a lot of high school and college students looking around for good programs (undergraduate and graduate) to consider for the next step in their training. My university had a booth last year, but for various reasons, we elected to not have one this year.

Sound-wise, on the expo floor, it was a bit of a smaller showing this year. Shure was there, talking about microphones. A couple of com companies were there, including Clear-com. d&b audiotechnik were there, showing their new T-series (HOT) and the standalone version of their arraycalc software. Timax was showing off version two of their system, which looks great (and, for $17,000 for a top-end 16x16 box, better be great). Meyer, which had been there in the years past, took a year off, but they did send a couple representatives who were very visible in the sessions. I wish Meyer had brought a booth, but since my school decided, for similar reasons, not to bring our own booth, I suppose I can't be so upset.

The real meat of the conference, however, was in the sessions themselves. The Sound Commission (a subset of the larger USITT organization) has a very intensive series of seminars that particularly relate to sound. Every day, there were three or four seminar sessions, each dealing with a different topic. You can check out the topics by looking at the embedded Google Calendar here (make sure you scroll back to look at the week of 18 March 2009). Many of this year's seminar topics had to do with sound technology, but there were a few that focused primarily on the artistic side of sound design.

The Guerilla Sound Challenge is one of the sound commission's more popular events. A few hours before the session starts, the participants are given a stimulus. Their challenge is to, in those few hours, create a cohesive sound piece based on that stimulus. They are not allowed to use any pre-recorded material; everything they use has to be recorded on-site. At the session itself, the panelists present their piece and engage in a discussion about techniques and strategies for creating their design.

Joe Pino (Carnegie Mellon University) led a great talk on rhythm in sound design. He started by going back to the root definition of rhythm, identified different ways that rhythm can be affected and manipulated, and then extended those ideas to show how we can use them in sound design. He had clearly done a lot of thinking about his topic, and while he didn't have all of the answers, he encouraged us to find solutions in our own work.

Two of our sessions were student portfolio presentations. These were led by Mike Hooker (U. California-Irvine), and allowed both undergrads and grads to present their portfolios to a room full of sound designers. Each student had 15 minutes to present an entire show (of their choosing), from conceptualization to paperwork to design to execution. Then, the floor opened up for 10 minutes of q&a. Some questions were about the production & design, some were about the presentation format, and some were about related issues. After all students had gone (we had three presentations in one session, two in the other), each student was paired up with a professional designer/educator for 20 minutes of one-on-one discussion about the presentation. I got to talk with students on both days, both graduate students from small programs. We spent some time talking about their presentation, but most of our time (I went over my allotted 20 minutes - 45 on the first day, and 85 on the second) was spent talking about design in general: conceptualization, execution, their careers, their next steps, and strategizing their last year and a half of school.

Of course, like most conferences, this one had a lot of socializing outside of the sessions. Groups of sound designers roamed in packs, hitting restaurants and bars, swapping tips, buying each other drinks. Students, educators, and professionals (and those of us who are more than one of those) were able to pick each other's brains. It was a lot of fun, and a lot of thinking. I highly recommend going to next year's conference, in Kansas City, 31 March - 3 April, 2010!

Feb 2, 2009

How Do We Discuss Sound Design?

Or in other words, how do we better communicate an aural aesthetic to others, both sound designers and laymen. Attempting to relay our concepts and ideas can be difficult as most people within the theater remain within a visual field, and the ability for one design field to effectively communicate with one another is needed in order to have a thoroughly collaborative process. While I am not trying to debate if the aesthetics of visual fields have a set of standards and rules inherently, there are certain principles that are used to be able to properly discuss the visual aesthetic. These principles are used in order that we might find some objectivity within a subjective field. This of course gives us the ability to also employ criticism, good or bad, when looking at an artist’s work. The terminology within the visual aesthetic might be of some use to us within an aural aesthetic, give us the ability to better communicate to visual artists, and give us a different way of looking at our own art form.
I would like to define a few things before continuing. First off is that when I refer to a visual aesthetic, I am referring to anything that can be perceived visually, and is considered a visual art. Mostly I would like to keep in mind not only the theater arts, such as scene design or lighting design, but also painting, photography, sculpture, and anything else you can think of not listed here. Secondly when referring to the aural aesthetic (and here is where I get into trouble) I am referring mostly to sound design, which includes, but is not limited to, acoustics, sound effects, soundscapes, reinforcement, music, and to the random noises the building makes. Music is a part of this aural aesthetic, but it is only a part of the whole. We see this all the time within the theater, where you can go an entire show without music, but still have an aural aesthetic.
Conceptually we can discuss art in many different ways. We can discuss it by its mood, how it makes you feel; sad, happy, angry, etc. We can also use mood to give it a color, “it makes me blue.” We can make it actionable, ‘It jumped off the page.’ We can discuss it within musical terms. “It has a nice rhythm.” We also have visual terms, ‘its very textured.’ Discussing a piece using only mood, we can see that it will be too subjective, and is not very descriptive. But color and action are also too vague. Musically discussing the aural world might be more objective. Music after all has its own terminology and aesthetic theory, but by using the musical terminology to discuss an overall aesthetic, it can wind up being limiting, since it is only a part of the total. Music, when discussing it aesthetically, has to be oversimplified to effectively communicate it. We say ‘I want it to be a waltz’, or ‘it will be melodic’, or ‘I want it to be melancholy.” We don’t use actual musical terminology such as, “it will be in ¾ time” or ‘I am going to put it in the harmonic minor scale.” It has to be simplified. I would like to stay away from saying this terminology is not to be used; but that it should not be the only ways in which we discuss sound design aesthetically.
The visual terminology that we see within the arts can better be attributed to the aural world, and can effectively be used to help better describe the aesthetic. While some will argue that it is still subjective, I think that there is more objectivity within a visual terminology. We know from a young age most of the things that are aesthetically pleasing and attribute much to our sight. We learn, as artists, the visual terminology and attribute it to the visual world. Terms such as; Focal point, scale, balance, rhythm, texture, color, depth, symmetry, asymmetry, and unity are seen all over the visual world. Some are even used already within the world of music and sound. We are all used to hearing a balance, and we use that term all the time, but terms such as focal point, we hear within designs, but do not use the term to communicate what we are trying to achieve. We can take advantage of our own artistic education and use a visual aesthetic to communicate in a more objective way. It can also be used to help us think through our designs more effectively and creatively. As an example of using a visual language, I did a show where I used a mix of a singer named ‘Amelie les Crayons’ and French cabaret music (Modern versus older French cabaret style music). As certain events would happen onstage, the music would stop and beep over to the sound of an English to French translation commenting on the actions of the characters, a sort of Brechtian concept. In order to effectively create a world that was not only unified, but also was dirty, I added a record scratch over top the music to give it texture. This created unity within the piece, even though the music was radically different in recording range and added a texture that could be manipulated when the characters lives managed to find some order. I added a loudspeaker upstage center to give the translations a focal point, to create an added effect and give it more focus from the music, which was from loudspeakers aimed not directly at the audience. This design is a simple concept that sound designers use all the time, but we can relay that concept, as you can see, with visual terminology to the other designers and the director.
By using a visual terminology to discuss an aural aesthetic, we can see that we are able to more effectively communicate what we as designers are creating without needing playback in order for someone to understand. It can give us a different way of looking at our own designs and how we collaborate with the other designers. How we communicate is vital to being a good designer, it’s a majority of the work we do, and anyway that we can do that effectively will help. This is only a part of a whole, as there are also other aspects of sound design that are important, but I would like to start from the beginning of my own thoughts and elaborate from there, to start with how we think about sound and add to it.

~Chris Baine

Dec 12, 2008

Sound Design v. Composition?

How do you deal with the blurry line between Sound Design and Composition?

For me, the best sound designers are those who think and hear musically, and it naturally follows that those who think musically are often musicians, and those who are musicians are often composers. As so much of what we do is the manipulation of music, it is inevitable that most of us (even those who aren't composers) will find us in a position where we're asked to compose music.

In the theatre, it's often difficult to find the line between design and composition. Is editing music composing? Is a mash-up? Is working with live musicians to totally restructure the music? Is sampling sound effects and playing them back with a musical sensibility? Is writing original text and melody based off of a non-original hook? Is combining musical and non-musical elements to underscore a monologue?

Which of these is composition, and which of these is not? Certainly, there's a continuum, and each of the ideas in the previous paragraph (all of which I'm doing on my current project) falls somewhere between 'pure' design and 'pure' composition.

So, what do you when you, as the designer, are asked to do things that range into composition? Are you comfortable in that role? Do you refuse? Do you subcontract out to a composer? Do you ask for an additional composition contract (and therefore, an additional fee)? Do you consider it part of your responsibility and just do it? Do you ask the theatre to hire someone else to compose?

Dec 11, 2008

Late Bloomers

Interesting article in the New Yorker comparing artists that are early/late bloomers. It uses Picasso and Cezanne as examples. Not necessarily pertinent to sound design as a whole, but something to think about as artists in general.

'Prodigies are easy. They advertise their genius from the get-go. Late bloomers are hard. They require forbearance and blind faith.'


Dec 2, 2008

Welcome Everyone

Hello all,
Welcome to the Sound Design Concepts Online Journal. I am hoping that this blog would be a place where we as designers can come together to discuss sound design as an art form. I feel that as artists we have a difficult time sharing our concepts and styles with each other, mostly because we are isolated within our field, and don't run into each other often. I am hoping that we can use this forum to relay ideas off of each other, and expand our own ideas with the experience and concepts of others.

For example, some of the questions I would have for others, that you could talk about:
What is sound design?
How does sound work with telling of a story?
What ways can we discuss sound with someone who isn't a sound designer?
Do you have a specific style or personal approach to designs?
What would it look like if sound were a standalone artform?
etc. etc. etc...please fill it in from here...

When posting; you can post ideas, essays, links to websites that you find interesting, questions that you would have, things your thinking about, etc. I am only one person and you all probably have even more ideas than I do. That is why I want to create something that is out and open for anyone to post, because my own knowledge is limited. I have included links on the sidebar to online open access journals, as examples of other artistic exploratory endeavors that you can use as a reference.

In order to post to this blog/become an author, I will need to invite you, so if you send an email to, I can add you as an author. Please pass this blog around to other sound designers that you would know, the more the merrier. You can also view this blog without being an author, and you can comment on it as a user or anonymous.

As a note of clarification: I would like to stay away from technical discussions. I know that a huge part of our field is the equipment and what you can do with it, but this is more for overarching concepts of sound design, not necessarily how to implement that concept. There are other forums set up and better equipped to answer any technical questions that you would have.

Mission Statement: This blog is for professional Theater Sound Designers to have an open discussion on Concepts and Ideas about sound design as an art form, in a forum that is safe, encouraging, and challenging, in an attempt to further ourselves as a design field, through our own education, knowledge, and experience.

~Chris Baine