Discussion on basic Sound Design Techniques by Shueh-li Ong

Designing foley for a cover of MJ's "Thriller". (Screenshot of promo video, featuring Chris Currell of MJ's BAD tour/album. pic © S. Ong 2013)

Designing foley for a cover of MJ’s “Thriller”. (Screenshot of promo video, featuring Chris Currell of MJ’s BAD tour/album. pic © S. Ong 2013)

This post was made after my interview with Passion 99.5FM Singapore. There was an overflow of things I wanted to mention so I decided to place them here instead.

what is sound design?
The term sound design has been greatly misunderstood and borrowed. In this short dissertation I will be referring to production (live or studio) manipulation, transformation and assembly of desired effected sound, rather than the putting together of a sound system for venue installation (ala in a hotel or for architectural acoustics) OR recording snippets from CDs for a theatre play.

do I need to know the technical?
A good grasp of the theory of sound, psychoacoustics, scales, modes, harmony and voice leading, and stylistic and idiomatic interpretation (and a bit of of a wild streak) is necessary in good design production.
I use my various tools and understanding of these techniques to help me dream up new ideas. Sound design is complex. Tools may make it easier, but? to get innovative sounds out of your tools you need to know and imagine beyond basics. To emulate a sound e.g. of something crushing, you will also need to analyse it, prototype it in your head or on paper, then be able to think of a way to reproduce it. Nothing comes easy.

is pitch correction, cheating?
This obsession with pitch correction and whether it is a form of cheating, is I feel a very subjective issue.

An authentic live performance is a grueling exercise, even more so if one is playing an instrument at the same time. In a situation where monitoring reinforcement is weak or ineffective, the singer can totally lose the music hence sing “out of tune” with the backing musicians. Can you imagine trying to hear yourself speak, let alone sing in a noisy room without amplification?
Without citing singers who “can’t sing to save their lives”, I’d like to add that the word ‘Cheating’ is a value judgment. Some musicians utilise the assistance of pitch correction to help them deliver a more “accurate” performance. Other use this technique to create an effect, e.g. Cher in her song “Belief” where glitches appear courtesy of technology.
Loosely speaking a transposition of pitch in real-time without the compression or expansion of the time scale.
Transposition makes resonant frequencies rise, so to put a voice through an instrument pitch shifter, you will end up sounding like a chipmunk. To avoid altering the character of the voice, we need to change the frequency and KEEP the resonance (the vocal cords is the pitch source, the vocal track is the resonator effector.)

 

HOW CAN TECHNOLOGY ENHANCE THE END RESULT? To enhance is to beautify. To correct is to change to a “right” state if there is one.

reverberation…to smoothen out the rough edges
To understand what reverb means, step into your bathroom and belt out a song. Then step out into your living room, belt out the same song, and hear the difference.
In some instances, singers have been so used to hearing themselves ‘reverbed out’, that in recording studios a little reverb is added to their voice while they are singing, though what is put down on tape is “dry”. This accommodation can backfire if the singer gets too comfortable hearing their voice swimming in the reverb and does not give a “clear” rendition.
I tend to work from both angles as performer and producer. I assess the “effected” version after tweaking the selected effect and “redo” the vocals to get what I desire. OR So I might alter the way I sing/play to get the desired “effect”. There are even foldback monitors out there which come with a mini-mixer to allow the performer to tweak amount of reverb for their own performance comfort level.

echo/delay
To create distance/space/place in the sound field: enhance stereo placement of instruments, and make the mix sound ‘bigger’.
With analog tape machines, the delay was one of the easiest effects to produce, hence first to be used in music recording. This was before you could buy dedicated delay machines. Now we have multi-effects machines with a library of programmable patches!
Length of delay changes characteristic of echo. Used with regeneration (feedback) it is similar to a multi-tap that fades.

multi-tap delay
Multiple delays occurring at user-determined intervals to create a pre-defined pattern(s).

formula to calculate a naturally occurring delay time
Divide the tempo (bpm) of your piece by 60,000, then by 2,4,5 etc. These days, machines come with a feature called tap tempo delay where you simply tap along with the song to get the “right” interval time. However for more complex patterns one will have to get right in and manually tweak.

 

ALTERED SOUNDS, HOW and WHERE IT IS USED? As an effect that is foreign or to bring out a particular characteristic of the sound.

[transformation…disfigurement of the natural characteristics. Implemented on voice, it allows us to change the vocal characteristics more naturally; such as the noise and resonance factor, inflection and vibrato.]

ring modulation
Multiplies one signal by another ; a form of amplitude modulation. This form of modulation can lead to a quite noisy and inharmonic spectrum if the two source signals are complex spectra.

vocoder-ing
Simple system that uses two sound sources, a carrier and a modulator. Makes the voice sound robotic.