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kottke.org posts about Audio

The infinite auditory illusion that makes the Dunkirk soundtrack so intense (and good)

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 31, 2017

I remarked on Twitter recently that “Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack for Dunkirk is outstanding”. The music blends perfectly with the action on the screen without being overbearing; it’s perhaps the best marriage of sound and visuals I’ve experienced in a movie theater since Mad Max: Fury Road or even Tron: Legacy.1

Zimmer and Dunkirk director Christopher Nolan achieved that effect by utilizing an auditory illusion called the Shepard tone, a sound that appears to infinitely rise (or fall) in pitch — the video above refers to it as “a barber’s pole of sound”. From a Business Insider interview with Nolan:

The screenplay had been written according to musical principals. There’s an audio illusion, if you will, in music called a “Shepard tone” and with my composer David Julyan on “The Prestige” we explored that and based a lot of the score around that. And it’s an illusion where there’s a continuing ascension of tone. It’s a corkscrew effect. It’s always going up and up and up but it never goes outside of its range. And I wrote the script according to that principle. I interwove the three timelines in such a way that there’s a continual feeling of intensity. Increasing intensity. So I wanted to build the music on similar mathematical principals. Very early on I sent Hans a recording that I made of a watch that I own with a particularly insistent ticking and we started to build the track out of that sound and then working from that sound we built the music as we built the picture cut. So there’s a fusion of music and sound effects and picture that we’ve never been able to achieve before.

  1. I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned this — because it fits somewhere between “unpopular opinion” and “embarrassing admission” on the scale of things one doesn’t talk about in public — but seeing Tron: Legacy in 3D IMAX was one of the top 5 movie-going experiences of my life. The Light Cycle battle was 80 feet tall and because of the 3D glasses, it looked like it extended out from the screen to immediately in front of my face, to the point where I actually reached out and tried to touch it a couple times. And all the while, Daft Punk was pounding into my brain from who knows how many speakers. I was not on drugs and hadn’t been drinking, but it was one of the most mind-altering experiences of my life.

40 hours (and counting) of relaxing Planet Earth II sounds

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 24, 2017

The producers of Planet Earth II (aka probably the best thing I’ve watched in the past year) shot a loooooot of footage for the program. Most of it got cut, but they’ve cut some of it together into these 10-hour videos of relaxing sights and sounds. So far, they’ve done mountains, the jungle, island, and desert.

This guy has an A+ Sports Announcers Voice

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 12, 2017

Bob Menery is an actor who has a perfect voice for sports announcing. Not only is his voice expressive, but he’s got the cadence and patter down as well.

This video is going a little viral right now. I couldn’t track down Menery’s original upload, but I did find a little-seen video he did four years ago, messing around with the same voice in his car:

See also the homeless man with a golden voice.

Exploring the sound design of Star Wars

posted by Jason Kottke   May 09, 2017

When considering the massive success of Star Wars, special effects and the Jospeh Campbell-inspired story always get their due. But the sound design of the film was just as important and revolutionary as the visual effects. From Darth Farmer’s overdubbing with James Earl Jones’ voice and the now-famous breathing noise (created using a SCUBA apparatus) to the lightsaber battles (the lightsaber noise comes from the hum of film projectors plus the buzz from a CRT TV set), the sounds added to the film hold everything together, creating the illusion of reality where none actually exists.

How fake are nature documentaries?

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 26, 2017

When you’re watching a nature documentary, you notice it right away: there’s something odd about the sound effects. They seem a little too…Hollywood. When Vox did their series on how the BBC made Planet Earth II, they didn’t mention the sound:

I hope the third program is on sound, which has been bugging me while watching Planet Earth II. I could be wrong, but they seem to be using extensive foley effects for the sounds the animals make — not their cries necessarily, but the sounds they make as they move. Once you notice, it feels deceptive.

Several other people noticed and complained, causing the BBC to explain that getting real sounds in many cases was impossible. Audio producer Matt North adds some context:

Whilst I’m no wildlife expert, it’s fairly straightforward to conclude that such an unpredictable and uncontrollable subject as wildlife would have prompted the need to often shoot on long lenses, thus making it almost physically impossible for a sound recordist to obtain ‘realistic’ recordings that would match the treatment and emotive style of the programme. Combine this with the shooting climate, as well as the need for frequent communication between crew just to capture the necessary shots that will cut well in the edit suite and you have a recipe for failure in regards to obtaining useable sound. Therefore, it’s not only impractical but virtually impossible to capture the ‘real’ sound that some of these disgruntled viewers may be protesting for.

As Simon Cade shows in the video above, sound is only one of the ways in which nature documentaries use editing to “fake” things. Is it manipulation? Or good storytelling? And what’s the difference between the two anyway? A silent security feed of a Walmart parking lot is not a documentary but The Thin Blue Line, with its many dramatizations and Philip Glass score, is a great documentary.

Update: 99% Invisible recently did a show on the sounds in nature documentaries as well. (thx, everyone)

WhaleSynth, a neat online toy for generating whale sounds

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 15, 2017

WhaleSynth

WhaleSynth is a cool little instrument for making whale sounds. There are three different species of whale to choose from, you can add clicks and sonar echoes, and you can also adjust the depth and number of whales in your chorus. Warning: this might occupy many many minutes of your time but could also soothe frayed political nerves.

The relaxing sounds of an Arctic icebreaker

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 07, 2017

Need to sleep, focus on work, get away from the news, meditate, or just tickle your ASMR receptors? Try 10 hours of ambient noise from a Norwegian icebreaker idling in the frozen Arctic.

10 hours video of Arctic ambience with frozen ocean, ice cracking, snow falling, icebreaker idling and distant howling wind sound. Natural white noise sounds generated by the wind and snow falling, combined with deep low frequencies with delta waves from the powerful icebreaker idling engines, recorded at 96 kHz — 24 bit and designed for relaxation, meditation, study and sleep.

That is some “Calgon take me away”-level shit. See also the most relaxing song in the world. (via bb)

This ping pong volley sounds like Super Mario Bros

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 07, 2016

This volley played during a game of ping pong sounds a lot like the first few bars of the music from Super Mario Bros. (thx, david)

This happy dog sounds like a TIE Fighter

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 20, 2016

Animals make all sorts of crazy noises when they’re happy or when they laugh, like Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop. This dog, named Geraldine, sounds pretty much like a TIE Fighter from Star Wars when she gets excited. (via @jhgard)

Voice doubles

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 06, 2016

Hello! For today’s installment of I Totally Didn’t Know This, we’re going to talk about voice doubles. When you’re making a movie or a TV show and you’re in the editing phase, cutting a trailer, or doing promotional videos, sometimes you need some extra dialogue that you didn’t get during the main filming. So you get the actor to come in to do the new dialogue. But sometimes, if the actor is famous and super busy, they might not be available. So there are voice actors whose job it is to impersonate the real actor’s voice. Saaaaay whaaaaat?

It’s an example of ADR, Automated Dialogue Replacement. Amy Landecker, who plays Sarah Pfefferman on Transparent, has done this job for movies starring Julia Roberts. She sounds amazingly like Julia:

She even did most of Julia’s dialogue in this Duplicity trailer:

Jim Hanks has done voiceover work for his brother Tom in the past:

He does the voice for Woody in all the Toy Story video games…it’s not an exact match, but it’s pretty good. (via vulture)

Update: Nolan North voice doubles for Christopher Walken.

(via @Han_So)

This car’s glove box plays light jazz

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 26, 2016

When you open the glove compartment on this car, it sounds like light jazz. And with that, it’s time inaugurate a new tag on the site: things that sound like other things, which includes my all-time favorite, this shovel falling sounds exactly like Smells Like Teen Spirit. (via @kepano)

The most amazing whistler in the world

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 23, 2016

Steve Wiles is a band director from Oklahoma who is a extremely talented whistler. Wiles can whistle two melodies at the same time.

Competitive whistler Christopher Ullman is pretty good too — he doesn’t kiss before competitions and his best friend is a tube of Chapstick.

When Roger Whittaker whistles, he sounds like a damn bird! Pavarotti was also not too shabby a whistler.

The 40th Anniversary Edition of the Voyager Golden Record

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 22, 2016

Just launched on Kickstarter: a gorgeous reproduction of the Golden Record that was included on the Voyager space probes when we shot them into space almost 40 years ago. The records contained images and sounds from Earth that some extraterrestrial civilization may someday view and listen to.

The Voyager Golden Record contains the story of Earth expressed in sounds, images, and science: Earth’s greatest music from myriad cultures and eras, from Bach and Beethoven to Blind Willie Johnson and Chuck Berry, Senegalese percussion to Solomon Island panpipes. Dozens of natural sounds of our planet — birds, a train, a baby’s cry — are collaged into a lovely sound poem. There are spoken greetings in 55 human languages, and one whale language, and more than one hundred images encoded in analog that depict who, and what, we are.

This is so cool. When I was doing the packages with Quarterly, one of the ideas I had on my list was to replicate the Golden Record. The production values would have been a lot more limited than this effort and the rights issue is ultimately why I never pursued it:

The overwhelming majority of the funds raised from this historic reissue will go directly to the high production costs, licensing, and royalties incurred in creating this lavish box set.

See also the Contents of the Voyager Golden Record and The sounds of Voyager’s Golden Record.

Kanye West’s favorite noises

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 09, 2016

A compilation of all the unusual noises — henh! hwuah! masanoonaa! eescrong! — Kanye West makes in his songs.

Low budget THX intro sound

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 24, 2016

When you put a vacuum cleaner and a harmonica together, you get something that sounds a lot like the THX intro sound. This make me laugh SO HARD. See also the shovel that sounds like the Smells Like Teen Spirit intro.

The plates are alive with the sound of food

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 27, 2016

For an episode of food podcast Gastropod, hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley consider how sound influences our perception of food and drink.

In this episode, we discover how manipulating sound can transform our experience of food and drink, making stale potato chips taste fresh, adding the sensation of cream to black coffee, or boosting the savory, peaty notes in whiskey.

One takeaway: don’t listen to the sound of breaking glass if you want to continue eating potato chips:

He recruited 200 volunteers willing to eat Pringles for science, and played them modified crunching sounds through headphones, some louder and some more muffled, as they ate. And he found that he could make a 15 percent difference in people’s perception of a stale chip’s freshness by playing them a louder crunch when they bit into it.

“The party version” of this trick, according to Spence, was developed by colleagues in the Netherlands and Japan. Volunteers were asked to crunch on chips in time with a metronome, while researchers played crunching sounds back, in perfect synchrony, through their headphones. All was well until the researchers replaced the crunching with the sound of breaking glass-and “people’s jaws just freeze up.”

The human brain is fascinating.

How the Seinfeld theme song was made

posted by Jason Kottke   May 26, 2016

This 90s TV interview with Seinfeld theme song composer Jonathan Wolff is more interesting than you’d think. He talks through how he matched the theme to Jerry’s standup delivery tempo and how each episode’s song had to be customized the match the pacing of Jerry’s particular monologue that week. (via digg, which is particularly good today)

Update: The Sideshow podcast featured Wolff on an episode last year.

The show’s producers were having difficulty finding music that wouldn’t overpower the comedian’s opening routines. “Jerry, you’ve already given me the melody and theme,” Wolff told Seinfeld. “My job is going to be to support you and the organic nature of your voice.” Wolff sampled his own mouth noises and slapped some funky bass over it and the rest is history. He built the theme to be manipulated - the rhythm of the mouth pops, shakers, and bass notes changed ever so slightly to fit the different monologues that opened every show.

(via @TheFarceur)

Update: Here’s a recent video about Wolff and how the Seinfeld theme came to be.

Of course the network hated the song. Of course.

This sliding door sounds like a screaming R2-D2

posted by Jason Kottke   May 25, 2016

My therapist and I have yet to figure out why, but I have a soft spot for objects that do unexpected impressions of other things and people. Like this sliding door that sounds like R2-D2 screaming. Or the falling shovel that plays Smells Like Teen Spirit. Or the door that can do a wicked Miles Davis impression. Or the nightstand door that sounds like Chewbacca. I even found one of my own a few months ago: the elevator door at the old Buzzfeed office sounded like Chewbacca as well. (via @williamlubelski)

Update: Here’s a video full of things that sound like Chewbacca.

Moby Dick Big Read

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 15, 2016

As part of the Moby Dick Big Read project, dozens of people collaborated on an unabridged audiobook of Moby Dick. Each chapter has a different reader and the readers included Stephen Fry, David Attenborough, and Benedict Cumberbatch. Tilda Swinton started things off with chapter one:

(via @sampotts)

Adele’s isolated vocals from SNL

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 23, 2015

At the risk of turning this into an Adele fan site, here are the isolated vocals for her performance of “Hello” for Saturday Night Live. They are raw and flawless and real and everything pop music isn’t these days.

Update: That YouTube video got yanked, but I found the vocals on Soundcloud. We’ll see how long that’ll last.

Update: Welp, that lasted about 10 minutes. Digg has embedded their own video. How fast will that one disappear?

Online collection of digitized wax cylinder recordings

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 10, 2015

The University of California, Santa Barbara library is digitizing its collection of wax cylinders from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Over 10,000 audio files from the collection are now available online.

The UCSB Library, with funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Grammy Foundation, and donors, has created a digital collection of more than 10,000 cylinder recordings held by the Department of Special Collections. To bring these recordings to a wider audience, the Library makes them available to download or stream online for free.

This searchable database features all types of recordings made from the late 1800s to early 1900s, including popular songs, vaudeville acts, classical and operatic music, comedic monologues, ethnic and foreign recordings, speeches and readings.

(thx, greg)

Sound designing a life

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 28, 2015

The Foley Artist a charming short film on how a Foley artist would sound design a day in an ordinary life. Running hands through spaghetti noodles stands in for hair washing, a spray bottle sounds like rustling sheets, that sort of thing.

See also this fascinating short documentary about what a Foley artist does.

Edward Snowden’s Fermi Paradox solution

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 21, 2015

Edward Snowden has come up with a solution to the Fermi Paradox that I hadn’t heard of before. Maybe we haven’t discovered intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe, says Snowden, because their communications encryption is indistinguishable from cosmic background radiation.

“If you look at encrypted communication, if they are properly encrypted, there is no real way to tell that they are encrypted,” Snowden said. “You can’t distinguish a properly encrypted communication from random behaviour.”

Therefore, Snowden continued, as human and alien societies get more sophisticated and move from “open communications” to encrypted communication, the signals being broadcast will quickly stop looking like recognisable signals.

“So if you have an an alien civilization trying to listen for other civilizations,” he said, “or our civilization trying to listen for aliens, there’s only one small period in the development of their society when all their communication will be sent via the most primitive and most unprotected means.”

After that, Snowden said, alien messages would be so encrypted that it would render them unrecognisable, “indistinguishable to us from cosmic microwave background radiation”. In that case, humanity would not even realise it had received such communications.

Snowden shared his hypothesis with Neil deGrasse Tyson on Tyson’s podcast, StarTalk.

The art of sound in the movies

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 28, 2015

Skip Lievsay is one of the best sound designers in the business, having won an Oscar for his work on Gravity and worked on such films as Goodfellas, Silence of the Lambs, Do The Right Thing, and all of the Coen brothers’ movies. Jordan Kisner recently profiled Lievsay for The Guardian.

It is a central principle of sound editing that people hear what they are conditioned to hear, not what they are actually hearing. The sound of rain in movies? Frying bacon. Car engines revving in a chase scene? It’s partly engines, but what gives it that visceral, gut-level grist is lion roars mixed in. To be excellent, a sound editor needs not just a sharp, trained ear, but also a gift for imagining what a sound could do, what someone else might hear.

Mystery Show podcast by Starlee Kine

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 27, 2015

My commute these days doesn’t lend itself to listening to headphones and I can’t listen to anything with words while I work, so I don’t listen to many podcasts. But I’ve been driving more than usual this summer, so I’ve had a chance to dip into some shows, old favorites and newcomers alike.

I’ve only listened to the first three cases so far, but Starlee Kine’s new Mystery Show is particularly well done. The conceit of the show is that each week, Kine and her team of investigators solve a mystery for someone. Everyone loves a mystery, but the real draw of the show for me is Kine’s ability to get normal people to say interesting things about themselves along the way.

The second mystery concerns a not-so-popular book seen clutched in Britney Spears’ hand in a paparazzi photo. [Mild spoilers follow…listen to the show if you wish to remain unsullied.] Where did she get it? Did she read it? And if so, did she like it?

The celebrity aspect and the Britneyology was interesting — What sort of person is Britney? Is she a reader? — but the best part of the whole thing was Kine’s conversation with Dennis, a Ticketmaster customer service representative. She asked Dennis his opinion of Britney and somehow the exchange very quickly got intimate. You could feel their crackling connection right through the phone line, and seemingly out of nowhere, he utters the line, “you can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness”, which totally left me breathless. Kine, Dennis, Britney, and I, all suddenly exposed. Fantastic stuff.

Update: Ok, whoa…the Mystery Show is in jeopardy. Back in April 2016, show runner Starlee Kine was let go from Gimlet Media, the show’s producer.

This came without warning while I was in the midst of working on the second season. I’d been having trouble figuring out the new season — second seasons can be tricky — and so I’d gone away, to work on an episode. I didn’t make as much progress as I had hoped, but the season was starting to take shape. The day I returned, Alex told me the show was unsustainable. I was out. I lost my staff, my salary, my benefits, my budget and my email address. Mystery Show is the only show this has happened to at Gimlet. Just a few months prior, iTunes voted it Best Podcast of the Year.

It sounds like Kine’s got a plan to get the show back on track. I really hope that happens…it was a great show.

The Sunshine Hotel

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 20, 2015

Two weeks ago, 99% Invisible broadcast an audio documentary from 1998 about one of the last remaining flophouses on The Bowery in NYC called The Sunshine Hotel. It is an amazing time capsule from a Manhattan that just doesn’t exist anymore.

The Sunshine Hotel opened in 1922. Rooms — or really, cubicles — were 10 cents a night. The Sunshine, like other flop houses, was always a men-only establishment. In 1998, the hotel had raised it’s rates to 10 dollars a night and it was managed by resident Nathan Smith. He sat behind a metal cage at the front desk, answering the phone and doling out toilet paper to residents for 35 cents. Smith had once worked in a bank until he was injured, and then fired. His wife left him and he ended up in the Bowery, and eventually at the Sunshine Hotel.

The interviewees sound like they’re characters in a play, not real people. It’s so good. There is also a documentary film released in 2001 about The Sunshine Hotel which is available on Amazon Instant; here’s a trailer:

The Problem We All Live With

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 17, 2015

Oh man, this episode of This American Life on desegregation and the Normandy School District (aka the Missouri district that Michael Brown attended) just totally wrecked me. Tears of sadness and rage.

Right now, all sorts of people are trying to rethink and reinvent education, to get poor minority kids performing as well as white kids. But there’s one thing nobody tries anymore, despite lots of evidence that it works: desegregation. Nikole Hannah-Jones looks at a district that, not long ago, accidentally launched a desegregation program.

America likes to pride itself on its focus on the importance of education and everyone getting a crack at living the American Dream, but as this story makes clear, neither of those things are actually true. See also part two of the series and Hannah-Jones’ series on segregation at ProPublica.

The long legacy of a short life

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 13, 2015

The Rosses were expecting twins but learned that one of the two, Thomas, wouldn’t live much past birth. They decided to donate Thomas’s body to science. And then, they decided to investigate just what it was they had given and how it had helped others. Great piece by Radiolab.

See also this piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The next day, Gray met James Zieske, the institute’s senior scientist, who told her “infant eyes are worth their weight in gold,” because, being so young, they have great regenerative properties. Thomas’ corneas were used in a study that could one day help cure corneal blindness.

Thirteen more studies had cited that study. Gray felt a new emotion: pride.

Online library of animal sounds

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 06, 2015

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has digitized their vast library of animal sounds, dating back to 1929, and made them available online.

It took archivists a dozen years to complete the monumental task. The collection contains nearly 150,000 digital audio recordings equaling more than 10 terabytes of data with a total run time of 7,513 hours. About 9,000 species are represented. There’s an emphasis on birds, but the collection also includes sounds of whales, elephants, frogs, primates and more.

Even with those thousands of hours of recordings, some contemporary species remain unrecorded. The library maintains a list of their most wanted calls. On the list for North America are the Arctic Loon, Shiny Cowbird, and Surf Scoter. (via @alexismadrigal)

The sounds of Voyager’s Golden Record

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 29, 2015

When they were launched in 1977, the two Voyager spacecraft each carried with them a 12-inch gold-plated copper record containing images and sounds of Earth for the viewing pleasure of whichever aliens happened across them. NASA has put the sounds of the Golden Record up on Soundcloud. Here are the greetings in 55 different languages (from English1 to Hittite to Polish to Thai):

And the sounds of Earth (wild dogs, Morse code, trains):

What’s missing from the two playlists is UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim’s greeting:

…as well as several other UN greetings overlaid with whale sounds:

Due to copyright issues, also missing are the 90 minutes of music included on the record. Among the songs are Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry, The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky, and Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground by Blind Willie Johnson. Here Comes the Sun by The Beatles was originally supposed to be included, but their record company wouldn’t allow it, which is pretty much the most small-minded thing I have ever heard.

  1. The English greeting was spoken by Nick Sagan when he was six years old. Nick is the son of Carl Sagan, who chaired the committee that selected the contents of the record.