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kottke.org posts about sound

The history of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 20, 2018

BBC Radiophonic Workshop.jpg

I am a sucker for high-tech analog art: magnetic tape, early wireless, punch cards, film and vinyl, the telephone, telegraph, and typewriter, and electricity before the transformation of digital technology. Consequently, and unsurprisingly, I love the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and was delighted to read an article on its history from The Guardian.

Radiophonics owes everything to the invention of the tape recorder. Once you could capture sound, using a workable material, you could play with it: slow it down until it thundered, feed it back on itself until it shrieked and echoed, or simply slice bits out. However extreme these experiments became, there was always something eerily familiar to the ear, because they were made from real objects or events.

The term “radiophonic” came about because these mutated everyday sounds were put to the service of radio. “It is a new sound,” said the BBC, “suggestive of emotion, sensation, mood, rather than the literal moaning of the wind or the opening of a door.” Such things are now so easily achieved with digital technology that it’s hard to grasp how laborious - and groundbreaking - this all was.

The piece, riffing on a new book by does a nice job of eschewing undue nostalgia while digging into some of the Workshop’s most famous work — Doctor Who, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — while also pointing out that most of the work was on simple education programs (which nevertheless introduced whole generations to new sonic possibilities). It restores the place of the many women who came through the workshop, including the inventive Delia Derbyshire, who played a huge role even as they often couldn’t get jobs at record studios or elsewhere in the recording industry.

My only complaint: it’s too darn short. I gotta read a book or something.

A close reading of Miyazaki’s sound design in The Wind Rises

posted by Tim Carmody   Mar 12, 2018

I recently rewatched a bunch of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, although “watched” is a bit of a misnomer. I was playing them in the background while I was working, or reading, or trying to sleep, so really I was re-listening to them, and not especially closely.

This almost feels like a sin for movies as beautiful as these, but it did help me notice something. Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind looks different from Princess Mononoke or The Wind Rises, sure; however, it sounds way different. The music, the foley effects, the subtler cues, the sheer sound density are completely different from one end of the career to another.

This made me wonder whether somebody had charted this transformation. I didn’t quite find that, but I did find an outstanding series of blog posts specifically on the sound design in The Wind Rises, which stands in nicely. It’s not well copyedited, but it’s attentive and insightful. A few samples:

Jiro enters his airplane, adjusts his aviator gloves and starts the artisanal machine. By now we have noticed the sound effects of the valves and exhaust pipes made of human mouth sounds and with vocalisations. The first engine starts and it’s clear that human voice is used to portray this activity. But once the propeller activates a low rumble sound effects is introduced, and a sound effect of a servo ascending is applied to the airplane rising, triggered by Jiro’s pulling the lever, and it’s in harmony with the music score. One occurrence with the sound that emphasises the oneiric dimension of this scene is the ‘dreamy’ quality of the reverb applied on the last blow of the machine lifting before it goes crossing the skies [00:02:03].

Here’s a clip a little later in the sequence — I’d never recognized that the dream engine sounds were being made by human mouths, but once you hear it, it’s perfect.

Or consider the earthquake, detail by detail:

It is now that we are in the presence of the horror lived in this earthquake and sound plays such a big role with all its brutality. Different to the traditional approach of western film, the main elements heard are a composition of :

  • horrified human screams on a higher-pitch range,
  • medium-low pitch throat growls and groans like coming from a big beast,
  • that moves upwards in pitch as the image from the houses undulates from a farther plane to a closer one.
  • an earthy impact stinger

These elements are introduced a couple of frames before we see the houses being ripped apart.

In the next scene the audience is shown, through close-ups, how the ground is animated in brutal waves breaking and disrupting the order of all man-made constructions. We no longer hear the horrifying screams and the sound designer paints the scene with sound of the ground disrupting, by utilising rumbles and earth debris. The sounds here are in the same universe as those indicated on Jiro’s first dream - choir-like sounds mimicking up and down movements, in which the upwards vocalisations are like rising stingers.

It really helped me appreciate these movies again, as sonic masterpieces.

Baseball symphony

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 29, 2011

Music critic Anthony Tommasini goes to a baseball game at Yankee Stadium and treats the game as a musical piece.

For all the hubbub of constant sound it is amazing how clearly the crack of a bat, the whoosh of a pitch (at least from the powerhouse Sabathia), and the leathery thud of the ball smothered in the catcher’s mitt cut through the textures. And if the hum of chattering provides the unbroken timeline and undulant ripple of this baseball symphony, the voices that break through from all around are like striking, if fleeting, solo instruments.

The most assertive soloists are the vendors. My favorite was a wiry man with nasal snarl of a voice who practically sang the words “Cracker Jack” as a three-note riff: two eighth notes on “Cracker,” followed by a quarter note on “Jack,” always on a falling minor third. (Using solf`ege syllables, think “sol, sol, mi.”) After a while I heard his voice drifting over from another section, and he had transposed his riff down exactly one step.

Explore the sounds of NYC’s Lower East

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 13, 2005

Explore the sounds of NYC’s Lower East Side on the Folks Songs for the Five Points site. (thx, david)

Hong Kong walk signal

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 13, 2005

The streets of Hong Kong can be a hectic place, but one of the first things you notice is that the pedestrian street crossing signals have a very clear audio signal (one would assume, for the blind and/or very nearsighted). Some American signals has audio as well, but very few, they’re not very loud, and they generally kind of lacking. Anyway, I made an audio recording of the signals (30 sec, 240 KB mp3). The sound is kind of blown out (it’s my first experiment with the iTalk) and the signal doesn’t sound that loud IRL, but you get the gist.

The club-winged manakin sings by playing its

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 03, 2005

The club-winged manakin sings by playing its feathers like a washboard. Crickets do this, but the manakin is the first vertebrate observed to do it.

Yuri Lane demonstrates his beatbox harmonica technique

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 29, 2005

Yuri Lane demonstrates his beatbox harmonica technique. Saw this guy today at GEL…fricking great.