Shifting Perspective in FPS Sound Design

"Operation Blood Storm", a Call of Duty Infinite Warfare campaign level I was responsible for completing sound design and mixing, had an interesting 40 second scripted event finale. Although this section of the campaign featured giant shooting space lasers and dramatic depressurization set pieces, this scripted ending was primed for novel use of a shifting perspective. Visually we remain in the cockpit for the entirety of the scene, but there was an opportunity to attenuate near sounds to focus on events outside the cockpit. Surprisingly, this is something we as listeners do daily. Check out the scene below. I included the gameplay lead-in to give the scene some context.


The above busy scene with voice over, exposition, distant events, and constant near field danger presented unique audio challenges. The scene begins with a crippling hit on your pilot's "Jackal" (a SATO airspace fighter). This transitions the player instantaneously from free range flight combat gameplay to an on-rails finale. Though scripted, the player maintains limited head movement control throughout the scene. Once your pilot, Reyes, stabilizes the Jackal and radios for help, the "Olympus Mons" has a dramatic entrance into the scene, hurling out of control over head towards a distant cruiser, the "Retribution". The collision and subsequent explosion are an obvious focal point not only because of the dramatic visuals, but because the scene benefits from being organized into before and after the explosion.

The first 6 seconds of the event's audio are focused on in-cockpit sounds. The impact of the projectile, ship diagnostics and alerts, Jackal shakes and vibrations, and fire. As the ship stabilizes I decided to help transition the player's ears from inside the ship, to listening outside. The ominous fanfare we hear of the Olympus Mons approaching behind us is mixed heavily to rear speakers in surround sound to give us the first directional sound we hear in the scene. I use this opportunity to drop out Jackal vibrations and cockpit sounds.

Our ears naturally attenuate to accommodate our focus as we navigate daily life. Much like our eyes focus on near field objects and relax to take in a large landscape, our ears do the same. This processing of specific parts of auditory information in the brain is called "selective auditory attention". We experience this when we are in a loud restaurant and tune out ambient conversations and kitchen noises to focus on our dinner guest's joke. We can further push the conversation into the background and focus on the lyrics of the song playing over the restaurant's speakers, then quickly localize the sound of a broken glass behind us, and finally back to hear our dinner guest's punch line. The changing focus of our ears can lessen sensitivity to other unrelated sounds. Rather than presenting the player with all the auditory information in the scene simultaneously, shifting our focus lets me simulate selective hearing with mix and sound design to create an immersive experience.

Once our cockpit is silenced by the Olympus Mons, the giant damaged cruiser cutting into the scene overhead, we hear brief radio contact before our focus is shifted completely away from our cockpit. The audio of the scene is now exclusively focused on the unfolding distant events. Many sound designers might choose to continue ship vibrations, alarms, and fire, but I felt there was little new auditory information to communicate inside of our ship. Continuing nearfield audio might interfere with the priority collision and explosion we want to hear and feel. It is important that we hear the Olympus Mon's bottom engines fire as Ethan attempts to "pull up" avoiding the ship directly in his path. Next, a rapid succession of small explosions report as the Olympus Mons collides with the Retribution, the other damaged cruiser. The entire audio perspective is distant and focused outside of our ship despite us being heavily damaged and on fire. And we'll need a stylistically smooth and practical way to transition back to nearfield events in preparation for the rest of the scene. The first invisible wave of the nuclear-like explosion mutes the entire mix and even cuts out Ethan's radio line briefly. This initial punch of the explosion is more felt than heard.

If you watch carefully, the player's Jackal shakes at the same time we see the bright flash of a final explosion. Then the blue pulse wave of the explosion is triggered. Barring a discussion on the fictional technology of this universe, and the acoustical universe that communicates sound in space, this initial and nearly instantaneous tremor indicates that there are layers to the explosion radiating out at different speeds.

Following this initial flashing explosion is a second blue shock wave. I used this second energy wave that impacts our fighter to bring the mix back to nearfield for the remainder of the scene. After all, the wave visually bridges the gap between far and near. Our Jackal is shaken and pushed by the shockwave. More cockpit alerts fire off as waves of atmosphere pulse over our rapidly descending ship. The mix has returned to the space in our small cockpit. Our ally Salter enters screen right in her Jackal to survey our damage while we pass out from rapid descent. There is a lot of information packed in this 37 seconds, and the goal was to keep the scene focused, immersive, and flowing.

This there-and-back-again idea was a fun audio approach to enhance the scene. It enabled me to organize compound events, focus the player, and push us into different parts of the scene's space without leaving our cockpit. Ideally, the player won't be aware of what sounds are pushed out of the mix, because their eyes and ears are locked onto the priority stimulus. This is no different than us consciously spying on another table's whispers, listening to a glass break in the kitchen, traveling up into the chorus of a radio pop song, and cutting off background for a conversation all while seated at our restaurant table. Our dinner party is the space battle and our seat is in the cockpit. 

Film mixes that typically juggle huge music scores and vital dialogue, benefit from sound design focusing on one or two sounds at a time. And a television show's dialogue mix can aggressively duck backgrounds. But mimicking selective auditory attention is a technique that is particularly effective in first person perspectives when sensorial focus changes. Awareness of how you listen will help you make intelligent and creative choices when mixing for immersion. 

Accurate confidence: Assessing your skills and redefining audio professionalism.

Though I hope none of you ever have your daughter kidnapped, I encourage you to cultivate your inner Liam Neeson a la "Taken", as you prepare for your next audio gig. Gaining entry into the world of game, television, or film audio is an intimidating task. And you'll want to be confident you have 'a very particular set of skills' that you can angrily recite over the phone to a headhunter or in-house recruiter. If you can't specify what talents, creativity, or technical abilities you can bring day one to a project, you know what you need to work on. Become a critic and analyze professional work. Then be able to recreate or improve upon it. Designing a challenging trailer, or scoring an existing film cue makes up a wonderful training regimen. It will expose the tools and talents you still lack while providing you with an A/B professional comparison. Good results make fine demo reel candidates if you don't have school or contracted projects to show off. This article is for Liam Neeson's who have developed a competitive skill set, but aren't sure how they'll react to having to use them in high pressure professional situations.

Higher level audio jobs still hold a certain mystique. Network television composers and video game sound designers occupy jobs with day to day responsibilities that differ dramatically between peers. A mentor who works in your target medium is an invaluable source to answer the question, "what is it like to work at the next level?".  Understanding your skills and having a context for professional work is crucial. Whether you have access to a mentor or not, be open to having your definition of an audio professional obliterated. 

 There is a strange thing that happens when we assemble our portfolios. Not only do we show off our past accomplishments, but we hint at what our ideal future project is. This is creating a brand. A brand is useful to an employer because they want to see what you are good at, what your experience is, and what you are interested in. The problem is that brands are inherently inaccurate. No one competing for a gig wants to associate themselves with mediocrity. Therefore their reel is a set of highlights and ideal circumstances. Professionals know how to assess your reel, but do you?

Amateur runners wanting to improve their times are plagued by the same phenomenon. We make excuses for all the runs where we cramped or bonked out. And our best time, no matter how much it deviates from our average, is what we associate ourselves with. Often times, this is an unconscious bias we must struggle to break. Hanging on to your fluke 15K time and forgetting the twice a month you blow your pace and bonk out is not going to help you perform in your next race. At the starting line, confidence in your abilities is important. But it needs to be a useful confidence. Accurate confidence.

Are you as fast as you think you are?

Are you as fast as you think you are?

I used to think professionals had opportunities handed to them. Comfortable projects with extra resources tailor built for their honed skill set. And in some situations, this can be the case. But for the most part, an audio professional is handed a problem. I've been fortunate enough to work under wonderful leads and directors who were committed to helping me do my best work. But I still struggle at times with my creativity to troubleshooting balance. Having talent isn't how the money is earned. Using your talent to solve the problem is.

While breaking into professional audio, I discovered how rare it is to work within ideal parameters. You don't hear about it because you aren't the only one with a brand. The professional world has a brand it protects too. Many of us start in the comfort of a college/home studio with the tools we know, choosing the projects we are good at, working within our own time frame, and with ourselves as the client we are pleasing. Just as young runners tend to run the routes they like, at the time of day that fits their schedule, with roads they are familiar with, and when their legs are fresh. But a race doesn't care how your legs feel, what the weather is like, or if you've ever seen the course before. Neither do the runners you are competing against. Those finishing in front either thrive outside of their comfort zone, or train for it. This concept obliterated my naive definition of an audio professional. Understand that many of your favorite films, shows, and games were rushed, under budgeted, and heavily compromised.  If under the worst circumstances you still hit your target audio quality on schedule and can please your client, you are a professional. 

Don't be shell shocked if you get your dream gig/contract and find that you have half the time you need to hit the quality you're accustomed to. Be prepared to learn a new operating system or DAW. Or to only have a small chunk of the plugins and instruments you prefer. Be ready to work in your weakest genre and with demanding clients. Dialogue editors should expect to make unusable dialogue, somehow usable. Some of you for your first in house gig where you imagined sprawling sound stages and assistants at your call may find yourselves at a tiny cubicle with headphones and no speakers. Or with a project manager who is a poor communicator. It is rare for a professional job to exist in a pure vacuum of creativity. Expect to spend much of your time trouble shooting the OMF file from the editor that Pro Tools won't open, or figuring out how to build out the level of the game you can't get running.

The professional world is the opposite of your bedroom or college studio. This is a world that revolves around profitability, speed, compromise, and adaptation. These adversities may be absent from influencing the results of your early reels. But hopefully your professional gig provides you with tools and guidance you previously didn't have access to.  Don't be discouraged in your brand! This insight is meant to bring awareness to how complicated and challenging professional media workflows and development cycles are. Be confident you can reach your full potential after adjusting to your new work environment. If your self-assessments were overly optimistic, your misevaluation may leave you out of your depth. Many audio engineers working in indie film expand their comfort zone from an immaculate edit and large ADR budget, to a locked edit with a few alternate dialogue takes to choose from.  Don't cramp up at your next gig! Adjust your ideal parameters and widen your comfort zone. 

Start training by working outside of your comfort zone. Can you score a cue in 8 hours today? Can you edit out your dialogue pops manually?  Could you design your last project's audio successfully without your go to EQ? Your results may not be perfect, but could they satisfy a client? This practice will ensure that no matter how rainy or hilly the view is from the starting line of your next project, you have an applicable set of skills that give you a strong opportunity to finish in front. Your reel may not showcase creative or technical compromises that are part of the job you are pursuing.  This is why accuracy in your self-assessment is a necessity. Redefine your perception of professionalism, increase the versatility of your skill set, and expand your creative comfort zone. One day you may get a call you hadn’t expected. Professionals thrive when handed problems, how about you?

It's Gotta Be the Shoes...

What would you do if you woke up tomorrow with a large lump sum of money to invest solely into your audio career?

Hans Zimmer's Studio

Hans Zimmer's Studio

While you mull over your imaginary investment, lets look at another famous thought experiment. A sixteen year old Einstein couldn’t ignore a hunch. He felt that light didn’t behave the way the rest of the world thought it did. But technology was lacking for physical experimentation. Because this was 1895, he used the most powerful simulator available to him - his imagination. He started racing around the universe with a beam of light. His intuition told him that the race he experienced would be different from the same race a neutral spectator observed. He then began to watch himself race a beam of light around the universe from other view points. Sometimes he’d pull out a mirror while surfing a beam of light and look at his reflection. He imagined trains that could travel at incredible speeds. He’d take clocks aboard and bounce light around the cabin from a flashlight while chugging along at the speed of light. He realized no matter how fast he was going, he couldn’t feel the effects of gravity while moving with it. He observed, tested, analyzed and iterated with creativity as his only limitation. These brain simulations eventually lead to an insight that he referred to as the happiest thought of his life. Years later he published a short paper with a small equation regarding this happy thought. Relativity. Einstein challenged the world to test the phenomenon he had already explored and calculated in the confines of his imagination. A century later, satellites, atomic clocks, and super computers continue to confirm the superior testing he had conducted in the laboratory of his mind.

The BBC’s Sherlock Holmes character was able to defuse bombs, organize interrogations, and even survive life threatening injuries by virtue of his ‘mind palace’, a variation on the ‘method of loci’ that used spatial memory to store ‘data’. This ancient mnemonic system takes advantage of memorization through forming imaginary structures of images that are associated with a desired target. Because the classic “Every Good Boy Doing Fine” was too sexist at the time I was a music teacher, I relied on "Even George Bush Doesn’t Free Animals" to help students remember their bass clef spaces for the musical notes: E G B D F and A. The mental image of the then president caging up cute animals was enough to trigger a phrase that organizes the ascending spaces of a bass clef staff, which is a special organization of a range of musical pitches in a larger musical language even though the catalyst image is complete fiction. In every day conversations we unconsciously ascribe ideas to our hands and extend digits one by one as we activate the list we are reciting. We exercise our brains so it can do more work. Musicians experience all sorts of physical stimuli from hearing music. We might drum, air guitar, or tense and release with corresponding dissonance and resolution. These can even be thought of as physically interfacing with the intangible. I’ll ask you to pause reading and find where the first “the” is, in the song “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. You may find with surprising ease your ability to access the song’s lyrics and melody, fast forward the song quickly in your head and slow it down on “up above the world so high…”, while preserving the pitch of the song. Hardware and software can't manipulate audio as elegantly and delicately as your brain just did. The brain is incredible! Young Einstein’s ‘mind lab’ provided an immaterial solution to a physical problem. He felt the weightlessness of space nearly a hundred years before astronauts did. These surreal meditations and resulting visions are a case study in the creative process. But Einstein’s lack of tools may have helped focus his mind palace and change the world.

A 22 year old Beethoven also had a hunch he couldn’t ignore involving a poem written by Friedrich Schiller and a theme simple enough for a child to plunk out on a keyboard. He had the foresight to recognize the theme’s opportunity for development, and the patience to store it away in his mind palace and run simulations. This idea would live, breathe, and receive nourishment completely within his intellect for the next 19 years before it took shape into one of the most astonishing accomplishments in all of art. But in 19 years Beethoven would be completely deaf. His entire creative livelihood was dependent upon the accuracy his mind could recreate music he could no longer physically hear. Just as Einstein would die before physically entering space or traveling through time, Beethoven would never physically hear his 9th symphony even while conducting it. Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” poem, modified for the choral finale, would personify the deep satisfaction of Beethoven’s triumph over tragedy and deafness with his finely tuned imagination. This symphony, never heard by the composer, would resonate with audiences like no other symphony before.

We composers, sound designers, and producers have an interesting relationship with technology. Music of all the fine arts is the most influenced by technology. The evolution of musical theory, aesthetics, and genres is locked in step with the evolution of musical tools. Equal temperament tuning, mixing consoles, amplifiers, copper tubing for brass instruments, the microphone, fretted strings, the synthesizer, the pipe organ, the turn table, the radio, and surround sound are a smattering of influential technological developments in music and audio. Where theoretical physicists and classical composers could shape the future of the world with ideas and ink, audio professionals now rely on more tools than ever to interface with media, distribution, and audio fidelity. We not only have to come up with an idea, we have to test it, execute it, and demonstrate it.

Let’s return to the opening thought experiment that was hopefully cooking in your subconscious mind oven. What investments in your music and audio career did you decide would bring about the most progress? Most of your brains envisioned dazzling floated studios, pristine sound treatment, modular synths, large vocal booths, SSL consoles, and velvet couches for clients to sink down into while sipping wine as they bask in the magnificence of your art. And for a creative person, this is a really dull and disappointing answer to a simple question.

Here’s another thought experiment. You now have Hans Zimmer’s beautiful studio pictured above as your personal work space. Now what? Well I suppose you learn how to use the gear, make presets, and templates. Awesome! What magical force will flow out of that gear, seize you, and empower you to suddenly become a great composer. Will you spontaneously develop the ability to compose at a higher proficiency? Will your ears become sharper? Have you ever written a score as good as Ennio Morricone? Have you ever produced something as sublime as Brian Eno? Did you ever design a sound as interesting as Ben Burt? No? Then why do you need their gear? You should want their talent and creativity! Talent and creativity can be developed for free. But like Einstein found out, time may be the variable in question. 

None of us are under the delusion that a pen and paper puts us in the same company as Einstein and Beethoven. Or that an indie car makes us peers of Mario Andretti. Does an expensive studio put you in the same company as Phil Spector or Brian Wilson? Some of you may say, ‘of course not, but it would improve my career!’ The real question is, do you think the people mentioned above are successful because of their tools? Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” So, let’s make sure we are asking the right questions of ourselves. If you are encountering challenges, ask yourself what is going on. What does this project need? What is the main idea in this mix? Why is this chorus dull? Why is this snare so quiet? What can I do to make sure I don’t make this mistake again? If you aren’t creating good ideas or perceiving bad ones, Hans Zimmer’s studio is of no use to you. And if you are already making great music then you probably don’t need his studio

"This sounds great, what were you thinking when you created this? What sparked the idea to record this sound this way? Why did you choose to develop this subject with this orchestration? " I’m struck by the questions I never hear audio professionals ask about the work they admire. With the myriad of decisions, processes, influences, and techniques that contribute to well crafted music and sound design, peers are most interested in the material.  Sitting down with Hans Zimmer and inquiring about his artistic process would be a lot more helpful than access to his gear. “I like this track… what DAW are you using?” This common question is kind of insulting to be asked. It insinuates that the main contributor to your work isn’t your talent. It isn’t really even you. I call it “Air Jordan Syndrome". It originates with the belief that Michael Jordan’s incredible ability to dunk had nothing to do with him jumping up and down for 300 reps multiple times a day for years. As Spike Lee said looking into the camera in the famous Nike commercial, “It’s gotta be the shoes”. This is why as a kid, I observed everyone who wanted to be good at basketball, buying Air Jordans before they ever set foot on a court. (I got the Dennis Rodman's with the zipper because I was an individual). There are an adult set of Air Jordanites whose philosophies have a stranglehold on the audio industry. They are gear heads. Gear head syndrome may be the reason music lessons, apprenticeship, music theory, books, recordings, tutorials, residencies, and concert tickets didn’t come to mind when you were asked how you’d invest in your talent in our thought experiment.

It's Gotta Be the Shoes...

It's Gotta Be the Shoes...

There is a growing consensus that a "professional sound" cannot be achieved without specific studio prerequisites. It is an idea often propagated by amateur producers on forums who worship the gear gods running those forums. There is no paint by numbers system to achieving a great sounding mix. A veteran will tell you that they use their ears. But there is more interest in the engineer’s console than interest in how he trained his ears. “It’s gotta be the console”. It can be comforting to latch onto tangibles like wall treatment, studio monitors, and sample libraries. You can read a guide on room treatment and calibration. You can become an authority on signal processing. But you can't find musicianship, intuition, instinct, inspiration, and creativity on sale at Interface with the intangible. 

It is scary for young producer’s to learn Skrillex made some of his best tracks on a laptop with headphones. It scares bands to learn The Beatles recorded some of their hits on a 4 track. And it scares designers when they find out the simple vintage sounds Ben Burt combined for some of the incredible sound effects in Star Wars. It is scary for vocalists to learn Frank Sinatra would record hits with a single take. It is scary to come to terms with the fact that what goes on between your ears determines the success of your work. "I already possess the tools I need to make a good mix or sound. It's not my tools failing me, it's me failing me!”, This is a happy and honest thought. It is no longer the responsibility of your wallet, speakers, or DAW when you reject Air Jordan Syndrome. It becomes your responsibility. And it is a responsibility you can’t buy your way out of. But the idea that professional music and audio comes exclusively with an expensive took kit is very comforting. It alleviates the pressure on improving your ideas, talents, and ears and pushes the responsibility away from you. "Of course [insert admired artist] is successful. He/she has expensive X-Y-Z gear and mastering that I do not have access to. It simply can't be that he/she works harder than me. Ahhh, now I feel better! I'll save up for that new SSL hardware and then I'll have the ability to make better music". This may be a happy thought, but it is not an honest one. There is a murky materialism that pulls focus onto gear, and off of the ideas going into it.

Proper monitoring, expensive libraries, acoustic treatment, of course can and will help. Most professionals attest to their tools being of great value. But it is because they understand their relationship to their tools and how to use them as a springboard to ideas, instead of a substitute. Of course a singer needs a quality microphone. But an expensive microphone is of no use to a singer who can't stay on pitch. When Seth MacFarlane (creator of family guy, talented voice actor and singer) wanted to improve his ability to croon like his idol, 'one take Frank' Sinatra, he didn’t buy Sinatra’s mic.  He found the 90 year old couple who trained Sinatra and took lessons. Abbey Road studio fees won’t give you a license to Beatles quality songs. Air Jordans won’t help you dunk. And no, a mastering engineer probably can’t fix your sloppy mix.

Fredrik Chopin was a keyboard composer. And like most of his contemporaries, his piano was his 'audio work station'. It was his tool to test ideas. His proficiency with the piano allowed him to instantly experiment, iterate, and react to the music heard in his head. Chopin had such an extraordinary relationship with his piano, that he rarely played a piece the same way twice. This made recording a definitive version to paper a creative challenge. The pianist-critic Karl Filtsch recalled: “When it came to writing down and recapturing an original inspiration, Chopin endured days of nervous strain and terrible despair”. Does this sound familiar? So how did Fredrik Chopin overcome these challenges and cement himself as one of the great romantic composers? He didn’t buy more pianos. He didn’t wait for a new keyboard to be invented. He didn’t blame his circumstances. He took sole responsibility and relied on his work ethic. As the novelist “George Sand” wrote watching her lover, Chopin work:

“His creative power was spontaneous, miraculous. It came to him without effort or warning . . . . But then began the most heart-rending labor I have ever witnessed, It was a series of attempts, of fits of irresolution and impatience to recover certain details. He conceived a melody as a whole, but when he tried to write it down he analyzed it too much, and his regret at not recovering it in clear-cut form plunged him –buy his own account—into a sort of despair. He would shut himself in his room for days, pacing up and down, breaking his pens, repeating and modifying one bar a hundred times. . . . He would spend six weeks over a page, only to end by writing it out finally just as he had sketched it in the original draft.”

This despair sounds as much fun as jumping up and down 300 times in multiple sets to strengthen your legs. It sounds as much fun as locating a retired voice coach for lessons. Homework sucks, buying stuff is fun. If you are looking for fun solutions to serious problems in your work, by all means, get a new toy and enjoy it. But if you aren’t getting the results you want, before you put the responsibility on your circumstances, ask yourself the right question. Am I willing to spend 6 weeks on this single problem like Chopin? Do I even care that much? Or is my progress contingent on time and ease? Failure is a big part of the creative process,. Your mind, your ears, your work ethic – these are your primary tools. Invest in them as much as your studio. Practice, read, and ask the right questions. When younger audio artists make excuses because of a tool they think they lack, I wish I could warp whistle them to Hans Zimmer’s studio and observe. I'm willing to bet  that rather than working on a project, they’d spend the day playing. Hoping the right combination of knobs turns and patch cables would spontaneously generate that elusive million dollar idea.

Most people know a chain saw is a worthless tool for cutting metal. They are usually surprised to find out how simple it is to cut through wood with one. And they have the foresight to know that owning a chainsaw doesn’t make them an ice sculptor. We have all experienced loading up a preset that solves all of our problems as it ignites a surge of productivity. Or processing a library sound effect to an instantly inspiring result. But let’s be clear with what happened. A plugin may have done work for you. But you decided its role in your project. Your ears recognized and discerned value and you acted upon it. The preset synth patch didn’t write the song for you. The processing and recording of that sound effect may feel like it did all the work for you, but it was your creativity that recognized its usefulness. A chainsaw can dig its teeth effortlessly into a block of ice. But discerning the complex angles, envisioning contours, and carefully carving through ice is what makes the sculpture. It isn't the chainsaw. And it still isn't the shoes dunking! When Beethoven heard the simple theme for Ode to Joy, that was the easy part. Perhaps an algorithm could have produced the melody. The hard part was conceptualizing the theme’s potential. He heard it and knew that this theme, with a lot of work, could be the crown jewel to all symphonic finales. Einstein imagined himself riding around on a beam of light. It’s a day dream anyone might conjure up during a boring meeting. But of all the great thinkers who imagined the behavior of light, how many had the vision to suspect that time itself was the variable. I keep returning to Einstein because scientists recently made a discovery Einstein predicted they would find a hundred years ago. Scientists detected gravitational waves rippling through space from two black holes colliding. I can’t help but wonder if like Beethoven, Einstein already knew what it would sound like before he heard it.

Brainstorming and conceptualizing are the most overlooked parts of being an artist today. When you get the locked edit of the film, or the takes from the vocalist you’ve been working with, or a new build of the video game, stop. Before you start flicking on gear and loading up plugins, imagine your finished product. What does it sound like? Imagine being in the room with someone the first time they hear it. What do they like about it? What do they notice? What are they focused on? What is your role in communicating these things? Imagine what comes out of the theater speakers, or car stereo of your target audience. Physically interact with the intangible. Start singing it. Start dancing to it. Picture your sounds and notes as shapes. Ask yourself the right questions, then dive into your vision. Be a surgeon. Envision the anatomy in detail, plan the cut carefully, and measure. After doing this the surgeon knows what tool to use for the incision. Imagine if the surgeon just started cutting with random scalpels until he found the problem area. Don’t bludgeon your project because you don’t want to think. Einstein said “A theory can be proved by an experiment; but no path leads from experiment to the birth of a theory.

I’m hearing lots of television, and web media with telephone quality voices. Dialogue for film is getting nuked by heavy izotope Rx processing. Nine out of ten times, a line of dialogue can be fixed with EQ, cross fades, and edits. If you don’t know how to take the energy out of a plosive with some fades and an EQ, the complicated Izotope RX workflow will only add more variables into your problem. But engineers in purchasing this powerful forensic level software feel they’ve paid the price of admission to dialogue editing and are too eager to use it. They remove every trace of noise and half the voice along with it. Can you imagine using CG to slightly blur an actor’s face in an effort to hide a bead of sweat from the hot lights on set? Izotope RX is a fantastic piece of software, and works perfectly the one in ten times it is needed. The art of dialogue editing lies within the ears. Perceiving good noise from bad noise, performance over cleanliness, clarity over loudness is what a talented editor can do.

The same goes for producers. Is the drop not sitting well with the build up? Did you start turning knobs or did you listen first? You might find it isn’t your compressor’s fault, or your synth’s fault. You might find you should have dropped the 4th beat out of the bridge build to suck the ears in to the silence before the compressors reset and smash into the chorus. Or that your louds are too soft because your softs are too loud. Or that your structure is wrong in general. Listen to other tracks you like and chart out their structures before you buy Xfer’s Serum. Listen carefully for feedback. When someone gives you the compliment that your music reminds them of a popular artist, pay attention. They’ve just told you they’d rather listen to someone else. Conceptualize what that chorus needs to do to be effective. Hear it. Then you can start turning knobs and picking tools.

If you need to interact with technology to inspire you, if you need toys to keep you from losing your creative spark, invest in new influences. If the reward and privilege of making art for yourself and others isn’t enough, and you’d rather be entertained throughout the process, invest in your work ethic. If tools are a means to imitate other people’s creativity, invest in your own creativity and find your voice. If you rely on your tools to generate content, you aren’t an artist, you are a technician. Technology should help us make better decisions, not relieve us from our creative responsibilities. Our tools should help us execute our ideas, not generate content. It should confirm or deny our intuition instead of allowing us to work on auto-pilot. When we face challenges we shouldn’t blame our tools first, or seek an immediate material solution. We ought to retreat back into our mind palace, ask the proper questions, and make art. Technology shouldn’t impress or excite us as much as the astonishing power of our mind. Just as anyone with a word processor or pen and paper has the complete tool set to write the next great novel by taking the words in their head and transferring them onto paper - I hope one day audio technology will allow anyone to record and produce the sounds in their head instantaneously. Then art can be fueled by pure ideas. Don’t be a consumer, be a creator. It’s not the shoes.