Category Archives: Sonic

Glitch & Drone Associates

Although this site is a collection of published articles on design and communications subjects, I have also just co-founded a new venture which I think is worth a mention here. It’s called Glitch & Drone Associates and is a bespoke sound and music composition service aiming to support other communications media – such as graphics, objects, spaces and words – with things sonic.

My partner at G&D is digital designer Simon Meek. We are both very much part of the design industry, but we bring a lifelong interest in music, sound and recording to the design and branding process.

There’s more about our thoughts on the value for this kind of service on the site itself, along with a few audio goodies to wrap your ears around. Email us at hello@glitchanddrone.com if you’d like to know more.

Radio heads

It is often remarked that design is everywhere. This is true not only in the sense that we are surrounded by ’designed’ objects, but also in terms of design coverage. The many and multiplying design blogs could feed even the most voracious of visual culture appetites, while sumptuous monographs and design bibles in print deliver a more tactile canon of work.

When we talk about design we usually also look at it. But what happens to the quality of discussion when designers are temporarily disconnected from the work and left without recourse to visual and physical examples?

Perhaps one of the best ways of exploring this question is to consider design on the radio. This is not a facile gag about ’having a good (type)face for radio’, but a question of how we might talk about design away from the glare of the objects themselves.

There aren’t many radio programmes or podcasts dedicated to the discussion of design, but there are a few. Adrian Shaughnessy’s Graphic Design on the Radio, produced for London’s Resonance 104.4 FM, is quite well known in the capital, and then there’s Design Observer’s Design Matters series, hosted by Debbie Millman. There is even a whole radio station dedicated to typography, Typeradio, which is produced in the Netherlands.

Another programme is 99% Invisible, a US design and architecture radio series produced and presented by reporter Roman Mars. For Mars, the audio format is well suited to design. ’Radio may not seem like the most natural medium for a design series, but it’s not as incongruous as you might think. It exposes all the thought that goes into creating things, which people scarcely ever think about, and the stories of what objects say about us. Thought and story are what radio is all about,’ he says.

Radio forces interviewees to adopt a more reflective take on their practice. Design is a process, not simply a finished ’thing’, yet often it is only the end result that we get to inspect. This sometimes creates tensions, even within the design community, because critics are seldom given access to the designers’ brief or creative process – the full story is rarely revealed.

’Designers are very happy to sit and show you work, but without those props they are actually forced to talk about something more,’ explains Shaughnessy. Mars agrees, saying, ’The programmes have to be driven by the narrative and not by the beauty or glory of the object. This is good – I have absolutely no interest in fetishising objects. And designers themselves have great stories and can tell you about every detail and the entire evolution of their thought process. They can provide the story, the big picture and a moment of reflection.’

Writing can also explore this deeper, more reflective look at design, but very often the text is accompanied by a spread of illustrative images. This is not a hindrance, but it is different to the audio format. According to Shaughnessy, only very rarely does a radio interview suffer from the lack of visual reference. One of those occasions was in Millman’s Design Matters interview with Canadian designer and illustrator Marian Bantjes.

’In the 100-plus broadcasts that I have done of Design Matters, I’ve never wanted so badly to be able to show something to my listeners as I do now, because there is really no other way to experience this book [Bantjes’ I Wonder] other than to see it,’ declared Millman during the interview. However, on the whole she says the radio format allows her ’to discuss the motivation for creating something, or the philosophy of designing, rather than [being] seduced or titillated by the thing itself’.

Moreover, Shaughnessy believes that there is a growing interest in the more ’theoretical and discursive’ elements of design. ’I couldn’t have done Graphic Design on the Radio ten years ago,’ he says. If the exploration of these elements is precisely suited to the radio format, then perhaps we shall hear more design on the radio yet.

This article was written for Design Week, 9 December 2010.

In the dark

At last year’s Tokyo Game Show the prototype for a rather unusual video game was unveiled by Tokyo Communication Arts school. While most game studios use expos to wow players with the latest in 3D graphics rendering, TCA’s Blind Braver was built almost entirely around sound. Designed for the blind, the Xbox game put players in the shoes of a partially sighted character, forcing them to navigate through an auditory rather than visual world.

Although a more complete version of Blind Braver has yet to materialise, another title currently in development in the UK will bring the basic idea to a new audience. Created for the iPhone by production company Somethin’ Else, Papa Sangre is an adventure game that takes place entirely in darkness – the phone’s screen remains impenetrably blank throughout play. Trapped in an eerie, beast-inhabited underworld, the player must travel through Papa Sangre’s various palaces using only sounds for orientation.

‘It was inspired by a theatre game called Sangre y Patatas, in which players are blindfolded and made to walk on different materials,’ says Ben Cave, Papa Sangre’s producer at Somethin’ Else. In the dark, each person is trying to avoid Sangre, the player who is the killer.

What makes Papa Sangre special is its complex 3D sound design. The game would not work without a delicately balanced sound field in which ’sound objects’ – surface textures, instruments, creatures and the like – are located precisely all around the player using ordinary stereo headphones.

Funded by Channel 4’s Innovation for the Public fund, 4iP, and developed by a multidisciplinary team, including sound designer and composer Nick Ryan, Papa Sangre uses binaural sound placement – special recordings that mimic the way the ears and brain perceive the location of sound in the real world. Binaural recording of 3D sound is not new, but unlike other binaural iPhone games such as Soultrapper by Real Time Audio Adventures, in Papa Sangre the spatialised sound effects are computed and triggered in response to the player’s movement through the environment. In other words, the binaural sound is dynamic, not pre-recorded and fixed.

Computational 3D audio on a phone is the latest breakthrough in a long history of 3D sound research and implementation, demonstrating what can now be achieved with the processor in a tiny handheld device.

‘We have been working with 3D soundscapes for ten years, so it doesn’t surprise me that people are building a binaural game for the iPhone,’ says Martyn Ware, director of Illustrious Company, a venture he co-founded with fellow musician and producer Vince Clarke. But unlike the audio world of Papa Sangre, which is created specifically for headphones, the majority of Illustrious projects have been designed for physical spaces.

‘The implications of 3D sound for exhibition and public spaces is very interesting. It’s about creating a totally immersive experience. The better the technology is at creating a sense of reality, the less apparent it is and the more affecting the experience becomes,’ says Ware.

The Dark, for example, was a touring installation produced in 2004 by Braunarts to tell the story of Britain’s role in the slave trade during the 18th century. Visitors were taken to a pitch black room containing a 3D audio environment designed by Illustrious. Left only with sound and imagination, the audience could explore ’ghost’ voices from, for example, the decks of a slave ship.

The development of a complex, three-dimensional sound world presents particular problems for sound designers and software developers, says Cave. Even with the algorithms and processing power to handle a dynamic binaural environment, some sounds are inherently easier for people to locate spatially than others. And in a system without visuals, some sounds require context, while others don’t.

But when these challenges are overcome, responsive 3D sound environments may provide a new component in interaction design. ’Could you use a 3D sound interface as a menu structure, or to browse collections of data, such as a music catalogue?’ asks Cave.

In fact, Mark Sandler, a Professor at the School of Electronic Engineering & Computer Science at Queen Mary, University of London, is researching this very idea.

As an alternative to graphic user interfaces on portable audio players, Sandler is developing ’a purely audio means of interacting with a playlist’ of songs in a music catalogue. In this system, four songs are played simultaneously through headphones, but they are separated spatially to different points in the 3D sound environment. This allows the user to listen to all four distinctly and simultaneously, navigating to the one they want either through buttons (real or virtual) or by titling the device in the appropriate direction.

The accessibility implications for the blind or partially sighted are obvious. With more powerful processors available each year and with gesture control emerging as a digital interaction technique, the possibilities for exploring three-dimensional sound worlds are tantalising.

 This article was written for Design Week, 2 September 2010.

Toucy feely

It is all starting to get a bit trippy. Delving into the world of experiential and sensory design at its most experimental is, frankly, a bit like taking drugs. In a range of projects that slip elusively through the spheres of art, design and education, we have such things as ‘distorted lamp posts’ writhing around and illuminating trees when people pass by, an ‘orchestra’ modelled on the human brain, aromas scientifically composed for a museum exhibition and a game of armflapping with chickens.

What links these projects with arguably more ‘corporate’ experiential design work – such as Imagination’s exhibition stand for Ford Europe which allows users to generate content via a ‘visual jockey’ system and project it on to a huge LED screen – is a desire to draw in the audience, often making people participants in their environment. Not surprisingly, technology frequently has a big role to play, but, thanks to an array of available sensors and wireless communications systems, it can often be rendered largely invisible, rather than intrusive.

Across museums, retail, public buildings and art installations, experience, feedback and interaction have become watchwords. ‘It’s getting easier to sell these kinds of ideas, as there’s a greater understanding of this mixed discipline,’ says Jason Bruges, founder of interactive environments and installations consultancy Jason Bruges Studio. The group is behind the tree installations at Normand Park in Fulham, London, which use light columns each bespoke-designed for its host tree. As people move past the trees, LEDs are triggered causing light to ‘grow’ up the trunk and into the canopy. Because the colour and speed of this ‘growth’ are dependent on the location and proximity of the movement, the person becomes an interactive element in the display.

Even more intriguing is a forthcoming sonic/musical work from sound designer and composer Nick Ryan, visual artist Jane Grant and composer and physicist John Matthias. The Fragmented Orchestra is modelled on the firing of the brain’s neurons and will connect 24 public sites across the UK – including a football stadium, cathedral, dairy farm, school playground, motorway crash barrier and a field – to form a ‘tiny networked cortex’. Human and environmental sounds gathered from the sites will be relayed to 24 speakers at a primary installation at the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology in Liverpool from December. The designers say the Fragmented Orchestra will adapt, evolve and trigger site-specific sounds at Fact whenever a ‘neuron’ fires.

The combined sound of the installation is in turn fed back to the individual sites and the project’s website. The results are hard to anticipate but, once again, the installation, people and environments become interactive, all feeding back to one another.

Experiential design is clearly important to museums keen to get the highest levels of engagement from audiences, and exhibition designers can provide immersive, sensory environments to achieve this. But there’s one sense that is seldom on the design brief, and that’s the sense of smell. Not so for Berlin-based smell artist/scientist Sissel Tolaas, who has spent almost 20 years investigating the properties of smell as language and communication.

For the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Fashion V Sport exhibition, which opened in August, Tolaas’ IFF research lab in Berlin has sampled and recreated the smells of human bodies undergoing sports activity, using different aromas to connect the different sections of the show. Triggering these smells, visitors will have a sensory experience which tells them that the human body is in the exhibition space.

Other museum installations are experiential without necessarily being sensory. Berlin-based Art&Com’s recent designs for the BMW Museum in Munich include the mesmerising Kinetic Sculpture, in which 714 digitally controlled metal spheres configure to form shapes, patterns and three-dimensional car outlines, seemingly floating in the air and synchronised with text and audio quotes from BMW senior staff. According to consultancy creative director Joachim Sauter, the installation illustrates, ‘the waves of thought and disorganisation’ of the design process.

Less cerebral, but equally involving, is Ico Design Consultancy’s Chicken Run game, designed for the V&A’s Village Fete, which took place in July. Players have to flap their arms to make their chickens ‘flap to freedom’. Video camera motion tracking, modified motorised chickens and radio control circuits were invisibly built into the game stall. When the amount of movement hits a predetermined threshold a radio signal instructs the chicken’s motor to start: more flapping equals more motoring.

‘The V&A wanted something with physical interaction and a lot of people thought this was quite magical, because you can’t see how it works; it’s all wireless and concealed,’ explains Ico creative director Benjamin Tomlinson.

In many ways, here lies the key to effective experiential and interactive design: the technology must not get in the way. Much of the delight and success of Nintendo’s Wii game controller – and its myriad modified uses – is that it is free and physical, not wired and restrictive. As wireless communications become omnipresent and hardware continues to shrink, we can expect more and more environments to come alive around us, seamlessly responding and reacting to input from their users.

This article was written for Design Week, 18 September 2008.

Profile: Martyn Ware

It is hard to imagine that big business has not already harnessed every possible resource in the appliance of brand management. But, says music producer and performer Martyn Ware, we have seen almost nothing of the opportunities that lie in the careful and controlled use of sound. An evangelist of the hugely affecting properties of sound in all its forms and combinations, Ware is aware that sound can – and should – be approached as a design process, just like graphics and user interfaces. Yet, of all the companies listed in the Fortune 100, ‘only about five are taking this seriously’, he estimates.

Ware’s experience in sound and electronic music runs deep. Originating in pop music (he is a founder member of The Human League and Heaven 17), his career now spans composition, production, multi-disciplinary collaboration, as well as the creation and curatorship of the experimental Future of Sound events. He also recently led a project to create a sensory space for children with special needs at Three Ways School in Bath. Meanwhile, Illustrious Company, the venture Ware set up with electro-pop peer Vince Clarke in 2001, continues to explore and push the possibilities of 3D ‘soundscaping’, where sound becomes disconcertingly untethered from the point of source speakers that are generating it.

A further venture, SonicID, lies well inside the world of design. Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of sonic branding is the sound ident itself; think of Intel’s irritatingly catchy ‘bong-bing bong-bing’ motif. But Ware quickly expands, talking about a suite of sounds like that could represent an organisation in any number of environments. Special compositions might play out on telephone ‘hold’ music or in reception areas; another piece might introduce company speakers at live events, while a website may demand a cluster of music and effects. Just as a company follows visual communication rules laid down by graphic designers in a tome of brand guidelines, so they might also manage all the sonic elements of their communication.

Ware describes the process of creating these elements in terms indistinguishable from a graphic design exercise: mood boards, selection routes, iterative refinements, and so on. Composing, or designing, sound in this way is like any other design process and – just like any other design process – the results are better when there is ‘buy-in’ at the top level of the client’s management. ‘Unfortunately, sound is used in a haphazard manner by most businesses and not many take it seriously,’ he says. ‘Also, they don’t have the vocabulary to talk about it, so we do the same as other designers and create mood boards of positive and negative attributes, and from there we start with maybe a handful of basic, sketchy compositions.’

Music and sounds for events, websites, advertisements and the like is arguably the obvious stuff, albeit much overlooked. But again Ware extrapolates further. In the coming years, he says, we will see more research into the sounds of products themselves, the click of a lipstick case or the closing of a car door, for example. This is not music, but sound as a component of experience and therefore of great interest to brand builders.

And it’s the experiential possibilities of sound that occupy much of Ware’s attention. Later this year, London’s Leicester Square will host the latest of Ware’s 3D soundscapes in a project called Soundlife London. Co-created with local community groups, associations and schools, material gathered by hand-held field recorders will be composed and organised spatially by Ware. In this way, sounds relating to, say, a church to the south-east of Leicester Square will appear to emanate from that direction when triggered by the installation.

And an even more wholly immersive experience is planned for London’s BFI Imax theatre next April, when a non-stop, 24-hour stream of performances and compositions will position sounds at various heights, as well as laterally and fore and aft of the audience. Ware plans to collaborate with ‘smell artist’ Sissel Tolaas, as well as present some pieces in darkness. ‘What I’m detecting is a desire for large-scale, communal public experiences, evidenced by the explosion in gatherings for live events like festivals,’ he says. ‘It’s a relief to move away from screens. For me, it’s all moving towards a totally immersive experience. People pay good money for these experiences.’

This article was written for Design Week, 18 September 2008.