Close your eyes for a moment and focus on your sense of hearing. What do you hear when you open your ear lids and listen to the soundscape around you?

Most media designers are well educated in visual design and have the ability to see the unusual in what to others often find ordinary and or mundane. Yet few of these same designers have learned to listen. This results in an unbalanced orientation to design with an emphasis on the visual with little attention to the unique contribution sound can make in a production.

This article explores listening to the soundscapes we experience daily, and thinking about those we soundscapes we create as media designers.

Sound is invisible and without borders. It comes to us from all directions.

We hear sounds that originate beyond our immediate setting and arrive as frequency waves pushing through the air. It is this ability to hear at a distance that gives us clues as to activities beyond our other senses.

As I write, for example, I hear the traffic outside my apartment. I can tell by the ebb and flow of vehicles what is going outside on the street. I know it is raining. A siren suggests a first aid call.

I also hear, coming from a mile or two away, the sound of a train arriving at the station while at the same time ten miles in the opposite direction an airplane is taking off. In the foreground I hear my fingers striking the keyboard, the gentle hum of my computer, and music I have playing as background. My soundscape is a complex array of sound sources creating a very spatial listening experience as I prepare this article.

Sound cannot be fixed and held like a photo. Sound exists in time. Without time, for example, there would be no music or spoken language.

It is impossible to "show" anything with an audio recording. A dog on the motion picture screen is a specific breed of dog determined by how it looks and behaves. The audio image of a "dog" exists as the sound of panting, barking, growling, or howling. With experience we can determine, perhaps, the bread of dog, the size of the animal, and perhaps other characteristics. But that comes only from attentive listening over a period of time.

In order for us to make sense of sound we must give it attention. Sound is abstract and it comes only through practice that we know a sound making object by its timbre, pattern, and frequency such as that of our pet that distinguishes it from a neighbor's dog.

An auditory scene can be thought of as a composition composed of perhaps three acoustic layers.

The foreground or first layer includes the primary sounds that attract and hold our attention. The filling of a glass with water, opening a squeaky closet door, or someone talking to you are examples of key sounds that may demand attention.

A middle ground or second layer provides a contextual setting for the sound. With the glass of water, as an example, there is the acoustic dynamics of the sink (metal, porcelain)and the room (hard reflective surfaces) which provide an associative aural context around filling the water glass.

A background or third layer provides information about the larger ambient field against which the principle sound is heard. I mentioned earlier that I could hear a variety of sounds beyond my immediate place here in the office as I write that give me a sense of space and distance. This ambient field provides the ground against which sounds takes place. We hear nothing in isolation.

An audiovisual designer needs to be a good listener and to practice deconstructing auditory scenes. Understanding how the sounds of daily life give form and meaning to one's experiences sharpens the skills needed to construct effective soundtracks for games, multimedia, film, television, and other media.

Let's try an exercise in deconstructing a soundscape. Listen to this soundscape example (248K Quicktime movie) and answer the following questions.

  1. What are the primary sounds - those that most attract your aural attention?
  2. How does the acoustic context or environment modify the primary sounds?
  3. What are one or two secondary sounds?
  4. Are you able to define the foreground, middle ground, and background layers in this soundscape?
Attentive listening skills can be developed by practicing regular listening activities.

Take a soundwalk each week. The purpose is to simply listen to the environment. Walk alone so you aren't tempted to talk. And choose different places from time to time - although repeating a place has benefits as time of day or different seasons will effect the acoustic dynamics.

When you get home write down what you heard on your soundwalk. This is a debriefing activity that will help you identify key sounds in the soundscape and how they relate to the total ambient field.

Keep a sound journal. Make note of acoustic environments that interest you. Note details about each soundscape and how that environment affected you. This reservoir of background knowledge will be of value when needing to create a sound scene for a media production such as a cityscape, rural country scene, or an ocean theme park experience.

In terms of improving one's awareness of sound in media production a good exercise is to watch a taped TV program with the sound off for a while. Try to imagine what sounds should be there to enhance the visuals. Write down some of those sounds. Remember, sound is excellent for describing invisible things in a scene like the off-screen traffic, the overhead jet, the man begging for change in the background. Things that may never appear on screen as visible things, but are critical to uphold the illusion of the setting. After watching all or part of a program watch it with the sound turned on. Anyone who thinks that sound in media isn't important is missing the big picture.

Opening your ear lids and listening to the soundscape will facilitate your working with audio design. Your listening ear will be more aware of the acoustic elements which compose an auditory scene. Your recording in the field will be enhanced because you've learned to listen. And, your construction or design of multi-layered soundscapes in the studio will also be improved.