“We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”
Brigitte Bardot visits Pablo Picasso during the 1956 International Film Festival at Cannes. Photo: ©Jerome Brierre/Getty Images
How many times have you heard “Make it brighter?” “Blow it out.” “It’s too dark.” “Can we sharpen it?” Bright, blown, dark, and sharp are adjectives used to describe light and visuals. Yet we use them to describe a presentation, a speech, music, and even sound design. Why? Why do we use the same descriptive words to represent image and sound?
The world we’ve designed is filled with moving images. Every year it seems there is a new must-have technology, improving the way we display and capture what our eyes see — plasma, LCD, LED, 4k, the next big thing. We’ve packed so many pixels within pixels that we’re beginning to see diminishing returns on how far our visual journeys (and how we capture them) can go.
Imagine if we were champions of smell. The world would have scratch and sniff stickers on every sign. Our smartphones would release fragrances to release dopamine when we shop and serotonin when we play games. We’d describe presentations as fragrant, speeches as musty, and sound design as pungent. Many minds have come together to explore the effect of smells on our decision-making.
Fortunately we are led first by our eyes and we are able to separate sight and scent. What about our ears? Sound and vision complement each other in a myriad of ways. Where a picture can say a thousand words, what does a moving image say without sound? Closed captioning on televisions, and text on gifs try to fill-in the void when sound is not possible, but the immersive experience is lost.
(This is why companies like Conversant Labs (http://www.conversantlabs.com/) and retailers are engaged in bringing voice activation to POS terminals, and the virtual digital assistant wars are well under way between Apple, Facebook, and Google.)
Somehow, sound has become invisible. In the 1960s and 1970s, the sound system was the central focus of a living room and an essential part of a home. Guests would gather around the record player for conversation. Speakers were grand and statuesque. Receivers lit up with visual cues to various audio levels. Listeners could hear the difference between moving coil and magnet cartridges. In public spaces, the jukebox was a work of art both visually and sonically. Today, audio equipment is hidden. Speakers and lights are indistinguishable in the ceiling. The source could be a record, a compact disc, Pandora, or another streaming music service from the web. Nobody knows and few care. Even in EDM, fans go to see the lightshow and feel the bass drop rather than give any attention to the artist’s equipment. Perhaps this accounts for the clever masks of Daft Punk and mouse head of deadmau5. The visual tools of the world have shaped our expectations to pay attention to the visual and ignore the audio. Sound is concealed.
Imagine a blurry video with fantastic stereo sound. That’s the flip side of the coin we’ve grown accustomed to as visual beings: videos shot in stunning 4K, but the audio is in mono. Mono is the audio equivalent of being out of focus and having to strain your eyes to get a good view of the picture being presented.
While it’s remarkable that our phones are able to capture visual magic, we wish sound wasn’t forgotten in the mix. We risk leaving audio behind with bad equipment and ill ways of recording and playback. With more sonic tools at our disposal, maybe we would describe audio walks in terms of amplitude and compression, rather than words borrowed from the history of visual art.
Let’s have some fun and imagine a world where we have better audio tools at our disposal. The following is a list of adjectives used to describe images followed by a list with their sonic equivalents.
Now let’s take some visual filters and apply them sonically to an audio clip, using some filter names and a piece of music that should sound familiar:
XPRO II FILTER combines the processing of radiantly colored and contrast of a Lomo 35mm camera with cross-process 50mm film, greens and blues pop everywhere. “Increases color vibrance with a golden tint, high contrast and slight vignette added to the edges.”
HEFE FILTER combines the best instant self-developing of a Polaroid with warm yellowish tones and high contrast and saturation without being too dramatic.
NASHVILLE FILTER takes a twin lens vintage camera with a extremely sharp focus and accentuates the reds and magentas in an image. Lower contrast with warm temperatures and increased exposure gives a nostalgic feeling.
Maybe one day a customer will look at a photograph and say, “can we pump the amplitude a bit?” and the photographer will understand exactly what they’re talking about.
From One Ear To Another,