Chris Turner Sounds Off: I Love Acoustics
If I created a custom printed mug, mouse mat or T-Shirt – or rolled words into a stick of rock - it would simply say 'I Love Acoustics'. Probably with a red love heart in place of the word 'Love'...
Now you’d think an interest in the way sound moves in different spaces would be a short-lived love affair, but actually my fascination just keeps on growing.
And I’m not alone. Take a sound designer somewhere new and the first thing they’ll to do is clap their hands to hear the acoustics of the room. We’re people obsessed by what we can’t see.
Sound is invisible, but if you left me blindfolded in any location I’d very quickly be able to tell you how big the space is, what materials it was made from, the shape of the room and my physical position in it. Because sound doesn’t sound the same in every space. By recording a short 'impulse' in a location - a clap, the pop of a balloon or a starter pistol for instance - you can accurately capture the unique acoustic characteristics of that space. These recordings are called impulse responses and they allow sound designers to impose these unique characteristics on to other recordings. This is useful. There are many occasions where it's necessary to re-record dialogue because the audio from a shoot wasn’t clear enough. So if your sound recordist has been diligent enough to capture an Impulse Response on set, you’ll be able to use it to help make the new dialogue sound exactly the same as the original.
When architects design buildings they pay particular attention to how it will be used and factor in what kind of acoustic approach would be best. For instance you wouldn’t want a church to be devoid of reverb. I’ve been in two modern churches (I knew they were modern because they didn’t have a spire). And whilst there’s no law that demands a spire on a church, only one of them felt like it was actually a church – simply because the sound reverberated for a long time. Conversely, reverb in poorly designed spaces make them difficult to work in. Open plan offices for example have been proven to lower productivity by 66% and a badly designed classroom impacts negatively on learning.
But the toughest of all environments over the past year has to be the home recording studio - so hats off to all the voice artists who’ve become amateur acousticians during lockdown. It’s not easy removing your home of unwanted noise and reverb. Being surrounded by flat, hard plastered parallel walls, a floor without carpet and a window that seems to ring when you raise your voice isn’t great to start with. Add in the lockdown puppy you thought was a good idea, the kids dancing to Go Noodle in the next room, the constant Amazon deliveries, the fridge hum, the boiler and the neighbours and there’s really only one solution – the airing cupboard. I’ve seen many a sweaty head in just this location over the past year and whilst they may be hot places to work they do make for pretty good recordings because they’re small and full of fluffy absorbent towels.
Talking of home acoustics, artist Doug Aitken went overboard when he built his home in Venice, California. He designed it to be a living instrument – with microphones hidden in his staircase, tuned to have an ascending tone. His tables double as instruments, one made from hollowed wood chambers and the other from marble and stone bars. The foundations of the house have geologically sensitive microphones that detect tectonic movement, the rumbling of traffic and the tides, all of which are amplified into the house.
Acoustics affect us all. We all perceive the world around us through sound just as much as we do through sight - it’s just that some of us are more keenly aware of it. And some, like me, become obsessed.
The reason I never tire of acoustics is because sound can sound so different in so many awe-inspiring ways - yodelling in the mountains, the ricochet of a bullet, the sonic boom of a jet breaking the sound barrier and the multitude of ways a symphony orchestra will sound in different halls.
I love to explore new places and capture their sonic characteristics. My favourite places to record are inside caves.
A couple of years ago I spent a week in Hope Cove, an area of outstanding beauty that has two sandy bays and, luckily for me, many caves. Caves are magical, not just because they were once homes to our ancestors or smugglers’ booty, but because of their acoustics.
The acoustics in a cave amplify every tiny sound and you become very aware of yourself. It can be un-nerving and you feel utterly alone. Unless of course you’re not and your 'adorable' little boy is throwing pebbles into the darkness, narrowly avoiding your head (most of the time).
In fact, Britain's coastline is full of haunting sounds that heighten your aural senses - the wind, the breaking waves, the gulls shrieking and the seals with their lamenting wails. At the coast you become intoxicated by sound.
So, it’s no surprise that the coast is rich in folklore, and from the many tales I’ve read it’s become apparent to me that sailors are the most superstitious people on earth, or sea for that matter. And a lot of that superstition is driven by sound.
They believe that whistling on a ship will summon a storm, that a Siren's singing lures people into the sea to drown and boats to crash into rocks, that seagulls carry the cries of dead sailors and that seals come ashore and take human form.
Sounds’ invisibility has led to many superstitious beliefs and not just amongst sailors. There are many architectural buildings where sound travels in mysterious ways and creates audio illusions - domes, staircases, elliptical rooms and arches. These architectural wonders can make whispers travel for unexpected distances, make footsteps moving away from you appear to get louder, create incredible echoes and even change the colour of sound and turn it into something new.
The Mayans were great architects and many of the places they designed create amazing acoustic effects. By clapping your hands near the bottom of the steps in El Castillo, a pyramid built to honour the God Kukulkan, it returns an echo that sounds like the call of the Mayans’ sacred quetzal bird. Modern architects understand why this phenomenon occurs but is it somehow possible the Mayans designed this intentionally?
So, I wish more spaces were designed to enhance our aural experience. Because, as I think I’ve already mentioned - I Love Acoustics.
Anyone for a stick of rock?