To learn more about the medium I work in, I’ve started a sound engineering course with Saffron for Sound in Bristol. Other than feeling horrifically car sick, I had a really good time and learnt a lot. It was good to talk likeminded people, especially since we’ve all come from different backgrounds and have a different take on sound.
Week 1 was mainly about hearing and acoustics. I learnt a lot about the physical properties of sound, and different things that can affect it. Sound waves are essentially vibrations, so they need a vibrating body to ring. That’s why instruments always have a body of some sorts: the wooden body of a string instrument, the metal body of a flute, etc. Sound travels through air molecules to reach our ears and enable us to hear.
90% of sound engineering is the room you are in. Reflection, absorption, and diffusion all affect how we hear. Reflection (or reverb) creates echoes. It’s caused by the sound waves ricocheting off of reflective surfaces, bouncing the sound back. Hamilton Mausoleum has one of the longest echo times in the world:
The Royal Albert Hall, built for music performance, is one of the worst spaces for performance because of it’s huge echo caused by the domed ceiling.The problem hasn’t been solved, but the installation of large ‘mushroom’ diffusers (that absorb the echos) has improved it greatly. You can adjust the space you’re in to improve the acoustics and tailor it to what you want.
Different materials vibrate in different ways and have different affects too. Sponge, for example, absorbs sound – a good choice to absorb an unwanted echo, but not for an instrument’s vibrating body. Metal and wood are both good materials as they resonate well.
One of the most interesting parts of the session for me was learning about how we affect the sound we hear. Psychoacoustics studies how we receive sound and how it can be affected by our mood, bodily state, ideas, upbringing, etc. Biologically as well, sound differs from person to person. Women have a slightly better reception of higher sounds due to evolving to hear babies better. Our physical size, shape of our ear, etc all affects our hearing too – even our hairstyles.
Echo is something you tend to want to cut out when recording – it distorts sound, prevents a clean, editable track. I think it could be very interesting, however. I recorded a sound piece on the stairwell in 1st year, exploiting it’s echo qualities. What if the echo could create some interesting effects in the recording process? Positioning the mic in different locations from the source of the sound? Or playing tracks in the echo space?