Tuning in to Soundwriting

Soundscapes: Rhetorical Entwinements for Composing Sound in Four Dimensions

by Kati Fargo Ahern

4. Four Dimensions of Soundscape Design

Essentially, soundscapes are composed through choices made along four main dimensions. These four dimensions are as follows:

  1. The source of sounds (or what is making the sound, such as a dog barking, sirens blaring, an appliance buzzing, people whispering, a person screaming, and so forth).

    Sources: Transcript

    [In this clip there is a quick alternation of a dog barking, a siren, two beeps from a microwave, whispering between four people, a scream, and a long droning tone.] [time: 16 seconds]

  2. The temporal unfolding of sounds and sonic events among, against, and with each other (for example, the unfolding of a rainstorm).

    Time: Transcript

    [This clip opens with some quick, strident bird sounds and rain, followed by a loud peal of thunder and increasingly intense rain.] [time: 14 seconds]

  3. The multiple layers of simultaneous sound (even in the case of a single sound repeated in layers).

    Layers: Transcript

    [A single voice says "hello." Next, the "hello" is repeated by two voices. Finally, "hello" is repeated once more with additional voices. This clip offers a very simplistic first example of what it means to layer in the same sound source multiple times. Since the source of the "hello" is the same voice, the second and third instance (with doubled and then even more voices) sounds increasingly uncanny.] [time: 4 seconds]

  4. The location of sound sources in space, the space of the soundscape, or the spatialization of sound (forming relationships such as perspective and movement, as well as location in the space).

    Location: Transcript

    [A beep is heard twice from a "close" position, which is loud, followed by footsteps. Next, it is heard two more times farther away, indicated by it being quieter and the footsteps operating as a transitional sound linked to the concept of changing location.] [time: 4 seconds]

Although a participant in any given soundscape would not experience these dimensions as separable or sequential, it is useful to be able to identify how these dimensions are always at play at once in soundscape design. Unlike dimensions in space (moving from a point to a square to a cube) or levels in protein folding (moving from primary to secondary, tertiary, and quaternary structures), moving from one to two to three and four dimensions in soundscape design does not necessarily represent positions of increasing complexity or relation. Rather, dimensions in soundscape design represent four fundamentally different sets of questions regarding choices and affordances. I do not mean to suggest that these dimensions are sequential in a "typical" process of soundscape design. Rather, I would argue that the movement between these four dimensions is recursive and constantly in flux. Also, the order in which students may consider the various dimensions in soundscape design is quite dependent on the assignment, the context for "presenting" the soundscape, and technological considerations. That being said, within a soundscape, there are typically four dimensions of design.

Each of these dimensions contains a considerable amount of complexity. For instance, the selection of sound sources may have to do with decisions based on convention and genre, where students are selecting among source types, like choosing to include the bark of a dog versus the bleat of a lamb. Or the selection of sources may have to do with selecting a method of field recording for a specific dog barking, including microphone type, proximity, or recording quality. Or the selection of sources may include listening to and culling through a database of sound recordings to find a file of a dog barking at a desirable volume, pitch, rhythm, and so forth. Furthermore, if students are using sound-editing software, any means of selection could be accommodated by custom alterations to a selected sound file along the lines of volume, pitch, rhythm, and other effects. Sound-editing software may also provide visualizations and metadata that could be helpful in source selection. The following clip illustrates just a few of these possibilities involved in source choice by alternating one particular dog bark with a different source (bleating lambs), then incorporating different editing possibilities where the pitch and tempo of the "original" bark is altered.

Dog Barking: Transcript

[This clip is meant to show the complexity of selecting and modifying sound sources. First, a dog barks four quick barks in succession. Then a crowd of lambs bleat, showing the difference in kinds of sources. Next, the first series of barks is played again, followed by a different dog barking six times in a way that sounds louder and angrier. Then a third dog barks six times with still a yet another pitch and cadence. Then the first dog bark is heard once more, then repeated at a higher pitch, then a faster speed, then a slower tempo. Finally, the clip concludes with the first dog's original bark.] [time: 23 seconds]

Similarly, the temporal unfolding of sound is quite complex. Constructing the order of sounds in time may have to do with following a script or sound map. It could have to do with building patterns in sound such as call and response. It could also have to do with building repetition or rhythms in sound sources or transitions between different source types. Finally, temporality could include a macrolevel approach to how different orders, transitions, or patterns change over larger spans of time within a soundscape. For instance, whether a soundscape composition uses scripts, maps, or sound-editing software, there is an opportunity to trace changes over hours or days, as opposed to moment-to-moment sequential transitions.

Additionally, designing multiple layers and simultaneity also requires careful consideration. While sounds may be planned in time along a script or track, it is also possible to think about multiple sounds happening at once and occurring in layers within a space or moment. These layers can be created using multiple tracks played at the same time within sound-editing software or through the use of multiple participants who are colocated while making sources of sound. They can contribute a sense of "fullness" to a space and also open up possibilities in allowing other sounds to be layered "under" more dominant sounds that garner our attention. These relationships can also be noted through different typographical changes such as font size, bolding, or transparency.

Finally, choices involving the spatial dimension of soundscape design pose unique challenges. While students are being called upon more and more to think about composition in uniquely spatial ways with webtexts, documents, performances, and wearable computing, soundscape design calls upon students' sense of space in a number of simultaneous ways. First, soundscapes occur within specific spaces. For instance, a student could compose a soundscape for an elevator versus a lecture hall or for a museum versus an atrium. The first consideration has more to do with differences in dimensions and "flat" space while the second may involve choices based on modularity (with different physical boundaries in rooms) in the museum or different heights and horizontal distances in the atrium. Additionally, spatialization may refer to hearing a sound as being located in a distinct space, such as the shift in perspective for the beep in the spatialization audio clip above, which at first sounds closer and then, following the transitional footsteps, sounds as if it has "moved" farther away. Spatialization may also involve the location of different sound sources within a soundscape or the relationships constructed between sounds based on assumptions of perspective, location, and/or movement. These spatial positions and relationships can, again, be indicated by mapping within the soundscape as well.

In addition to presenting students with new ways to engage compositional complexity, these four dimensions of soundscape design offer what I am calling "rhetorical entwinements" among traditional concepts of rhetoric and composition. When I say "rhetorical entwinements," what I mean is a sort of juxtaposition and relationship between soundscape dimensions and traditional rhetorical terms. In the following section. I will discuss how these entwinements may "play out" in a given dimension.