Learning the intricacies of sound prepares students to work
Story and picture by CONNELLY LA MAR
An assignment often given to beginners is to wear a blindfold and walk through the different rooms of their home, relying solely on their ears and sense of touch. The idea is for students to develop a new appreciation for the various sounds and what information sounds provide us. The blindfold helps students to focus on the various aural perceptions and to exclude visual distractions.
Students soon learn to tune in to the sounds of door hinges as the door creeks open, a police siren in the distance or their own stocking feet as they shuffle across a hardwood floor. Focusing on sounds in this way helps us to determine spatial relationships to and between objects. We can even detect a moving object's direction and its approximate speed.
Sound theory courses, which are part of the core curriculum at the School of Audio Engineering (SAE) on Sukhumvit Soi 3 in Bangkok, often start with this concept because working with sound requires students to develop an art for listening, which leads to a greater appreciation for not only white noise - which is a mixture of all the audible frequencies that confronts us - but lush melodies.
"We rely too much on sight [and students] realize this while blindfolded," says Daniel Choo, head of SAE Bangkok.
Sound theory as taught at the school underlies careers in everything from producing records, acoustics and audio engineering, to scoring films. The common denominator is all these jobs involve working with sound.
Sound theory begins with how people hear, perceive and interpret sounds. Ears respond to sound waves based on pitch, which is a product of the frequency of a wave. Sound waves themselves are an oscillation of pressure. Pitches within the our hearing range distinguish musical notes. Notes correspond to a frequency that can be measured in Hertz (Hz).
Our ears can detect sound waves with frequencies between 16 and 20,000 Hz. Within that range falls the sounds of trumpets playing, phones ringing, bulldozers grunting and babies crying. Ultrasounds and many other frequencies are beyond the audible frequencies of the human ear.
Come on, feel the noise
A conversation with a friend at normal volume would be about 40 to 50 decibels (dB). The sound of feet shuffling across a hardwood floor would be around 10 dB. Ninety decibels is about the sound level that can cause harm to our ears if the exposure is long-term. Discotheques, where you can actually feel the bass thump, are louder.
Sounds, including how loud the sound is and the frequency of the sound, affect our ears in many ways. A very shrill sound can be very painful and our ears are more sensitive to certain frequencies, which shows that all sounds are not created equal.
"Imagine I took you into a quiet room and suddenly let out at once the sound of a bus which is an everyday sound [in Bangkok]," says Choo, "It would seem incredibly loud."
Acoustics play a large part in how we hear and interpret sounds. Acoustics is the science of the production, control, transmission, reception, and effects of sound. It is the infrastructure of every great concert hall and music practice booth. These are some of the things that sound students cover.
Training for teens
Previously sound theory was taught mainly to students who wanted to become researchers or professionals in the sound and entertainment industries. Now the concepts of how to listen, how to interpret sounds within the range of the human ear are being taught to high students throughout Bangkok.
A leader in the field is New International School of Thailand (Nist). It boasts an expensive, acoustically designed floor of cutting-edge music and sound related facilities that includes a complete professional sound recording studio.
The rehearsal spaces cost about 130,000 baht per room and were constructed under the direction of GMM Grammy producer Bruno Bragano. The entire project was the brainchild of soon-to-depart music director Glen Fleury, who spent five years building the program.
Under Fleury's tutelage, high school students are now scoring commercials for imaginary products and performing in Stomp-style ensembles. Stomp is a non-traditional performance group from the UK that uses the body and ordinary objects such as pots, pans, boxes and car parts to create a percussion-based high intensity live performance.
"Kids can just book the [practice rooms] after school and practice with their own rock bands or participate in our school ensembles," says Fleury.
Nist is not alone in pushing music in its arts curriculum, and interest in music programs locally continues to expand with other private secondary schools expanding their facilities.
Sound engineers today wear more than one hat, unlike those in the past. Traditionally, a sound engineer would not be mentioned in the same breath as a record producer or an audio engineer. This sharp divide between these various disciplines is disappearing as more and more people become cross-trained.
SAE's accredited bachelor's degree in audio engineering takes these industry changes into consideration. The curriculum provides students a framework to work as audio engineers and music producers. Today, a graduate may have to produce commercials, motion picture soundtracks, or mix a live concert.
A spokesperson at GMM Grammy, the largest record label and entertainment company in Thailand, after requesting anonymity, said that while audio engineers and producers are still sought after by record labels, music has taken a big hit from piracy.
"The upside of the changes in the industry is it's now easier than ever before for a clever producer to jump genres. Rap stars nowadays are even scoring films, so it is a very exciting time to be a producer or [audio] engineer," said the spokesperson.
One example of such crossover success is American rap star Gza, from the Wu-Tang Clan. He made the jump, and got accolades for his score of the acclaimed Jim Jarmusch film "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai", starring Forest Whitaker.
It is more challenging for a local audio engineer to bounce between numerous jobs than for a star from the Wu-Tang Clan, but opportunities are not all dried up for students fresh out of school. International music still only makes up around 15-20 percent of the total market for music in Thailand, so domestic rock stars and performances still hold the lion's share of the market.
Sounds of tomorrow
Students who learn to appreciate white noise and all the sounds that surround them will be the best producers and engineers in the future, according to Choo, who is optimistic about the future of music globally. He grew up in the pre-digital era of analog consoles and taped recordings, but believes there is still boundless potential in audio for young creative minds.
Our aural experiences and interpretations give us a wealth of information; we just have to condition ourselves to tune in, listen up and feel the noise.
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Last modified: June 28, 2007