The audio first classroom:
a sound place for engagement
with theory and practice

by Giovanna Chesler

In teaching beginning and advanced level media production, I have taken on the habit of teaching sound production first, followed by instruction on image making. This audio first approach began out of necessity: my department had limited video production equipment and a pressing need for more undergraduate production classes. With a handful of analog tape recorders and several outdated Pro Tools editing systems, I developed “Sound Production and Manipulation,” an advanced level methods course which required students to produce narrative, experimental, and documentary audio projects without picture. From the beginning, students produced exciting and innovative projects and engaged well with a methodology and theory set that was new to them. I’ve since changed my pedagogical approach and now begin video production courses with audio instruction at all levels, having applied this methodology to an introductory video production course (120 students in six lab sections), a graduate course in media methods, and a high school video program for girls (Chesler 2005). [open works cited in new window]

With the audio first method, students create projects with at least two tracks of sound and without picture. These projects are less expensive to produce, less clunky in terms of pacing and technique, and generally avoid clichés and narrative crutches typical of elementary production student work. Audio-only projects require that students consider the vast potential of sound recording in terms of method and product. Further, the audio first classroom can function with limited, rudimentary technical equipment or with advanced sound editing software and recording studios. Students can record on cassettes in their closets or in Foley Rooms directly into digital mixing sessions. Elementary makers "mix" on iMovie, while advanced students (those with some non-linear editing experience) work in Pro Tools. When students advance to image making after a sound first approach (though many stay committed to working solely with sound) they pay much more attention to their mix and to the relationship between sound and image, they employ multiple tracks of sound, and avoid the crutch of music. I wish to advocate for a sound first approach and share some of the practical and theoretical techniques for the audio first classroom.

Theoretical underpinnings

Sound only projects are not taught as radio production per se (though many students will lean toward the This American Life format.) As a documentary and narrative filmmaker, I rely on film theory and film production methods as the basis for the audio first approach and texts for the course are drawn from film theory literature. Rick Altman’s chapter “Material Heterogeneity of Recorded Sound” in Sound Theory/Sound Practice serves as the primary source. In his overview of the "phenomenon called sound," Altman evidences the complexity, heterogeneity and multiplicity of sound as event (16). Beginning media makers engage with "sound as event" by considering the distinctiveness of the location where a sound will be recorded as well as the distinctiveness of the location of reception. They must consider the type of microphone and its impact on the recording, the softness or hardness of the materials in their recording space, as well as their own ears and subjective listening during the reception stage. Altman’s terms “attack, sustain and decay,” “sound envelope” and “spatial signature” circle back throughout the quarter and provide for a shared language that allows students to better understand sound and speak of the sounds that they imagine.

Michel Chion’s "Three Listening Modes" in Audio Vision provides another linguistic tool for describing the complexity of audition. In critique sessions, discuss when and where students use “causal listening” (listening for a sound’s source), “semantic listening” (finding literal meaning in a sound) and “reduced listening” (recognizing the quality, content or timbre of a sound.) Even at the production stage, ask students to use and consider these modes. With the listening experience in mind, some students will prepare in pre-production to engage with the audience’s auditory choices and auditory process. For example, a producer might create a work that suggests one sound source, but then reveal through the piece that this sound comes from another, unexpected, source. When students move beyond listening for a sound’s source to consideration of what a sound evokes (reduced listening) they grasp the potential of sound production and design.

Foley artistry in and of itself, relies on the fact that auditors will “incorrectly” read a sound in the causal listening mode, avoid the semantic listening mode and engage with reduced listening. Practically, Foley artistry instruction figures prominently in an “audio-first” course or approach. The website http://www.filmsound.org contains many articles and pieces in film sound artistry, and on Foley technique and theory specifically. Stanley R. Alten, in Audio in Media, presents a useful list of techniques for manually producing sound effects: i.e. footsteps in snow = manipulation of cornstarch, arrow flying through the air = whipping a willow branch (443-447). Theoretically, Foley technique and Foley reception connects Chion’s listening modes with a discussion of semiotic conceptions of signifier and signified. In Foley, objects are manipulated to create sounds which represent a signifier. The sound in and of itself is a signifier. These objects that produced the sound are not the signified however. Typically, as mentioned above, they are objects used in place of the signified. Foley work succeeds when the pro-sonic event (akin to Metz’ pro-filmic event) is disavowed by reduced listening.

Now, consider Charles Sanders Peirce’s classification system of signs with an ear toward sound: iconic signs (sound recordings), indexical signs (the dynamic relationship between the sound and the object that made it) and symbolic signs (words/language used to describe an object or sound.)[1][open notes in new window] These ideas inspired Foley Tour, by Justin Gardner. Gardner comedically produces a fictional Foley studio wherein employees eschew substitute objects (i.e. the cornstarch method or iconic methodology of sign production) for the real source (rooms filled with snow, or indexical sign production) as they record extraordinary sounds (dinosaurs and bombs!) Hilarity ensues as we hear a sound recordist attempting to position the lavaliere microphone on the dinosaur itself. Further, the tour guides advise visitors to ‘step behind the line’ before the nuclear explosion is recorded. Play with signfier/signified relationships thrives in Optic Nerve Radio Hour, a project by graduate student Ryan Ellis. In this piece, Ellis ironically employs the sign system of 1940’s radio plays. The scratchy record player, dramatic music, and commercial interludes suggesting zeal, intensity and passion ironically frame Ellis’ re-creation of the pages of Optic Nerve, a present day comic book that celebrates the mundane.

Other graduate work has directly engaged popular ideas in sound theory. David Benin, produced Ramona Quimby’s Partial Birth Abortion, age 14 to challenge the "first sense" approach to sound theory. Walter Murch, among others, writes of sound as the first sense, experienced in the womb:

“Throughout the second and four-and-a-half months, Sound rules as solitary Queen of our senses: the close and liquid world of uterine darkness makes Sight and Smell impossible, Taste monochromatic, and Touch a dim and generalized hint of what is to come.” (Murch 1994:i).

Transom.org presently has a downloadable piece produced by Murch called "Womb Tone." Benin considers the ways in which sound theorists who speak of what the human hears "in utero" ignore the politically charged nature of these statements in relationship to the abortion debate. This "sound as first sense" trope creates personhood out of a constructed and imagined auditory position. Benin’s piece reveals the absurdity of rendering a fetus’ subjectivity qua personhood sonically as he harshly "re-creates" the sound of an abortion from the fetus' perspective. The sucking sound of the abortion engages semiotic indexicality: it both refers to the sound made by a vacuum, and to the sound as heard by a woman getting the abortion (or to the imagined abortion practitioner.)

This project captures one interesting theoretical bent to the sound classroom - corporeality and gender. The body and sound figure in writing by Mary Anne Doane, Kaja Silverman, Allen Weiss, Douglas Kahn, Sarah Kozloff, Amy Lawrence, Britta Sjogren, John Corbett and Terri Kapsalis and texts by these authors make their way into the classroom, particularly at the advanced level. We discuss the interaction of sound and the body phenomenologically and consider the construction of the body through audio. In entry-level projects, gender and voice becomes a focus as students consider how to mark a character as male or female. They must decide if their speaker/narrator should have an accent and speak colloquially. Then, these choices must be justified: why must this character be gendered and what are the racial, ethnic, class, age and disability considerations when choosing a specific narrator or character? Structuring readings around one specific element of interrogation unique to sound art enlivens the discussion on a term long basis. The body/gender is but one topic among many potential subjects which may be highlighted.

Genre and form: moving through
narrative, experimental and documentary

Students are able to produce three short sound projects within the typical ten-week quarter. Project guidelines and strict requirements on technique and theme are necessary when introducing students to audio production. I ask students to produce a fictional work, something in documentary, and an experimental audio project. Other sound projects for beginning students can include asking them to build a sound FX library or to replace the sound in a piece of visual media (strip the sound from a film clip and ask them to Foley sounds.) Narrative works generally lean toward traditional radio plays and audio theatre. Experimental pieces include sound installation and musique concrete. Documentary pieces are varied in form, including the typical interview and narrator, but can be observational, poetic and reflexive.

A popular fiction project, “Technical Interruption” requires students to create a place, put characters (human or otherwise) in that space, and interrupt their activities with some sort of technical device or happening. In fulfillment of this premise, students have created movie theatres wherein cell phones ring, dreams interrupted by alarm clocks, and boring evenings at home enlivened by surprise emails. An ambitious project, Alien Visit, depicts an alien who happens upon a home and plays with its contents. This group of undergraduate students recorded each of these sounds on their own (no library effects were used.) The sound of a spaceship landing and then taking off, for example, began by blowing through a straw into a coffee cup full of water.

Experimental techniques and form are best realized through sound installation. Though I encourage students to create installations in unique spaces, students often use an existing installation opportunity because of limited turn around time. With the blessings of the Stuart Collection at the University of California, San Diego, students may produce a project for exhibition in Terry Allen’s Trees (http://www.stuartcollection.com).

Trees includes three metal tree sculptures situated in and around a eucalyptus grove. Two of these trees contain speakers connected to a CD player. One channel on a stereo CD goes to the "talking tree" and one channel goes to the "music tree." The third tree stands silently in front of the main library. In the pre-production stage, students visit the site at different times of day and consider the limited frequency range and volume on these speakers. One student, worked with musique concrete and carefully considered the potential of the site (Trees lies within a major corridor on campus.) Toshiro Inugai’s piece on the ubiquity of cell phones and the inanity of cell phone conversations, loops ring tones and repeats his voice. It playfully disrupts the experiences of passersby who may hear the piece and instinctively reach for their phone, only to have a conversation akin to his presentation.

As our program has a documentary emphasis, for their final sound projects, advanced students must work within the non-fiction genre. Their sound pieces consider Bill Nichols’ modes of documentary and have been poetic (a collection of quotes by women artists), participatory (excerpts of conversations with many different people throughout California who discuss their relationships to food), expository (narration guides us through the horrific treatment of chickens at KFC), observational (the rumblings and clanks of a motorcycle shop), and performative (subjective experience at the dentist’s office wherein buzzing saws and drills recorded at a hardware store come to stand for medical devices.)

Advanced projects may also straddle genres. When the course was taught at the graduate level, many pieces were open to reception and interpretation. Kinda Al-Fityani, a student with a hearing disability, produced an ontology for hearing. In Melissa and Kinda (2004) she presents a scene heard by Melissa with a full range of frequencies and then re-presents this scene as she, Kinda, hears it, with a very limited range of frequencies and with low volume.

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