Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Track & Field

Back in a previous life as a web developer, Friday afternoons in the office were made a little more bearable thanks to a game called Layer Tennis.  In this game, two artists trade a Photoshop file back and forth every 15 minutes for 10 rounds. Each artist creates 5 banner images from a mashup of the previous rounds plus any other inspiration they care to draw from.

I'd long wondered how Layer Tennis would be played using sound instead of images.  I told Vinnie about the game, and we came up with a longform version for our Trends in Modern Sound Design class.  I'm calling it (sound) Track & Field (recordings).  It's one part Layer Tennis, one part Guerilla Sound, and one part Telephone Game.

We setup two teams: Stephen Swift, Josh Fehrmann, Brian Svoboda, David Backovsky; and Patricia Cardona, Matt Glenn, Mark Caspary, Michael Matthews.  Each week, the team's Pro Tools session would get passed to the next member in line like a baton in a relay race.  Each designer then had 1 hour to create a 30 second audio clip, which would get placed on the master track right after the previous clip ended.  For the first week, everyone created a 30 second sound clip as a jumping off point; so actually, each team was responsible for four Pro Tools sessions, and the one you were personally responsible for that week was just based on where you were in the rotation.

We've been going at this for seven weeks now, and collectively have generated a half-hour of audio: that's 8 relay games, each with seven 30 second sound clips strung together.  We've posted them here for your entertainment... Enjoy!

Group 1, Rotation 1: Stephen, Josh, Brian, David, Stephen, Josh, Brian

Group 2, Rotation 1: Patricia, Matt, Mark, Michael, Patricia, Matt, Mark

Group 1, Rotation 2: Josh, Brian, David, Stephen, Josh, Brian, David

Group 2, Rotation 2: Matt, Mark, Michael, Patricia, Matt, Mark, Michael

Group 1, Rotation 3: Brian, David, Stephen, Josh, Brian, David, Stephen

Group 2, Rotation 3: Mark, Michael, Patricia, Matt, Mark, Michael, Patricia

Group 1, Rotation 4: David, Stephen, Josh, Brian, David, Stephen, Josh

Group 2, Rotation 4: Michael, Patricia, Matt, Mark, Michael, Patricia, Matt

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Blizzard Studios

Recently, for our last class session of my Trends in Modern Sound Design class, we took a field trip across town to Blizzard Studios.  If you play video games at all, chances are good that you have played a Blizzard game at some point in your life (their products include World of Warcraft and Diablo, both of which get screen time in my house). Blizzard is known for creating immersive designs with a lot of attention to detail, and we wanted to see how their sound team handled such large and complex projects.

We all had to sign nondisclosure agreements, so I can't talk much about what we saw on our visit, but here are some things I can say:

  • The sound team and the music team work side by side. The designers, composers, and engineers are in constant conversation with each other, and they all seem to agree that this makes the end result much stronger.
  • The sound team has a large and growing collection of custom field recordings, which they use to create the sounds of creatures and environments. They do use commercial effects libraries, but they definitely mix in their own sounds.
While on our visit, we spent time with a number of people in the sound/music area who each took time to show us a bit of what they do and talk to us about the game sound world. Thanks to everyone at Blizzard for a great visit!

And, here's the obligatory photo of our group in front of the Blizzard Orc:

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Speaker cable - critical listening tests

In the Critical Listening class, we did some intensive listening to different loudspeaker cables. I love following the audiophile discussions about cabling and I especially love that people will pay thousands of dollars for several feet of copper wire. However, there are audible differences. 

The four cables that were auditioned:
  1. Apature Accusound L-SP518
  2. Monster Cable - original speaker cable
  3. Monster Cable - Navajo SuperFlat
  4. #24 solid conductor zip cord

Josh listening at the sweet-spot.

The amplifier was a Crown D75, which was chosen because of it's very high damping factor, neutral sound, and convection cooling (no fan). 

The loudspeakers were Tannoy PBM 6.5's - recently re-coned. It's sad/great/funny that these are the only passive studio monitors that we have!  Personally, I love these Tannoy's despite their rather prominent LF bump at 125 Hz. 

The sound source was a Oppo SACD player connected to a passive attenuator to control volume. 

The switch box was designed and built by Tim Brown (MFA class of 2011) based on an original design by myself. It contains 4 DPDT sealed relays in each box, connected to a controller via MIDI cables. One box is connected to the amp and the other to the speakers. The cables under test connect the two boxes together.  Admittedly, the wiring used to fanout from the switch boxes is also part of the circuit, but whatever it adds remains consistent regardless of cable under test (that wiring is #10 stranded power harness cabling visible as red/black in the picture below).

There were several music selections based on material the class was already familiar with.  

 One of the two relay switch boxes.

The controller remote.

The entire setup in action.

The results:

  1. Apature Accusound - general consensus was that this cable had a colored sound but with a slight efficiency advantage (due to its thick gauge) which was more apparent at low frequencies - thus the result appeared to boost lows compared the the other three (which would be impossible - as wires can't add gain!). Some adjectives that came up were thick, full and veiled.
  2. Monster Original - This was the winning cable.  Some adjectives that came up were neutral and clean.
  3. Monster Superflat - There was an eerie family resemblance in sound quality to the other Monster product.  However, this cable seemed to enhance brightness a tiny bit - probably by choking off LF.
  4. #24 zip - this was admittedly a throw-away entry.  I chose this to be the worst-case without melting or catching fire. Most apparent was a significant drop in level. Clearly the bottom octaves sounded loose and tubby - most likely to damping factor being severely restricted. However, the big surprise was that the stereo sound field seemed to narrow significantly.  This may be due to frequency-dependent skin-effect in the single, solid conductor.
It is important to note that the results are based on qualitative listening and not scientific measurement. This is in-line with what the class is about.  It is equally important to note that the cables themselves add no inherent sound quality changes, but what is happening here is they change the way the two pieces of equipment in the chain interact (the amplifier and the loudspeaker).   And... it's important to note that these were NOT double-blind tests. This is a class where we try and overcome personal bias without the double-blind or A/B/X methods.

Perhaps someday we will add a scientific critical measurement class. Admittedly, I could use some newer cable to better represent what's out there now - but none of these show up in professional use. Next year I will be adding in #2 or #4 jumper cables and standard-issue Belden speaker wire. Time for an 8 position switch box!