Macrocosm – Process and Reflection

Macrocosm” has achieved my vision for the final project. Creating Macrocosm has been a long process, which has involved exploring techniques which have been new and unfamiliar. It has been fun and a great learning process, from which I will derive techniques from for use in future projects. It has also been very difficult and a frustrating process at times, recording the correct sounds. The project has achieved my initial idea and the aims and outcomes of the project that were set within the inital learning agreement.

Only one sound was used, which was not recorded by myself, otherwise all of the different sounds were captured using contact mics around my home and garden (the thunder at the start – the thunder sound came from the Logic default sound library and is copyright free).

The process of creating the project has been catalogued throughout the past few months on this blog. The aim of this post is to discuss the process that shaped the final piece and reflect upon it.

The video and research carried out by the Max Planck Institute of Astrophysics – The Millennium Simulation project (http://www.mpa-garching.mpg.de/galform/virgo/millennium/), was the primary inspiration behind the final piece. I have a passion for space and great interest in the scientific research behind how the universe functions. My initial impressions of the video was that I was watching the chaos just after the big bang, matter was being formed and patterns emerging as gravity affected the early stages of the creation of the universe. The video is sped up, even though the process of formation took millennia, the video is only 3 minutes in length. I wanted to recreate this, in an auditory form.

After initial discussions with my tutor it was suggested that I try to record elemental sounds e.g. water, rocks, metal, etc, which I thought was a great idea and also gave me some limitations to work within. I initially recorded just sounds of objects as a test in my garage with contact mics e.g. fermenting wine, pick axes, etc. These sounded great as individual sounds, but by themselves were not effective and did not convey the violence of the phenomena. The second experiment focussed on using just synthesisers, in particular the Rob Papen Albino synth, for which I designed a series of sounds. This also worked well. On its own – the sounds were not as organic as I would have liked and also followed the expectations and conventions of a sci-fi soundtrack. The final experiment combined the two techniques together. The sounds recorded with the contact mics sounded more organic and natural and the synths added more depth to the sound. The series of experiments can be found here.

At this stage I was not particularly happy with overall results of the sound scape, but was quite happy with some of the sounds I had recorded. After playing the recordings and work in progress to other students at Norwich University of the Arts, it was suggested that I scrap the video altogether. It was also suggested that I create a mini-manifesto and graphic score to help visualise the structure.

With this in mind, I returned to the project with some new ideas, I recorded further sounds that I thought would be a good representation of the organic nature of the video. Balloons, drains, ice and boiling water where amongst the sounds recorded.

The sounds were imported into Logic, analysed by myself and sequenced in a variety of ways. The aim was to have an incredibly intense explosion that does not vanish rapidly, but starts to take form as matter starts to clump together. Sounds were chopped up, and a variety of editing techniques were applied to select the best parts, remove unwanted sounds and apply crossfades to extend the sounds further in parts.

After a day working on this, it still didn’t feel as if it was working properly. I have used Ableton Live many times before and decided the live nature of manipulating the sounds plus the ability in the new version to run MAX for Live would open up some new possibilities. A particular technique that I experimented with in a previous project, granular synthesis, seemed perfect. Granulator is a brilliant free granular synth for Ableton that allows real-time manipulation of sounds – perfect for time stretching and distorting bubbles and slowing down inflating balloons. Ableton was re-wired as a slave to Logic and the audio was fed into different audio tracks.

The final sound scape includes some of the following sounds:

  • A time-stretched inflating balloon – slowed down by 500%
  • Ice cubes melting in fizzy drink
  • A kettle boiling
  • A bath draining
  • Bubbles from fermenting wine which have been manipulated with granular synthesis
  • A pick axe
  • Bike spokes
  • A garden spray can
  • A balloon being played with a violin bow

A wide variety of sounds were created using a combination of the above and by using the Granulator plugin. By using this software, it enabled me to create amazing and unique sounds – especially from he sounds that were recorded with contact microphones. All of these sounds were combined in Logic and mixed using standard techniques. A rough mix was created using EQ, reverbs, delays, compression, etc in different combinations as appropriate. Automation was added to both volume levels, panning and other effects. The sounds recorded with contact microphones created some really good organic sounds, the granular synth helped created synth type sounds and “globules” of sound which are supposed to represent matter clumping together in the latter part of the sound scape.

To remove unwanted sounds from the recordings, sections were cut and replaced with other parts and crossfaded in. As the mix came together I struggled to achieve a good beginning to the sound scape. I did not want the sound to start immediately as soon as the track is played. I tried a variety of sounds e.g. a striking match to start the track, but none seemed to work.

After reading about how Ben Burtt created highly effective explosions in Star Wars, by adding a snippet of silence after the strike and before the explosion to create the most impact. The most appropriate start seemed to be nothing. 10 seconds of silence starts the track before the impact – it felt like the right length of time to create the biggest impact.

After the final feedback session at NUA, final tweaks were applied to the mix – making cuts on the bass and some final changes to the structure. The entire mix was run through Isotope Ozone to master the final mix. Within this a multiband compressor, EQ, limiter, exciter and stereo expander were applied to add polish to the final sound scape.

The project was initially a sound design project for a video but in the end this was combined with what I felt was elements of composition. The aim was to create an audio structure representing the big-bang, from the outset the task was going to be challenging, once I allowed myself to explore my own interpretation of events, the project took shape and I am very happy with the final results.

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