Courtney: So let's think back to our fake student example of someone reading an essay out loud, and now, if we follow the literature that we've just talked about, it appears that just reading an essay out loud is not what we would call "soundwriting." But maybe it's a step toward soundwriting.
Kyle: I like "a step toward soundwriting," because I think that piece has to be a step toward something.
[groovy electronic music fades out]
Courtney: I think so. It's interesting just to listen to somebody read something. There's a whole audiobook industry built on that idea?
Kyle: Yeah, you're right. I guess I'm trying to ask myself what I want from that piece. Is it just music and sound effects kind of worked in? Do I want like a radio drama? Surely there are other options of what we can do with sound!
Courtney: Let's listen to it for a little while and just remind ourselves what it sounds like before we figure out where to go from here.
Fake Student [reading from The Radio Amateur's Hand Book (Collins, 1922)]: "Before delving into the mysteries of receiving and sending messages without wires, a word as to the history of the art and its present day applications may be of service. While popular interest in the subject has gone forward by leaps and bounds within the last two or three years, it has been a matter of scientific experiment for more than a quarter of a century. The wireless telegraph was invented by William Marconi, at Bologna, Italy, in 1896, and in his first experiments he sent dot and dash signals to a distance of 200 or 300 feet."
Kyle: So, Courtney, one of the things I think we want to do is model the sorts of decisions that a student might go through if he or she had a boring recording and was like, "wait, what else can I do with this?" maybe even in the classroom. So I think what we found through our playing around is that there really are a lot of possibilities.
[music: mellow bass solo]
Courtney: I think this is also the same process that an instructor might go through when trying to figure out what sort of assignment or what sort of expectations to give to a soundwriting assignment. Maybe if she were doing it for the first time.
Kyle: Yeah! So what do you think about this: Let's call this series of experiments that we're about to do "etudes."
Courtney: "Etudes." I love that! Etudes are those exercises that you do when you're starting to learn to play an instrument. It means "study." So they're skill-building exercises.
Kyle: Exactly! And I also think we ought to warn our listeners that we really did try a lot of experiments with this boring student recording; we composed a lot of etudes here—so you should be ready for an extended section here where we play around a lot. I don't know if you need to take a bathroom break or something.
Courtney: [laughs] There's a pause button, Kyle!
Kyle: Oh right.
Courtney: Surely they can use that. Plus, we are so likeable that it seems obvious that everybody's gonna want to stick around!
Kyle: So let's start by thinking about the aural qualities of voices themselves and how messing with them could yield new kinds of texts and new kinds of meanings.
Courtney: So, for this experiment section, each of us took the same original audio file, and that's the one you've already heard—the fairly boring, plain—the reading from a fake student. So Kyle and I took that read-aloud essay file and attempted a series of reasonably simple soundwriting experiments on it, trying to show you guys a ton of techniques to move from a recorded reading to something that's closer to what we mean when we say "soundwriting."
Kyle: Exactly. So you started off with some experiments finding and playing with voice, right?
Courtney: I did. I decided to focus on the element of human voice in a reading, starting out with the question of how different voices doing simple readings might affect the meaning of the text—maybe reading it straight, or maybe playing around a bit.
Jonathan Danforth [reading]: Before delving into the mysteries of receiving and sending messages without wires, a word as to the history of the art and its present day applications may be of service.
Edward Gaynor [reading, exaggerating enunciation]: Before delving into the mysteries of receiving and sending messages without wires, a word as to the history of the art and its present day applications may be of service. [reading, holding his nose] The wireless telegraph was invented by William Marconi, at Bologna, Italy, in 1896.
Kailyn [reading, performing British accent]: After Marconi had shown the world how to telegraph without connecting wires it would seem, on first thought, to be an easy matter to telephone without wires, but not so, for the electric spark sets up damped and periodic oscillations and these cannot be used for transmitting speech.
Courtney: You heard there the voices of my brother Jonathan, my good friend Edward, and 13-year-old Kailyn, a budding actor and niece of Karen Lunsford.
Kyle: So, just hearing all of those voices makes me think that sometimes just asking my friends would add some texture to my recording. Like, there's something inherently interesting in different voices. Even this whole introduction: I think if it was just me or just you talking the whole time for more than an hour, I think it would be a lot less interesting than it is hearing us talk to each other. I think that's a really important part of what we're doing here.
Courtney: And remember how we teach students to use voice in the revision process for just normal typed-up writing. When you have somebody else read your essay out loud, they have different mannerisms, different phrasing, and the meaning starts to evolve differently when you hear your writing in someone else's voice.
Kyle: That's such a good point. I mean, that's a core of peer review and writing center pedagogy all around.
Kyle: So, do you have any other voices beyond just those?
Courtney: Well, then I tried something I had never done before. I knew about Amazon's Mechanical Turk.
Kyle: Mechanical Turk, what's that?
Courtney: It's a service for microwork and micropayments. I think it's usually used for consumer survey-type stuff where you answer questions about soap and you earn thirty cents or something like that.
Kyle: [laughs] Okay.
Courtney: So I found a listing in there for a scholarly speech study, and they were paying workers micropayments for recording themselves reading passages out loud.
Courtney: Yeah! So I used that as a model and I made one for us. I got sixteen different people from all around the world to record themselves reading this same text for us.
Kyle: Okay, so that's about twenty cents per reading?
Courtney: Yeah. Do you think that's fair? It was market price, but I just, I don't know how to value that type of thing.
Kyle: Yeah. That is a seriously interesting question. I'm not sure. Well, let's hear the voices you got.
[NOTE: Description of these voices is a necessarily fraught undertaking—we tried.]
Mechanical Turk (MT) Voice [reading, south Asian woman, lots of background noise, including music]: He also showed how they could be received at a distance by means of a ring detector, which he called a resonator.
MT Voice [reading, U.S. man, strong background hum]: In 1890, Edward Branly, of France, showed that metal filings in a tube cohered when electric waves acted on them, and this device he termed a radio conductor….
MT Voice [reading, U.S. man, younger than MT Voice 2, clearly a native speaker]: In 1895, Alexander Popoff, of Russia, constructed a receiving set for the study of atmospheric electricity….
MT Voice [reading, young woman, non-native speaker, with hiss]: Marconi was the first to connect an aerial to one side of a spark gap and a ground to the other side of it.
MT Voice [reading, young man, non-native speaker]: Adding a Morse register, which printed the dot and dash messages on a tape, to the Popoff receptor he produced the first system for sending and receiving wireless telegraph messages.
Kyle: So earlier, when we heard from your brother and your friend and Kailyn, we heard people putting on other kinds of voices and accents, but these are some really non-native English speakers speaking English.
MT Voice [reading, Mediterranean man, non-native English speaker]: The wireless telegraph was invented by William Marconi, at Bologna, Italy, in 1896.
Courtney: Actually I would say that most of them were non-native English speakers, although that wasn't a question that I asked in the survey that went along with this, and it wasn't a skill that I was seeking when I made my post.
MT Voice [reading, young woman, experienced but non-native English speaker]: The first vital experiments that led up to the invention of the wireless telegraph were made by Heinrich Hertz, of Germany, in 1888 when he showed that the spark of an induction coil set up electric oscillations in an open circuit.
Courtney: Another thing that I found out through this Mechanical Turk project was I got some variations of pronunciation. The word "Bologna," which we have in the original reading, it was printed in the Italian spelling, "Bologna," but some of the speakers who recorded themselves pronounced it the American way, like the food: "baloney"? And others of them pronounced it with something closer to an authentic Italian accent, so that was actually pretty fascinating!
[montage of pronunciations of "Bologna"]
Kyle: And what you're making me think of is how we're pretending that this was a student essay. Just to remind you, this is actually our friend, Eric Detweiler, who is reading from The Radio Amateur's Hand Book.
Courtney: Thanks, Eric!
Kyle: Yes, thanks! And The Radio Amateur's Hand Book is a public domain book that he found on Project Gutenberg from the 1920s, so it makes sense that it would use some words that we don't use so much today, but I think there might be some parallel there to writing in classroom situations. Like, Eric and all of those Mechanical Turk people who said "Bologna," they're all saying words that they didn't really write. It can be really interesting to hear the effect when others read our words aloud in their own voices.
Courtney: The last thing that I decided to try with all of these human voices was to see how the meaning of the performance might change depending on the number of speakers: how many were speaking at the same time, who spoke which sentences, things like that.
Eric Detweiler: Before delving into the…
Eric and MT Voice: … mysteries of receiving and sending messages without wires…
Jonathan Danforth and MT Voice 6: … a word as to the the history of the art and its present day applications…
Jonathan Danforth, MT Voice, and Edward Gaynor: … may be of service.
MT Voice and MT Voice: While popular interest in the subject has gone forward by leaps and bounds…
All the human voices at once: … within the last two or three years…
Edward Gaynor and Eric Detweiler: … it has been a matter of scientific experiment for more than a quarter of a century.
Courtney: In this last example, I have all of the human voices that I collected all speaking the same text at the same time and I think you'll find that this not a particularly useful effort. [laughs]
All the human voices at once: Before delving into the mysteries of receiving and sending messages without wires, a word as to the history of the art and its present day applications may be of service.
Kyle: Wow. So, before we heard that one, you mentioned that it wasn't particularly useful, and I think that's an interesting question here: What use are these etudes serving? And I'm not sure that's entirely our purpose right now? We're not here just to say, "Look, here's something you can do and exactly why you would want to do it." I think part of our attitude here is just to playfully show what you can do, beyond just simple reading.
Courtney: So maybe I should say that I can't imagine how this would be useful, playing all of these voices at the same time, but I am able to do it, and perhaps someone else has an idea for how to use it. Do you have an idea?
Kyle: No. It just seems so symbolic, you know all these voices together? I'm picturing Michael Jackson in a Coke commercial…
[quiet singing fades in and out: "I'd like to teach the world to sing…"]
Kyle: … and all these people from around the world singing together, like maybe it's an Amazon commercial, I don't know.
Kyle: They're sharing their voices and they're singing in the same voice …
Sesame Street Kids [singing]: We all sing with the same voice, the same song, the same voice.
Courtney: I get where you're coming from, but I'm not sure that I hear it. I get it when I do it, and that's a useful thing for soundwriting too. Not all of these things that we listen to have to be listenable. They can be noise…
[quick blast of all the human voices incoherently fades in and out]
Courtney: … and still have a purpose in writing them. Putting them together is still soundwriting whether or not the end product is audible.
Robot John [speaking in an obviously artificial, robot-like voice that was created with the text-to-speech service FromTextToSpeech.com]: Kyle, Courtney, you've been talking about human voices. I am not human, yet I can create sounds. Is this not also soundwriting? I mean, what about robots?
Courtney: What about robots, Robot John?
Robot John: Robots make sound. Can I be a soundwriter?
Kyle: Well, I guess you're right, Robot John: Humans aren't the only people who can translate words on a screen into sounds. In other words, if we go by the old definitions of soundwriting, computers can create sounds from writing as well.
Courtney: Sure! You're talking about text-to-speech applications.
Kyle: I am.
Courtney: [laughs] Well, in case someone didn't know what text-to-speech applications are, I think that was a fine definition. It's taking a piece of text and having the computer sound it for you, read it for you.
Robot Voice 1 [reading, male, British accent]: Before delving into the mysteries of receiving and sending messages without wires, a word as to the history of the art and its present day applications may be of service.
Kyle: It sounds partly like we're talking about accessibility technologies—you know, screen readers that let people hear things on the screen read to them. And of course if that were the situation, you might want to hear it in a voice that is somewhat like your own, in an accent somewhat like your own.
Courtney: Sure! Or maybe you're reading something from a writer from a different culture and you would like to hear the reading closer to the author's accent than to your own, so perhaps you're going to use a very different voice.
Robot Voice 2 [reading, male, South African accent]: Before delving into the mysteries of receiving and sending messages without wires, a word as to the history of the art and its present day applications may be of service.
Kyle: Yeah, if I was listening to a Harry Potter audiobook, and it was an American accent, it would just seem really weird to me.
Courtney: That would just be rubbish.
Kyle [laughing]: I'm going to go eat some kippers for breakfast now.
Courtney [laughing]: Kippers are disgusting.
Kyle: I don't even know what a kipper tastes like. But beyond just accessibility, why else would you have text-to-speech, why does this technology exist? I guess maybe for GPS? Maybe so my phone can read things to me while I'm driving?
Robot John: Kyle, you're missing the point. Many people use text-to-speech devices every day, but it's not important to list them all here. What is important is that you think about your own reaction to these voices. For instance, listen to these two female robot voices reading the same text. Do you like one of the voices more than the other? Pay attention to your gut reaction.
Robot Voice 3 [reading, female, American newscaster voice]: Before delving into the mysteries of receiving and sending messages without wires, a word as to the history of the art and its present day applications may be of service.
Robot Voice 4 [reading, female, American newscaster voice]: Before delving into the mysteries of receiving and sending messages without wires, a word as to the history of the art and its present day applications may be of service.
Robot John: Think about it, Kyle and Courtney. What is it about different voices that might make someone prefer one over another? How does the voice of the reader guide the emotions of the listener? Which voice do you prefer, Kyle? Which voice makes you feel something, Courtney? Is it my voice? I want it to be my voice. Why don't you love me? Why? Why? Why? [voice slowing down, as if his battery is dying] Why? Why?
[Kyle and Courtney both awkward laughing]
Kyle: Okay, we're laughing with Robot John here, but there is something real here, I think: We do associate location and even how fancy someone is, how posh someone is, based on their accent, and of course that's stuff that's not built into the language; it's built into the cultural, subjective ways that we interpret the language.
Robot Voice 5 [reading, female, Indian accent]: Before delving into the mysteries of receiving and sending messages without wires, a word as to the history of the art and its present day applications may be of service.
[background robotic sound: low-beta waves and mid-beta waves played together at the same time]
Kyle: I'm sure there's a really interesting study somewhere about how people like me respond to differently gendered voices and how ambiguously gendered voices come across to different people. There are a lot of interesting angles that the burgeoning soundwriter could go here.
Courtney: It wasn't that difficult to get robot readings, so it's probably not that difficult just to change the sound of a human reading also, right?
Kyle: Yeah. I mean, a lot of different audio editors give you some sort of choice about how to affect the timbre and all the ways that a sound sounds. Right now, I'm using Audacity, for example, and there's right there on the menu, it says "Effects," and I can highlight something in the waveform of the audio and click to the effect just apply it to it.
Courtney: And I have an iPhone app that does some of those effects, so you don't always have to be bound to a desktop computer to do these types of things, you can have it in your pocket.
Kyle: Yeah. That's super cool. I think just about any audio editing software now and in the future would let you do things like this: add different kinds of effects to sounds and to voices. And, again, I think that some of those are more useful than others—there's that word useful we keep using.
Eric Detweiler [reading, with various sound filters, changing every phrase or so]: [voice staticky and with no bass, like on a cheap old radio:] Marconi was the first to connect an aerial [voice made deeper:] to one side of a spark gap and a ground to the other side of it. [voice back to normal, but phrases echo:] He used an induction coil to energize the spark gap, and a telegraph key in the primary circuit to break up the current into signals. [voice with a wah-wah effect, making it sound like he's moving in and out of deep water:] Adding a Morse register, which printed the dot and dash messages on a tape, [voice so high and distorted that it's not even sensible, like if a robot alien insect were speaking:] to the Popoff receptor [voice played backward:] he produced the first system for sending and receiving wireless [speed slowed down so this word takes a long time:] telegraph.
Kyle: Like, I can imagine if I was recording a radio drama, if I'm trying to make it sound like someone is in a different sort of space, if I'm trying to make it sound like someone is on an old-timey transistor radio thing, I could add some kind of effect to do that. If I want to make it sound like someone is under water, I can add echo or reverb. These are all these basic things that are pretty easy. If I want to make someone's voice sound higher or lower or if I want it to play it backwards—again, all of that is easy in today's software. I think you can get into some really interesting questions about, same as we've been saying over and over, how does the meaning of an audio text change when we start adding little layers to the voice effects?
Kyle: And it's interesting as we're talking about the assumptions that people make about voices, we haven't mentioned age in there, but of course an older or a younger voice could read some of the text from this Radio Amateur's Hand Book as well.
Child's Voice: Okay, so we're going to read chapter twenty.
Karen Lunsford: Mmmhmm.
Child: I can tell, because of the two Xs. X means ten. So…
Kyle: That was our favorite ten-year-old named Jacob, who chose a passage from The Radio Amateur's Hand Book and read it aloud with his aunt, Karen Lunsford.
Jacob: [reading] All you need for this set are: a crystal detector… [not reading] Is that like a crystal?
Jacob: Wouldn't that be very expensive to buy a crystal?
Karen: It's kind of like a—I think it's a… isn't it a piece of quartz? I'd have to look it up.
Jacob: Oh. Right. Yeah. [reading] a tuning coil… [not reading] That's pretty much just cardboard wrapped around a giant spring. [reading] and an earphone. [not reading] What I'm wearing!
Jacob: Except I'm wearing two [evil fake laugh].
Courtney: The thing that I think is really interesting about that file, Kyle… [chuckles] … "file Kyle"…
Kyle: I see.
Courtney: … is that there are two voices speaking to each other. What we heard from the ensembles before—both the human and the robot voices—was voices speaking the same thing but not interacting with each other. And what we're hearing in this example is two voices reading a thing but also talking about how it is being read and about the meaning of what is being read.
Courtney: And that's really useful!
Kyle: It's useful in a lot of ways. There's the word "useful" again. It's useful to help me understand what it is that I want to say, to help me understand what my recording means, what it means to me, and what it might mean to other people.
Courtney: It's a little like what you see with DVDs, you know when you have the director's commentary, or whoever worked on the film, you can hear them talk about it as you're watching the film together.
Kyle: Yeah, totally. It adds a new, aural layer to the visual text, and it helps you understand it in a new way. And if we're talking about adding new aural layers that help you understand things in a new way, I think we can move on from voices alone to adding background music to a recording.
[blues band begins playing]
Kyle: So far, we haven't talked a lot about layering; we've been looking at what we can do with the text itself, but of course audio editing gives you the opportunity to play with other things at once. And there's something cool in that sense about sound, right? That it lets you hear different layers of audio at the same time. You know, like if I took out the drums [drum track drops out of background/example music], you can tell that I took out the drums. Or if I take out the bass [bass guitar track drops out], you can tell that I took out the bass [just piano and organ left playing]. But I can move in my mind as I'm listening and think, "yeah, I hear a lead guitar and a rhythm guitar, and I hear keyboards." You can't really do that in text quite as well, right? We don't at once, in time, get lots of different kinds of information, but we can do that in sound. You know, sometimes I'll do this thing in my classes where I'll play a speech by Barack Obama or somebody else—I'll just pick whatever his most recent speech is—and I'll play it on YouTube, and then I'll open up a playlist in WinAmp, because I still use WinAmp…
Kyle: … that has maybe eight or nine instrumental tracks already picked out, and I'll just start playing clips of those instrumental tracks along with the speech. And it's really interesting how it sounds a little more gloomy or it sounds a little more excited based on the music that I layer underneath it. It really changes a lot about how we're meant to interpret the words. [pause, as the blues music continues] Okay, so to mimic that effect here, I took the recording of Eric and I played a lot of different genres and styles of music underneath it. I know that in some ways, we've heard this recording so many times by now that we're sick of it, but I really think the different music changes the way we hear those words. So I'm hoping that our listeners—you, at home—will really stop and think about how the music affects your emotional reactions to this text, and how the music changes what it means, to you.
[soul funk music begins to play]
Eric Detweiler [reading]: Before delving into the mysteries of receiving and sending messages without wires, a word as to the history of the art [grand, moody, film score music] and its present day applications may be of service. While popular interest in the subject has gone forward by leaps and bounds within the last two or three years [synth pop music] it has been a matter of scientific experiment for more than a quarter of a century. The wireless telegraph was invented by William Marconi, at Bologna, Italy [Indian tabla music] in 1896, and in his first experiments he sent dot and dash signals to a distance of 200 or 300 feet. [rock bass solo music] The wireless telephone was invented by the author of this book at Narberth, Penn., in 1899, and in his first experiments the human voice was transmitted to a distance of three blocks. [acoustic ukulele beach pop music] The first vital experiments that led up to the invention of the wireless telegraph were made by Heinrich Hertz, of Germany, in 1888 when he showed that the spark [dubstep music] of an induction coil set up electric oscillations in an open circuit, and that the energy of these waves was, in turn, sent out in the form of electric waves.
Kyle: A lot of times in my classes when we're talking about doing stuff with sound, the three things that I say are, "Do something with voice, do something with music, and do something with sound effects." So we've already played with voice and music, so I guess now the question is, what can we do with sound effects? What do you do with them?
Courtney: Well, let's start out by thinking about how we can change the background audio environment of a simple reading to change the read environment of that same text. So how can we manipulate, not with music but with other sounds, how can we manipulate the listening experience?
Kyle: Right. And to get those sound effects, there's the simple option of either I record them myself—like I literally go out with a microphone or my phone and see what I can get of a car going by [car going by] or the footsteps that I need [footsteps] or the creaky door that I want [creaky door] or the crinkling Lay's potato chip bag [bag crinkling].
Courtney: The roaring of a lion! [tiger roaring—bet you expected a lion!]
Kyle: Yes! Or, as I often find myself doing, I go to a website and just download them instead of recording them myself. I often use freesound.org—I don't know, in twenty years, will that still be around? Isn't this great, I'm imaging people in twenty years listening to this?
Kyle: Right now, freesound.org is great because everything there is licensed by Creative Commons so you can use it for projects like this.
Courtney: And it's good stuff.
Kyle: Yeah. So, in the etude we're about to hear, for instance, I imagined that our fake student, Eric, was walking through a cave for some reason, and in that cave he was very intent on talking about the invention of radio. But as I imagined it, I thought maybe he was a little scared? So I just started searching on Freesound for the word "cave," I started searching for the word "cavern," and I actually ended up layering six different sounds all together—I know it's five plus Eric—and I came up with something like this.
[sound of rain and squishy, puddly footsteps]
Eric: Before delving [echoes] …
[water trickling sounds]
Eric: … delving [echoes] …
[wet, splashing, falling cave sounds along with creepy ambience]
[more muddy footsteps]
Eric: … into the mysteries of receiving and sending messages without wires… [echoing], without wires [echoing] …
[rain and trickle noises]
Eric: … a word as to the history of the art and its present day applications may be of service.
Courtney: I think the term for this sort of experiment is "soundscape"… but this is a composed soundscape, not a "soundscape" in the sense that you actually went to a cave and captured the audio material of that space. I can imagine asking students to build out the sound environment like this for their own readings or for famous speeches or something, to get them thinking about tone and information density.
Kyle: I like that… "information density." So what did you do with your sound effects experiment?
Courtney: Well, I started thinking back to—I don't know if you were taught this… but to make a hypertext essay, you know where every word in the thing links out to something that says more about that word?
Courtney: So I wanted to try an audible hypertext essay. Some of the sounds that I used are historical audio of the particular technologies discussed in the essay, and other of the sounds are just representative—or fun.
Eric [reading]: The wireless telegraph was invented by William Marconi, ["Marconi plays the mamba" excerpt from Starship's "We Built This City" (1985)] at Bologna, Italy, [child pronouncing "Italia"] in 1896, and in his first experiments [Morse code sounds begin and continue] he sent dot and dash signals to a distance of 200 or 300 feet. The wireless telephone [old timey telephone bell rings] was invented by the author of this book at Narberth, Penn., [bars of "Pennsylvania 6-5000" (1940) played on ukelele] in 1899, and in his first experiments the human voice [female R&B singer sings "a yeah yeah yeah"] was transmitted to a distance of three blocks. Marconi [two perfect distinctive chords from "We Built this City"] was the first [continued sound of wind] to connect an aerial to [spark gap sound] one side of a spark gap and a ground to the other side of it. He used an induction coil [sound of induction coil begins] to energize the spark gap, [sound of more modern Morse Code] and a telegraph key in the primary circuit to break up the current into signals. Adding a Morse register, which printed [sound of dot matrix receipt printer] the dot and dash messages on a tape, to the Popoff receptor he produced the first system for sending and receiving wireless telegraph messages. [all remaining sound effects fade out] [telegraph sign-off sound]
[moody, quiet guitar synth background music begins]
Kyle: You know the main thing that makes me think of? I don't know if this is connected or not, but it makes me think of me playing around with tapes in eighth and ninth grade? I remember I would tape a song off the radio, and I remember specifically doing this with Beck's "Loser." Do you remember, "I'm a loser, baby, so why don't you kill me"?
Courtney: Yeah yeah, I do.
Kyle: And I remember I would take the tape, and he would say some word and then I would pause the tape and I'd get my sound effects tape out, and I would rewind it to the right part, and then I would hit pause and hit record and I would, essentially, add that sound effect in, or that clip from another song or whatever it made me think of. It was kind of like associative listening? So there was a sense of, "oh my goodness, this sound in the song made me think of this other sound," and I put it together into one tape.
Courtney: That's awesome! Did you ever listen back to your creations, and did it change the listening experience of the song when you listened to the enhanced file?
Kyle: Yeah! I listened to them a lot, actually, so after a while it would actually sound weird to not hear my enhancement because I would expect something to come in. I think it also gave me—maybe this is weird—it gave me a weird sense of pride? It made me feel like, "look what I did!" Look how I hopped into this thing that was on the radio and I'm a part of it now.
Courtney: I think we're starting to move into a set of activities that may not create pleasing or informative sounds to listen to, but there's still a lot of work to be done in creating them. And I think, as you describe with your tape players, doing the work of sorting out where those sounds go and gathering them and bringing them in is a very useful type of pedagogical activity.
Kyle: You're making me think too about the importance of juxtaposition.
Courtney: Yeah, what this is is curation. Right? This is making choices about what elements to include in a composition: which ones to choose, which ones to leave out, but also how to place them in relationship to each other, to enact a new meaning.
Kyle: I love that. And of course, when we're juxtaposing, when we're curating, there's always a little bit of danger there because you lose some control over the meaning; people will always associate different things with the things that you curated, with the things that you put next to each other. But that's a good thing, that's a really playful thing!
Courtney: It is playful. It's fun to listen to. [party favor noise]
Kyle: Yeah. And if we want to talk about playful and fun, tell me if this is weird, but I actually wrote a song!
Courtney: [laughs] You wrote a song?
Kyle: Yeah, based on the text of The Radio Amateur's Hand Book.
Courtney: That's a lot more work than just running things through filters, Kyle! I'm not sure we can expect that all of our students are going to have the musical talent that you do!
Kyle: Well wait until you hear it.
Kyle: So before we listen to this, let me tell you about the words that I wrote and where they came from. So I started with that same text that our fake student Eric was reading. And I was trying to take the basic ideas of what the author was saying and reinterpreting them to make them rhyme but also to fit with the rhythm and stuff like that.
Courtney: Well that's a great activity for a composition classroom. You could be getting students to summarize and paraphrase.
Kyle: Yeah! I'm summarizing and paraphrasing in a musical rhythm. And what was interesting in that sense is that I really had to read it a few times to figure out what the attitude of the speaker was. And I'm almost embarrassed that I actually hadn't noticed until I read it to write the song that he seems a little, what's the word? He's a little…
Courtney: I think "bitter" is the word you're looking for.
Kyle: [laughs] Yes! He really is bitter, I think! He's essentially saying, "Hey. You've all been talking about radio, and you think it's kind of this brand new thing, but you know, actually, um, there were all these inventions before that, and by the way, I happened to be there. So if you go back to the 1890s, 30 years before this text was written, there was Marconi, and by the way there was me who was there, and we were both standing on the shoulders of this Heinrich Hertz guy who was like learning about electricity." So yeah, it's very much a tone of "don't you dare forget us."
Courtney: It has a very aggressive, purposeful stance, and I didn't see it the first, uh, dozen or so times I read it either.
Kyle: So, maybe with that in mind, here's a song that I've decided to call "Marconi," written in the voice, from the persona of the author of The Radio Amateur's Hand Book, which is A. Frederick Collins (1922).
[drum machine plays eight bars]
[synth melody begins]
Kyle [singing]: I want you to know
the history… of the radio.
You think it's brand new, but,
for decades people who are smarter than you
have looked into it.
It's time you knew it.
Kyle & Courtney [singing]: Will Marconi
lived in Italy.
He sent Morse Code
three hundred feet.
Then three years passed
and it was me who
made a voice transmit across
the distance of three blocks.
But first Heinrich Hertz
learned of the waves of
He made a ring
detector and he
paved the way for clever people
like myself and others like Marconi.
[You'll find digital files of "Marconi" with and without lyrics on our extras page, including a version that lets you make your own remix!]
Kyle [laughing]: This is so silly.
Courtney: So, one of the things that I'm hearing in that song, Kyle, in terms of soundwriting pedagogy, is that you've made a lot of choices in deciding your instrumentation and your genre. This is not concert music. This is not marching music. This is a specific type of music and you've made choices to get us there, so tell us what choices you've made.
Kyle: Right. Some of those are really just the practical, material choices of composition that I had at my disposal. I have a cheap Casio keyboard that I've recorded with before, so I knew it would be easy to plug that in. I knew how to do it and how to get the levels right and all of that stuff. And once you choose that, once you say, "am I really going to pull out actual acoustic instruments? Am I going to write something for string players? Am I going to pull out the actual piano or guitar?" And you say, "NO, this is Casio only," that decision, to some extent, chooses the genre for you, I think. And, honestly, when the song got written, you and I had already made a lot of decisions about this introduction: I knew that way at the beginning of this intro, there would be kind of an '80s pop feel to it, so I thought, "well, that's something I could do here." Honestly, I've also been listening a lot to the band Chvrches—that's a Scottish trio of electro-pop that's very infused with an '80s kind of feel…
Kyle: And not too long ago, I downloaded the instrumentals of all of the tracks of Chvrches' first album, so I've been listening to those instrumentals, I've been thinking about how they compose them, so I know this sounds like I'm giving it more importance than it is, because it's just a silly song, but for our students—this is my point—the stuff that they're listening to and the resources they have are going to affect what they might do if you ask them to write a song.
Courtney: Well, we always want students to be able to produce something using the tools that they have easily available to them, so that's a huge important place to start. But secondarily, just like we were talking about with the different readers and the different robot voices, there is a lot to be said for taking a text and putting it into familiar voice, and in this case, the familiar voice is a genre or an instrumentation of music, so our students can choose a genre that speaks to them that might not necessarily speak to us. We're going to stick with the '80s pop because that is what we are into. But somebody much cooler than us could definitely do a cooler type of music.
Kyle: Yeah! I think there's something here too about being okay with a quality that isn't necessarily professional. I mean, I was tempted at first to get someone else to sing it. I'm a choral singer, but I'm not like a solo "I'm up on stage" singer. And I actually played the song for my wife, who actually can for real sing—she was a voice major in college—and she made that little face like, "Oh!" And her comment at the end was, "It's really catchy!" And—she didn't say it—but I think a little bit of it was, "Oh, that's your voice singing it, huh?"
Courtney: [hearty laugh]
Kyle: And I'm not embarrassed by it, but I think the point here is that there's an aspect of that good-enough philosophy that I think we can sometimes rely on when we do soundwriting stuff. When we're using our own voices, whether singing or talking, and putting them into our projects. I think that's something I want to encourage my students to do more—to not feel like when I give an assignment that sounds scary to them, that "oh my goodness I have to do it perfectly." I want to train people who might be inclined to be overly perfectionist to loosen up a little bit as they're composing.
Courtney: Some of the other things you were working through here that we haven't talked about yet include the layering that you decided to put in, making decisions about what's going to be [volume increases] loud and [volume decreases] what's going to be soft, [volume increases even more and moves to right channel, as if she's talking right into your face] what's coming to the front and [volume decreases, gets echoey, and moves to left channel, as if she’s standing far away] what's going to be in the background. [narration returns to normal] And you're also asking yourself questions about pacing and phrasing, so we've got that going for us here. But you are a talented musician, Kyle, and I can't expect that all of my students are going to have anything like your skills. For someone who is already terrified of writing an essay, I could give them an assignment like this and they would be completely mortified that I'm asking them to make a song. How much can we expect our students to really do?
[music starts: one of Mark Blaauw-Hara's actual beats! What a nice guy!]
Kyle: That's a good call, and I can imagine a few answers. We talked a few minutes ago about an article by Mark Blaauw-Hara and Kevin Putman, that 2011 piece called "Remixing the Personal Narrative Essay," and in that one the professor actually gave all of the students a beat. Like, I think the professor actually created the beat, but if you aren't someone who can do that, there are a lot of places, like ccmixter.org, where you could download a beat. But then the professor said, "Okay, students, write a rap that goes with this beat."
Courtney: I am crazy about this assignment.
Kyle: It's really cool, right?
Courtney: It's amazing.
Kyle: Yeah, because you could imagine that with that kind of core similarity in the projects—where everyone's using the same beat—everyone's going to sound so different anyway! They're going to take it in such different places and have different rhetorical purposes for their piece. So I think that's one answer to the question. But I think there are a few other ways to make songs too, using apps. Didn't you play around with something like that?
Courtney: Well, I found a couple of iOS apps and I assume there are similar things available for Android, but these automatically create songs. So, you record snippets of words or something and you can make some limited choices such as genre for how to automatically produce those snippets of text as a song or snippets of voice as a song. So, here is one example from Songify [available on Google Play and the Apple App Store].
[song plays with strong beat and the fake student read aloud essay track autotuned into a melody line and time-adjusted to create rhythm, rephrasing the source, spoken, text]
Courtney: Here are a couple of examples from a program called Ditty that makes an actual music video of your words, so that's pretty fun!
[example plays; male singer, pop music]
[example plays; female singer, Beethoven Symphony No. 5 in C minor (1808)]
[example plays; female singer, folk-pop music]
Courtney: And this last one is called AutoRap… because it makes an auto rap.
Kyle: Good point.
[example plays; strong beat but source reading/recording is time-, pitch-, and phrase-adjusted to rap instead of singing]
Kyle: Okay, so students are playing with apps, theoretically here, the same way they do, the same way I do. So, what's the value in that? Why would I do that in the classroom?
Courtney: You know, I don't really have an answer for that. This is a really low-engagement activity. It just means taking a very small file and running it through an app and waiting ten seconds, so there's not a lot of pedagogical engagement here. But if we think again about wanting to put information, put messages into voices that are familiar or pleasing to us, this is one way to accomplish that. So, it's not writing a totally new song, but it is catchy and might be a way to remember different things. If you think about something like Animaniacs or the Sesame Street songs, you're able to learn through song in a way that's maybe less available to you in other ways.
Kyle: Absolutely, and I wonder if we need to keep asking that question about where and why is this useful. Sometimes just allowing play for itself is its own end, right?
Courtney: Well I have to tell you, I spent quite a few minutes playing with these apps, so there is a decent amount of fun to be had in making them even if the output isn't necessarily purposeful. [sad trombone—again??]
Courtney: Well, as much as I enjoyed your song, Kyle, I wanted to try making a song that was a little more automatic, something that didn't require musical or lyrical skill. So I decided to create my song by collecting sounds that other people had created, making a few of my own, and [infrequent beeping joins hum] combining them to make a semi-musical performance with the same material, but using pieces and putting them together in a very different way.
Kyle: Wow! So let's hear that.
[hum and beeping continue—they are the start of the song]
Child's Voice [chanting]: Dah-di-di-dit
[electronic oscillation sound joins in]
[fierce clubby groove begins]
[familiar fake student read-aloud essay begins with voice modified for lower pitch]
[robot voice, louder and clearer than the modified human reading, speaks phrases from the essay incongruously with the ongoing human reading]
Courtney [singing]: Wireless, wireless, wireless. Ring Detector! With an aerial and the earth. Wireless, wireless, wireless telegraph.
Courtney: So, what I did here, Kyle, is I went and found a CC-licensed beat.
Kyle: Right, from Creative Commons? Nice.
Courtney: Yeah. And I put that in first; I didn't have to make it myself, I just downloaded it and brought it into my audio editor to give shape and substance to the entire piece.
Kyle: And our students could do that for sure.
Courtney: Oh, easy. Very easy. Then I took the text of the essay that Eric was reading, and I ran that through a Morse Code generator.…
Kyle [laughing]: Wait wait… You… Of course! You ran the essay through a Morse Code generator. Okay.
Courtney: As you do! And so then I had an audio version of that, and that's the stuff that sounds like "beep b-beep beep"—you know that part?
Courtney: So [laughs] there's that. Then I recorded myself singing the Morse Code! And I scaled that up to sound like a baby! So that's the part that's going "dit di dit dit dot dot dit dit." [both laugh] The Morse Code: Because of the content of the reading, it involved Morse Code and how to transmit in Morse Code, that's why I tried that as a motif. It's important in the history of sound transmission, and it's compelling!
Kyle: It is compelling.
Courtney: And it's also binary, right? So automatically it makes me think that there is an element of data stuff—something that can be done with Morse Code that is not as accessible in other forms of data. And it's just groovy.
Kyle: It is groovy. I think those should be the two things that our students ask themselves in their heuristic when they're deciding if they should make a choice. Does it in some way connect with the deeper meaning of my piece, and is it groovy?
Courtney [laughing]: Is it groovy? That's the rubric.
Kyle: But there's more there too, right? There's more than the beat and the bleeps. How would you describe the mood of the piece? I think with mine, right, even though the text is a little pushy and defensive, it's a lot more danceable, but yours is, what's the mood here?
Courtney: I was going for sort of a chill lounge feel. Like Buddha Bar, something like that?
Kyle: So if we move away from the songwriting a little bit, I guess we've moved here from voice to music to effects and then back to fully composed music. It seems like sometimes with sound, the only thing left, at least off the top of my head, is to just totally throw a wrench in it and make something that's even weirder than ever.
Courtney: Well, I got started on that: I did some data-bending!
Courtney: This is not something I had done much of before, but I made an attempt. So what I did was to take the original read essay, that we started with.…
Courtney: And with this first example, I also took the text, the alphabetic text itself, and I brought both of those into my audio editor, so that means bringing in the .txt file as raw data into the audio editor.
Kyle: [laughs] Wow. So data that isn't really meant to be communicated or transmitted through audio, but you're making it sound anyway.
Courtney: Yeah. That's it exactly.
Kyle [laughing]: Okay, so can we hear what that sounds like?
[extremely familiar track of Eric reading plays in left channel, now with flicker of "static" overlaid in right channel]
Courtney: So what I did there was, the text file was way shorter than the audio file so I just had it repeat a bunch of times. Every time you hear that throb of static in the file [static replays for emphasis], that is the complete alphabetic text reading of it.
Kyle: Wow. So, I can imagine layering that with actually some of the other things we've talked about. You know, you could make a song out of that noise. You could add vocal effects. You could add sound effects. You could use something like that almost with a secret meaning, right? Like the full depth of the meaning that you've put here isn't audibly apparent without explanation. No one could hear it and be like, "Oh yeah, I hear the text file there." But somehow adding that layer, it's inherently engaging. It's like an easter egg.
Courtney: Well, I will tell you about my motivation for this particular approach: Carl Sagan's (1985) wonderful book, Contact. In that book, when Ellie Arroway originally starts to get the contact from the aliens, she hears it as a throbbing sound she's picking up over the radiotelescopes. [quiet throb from the film Contact] And it isn't until a little while later, after discovering the sound, that they realize the sound file is not the only data that is being transmitted. They're eventually able to extract building diagrams from the audio file, and that is what allows them to build the spaceship thing that blah blah blah… that part doesn't matter. So that's what I was trying to do here, in reverse, was to put back in data that was not audio into an audio file and just see what happens.
Kyle: That is so exciting. I remember playing the alternate reality game, the Lost Experience back between maybe the second and third season of Lost, which is the best show ever. [brief trombone crescendo] And there was something kind of like that. One of the clues in this ARG was this weird, glitchy sounding audio file that finally someone figured out, and they said, "Wait, if we put this visually the right way, using the right program, this audio file actually includes an image that gives us a code, that we then put on another website that gives us the next piece of the puzzle."
Courtney: That is awesome!
Kyle: Well, I wasn't the one who figured out the clue, but it was cool to read people figuring it out in real time. There's something inherently "oh my goodness, people can do this and it can happen" in that sort of experiment. And as you showed us, we can do that stuff for free and fairly simply on our own. We have the tools these days.
Courtney: Yeah. I had no idea how to do this two hours before I had done it. I got some help from the Internet and poof. [quiet poof sound] I'm very proud of it.
Kyle: Okay, so we've been playing with this file for a long time now, through a lot of etudes, and I think we could even do more. We haven't done the radio drama. We haven't done too much of a dialogue about it—I mean, we heard a little bit of that—but it seems like if we sat down with ten more people, we could think of ten more kinds of soundwriting to put this book into. I mean, the possibilities are really endless. I mean, what would even happen if we played every single one of these at the same time?
Courtney: Well, Kyle, I am glad you asked. Here is what it sounds like if we take all of this audio information that we made during the etudes and play it in a single file.
[noise plays with dozens of voices and sounds and music playing at the same time. Bits and pieces are discernible from the rest, recognizable from previously in this introduction—but it's mostly a loud jumble]
Kyle: Wow. We talked earlier about how you can identify separate layers in audio files, but I guess you can kinda push past that, too. I mean, I heard little bits here and there of the other etudes, but after a while it just kind of turns into noise.
Courtney: It does, but if you think about reading as an archaeological undertaking—looking at different layers and refocusing your attention in different directions at different times—I think listening to all of this noise does give us some more of that metaphor than is possible when reading with the eyes. So no, we don't want to use everything at the same time—we don't want to listen to it at least, there's not a lot of value there—but I think we've covered quite a lot of possibilities to give people different ideas on how to get started using different types of sound manipulation.
Kyle: Yeah, and remember that point we heard earlier in the lit review section from rhet/comp scholars like Steph Ceraso (2014), Kati Fargo Ahern (2013), Erin Anderson (2014): that there really is a lot more to sound and sonic pedagogies than simply recording speech—all the ways we manipulate sound are worthy of our investigation and our play.
Courtney: Yeah! Now that we've played around, what do you think about that question we posed way back in the beginning of this introduction?
Kyle: We posed a question? That was a really long time ago.
Courtney: It was, and we did! See, I even have a recording of it, which, of course, that's one thing audio is really good for!
[just like we've heard twice earlier, a ding noise and elevator sounds indicating change of audience along with that same gloriously cheesy music]
[quote from earlier, with tinny voice effect to make it sound old:]
Kyle: Yeah. I think we're really going to have to dig further in if we're going to understand what's happening here…
Courtney: … before we'll be able to say if reciting words alone is or is not soundwriting.
[elevator door ding again]
[back to "now"]
Courtney: See? We were talking about what soundwriting is and isn't, and part of what we asked was the question of how much you had to do to a recording to make it "count."
Kyle: Oh yeah, totally. I don't know, it sounds almost like the wrong question, now, doesn't it? We've heard so many things that you could do with sound, and all of them I'd call soundwriting.
Courtney: I would too! So maybe instead of saying exactly what does and doesn't count as soundwriting, we can say something about what soundwriting lets you do and what it invites you to try.
Kyle: Yes! Soundwriting as invitational, soundwriting as a chance to use the available means of sound recording, collecting, and editing to make something new.
Courtney: Yeah! That's soundwriting: It's when you manipulate recorded sound and make something new from it.
Kyle: And that is as good a place as any to end.
[an instrumental version of "Marconi," Kyle's song you heard earlier, fades in]
Robot John [who pronounces many, many of these names and words incorrectly, including the word "yay" at the end, which we apologize about, but we don't want to embarrass him by calling him out on it audibly]: Thank you for listening to the introduction. Kyle, Courtney, and me, Robot John, would like to thank everyone whose voices and sounds were heard in this introduction: Eric Detweiler, Will Burdette, Stanley D. Harrison, Miku Rager, Stephen Krause, Kaitlyn Patterson, Kevin Putman, Emily Bloom, Jennifer Bowie, Randy Alfred, Steph Ceraso, Kati Fargo Ahern, Jonathan Danforth, Edward Gaynor, Karen Lunsford's niece and nephew Kailyn and Jacob, the workers of Amazon's Mechanical Turk, The Sesame Street Kids, Lauren Mayberry, Mark Blaauw-Hara, as well as the scholars, content creators, and coders whose work we cited throughout. Please see our references page for full bibliographical information.
Robot John: What about me, Kyle and Courtney? You forgot to thank me. Maybe you don't love me after all.…
Courtney & Kyle: Thanks, Robot John!
Robot John: I am so happy. Yay, soundwriting. [magical harp]