Sound: A Material for Design

Publish date
Dec. 16, 2016
The Étincelle Articles

The Sound Perception and Design team at IRCAM works on the sounds of objects in our daily lives. How are they created so users hear the intentions of the creators? Research informed by advances in knowledge on the perception of sounds.

How would you define sound design?
There are several ways to define it because sound design has a wide range of applications, from composing music for a public space to the creation of a sound for an industrial object and making sounds for films. At IRCAM, we concentrate on sound creation applied to objects, with the guiding principle that sound design should “make intentions audible”.  We work in the continuum of the ideas laid out by Louis Dandrel, on of the founders of sound design in France for whom sound is considered a design element equivalent to material, color, and volume. To cite the designer and professor Alain Findeli, design consists of “improving the livability of the world”, we could say that when we work on sound design, we try to make things more pleasant, more livable, and more functional through the medium of sound.

The name of your team is “Sound Design and Perception”. Why did you feel it was necessary to associate the two?
The spinal column of our activity is the connection between fundamental research on auditory perception and applications in sound design. We develop knowledge about how our hearing system and our nervous system incorporate sounds we receive. And we use this knowledge to derive rules for sound creation and elaborate charters for the fabrication of sounds for particular objects. For example, from a purely perceptive point of view, two sounds emitted simultaneously can lead to—depending on their characteristics—masking phenomena, roughness, or even a modulation of their auditory perception. When you create sounds, you have to consider these phenomena; you have to use them or avoid them.

So the researchers in cognitive sciences in your team are also sound creators?
We are scientists. We carry out research in psychoacoustics, in experimental psychology, and in cognitive psychology on the question of sound. When we work on a sound design project, we work in association with a composer or sound designer to whom we impart some of our scientific knowledge and accompany during the creative phase.

Is there always a creative artistic part, even when designing the sound of a very common object?
Yes, the association between research and creation, between researchers and composers, is essential for us. The creation of sounds can not be automated. In any case, not in the current state of things. Maybe, in a distant future, we will have enough models of the sound world sufficiently developed to do so, but I’m not even sure of that. Besides, that would deplete the creative process. The work of a composer is always very rewarding. The composer contributes their artistic sensibility and ideas, and we are sure to include them at every stage of the project. A composer is not a service provider who intervenes occasionally to create sounds a certain point in the project. He works with us from the very beginning, and also works with us on the formalization of the problems.

How does this translate into projects currently underway?
We have a range of projects from fundamental research to applied creation. In terms of fundamental research, we contribute, for example, to the European project SkAT-VG (Sketching Audio Technologies using Vocalization and Gesture). This project is part of the general framework of studying methods of creation in sound design. The partners of SkAT-VG began with the observation that it is difficult to express or convey ideas in sound design projects. In projects for visual creation, architects or graphic designers sketch out ideas. We wondered if we could transpose this idea of a sketch to the field of sound. We first studied how we could do this by using vocal and gestural imitations, and also seeing what this would imply from a human and technological point of view. We also want to study the repercussions of these methods on creativity.

In practice, how will this work?
Imagine that I am a sound designer talking with a client. I have a sound in mind that could respond to his needs and I want to communicate this idea to the client, discuss it, refine it. I can use my voice and gestures to imitate the sound. The goals of SkAT-VG are to study this vocal and gestural production from a perceptive and cognitive point of view, to couple it with artificial intelligence that will interpret and transform it into a model of sound synthesis, and finally produce it as a case study in sound design to study the feasibility of applying it. Just as an architect can erase parts of his sketches and redraw differently, we want to give the sound designer parameter controls and sound adjustments, through modeling, so they can modify the sound from the original sketch. So we must look carefully at the human capacity to reproduce sounds imagined in one’s mind, with one’s voice and with one’s gestures. And, secondly, we must find the best kind of digital model to code this sound sketch and make it evolve. In the end, we hope the tool resulting from these studies will be found in sound design agencies. But this project does not focus merely on prototypes that let us test our hypotheses, including with practitioners; we work with sound designers to verify the usability and effectiveness of these interfaces.

How is this relevant to applied projects?
I can give an example, very different, of the creation of sounds for cars in partnership with Renault. A few years ago, we worked on the sound design for the electric car Zoé. Today, we are interested in self-driving cars. The electric car is a silent object in a noisy urban environment, which is a security risk: we do not perceive its presence. We created the sounds of this vehicle with the Italian composer Andrea Cera, endeavoring to respect technological and regulatory constraints as well as the constructor’s desire to use these constraints as supports for its brand identity. For this kind of project, sound design is creating sounds that are not sound pollution.

What are the issues in self-driving vehicles?
Car manufacturers are creating a new use: we can ride at 80 or 100 km/hr in a vehicle while reading, talking, watching a movie, or playing a video game. Other things beyond the surveillance of the vehicle will occupy our visual perception, but we will still need clues that assure us the vehicle is functioning normally, that a change in direction was carried out under control, for example. Sound is particularly pertinent for this. But what form should be given to sound to transmit this kind of information? What cadence? What temporality? This is what we are studying now.

Your work is not used in concerts or performances, but maybe we could hear some of your productions?
On the SkAT-VG website, we can hear the results of a workshop during which we tested a prototype of our sound design tool with 5 professionals. Their mission was to create a sound installation to accompany monumental plastic works. And each time you meet a Renault Zoé in the street, you hear the sound composed by Andrea Cera during our work on this vehicle.

Interview by Luc Allemand, science journalist