The Engineering of Resonance

January 25, 2009

For a printed version click The Engineering of Resonance PDF

The fascist-era train station in Milan

The fascist-era train station in Milan, Italy now features noisy ads on flat screen TVs

It’s next time again

“If your soundtrack sucks, your movie sucks.” – eloquent advice from New York agent, Larry Meistrich

Consider the acoustic.

Imagine one of the great train stations in London, New York or Paris; a mammoth Eifflel tower–like construction of girders and glass. Your acoustic memory of the sounds of such a place is probably as vivid and romantic as the mental picture. These sorts of buildings talk to you with echos and they whisper about grand adventures and big ideas. Now imagine waiting in line at security in a modern airport. Between the bad muzak, the crowd noise, CNN at top volume and barking flight announcements laced with the authoritarian yammer of crowd control, and it is no wonder getting on an airplane has become so unpleasant.

I adored this sign in a European airport: “In an experiment with the effects of noise pollution we have eliminated flight announcements in this area. Please be advised.” That section of the airport was as restful as a library. It was heaven. Quiet is a new luxury. I am so fortunate to work inside of a recording studio where the peace and silence cocoons creativity.

For many, the antidote to the toxicity of noisy modern life is an iPod playing our own personal soundtracks. This only makes the producers of the outside noise crank up the volume to cut through our aural-induced haze. All this escalation of the “noise floor” around us has an effect, and causes lots of stress – but often it is below our radar. We get tense and cranky and we don’t know why.

The iPod retains its uberchic in the new TV ads. Click the photo for viewing. Copyright © 2009, Apple Computer, All Rights Reserved

Why is our reaction to audio often below the threshold of our conscious mind? By what means do sounds become containers for feelings? How do sounds become emotion delivery systems?

The word resonance can be used figuratively, meaning the suggestion of feelings, images and memories. Sounds evoke feelings. Does this happen by “Nature or Nurture?” The arguments of behavioral scientists can easily be brought into our relationships to sounds. The angel’s harp. The bugler at dawn. The Magic Flute. Are the rich images and associations we have with certain sounds learned, or are they innate to the sounds themselves? Clearly, it is a blending of both, but I’m curious about your ideas and how you would describe your interior reactions to sound as well as the memorable experiences of sound which have moved you in some extraordinary way.

Many years ago in a recording session with George Gates, the owner of Commercial Recording, I asked, “How do you think certain sounds seem gifted with particular personalities?” He said, “Blame Walt Disney.”

Walt Disney releases Pinocchio on Blu Ray in a new Anniversary Edition in March. Click the picture to go to the Amazon site. Copyright © The Walt Disney Company, All Rights Reserved

We make the connections early on. Baby talk comes to mind. The mother’s tone of voice is every bit as communicative as the words. Filmmakers latched on to evocative power of sound as soon as talkies were born. Even before that if you count the piano and organ accompaniments to early silent films. Images and music have often been wedded together as famous couples. The Lone Ranger and the William Tell Overture. The Five Ringed Olympics Logo and its trumpeted fanfare. Audrey Hepburn and Moon River. There is great artistry in such inspired choices and the power of those superbly executed decisions endures in pop culture.

The best filmmakers use sound every bit as well as they use pictures. Kubrick is perhaps the best example. His music choices are legend. Who would ever think of using a Strauss waltz for a docking maneuver with a space station? The juxtaposition of warm music and cool technology, in his film 2001, made film history. But, I’m not only talking about music. Sound Engineering is a magician’s workshop of auditory tools requiring special skills. Engineers build things. What most people don’t realize is how soundtracks build emotions and how, like an wicked undertow, they submerge the viewer into the flow of the story. Quality and craftsmanship are essential in every stage. In the dialog recording, the selection of music, the placement of sound effects, the application of equalization and compression, the mixing and the use of surround sound to create acoustic environments, every step clarifies and refines the cinematic experience. All of these ingredients are seamlessly blended together by the audio team to give a modern film fully one half of its ultimate power. Why do the images always get the lions share of our attention? Probably because all this work happens below the surface and is, by its very nature, invisible.

A harpist performs at the entrance of the church of St. Ives in Barcelona. Click the photo to hear a live recording of his music echoing off the courtyard walls. He chose this spot wisely.

The architect Juhani Pallasmaa writes about “Acoustic Intimacy”

“Sight isolates, whereas sound incorporates: vision is directional, whereas sound is omni-directional. The sense of sight implies exteriority, but sound creates an experience of interiority. I regard an object, but sound approaches me; the eye reaches, but the ear receives. Buildings do not react to our gaze, but they do return our sounds back to our ears.

Hearing structures and articulates the experience and understanding of space. We are not normally aware of the significance of hearing in spatial experience, although sound often provides the temporal continuum in which visual impressions are embedded. When the soundtrack is removed from a film, for instance, the scene loses its plasticity and sense of continuity and the life. Silent film, indeed, had to compensate for the lack of sound by a demonstrative manner of overacting.”

The Jazz Singer

Original movie poster for the Jazz Singer (1927) and a news photo from its premiere at Warner’s theatre. Photo from The History Dept. at the University of San Diego

The unsung hero of all great films (since The Jazz Singer, 1927) is the soundtrack. My brain is wired for the visual but I am learning the sound designer is every bit is crucial to the success of a film as the cinematographer. Sound is more difficult to write about and more difficult for me to describe because it is more elusive and more mysterious. I hope to write more about sound in the coming year and I’d like your help. Sound in film quite literally gets overlooked. No one ever says, “That was one of the best films I ever heard!” I’m not sure why this is so but I’m hoping you will come to the rescue and articulate some of the ways in which music, sound and acoustics has touched and enriched your life.

Until next time with much love I remain your



  • Liz Hager says:

    Tom—a fantastic and meaty topic. Like others have already noted, I too have many more childhood memories (read: emotions) associated with sound (and smell) than I do with sight. Why IS IT that just the sound of a bagpipe, any bagpipe, brings immediate tears to my eyes (vexing question as I’m not Scottish)?

    It occurs to me as I age that there is one completely subconscious but invasive sound in my life—the constant ringing in my left ear. . . is this the sound of madness?

    Keep up the good work! I will send my Venetian Red ( your way,

    Liz Hager is another new contributor who lives in San Francisco. She writes about art, design and culture and is a fine artist specializing in “digital metaltypes.” Her work can be seen at

  • martina says:

    Dear Tom,

    another thing I noticed is that the harp playing in the stone courtyard in Barcelona sounds like a Paraguayan harp. I was in the Peace Corps in Paraguay. The harp and guitar are co-equal national instruments. Paraguayan harp music has that distinct rhythm, and the echo. It was another little gift from you! The sound of echoes in a stone courtyard is quite wonderful– even the scuffing of feet, or dropping a stone. Water is also magnified, if there is a fountain. Thanks for the reminder.

    PS For full-disclosure, I live in Santa Cruz, the next bay south of San Francisco.

  • martina says:

    I LOVED what you said, about sound and memory in film. I also love silence, and guard my experience of sound jealously. I cannot tolerate so much flak from machinery and nonsense noise. In my home, we now have a large fishtank, with the bubbling of the water filter filling the silence. I love this even more than looking at the fish. I remember reading about the sound of water, and how it soothed the spirits of the Moors, who built the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.
    I also really loved the comment by Paulette, about pure joy from a crystalline voice of a chorister inside a cathedral. The experience is unforgettable. I once read about Hildegaard of Bingen’s music, that the singer has to have a transcendent experience, because the reach of the voice makes the head fill and resound, and feel dizzy with the soul’s music. I would love to sing by myself in San Marco. Whenever I enter a chapel or church, I look to see if anyone will think it is disrespectful for me to sing. And I sing a little song to God– even just a few notes of Alleluia. I am sure the blackbird singing at dawn feels just as right about it as I do.

    New contributor Martina Nicholson is an OB/GYN and a poet who lives in Santa Cruz – TB

  • abe frajndlich says:

    hello tom,

    thanks once more for firing my synapses. i love the sound of the cy twombley all consuming fire. there are times when walking the streets of new york or just spending a sunday afternoon at moma, has that intensity. and the childlike script talks volumes. in surroudsound. thanks as always for making me more aware.

    hope you are well.

    much love,


    Abe Frajndlich is a world renown photographer living in NYC – TB

  • Steve Ellis says:

    A few completely unrelated “acoustic” phenomena come to mind ( just noticed another one- thinking, real reflection, is at least for me, a completely silent endeavor.) Whatever tune that may be in my head (more on that in a bit) mercifully shuts itself off while I think.

    I go to the Cleveland Air Show most every year solely to feel the sound of F-14 afterburners create that deep vibration in my chest. And each time I’m struck by how unbelievably cool those planes are and how profoundly horrifying that sound would be to someone who was in harm’s way.

    I try to be in the open desert once a year. There’s something in the open space and dry air where sound instantly and completely dissipates. The effect is an otherworldly disconnection; it’s just my mind out there – not a hint of the typical envelope of ambient white noise.

    Ear worms. Today’s is Private Eyes by Hall and Oates. I don’t like the song but I’m walking and nodding my head to the rythym and quietly humming the melody. Visions never get stuck in my head – I don’t replay the spectacle of Bryce Canyon over and over (and over) again in my head. It’s all I can do to conjure it up at all. But six bars of a bouncy tune and I carry the doggone thing around all day. It’s a Small World After All is the most intractable, and now that I have thought of it, it has taken its rightful place from Private Eyes.

    Steve Ellis is a brilliant attorney based in Cleveland. He is also a banjo player and an aspiring pianist – TB

  • Paulette Faulkner says:

    I am inspired by your correspondent Bob Woods and his idea of creating something wonderful in S. Marco. I have grown up being able to access without difficulty daily worship in a great Cathedral. The sound of Cathedral Choristers, made up of course only of male voices, soaring up to the roof is capable of transporting one to another dimension. The builders of our great cathedrals certainly knew about acoustics! The pure voice of a young chorister is sublime. I think that even if a person is there by accident, perhaps they’ve wandered in to look at the architecture and have no religious inclinations, the crystal purity of the sound cannot fail to move the spirit to joy. Another sound of joy to me is the song of the blackbird announcing the arrival of Spring. How can such a small creature penetrate my conciousness with such a joyful sound? It’s amazing that just this morning, while we are in the midst of a cold winter on the south coast of England, I was awakend by ….. yes, the blackbird. Hope it’s an omen of an early Spring. I really only want to write about good sounds, certainly not about that dreadful zzzzzzzzzing of someone’s idpod while I am on a long bus or train journey. If only they would turn the volume down. Hope you and Bob can pull off a project Tom. Let me know when and I’ll book a flight to Venezia.

    Paulette Faulkner lives in Poole, U.K. and looks for any excuse to go to Venice. – TB

  • Fred Collopy says:

    There’s a wonderful “making of” feature on the Wall-E DVD that addresses the history of and changes to sound, particularly in support of animation.

    Responding to Bob Wood’s fascinating points, I want to start by quoting David Bowie “The eyes are a lot hungrier than the ears.”

    Experiments done by some of Nicholas Negroponte’s students at the Media Lab found that when people were exposed to playback with improved audio quality they assessed the video as of higher fidelity than when the video quality was improved.

    The visual world that will take the eyes on the kind of journey that so far only sound takes it on is foreshadowed, I think, in the work of Leopold Survage (who envisioned abstract colored animations before either color film stock or animation existed), Laslo Moholy-Nagy, Oskar Fischinger, the Whitney brothers, Norman McLaren and others.

    Fred Collopy is Professor and Chair of the Information Systems Department at Case Western Reserve University. He is also a jazz musician and does fascinating experiments in the visualization of sound – TB

  • I’m trying to picture my beloved brother, Tom, at a dinner party or a social hour with nothing to say, no ideas, bored out of his gourd. It’ll never happen. The topic of Sound? Only one year to explore it? He has only scratched (sound effect, please) the surface. And in case you are wondering, Dear Reader, what it was like growing up with him? Or what it sounded like? My early sound memories are scyncopated rhythms from Tom’s drum set: hardly muffled through the bedroom wall, and sometimes more directly transmitted by his hands (a bit more softly) right on my skull. On long car rides he would get me to hum or sing a simple beat and then he would fill in with an entire orchestra of inventive sounds. Never a dull moment!

    Jane Bredendick lives in Wisconsin and can be reached at – TB

  • Bob Woods says:

    Hi Tom,

    I’m on vacation in a warm Caribbean place (so happy not to be in Cleveland right now) where all I notice is the contant rustle of whatever the trade winds touch and the response of the waves to the same.

    My head is so far in the process of recording things that I am looking forward to learning from what all of you have to say here about sound. I am very struck by what you included from architect Juhani Pallasmaa which I have not read or heard of before. It is fascinating! I have always wondered wny people are way more struck buy the virtues of hi def video versus hi def audio and he answers that simply and clearly for me: “The eye reaches, the ear receives” and “Visual is directional and audio omni-directional.” I realize that the three-dimensional (we are forced to call them “surround sound” which is not what we have done) recordings we have made have always been a challenge to listen to with your eyes open–seeing the walls in a living room where you are playing back sound as opposed to the acoustic fingerprint that we captured in the recording creates a cognitive dissonance. What you see just doesn’t compute with what you hear which is likely why the technology hasn’t gone very far. I listen with my eyes closed and have since the beginning! The solution would be to add the realistic visuals to support the sound, but which ones? At what focal point? And more important, at what insane expense?!

    So Tom, let’s find the funding to do a recording in San Marco in Venice in hi def audio and video and figure out what would make this a knock your socks off experience. At least it would be fun brainstorming what would make it unique–a way of combining visuals with audio that has really never quite been done before.

    OK, too much sun on my head I guess.



    Bob Woods is the co-founder of the pioneering digital recording giant Telarc Records and has won too many Grammy’s to count – TB

  • Tom — My immediate thoughts evoked by your unique and well-articulated topic: Joycean explorations between memory, words and sounds…all inextricably linked.Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, where Alex’s evil persona thrills to “Ludwig van’s” Ninth Symphony and the Ludovico technique conditions his repulsion to it — conditioning by resonance?

    A similar use of sight & sound conditioning in a fantastic film by Alan Pakula, The Parallax View: Warren Beatty’s entrance exam into the sociopath’s academy is stirring.

    Lastly, the grand spectacle of sight & amp; sound — Hitler’s extravaganzas in Nuremberg. The resonance of participation. Churches have employed that technique for centuries.

    Ciao — Bob

    Bob Clancey is a an account exective and creates illustrated journals which look like Peter Beard’s – TB

  • Laura Ruth Bidwell says:

    Dear Tom,

    I have just been thinking about sound – sound and film, sound and emotional impact. You are so right about Kubrick. Tarantino is the other sound (song) plus visual master who comes to mind.

    As a passionate amateur iMovie maker, one of the first lessons I learned was that bad sound can KILL good footage. And, occasionally, great sound can transport lousy footage.

    My strongest sound memory comes from the window fan in my parents’ bedroom. It was huge and heavy and hung out about a foot into the room. I would crawl under it at night and be carried off to sleep by it’s swooning industrial winds.

    The other sound that sways me down to my DNA is the breeding chorus of insects that urges from the grasses during the hot weeks of August. Sways me.

    It occurs to me that most of my essential sounds come from the comforting white noise of childhood. Vacuum cleaners. Lawn mowers. George Shearing…

    Laura Ruth Bidwell is a fine art photographer and collector – TB

  • Dear Tom,

    Reading Mark Bowles inspired experience with the sound of the ocean,it brought me also back to my own taste of it…also at night, alone, and while happily waiting for a relative, the time passed and she never arrived. The mood changed while the sound remained the same turning it into a nightmare..from beautiful and hypnotic to roaringly menacing..Fortunately there was a happy ending.

    Reading Gore Vidal’s memories “Point to Point Navigation” about Bette Davis’ making DARK VICTORY, one recalls Max Steiner famous scores of movies like “Now Voyager”, and so on…I’ll quote the chapter of Gore telling the story:

    “During the shooting of DARK VICTORY, Geraldine Fitzgerald was on the set when Davis, having gallantly seen her husband off to New York and then planting a number of irises while going blind from sort of fatal movie disease, makes her way, unsteady, to the staircase…” “..Fitzgerald told me that “halfway up the stairs Bette stopped and turned to fix the director, Irving Rapper, with her famed steely gaze. “Now tell me, Irving, before I waste any more time on acting, WHO is going up the stairs to die, me or Max Steiner?”

    Now, I love music and sound in film, and I know how valuable they are, nevertheless, I always get a kick reading those lines!

    Juan Bastos posts here regularly and is a portrait painter living in Los Angeles. Visit his site at – TB

  • Mark Bowles says:

    The first time I ever heard the ocean was in the dead of night.

    I had been to the ocean many times before, but in the daylight I had been blind to its voice.

    Let me tell you about the moment, if I can.

    Late one night I wandered out alone to the beach. The experience was almost like stepping beyond the threshold from one world to the next. Immediately I was enshrouded by a humbling blackness. As I paused from my walk across the cool sluggish sand at the water’s shifting edge, I heard it. It was then that for the first time the ocean spoke to me. I suddenly became aware of the most three dimensional resonating sound I had ever heard in my life. I have no words to describe it.

    It went something like this. It started with the roar of the wave crashing nearest to me in front, and then an after echo, followed by a dimensional tunneling as the wave duplicated its fall to infinity, spiraling off left and right and around me. Then a moment of silence. Breathtaking hushed silence. Expectant. Until another crash and again the voice of power, nature, and life. I stood there listening for I do not know how long, but I remember so vividly trying to discern each note of oceanic sound in the most beautiful natural symphony.

    If only a human could engineer such a resonance.

    It taught me how to listen. With my eyes closed.

    Mark Bowles is a regular contributer here and he is a historian and writer. He and his wife are expecting twins in March. Congrats! – TB

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