Ear defenders

Sound dominates every aspect of our lives, and it’s time designers saw it as an essential consideration whenever plying their trade, argues Hugh Pearman

Sometimes, watching a film, you get distracted by little bits of technique, don’t you? I was deep into the convoluted plot of The Bourne Supremacy with Matt Damon, one of those movies that’s ideal for mindless TV viewing, when a particular noise occurred. The noise of a man blowing his own brains out. Mindless indeed. For the rest of the film, I was thinking about that noise.

Movies are full of dubbed-on sound effects, of course, but this one was a peach. It’s the bit where Brian Cox, as the traitor American spymaster who has been unmasked, realises there is nowhere left for him to go. You think he’s about to kill his whistleblowing female colleague, but no: as he raises the gun, he goes on raising it. The camera cuts away to the appalled face of the woman and you get the noise: a muffled bang-splat. You don’t have to see it: you can imagine only too well.

Neither you nor I, I trust, know what that action would sound like for real, and it’s unlikely that anyone in the film studio did, either. So they constructed a plausiblesounding noise. But how? After a while, I concluded that you’d need to dovetail two noises: a real recording of a muffled shot coupled with the splat, which you’d make with the help of, say, a bicycle pump and a plate of jelly.

When you read about the sound-effects people who work in the movies, that’s just the sort of thing they do. Please don’t tell me that they don’t need to any more, that they can summon up any kind of noise they want with a click of a keyboard. I want to believe that the business of making up convincingly appalling film noises is still analogue, still a craft akin to model-making.

As David Bowie put it, ‘Don’t you wonder sometimes, ’bout sound and vision?’ Movies are as much constructs in sound as they are constructs in light. That got me thinking about something else. People like me are always going on about what things look like, sometimes adding a bit about what they feel like, but almost never about what they sound like. OK, sometimes car reviewers wax lyrical about the rich burble of the mighty V8 engine, but when it comes to general design – what about the way some laptops make a distracting noise? How some kitchen gadgets prevent normal speech? How the Modernist love of hardsurfaced interiors creates a cacophony in public buildings?

There’s too much aural clutter, and it needs to be designed out just as carefully as the film people design noises in. Huge numbers of people are involved with the way our towns and cities look, from individual buildings to streetscapes and parks. In contrast, almost nobody – outside the science of interior acoustics – is concerned with how they sound. Ear-splitting sirens on emergency vehicles. Booming sound systems. The hiss of tyres on Tarmac. The beeping of reversing lorries and pedestrian crossings. The bark of Tannoy announcements, the crackle of motorcycle exhausts and the roaring of air conditioning plant. All going into a huge indigestible soup of noise.

Now, some might say that there are already too many kinds of specialist designer around. Well, I think we need yet another type. For the sanity of the population at large, someone needs to acknowledge that most of us have ears as well as eyes, and that they are under serious assault. We need designers of urban calm. Orchestrators of the outside.

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