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I keep getting production dialog delivered straight from GoPro cameras. It's built-in mono mic with auto gain control records at 48k straight to AAC. Typically it's a nightmare of intelligibility requiring a good deal of finagling and a great deal of understanding on the behalf of the producer. But the other day I found a random silver lining.

On my latest show, I was clearing out dual-mono tracks by flipping the phase on the odd channel. Despite being recorded in mono to the GoPro's file, the editor laid the GoPro audio into the OMF on 2 channels. As I played it down, all I heard was the rapid glip-glop-bleep-blip of what I assumed was the AAC compression artifacts. A perfect building block for data, menu feedback / digital interface designs. So I strung out all the GoPro audio at the end of the session and bounced the result. I pulled a couple bleeps for the map graphics that were in the show, they worked great. Here it is with some down and dirty L1 to bump it up to listenable levels via soundcloud.

[soundcloud]steve-urban/goprobot[/soundcloud]

The thing is, I don't know how this happened. If I record pretty much anything mono, convert it to mp3/AAC, import it, duplicate it, and flip the phase on one, I'd be left with nothing but silence. I'm kinda thinking this out as I type, but I just did a quick experiment to prove my theory. Sure enough, no matter what bit rate I converted a mono signal to, when you dupe it and flip it, just as you would expect, you're left with silence. So what happened in this process? I have no idea. Perhaps someone out here has a GoPro with which they can try to achieve similar results.

Regardless, I was pleasantly surprised and intrigued. So I figured I'd toss this out to all of you. What's your favorite trick to come up with new "digital" sounds for "technology" (data transmission, menu interaction, display readouts, robot-speak etc). Do you have stories of hidden gems like this that you stumble upon? Do you go with classic arp/synth sounds? Do you prefer nature-based technology and process organic sounds? Where do you start?

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8 Answers

I can think of two little tricks that I have used a lot over the years to make stuff like this. They are similar methods using different tools.

The first is using an old DAT machine with a jog/shuttle wheel. Depending on the content on the tape, playing the output to a DAW while shuttling the deck can produce some useful source. The Panasonic 3700 was great for this because it has a big giant wheel that you can use to continuously vary the shuttle rate, playing it like an instrument.

The second is using the scrub tool in Pro Tools and outputing the results to another DAW or to a Sound Devices box. You have to experiment a bit with content and zoom level (works best if you are zoomed in pretty far). You can generate some great stuff with a little practice. Try reversing directions repeatedly, speeding up, slowing down etc. Anything goes.

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Rene's list is bomber; lots of familiar techniques there. I've designed a lot of actual interface sounds for real-world interfaces...of course, there's a difference between real-world GUI sounds and FUI (fantasy UI) sounds that need a lot more cinematic oomph, but each influences the other. Some other ones that I've employed, to expand the great lists already in this thread:

  • Good ol' FM synthesis. Works wonders, and is as complex as you make it, and sounds less cheesy sci-fi than pure analog synthesis methods.
  • Any synthesized sound that changes in pitch or filter cutoff quickly can really cut through background noise and help the user take notice; good for alarms, notifications, etc.
  • Anything short, metallic, with sharp transients is good. Heck, some of the better UI clicks and twips I've designed are from microsamples of mishandled mics, rattling mic suspensions, and the striking of contact mic cables. One man's trash, as they say...
  • The sound of telephone dialing sped up a lot has a very Matrix-y sound.
  • Snippets of shortwave whistlers, tweaks, swishes and tone dives.
  • Sometimes melodic sounds from actual instruments is the best approach. XBox's UI is a nice example. Depends on the emotional needs for the interface, whether real or imagined. - Digital sounds for real interfaces can be alienating and annoying to hear over and over again.
  • RF and EM interference recordings with telephone coil pickups; Jean-Edouard Miclot has done a lot of this!

I've found that, generally, if it's harmonically rich enough, almost anything edited to be incredibly short could serve as the basis for an interface sound!

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I tend to build up simpler hi fi sounds that I have better control of for the tech things, since I like a pretty clean aesthetic. Then I'll build up complex routing and fx when I'm designing. I'm usually pretty heavy with reductive eq - often lopping off everything below 10k or otherwise doing severe bandpass limiting of the individual elements. Its also important to do pitch manipulation to make certain things cut. I'll tend to either doppler them or just do pitch bends with pitch n time. I also like choruses and flanges.

sources range from all over

  • camera and other small electronic servos
  • electrostatic recordings
  • small machine beeps and alarms
  • small metal clicks and latches
  • synth elements
  • line level audio funk
  • contact mic recordings

in our sfx demo vid I used almost exclusively camera sounds, eqd and manipulated for the intro and outro animation:

[vimeo]25090904[/vimeo]

Generally I try to think in terms of noisyness and clickiness vs tonality, balancing the two per what I'm seeing on screen and hearing in context.

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Great list, thanks Rene. –  Luca Fusi Oct 15 '11 at 2:45
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Some approaches I've used with good results:

1) Synthesize the bleepybloops using sine wives w/ dopplers, sweeps, and randomized volume envelopes. Patchers like Max, Audiomulch, and Pd are great for this kind of stuff. Obiwannabe put together a great Pd patch for replicating R2D2-type sounds here:

http://obiwannabe.co.uk/tutorials/html/tutorial_droids.html

Look at what it does, listen to it, then build and tinker away until you get the sounds you want. I love Pure Data.

2) For machinery and robotics, I've used granular synthesis on mechanical recordings to great effect. KTGranulator and Michael Norris' Spectral Granulation are great plugins for this. I've used them on recordings of a Canon D5 flash/shutter/servo to generate new and interesting combination sounds from the already-interesting original source.

Both of these techniques fall into the "Hit record, let the computer do its thing, then search through the resulting audio file for interesting ideas" approach, as opposed to the "nose to the screen, design, tweak, design" approach, neither of which is entirely superior or mutually exclusive.

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I attempted something the other day which came out kind of interesting. I'm working on a sci fi project right now that centers around a technology that keeps a human soul from entering the afterlife. The machine that does this has a large touch screen menu on the console.

I filled my bathtub and got the recorder. I recorded all kinds of movements and objects being thrown into my tub. My goal here was to gather elements to manipulate in pro tools to achieve a more organic sound to the touch screen. Once in pro tools, I time compressed, pitch shifted and automated EQ to achieve a variety of effects. Here is a sample:

http://soundcloud.com/dan2997/organic-digital-ascend-long-2

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Was using RX Denoiser to get rid of some bad camera noise on some dialogue that was going to be used as a Sci-Fi video transmission sequence. As an experiment I trained on a sample of the actual voice and hit RX pretty hard and it came up with some amazing artifacty stuff the had a great flowing link with the dialogue.

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@Steve - fwiw, I'm thinking that there might have been something happening in the conversion process when the editor imported that ended up producing sounds and anomalies that didn't phase. There's a ridiculous amount of editors that have no idea what they're doing and haven't the slightest clue about nesting sequences or using temp low-rez references properly. Not to mention simply setting up their session properly for post.

My other thought is that there might have been some level adjustments or processing the editor did on one of the two tracks that made them different and thus allowed you to produce this.

Based on the leftover frequencies I'm thinking some sort of craptastic compression happened somewhere.

Much to my chagrin, I once had a project where the editor (ne: producer/director) would render out sub-scenes as wmv's and then import those into a master session, edit those together and then render out his master. I shudder when I think of it.

In addition, I have two amazing 45m long recordings I made while doing sound design for the Dave Smith Tempest while force-crashing the OS from tweaking it so hard while using an unstable pre-release OS. I would make tweaks that too 45s-2m to show up (if the edit latched at all). It was pure analog oscillator, digital modulation routing anarchy. Amazing stuff, maybe I'll post a clip sometime soon.

This is after the OS was stabilized. It previously couldn't handle this extent of tweaking and the crashes are 50x more insane: Article: http://www.modulatethis.com/2011/10/first-look-dsi-tempest-drum-machine-roger-linn-james-kojac.html

Video from Article: [youtube]fnbspah_Zz0[/youtube]

I have so many recordings of weird happenstance occurrences like this from over the years it's insane. I'll be making a library from them once I get certain things sorted. I've been slacking a bit hard on that though.

I'm a big fan of feedback and extensive plug-in chains. Knowing my plug-in arsenal like I do, I know exactly what to insert where in the signal path to can get some insane and seemingly uncontrolled content within minutes.

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I've been unlucky enough to have a couple of hard drives go pear-shaped on me, but on one or two occasions I was able to throw Protools into record and capture a bunch of the bizarre sounds the drives were spewing before I got down to the desperate data-recovery phase. Also, if a file from long ago comes up corrupted there are generally some interesting artifacts to pull out. I used some of those recordings on a recent sci-fi project.

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