City After Dark – the sound project I directed

A soundscape of ‘City After Dark’, created for a university project.
Recorded by Megdalyn Liew, Tiantian Yang, Rumena Zlatkova and Chris Hammond.
Edited by Tiantian Yang.
Including a recording of ‘Date with the night’ by Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

This is a sound project we produced for our Sound and Music in the Digital World module – the underdog core module no one knew about. While 70+ % of our course colleagues were doing either Documentary or Formats, there was a quirky little group of people who chose to dig deep in the peculiar world of Sound production and artistry. Half the assignment was to produce a piece and the other half was about presentation and reflection. Here is my version of the story (which we also based our presentation on).

When we were first introduced to the three briefs for our audio assignments (a Ghost story, a Soundscape based on a photographic slideshow, or an After Dark soundscape), it became clear in our group we all preferred to work on the After Dark brief. The main reason is that we were all inspired and interested in capturing a natural atmosphere, and we wanted to turn it into something more than documenting reality. We wanted to create a semi-realistic, semi-imaginative piece, where we use natural recordings but then construct new meaning through the way we re-arrange the separate sounds – and the After Dark brief promised the right amount of creative freedom to do it.

In the pre-production stage, we were listening to similar live recordings and soundscapes and discussing how they were produced. The word ‘soundscape’ itself implies that we’re dealing with space – we wanted to create a feeling of the space. So one of the important aspects we considered was the use of stereo sound, capturing the space’s acoustic characteristics, and putting the listener in the middle of the action. Since we chose the City After Dark theme, we knew we wanted to record sounds in the evening. We were recording in Coventry city centre, so there was no way we could have recorded during the day and achieved a realistic feel of ‘after dark’. Cities sound very differently in the evening – there are less people, less traffic, less sound sources – so each sound is more distinct. The sense of space is also unique in the evening – especially with loud sounds bouncing off different buildings. Of course, the city would have sounded much more different in the hours after midnight – but our piece concentrates on the evening sounds.

In terms of production, we went out on a Tuesday evening, after 7 pm, with two recorders and two directional microphones. We were going around the streets of Coventry city centre, listening for interesting sounds to capture and creating sounds ourselves. The first type – sounds we captured – ranged from the obvious traffic, busses, car engines, footsteps and people’s voices walking by, to less obvious such as distant screams, the sounds of a casino, TV programmes overheard from people’s homes and the weather forecast from the BBC Big Screens. Each of these sounds have very specific acoustic characteristics. We were recording and recreating the soundscape from a passersby’s perspective – so the casino and TV sounds are both muffled because of the physical obstacles between the sound source and the microphone; the screams and the weather forecast have a sense of distance, because in both cases there was a big empty space between the source and the microphone.

The other type of sounds we captured were staged. We were going around, trying to extract sounds from various objects on the street, sometimes acting out a scene, or creating rhythm. There is a car door slam where we asked a taxi driver for permission and we staged the scene; there is the sound of dialing a number in a phone booth, and lots of rhythmic sounds where we were kicking leaves, ringing bicycle bells and banging on metal surfaces; there is also one of us whistling, dropping coins on the ground, opening and closing bags, etc. There are a few deep, bass sounds which we were lucky to capture. Most of the objects on the street would usually create sounds in the mid- and high-range of the sound frequency spectrum, which would have made the end product quite busy in the higher frequencies and empty in the low range, so we wanted to put some bass sounds in to balance it. There are also a few unplanned sounds we managed to capture, such as breaking of a bottle and the sound of one of us running after the bus they’d just missed.

In terms of post-production, we started by separating interesting sounds from our raw folio recordings. Some of them were long files of atmosphere sound, such as car engines, wind, people talking, steps of people walking and running, etc. A lot were, however, short, 1-2 second clips of distinct single sounds we could either use separately or combine / loop. We didn’t have one main background layer throughout the piece, but instead used a few long folio recordings to set the atmosphere or establish a change of the ambience.

There wasn’t a clear and specific plan to the edit – we knew we wanted to tell the story of someone walking around town and hearing different sounds, but the walk itself (both our recording walk and the walk in the actual piece) weren’t planned. This is also established through the surprising sounds that are heard throughout the piece. It is obvious that the person is walking around town, but there are lots of unexpected cues – or normal sounds at unpredictable times. For example, it is untypical to hear a bicycle bell in the middle of a walking scene, but we chose to put the sounds there. They also work as links between the different scenes – as physical cues that we are about to hear something new. Also, there is an interesting combination of the unedited casino sound and pre-recorded opening of a wallet and dropping coins. Then, there is the juxtaposition of the calm sound of a cathedral bell with sampled rhythmic sounds and quickly changing short sounds creating a sense of uncertainty.

If one listens closely, there are also voices and sounds captured from the recording team which we chose to leave in – to make the listener a ‘partner in crime’, to give them the sense of being part of the event. Later on, there is another seemingly calm and predictable scene which ends with a surprising loud metallic bang and another cue of uncertainty. It is also reestablished throughout the piece with the cigarette lighter which keeps appearing in a hurried and neurotic way. The landscape keeps changing while staying the same – as if the listener is taking a step back and then diving back into the story. There are lots of sounds that keep reappearing – but instead of creating consistency, they disorientate the listener. At some points, they may be wondering if this is just one scene, or a few of them; is this just one sound vision, or it is more schizophrenic. Because, at night, when it is dark and unpredictable, everything seems more surreal and often scary – so we were aiming to create a paranoic feel.

The main techniques used throughout the edit are sampling, fading, and panning. We were after raw, unpolished and un-mastered sound, but since it is a sound composition it is impossible to just cut from one scene to another, so we were fading sounds in and out, making the transitions less obvious. Panning was crucial – most of our recording was done in mono, so to create a fuller stereo experience for the listener, we were re-creating movement with panning from the left to right channel, or re-creating the sense of space with leaving different sounds in the left and right channel. The pursuit of realism also meant we didn’t use almost any filters or compressors – because we wanted to keep the dynamic range of the sounds. The last 30 seconds of the piece are introducing the listener to a music venue – this is the only scene where the use of EQ was justified. The original recording of the song has a clear sound which had to be changed to create the sense of ‘going into a live music venue’.

In reflection, even though the final piece sounds interesting as it is, there is lots of room for improvement – both in terms of content and structure. More time spent in pre-production and planning would have meant a more clear idea of what we want to achieve and what we want to avoid. It would have helped us to minimise the time spent recording and editing sounds we weren’t sure if we’d need. Sound production is very time intensive, plus it is tough to do it as a group – we were taking turns recording and editing, building upon each other’s ideas. A more structured approach would have meant we could focus our creative energy in the right direction, probably ending up with a better product from less source material. Maybe if we had just a handful of sound recordings, we would have been more creative – because more often than not, creative solutions come from limitations.


2 thoughts on “City After Dark – the sound project I directed

    • Thanks 🙂 This was one of the rare projects I wasn’t doing a technical role, but rather actually directing, and I think it turned out quite interesting and unique. Glad you enjoyed it!


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