If we could shrink ourselves to microscopic size, what sounds would we hear?
Microbes is the (fictional) answer to that question.
The idea for this library came from thinking about foley and sound design for nature documentaries, and, in a reverse way, was also inspired by the many libraries of monster sounds already in existence. Why not turn from huge, hulking monsters, to tiny creatures - they could even be actual, existing specimens; not the fantasy/sci-fi variety? Maybe like this?
But of course, the problem of designing sounds for creatures that have never been heard by a human being; that may in fact not have any kind of voice or way of affecting their surroundings enough to move air molecules in any substantial amount - that seemed a tricky task.
Design space - framing the problem:
Going about the work in bursts of experimentation (followed by long periods of mulling things over), I eventually arrived at a frame for what I wanted to do:
- Specifics of creatures doing things like eating, vocalizing and moving about. Diegetic sounds, if you will.
- Mood-setting ambiances, not immediately related to any creatures, but of the sort I personally would expect to be used for creating an atmosphere of an alien world - like the microscopic realm. Non-diegetic sounds, then.
Tools used - and how they affected results:
Having done more field recording than studio-based sound design in the past, I started with a fairly blank slate in terms of tools and techniques.
On the other hand, I had some sort of repertoire of sounds - acquired while working with my modular synthesizer. Cross-modulating the fm-inputs of two VCO's while tweaking the tuning knobs was one favorite - LFO modulation of filter cutoff to get bubbling sounds was another. These became the starting points for many of the skittering, chattering sounds heard in the library.
One of my references was the comical "bubble-engine" sound from a car driven by bees in the animated "Bee-Movie" - a fave of my kids. It made sense to me as some sort of bacterial propulsion sound (tiny fluttering cilia or something like that). However, I couldn't seem to nail a performance I liked with the synth. Where others might have fired up MAX/MSP, I fired up my favorite tools; a couple of mics. I chose to use my DIY Primo EM172 omni's (as seen in the picture) for three reasons:
- I knew they have frequency response beyond 20 kHz (though not remotely linear) - important for anyone wanting to pitch down the sounds later on.
- They would be much easier to move around during the session since I would keep them on their Gorillapod's and plug them directly into my portable recorder.
- If they got wet, it would be no big deal.
Mounting them to a bucket of water, I proceeded to blow bubbles through pipes of various diameters, as well as releasing air from bottles and jars. Bubbles galore.
For other crawling, skittering sounds, as well as wetter, slimier things, I stuck with the mics - and stuck them everywhere: from a long-spiked cactus, to...my mouth. I brought my MKH mics in this time, although I kept them out of my gob. I hadn't planned to get into voice-acting microbes, but I guess some career choices just happen like that. Having recorded most of the specifics, I didn't have exactly what I wanted going in, but I did rather like what I found instead. As so often happens, your choice of tools influence what you build with them.
For the ambient sounds, my point of departure was two-pronged: I coaxed something wibbly-wobbly from the modular and had fun with a cello-bow and a little thing I put together from Luxo-lamp springs, an empty rack case and a few nuts and bolts (see picture). Plenty of rosin on the bow, then stroking diagonally across the springs at various points along their length, produced different kinds of metallic shrieks and groans, with acoustic reverb courtesy of that metal case. All going into contact mics. Much fun.
Mixing & mangling:
I like working in a DAW, but I prefer to source my sounds outside of one. Composing music or designing sounds in-the-box always felt like; I don't know - playing a drum kit through a key-hole or something. But once I've got something, a source-sound, then I like the feel of editing and processing in the DAW.
In the case of these particular sounds, I needed to make the ambiances more ambient, and the specifics more alien. Messing with weird reverb chains and the wonderful plugins from Soundhack was part of it; making the specifics more believable was another. Delaying, duplicating and offsetting audio items helped on some sounds. On others, it was those little things that give away a sound as originating from a human that I needed to get rid of: breathing, smacking and smecking, the click of fingernails or just a certain rhythm, recognizable by anyone with arms who ever tried playing any kind of instrument - whether bowing, striking or scraping it. I also realized that there would be no room-tone to these sounds; since they would be emitted in water or other fluids. One move solved most of these problems, as I discovered that running many of the sounds through iZotope RX on "ham-fisted, all-thumbs" mode gave them that dull, anechoic, slightly wobbly quality I was looking for. Some sounds, I opted not to treat that way, as I felt it dulled them too much and took some of the malleability out of them for the sound-designers. Feel free to pummel these sounds with a de-noiser if you like.
So there you go; microbial audio for your pleasure.
Stay tuned for the release of Microbes!