Although I'm what you might call a "self trained" sound engineer - I've never studied sound formally, I did study Physics, Maths, Electronics and Music. It has to be said that I didn't do especially well, mainly because I spent too much time in recording studios and not enough time at school. My biggest issue was applying the theory. I so wish programmes like the marvellous BBC / Open University "Sound Waves: The Symphony Of Physics" had been around back then.
The Invisible Force
How do you set about explaining something you cannot see? This is the main challenge involved with any educational material about Sound.
The BBC has a long standing connection with The Open University, which for those outside the UK, is a distance learning establishment. This series is presented by the wonderful Dr Helen Czerski, who is a physicist and oceanographer. She is currently a Research Fellow in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at University College London. She was previously at the Institute for Sound and Vibration Research at the University of Southampton.
Using ground breaking techniques, this episode - "Making Sound" manages to show us exactly how materials behave, how sound is generated, and how it interacts with our world.
In the example pictured above, Dr Helen Czerski and a team from the University of Leicester use two laser doppler vibrometers to measure exactly how the structure of the the Big Ben bell itself is affected when the hammer strikes it. This is part of this episode's investigation in to why we find some sounds rough, and some, like Big Ben, harmonious. The clue is in the term I've just used, but this series explains it way better than I ever could.
They even go to the Stromboli volcano in Sicily to find out how measuring the infrasonic sounds made by the volcano can help us predict and avoid disastrous natural events. In order to bring the infrasonic sound in to a format a human can understand, they generate a 700Hz tone that is frequency modulated by the infrasonics being picked up from the volcano. What you hear is absolutely mind blowing.
All the way through this excellent programme I was reminded of ways that sound can and does enrich our lives. It is so important to so many species and it's kind of ironic that working in post production, we often feel like sound is overlooked.
THIS Is What The BBC Is All About
Having had the honour and pleasure of working for the BBC, I know that the motto, "To Educate And Entertain" still runs deep within the organisation. Nowhere is this more apparent than this incredible series.
The location sound recording, music, sound editing and mixing are all absolutely excellent - such a wonderful change from some of the drama and entertainment output we're witnessing at the moment. I can also tell that the film editor fully understands the subject, as you can't get that quality of sound design and clear story telling, without close collaboration with the sound department.
The second part of this mini series - "Using Sound" will be broadcast at 21:00 GMT Thursday 12th March on BBC4, and will be available through the BBC iPlayer service shortly after. I would thoroughly recommend catching up with this series. For me it's unravelled a couple of mysteries I still had in my head. Even the most accomplished audio academic will learn something and be entertained. What a fantastic advert for the BBC.
Pictures from the BBC / Open University series "Sound Waves: The Symphony Of Physics", used with kind permission of the BBC Picture Desk.