Sound Design as legitimate listenable music?
by Tom KochCollage by Erick Gallun

Sound in films, new media, & games, though an important facet of the whole of each media, is frequently overlooked as to its importance and contribution to that whole. If properly done, sound design should be nearly imperceptible, creating an audio environment for images that began silent (in the case of new media, CD-ROMs, or the web) or forming a glue to adhere cut-up sequences of images together that had existing sound tracks, be it wild, dialog, or ambient (in the case of film & video). The environment created can lead the viewer/participator deeper into the particular media, provide audio stimulus/feedback, or even cover errors by distracting and/or diluting the viewer's visual sense. This is how sound design has been approached in the past.

With new forms of electronic music pushing the limits of what music is, or has been defined as, a genre is forming that lies somewhere between sound and music, a hybrid of form that challenges notions of definition. Take for example "bands" like Coil, Nurse With Wound, Hafler Trio, Muslimgauze, or Otomo Yoshihide; early experimental groups that continue to challenge the mainstream definition of "music," they produce CD releases that belie categorization, and though they have many musical qualities to them, they utilize many tools, procedures, and processes that sound designers also use.

Otomo Yoshihide is a great example of the blurring of the line between sound design and what is thought of as music. In his 1993 Extreme release "The Night Before the Death of the Sampling Virus" Yoshihide samples indiscriminatley from japanese commercials, radio stock shows, TV news and shows, movies, & live sounds, then cuts them up into staccato intentionally rhythmless viral compositions that loop and repeat as if your CD player is skipping. In fact, Yoshihide, in his "Application" for the use of the CD on the back cover, states: "Contained here is a total of 77 viruses. When you play this CD, you should be sure to utilize your CD player to its maximum ability. This may be to set it on random play mode to shuffle its contents...or listen to it fastforwarding...All ideas are acceptable. What is important to remember is that the user is the one to decide how they are to be utilized...Playing this CD through as regular music may cause the viruses to perish or change in quality." And he states inside, "The purpose of this virus project is to lay bare the act of sampling itself, not to create a musical work." So in releasing his sampling virus project in the form of a commercially produced CD that is available at most music stores, Yoshihide is thumbing his nose at the definition of traditionally created music, opening the field for other sound artists to produce and distribute their own non-music CDs either through the established channels of distribution, or through their own means: microlabels & CDRs.

Today it is possible for sound artists to burn their own CDRs and promote their work via the web and MP3s. No longer is a sound artist of any sort (be it traditional compositional, hardcore ambient, R&B, Rock, electronic experimental, or any of the hundreds of other cross/hybrid sound genres out there) limited to trying to land a "Record Deal With a Big Label." The big labels are scared, and should be. Anyone with a computer and under $500 of equipment and software can produce their own CDs, with high-quality color artwork, and self-promote them via the web with downloadable preview MP3s. The potential explosion of new forms of sound genres is incredible. Sound artists who have been experimenting with new or even traditional compositional forms can get their stuff out to be heard. Non-musical soundtracks for films (traditionally not released due to lack of general interest"though film music soundtracks are usually released before a film hits theatres) or other media could be digitized and be widely released as MP3s or limited-edition microlabel CDRs, bringing an audience and legitimacy to the previously inaccessible art of listenable sound design.

Tom Koch (aka univac) is a San Francisco based sound designer, filmmaker, and electronic musician. He eagerly awaits the sound-design-only CD soundtracks of "Mr. Hulot's Holiday" and "Pi." You can pester him at


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