Interviews sound-design

Published on May 14th, 2013 | by David Forshee

Interview with David Sonnenschein (Part 2)

Here is part 2 of our blog series com­ing from a con­ver­sa­tion we had with author, sound designer, and lec­turer David Son­nen­schein about his lat­est project: 3 Deaf Mice. To learn more about 3 Deaf Mice visit the project Kick­starter page at

3 Deaf Mice is based on David’s book “Sound Design: The Expres­sive Power of Music, Voice and Sound Effects in Cin­ema”, which is #1 on Ama­zon and the defin­i­tive inter­na­tional resource on sound design for film. As founder of Sound Design for Pros, David has pro­duced lots of great sounds, inter­views and arti­cles, and offers a 12-hour webi­nar series as part of the Kick­starter rewards. His expe­ri­ences as audio con­sul­tant for EA’s “Mass Effect 3″, musi­cian, film­maker and neu­ro­sci­en­tist, com­bine to bring this incred­i­ble sen­sory chal­lenge and unique game play to everyone.

PSE: How do you inte­grate into Three Deaf Mice “causal” lis­ten­ing and iden­ti­fy­ing the source of the sound?  Why is this type of lis­ten­ing important?

In our daily lives, we’re sur­rounded by sounds that really impact our well-being. If we become aware of these sounds, we can actu­ally live a fuller life in terms of our own health, safety and joy.  For exam­ple, if a sound in your envi­ron­ment is mak­ing you irri­ta­ble, but it has passed into your sub­con­scious, you may not know why you are feel­ing that way unless you stop for a sec­ond and say, “What’s going on right now?” Then all of a sud­den you hear a refrig­er­a­tor hum that is very dis­so­nant and is cre­at­ing this very low-level anx­i­ety that you haven’t been aware of. That’s a sim­ple exam­ple.  In archi­tec­ture, peo­ple speak of feng shui to get the proper energy flow. The posi­tion of the doors, fur­ni­ture, and the light­ing is very impor­tant for the well-being of the peo­ple that live in that home.  And in that sense becom­ing aware of the feng shui of sound is equally impor­tant whether it’s the sound of a lit­tle water foun­tain that gives you a sense of quiet peace­ful lulling or whether you’re actu­ally putting up a sound baf­fle on the win­dow that might block out the roar of the traf­fic.  These are some areas that peo­ple spe­cial­ize in, but we don’t usu­ally pay atten­tion so much in our daily envi­ron­ment. Three Deaf Mice will hope­fully broaden and enhance people’s per­cep­tion of our sonic environment.

PSE: This reminds me of a study I read recently show­ing that noise pol­lu­tion can actu­ally impair read­ing com­pre­hen­sion skills in chil­dren (Read study). 

Good exam­ple, the other extreme is that they are using music now to help new­borns with dif­fer­ent phys­i­cal ail­ments to actu­ally recover quickly (Arti­cle).  Talk­ing about the power of music and health, this is not the only arti­cle of course. There are just so many exam­ples of how we can become more aware of sound and music in health and well-being.

PSE: How will the game play be struc­tured to guide the play­ers to become more aware of their environments?

The game struc­ture is based on a song called “Cheatin’ the Trap,” which tells the story of how the mice began their careers in psych labs and wild fields, and ulti­mately met up and found dif­fer­ent objects in their envi­ron­ments to cre­ate music.  The mice ulti­mately built a career in music and get to the huge sta­dium rock con­cert. This story is told in the song with 10 verses, each one at a dif­fer­ent stage of their careers. In each of those verses, we dive into what’s hap­pen­ing with them and dis­cover dif­fer­ent envi­ron­men­tal sounds that we have to explore. There will be a series of trea­sure hunts for spe­cific sounds inside the envi­ron­ments where they have to iden­tify a sound and where it’s com­ing from. When that’s cor­rectly solved, the player will move deeper into the envi­ron­ment seek­ing and find­ing sounds within sounds.  So we’re going to be employ­ing what’s known as “mask­ing” where cer­tain sounds will be louder and other sounds will be hid­den inside them.  We’ll be train­ing the player’s ear to lis­ten for sounds within sounds and to iden­tify what makes a sound dif­fer­ent than another sound. So by dis­cov­er­ing what those sounds are, it’s train­ing the player in their “causal” lis­ten­ing skills for iden­ti­fy­ing the source.

PSE: Would you walk us through an exam­ple of one of these sonic trea­sure hunts?

One exam­ple from the game is in the bath­room, where we first hear the sound of water run­ning. Once we’ve found that sound which is the shower, we then hear a sound inside that’s kind of like a squeaky sound with a higher pitch and shorter enve­lope. We find that it’s the med­i­cine cab­i­net door squeak­ing open.  Inside there we find some bot­tles, and by shak­ing the appro­pri­ate bot­tle you’ll hear the sound of the pills inside of it.  Once you find the pills and open the bot­tle, you drop the pills into a glass of water and hear the “plunk plunk”. This causes the final “core sound” of the effer­ves­cent fizz of antacid in the water.  So that’s an exam­ple of how we will travel through an envi­ron­ment of sound effects that are linked to the story and song lyrics.  Once you’ve found what I’m call­ing this “core sound”, then it becomes the focus of the next part of the game, a sonic trans­for­ma­tion through dig­i­tal sound processing.

PSE: How do you define “reduced” listening? How is this type of lis­ten­ing encour­aged in Three Deaf Mice?

In this envi­ron­ment we’re also going to iden­tify what makes the sounds dif­fer­ent by their shape or their actual phys­i­cal wave­form, called “reduced” lis­ten­ing.  In other words, if we have a sound that has a higher pitch but is “inside” a louder sound, you can hear it eas­ily because it’s pop­ping out with the dif­fer­ent pitch.  Then we can iden­tify that as being the sound we’re look­ing for and move into the envi­ron­ment where that sound is what I’m call­ing the “cen­tral sound.”  Then inside of that sound we’re going to find other sounds.

Reduced lis­ten­ing refers to the shape of the sound wave­form, and iden­ti­fy­ing its phys­i­cal qual­i­ties.  If we have a flute play­ing a melody and we have a vio­lin play­ing the same melody, the pitch and rhythm might be iden­ti­cal, but what would be dif­fer­ent is the tim­bre or fre­quency spec­trum. Manip­u­lat­ing through equal­iza­tion is one of the tools that we would use to shift the tim­bre of a musi­cal instru­ment.  The more com­plex the tim­bre, the more har­mon­ics and over­tones that exist in that sound and the rougher the wave­form would look visu­ally.  If you go towards a sine wave, which is a pure tone, you’ll see a very smooth curve.  The other extreme, white noise, is extremely com­plex and ran­dom­ized so that it looks like a very rough, chaotic wave­form.  The game will have a visual equiv­a­lent of what the sound wave is doing as I just described. So if we’re going to change the pitch, we’ll see the wave­forms get­ting shorter or more fre­quent.   Another exam­ple, if we sharpen the attack by clip­ping or gat­ing it, then we’ll see that attack being a more sud­den impact on the visual wave­form, as opposed to a grad­ual buildup.  So those are things that will help peo­ple begin to under­stand how sound is struc­tured with the aid of visual stimuli.

PSE: How does this pro­cess­ing trans­form the sound effects into musi­cal sounds? Will there be other types of pro­cess­ing in Three Deaf Mice?

For exam­ple, we’ll mul­ti­ply tracks, shift­ing pitch and cre­ate har­monies.  We can also cre­ate beats by loop­ing dif­fer­ent effects. There’s a tremen­dous amount of cre­ative work with rhythms being done by DJs and hip hop in gen­eral, a super cre­ative form.  This is the kind of thing that we’ll make acces­si­ble in the game through the dif­fer­ent kinds of sound pro­cess­ing so that peo­ple can explore these cre­ative musi­cal paths.

Check in later this week for Part 3 where we will dis­cuss seman­tic lis­ten­ing, mean­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and will wrap up the blog series.  To learn more about 3 Deaf Mice visit the project Kick­starter page at

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