We live in a soundscape. Some of that sound comes from natural sources, but if you live in the city, most sounds you’ll hear on a given day are artificially generated. Though the soundscape as a whole is random, just about every element of it is designed. Bear that in mind as you take in filmmaker Chris Crutchfield‘s delightful short, Digitals. (Watch it with good speakers or headphones, so you catch all the low-end stuff.)
Making music out of found computer sounds isn’t new (this Windows 95 tune is a personal favorite). What makes Digitals work is the story it tells of a soundscape imposed on us. “The inspiration came from a time when I was sitting at my desk working and literally got five or six messages, calls/texts or notifications within about six seconds,” says Crutchfield. “It was strange. But when I heard it happen, it was like a eureka moment for me.” Working with cinematographer Pierce Cook, Crutchfield shot and edited the piece in four days.
A while back, Roman Mars explored “the sound of the artificial world[/i]” with a digital designer who spends his time making sure that things like digital buttons (which are natively silent) sound right. My favorite moment starts at 2:42 when we meet the click of a vice grip and then learn that it’s the sound of an iPhone being unlocked.
The fact that these sounds are not inherent to the product but chosen by a designer leads to some strange consequences. Every now and then, you’ll experience the vertigo of hearing a sound from one place reappear in another (this happens a lot in video games that might re-use SFX libraries). It’s like a Wilhelm scream in product design.
Sometimes, the environment as a whole is designed. On a flight to Florida, Dustin Curtis encountered a Disney World sound designer, whose greatest achievement was creating a speaker system that allowed an ambient soundscape that never seemed to get louder or quieter, no matter where you were in relation to the speakers in the park, and which could slowly alter the emotional content as you moved from, say, Tomorrowland to Fantasyland.
In contrast to Disney’s highly controlled environments, the rest of the world is made of hordes of different sound generators that are definitely not working in concert. Architect Nick Sowers has been documenting our sonic landscape for years, with projects like his SF Lunchwalks, which, edited and condensed, tend to take on a somewhat musical tone of their own.
“We’ve all managed to fill our lives with a myriad of auditory cues and signals connected to things that are supposed to make our lives simpler and easier,” Crutchfield says. He thinks it’s pretty clear that this isn’t quite what we got, and that he wanted to poke fun at that. “We’re inundated with those sounds, and unless we’re ready to make some drastic steps against the grain of the way things seem to be going, the sounds will only get louder and more frequent.”
“Hopefully they’ll sync up in tempo to about 135 beats per minute and shift themselves to the key of F#, otherwise they’ll become a pretty deafening cacophony,” he says. Unfortunately, given that our electrical system hums along somewhere between A# and B we seem to be doomed to permanently being out of tune. If you like, you can visit Crutchfield’s Vimeo page, download a ringtone based on the short, and make a catchy addition to our chaotic soundscape.