Carnegie Mellon University / Introduction to the Electronic Media Studio (60110-A)

Unit 50

by Golan @ 4:24 am 28 September 2009

Sound: Lecture & In-Class Exercises

Learning Objectives:
To demonstrate development of skills and techniques in digital sound acquisition, editing, mixing, sequencing, output and publishing. Starting from an historical overview of 20th Century sound practices (e.g. musique concrete): to demonstrate an understanding of responsible appropriation and sampling, and demonstrate an understanding of aesthetic issues in choreographing “structured noise”. Tools: Audacity, microphone, portable audio recorder.

Information To Learn:
One dimension of information over time. The basic nature of physical, analog and digital sound signals. Sampling rate and bit depth. Digital sound input and output. Sound importing and recording. Sound file formats. Seamless editing at zero-crossings. Editing sound with the Audacity software.

About Audacity:
The Audacity software (which was originally developed here at CMU!) is a free, open-source sound editor available on the School Macs in the Applications/Sound directory. If you’d like a copy for yourself, it can be obtained here. (You will also need the LAME MP3 encoder, a plug-in which is available on the same page. This plug-in allows you to save MP3 files.)

In-Class Exercises:

  • Fetch the following MP3 sound files from the “Readings” area of this web site.
    • Doug Wallin (North Carolina) (3.849 Mb)
    • Leterel (Autechre) (6.554 Mb)
    • The Big Payback (James Brown) (3.133 Mb)
  • Obtain a sound from each of the following sources: the Internet, a microphone, an audio CD. Optional sources: the Marantz solid-state audio deck, an iPod microphone. Change the pitch of the sound. Add reverb to the sound. Try some other effects. Some internet sound effects:
  • Record yourself speaking your name backwards, reverse the sample, and listen to the results. Revise your pronunciation. Export an mp3 and upload it to your blog.
  • Using a provided 44.1kHz stereo soundfile: downsample to 22kHz, 11kHz, 8kHz (or even lower) and note the differences. Change the bit depth to 8-bit and note the differences. Save the original sound as an MP3 using various amounts of compression, and note the artifacts. (We’ll observe this using the track “Leterel” from the album “Tri Repetae” by Autechre.
  • In the waveform of a rock song, note the ready visibility of beats. Create a seamless loop from a music file. Re-arrange several brief beats. (We’ll create a loop from James Brown’s “The Big Payback”, starting at approximately 1’10”.)
  • Re-purposing a soundfile of speech. Seamlessly remove a spoken word from the sound file. Now construct a 15-second composition derived entirely from extracts from this sound file. Some possibilities: Make a composition only from the non-language sounds (coughing, laughing, gasping); use the natural prosody (tonal-shape) of the language to create a distinctive melody; or re-arrange a sentence to produce something humorous. (We’ll use a spoken narration from North Carolina folk singer Doug Wallin)
  • Mixing Sounds in Audacity.

Readings can be found in the password-protected Readings area. 

Readings (50 & 51) are due Wednesday September 30.
Sound Collage (52) is due Wednesday, October 7.

Assignment 50: Reading analysis I.
Pick one of the five sound readings and (in your blog) write a sentence or two response about something that interested you from the reading. (Please list the title and author of the reading).

Assignment 51: Reading analysis II.
Pick another of the sound readings and write a sentence or two response about something that interested you from the reading. (Please list the title and author of the reading).

Assignment 52: Sound Collage.
Create a “Sound track to a dream”.
It doesn’t literally have to be from a dream, ppl. For example, you might recreate a “sound landscape” of a place you know well from your memory; a “sound portrait” of a person you know; a “sound story” that (wordlessly) presents an event from your imagination; or a “sound sculpture” which choreographs a unique spatiotemporal logic through systematized patterns of sound vibrations. Try to have a mixture of both durational sounds (atmospheres or ambiances) and discrete event-sounds.

There are some technical constraints:

  • Your soundtrack will be a one-minute (approx.) collage of sounds. It must be between 50 and 70 seconds long. For reasons that will become clear later, please adhere to these boundaries.
  • You must use sounds from at least 6 different sources. ‘Sources’ could mean things you record yourself; different physical media (CD, radio, television, movies, internet, etc.) or it could mean different tracks on a sound-effects disc.
  • None of your source sounds can be longer than 10 seconds (i.e. you are not permitted to just use an entire one-minute audio clip as the sound-bed for other sounds).
  • At least one of your sounds must be recorded by you (with a microphone).
  • Your collage must not contain intelligible speech, narration, or music recorded by someone else. If you want music in your soundscape, go downstairs and record a musician.
  • You should have a very good reason if you decide that you go outside any of these constraints.


  • Save your collage as a stereo, 44.1KHz, 256Kbit compressed MP3 file. Deliver an MP3 file of your sound collage, uploaded to your site.
  • … a blog entry, which contains a working link to your MP3 file;
  • … additional links, in your blog entry, to a few (but not necessarily all!) of your source sound files, particularly if you transformed or incorporated them in an interesting way;
  • … two paragraphs discussing: the personal background of your collage (what you were inspired by, etc); its technical background (any special techniques you learned and would like to mention); and its conceptual background (any aspects of the piece which related to your readings on noise and sound).

A note on using repurposed audio (especially music):
By now you should know that I encourage and defend your right to repurpose media created by other artists, as a form of “fair use” artistic practice. Nevertheless, I strongly encourage you to consider an “ethics of remixing” in which you leave the world a better place, by improving on (and not insulting) the materials that you recycle. These days, it has become far too easy to take a sample of something great-sounding, and end up with a (quote-unquote) “great-sounding” collage. Did you earn the right to use that sample, or did you just treat someone else’s talent as your own — did you get “too much for free”? I’m looking for considered, well-worked and intelligent approaches to your source material. For this reason, for this assignment — you are essentially prohibited from trolling through your MP3 collection looking for samples from your favorite songs!

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