Immersive Sound Design: How to wear your brain like a Hat.

Radio, and by extension audio fiction, is described by Dr. Guy Starkey as a ‘friend who is telling me what I cannot see’. However, when it comes to making immersive sound design, a different definition is needed. It is not a matter of simply leading a listener by the hand and describing the things he sees, it is to instead to create an accessible version of someone else's reality; someone else’s understanding of the world, one that is immersive, textured and real. Therefore, the description of immersive sound design might be a ‘friend who lets me wear their brain as a hat.’ In this article I will attempt to unpack how I make immersive sound design with my handy dandy step by step guide to turning a brain into a hat.


How Do You Turn a Brain Into a Hat? (How Do You Make Sound Immersive?)

This one is difficult to answer. The easy way is to take a brain and place it on top of someone else’s head. This is, however, considered by many to be in bad taste and can lead to litigation from the family of the brain, the person who had a brain put on their head, or general bystanders who had the horror of witnessing the event. It is also not a particularly interesting idea after the initial shock value. It would feel a lot more like wearing someone’s brain if we could feel what they’re feeling, think what they’re thinking, and hearing what they’re hearing. Therefore,  we have to turn the mind into a hat instead. For the sake of my clickbait title, let’s pretend these are the same thing.

Also, I would like to add that there are countless different ways of approaching the task of turning a brain into a hat, as there are many different ways of approaching immersive sound design. This is simply my preferred method of making a brain into a hat.


What’s It Like Being Inside a Brain? (Understanding Existence as a Phenomenological and Immersive Experience)

A brain is a biological organ. It has a series of glands, lobes and other cool-sounding 1930’s horror words. Aside from their connotations, each of these faculties process data the brain receives from our senses. It then interprets this information and loosely collects them into what we may call ‘consciousness’... or maybe even ‘thought’.

You have probably heard of the phrase  ‘I think, therefore I am’ .This was the idea expressed by Descartes in his Meditation. The quote comes from his second meditation, concerning the inside of his mind:

I have convinced myself that there is nothing in the world — no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies. Doesn't it follow that I don't exist? No, surely I must exist if it's me who is convinced of something. But there is a deceiver, supremely powerful and cunning whose aim is to see that I am always deceived. But surely I exist, if I am deceived. Let him deceive me all he can, he will never make it the case that I am nothing while I think that I am something. Thus having fully weighed every consideration, I must finally conclude that the statement "I am, I exist" must be true whenever I state it or mentally consider it.

Descartes outlines what could be argued as  the first real idea for a philosophy of the mind. The brain is a thinking thing, that can be deceived or fooled. This was first written in 1647, and there has been an awful lot of discussion of the subject since.

While studying philosophy, my lecturer Dr. David McNiell taught us about ‘Qualia’, a philosophical label for a familiar concept. Dr. McNiell was known around campus for his brutal deconstructions of visiting professors’ arguments, his powerful biceps and his lycra bike shorts. “Qualia,” he explained, “is raw experience. It’s Brute Feel. The experience in your own mind. Whether that’s the subjective experience of seeing the colour red, or the pain of stubbing your toe, your experience of those is a Qualia.”

In the 12 weeks in which he taught, dissected, and refuted the western analytical philosophy of the mind, I pondered this idea of Qualia, the experience of the world before processing, before labelling before language. I also thought how Brute Feel would be a very good name for a detective.

During my time studying I also dabbled in a study of psychoanalysis. I grew up in a house with a psychoanalyst, which has affected my perception of mind and mental health. Mental health issues or ‘madness’ came with no stigma in my family. It was discussed openly and thoughtfully, sometimes over dinner, sometimes on long car rides, often on walks with the dogs. I also found, to my surprise, that there is a lot of media theory that is built on the works of Freud. Freud, a popular thinker at the turn of the 20th Century, found sincere acclaim among early filmmakers including Alfred Hitchcock. Even radio thinkers such as Prof. Sean Street, have described Audio Drama as a sort of ‘Willing delusion’, in some ways a willful madness. A desire to be tricked and deceived by the cunning, and supremely powerful immersive sound designer.

In order to take on this terrifying and supremely powerful role of ‘sound designer’ it is important that we trick the  many lobes, glands and other horrifying appendages by understanding as much about the brains organic experience as possible. It is also important to understand some of the interesting quirks that a working brain creates for itself, so that we may better emulate them when building our brain for someone to wear as a hat.


Filling The Brain With Noise (Creating an Immersive and Active Listening Experience)

The freedom of podcasting as a medium is that it allows for experimentation, something that my podcast Kane and Feels: Paranormal Investigators takes advantage of, with mixed results. The show has been critiqued for ‘overusing’ sound effects and background noise, sometimes to the point where it is hard to hear the words being spoken, or to visualise where characters are in relation to one another. Occasionally you cannot tell what is real and what is a dream by audio cues alone. I think these are fair criticisms, yet I also think they come from an unexamined prejudice of what an audio drama should sound like.


Growing up in the UK, I have had access to an awful lot of audio fiction, and with that access you become familiar with a certain style of audio drama. This style is exemplified in “The Archers”, the world’s longest running radio serial,  which plays like clockwork every day at 2pm and again at 7pm, and is a model of British audio drama. I spent my teenage years listening to ‘The Comedy Club’, ‘The Seventh Dimension’- classic comedies and experimental dramas on the now defunct BBC 7. If you listen to many of the audio fiction podcasts put out by British creators, you can hear the influence of  the BBC everywhere. The soundscapes are expressive, but understated. The music is minimal, reserved for scene transitions, or it is staunchly diegetic. The programmes are presented to the listener very clear, polished and captivating. They’re made in wonderful studios, complete with working kitchens for foley, different floorings and spaces for different scenes, heavily sound treated studios for elements that take place outside, and corridors full of egg cartons to yell down if a character needs to yell from afar. I loved these shows, their scope and possibility. These shows presented a clean programme, within the soundproofed theatre of the mind’s eye.


In this way, the BBC removes a lot of the trash of sound. Every passing car is picked from a list of passing cars, the hum of computers and their volume never overtake the actors speaking: it is precisely tuned to never take away from the story. Our world is full of unwanted and intrusive sounds. In the same way that the BBC spends thousands of pounds in building studios untouched by the outside sonic detritus, the listening public buys headphones that cancel noise and cars that move quietly. Many use podcasts to escape the sounds of their everyday life.

Take off your headphones and listen to the world around you for a moment.

What do you hear?

Do you hear the hum of a computer? The crescendo of a car driving past? The closing of doors? The thunk of footsteps down stairs?

Listen closer.

Can you hear yourself breathe?
Can you hear your cat snore?
The clock tick?
Do you hear the high tone of your approaching tinnitus?
What is your Qualia? What is your Brute Feel of sound?

When you actively start listening to the world around you, it is obvious, you realise that the world is brimming with sound. Some of it is comforting, like the chill beats I’m listening to while writing this in my kitchen, others are noises I would rather hear less, like the sound of boiling bones in my chicken stock.  My brain focuses on the beats (the good stuff) and less on the bones (the trash).

Kane and Feels: Paranormal Investigators does not have the budget for a quiet studio, or even a good sound booth. But we did have grand ambitions, so I listened to others to see how this intrusive sound could be used. The poet, programme maker and Emeritus Professor of Radio Sean Street recently gave a lecture at Goldsmiths University on some of the poetics of sound, and told a story of listening to a radio drama in his room. He also remembers the sounds of his grandmother’s chickens pecking at feed outside his window. He said it much more poetically than that though, because he’s a poet.  He described this as ‘being in two places at the same time’: his interruption of the outside world is integral to the art of listening, because to listen is not simply to hear everything, it is about filtering that information as well.

In “The Social Network”, director David Fincher had to find a way of getting a visual audience into the habit of listening, a key skill if they were to follow the dense Aaron Sorkin dialogue. To achieve this, Fincher begins the movie by having the dialogue of the scene almost inaudible against the backdrop of a loud and busy bar. It catches the viewer off guard, and they must strain to listen.

However this is not its only effect, as it also allows the viewer access to the protagonists point of view. In an interview The Social Network’s sound designer Ren Klyce described the first mix of the scene, where the conversation was perfectly audible, as not what Fincher was after. “It doesn’t feel realistic to me, it doesn’t feel like I’m in a club; I just feel like I’m watching a movie.” In their second edit, which was a marvel of sound design, the change in perspective is staggering:  “it became clear that the film’s perspective started to change, and that all of a sudden you really started to see the movie from Mark Zuckerberg’s point of view,” In this way Fincher prepares his audience for the dialogue to come, as well as placing the viewer in the mind of his main character — with only the inclusion of some overbearing sound .

When working on the BBC Radio 4 documentary “Howzat for Hollywood”, I got the chance to work with the esteemed radio maker David Prest. On a trip to Brighton’s cricket grounds he did something ingenious: when we stepped off the train he pulled out his stereo microphone and started recording the presenters as we walked to the grounds. He got them to talk about the history of the Hollywood Cricket Club as the noise of cars, pedestrians and all went on around him. At one point on the walk we could hear the braying cries of seagulls. “Can you hear that?” Jim Carter, the presenter asked, “Seagulls! We must be in Hove!”. David kept recording throughout the day, occasionally stopping to add a new memory card. Later, when I listened through it, I was delighted to hear that many of the sounds I feared would interfere with the dynamic only served to add character, place and realism to it.

Sound designers and audio editors are constantly thinking about the sounds they do not want, and trying to get rid of the trash. However, in these examples, these intrusive and trashy sounds actually provide a richer, fuller experience of being in the sound, because the important aspects are then filtered by our wonderful sensory processing organ: the brain. To experience someone’s experience fully — to feel like you are wearing someone else’s brain — then you must fill that brain with noise.


Making A Wearable Brain (Applying and Experimenting with Sonic Perception Through Practical Sound Design)

This American Life’ episode ‘Crime Scene’, presents the idea that every crime scene is a novel, with long and expanding paths leading out. The show uses an interview with forensic criminologist Enrico Togneri to demonstrate that  the phenomenological experience of a crime scene reveals important clues. “ Let’s say you get into a scene where there’s food on the table, you wanna see if its still warm… A smell might be important, you never know”. The experience of being a detective is one that relies on your senses. If an experimental sound designer wanted to experiment with wearing someone else’s brain, then a show about two detectives investigating madness might be the most immersive of all.

When it came to record and build the world of Kane and Feels: Paranormal Investigators, we leaned into the trash of the real world. We recorded in an apartment in South London, slightly off the main road, but still with its fair share of ambience through the closed blinds. We went outside to record scenes in echoey corridors, open parks and abandoned parking garages. When we finally got our audio together, the sound designer Jude was quick to populate scenes with the small sounds that go unnoticed but add realism, like the boiling of a kettle. My job, on the other hand was to add trash to our cleaner sounds: to add reverb, echo and EQ. To add to this, Writer/Folklorist/Magic Consultant and Voice of Kane, Jack, will suggest moods, ideas, and other spooky thoughts which then shape how the sound and music is cultivated in the scene. In this way we built up an immersive soundscape — not necessarily one where every sound had an importance to the greater story, but a world that was full of sound. It also allowed us to do something that is usually only found in detective novels: the same way that Agatha Christie might use a wall of purple prose to show who a murderer might be, by adding trash, we can sneak in clues to the villain of the week, or the larger narrative. A listener can dig through the layers of sound to see what is important and what is trash: the answers are there if you want them.

However, for  writers, producers and listeners alike, the question is ‘What clues should I be listening for?’

Kane and Feels takes place in a city that never sleeps. It is a place that is full of dreams and delusions, things that are impossible and that take a toll on a mind without rest. These are common symptoms of insomnia, anxiety and other mental health issues. In Kane and Feels, these are also things you can punch.

The trick of finding them is a sort of empathic experience, to feel out the mood of a scene, the things that seem out of sort among the sounds we are expecting. The sources of these sound can be non-diagetic, something that doesn’t fit with the scene. But it is still unclear whether that is the source of the monster, or a false lead that leads to the detectives own neuroses.

Kane and Feels are also Jungian investigators, which means they ascribe to a theory of a shared collective unconsciousness. If you are familiar with the video game Series “Persona” where you collect Universal Archetypes like they’re sodding pokémon cards, you may be familiar with the concept. If not, then the theory is that there is a shared unconscious semiology of figures that appear again and again in one’s mind. These are some of the monsters they fight. I’ll be honest, Jack Fitzpatrick, the co-writer and voice of Kane, knows more about it than me because I, co writer and voice of Feels, go in for a different sort of madness.

The point is, if you are sharing someone’s brain, you are also sharing someone’s neuroses, understanding their own brand of madness, their own delusions of the world. These sorts of understandings are important when you’re trying to turn a brain into a hat. Therefore, to give the listener the clues they need to solve the mystery, we need to present them with madness, walking between the conscious and unconscious minds.


Lending The Brain to A Friend, So They May Wear It As A Hat (Final Thoughts)

Now by this part of the process, dear reader, I know you will want to go back to our first plan of taking someone’s brain and putting it on top of someone’s head. But surely the meticulous process of recreating someone’s mind between a set of earphones is way more fun, right? I find the way we use our senses to be fascinating. That we can be tricked into imagining ourselves in far off space stations talking to moody A.I.s or exploring an ocean covered planet, in a seaside town worrying about the incoming dangers of a distant war, or wandering an art gallery in a distant dystopia looking for the links between artist and friend (Love you Jeff, very excited about 3). Podcasts are such a personal, intimate experience. They’re such a wonderful delusion to allow ourselves to have. Waking dreams where our head is filled with scenes that are different to the ones in front of us. How we perceive sound is not how we experience sound. We use our ears to hear, but our brain to listen. Immersive sound design offers a way to experience the world with someone else’s ears.

I love making podcasts because it allows me to think in sound. As a human being with access only to my own experience, this has allowed me to express my understanding of the world in a clearer way than any other medium. But on top of this, I get the joy of having other people listen, to hear other people’s interpretations and theories. Through podcasting, I can attempt to offer a different experience of the world, different ideas and different thoughts. In short, I love making podcasts, because it’s like being the friend who gives you a brain to wear as a hat.


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