Ambient Noise, Skeuomorphism and the way we perceive sound
Close your eyes and listen to the sounds around you. Tune out your internal monologue (if you have one) and pay attention to the ambient noise surrounding you. What sounds do you hear? Someone coughing? The AC humming? A group of people talking?
These ambient or atmospheric noises set the tone of your surroundings by establishing a sense of location. If you hear the crack of a baseball hitting a bat and children cheering, you could assume the location is a playground or little league field. Ambient sound helps you visualize your surroundings without opening your eyes, and can even induce a dreamlike state.
What is Psychoacoustics?
Scientists study sound and its effect on how humans interpret and react to sound. In music production, you’ll likely benefit from knowing the basics of psychoacoustics.
Psychoacoustics is the scientific study of sound perception and audiology. This includes speech, music, and other sound frequencies that travel through our ears. Knowing the limits of human hearing is a good way to familiarize yourself with psychoacoustics. The human hearing range depends on both the pitch of the sound—whether it’s high or low—and the loudness of the sound. Pitch is measured in Hertz (Hz) and loudness is measured in decibels (dB). The audible human range of hearing is between 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz.
According to Daniel Dixon from iZOTOPE, the key to achieving a pleasing mix is an even balance of frequencies across the spectrum. He explains, “while simple in theory, this is often a challenge to pull off since our ears do not perceive all frequencies equally, specifically in the high mid-range (between 2500–5000 Hz) where we are most sensitive.”
Composers and sound designers use ambient soundscapes for film and video games to give the background texture and bring the visual environment to life. These sounds can even cause emotional responses that immediately convey affective information such as the spray of bullets across the battlefield in Call of Duty.
Is Skeuomorphism Still a Thing?
If you aren’t familiar with the term skeuomorphism, it’s a design concept that’s used a lot in UI and web design. Objects on a screen are made to look like their real-world counterparts such as the telephone icon on an iPhone.
Audio or non-visual skeuomorphism is another sound design concept that mimics familiar real-word sounds digitally. For instance, when you drag an unwanted PDF file to your trashcan on a MacBook, the skeuomorphic sound replicates an item being tossed into the trash. Or if you’ve ever read an e-book, you have likely heard the sound of a page flipping when you click to the next page.
The concept has had a resurgence with the advancement of voice assistant technology in recent years. This voice technology mimics human diction with virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri. The voices, if done well, can sound humanlike and less robotic then they have in the past.
Understanding the science behind sound will help you create better music and effects in the studio. Knowing the basic principles of psychoacoustics and audio skeuomorphism can help you recognize human emotions and reactions to everyday noises. Apply those discoveries to your sound design/music to create a unique listening experience.
Just for Fun: Tasos Fratzolas hosts a TedTalk about how our brains are conditioned to hear sound.