In a departure from my usual focus on presentations, I was recently asked to do some sound design for Bracket Computing‘s home page video. Their creative director is an old colleague of mine, and he assumed that my mid-level experience with music production and DJing somehow qualified me for this gig. I was hesitant to commit to a full fledged deadline-driven sound design project like this, but sometimes a guy just needs a new challenge to keep things interesting. Here is the play-by-play:

He gave me an early comp of the video and we discussed what Bracket was looking for in terms of mood. “We want something inspiring and visionary”, he said, and we shared some YouTube links with each other until we found a few that really capture the essence.

The first challenge involved finding audio that was not rights-managed, and was fitting of the mood and pacing requirements. I visited stock audio sites (iStock Audio was my main go-to) and started experimenting with some descriptive search terms like nostalgic, inspirational, atmospheric, visionary, etc… I also leaned heavily toward music that was repetitive and “loop-friendly”, just in case timing turned out to be an issue. Next, I created a lightbox of several possible candidates and scheduled a call to discuss.

View the music lightbox here:

We listened to them in-context, and decided on an appropriate track that felt perfectly matched. Unfortunately, this one happened to be a bit too short, so it was necessary to do some creative editing. For this, any video editing software or digital audio workstation (DAW) that supports video will work. I tend to work very quickly in Ableton Live.

Ableton Live project fileAbleton Live project file (click to enlarge)

Live makes the process of looping and time-stretching very easy, so I selected a 16 bar section in the middle of the song and looped it  1  until the song was long enough to work.

The song was pretty repetitive to begin with, and now that it was lengthened it seemed to drag a little bit. Sometimes a few foley sounds are all you need to add interest and variety, but in this case the camera was simply floating though scenes from computing history. So I added a few ghostly chords from a synthesizer  2  to give it a subtle rising energy that breaks the monotony, and enhances the feeling of being a discorporated time-traveler.

The video ends on a teaser-shot of lights turning on in a space-age room to reveal a glimpse of mysterious new technology. It seemed appropriate to add some roomy, etherial sound effects to give life to these visuals, so I went back to istockaudio in search of sounds that could be layered to create the right mood. The room feels a bit like a top secret Roswell laboratory, so I tried search terms like futuristic, ufo, machinery, secret laboratory, generator, etc… 

View the room sounds lightbox here:

I combined a few layers of low hums and space ship sounds to create the feeling of powerful lab equipment running.  3  A concert bass drum was used to add impact at the moment of activation.

Room sounds combined:

Next came the lights. I have always loved the sound of a camera flash bulb charging up, so I started with this as a foundation. The lights, turning on one by one, felt like they needed some kind of heavy circuit breaker sound. So I tried a few metallic echoes, but they ended up sounding a bit heavy. In the end, kick drum samples with a roomy reverb created the perfect effect.  4 

Light sounds combined:

That ghostly prismatic apparition in the middle of the room needed some otherworldly sound, fitting of an advanced technology, so I used a rising sawtooth sound and played with auto-panning to bounce it from ear to ear and give it an alien personality. Finally, a little Tibetan singing bowl was the cherry on top, adding texture and mystery to the whole ensemble.  5 

Finished ghostly sound:

In the end, I went a few steps beyond sourcing music and got into some full-blown sound design. But I’m really happy with how it turned out, and so was the client. I got to feel what it was like to have the positive pressure of a deadline putting wind in my sails, and I was able to keep the process moving in uncharted territory by applying my familiar design workflow wherever possible.

Even though I was intimidated at first, I learned that great combinations of sound and motion can appear rather quickly. Video creates an expectation that audio naturally answers, and the mind tends to seek out connections between the two. As usual, serendipity is a designers secret copilot. =)

Bracket Computing:
More of my music: