Play It Again, Roman!

by Jackson Roach


It’s easy to forget about all the little sounds, the pops and rustles and scratches and clicks that surround me in my everyday life. I’m constantly filtering through, focusing past, drowning out all these sounds. And this is especially true with my daily devices.

Gone are the days of clacking typewriters and cash registers that go ker-ching. It seems like sound is almost completely peripheral to the function of new technology. I actively keep my iPhone on mute.


Or at least, I did. The Sound of the Artificial World, an episode of 99% Invisible, totally changed my mind. Now my phone is constantly blooping and swooshing and clicking. And every sound means something. Every sound is important to the way I use this device in my pocket. And all because of this one story, and the way it repeats one tiny clip of incredible sounds.


The moment that does it comes at about 1:25. 99PI’s amber-voiced host Roman Mars is interviewing Sound Designer Jim Mckee about the work he does for tech companies like Yahoo. McKee is describing his process:


      McKee: So typically what I do is I create a bunch of button sounds.


      Mars: These are would-be buttons for a Yahoo widget.


       McKee: I say, ok you guys tell me which ones are the closest. And then

       you end up with, what, 38 sounds here.


And here McKee triggers a clip: Those 38 sounds, a drum-line of little drippy pops and wiggles and zips, one after the other in rapid succession. It’s a perfect encapsulation of all that 99PI is trying to do: draw our attention to the pieces of design that we forget about, that go unnoticed, that are “99 Percent Invisible.” It’s all about making the background into the foreground. In a two-second string of noises, we get probably a month of McKee’s hard work mainlined directly into our ear drums. At this point I’m in awe of the sheer amount of time, of trial-and-error-and-trial-and-error that goes into the sound just one button makes.


So while I’m still reeling from the idea of all that painstaking design work sunk into what will end up being just one teeny tiny sound (that I would probably have muted anyway), Mars takes it to the next level:


Mars: I love that. I could listen to that all day. In fact, let’s hear it again.


And then — get this — he plays it again. And this time it’s totally different. The repetition does more than just emphasize the information conveyed by the first time the clip is played. It actually changes what’s going on, changes how the listener is interacting with the sound. By playing it again, after we’ve already gleaned the necessary facts from it, Mars is forcing us to pay attention to the sound itself, to pay attention to the feast of tone color and texture rippling kaleidoscopically out of our headphones.                             


It’s a shift from conveying factual information, information about the amount of work put into the sound, to conveying a sensory experience. Suddenly I go from thinking “Woah, that’s a lot of sounds!” to “Woah, listen to how those sounds sound!!!” The clip is working on a totally different level, a physical level, engaging me viscerally, in the very flesh and bone of my ears.


And holy cow is it delightful. It gives me the shivers and makes me laugh at the same time (especially that adorable little high-pitched ribbit at the end). Mars is in on it too, unable (and not really trying) to hide his juvenile glee. “Oh man,” he says.


Oh man indeed!


Sound is a very tactile sense (some even call it touch at a distance). That means we can use it to really reach out and grab our listeners (sorry, had to go for the pun). One really effective way to do this is to repeat the sound you want to grab your listener with. Give them a second chance to hear it, to engage with it in a different way. Let them indulge in the way it feels in their physical body. Re-frame the sound, find joy in it, and let them find joy in it too.


And who knows, maybe you’ll get them to unmute their iPhone.


Podcast: The Sound of the Artificial World

Produced by: Roman Mars at 99% Invisible in 2011

Duration: 5 minutes