LESS IS MORE
HOW TO APPLY THE ‘LESS-IS-MORE’ ATTITUDE TO SOUND DESIGN
You heard it millions of times: ‘Keep it simple‘. ‘Don’t overdo things‘. ‘You got to simplify‘. And we all agree, right? Just run a search about famous quotes from the brightest minds from whatever field of the overall human history and you’ll find that if Leonardo Da Vinci and Miles Davis could sit at the the same table, they would ultimately concur about that: less is more. And frankly speaking, if for some very unexplainable reasons I happened to be around that table (probably serving drinks), I would blindly agree, no questions asked.
Hey, who would dare to argue with Miles? Or contradict the guy that painted Mona Lisa and did the first sketches of a flying machine?
‘Less is more’ is everywhere: music, fashion, tech. The concept that simplification is that specific, hidden aspect of everything successful is very attractive. It’s a democratizing idea that seems to suggest that, regardless of how challenging and ambitious are your goals, if you manage to keep things simple, something magic will happen and you’ll nail it, no matter what.
How can this apply to sound design? How can the ‘less-is-more’ attitude be applied to our intricate sound manipulations? When working, it happens more than often to me to have a very crowded session, with a lot of sounds produced from a variety of synths and samples, meticulously stacked on the top of each other. And I won’t even mention that each of those individual sounds have been previously manipulated with an as much complicated process. That’s the way I work: in order to achieve the complex sound that I have in mind, it takes several rounds of design from the initial source recordings until I finally manage to obtain the ultimate result with a careful, final layering process. In other words, I suck at being simple most of the time. Yes, I use my own templates and I have my ways of regulating my work by an organized schedule. But the idea of being able to come up with something I’m proud of without spending A LOT of time turning knobs sometimes looks unachievable. Am I missing some subtle nuance of the ‘less-is-more’ approach?
COMPLICATED VS COMPLEX
There’s a book I’m reading called Complexity by John H. Holland, professor of Psychology and Computer Science at the University of Michigan. The book highlights a subtle as important distinguish between two adjectives we interchangeably use in our common jargon: complicated and complex. However, there’s a difference, and it’s a huge one. What really makes a complex system different from one that is just complicated is what the author defines as emergence. In a system (a mechanism, a tropical forest, the financial market), emergence is defined as the property according to which the whole behavior can’t be defined merely as the sum of the individual parts that belong to that system. To put it simple, there’s emergence when the whole is more than the sum of the parts.
Perceived sound is therefore something complex per se: everything we hear can be broken down as the sum of individual sine waves of different amplitudes and frequencies, and it is possible to recreate a given sound as the sum of said sine waves components. Although things are not that simple, especially with sounds almost completely atonal (e.g. sound of ocean waves), it is possible to safely state that a particular combination of individual, humble sine waves produces a result that is aesthetically far away from the initial components.
But is this always the case? Is a complicated combination of elementary components an intrinsic guarantee for a convincing sonic novelty?
SIMPLICITY IS COMPLEX (SOMETIMES…)
Back to the table where I’ve put together Leonardo and Miles Davis.
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.Leonardo Da Vinci
You have to know 400 notes that you can play, then pick the right four.Miles Davis
I think these two quotes (especially Miles’ one) say it all but hide a less explicit message. They seem to express an uncompromising support to the ‘less-is-more’ ideal but at the same time they leave something important to be accurately read between the lines. The way I see it is: “yes, in the end you’ll come to a point where you’ll manage to create complexity from simplicity, but there’s a catch…” Sometimes I end up with a messy synth patch of dozens of oscillators, layers of sounds, LFOs, envelopes, effects and whatnot, just to realize that I’m going nowhere, that I’m nurturing an endlessly growing, complicated sound monster that only increases in size but fails to make the cut. So again, the ‘less-is-more’ rule.
However, when I try to stop my compulsive additive tendency and listen to the work of the greats, there’s a specific thing that I undoubtedly notice : it’s the result of a meaningful and lucid decisional strategy, which strikes a perfect balance between creativity, recording experience, knowledge of the instruments, intention, experimentation, vision and execution. It’s a matter of practice, commitment to improvement, experimentation and knowledge (and genius, of course). The masters at “carving a lot out of less” have spent an insane amount of time to practice their craft, at the point to optimize their output at the highest level.
What I ultimately read between those lines is:
Here’s the catch: getting to the point of being able to say a lot of things with just a few words is mastery. And it takes a LOT of time and commitment in your life.
In the specific realm of sound design, complexity is something we’re looking for all the time, and in most of the cases this research needs to go through one specific, constant experiment: juxtaposition. Think about it, it’s a good 50% (or more) of what we do. I might be too naïve, but basically sound design is recording the right sources and masterfully put them together to make something magic happen.
Here are some examples: the creatures’ noises in Jurassic Park, created by Gary Rydstrom by layering low-end lion roars with high-pitched dolphin squeals; or the glorious lightsaber sound in Star Wars, created by sound designer Ben Burtt from two simple recorded layers: the droning hum of an old projector and the buzzing interference of a television.
You see, two simple sounds that interact with each other to create something detailed and interesting, evocative, narrative. In one word: complex.
Complexity in sound is something that defies a rational definition, and I’m not sure whether it’s possible to give a sort of description of complex aesthetics in our field. I think that it somehow coincides with a particular narrative character that some sounds have and others don’t. It’s not unusual to speak in a very metaphorical jargon when trying to describe sounds, especially when we try to express in simple words a specific sound fx we might hear in our head. Making sounds it’s actually like reversing a metaphor, taking something from our imagination and putting it in reality. It’s a delicate act of synthesis (pun not intended) according to which a complex whole of emotions finds a way to be delivered in a short snippet of audio. A guy that knew his stuff once said “I don’t know what poetry is, but I can recognize it when I feel it”. Maybe the same applies to sound.
Holland John H. “Complexity: A Very Short Introduction”. Oxford University Press, 2014. ISBN-10: 0199662541.
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