A sample of trickling water gives rise to an entire album’s worth of epic noises.
Michael Oster’s passion is recording common environmental sounds to create unusual, otherworldly ones. Oster is a musician, recording engineer, and sound designer in Tampa, Florida. In 1993, he purchased Digidesign’s Pro Tools system, started a recording studio that he christened F7 Sound and Vision, and produced two sample CD-ROMs of his sound effects–Concept:FX, vol. 1 and Concept:FX2. “I was working on Concept:FX3 when I stopped to make Fluid,” Oster says.
Oster completed Fluid in two months and used no MIDI devices or digital audio sequencers in its production. Each of its 11 tracks is based on a single 14-second sample of a water fountain. The CD includes his source material, and the final tracks are ordered in the same sequence that he created them. Oster mutated the water sample into a series of mesmerizing, sci-fi soundscapes that conjure up insects, animals, mechanical hums, fire, howling monsters, and more. “It’s hard for me to describe what it sounds like. It’s an offshoot of the Concept:FX idea, except that I wanted to make a compositional work based on the production processes that I’ve used.
“I noticed that I was manipulating the same sound in different ways, coming up with new sounds,” Oster says. “I started thinking, “What if I did this on a bigger scale?’ I’ve never done sound design work on this scale before. I wanted to make a statement about what I can do with sounds. I wasn’t going for a certain sound or style; I made this on my own terms.
“I could have done this with almost any sound,” Oster says, but he felt that trickling water “had different dynamics and harmonics that I thought would manipulate better. I put that into Pro Tools and I’d cut it up into little pieces, loop it, run plugins, and things like that. Whatever was coming out of Pro Tools was going straight to a CD recorder or a DAT. I ended up with six-and-a-half CD-Rs, two DATs, and a hard drive full of materials that had come from this one sound, and that’s what I used as the palette for Fluid.
“Once I had those sounds, I might use pieces of them and equalize them, or put in five different layers,” Oster says. He processed a sound until he found an interesting sound bite that lead him in a new direction. Oster used a Pro Tools 24/Mix system on a 266 MHz Power Mac G3, a TC Electronic FireworX multi-effects processor (but avoided using its presets), 1/4-inch analog tape, and an Echoplex tape-echo unit. Oster recorded audio CDs playing back through his Apple iBook, a 1950s Telefunken radio, and an FM transmitter using an inexpensive contact mic from Radio Shack. “I might send something though that radio and then put a microphone 10 or 12 feet away as opposed to using reverb,” he says.
He used BIAS’ Peak 2.1 and Digidesign plug-ins, experimenting with their distinctive time-stretching algorithms for varied results. On the track “Frogs,” Oster says, “I was stretching these things so far out that it was taking Peak maybe 20 or 30 minutes to process the sound.” Oster says sound design is “a lot easier to do in the digital domain than with analog rack-mount gear, because you’d be left with nothing but noise. It just wouldn’t happen.”
Oster mixed the album the same way he would mix conventional instrumental tracks, using the frequency range of each sound to determine its place in the mix.
“Sometimes people can take aluminum cans and build a castle out of them,” he says. “With sound design, you’re taking a sound, turning it into something completely different, and making it a new art form.”
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