Contents - This Great Society - Issue 6, The Future - February 2010
Illustration by Jim Boraas

Notions of Transmodality by Jeff Mettlewsky Illustration by Jim Boraas

Tools for digital artists are myriad. As a sound artist, I’ve found that the available tools often lead me into seemingly endless experimentation. I’ve been distracted—very distracted—by technology. Ironically, it can get to the point where I let process become a type of procrastination. Over the last few years I’ve developed a better understanding of how I work with the technology; this has lead me to be more reductive in my approach.

Writings on human sensory experience are extensive. Of late, this type of theory has been of particular concern to disciples that involve more than a single medium—such as audio-visual or film works. We know that we relate to the multiple senses within a single, quite automatic, cognitive experience. The discussion regarding how this interaction creates meaning for the individual is a thought-provoking and continuing one among intellectuals, artists and the public; new insights will undoubtedly enhance communication through the arts.

I have come realize that an artistic practice outside of my own discipline can significantly influence my work in the studio. I had previously heard the visual term ‘sculpting’ with reference to sound, but assumed it to be an abstract concept that was quite subjective. Sound sculptures – interactive installations involving sound – had much more significance to me than thinking about “sculpting” with sound. I could hear sound “colours:” words such as “dark” or “bright” describe sound characteristics through analogy. My recent experience in the studio, however, has revealed a more direct relationship of sculpture to sound.

I will demonstrate my approach using audio examples of a sound that undergoes a transformation at different stages. If sculpting is the process of removing space to reveal an object with what remains, then a sound can undergo the same transformation.

The following is a continuous sound that has plenty of internal variation (listen with headphones for better reference) but is self-similar. The overall volume of the sound is also consistent. The bell-like ringing sound possesses little info for the listener to decode; such a sound might be interpreted as ambience or noise over a prolonged period.

Play audio example 1.


Next I have used an audio plug-in (an expander) to set a threshold by which I can define the “negative” and “positive” space in the sound. You can now begin to hear some foreground elements emerge. The effect allows content that is above the set threshold to increase in volume and what is below it to decrease.

Play audio example 2.


The final example is a secondary expansion of the sound, increasing the threshold slightly and clearly revealing a sound object in the foreground. It can now be further treated or combined with other sounds in a studio composition.

Play audio example 3.

Developing materials in original ways is a rewarding process, especially when using mass-marketed software tools like plug-ins to explore an idea such as sculpting with sound. These methods, even though somewhat simplistic, can allow the user more control over the results. It is quite possible that an entire form of a work could be decided by such a method. I find it personally satisfying to define my own constraints for experimentation, as opposed to allowing software designers to define them for me.


Sample piece incorporating above technics:

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