‘Noise: A Human History’ producer Matt Thompson on turning down the noise

“Noise, like a weed, is only a sound in the wrong place. And like roses in vegetable patches noise can be beautiful but still needs to be uprooted or pruned out.

On the recent series  ‘Noise: A Human History‘  I travelled the world to tell the history of humankind through the sounds we have made from cavemen onwards, or as the presenter Professor David Hendy put it “to turn up the volume of the past”. The only problem is turning up the signal turns up the noise.

It’s obvious, I suppose, that of all the senses sound is the most ephemeral. In South Carolina on the McLeod slave plantation we could see graffiti drawn by Civil War soldiers, we could feel the rough surfaces of the slave huts, we could smell the magnolias. Most frustratingly we could see high in a tree the bell used to call the slaves to work in the morning, but the rope used to toll it had long rotted away.   The sound of the past had been silenced when all those people died or were set free. No, the only sound we could hear now was an infernal beeping from a truck laying tarmac.

In Rome, the Coliseum is a great place to record. Not gladiatorial combat, but the battle that takes place every day between ambulances and the traffic jams, the clash of swords replaced with the wail of sirens. Even in the place one would expect to be totally quiet, St Mark’s in Venice late at night when all the tourists have had banished, the chancel was marred by a buzz from the floodlights.

Hitchcock once described drama as ‘life with the dull bits cut out.’ I think that is true of most of the arts. Back in the Rockethouse studio I was faced with hours of material to be hacked down.  Here in studio conditions all the noise we had picked up along the way was revealed in its full glory. This is where my favourite software comes into its own.  Izotope’s RX2 is a sophisticated noise reduction tool. We select a passage of audio which has no speech or anything we might want on it and then pressing the ‘learn’ button we inform the software of what we do not want. Then it takes it away for us. On this series I have almost come to relish imperfections.

Here are some examples:

You might have to listen carefully to hear the effect.

The first time I came across this kind of software was when making a BBC radio program about forensic tape analysis, Extraneous Noises Off . The boffins used adaptive noise reduction, a tool which is particularly good for repetitive sounds such as disco beats. In the forensics field they typically have much poorer recordings to work from and are not interested in creating a realistic sounding final version, but only one in which the words, the intent (or lack thereof), is clear enough to be used as evidence in a criminal trial.

In the radio we want to make everything as natural sounding as possible. Because of DAB radio and much higher quality amplifiers and speakers and headphones, in the same way that HD television reveals the blemishes of on a human face, so too does our sound have to be pristine as never before. Some of the archives we used from the British library recorded over 100 years ago on wax cylinders are, in their original form,  nearly incomprehensible, particularly for the radio audience which only gets one chance to hear it. This is where I used the most noise reduction.  But when we use aggressive noise reduction the dreaded warbling Dalek artefacts start to be heard.  I have to back off.  Also at the beginning and end of clips I kept the original vibe so the listener had a sense they were listening to ancient recordings.  Like all tools it is a balancing act.   When I watch old archive on the TV I sometimes find it overly cleaned up.

Ultimately the sound quality is not the main event, it is what has been said and how it is said that is important. One recording I made with David in New York City was quite muddy sounding and couldn’t be cleaned up as the background was too similar to his voice.  Although I had clearer versions I used the poorest quality take where his delivery was the most natural and sincere. What noise reduction allows us to do is move the goalposts on these poorer quality recordings, to make them broadcastable.

Now that I have finally finished the series I took a drive into the country to visit a friend who is a farmer. Whilst listening to his hens clucking and cows mooing I began to realise I had perhaps delved too deeply into the shadowy world of noise reduction. I couldn’t but help notice on his farm the whine coming off a wind turbine which marred the quality of the animal sound effects. But then I imagined how easily I could remove this irritating noise and in my mind it dissolved away.  At a classical concert a cough, which would once have once annoyed the heck out of me was a pleasant interlude as I knew I could reduce it by 20 dB using spectral repair. This unexpected and bizarre auditory illusion I can induce in myself has allowed me to appreciate noise, the weeds in my listening experience, because I know at least theoretically I can eradicate them.

One of David’s major themes in his history was that we will have to learn to live with other people’s sounds and that the search for silence is ultimately doomed but that at the same time we should respect another indivivdual’s soundscapes.    The noises we find most annoying are the ones we have no control over. I never know what I am going to take away from producing a radio programme.  In this one I realised how convoluted our relationship with technology is.  I love and fear gadgets: the way they deliver us beauty but can also bite us, they give us control with one hand but take it away with the other, and however close they come to being the perfect transparent window, or ear trumpet, on the world our mind has ways of subverting that experience, of making it ours for good or bad.”

Matt Thompson, Director, Rockethouse Productions Ltd. 

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