Audio Narrative Project: Bugged
by Brian Anderson(MIT '04) [] & Brady Young (MIT '05) []

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Overall Concept

The motivation for this project was to explore how sound creates the space and setting of a narrative. We wanted to tell a story through sounds that would involve the listener more than a typical radio drama or book on tape. To better involve the listener, we decided to make this narrative interactive. Rather than sitting back and hearing the world pass by the listener, the listener now has to actively explore the setting that the sound clips create around them.

Here's how the project works: the user is presented with a snapshot of a crime scene in which several hidden microphones have been placed. Each of the mics recorded the event that took place there, but they only pick up sounds that are close to them. The user may click on a microphone to play back what it recorded. The scene is scripted to have the action move around the scene, so listening to the complete playback of any singular microphone won't give the reader the entire story. In order to keep track of what is happening in the scene, the listener must follow the action from microphone to microphone, starting and stopping the recordings, to keep track of the events and the physical location in which they occurred.

One of the interesting properties of this project is that it gives the listener the freedom to chose their physical location in the audio narrative. In a radio drama, the listener is dragged around in the body of whatever character is participating in the action. This format keeps the listener constantly in contact with the action, but forces them to infer their physical location and surroundings from audio clues. This project does exactly the opposite: the user knows their position within the scene and must infer the movement of the action by audio clues. This gives the listener more autonomy to explore the given space as they like. In terms of Wolfgang Iser's concept of reader participation, this concept requires the reader to add an extra step in the process of anticipation and retrospection. The reader must anticipate the direction the narrative will take and move to the appropriate space to hear the next line. Without the listener's action falling between anticipation and retrospection, the listener only catches a brief clip of dialogue and sound effects, much less than the full meaning of the narrative.

The audio portion of this project was created by recording small sections of the script, recording individual sound effects, and ambient noise in their own clips. These clips were later spliced and mixed together to produce a master track, i.e. the scene as it would sound if all the action occurred at an arm's length from the listener in a total absence of background sound. This master track was then copied into five tracks, one for each microphone, and each edited in order to place it in the scene. For instance, the kitchen track was mixed with the background sound of a refrigerator running. All of the tracks had their volume levels adjusted for different parts of the dialogue to show distance: action that takes place closer to the microphone is much easier to hear than action that takes place further away from the mic.

We learned a great deal about how sound creates space just by recording our core material. Being new to sound recording, we quickly discovered how the ear can automatically decipher some very complex sounds into space almost without effort. For example, whether the sound clip was recorded in a room or a hallway could be easily sensed from the echoes of even the quietest sound. An environment's ambient noise that our ear usually tones out will be clear as day when juxtaposed the ambient noise of a different environment. Take, for example, the difference in background noise of the kitchen versus that of the living area. If a listener begins the kitchen playback, in the absence of dialogue he or she will say that they hear nothing. If the reader should switch to the living area playback though, he or she will suddenly realize that the sound of silence in the kitchen is much different than the sound of silence in the living area.

Surprisingly though, we also discovered that there are some ways the ear can be more easily fooled, especially in conjunction with the context of the plot: the sound of locks unbolting were artificially created by jiggling the handle of a door, and the sound of a canvas being rolled flat was simulated by unfolding a heavy winter coat on a table.