Sonic Boom: Sound and Storytelling
When you read it it's history, when you hear it it's news
SOUND AS TRUTH-TELLING
If you want proof that humans regard the sound of someone’s voice as a whisper of their true soul, look at the furore over Morgan Neville’s vocal Deepfake of Anthony Bourdain in his new documentary Road Runner.
Neville fed an AI snippets of Bourdain’s voice to create a vocal simulation of him reading a letter that he wrote to a friend, and spliced the footage over the top of the letter itself for dramatic effect.
The public reaction suggested that some form of sacred line has been crossed, which seems strange when you think about the relentless artificiality of the visual world we live in, where widely-available software from Google automatically stitches together several different photos to offer you a composite moment that never really happened as your memory for all posterity.
Maybe Kendrick got it right:
‘I’M SO FUCKING SICK AND TIRED OF THE PHOTOSHOP/SHOW ME SOMETHING REAL”
We still interpret speech as spontaneous, unmediated, and authentic, a sound of the true human amidst all the machines.
This is reflected in the increasing vocal and voice-based chatter of the internet, which is not just confined to Clubhouse’s rapid boom and bust, nor the increasing numbers of us leaving sonic archives for our friends and families via Whatsapp audio messages.
Internet culture is oral culture1, which is just another way of saying that it’s audio culture: this is visible in the growth in popularity of Audiobooks2, and the increasingly performative nature of the ideas and stories they contain - consider how writers and thinkers increasingly rely on podcasts, live readings, Ted talks, and audiobooks to convey their work to the masses, and it’s clear that the line between writing and speaking is probably thinner and blurrier than it’s ever been3.
Audio & reading is becoming performance again, and we’re very much going back to the old tradition of humans talking to one another around a series of digital camp-fires.
You only have to look at the seriously heavy-hitting voice cast of the next season of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman on Audible to understand that audio storytelling is not a niche concern, but a massively sophisticated and high-production media space where deep and immersive experiences are possible and worth investing in.
Audio storytelling has benefits beyond the fact that you can draft in heavyweight voice talent to boost your narrative.
Sound and spoken-word narrative experiences do several things singularly well:
Sound is Immediacy
As anyone who has ever listened to live sports commentary understands, hearing another human speak conveys a sense of now-ness that is hard to replicate. A noted sports broadcaster observes in Ways of Hearing:
“When you read it it’s history, when you hear it it’s news.”
I would encourage everyone to listen to Vin Scully’s “there’s 29,000 people in the ballpark and a million butterflies” narration of Sandy Koufax pitching a perfect game, or this Dutch football commentator have a full-on live orgasm during Dennis Bergkamp’s Wundergoal against Argentina in 1998 to get a sense of how powerful and funny this can be.
More recently, The New York Times’ ‘Primal Scream’ story captured the experiences of frazzled mothers undergoing mental health breakdowns whilst parenting during the Pandemic using audio recorded from a voicemail box. Here, spoken voices give the story an emotional punch and the ring of truth beyond what the printed word has to offer.
Sound puts you in the moment, and it keeps you there.
Sound is Time and Place
There is a reason that Carl Sagan and friends included recordings of human speech on The Golden Record aboard the Voyager spaceship as an offering to beings in distant galaxies: there are few things that convey a sense of time and place as much as someone talking.
As fellow NTS radio nerds will no doubt enjoy from this classic episode featuring radio ads from London pirate stations4, and anyone who has spent many a lost hour cruising the streets and airwaves5 of Vice City, Liberty City or San Andreas looking for trouble in Grand Theft Auto will know, sound and music have a unique ability to capture a sense of time and place .
As Hari Kunzru6 puts it:
“When you put the needle down on a record, or press play on a sound file, you’re inviting a ghost into your room…into your head….into the acoustic space between your ears.”
The best creative example of this I’ve seen is this inspired activation from Droga5 for The New Museum’s Recalling 1993 Exhibition , which took New York in the 1990s out onto the streets where it belonged in the most spectacular fashion possible via payphones and vocal testimonials.
A few years ago British historian David Olusoga also tapped into this in haunting fashion using voice recordings from one of the thousands of Indian soldiers who fought for Britain during WWI. A few verses of song from a captured soldier, revisited over a century later, were enough to throw open the vaults and start to challenge an Imperial historical record that had entirely neglected such stories and the people who lived them.
Sound can catapult you into a very specific time and location with a few bits of background noise, the right song and a snippet of someone talking.
Sound is Intimacy
When we hear another human talking, especially at low volume, we assume that secrets are about to be imparted, confidences being divulged, truths being spoken.
The potential of this has gone up now that Spatial Audio means you can use sound to situate different speakers in different locations, and simulate group dialogue across space - Darkfield Radio’s “The Knot” uses spatial audio and massed voices to questionable narrative effect, but the sensory impact of it is enough to make your hairs stand on end.
At the other end of spectrum, Dipsea’s platform is changing our expectations that erotic and sexual experiences need to be visual by serving up audio erotica for us all to
masturbate get off to.
Sound isn’t just a storytelling tool, it can help you achieve orgasm. Thank me later.
So, when it comes to rich storytelling, spoken-word and sound-first experiences have a unique potency and ability to generate emotional response: when we hear other people talking, it suggests truth, spontaneity, immediacy, locality. We are verbal creatures, and our desire to tune into the sound of other humans talking isn’t going away any time soon.
A few possibly useful questions from this:
What would a sonic-heavy media strategy look like? If we plunged more of a client’s media spend into audio, what different emotional response might we generate or evoke?
How might sound be used to inject a particular sense of place, time or personality into the story you’re telling, or add historical authenticity?
Where are the opportunities to integrate into sound-first music or narrative experiences?
How might you use captured sound to tell more intimate stories or to leave a space for audience interaction in your sound narrative or experience?
How can brands use sonic storytelling to deepen people’s experience or build a sense of immediacy?
Where might we show up in sonic-first environments to build emotion and truthfulness into what you’re communicating?
“It looks like we might have made it/Made it To The End” - Blur, The End
And that, as they say, is that.
Thank you for coming on this journey with me to the frontiers of sound, which I hope has been at least occasionally useful and/or entertaining.
Now I have a favour to ask.
All of this, I hope, is exciting, but it comes with a note of caution: we are moving back into a world where people are re-entering normal life, now tuned into the world around them with a deeper sense of sonic attentiveness and appreciation. The opportunities are huge, but so are the dangers. We have a responsibility not to abuse that, and to try and repay the renewed importance of sound by doing something wonderful with it.
If all of this crescendoes or diminuendoes to one point or polemic, it is nothing more than this: in a world this rich and audio-driven, all providers of experience, entertainers and people hoping to connect with one another have a simple, binary choice:
BE A MEANINGFUL AND BEAUTIFUL SIGNAL, OR BECOME BACKGROUND NOISE.
If you want to discuss any of this, I’m all ears. Thank you for listening.
Stolen with pride from Matt Locke of Storythings, in conversation/presentation, Wieden +Kennedy London, 2019
Introverts, I acknowledge that this is terrible news for you.
NTS, Death is Not The End, you’re welcome.
NTS, The Sound of GTA, 2020, you’re also welcome.
Hari Kunzru - Into The Zone Podcast, Episode 6, “The Ghost in The Codec”