Rhetorical Answer


A response to the question never asked


Armed with a collection of freshly recorded sounds from the previous week’s recording adventures in Washington Square Park, I entered this week’s Sound Design class ready to dive into a real ProTools sound editing session. Of all the things covered in the course, I figured the part involving computers would fall right into my comfort zone. What I neglected to consider, however, was the fact that ProTools is a software program intended for professionals in the sound industry – in short, professional listeners – and the most my job demands of my ears is to register the occasional application alert beep.

For the in-class assignment, we were supposed to assemble a collection of music clips so that the final edited version sounded like a reference recording of a marching band. The instructor first demonstrated how to scrub regions of audio and listen to the resulting sound output to find the best edit point. He dragged the cursor back and forth across one section of a track, and out of the computer’s speakers, I heard the equivalent of a bunch of bolts rolling around in a metal trash can. He paused for a microsecond. “That’s a lot of trombone, not so easy to find a good edit spot. Keep looking.” He did the same thing to another section that sounded exactly the same. “Ah, there’s the beginning of the cymbals! Cut there!” I had the uneasy feeling that I was missing something but hoped everything would crystallize once I tried it myself.

At my own workstation, I cranked up the volume on my headphones and dutifully alternated between playing the track at normal speed and scrubbing, looking for strong beats on which to edit. All I heard through the headphones was a low growl, as though ProTools was a dog at the veterinarian’s office and could sense that it was my first time administering an exam. It clearly didn’t trust me, and I didn’t blame it. Realizing at last that I may as well be deaf for all the help my ears were going to be to me, I resorted to lining up the reference and editing tracks and comparing the waveforms visually so that I could at least edit at points where they looked the same. It was a painstaking process and not really the way we were supposed to do the exercise, but I am still mystified at how the whole scrubbing thing is supposed to work. I ran out of time at the end of class, but next time I will try to ask the instructor to explain it again. The only worry I have is that he’ll do the same demonstration for me as he did at the start of class and say, “See, they sound completely different!” My amateur ears just don’t get it.

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