Creating Soundscapes in Response to Photography: Interview with Audio Obscura March 21, 2017

Neil Stringfellow, known as Audio Obscurer on Pop My Mind, has contributed some stunning soundscapes to our website since he first arrived. His first piece Suburban Train was awarded the Invention Award for December 2016! We thought it was a really effective and imaginative use of sound – I love how it slowly builds up and up until it becomes more musical! Another thing we felt really compelled about is that it is an audio piece which only exists because due to the influence of a visual piece – a great example of Popping.

The Invention Award is a £50 bursary which goes towards creative materials, equipment or software to help our artists continue making great work. Congratulations Neil on winning the prize!

“I was quite new to Pop My Mind and I was keen to do something. I looked at a lot of images but this one was the one, I kept thinking what would that train sound like!”

A candid shot of Neil Stringfellow during our interview

1) So my first Question for you Neil is what was it about Oliver Squirrell’s piece We Built This City that provoked you to Pop it?

Well when I was looking at it, I kind of thought to myself, I wonder what that would sound like. I do that with a lot of pictures but this one specifically because in the image you are inside the train and you can see the outside, so I could imagine all these different types of sounds. Maybe a little bit of outside sound creeping in, a little bit of noise from the train and the motion of the wheels. That was my initial thought, just what would that picture sound like.

We Built This City by Oliver Squirrell

2) Could you please talk us through how you went about building up the different layers of sound to create the piece?

I’d been doing field recordings for about 5 years, I had lots of sounds. Before I moved from London, I used to go round a lot of the stations and record the platform sounds. I was getting on trains, trains coming into the station…wheels screeching and that sort of thing. So I had lots of source material and started sorting through that, which is really how I got started with Suburban Train.

3) So from a technical point of view, how did you go about layer up these sounds up?

I use a software called Ableton almost exclusively now although I do have some other ones! I work quite slowly so I probably listened to an hours worth of different recordings of trains and stations and selected 10 or 15 minutes of promising audio. I started loading them into the software  and then editing them down so eventually I got down to 3 or 4 minutes of audio that I really liked!

There’s a station announcement where you can hear the tone in his voice is quite distorted, that plays through about 3 or 4 times and is about 40 seconds long. Its a case of layering and getting a sound I like and extracting different sounds like the wheels screeching through the sampler and played this on the key board. I slowed it down slightly and added little bits of reverb so it became more musical. The rhythmic elements kind of built up from there…it probably took about 10 or 15 hours!

4) It’s such a big editing process with all these hours if recordings. Did you find yourself going back to edit and replacing elements or was there a very clear finishing point for you?

I think the initial layering of the sounds down took quite along time and I spent along time on the initial stages of getting the sources, the sound recording edited first I didn’t really replace anything. With other pieces I’ve done I have, on occasions I’ve even gone back to locations to rerecord elements that I’m not happy with. With this piece after layering the source sounds it almost stayed static, occasionally I might movement them slightly!

5) You mention in your most recent upload that we should listen to it from headphones or full speakers. How important is it for you as an audio creative that others experience your work in this way?

I know from listening to stuff in different environments and other peoples houses that standard speakers on a computer or laptop or something, don’t always sound too great! If there’s a lot of different frequencies in the music, especially with electronic music you often get that and I just feel it (laptop speakers etc) can be a little distorting. Especially with the last piece I did for Pop My Mind (Glitch Architecture / Audio Paper Jam) I just knew it was going to sound awful on quite an average computer speaker, so I always recommend headphones. To me its quite important its like going for a drive in a really nice car but the tyres all flat or looking at visual art with sunglasses on – you don’t really see it.

6) How do you feel the Pop My Mind process of responding to the work of other creatives has impacted your work?

It’s a great platform to be on because I’ve kind of done it in the past with other bits of work I’ve done on different sites – I’ve been inspired by something or by a certain sound and then I’ve tried to respond to it. Once I was introduced to the idea of Pop My Mind and once I’d spent about an hour looking at it I thought, I definitely want to do this. I work best in collaborations and I’ve worked on music a lot with other people and recorded my friend doing something and then they’ve let me freely edit it.

This is a similar type of process whether you can freely take inspiration and run with it. Once I like the idea and its opened up in my head it opens up other ideas that I’ve struggled with when I’ve been making something myself from scratch – it’s a great kick-start for me, that’s why I like it.

7) If you could challenge the community to respond to your piece Suburban Train who or what group of artists would you particularly like to respond? Visual, text, sound, digital?

I’d like to see another sound interpretation of something I’ve done, if you wanted to sample my stuff and completely change it I would be happy with that. I’d like another sound element of my work to exist, that would be quite cool. I also always liked the idea of a visual aspect or moving image.

Last year I was working on a film soundtrack for a friend, so I had a lot of time sitting around with him looking at images and trying to put music to his images. That’s something I really enjoyed, so I’d love to either work with  (11:30) or collaborate with moving images more. So if someone wanted to respond or even use my music as is to put images to, that would be really cool. That sort of collaboration would be really interesting to me…

8)  If receiving the Invention Award was a sound, what would it sound like ? 

Listen to Neil’s answer here!

Since this interview, Neil (Audio Obscura) has gone on to upload a number of other pieces to Pop My Mind. Check them out here! If you enjoyed reading this interview, check out Callum Brown‘s interview over his Invention Award winning piece here.

Written by Laurel Berry