Unique project pairs cutting-edge technology and creative sound design

In the spring of 2022, fourth-year sound designer Nora Cuthbertson became the first student in the United States to tell a story utilizing only sound and exclusive cutting-edge technology.

Faculty in the School of Design and Production (D&P) had chosen her to launch the boundary-breaking Soundscapes project that scales large concert sound equipment and engineering (think Taylor Swift) to create immersive storytelling in an intimate campus setting.  

“I very much enjoyed being the first person to work with this new technology,” Cuthbertson says. “Throughout the experience I felt as though I was making my own path to the finished product, and I felt very proud of creating something independently.”

In Soundscapes, sound tells the entire story by leveraging state-of-the-art immersive sound equipment from L-Acoustics – equipment currently not available on any other college campus in the country. Professor Wade Wilson, the mastermind behind the project, explains the 24-channel immersive hyperreal sound technology. “This is object-based sound versus mixing to a single channel or speaker,” he says. “With this system, signals move individually in space. You can mix to a depth, height, anywhere. The sound takes you through a journey.”

“A story completely my own”

Soundscapes allowed Cuthbertson to focus completely on her craft for the first time. “In the arts, most things have been done before,” she says. “Even if the content is different, it's still a play, a musical, an opera. I was presented with a completely open-ended design opportunity  ̶̶̶  no talent, no script, no visual elements, just the capability to create sound.”  

Cuthbertson’s inaugural segment, “Migratory Journeys,” follows the seasonal movements of different species, including those from North Carolina’s Pisgah Forest, Antarctica’s volcanic isles, the grasslands of the Serengeti and the deserts of Northwest India. “You can feel the wildebeest move past you from the middle of the pack,” Wilson says. “You find yourself flying in the flock of birds, with no visual stimulation. It’s all sound.”

Soundscape signs at the UNCSA Library Learning Commons.

Soundscape signs at the UNCSA Library Learning Commons.

The second segment of Soundscapes, designed by Sam Hayes in the fall of 2022, places listeners in the driver’s seat of a race car for the final lap. “Formula One: In the Hot Seat” incorporates voiceovers by actors in the School of Drama, who performed as the driver, pit crew, announcer and fans. “You feel the cars passing you in the pack,” Wilson says.

Camille Everett’s third segment which premiered in April 2023, “Into the Depths,” is a fantasy-horror experience that transports listeners to the world’s deepest oceantic trench. The story follows a diver as they launch off of a ship in the Mariana Trench and encounter a malevolent sea creature. “This project is completely different from any other sound designs I have done or experienced,” Everett says. “I am usually designingto support someone else’s story, but with Soundscapes it is a story that is completely my own.”

“A sensory experience like no other”

Soundscapes is installed in the first-floor lobby of the UNCSA Library & Learning Commons, where University Librarian Sarah Falls feels it is a perfect fit. “The library promotes all kinds of research,” she says.” A sound system like this necessarily must be installed in a public space, where students have to adjust the size and scope of the project to meet the space it occupies–that’s research.”

In a corner of the library lobby, a small bench is surrounded by 24 speakers connected by hundreds of feet of cable. Jason Romney, head of the sound design program, added a final touch underneath the bench – minature subwoofers known as ButtKickers that deliver low frequency vibrations. In the middle, a mounted tablet allows listeners to select which two- to three-minute segment to experience and colorful fliers on a nearby table explain each. “They can listen to all three or just one,” Wilson says. “I imagine someday there will be many choices.”

Falls is thrilled with the response to the installation. “The overall reaction is typically delight,” she says. “To step into the installation really provides a sensory experience like no other. It makes you think about all the sound components of a space that you might not ever inhabit. Perceptually, we often hear sound as a whole, but don’t take the time to break it down. This environment helps you do that.”

Wilson says the library location is also good exposure for the Sound Design program and for all of D&P. “Original concepts in design and technology, storytelling and interdisciplinary collaboration are all exploding right here,” he says.

“The sky is the limit”

Each semester the sound design faculty (Wilson, Romney, Lindsay Putnam and Lindsay Jones) choose a three-person Soundscapes team – a designer, an assistant designer and an audio engineer. The designer pitches a story concept to the faculty, who offer guidance. “The concepts come completely from the student’s imagination,” Wilson says. “They can choose something they are passionate about and develop it into a story. It is very much student-driven.”

Soundscapes is a premium production assignment that involves more than working with cutting-edge technology and pushing creativity to its limits. Led by the designer, the teams also write scripts, engage with actors and musicians, and collaborate with Strategic Communications staff to create marketing materials. “I learned how to be a team leader,” Hayes says, “and I figured out how to be a leader and a designer at the same time. The project is redefining what we are capable of as sound designers.”

Along with new skills, Soundscapes designers have gained self-assurance and a deeper appreciation for  their craft. “As I’m transitioning into my career in sound design, Soundscapes has exponentially grown my confidence in myself and as a designer,” Everett says. “I’m always incredibly hard on the work I do, because I always think there’s room to improve; with Soundscapes I’ve learned that the ability I have to create and tell a story is one I cherish very much, and I hope to continue designing for a long time.”

Hayes offers advice to future Soundscapes designers. “Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone. Try radical ideas. Utilize the resources and the support you have. Try whatever you want and see what the outcome will be,” he says.

For Wilson, the outcome is a win-win: an enhanced learning environment for sound designers and a unique listening experience for library patrons. He thinks Soundscapes will endure and potentially even grow. “The sky's the limit,” he says. “What can you imagine?”

by Lauren Whitaker

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August 23, 2023