In Search of Serendipity…Injecting the Random Back into Sound Design

A lot of us have heard the tales of happy accidents. Finding the perfect sound for a scene in a place you never thought to look, or finding inspiration in the arbitrary juxtapositions of visual and auditory elements. The classic example is having to spool continuously through a library sound effects reel (we’re talking tape here), stumbling upon a sound that had no business entering the editor’s thoughts, and realizing that it would add the perfect tone to the scene on the schedule. While some of my first training was on 1/4″ tape, I quickly got away from it…working instead with digital storage mediums that, even if they were linear (DAT, ADAT, etc.) , had cue markers and file pointers to help you navigate them quickly.

While the efficiency of our workstations has increased exponentially thanks to digital audio, our opportunities for serendipity…those moments that make of us think of the scene from a different perspective…have inversely decreased. It’s that opportunity to approach from another, sometimes ludicrously disconnected, perspective that enhances our creativity. How do we bring some of those “happy accidents” back into our workflow in this digital age?

The answer, of course, is that we have to create the opportunities ourselves. In the hopes that you’ll share some of your methods with me, I thought I would share two of mine.

The first, is in the image above.

I have two decks of playing cards; one blue, one red…and I’ve labeled every card that’s in them (including the jokers). The blue deck is a collection of words that describe the origin of a sound. I tried to cover as many categories as possible. There are onomatopoeia, elemental words like fire and water…mechanical, think things like servos and engines…weather…the list goes on. The red deck is a set of adjectives to describe the specifics of a sound: large, dissonant, stuttering, angry, etc. I pull one card from the blue deck, and anywhere between one and three cards from the red deck. Then it’s off to the races to see what I can create using those restrictions/guidelines.

There are two different times that I like to pull out these decks. The first being if I’m stuck.

If “writer’s block” becomes a problem, it’s usually because my focus has become to narrow. When I get to a point that I’m not happy with anything I’m trying, it’s a good sign that I need to step back and re-evaluate. I always try a few combinations when the decks come out. Very often, I’ll stumble across a design that I like for my trouble spot. Even if I don’t, however, the exercise is good for expelling my original approach to the problem…you know, the one that wasn’t working. Trying something seemingly unrelated gives me some fresh perspective to work through the issue.

The other time I occasionally pull these out is at the beginning of a project. The beginning of a project is your opportunity to make some controlled mistakes. Here you can take risks aesthetically and still recover from them. If I don’t have any strong feelings about a design direction for a particular element of the project, I’ll work through a couple of these random approaches to see if anything sparks my interest. I don’t do this every time. If I have particularly strong ideas from the outset, there’s less impetus to pursue this. When I do, I’ll toy around in the amount of time available to me; which, naturally, varies from one project to another. Anything that helps eliminate choices and focus your approach can be a good thing. So, if all I discover in this set of experiments is what I don’t like, what I don’t want to do, then I consider it time well spent. It’s helped me inform my aesthetic approach for the piece.

My other tool is something that a lot of sound designers and effects editors mention: actively listening to your environment.

I add a little specificity to this exercise though. When I’m soaking in the soundscape of my surroundings, I’m looking for unexpected synchresis. [We can thank Michel Chion for that term. If you're not familiar with it, check out a quick description at] To get the most out of this exercise, I typically need to be in a relatively active area. There needs to be a lot of physical activity, so that there is a wide sample of sounds to attend to while watching what people, animals and equipment in the area are doing.

An example of something that recently caught my attention is a bird and luggage. I was waiting for a train at one of the local above ground metro stations. A pair of birds were hanging out in the station, flitting back and forth between the platform (looking for scraps of food) and a nearby wall. About 50 ft. away was a man with a carry-on suitcase; wheels, extending handle and all. He happened to start walking away from me, pulling his wheeled suitcase over the warning strip marking the edge of the platform, at the same time that one of the birds flew back up to the wall. He had also immediately passed behind a different wall. So, my vision and some of the frequencies from the wheels over the warning strip were obstructed. The natural filtering of the environment (distance, occlusions, etc.) gave the wheels a quality that, while in no way could be mistaken for bird flaps, just seemed to fit with the movement of the bird’s wings. This perfect synchronization happened only once, but the birds continued to fly back and forth from the wall as the man continued his travel down the length of the platform…giving me time to absorb the effect. The combination really struck me. They worked so well together, and I doubt ever would have come up with the combination on my own.

I’m currently considering a more controlled approach to this idea; purchasing an mp3/portable audio player (no, I’ve never actually owned one), and loading it with a compressed version of my sound effects library. Then I could put it on shuffle, sit down in a busy area…or even a quiet one…and see what happens.

These are some of the things to I do to help me maintain my creative juices. Do you have any habits or techniques for injecting a little bit of randomness back into your work? If so, please share them in the comments section.

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3 Responses to In Search of Serendipity…Injecting the Random Back into Sound Design

  1. Ian Palmer says:

    I don’t have a method per say but I have noticed since using library software (Audio Finder in my case) that I get a lot of random and unrelated files appear when searching in metadata. I sometimes browse through them and see what’s there and sometimes get some ideas for things.

  2. I like the decks-of-card idea. It’s like Brian Eno’s famous Oblique Strategies, only drawing several cards at once – I like that.

    Myself- I just go and do something else for a bit…

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