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New Pathway in Sound Design Pioneers Innovative Approaches to Media

Long practised within Information Experience Design at the RCA, by students and staff alike, Sound Design (SD) is now its own pathway — an exciting new MA that combines sound and design practice, both applied and experimental. 

The pathway is expansive in its approach: not limited to film or sound art, Sound Design welcomes a variety of practitioners — from musicians, sound, engineers, journalists, artists and others in related fields who wish to consider new possibilities of modes and media. SD is also for designers, scientists and anyone else interested in sound as a force for communication and experience.

This focus on the social, cultural and environmental importance of sound, as well as its potential as an emotive tool for communication, is central to this new SD pathway. Through a variety of approaches – data sonification and notification, sonic narratives, interventions and installations – SD seeks to investigate the whole spectrum of sound as a social phenomenon in theory and practice, delivered in digital and physical contexts and grounded in research.

In conjunction with a focus on a broad and experimental design practice, SD proposes a context within which sound works across modes and disciplines to effect individual, social and political transformation: sound has the potential to create change, to alter the ways in which we perceive, engage and behave within our own lives and wider culture.

As such, areas of focus are far-reaching and imaginative in both form and content. Previous and ongoing work can be seen on the Sound of Design microsite, where projects have looked at sound as social meditation and means of communication, forms of sonic and aural narrative both digital and material, and applied areas like film, games, identity, urban sonic design and sonic activism. Central to the pathway is an emphasis on developing practical technical skills, as well as theoretical grounding in core concepts of sound design as an intellectual and creative practice.

A recent brief led by research student Helga Schmid looked at the variety of narratives surrounding the revelations of the Panama Papers, which seemed to encourage confusion and misunderstanding, rather than concise knowledge and awareness. In collaboration with Matt Black, one half of Coldcut and founder of Ninja Tune Records, Schmid encouraged participants to reimagine cultural activism and its surrounding structures. The Project started with an event with Matt Black and Ninja Tune’s activist in resident, Richard Dent, and culminated in a presentation to the record label founder alongside all staff.

Adopting a more personal approach to sound, Jelka Kretzschmar’s final project – entitled Pick up the Pieces ­– focuses on sonic perception and emotional intelligence through sound. The work comprises a wall filled with voices, which has at some point been broken apart, and now lies in pieces. The viewer is invited to list to sonic content that is encapsulated in the remaining rubble: stories from recordings made with refugees and migrants across diverse living situations. Pick up the Pieces investigates the notion of the wall as barrier to dialogue and information, physically and metaphorically, and aims through sonic experience to enable and enrich human senses in a new method of storytelling that makes cultural boundaries both visible and audible. Kretzschmar speaks highly of IED at the RCA, particularly its emphasis on sonic environmental design, alongside excellent technical facilities: ‘Surrounded by technology from very different eras, I was in an environment where playing with pure data patches, high and low frequency explorations, determining how sound travels, elaborating on the magic of whispering galleries and study of the voice and language as stimulators was made possible’. 

This summer sees IED Visiting Lecturer Dr Laura Ferrarello travel to Sonar +D in Barcelona to show a project entitled The Black Box by Absolut — a work produced by students, together with Matt Clark, co-founder and creative director of United Visual Artists, a leading studio in technology and audiovisual experience. The project – led by Ferrarello, whose interests lie in sound as a modelling tool – is bipartite: ‘Frequency’ (Robert Thorpe and Jennifer Haugan) is a sensory experience in which the spectator is simultaneously immersed in a series of low-frequency vibrations and intense coloured light, triggered by a floor embedded with a series of sensored capsules. ‘Absolute Relative’ (Marie Euler, Luka Kille, Ava Watson, Ker Sian Ye0) plays with perception and sensorial experience through a scientific experiment known as ‘thermal grill illusion’ – the phenomenon of exposure to warm and cool sensations as producing a burning pain sensation. Here, the thermal grill is transformd into an interactive sculpture onto which is project imagery to reveal mechanisms of the haptic illusion involved. 

Dr Kevin Walker, Information Experience Design Head of Programme, said: ‘The SD pathway is about sound and design – not about sound art or about sound design for film, but about social sound, oriented toward practical outcomes but grounded in theory and research around listening and communication.' 

The Sound Design pathway launches in Autumn 2016. More information, including how to apply, can be found here