Master Sound Craftsman Jim Anderson On Telling Stories With Sound

One of the great creative art forms in audio is constructing narrative stories using only natural sounds. A master of the craft is Jim Anderson, who for seven years created soundscapes to tell compelling stories for National Public Radio. Now, Anderson is sharing his skills with a new generation eager to invent the next generation of aural storytelling.

Anderson, a multiple Grammy and Peabody Award winner, is a freelance audio engineer and a professor of recorded music at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music in the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. A former president of the AES, he is a pioneer in stereo broadcasting who now works in surround sound — engineering a Grammy-winning Best Surround album in 2013.

Anderson taught a master class — “Telling Your Story With Sound” — at Sennheiser’s Pop Up Store in New York City’s Soho. Though targeted to podcasters, the interests of the audience members ranged from broadcast, cinema, documentary, live performances and music recording.

Jim Anderson

Jim Anderson

When at NPR in the early 1980s, Anderson was one of the first American broadcasters to experiment with stereo sound in on-air storytelling. He built his own X/Y stereo microphone system, using a pair of Sennheiser MD-421 microphones on a homemade rig weighing over five pounds. He liked the microphones because they have a five position bass roll-off switch that allowed him to reduce noise on location.

“At NPR, we used sound many different ways, both to educate and entertain the audience,” Anderson said. “We tried to take advantage of the medium to capture and stimulate the imagination. We aurally set a theme and concept, and used the sound to illustrate our journalism.”

NPR sent Anderson to Germany in the late 1970s to learn how they did stereo documentaries, since they were far ahead of American broadcasters at the time. One book he discovered, which he still recommends today, is “The Tuning of the World” by R. Murray Schafer, the man who coined the term “soundscape.”

The soundscape, wrote Schafer, is our sonic environment, the ever-present array of noises with which we all live. Beginning with the primordial sounds of nature, we have experienced an ever-increasing complexity of our sonic surroundings. As civilization develops, new noises rise up around us: from the creaking wheel, the clang of the blacksmith’s hammer and the distant chugging of steam trains to the “sound imperialism” of airports, city streets and factories.

The task of the sound designer, Schafer maintained, is to listen, analyze and make distinctions. He explains how to classify sounds, appreciating their beauty or ugliness, and provides exercises and “soundwalks” to help people become more discriminating and sensitive to the sounds around them.

Anderson mixing

Anderson mixing

Anderson used Schafer’s thesis to build complex layers of sounds to tell stories at NPR, a skill that he said needs to be continued and to grow. “I grab sounds wherever I go. The trick is to get into the situation, but not affect the situation. In post, everything is timed and nothing is left to chance.”

Anderson did an audio documentary on classical guitarist, Andrés Segovia, narrated by Oscar Brand, that is a stunning tapestry of natural sounds, from marching bands, the excitement of bullrings, sound inside nightclubs to railroad stations.

Of Brand, he said, the best writers are those who write for themselves, especially on radio. “They are not writing for the eye. It is not something you will want to sit and read. Actually they are writing to put in the right amount of words that actually illustrate the sound. That’s what Oscar Brand did so well.”

Though Anderson’s work with NPR was in the stereo recording era, today’s portable multitrack equipment along with the rise of immersive surround sound gear offers new opportunities, he said. Though much of radio and television sound is now shared, the human mindset that allows a story to be powered by creative sound is the same.

“You have to have a mindset to think about how sound is used,” he said. “You have to ask how you can tell this story a little bit differently. Many times when working on stories at NPR, we'd all ask collaboratively how can we make this more interesting with sound?”

That said, Anderson added, most people don't understand the role of sound. “Sound is anathema to the majority of people. Most people listen, but when they see me work, they don't know or understand what I do. They don't see me. So I go about my work to capture the sound, but not insert myself into the scene.”

To younger people beginning a career in sound production, he offered some basic advice. “Don't try to stay in New York and work here when you get out of school. I'm your competition. I'm still freelancing and working. If I'm a producer, am I going to hire you or me? Hopefully, they'd hire me because of my long experience.

“I started in Washington, D.C. and worked roughly 10 years and then moved to New York. I made all my mistakes outside of New York City. You don't want to make your mistakes in New York — do them in some other market. You come here when you have experience.”

He said every beginner will make mistakes, but the trick is to learn from them.“You are going to make every mistake in the book — count on it. You might even make the same mistake a second time. But damn well try not to make it a third. Learn from every situation. Make sure errors don't happen again.

“I was substituting on an opera broadcast at ‘Live from Lincoln Center.’ When you do that, you do three or four full run-throughs before you go live on the air. It was an hour before broadcast and I asked one of the regulars, ‘what do you do right now? What do you look for? What do you check?’

“His response: ‘don't fall asleep.’ That was some of the best advice I had heard. It was true. Never become complacent that everything is fine and everything is working. Always look at your system — every single microphone and every recording device. Is everything working all the time? Pay attention to detail. Don't fall asleep.”

In addition to teaching, Anderson is now working increasingly in surround sound, both for cinema and live recording. He sees a bright future for immersive sound and noted Sennheiser’s new Ambeo system as a portable immersive sound system of interest. He said it increases the ease of creating sound that can be layered.

“You can now layer atmosphere upon atmosphere,” he said. "Sometimes you will create a floor and then add extra layers to put on top. When you go into an environment listen to all the sounds that are happening in the space. Then think about how to use those sounds to tell your story.”

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