You probably have heard about Diego Stocco, a composer and sound designer with a pretty particular way of creating sonic experiences mostly using rare instruments, found sounds and by doing special explorations of the sonic environment.
He has done a lot of fantastic videos exploring different perspectives of field recording, sound design and experimental composition, actually creating its own instruments or using the whole environment as an instrument. He has recently finished a work called “Diego Stocco – Sound Magician” for DTS company, where he did small but interesting projects on exploring sonority and reality in a very interesting way.
I recently did an interview with Diego for the Spanish site Hispasonic and he asked me if I could publish the interview in English as well so it can reach more people. He is a really nice person with a fantastic imagination and approach to sound and I thought his view and experiments would be something Sonic Terrain readers would enjoy. Below is the original interview in English. Hope you enjoy it!
Diego, could you tell us how you get started with sound and how would you define your relationship with it?
My attachment to sound, and to what it represents, is connected to my earliest memories, to my first moments of awareness of sound. I grew up in a very small town in the countryside in Italy, a very quiet place. Sometimes I was going for walks around the area with my brother and cousins, and our grandfather used to make us notice things based on the sound they made. There was a railroad with no barriers, so we learned to pay attention to the sound before crossing. There were snakes in the bushes, so we learned to notice the sound of leaves. If the ice over the river was too thin we could tell from the crackling sound under our footsteps. I think that made a profound impression on me, because my sense of hearing and paying attention to the multitude of sonic details around me is what I rely on to navigate the world and connect with people.
I see one of your main activities is not only to design sounds but also objects and sources able to produce all kind of timbres, becoming yourself a kind of experimental luthier or something like that. Could you expand a bit about that perspective and tell us how has it evolved through the years? How important is for you to not just record but also construct and perform?
Hundreds of years before the introduction of computers and any electronic piece of technology there were already people designing sounds. Luthiers like Amati, Stradivari, Guarneri, were carefully designing the sound of their violins, they were among the first sound designers. When it comes to physically construct instruments, my attempts are extremely raw and poor compared to the work of those master luthiers, but there’s something fascinating about building something with your own hands and make it sound the way you want. It’s very motivating. In my case, the physical instrument can be the first step of the sound design process, because from there I can integrate it with a specific recording or processing technique. It’s a learning process that never stops. When I was a teenager I was basically ruining guitars by taking them apart, but later on I learned how to recombine things into something usable or build new ones.
You have a lot of fantastic videos showing very effective experiments using from everyday objects to rare instruments and creations. I wonder how those ideas have been inspired. How you decide to create those things?
Thank you, some of them happen randomly, I might be doing something and hear a sound that attracts my attention, like in “Improv from a Plate” or “Transformed Rain”, or it might be a specific idea like the Experibass for example. When I built it, I wanted to make an experiment of physical modeling in real life, which was a backward concept anyway because physical modeling involves re-creating acoustic sounds and instruments. The basic idea was to extend the size and resonances of a violin, viola and cello by using the body of a double bass. So I built it to try that out.
But then I was standing in front of it and thought: ”So, now what? How am I going to play it to actually hear those sounds?”. I don’t have any classical training in playing the double bass, and my attempt at playing violin when I was 11 years old was a complete disaster, I got kicked out of the Conservatory because I hated it and saw it in half.
So I just tried something else and discovered a technique that I really enjoy from a sonic and musical perspective.
So you’ve been working a lot with DTS recently, doing pretty interesting videos with very curious elements and combinations. How’s the process with them? How is your field recording/sound design approach in those works in general?
Working with DTS is really fantastic because I can explore sound design techniques in surround. Their newest technology is Headphone:X, 11.1 surround sound for headphones, which is incredibly realistic. In fact, a lot of people during their first demo took off the headphones to check if they were actually working, because it totally feels that the sound is coming from the physical speakers around them. I did that too actually.
The experience of creating in surround is very inspiring because it allows me create immersive “realities” which are way more engaging than a stereo mix. If you think about it, humans don’t experience sound in stereo, we live in surround sound all the time.
Stereo is just a simplified format to reproduce audio.
Specifically talking about that video called “Deep Oceans”, I wonder how you discovered it and how was the exploration of those materials? Did you know it was going to sound like that in the beginning or you just got surprised during the exploration?
I’m constantly trying to extract sounds out of everything with every possible musical or non-musical tool, even in the most absurd ways. One day I even tried to play a donut, coated with plastic paint, with a cello bow. It didn’t work. I have a fascination with kitchen tools, and most of the time I’m very happy with the results.
Few years ago I was trying different percussion mallets, including mallets made of rubber which were made to play sustained sounds out of gongs. I tried to play the metal door of my fridge but it didn’t work as I expected. So I found a way to increase the grip of the rubber and was able to make sustained “animal” sounds out of various metal surfaces, including a BBQ grill. When I happen to find something that works and I like, I write it down because I know that at some point there could be the right application for that technique. Which happened exactly with “Deep Oceans”.
I knew that I could create these evocative sounds with that technique but I didn’t have a context, then I tried again the BBQ grill and realized that the sound reminded me of whales. That’s all I needed to explore the idea in full, a story and a setting where this sounds were happening. Even if I knew what to expect from that technique, it was still a beautiful surprise to hear those sounds once I had a specific intention in mind.
I would suggest taking a listen to “Deep Oceans” with a good pair of speakers because the low end is amazing, those are actually natural frequencies from the BBQ grill without any lo-end enhancement.
Also, it’s clear that if we don’t look at the visuals in that particular series of videos, we could easily imagine that you recorded very different things from what we see or imagine. Actually, I think that’s an essence of sound design, that acousmatic use of the world as a sound instrument where the names and common uses of things are not very important when thinking about the sonic materials only. I see that very implanted in your work in general. Would you think of field recording/sound design as a way of not only creating specific audible experiences, but also transporting our consciousness and reality? Our universe is created by vibration, so when we create sound, we would be creating whole universes, don’t you think? How would be your take on this? I’m particularly curious about the ending sentence (“sound changes the way we see”) in those videos.
A universal and univocal reality, in sound, simply doesn’t exist. Sound is a perceptual phenomenon that varies depending on the physical and mental characteristic of the receiver (human, animal, other forms of life, etc..). Sound is always a subjective interpretation that the brain makes out of simple or complex sets of vibrations. We use conventional names to classify timbres and instruments but at the end of the day it’s our mind and imagination that decides what sounds we’re hearing. There’s no way to establish in a definitive way what a sound is because even with recorded sounds, our sense of hearing will continue to change throughout the years. Just for curiosity I would love to hear again what my brain perceived when I was 1 year old, and I’m pretty sure that when I’ll be old the high end of the frequency spectrum will be not so relevant to my experience of sounds.
From a sonic perspective, we actually live in parallel universes all the time, the same sound changes our perception of reality based on our position in the environment (distance to/from sound), to the relationship we have to that sound (relevant or not relevant to me), etc.. So, if I want to hear whales out of a BBQ grill rubbed with a plastic ball, it’s not that difficult because it’s all about imagination anyway.
The concept of “sound changes the way we see” is fundamental in understanding how we relate to sounds. Our senses are affected, enhanced and interfered with by multiple phenomenons, visual stimuli are altered and enriched by auditory stimuli. When you hear something, it becomes more “real”, more intense, or less intense if that’s the idea.
I think that asking about the tools you use could be endless, being a man of such wonderful experimentation and unpredictable processes, but maybe could we talk a bit about workflow? How do you like to explore the creative process and relate recording, improvisation and design processes?
Doing something that inspires me is at the center of my work and life. I need to feel that each project is pushing forward my understanding of sound. I like to improvise and try not to worry much during the process. My workflow is pretty simple, I hear or imagine to hear something interesting and then I find a way to make it happen. If it doesn’t happen I keep exploring options until I get to a point where I like what I’m doing. I prefer working with tools and technology that I can relate to instinctually, if a certain technology makes me struggle I don’t use it.
I see you don’t use to record with common portable recorders but using those beautiful API preamps, EQs and compressors, so I imagine you want some specific sonic quality from the recording stage, right? How is that related to the post-design processes you do later?
Even with all the plugins available out there, there’s a major difference in trying to fix the sound recorded with an average preamp and enhancing the already beautiful sound of an API preamp. This difference is even more noticeable when working with unusual sources with extreme dynamic ranges or timbres.
But I actually use portable recorders when it would be unpractical to carry around the whole API rack, I have a Roland R-44 and the Røde XY for my iPhone.
Nowadays the frontiers between sound design and music/composing are some times very invisible (or better than that: inaudible, hehe). I’d believe that you’re a great example of that cross-pollination of disciplines and perspectives. How do you think field recording, music and sound design blend together to show new perspectives of sound creation?
In films and video games the use of unique sounds is stronger than ever, a great melody is always a great melody but sometimes musical sound design allows the creation of a powerful mood without becoming a tune that you can whistle. The intensity of a certain sonic/musical color can be so intense to be enough.
When composing from a sound design standpoint, notes and scales can happen through the fusion of several elements, the timbre itself can contain melodic and harmonic elements that can be perceived as a succession of notes, but they don’t necessarily stay within the borders of scales and rhythms, they can drift into microtonality and abstraction and then back again without having to musically resolve into specific intervals.
We people who work with sound are always discovering it. I think maybe we could never understand completely what sound really is but what we can do is to discover and expand our processes with it. I’m curious how the process of experimenting, composing and creating sound has changed your conception of not only sound but reality itself through the years and what do you look for these days where there’re such wide amount of perspectives and open universes to explore.
Sound is integral part of the human experience and so the more we discover about it the more we discover about our nature. My interaction with sounds has shaped the way I perceive the world and interact with people, it has shaped also what I’m looking for in life. I’m looking for authenticity, for genuine expressions and interactions, in how sound is used and perceived by people.
I think you’re in someway showcasing that field recording and sound design is not only a discipline with a big potential for art, film, music, etc but also a way of exploring and understanding our life itself, our way of conceiving reality. What do you think is the potential of sound design for that? How could you think sound can help us to clear our imagination and reach territories beyond what’s conceived nowadays?
There are two possible directions I think. One that pertains to what’s happening around us as a community, the other is related to exploring what’s happening way beyond us. As far as what’s happening around us, sound dominates our feelings and interpersonal interactions, and it happens without us having much conscious control over it. Think about the noise of the city, we can decide to a certain extent in which environment we want to live, but we can’t really choose to rewire how our brain reacts to noise. In this regard, sound design could help transform a large set of variables into something that is less stressful. A simplistic example, imagine being able to tune every source in the environment to a major key, building technology and devices that when interact with each other creates a favorable and harmonious sonic environment for human life. In this sense we’re still living in the Middle Ages, we’re in the middle of pure cacophony in desperate need for a sonic Renaissance to happen.
The other direction pertains to what’s going beyond our human nature and possibly beyond the planet we live in. For us humans, sound happens when something vibrates with enough energy within our hearing range, but that’s not the case for other species, a cat can hear much higher frequencies. So the whole concept of sonic perception for a cat is dramatically different than human’s perception, and mysterious as well. For us, perceiving a frequency as a sound at 30KHz is not even a possibility and we can’t simply imagine that our emotional and physical response would be like 3 times a 10KHz sound, it doesn’t work that way. Maybe in the universe there’s a living species able to perceive the immensely slow movements of planets as sounds.
Do you have any particular way to listen to sound and connect sonically with your environment?
I have a very active and musical way of listening, I hear notes, harmonies and patterns all the time, it happens spontaneously at this point.
Finally, could you tell us how is silence present in your life with sound?
Silence, or I would say a relative quiet, is a very precious element for me, I’m trying every day to experience it as much as possible, usually I start the day by drinking a coffee outside, just listening to the ambience, it helps me getting my focus in place. Complete silence is actually a very scary idea, it think it would sound like the absence of existence.