Picture by littlevisuals.co

As exciting as it is, the world of audio is extremely vague and can easily be frightening for any newcomers -the word itself covering such a variety of fields with so few common things between them. It seemed important, for this month dedicated to Tutorials, to try to give, with the help of specialists in their respective fields, as much guidance as possible for anyone who would want to experiment in audio and learn new skills in a self-taught manner.

As usual with any field of interest, nothing starts without a special spark that suddenly ignite an unknown flame, sometimes changing our lives forever. For Charlie Huguenard and Rhianne Murphy, musicians and, respectively, audio programmer and sound designer, growing up in a music-filled environment helped a lot their experimentations with sound. Obviously, the first results weren’t the best, but that was beyond the point. Or, in Charlie’s own words, “In high school I got a 4-track cassette recorder and started recording my and my friends’ punk/ska bands. The music was terrible, the sound was terrible, and I fell in love.”.

Sometimes, that spark can also come from social events. Astronautica, an electronic musician who was fiddling with guitars and piano since her youngest age, mentions the weekly musical Los Angeles event Low End Theory as her goto place to get inspiration, which helped her get her career started. Finally, sometimes, there is also the case of a spark actually igniting another one, as it happened to Nicolas Canot, sound artist.

For him, in his own words, “I was fascinated at an early age by the sounds I would hear during movies, on the radio or on the television. (…) I remember, when being a child, watching movies (…) only because someone would drive a car on gravels, because of the sound of a water stream flowing or the sound of the rain falling on a shelter. This sensitivity has been, then, shadowed by my musicianship (as I am also a guitarist) on which I focused for quite some time and more specifically on what is (or at least, what seems to be the main focus of so many instrumentalists, as good improvisers as they are): synchronicity. Weirdly, I started to regain interest in sound as a material a dozen years ago thanks to theater and the creation of staged sound pieces based on poetry or political texts. After that, it became my main focus.”

Nicolas Canot – Picture by Paulo Pacheco

For those creative-minded people, learning sources can take various forms, be it YouTube tutorials, like-minded friends, MOOC websites or books.

Charlie, as an example, got into programming progressively. He started by learning how to create websites on his own before acquiring a taste for programming and spending his nights reading and watching content related to audio programming thanks to resources such as Khan Academy or the MIT OpenCourseWare website. Or, as he would say himself, “I slowly pushed through the frustration of working with code. It came in handy in college when I got a job with iZotope, part of which was maintaining and updating their website.

It was working at iZotope that first got me interested in audio programming. I was a music production student working for some really smart audio programmers, and they were super patient and helpful when I had questions about what they were doing, even though it wasn’t related to the job I was doing for them. But it was all still way over my head, and I couldn’t really connect what I knew with what they were doing.

After college, I eventually found work as a “note tracker” on a music game called Scratch. I eventually became interested in game design and programming through that, and got tons of great book recommendations from both the engineering and design teams. I spent my nights and weekends for the next 3 years reading everything I could get my hands on, and trying–mostly unsuccessfully–to make my own games. As I was doing that, the team was nice enough to let me do some game design and engineering tasks on the prototype projects we were making, and the feedback I got from them was invaluable.

After that, I began working as a game/audio programmer, and learned more on the job. When I had questions for the senior engineers, the good ones would help me work through the problem, and the great ones would send me a book recommendation or a documentation link.”

The good old books, indeed, are still a valuable resources for learning even in today’s digital age. Being the main source of knowledge in general for Nicolas, he learnt the basics of audio programming through some of them, such as The Theory and Techniques of Electronic Music (Miller Puckette), The Audio Programming Book (Richard Boulanger/Victor Lazzarini) or even Programming Electronic Music in Pure Data (Johannes Kreidler) and Electronic Music and Sound Design (Alessandro Cipriani/Maurizio Giri), along with pieces from Brandon Labelle, R Murray Schafer, François Bayle or Peter Szendy.

Charlie Huguenard – Picture by Sean Wells

Of course, following the self-taught way to obtain new skills leads to a learning curve that is quite different than the one encountered through a regular curriculum and, along the road, everyone will obviously meet obstacles relevant to their specific field of work. Learning something new is a true psychological challenge as it brings a lot of frustration that would need to be dealt with. As Charlie puts it, “I learned to interpret frustration over not understanding something as a good thing–a sign I was going the right direction. It’s really easy to hit a wall and feel like giving up. If you can convince yourself that hitting a wall is the first step, then it stops scaring you away.

Also, learning to take a break after being frustrated for an extended period was helpful. At some point, you stop getting benefit from the effort of learning, and need to let your brain recharge. That might be a quick break, a good night’s sleep, or a week off doing something that comes easier. ”

Another psychological issue that would need to be overcome is the peer pressure that can happen – and sadly did to Rhianne: “What is difficult for me is being embarrassed. So many people my age have had much more time than I have to master mixing and buy software whereas I have not. I actually thought I would be a concept artist for the longest time in my education so all those year I spent trying to get good at drawing I found myself still enjoying music much more. To overcome my struggles with myself and my embarrassment, I make as much music as I can in as many genres as I can. I continue to push myself.”

Self-motivation and self-discipline, obviously, are the key of independent learning. As the progression on the learning curve happens, the field becomes clearer and new techniques might have to be invented to help building on top of those new skills.

Sometimes, as it is the case for Astronautica, it is simply the case of now being able to fully spend every day working on her music that really helps her push the boundaries of her creativity. Sometimes, in the cases of Nicolas and Charlie, getting experienced allows them to be find a solution quicker when encountering an issue. Going even further, Nicolas pointed out the importance of failure while learning: “I would lose too much of my creativity if I would stop failing. Which reminds me of this brilliant quote from Robert Henke:  « Failure points to the future and success points to the past. ». I find that extremely relevant and deeply believe that every artist or creator should use some part of their time to fail, to try again, to wander into knowledge and to change their behavior when a method seems acquired. Otherwise, they would use that exact same part of their time to wonder how to do the same thing over and over again without no one noticing! (laughs)”.

Astronautica – Picture by Metrojolt

When walking on the path of learning, one could obverse their mind wandering into various questions, asking themselves about choices made, directions chosen and, inexorably, regrets. It is indeed easy, after the picture of a field of interest starts to become clearer, to regret not going to a certain direction at a specific crossroad but, alas, this can’t be altered and it is always better to use these thought as a motivation factor.

One of the main reasons for those regrets is often the feeling of not being up to the task, or not wanting to drift too far away from your current path, as it happened to Charlie about audio programming: “I put it off for a long time because I didn’t think I was up to the challenge. Once I did start writing my own audio plugins for game engines and tools for making interactive sound, I realized it’s not any more difficult than the gameplay programming I was doing before. There’s no better learning experience than actually making something.”.

Impatience can also be one of the factors for regrets. Astronautica, for instance, started creating electronic music sooner before diving too much into the theory of her art and, therefore, fantasize about forcing her young self into reading and learning theory much sooner. But since such a thing is not a possibility, she actually uses those regrets as a way to improve her focus today on this theoretical approach.

On the same idea of giving advices to his young self, Nicolas would love to recommends him to keep an open ear on everything and to focus his creations on something that would please him rather than pleasing the people surrounding him. Or, in his own words, “Take some time to get lost while learning, as following a method already written and passed on by others might lead you to an academicism which, despite its good sides (very well structured and immediate visibility of the piece) quickly falls into repetition and to me, as a listener or a spectator, into boredom. This might happen by wanting to conform to categories and aesthetic judgements of your peers or, even worse, of broadcasters!

Obviously, some great schools teach the art of sound to brilliant engineers or train amazing composers and offer courses worth following, should opportunity arise, but I think that, when comes the time to express yourself as an artist, you can’t repeat what others taught you anyway.”.

Rhianne Murphy

With learning and passion comes, obviously, the desire to know even more about a specific field, which implies keeping yourself up-to-date with the current and future innovations of that field. On the subject of electronic music, for example, Astronautica mentions with excitement that “the future of electronic music is going to just keep evolving. It’s the sound of our time. I think more and more sub genres will continue to form. What’s cool about electronic music is that it’s not exactly definitive. It’s such an abstract term, so it allows for unconstricted creativity. For me, it’s will continue to be my main outlet for my expression. “.

Rhianne, focused on sound design for video games, praised the growing trend of procedurally-generated soundscapes in this field, such as the one in the upcoming No Man’s Sky, as well as the trend of making audio-only video games (including her very own clever one, Listen to me, Clara).

For Nicolas, his excitation about the progresses in the Human-Computer Interaction field is easily perceptible, as he mentions “one of the boundaries of electroacoustic music – seeing the performer sitting behind their laptop, moving knobs on a plastic MIDI interface (kind of an extreme picture but it still happens to quite a lot a performers, myself included!). This sadly seems lifeless and, over all, bodyless. Some interfaces (Karlax or Leap Motion, for instance) already allow for a corporal and proprioceptive implication but I believe that in the medium term, we could see other senses or capacities being used, such as the vision (Google Glasses), the muscular or nerve tension (Xth Sense), more accurate EEGs, neuroimaging, and so on… it will all depend on encounters between researchers, makers (the DIY movement, for instance) and artists.”

Picture by John-Mark Kuznietsov

As times are changing, we are currently living in one filled with massive resources about everything and anything thanks to the Internet. Such a proficiency of resources, as useful as they are, can also be frightening and overwhelming for any newcomers who would want to start learning new skills today.

About audio programming and the video games industry, Charlie would suggest to “first breaking down the problem (which is also a vital tactic to learn for doing actual programming!). Do you know how to write code at all? If not, start with the simplest language and environment you can find (eg JavaScript, Python, etc). Do you know 3d math? If not, go to Khan Academy or similar and check out the Linear Algebra coursework. Do you understand digital signal processing from the creative side? If not, learn how to use a compressor, reverb, delay. Learn about modular synthesis. Learn PureData. Do you understand DSP from the technical side? If not, checkout musicdsp.org for some example code, and look for good books and blogs on audio DSP.

Also, lean on your community. There are so many smart people out there doing interesting audio work. Many of them are on Twitter. Follow the #gameaudio hashtag, read what they post, ask them questions. They’re always happy to help!”

Still in relation to the same industry, but with a more pure sound design-focused point of view, Rhianne would argue that “you have to start somewhere and it’s ok to try everything and it’s especially ok to find you aren’t very good at one thing. But what I will tell you is that if it is available to you, try it. Even if you don’t like it, you know how to use it, that’s good in [the video games] industry. Be creative and make the things you want to, you don’t have to do what everyone else is doing, HOWEVER try to do the things you don’t want to as it will open up your knowledge. I’d say start researching on places like YouTube for tutorials and reviews on programs and equipment, but also find groups and meet-ups of people who are interested in the same stuff as you.”

Such an opinion of keeping an open mind to everything is also shared by Astronautica, who considers that “The internet is quite vast, and that’s the beauty of it. There are so many different ways to learn online, it’s just a matter of looking for the right thing, or allowing yourself to get lost in it and watch or read things with an open mind. A lot of times I would watch tutorials that weren’t really covering the genre I was really into, but I would keep watching because it was still good information that I could apply to my own music. I would highly suggest learning as much as you can, watching tutorials, and talking to friends that can guide you in the right direction. “

Finally, philosophizing about the matter, Nicolas counter-asked: “Is being lost really an issue? Isn’t it, actually, when you are lost that you can lose yourself and open your ears at something that, maybe, would have been left unheard? Tense situations happen when you have to be accountable to someone, be it at an exam or in relation to any type of creation, but when you’re dealing with learning, time doesn’t matter!

Of course, it’s always frustrating and discouraging to find on YouTube, Vimeo or Bandcamp that your highly-innovative idea was actually already done years ago by someone else but, in the end, you can learn from it and learn how it was done! Maybe, there’s a way to go even further in this idea or to redefine it. Or maybe, even, that’s the opportunity to realize that in the end, it was actually not that good of an idea! I think the most important thing is to never lose sight of your initial intention and to know what you’re trying to achieve. After all, isn’t there a proverb saying: “The path is the true goal of a walker”?”


For their invaluable input in this article, many thanks to:

– Astronautica, electronic musician — Web / Soundcloud / Facebook / Twitter

– Charlie Huguenard, audio programmer and composer — Web / Twitter

– Nicolas Canot, sound/digital artist — Web / Soundcloud / Facebook

– Rhianne Murphy, sound designer — Web / Soundcloud / Twitter

Show more