We’ve passed from Record Store Day to Earth Day – and here’s the perfect segue. Having ventured into the woods to find a music release, now we can hear trees transformed, by way of sampling, into catchy rhythms. Our friend Diego Stocco, that evergreen source of creative timbres, now makes everything from trees to beans into sounds that are subtle and complex, full of personality and uniquely tied to their origin materials. There’s no real violence done to nature, either; you can make all of these noises with little more force than a small thundershower.

Remarkably, the video – shot as a promotional for Burt’s Bees – is all real-time. After-the-fact sampling manipulation is itself a fun activity, but there’s none of that business here; this is all improvisation, not editing or effects.

And that brings us to the real message of what Diego Stocco can do. Microphones matter, yes, but the real expertise here is not mic technique; it’s listening. Diego comes up with this great material because he’s had a lot of practice listening to the world around him. As the skill of his listening improves, so do his sounds, as though the planet unfolds new possibilities. (In fact, even the question of technical experience also comes down to the same idea: you’ll get better at mic selection and placement with more experimentation and listening closely to the results.)

Other examples he’s released in the past months drive that point home. In “Improv on a Plate,” the composer and sound designer plays a plate as though it’s an instrument.

I was about to cut a chocolate cake and when I moved the plate on the countertop I noticed a very interesting sound.
One side of the plate was free to vibrate because the tiles were not perfectly even, so by applying pressure with one finger and tapping it with another I was able to create some tonal beats.
I hope you’ll enjoy it!
The recording setup was very simple, Røde NT5, Apogee ONE, Pro Tools 9.

At a recent workshop at Berklee, Diego gave this advice to students explicitly: listen. (The suggestion comes across in a way that to me resonates with the teachings of Zen Buddhism – and, indeed, the teachings of just about all teachers in all disciplines. Observation is essential.)

He illustrated that point with a case study: a taxicab with a funny trunk can be the beginnings of a piece of music.

One of the things that I talked about during my sound design lecture at Berklee http://bit.ly/y89Wtr was to listen to the world around you all the time.

There are many reasons, there could be something interesting happening from a sonic standpoint, you could enrich your sound vocabulary by building references, and most of the time you can create something useful out of that recorded material.

On my way back home, I took a cab from the airport, and I noticed that there was a strange chirping noise coming from the trunk. Of course, I recorded it right away : )
I took that sound, did some work on it and created this short sound designed piece.
You’ll hear the dry sound first, and then the sound designed version, enjoy!

I can think of no better way to celebrate Earth Day than with that reflection: listening to your environment, “organic” and man-made, and the world all around you will help you discover possibilities you’ve missed. That’s not just sound design: it’s a way of (better) life. Happy Earth Day; hope you’ve all had a good weekend.


For more hot mic-on-tree action this Earth Day, here’s the 2009 video Music from a Tree: