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009 Soundscape designer Mitch Allen explains the role your physical surroundings play in improving your listening

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Today, I have a conversation with acoustic engineer and soundscape designer Mitch Allen. He has over 10 years experience as an acoustic engineer and is currently spearheading the business offering of Soundscape Design for Arup within the Australasian region. He is also the founder of One Two Studios a music production company that specializes in bespoke royalty free music. Mitch has been commissioned for various local and International soundscape installations, and he is passionate about sound design in urban environments.

In this episode, he takes us to the jungles of Bali to illustrate that listening is not something we just do with our ears, it is a multi-sensory experience. Mitch shares the dimensions of the role of a soundscape designer. He talks about the differences between creating soundscapes in modern industrial environments and yoga studios. This is an amazing show, not only because of what Mitch says, but how he says it.

Today’s Topics:

  • Acoustic engineers solve acoustic challenges of a place or area.
  • Mitch solves problems such as mitigating noise or vibration.
  • Mitch likes to create a desirable sound experience and that is why he started calling what he actually does as soundscape design.
  • Restaurants are often challenging environments for communication.
  • These areas need to have a positive soundscape, but it is hard to satisfy everyone’s desires.
  • A desirable soundscape is attached to the intent of the purpose of the area.
  • For the Vivid Sydney project Mitch took sounds from the Harbor and transformed them into sounds of the future.
  • Mitch shares how the yoga studio sound he designed needed a hum and he used a 40 hertz sound of a crystal himalayan
  • Mitch had a challenging yoga studio soundscape design where the owners wanted a 40 hertz hum playing throughout the area, but it didn’t sound right.
  • Mitch solved the problem by using a recording from a crystal Himalayan singing bowl and adjusting the frequency.
  • Sound is just a form of energy in a vibrational frequency in a range that we can hear.
  • The frequencies are the oscillating waves or vibration in the air.
  • Our ears pick up the vibration and it is converted to sound energy.
  • Noise is unwanted sound. Sound is something that you can choose to hear or ignore.
  • Using natural soundscapes as opposed to sound masking in an office environment to minimize the distractions.
  • To prepare for listening it is a good idea to remove or be aware of the internal dialogue.
  • Embracing the full body experience of listening or the sounds that Mitch feels as he experiences the world.

Transcript

Episode 009: Deep Listening with Mitch Allen 

Oscar Trimboli:  

Deep Listening, Impact Beyond Words

Mitch Allen: 

Acoustics is often described as a black art where we talk about very technical concepts that aren’t very accessible to people without acoustic training. To be able to actually just listen subjectively and understand on a personal level what we’re talking about is very demystifying as well. Everybody who has hearing can listen to something and make a judgement and everybody feels like that’s an accessible way to interpret data.

Oscar Trimboli: 

In this episode of Deep Listening, Impact Beyond Words, we have the opportunity to listen to soundscape designer, Mitch Allen, who works for a global multi-disciplinary engineering firm, Arup. He takes us to the jungles of Bali and he helps us understand that listening is not just something that you do with your ears, but it’s a multi-sensory experience. Listen carefully as he describes on two dimensions, the role of a soundscape designer. How he creates world-class soundscapes in modern industrial environments and then listen out carefully as he talks about creating soundscapes in yoga studios. With Mitch today, I’d love you to listen not only to what he says but how he says it, because he’s got an incredible energy and passion for the topic of soundscapes.

Let’s listen to Mitch.

Oscar Trimboli: 

So Mitch, for those of us in the audience who don’t know what a soundscape engineer does, just talk to us about a day in the life of Mitch and taking a brief and bringing that to life and spaces where communities and organisations come together.

Mitch Allen: 

Sure. I call myself a soundscape designer. I work for a multi-disciplinary engineering firm and I work in the acoustics team. Traditionally, acoustic engineers would satisfy a brief to solve any acoustic challenges that may occur in a project. And through my experience, it’s often predominantly focused around solving problems more so than creating experiences and by that, I mean the language we use if often around mitigating noise and designing solutions for acoustic issues like higher vibration times or different acoustic concepts. And often the language isn’t used around creating a desirable experience. So that’s where I start to use the language of soundscape design as opposed to acoustic engineering in that there’s a huge opportunity for us to be designing the future of cities and work places and precincts and everywhere, really. With a view to actively engaging in how those spaces might sound or well-being, for experience, for activation, for all sorts of different reasons, but rather than approaching that design process from the perspective of mitigating noise, more so thinking of the acoustic environments where we’d like to create, if that makes sense.

Oscar Trimboli: 

As a soundscape designer, what’s a great example of a well-designed space that you could help the audience understand how sound plays a role? Whether that’s in a work place or a gathering of people in a community. What are some of the soundscapes that people hold up as amazing.

Mitch Allen: 

It’s interesting, the first example that came to mind when you were talking about that and one of the interesting, the first example that came to mind when you were talking about that and one of the most accessible for the public in general is the issue of restaurants and being able to hear each other and be able to communicate in what are often acoustically challenging environments. I was talking to a colleague the other day about discussions on policy change in entertainment in Sydney and how we actually promote venues to be places where music and conversation can co-exist. And to create an appropriate soundscape for that area that promotes liveliness in the city. You focus on the positive soundscape side of things. It’s interesting, it’s different for different people and that’s what’s challenging about implementing appropriate soundscapes in different locations. It’s hard to satisfy everybody’s idea of what a good soundscape might be, people often have a high affinity to natural soundscapes and quiet. Conversely, different demographics and different age groups might be attracted by more liveliness or engagement in their acoustic surroundings and more stimulation.

Finding that balance, given that sound is so pervasive, through the community, is often difficult challenge. But to answer your question about what’s a desirable soundscape, it’s very much attached to what the intent for a space might be. You might be trying to design an appropriate soundscape for a quiet, meditative space where you are looking to recuperate and heal, or you might be trying to design a soundscape for a precinct that’s aiming to reinvigorate and reimagine a future of an otherwise acoustically dead space, if that makes sense.

Oscar Trimboli: 

What’s a soundscape you’ve helped to design your most proud of?

Mitch Allen: 

We just finished a project recently for Vivid, it’s a lighting festival in Sydney. And AMP actually engaged us to reimagine the soundscape for the Loftus Lane precinct, where they’re undertaking a large development there. And currently it’s the back lane that’s fully dominated by inner city sounds, lots of mechanical plant, road traffic noise, not a very quiet place. It’s in a CBD, but it’s also the back alley that basically services a lot of driveways and emergency egress from the existing buildings that- and what we did was work with projection mappers and the lighting designers of Arup as well to create an immersive environment that imagines what the space could be in the future. So, at night time, it really transformed into a new space. Now, the imagination of that space very much bordered on composition and it tried to capture the past and present and future of the space by incorporating a special soundscape through the area that had natural elements but also content from recorded past and also a recorded present around the harbour and reimagining that to see how it sound in the future. That’s one of the most recent projects that we worked on in terms of activation and place making using sound.

Oscar Trimboli: 

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve heard back from a client after you’ve deployed a soundscape?

Mitch Allen: 

That example that I gave of the Vivid Sydney installation. Like I said, we took recordings from around the harbour and we effected them to not be recognisable as natural sounds that we’ve recorded, but to be an imagination of the future. And one of the pieces of feedback we got was that the client could hear a song on the DNA of Sydney in the soundscape. After I told them the process, the put it down to the fact that we’d actually used raw material from Sydney, reimagined it and that would be the explanation for why they thought it sounded so Sydney. That was a nice piece of feedback.

Oscar Trimboli: 

It’s a great example of expressing meaning through your soundscape that you created.

Mitch Allen: 

I am quite proud, yeah. I think it came off quite well and I think that point is a good one. The content of something doesn’t need to be explicit and in alignment with the topic of this podcast. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an obvious piece of communication that communicates an idea. It can be a very subtle but intrinsic thing in that communicating of an idea that’s really fundamental to the conveyance of that message.

Oscar Trimboli: 

It sounds like your brief was quite extensive, but a brief simply could have been bring the DNA of Sydney to the soundscape.

Mitch Allen: 

It’s interesting, these design processes often hopefully, can evolve that way though. While some of the best briefs are a little bit open-ended, we do need to achieve certain requirements. But to be able to have that ability to let the design grow and blossom and take different directions is really a luxury and in my experience, often results in a great outcome.

Oscar Trimboli: 

What kinds of questions would you ask to explore that area of what’s unsaid in the design process?

Mitch Allen: 

It’s interesting, using sound for me, well often, not just be words that I use to describe what my venture in the design process. But really, the questions that I would ask framed around have you thought outside the box? Are we just using acoustics? It’s a box taking exercise to make sure we meet policy and criteria, or is there a missed opportunity here to actually enhance the experience of the people that would be using this development? That’s in very general terms. It’s obviously very different development and different for every client as well. Generally, it will be trying to push the envelope in terms of, yes, every acoustic engineer out there can meet the criteria that we are designing for, but beyond that, have you thought about designing above and beyond or differently, to be commensurate with the architectural and experiential intent of the development.

Even more so, acoustics is often described as a black art where we talk about very technical concepts that aren’t very accessible to people without acoustic training. To be able to actually just listen subjectively and understand on a personal level what we’re talking about is very demystifying as well. So, while to of those three-dimensionals is one component of it, it’s also a language barrier. Everybody who has hearing can listen to something and make a judgement and everybody feels like that’s an accessible way to interpret data. And indeed, we’re looking into how that would be beneficial in terms of data sonification and things like that.

Oscar Trimboli:

So, we’ve talked about soundscapes in a fairly common setting. You know, a CBD of the major metropolitan global city. What’s an unusual soundscape and location for a soundscape you’ve been part of designing?

Mitch Allen:

One of the ones that I enjoyed is I did a soundscape design for a yoga studio down in Melbourne and that opened one up in Sydney as well. And at the core of their offering is it’s this 40-hertz hum. The client was very adamant that they needed this 40-hertz hum to be played throughout their entire design for a yoga studio down in Melbourne and that opened one up in Sydney as well. And at the core of their offering is it’s this 40-hertz hum. The client was very adamant that they needed this 40-hertz hum to be played throughout their entire Shala. And when they played a sign where it was 40 hertz, it was unnatural and I didn’t know what to do, so they came to us and we ended up taking a recording to a crystal Himalayan singing bowl and we did tune it to 40 hertz so it had a more natural ring to it. By virtue of the client being very interested in 40 hertz as an energetic frequency that is supposed to promote the practise, we also got talking about brainwave entrainment and different components of the soundscape that we could develop in order for it to be a nice, holistic experience.

So, I ended up amplitude modulating that 40-hertz hum anywhere 7.83 and 8 hertz and to try to further enhance that grounding and performance, and for each of their styles of class, I think it was mellow, unified and dynamic. I created a long-form accompanying soundscapes that were harmonious with that base 40-hertz hum, but also promoted that different level of the yoga techniques from very relaxing through to quite intense.

That was a really interesting experience being able to work with a client who’s very interested in the effects of sound on the ability of their customers to perform and how we might use that to change the whole experience. And the feedback from customers and instructors alike was great. It was very much that the sound was fundamental to the experience. As soon as you enter the Shala to undertake your practise, you’re met with this warm, enveloping hum that carries you through all the way and yeah, that was very interesting and unusual to work on. Their studio called Humming Puppy, so humming being the hum and puppy being a play on downward dog. They’ve got a studio in Prahran, in Melbourne, and they also opened one in Chippendale up in Sydney.

Oscar Trimboli: 

Fabulous! Mitch, can you just take us back a step. I’ve got my four-year old granddaughter Ruby next to me. I need you to take me through hertz and waves and all you just described to understand how sound passes through to the human body and what the role of waves are and hertz are playing there. Because being a master in your craft, we’d love to make that accessible to Ruby and the younger audience when explaining how sound moves through the body.

Mitch Allen:  

Absolutely. Thank you, that’s a great question. I’ve got a five-year old daughter and I enjoy playing her these things and explaining it as it goes. By way of introduction to sound… Sound, for all intense and purposes, is just another form of energy. It’s a vibrational frequency within the range that we can hear with our ears. So, a lot of the podcasts has been talking about finding meaning and deep listening. I would say that listening is actually not just done with your ears, but sound is specifically the frequencies that you can hear and by frequencies, I mean the waves that are being oscillated… I think I’m using too big words for Ruby.

Oscar Trimboli: 

Yeah. No, come on, Ruby. What’s your five-year old’s name?

Mitch Allen: 

Ollie.

Oscar Trimboli: 

All right. Let’s talk to Ollie and talk to him as if you’re explaining how sound gets created and absorbed into the body.

Mitch Allen: 

Okay, no problem. So, when I’m speaking to you, I’m creating sound with my mouth. That sound is vibrating the air, going back and forth until it hits your ear. And when it hits your ear, it goes inside your ear, all the way down your ear canal to your ear drum, and your ear drum is able to pick up those vibrational frequencies that came through the air and it’s converted into electrical energy, another form of energy that is fed to your brain and you can hear it as sound in your brain. That is what sound is. Another thing that I would like to say is that sound is different from noise. Noise is identified as unwanted sound. Sound is just the thing that I’ve described and you can choose to engage with it, or you can choose to just hear it.

Oscar Trimboli:

Beautiful explanation. So, simple and so accessible. In exploring soundscapes that office workers may be part of, how would they improve their ability to listen in a soundscape that’s productive and effective for them? Imagine two scenarios, two people having a conversation, maybe it’s an open-plan office, maybe it’s an office with a door. And the other, a team meeting scenario. If I was asking on their behalf to give you advice on how to optimise the environment so not only people can listen, but they can hear.

Mitch Allen: 

Okay. Arup invest a lot of our profits back into the company in the form of research and I was lucky enough to be a part of a team that undertook some research recently. Looking at the benefits of natural soundscapes in a work place environment, as an alternative to traditional sound masking. In an open-plan office environment, often they will install a loud speaker system to create a uniform background noise level that can raise the background the noise level, and what they’re trying to do is minimise the distraction from your co-worker speaking, by having the emergence of that speech stimulus, being too far about the background. Often that will just be pink noise that’s pumped throughout an open-plan office area, and we were looking into what it would mean to change that as a sound masking system.

But your question was around how do you improve the environments of commercial offices and how would you better communicate with each other in terms of acoustics and being able to receive meaning. For me, it’s actually important to understand what the type of communication is. I think there is benefit for different types of acoustic environment in different areas of commercial spaces that can be commensurate with different types of interactions. So, if you’re having a very serious discussion about a very serious issue, then a very enclosed environment with a controlled acoustic condition is potentially appropriate. If you’re otherwise trying to promote social interaction and design thinking, perhaps a more live environment that allows for a bit of noise is appropriate, so there’s no one size fits all, but there’s definitely an appropriate level of acoustic reverberation and background noise and noise ingress that promotes different types of work.

 

It’s interesting though, at my work place, I’m sitting on a floor, it’s an open-plan floor and we’ve got activity-based working so we never sit at the same desk twice. And on one side of the floor plate, we’ve got a yellow carpet and on the other side of the floor plate, we’ve got a dark grey carpet. I think that the levels of noise on the yellow carpet, from people talking and being engaged in conversation, is far higher than that on the dark grey carpet and I think we should put out a noise level on each side and see what it means. So, it’s not just the acoustic condition that changes people’s behaviour as well. The only other point that I would make is I also think it is usually important to not think that you have to stay in a building to have a conversation. If there is something that’s serious and difficult to talk about, often it is usually beneficial to go out and stand in the sun to talk about it. Or get yourself out of the building. Or conversely, it’s nice to go down to a café or a lunch to get the creative juices flowing. So, it’s not just the commercial environment that needs to be the one size fits all and that all of the conversations can happen in that building.

Oscar Trimboli: 

As a professional listener, what advice would you give our audience on how to listen better to yourself so that you are prepared to listen to somebody else? How do you clear your mind when you’re going in to speak to a client or a colleague or with your manager, so that you’re completely present there for them for the dialogue?

Mitch Allen: 

In preparation for listening and taking the internal monologue out, I think it’s very important to, in the first instance, be honest with yourself that there is one and understand or even personify that voice in your head in the same way that I might prepare for meditation. Being able to be aware of what is my voice or what’s going through my head and not necessarily judging it or saying that I need to get rid of it, but just being aware that it’s there, I think is the most powerful step in taking myself out of the listening process. And when I said taking myself out, I don’t want to say, all right, I’m going to clear my mind completely so that I can just focus on the person. I want to be able to focus on the person. If thoughts are coming into my head that are my own voice, just being aware of them is being my own voice and not confusing it with the message that I’m receiving from the person that I’m listening to.

Oscar Trimboli:

So there’s two levels of listening to yourself. There’s the preparation, which you described so beautifully. The second part is when you’re in the dialogue and you notice you’re not in the dialogue. So you, cut all your intention on the other person, the 125-400 rule tells us they can speak at a 125 words a minute, yet you can listen at 400 so there’s a natural inclination to drift off. What advice or hacks or tips would you give our audience about when you’ve noticed you’ve drifted or you noticed you’re in a dialogue with yourself or you noticed you’re somewhere else, you’re trying to solve the problem rather than listening completely to it, how do you check yourself and then bring yourself back into the conversation?

Mitch Allen:

There are couple of things that I would do in those situations and one would be, own up about it, not just keep it internal. So say, “Excuse me, I want to revisit this thing that I’ve just drifted off about.” And then by re-engaging with the person you are trying to give your attention to, you’re making that commitment to re-engage with them. The other obvious one is to actively try to feedback to the person that what you’ve heard is accurate and what you are understanding from them is commensurate with the message that they’re trying to convey. If you’re engaging in that way, and that’s the way you want to engage then being able to actually communicate and interact with the person that you’re listening to is usually important.

Oscar Trimboli: 

Great insight! Make it external. If you’re on the receiving end as a listener, you can be really conscious of where you’re at. But we all act in the role as the speaker as well. Are there any clues you could provide to our audience about when to notice the opposite? And for the speaker to notice when the listener is drifting off, which may actually be a function of how you’re communicating rather than they’re listening.

Mitch Allen: 

It’s an interesting one, because when you’re speaking, you can also get absorbed in listening to yourself or the message that you’re trying to convey without checking in with the other person as to whether they’re staying on the same page as you. Again, their interaction, I think, is quite important, and I think I’ve said it a few times in this interview, asking if something makes sense. Asking if I need to repeat something or if the language that I’m using is appropriate for what I’m trying to convey. Again, that interaction is quite important, I think. It’s also… I think I’m doing it.

Oscar Trimboli: 

You are. Well done. You noticed… 

Mitch Allen:  

I think it’s all think it’s also easy to go off in a tangent and it’s again, calling it and making sure that the other person is on the same wavelength as you are. It’s important to maintain that communication.

Oscar Trimboli: 

Mitch, just springing this to a close, you’ve referenced and made observations, but you haven’t fully given voice. One of the things I think you hold passionately is that listening is a full body experience rather than something you only do with your ears. Tell me how you embrace that personally.

Mitch Allen:  

For me, sound has always been a big part of my life. And my that, I mean it’s actually how I would describe my experience to the world. By way of example, I went and saw a solar eclipse once, and I would describe it as a sound that I felt when the eclipse happened. Similarly, I lived in Bali for a while and they have a celebration of New Year’s called Nyepi, where on New Year’s day, after a celebration, they actually shut down the whole island, they shut the airport, nobody’s allowed out on the street, everybody is best to stay in their houses and they have people patrolling the streets to encourage people to stay in their houses and be very quiet. It’s almost a post-apocalyptic kind of environment and this thing that I noticed about that is very much the soundscape that goes along with that. And when I’m saying that, I don’t just mean it sounds different and that excites me, I mean that I experienced that with all of my senses and that total experience for me is represented by sound.

When I’m listening to something, I really feel like I’m immersing myself in an experience. Particularly if I close my eyes and I’m listening deeply to something, I feel like I can experience that thing with my whole being. With my whole body, with my everything. When I say listening with my whole body, I guess what I’m saying that’s how I describe a multi-sensory immersion in understanding something. 

Oscar Trimboli: 

Chinese scholars have taught us that ting, or to listen, is a six-dimensional process, only two of those are physical, their eyes and the ears, and you’ve described those other four dimensions about your presence and what it means and how you show respect through that process so beautifully. Mitch, thanks so much for your time and sharing your experience and your wisdom with the listeners.

Mitch Allen: 

Thank you very much, Oscar.

Oscar Trimboli: 

To be in the presence of someone who understands sound at a world-class level was truly a privilege for me to listen to Mitch today. Took me to some places that I haven’t been before. That I loved the way that Mitch talked about the fact that listening doesn’t need to be obvious. He talked about that when he said maybe you need to just go and have a conversation at a coffee shop, or go and have a conversation in the sun. Or maybe a quiet office is just as appropriate to create a productive listening environment. I love the way that he soundscaped in Sydney cove came full circle when the client created their own meaning, and ultimately what their brief probably was but weren’t able to articulate in creating the DNA of Sydney in the soundscape for the Vivid Festival of Lights. What a wonderful contrast to have all these amazing lights in the middle of the night time, and to be contrast with the sound of the cityscape and what that evokes in the future of the city.

Did you feel what was happening when that eclipse happened in Bali? The way that Mitch was able to draw that picture drew me in, but more importantly, helped me to understand how to listen as a full body experience. Thanks for listening.

Deep Listening, Impact Beyond Words.

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