Audio, the Red-Headed Step Child of Digital Storytelling?

Feb 29, 2012 by

Of all the various ways one could weave a digital story, I’ve noticed that audio seems to be the least favorite medium of both educators and students. Video is by far the king of the digital storytelling spectrum, followed very closely by still images and text based stories. Podcasting has been around for awhile now, and while many may point to that as audio having a strong showing when it comes to digital storytelling, the majority of those podcasts seem to be radio-style narratives. What I refer to as a “red-headed step child” are often the much more complex audio only pieces that rely on sound effects, layering, and other manipulative audio techniques that require story tellers to assemble and work with a medium and skills that most likely they’ve never worked with before.

For example, the Sound Effects Story Assignment on ds106 asks learners to assemble a story using only sound clips and sound effects that have no verbal communication whatsoever. In other words, paint a story using only non-spoken audio. While people might simply discount that challenge as easily accomplished by carrying a microphone with them, quite often the audio that accompanies an event doesn’t offer a clear picture of what’s happening, and doesn’t always convey the same sense of “movement” that a story typically has, with a clear beginning, middle, or end.

To meet the challenge of the assignment, I assembled 5 different pieces of audio, some captured by me and some downloaded from the fantastic Free Sound Project. You can listen to my “winter walk to church” using the embedded player below. If you can’t see it, you can follow the link here to listen to my sound effect story.

I had a blast putting this sound effect story together, but it was incredibly tough! Not from the standpoint of figuring out how to tell the story, but making sure all of the pieces fit together nicely. While spoken audio, or radio style digital storytelling projects are relatively easy to assemble (hence the popularity of creating podcasts), it was a challenge to make sure all of the sound effects “faded” in and out at the appropriate time to make them sound seamless. It took extra time and thought to make sure it sounded as though the worship music was in fact behind the door (playing it very softly), then ramping up the volume dramatically when the sound of the door opening occurs.

For those curious, I used the following sound clips to create this sound effect story:

  • 20 seconds of me walking in the snow – I captured this with the voice memo app on my phone, and did a silly duck walk as I crouched down trying to capture the foot steps. I then looped the audio to fill the 60 second story
  • 10 seconds of a car driving by in the slushy road – I captured this with the voice memo app as well, then cut it down and copy and pasted it to produce the effect of multiple cars
  • 30 seconds of my church’s contemporary worship band – again, captured with the voice memo app, then cut down to fit
  • Snow Day 002 (Free Sound Project) – http://www.freesound.org/people/dkettle/sounds/113973/
  • Metal Push Door (Free Sound Project) – http://www.freesound.org/people/pagancow/sounds/15315/

My guess is that many people would be able to tell a story like this quite easily with text or video; most schools spend a great deal of time on writing, helping students develop a good sense of using “juicy” adjectives, or describing a setting or mood with detail. Capturing the story on video would be a bit more of a challenge as you would have to carefully edit the clips to assemble the story, but being able to film each “scene” or setting would be fairly easy, provided it was Winter time and you had fresh fallen snow. The audio however, was a huge challenge for me.

In retrospect I could just be attributing my own experience of working outside my typical comfort zone in assembling an audio story from scratch to others in the K-12 digital storytelling community unjustly. From observations in my school district though, I rarely see teachers doing podcasting or other “audio only” projects with students, let alone attempting to create digital stories like this, using only found or created effects. Am I wrong in my assumption, or do other educators see the area of audio in the digital storytelling spectrum woefully lacking in examples beyond the “podcast” format?

7 Comments

  1. An interesting observation. I have some qualms about taking the term “digital storytelling” as literally as you are doing here. It’s certainly true that any computer-mediated storytelling can be called digital, but I see some real advantages in preserving the “traditional” denotation for DS as a form that combines an out-loud recording of an author reading a personal story with visual images that illuminate the story in some way. The audio-only forms each have their own names, which are pretty descriptive and easily recognized. Not sure what’s gained by muddying the definition so that it becomes so broad as to be unhelpful.

    That said, I do agree with your observation that most in the K-12 community who are doing this kind of work shy away from audio-only formats. One reason may be that, when students are in an audio-only environment, they think of little besides music. While creating mixes, and even music videos, have their role in the world of storytelling, they generally lead us very far afield from the understanding of narrative and the writing process which are the root educational uses for these formats.

    Your sound-effect story certainly does address interesting issues about narrative and the communication of ideas. Thanks for a thought-provoking exercise.

    • Your sound-effect story certainly does address interesting issues about narrative and the communication of ideas. Thanks for a thought-provoking exercise.

      I can’t take credit for the exercise, it’s one of just many amazing assignments shared on the ds106.us website. It’s a truly inspiring community of individuals that I’m constantly dipping into for new ideas and excuses for practicing my digital media creation skills.

      I see some real advantages in preserving the “traditional” denotation for DS as a form that combines an out-loud recording of an author reading a personal story with visual images that illuminate the story in some way. The audio-only forms each have their own names, which are pretty descriptive and easily recognized. Not sure what’s gained by muddying the definition so that it becomes so broad as to be unhelpful.

      I’m a HUGE traditionalist in many areas of my life, but I don’t see how trying to honor the history of one form of digital storytelling leads to muddying the definition. If anything, being more inclusive in what falls under the “digital storytelling umbrella” to me adds more vibrancy and color, making the rainbow brighter and more interesting (if you can excuse my rather elementary metaphor).

      In fact, many large organizations and institutions have fully embraced the notion of all forms of digital media creation as being a part of the digital storytelling experience. The University of Houston defines is as the “practice of using computer-based tools to tell stories” (http://digitalstorytelling.coe.uh.edu/), and the crowd-sourced definition of digital storytelling on Wikipedia mimics that sentiment (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_storytelling). I understand that the Center for Digital Storytelling has a much more narrowly defined view, but it still includes “still and moving images, and music or other sounds” (http://www.storycenter.org/index1.html).

      I think that as we move forward with technology becoming nearly ubiquitous eventually we won’t have to denote the method through which any narrative was created, it will simply be a story whether it was created with pen and pencil or digital tools. That’s not to say I don’t find value in clearly defining a format (radio talk show, interview, first-person narrative, etc.), just that limiting the term seems to imply that the form won’t evolve over time in the same manner that other forms of media have (text became hyper-linked, and then e-texts for example). I hope that doesn’t mean that I’m muddying the waters, because if I am, there’s a HUGE number of story tellers being cultivated in the U.S. education system that are going to make things downright dirty the more and more we bring these tools into the classroom.

    • when students are in an audio-only environment, they think of little besides music.

      That really depends how you set the activity up. Listening can be a gateway to creative self-expression kinesthetically or visually, ask any dancer or artist. In the creation of audio, narrative structures are built to convey the composers message, these again are easily traced by the listener. The synthesis and transformation of abstract concepts is a higher order skill which needs to be developed in a variety of modalities.

      See how one K-12 educator used the story of a young Mozart to connect with her students through digital storytelling, listening maps and composition exercises.

      I’m a kinesthetic learner, music moves me. See how another educator uses visual listening maps alongside the kinesthetic.

      they generally lead us very far afield from the understanding of narrative and the writing process

      On the contrary, music and more broadly audio composition has a tremendous influence on the way things are written and drawn. Just see this letter from Ren and Stimpy creator John K to a fan where he compares script-written cartoons to rap music.

      Remix culture doesn’t care where it borrows from, or where its inspirations come from. To exclude someones definition of story telling because it doesn’t quite fit yours is quite narrowing and unhelpful in the extreme.

      Ben,

      There are more three ways I could imagine responding to your digital audio narrative, which might be useful in class.
      – mime (silent storytelling)
      – dance (kinesthetic storytelling)
      – line drawing (visual storytelling)

      None of these need a talking head and all are equally valid forms of storytelling. Post a video performance, or mash up videos, images and other things digitally and they would fit even the narrowest definition of digital story telling. Creative self-expression using digital formats is the key here, not the meatball sundae (to coin a sethism).

  2. Awesome post.

    I don’t see why audio should be daunting or boring. Audio journalism (NPR), and essays (This American Life) are great ways to get involved that don’t involve music. Also, radio dramas (do you know about Michael Byers course at U-M this term, on radio dramas? They’re actually writing and producing one together…), but that form might seem archaic (although, the fact that it’s been forgotten, mostlykinda, is what make re-discovering it so rad).

    It’s almost like there should be two audio sections, one on storytelling and one on music.

    • Audio shouldn’t be daunting or boring, and for the most part a large portion of the audio stories I witness teachers and students produce aren’t; they’re typically very well constructed narratives and interviews done in a “podcast” type radio-format. However, as wide as that ocean is, it’s extremely shallow, with very few in the K-12 world looking for ways to explore other forms of audio storytelling. At least, from my perspective.

  3. I see no reason to be narrow in a definition of storytelling nor how the creative active gets muddied. In fact, if anything the oral tradition of story going much farther back in time than the digital video personal narrative is purely the spoken voice.

    I also see a tendency to focus only on the product of digital storytelling, the thing. In creating something like an animated GIF from a movie, the end product is by no means a story, but the process of analyzing a filem, identifying a key sequence that defines a character, is part of the story process of creating character, and to me is a valid approach to a part of the storytelling process.

    When I studied geology, a field ripe with classification schemes, my favorite professor Doc Thompson noted that in the realm of ways to describe things, “there are lumpers and there are splitters” — I am a proud lumper, and in fact want the broadest range of what we might call storytelling. It seems more interesting to be inclusive.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. SoundCloud – Sharing with Sound « Dina Luciano - [...] am inspired this week about many things — but this post by @techsavvyed, Audio, the Red-Headed Step Child of…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *