What's That Sound?

Audio in an exhibit can enhance interpretation by creating a sense of place, animating artifacts, integrating first-person stories, or adding narration to photographs. Audio can also make for fun interactive guessing games.

Audio can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it, and relatively inexpensive for the interpretive variety it gives to an exhibit. The available software and hardware is simple and easy to use for the novice (trust me).

Here are a few examples of my use of audio in past exhibits.

Background Sounds: Boats creak and seagulls call at a city dock in the early morning hours, followed by bustling carts and barking dogs. Background sound can run intermittently or in a continuous loop, adding depth to a scene or a sense of place to a whole exhibit. (See the "Work" page on this website to hear an example)

Animating artifacts: A shower in a logging camp cabin turns on, then drips after turning off. The sounds of 20th century technological artifacts animate a “gadget tower.” These sounds are best motion activated, so they can pleasantly surprise a visitor.

First person stories: Snippets of oral history interviews play at the push of a button. Actors bring to life the words of the people of the past by reading from diaries, newspaper articles, or letters. I usually make these stories push-button activated for the visitor who wants an extra bit of first-person history in their exhibit experience.

Interactive guessing game: Push a button, listen, and guess what railroad sound you are hearing – steam whistle? Air horn? Or?

Narration: An actor narrates a story illustrated with historical photographs, “Ken Burns Style.” This turns a photo show into a video.

Here is the DIY information.

Step One: Get your audio. There are lots of inexpensive sources for audio:

  • Your oral history collection.

  • Sound effects from MS Word and other programs you already have.

  • Royalty-free sound effects and music (downloadable MP3s available from Amazon).

  • Narration recorded at professional sound-studio. Use actors or professional voice talent (tap the local community theater!), record at for-fee studio or a local radio station (they may donate the voice talent and the studio time).

Step Two: Edit your audio.

There is a free-and-simple sound editing software available on-line, Audacity. I’ve also used Sony Sound Forge. At a minimum, you want to clean up the sound if needed, adjust volume (you want all your audio at the same sound level, unless you want some bits louder for effect), and trim audio to the length you want. You can string together and overlay numerous sounds to create dense and rich atmospheric sound tracks.

Step Two-B: Edit your “video”

If you’re adding the audio to photos to create a video, you may be able to use whatever you happen to have in your basic PC or MAC suite (e.g. Microsoft’s Movie Maker ). My favorite software for video making is Sony Movie Studio. It is very intuitive to use, and pretty inexpensive. Before you start on the video, don’t forget to edit your photos — correct contrast, brightness, and color, fix scratches, and resize/crop to fit your monitor (check the hardware’s resolution specs).

Step Three: Get your equipment, program as needed.

If you are creating a background track, any sound system will do (e.g. put your audio on a CD disc and put into player).

If you want push-button or motion-activated sound, my favorite digital audio controller is the CFSound player. It is easy to program (great manual), and affordable (you can get a pre-wired kit that comes with the player, speaker, and two push buttons for under $400). It has lots of flexibility — you can have a background sound play until a button is pushed and the requested sound plays, or up to 24 push buttons each playing a different sound, or a single button that plays different audio with each push (in sequence or randomly). And much, much more!

If you have a single video, look for a motion-activated photo frame that plays video. You can get them quite large (15” or more). Or look for a TV that auto plays video from disc or USB.

If you want to play multiple videos on a single screen, each push-button activated, you will need a video controller. My favorite is the Akman AMA-mini. Contact them for current price. Always check around as the technology is constantly changing. I do prefer push buttons over touch screens. There is less worry about fingerprints and screen damage.

Have fun creating your next audio special effect!


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