Motivation, Attention and Boring Sounds

NOTE: If you’d prefer to read this in Chinese, Jennifer Chen has very kindly provided a translation available here – thanks Jennifer!

This post is (a repost from 8th August 2010) and is dedicated to Benoit, who asked me to comment on a post he made expressing a feeling of discontent and frustration – amongst other things he had returned from holiday with no interesting new sounds… I began writing a reply and it started to turn into a novel, so I am here writing it as a more generalised response…

As a starting point I think it is worth watching this video:

Its a funny video but he also makes some very important points; about being objective, about what you are lucky enough to already have, and how quickly you take that for granted. There is a saying I like to repeat: Familiarity breeds contempt. Sometimes the same-ness of experience can lead people to think the experience has no worthwhile meaning. Contempt is a strong word but the essence of its meaning is about judgement

With regards to recording sounds, I suspect the issue may be a case of being too judgemental BEFORE you record. I truly believe having an open mind is very important when recording. Its easy to say ‘I am open minded’ about some topic or concept but having an open mind in terms of real time experience is different again. It requires delaying the judgement of whether a sound is immediately interesting. This is related to the idea of delayed gratification – when we were little kids we tend to run around doing things that immediately make us happy. As you get older you realise some things are not fun at first, and require struggle and hard work, but because more effort is required over a longer time, the reward is even bigger. But you do not receive the reward until you finish it. Which means perseverance becomes a very important skill to develop.

sound advice

On some creative projects I go through short periods where I think the project has become worthless – it’s all bad! Why am I even trying to finish this? I guess it is a form of doubt. But I’ve learned that it is important to just delay those feelings. I tell myself: stop being judgemental and keep going! Do the next step, and the next one, and once the project is a little further developed, then stop have & see how you feel about it. And funnily enough this tactic usually works. Whatever made me feel bad was momentary, a passing mood shift or something external & short lived. Most projects of any depth take time and there will be stages that feel frustrating, but you just have to keep going and push through those feelings.

sound advice

So back to recording sounds. There is a Japanese term ‘wabi sabi’ which I can only give my own interpretation of, but to me it means finding beauty in the imperfect. Sounds which at first might seem broken or not useful can turn out to be very, very valuable and inspiring. I recently did an interview for local radio, and the interviewer asked me to take her location FX recording. I thought hmmmm where can we go easily and get an interesting sound? On the day we went to a local playground – I thought maybe the swings might make an interesting creak… Try the first one: no, second one: no, try the seesaw – its a little bit interesting – it has a big spring and the impact when it hits the rubber tyre is nice. We record some, then go over to the hurly gurly (a rotating toy that four kids can sit on and spin around) I give it a spin and WOW!!! Its a bit rusty and sounds very, very heavy. It sounds nothing like what you imagine. I instantly think about what it will sound like when I slow it down an octave!! We record it. Here it is, first real speed, then 2 octaves down, then convolved through an IR (play it loud! It has gorgeous low frequencies!)

Playground FX 01 by timprebble

Then we go over to a climbing wall with small chains on it. It’s not a super-amazing sound, but I know how useful chains can be – especially exterior ones, so I rattle them and record them.

So in ten minutes, two things happened: the first two sounds I failed to record anything interesting, but I found one amazing sound & two useful sounds. Which will I remember? The first two or the last three? Here is the seesaw hit, first real speed, then 2 octaves down, then backwards, then through two different IRs:

Playground FX 02 by timprebble

But what if I hadn’t persevered and tried the last three? I would have nothing. What if I waited until all the kids left the playground and I could get super clean recordings like I ideally want? I would have nothing. I did actually record all five, because sometimes boring, normal sounds are what you want too! And appreciating the true nature of what may appear as a boring sound is an important aspect of this too!


Another example to illustrate the point: when you edit ambiences for a film, inevitably you need the sound of a fridge for any scenes set in a kitchen. So I went through a phase years ago, where everywhere I went, I recorded the fridge. Fascinating right? Not very… The rock & roll life of a sound designer? While on holiday, staying in a motel, at night I would record the fridge for 5 minutes. Put it in the library and forget about it, it is a boring sound right? But I use those fridges, and they are MY fridges! I was there & I recorded them. They have context – I remember where I recorded them, and guess what? Every one of those fridges sounds different. They all have different character. And sometimes they are more than just ambiences. A film I did in 2003 called Perfect Strangers was about a guy who kidnaps a girl and takes her to a deserted island. She eventually ends up killing him and putting him in the freezer. At first I put in a normal sounding freezer sound but the director and I came up with the idea of making the freezer more interesting. The girl starts to go a bit nuts and talks to the freezer, so we started using the fridge motor starts and stops to punctuate the one sided conversation she was otherwise having. It worked very well, but guess what? I couldn’t have made the idea work without all my library of fridge sounds. Fridges are boring right? Not. At. All!

sound advice

The moral of this is that reality is FULL of interesting sounds, it is up to you (and your attitude) to find them and make them interesting!


Benoit also expressed a feeling of being overwhelmed with the constant flood of information: twitter feeds, endless web site updates & blog posts, new equipment reviews and software releases. I think that feeling is shared by many, and while the obvious answer is to just disengage, the people who will actually be the best at managing it will probably be the ‘digital natives’ – the kids who are growing up now, who have no experience of life before the internet. But identifying the problem is part of solving it. Consider it this way: you ARE in control of your attention. A simple example: I do not watch television, live, ever (or very, very rarely). Apart from the dire scarcity of any good quality meaningful television I also cannot stand the constant interuption of advertising. At one stage I thought getting pay TV would solve the problem, but they just replace general advertising with their own advertising. I believe television to be an insult to my intelligence. But no one makes you watch television, and we are all sentient, so the choice is yours.

Kill your Television

When I was young I was more of a gear addict but now I don’t care so much – I have the tools I need. If another version of ProTools was never released ever again, I could still make film soundtracks with what I have. My recorder & mics work well, I do not NEED more gear. And while the people who are constantly trying to sell you more gear will attempt to make you believe, having more gear will not advance you creatively necessarily. And defintiely not as reliably as working on your own attitude & experiences will. So I stop reading reviews and it is only when something very specifically interests me, that I read about it..

Learning to filter the crap out of your life so it doesn’t waste your attention is VERY IMPORTANT! Plenty of people have written blog posts about this topic, so it is worth doing some searches to find specific means of efficiently accessing ONLY the info you want. For me, using an RSS reader has become fundamental to how I deal with the flood of information. I use Googles RSS Reader, as I can access it from anywhere (home, work, laptop, ipad) and while I have 374 RSS streams feeding into it, there are probably only a dozen I actually check each morning. And even then I only read the new posts that interest me. But all those other feeds sit there, accumulating information that I can refer to when I feel like it. The point? it is up to you to develop strategies of managing it.


The same goes with twitter – looking at a constant stream of twitter posts is like insanity: hearing 1,000 voices inside your head. The way I deal with it, is again via RSS feeds. I follow over 1800 people on twitter, and if they mention or message me I get it, but the core people I follow, I subscribe to an RSS feed of their tweets (go to their twitter profile page – there is an RSS button) So in Google Reader I have a folder of twitter feeds which cuts the constant flood of 1,800 peoples tweets down to an archive of 20 peoples, which accumulate until I read or delete them. Twitter lists work a similar way.

The last aspect I take from Benoits post, is really him questioning his motivation and direction – a loss of desire. I suspect this happens for most people at some stage in their life. For some it takes the form of a mid-life crisis, but here is another way of thinking about it. Maybe it is something you should actually think about every day? A film maker I worked with years ago died this week, she was only 49. She doesn’t have any days left now. So maybe every morning it is worth thinking about how your day should be best spent? If you do not feel inspired to compose or record, don’t do it. Putting yourself under pressure may be self defeating. But sometimes it is the act of doing that generates inspiration and not vice versa.

sound advice

If it is a comparative issue ie I used to enjoy X but now I don’t, then its worth thinking about the context & situation when you were doing X happily. What has changed? The only constant is change, so there WILL have been change, but how has it created a different feeling in your behaviour and appreciation for what you used to enjoy? As I eluded to before, is it just familiarity? It is no longer a new experience…

If the issue is motivation, then maybe the problem is defining the actual goal. Getting started is directly related to finishing, so what it is you are starting, so as to finish? What is IT? I hassled a friend about this once, as he was in a rut with a project and went on and on about the various ways the project was going to fail. So I asked him what success was? What is a realistic successful outcome of the project? Clearly defining that may help motivate you to start, develop and finish it. But without it, it may never be started.

sound advice

16 Responses to Motivation, Attention and Boring Sounds

  1. Pingback: Anonymous

  2. Rene says:

    Very nice post. I’m fortunate in that I have not experienced too much of the malaise that is creative block, but I’m still pretty young…


  3. Steve says:

    Thanks Tim. This was a great post.

  4. TIm! This is an amazing article. I am at the end of a difficult project and this article definitely gave me a big motivational push to finish it. I just moved into a studio for 2 weeks with no internet (which I can do in the mornings and evenings at home)…what a difference!
    Greetings from Berlin and many thanks for this post!


  5. tim says:

    Thanks for the kind words – I am in the process of finishing two remixes I started about.. .hmmm… 4 years ago! The project was long ago released without me, because i was never happy with where mine were at. I am trying to break that attitude in myself. Perfect doesn’t exist!!!! Embrace the imperfect!!!

  6. Felix says:

    I agree with plenty of what you have said in this article and I think that whether or not we find sounds boring or difficult depends more on our perception of the world than on the inherent qualities of sounds themselves.

    I started using microphones a few years ago and I have never gotten over the magic of hearing everything in greater detail; of taking a sonic microscope to the world.

    There was a beautiful radio show based around the hums of different fridges a few years ago on resonance FM and Pauline Oliveros wrote a brilliant essay where she talked about having walked several blocks in NYC to visit an apartment with an especially sonorous fridge hum! Boring/interesting are just a matter of perception and you’re right: reality is full of amazing sounds.

  7. Enos says:

    Thanks for another inspiring and very true blog post Tim!

    Ever since I´ve put together my field recording rig I have found it has made me appreciate life and the places I visit a lot more! Anytime I am on holidays I prefer my recorder to a camera (which I leave to my girlfriend). I am really loving this concept of sonic tourism and days spent visiting unknown places in different countries simply appreciating and capturing new ambiences and sounds. I am now in Barcelona and last night we drove up a mountain overseeing a town on the outsides of Barcelona which was close enough to have a great overall sound of the city with specifics still sticking out. It was amazing to sit there in a field, on the hill overseeing this town and seeing Barcelona in the distance. With the headphones on the sounds were fascinating and SO different to anything I could record in Manchester where I live. Car horns of all types, train horns in the distance, random distant shouts of children and adults, variation of dogs barking, motorbikes screaming away in the streets. I was fascinated.

    I am aware that I am still very young and maybe in a first love with sound recording and the lot but I hope I manage to keep this present.It is true that on some projects I have done I have lost interest or focus and being such a perfeccionist doesn´t help. But focus on what your goal truly is is essential in achieving it before surrender or loss of direction!

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  9. Anton says:

    Nice post Tim. Goes way out of sound design and back.

  10. Dan says:

    Yes, another great post Tim. Cheers.

    My take on this is that nothing is boring if you pay enough attention to it. Boredom results from putting something into a category (which our brain does, by necessity I suppose) and leaving it there. As soon as you remove it from that drawer, listen to or look at something innocently, freshly, you train yourself to notice all sorts of detail that your consciousness intentionally ignored.

    No two doors are alike. 🙂

  11. Miguel says:

    Brilliant, Tim. Brilliant!!

  12. Jay Jennings says:

    Beautiful. I enjoyed every word. Keep ’em coming –

  13. Simon Lebel says:

    Thanks Tim, I had a great time reading this.

  14. Zsolt says:

    And what are you using nowadays instead of Google Reader?

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