ENGL393 Group Assignment – Sonic Warning


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This assignments tasked us with creating a 30-second sound track that could function as a “sonic warning” against an activity from either of our majors that would produce significant physical injury, professional harm, or public damage. Oh.. and we couldn’t use any human language (words) at all.

We chose to use my major – mechanical engineering – as it has more ways to get hurt (yay!). Then we tried to figure out kind of actions a mechanical engineer or technician could perform that would both have recognizable sounds and cause major injuries. We’re happy with the result. That poor guy though… well, we don’t talk about him anymore.

Show Overview


I’d recommend that you try to figure out what’s going on, then unhide this section once you think you know.

[in a factory or shop] A man is slowly sawing away at something with a hand saw. He stops and grunts with fatigue. Then he gets an idea. He decides to use a big table saw instead. The saw spins up and he starts cutting – then some part of his body gets caught in the saw, he screams, and an ambulance is heard. A few moments later, his heart stops.

The scene returns to a man sawing wood. He gets an idea, thinks about it for a moment, then decides not to. He continues sawing with his hand saw.

Moral of this story: Big saws can rip your limbs off if you’re not careful. Don’t use tools you’re not trained on!

Show Plot



An mp3 is available for download here.

Alternatively, just press play to listen : )



This 30-second clip took something on the order of 8 hours of story design, sound selection, and editing. Ugh. Admittedly, neither of us has much experience with audio design, but still – that’s something like 15 minutes of time invested per second of audio.

Professor Justice recommended we use a story-like structure to create context, introduce a threat, reach the climax, and provide a resolution. Initially I was simultaneously confused as to how we would fit all those elements into 30 seconds, and sure that 30 seconds was a long time. In the timescale of the sounds being played, it is a long time. However, the scene can’t proceed faster than the human listening can process the actions. For instance, imagine you want to create the effect of someone entering a room:

  • Door opens
  • Shuffling is heard
  • Door closes

Those sounds can be played in a second or two. However to make it believable, the sequence looks more like this:

  • Door opens
  • [pause for half a second while person steps over threshold]
  • Shuffling is heard
  • [pause for half a second while person turns around]
  • Door closes

Over a long sequence of actions, those pauses add up to a good 10-40% of the total clip. It turned out that we had maybe a quarter of the time required for the scene I initially thought would fit – and just enough for the scene we designed next.

It is absurdly challenging to indicate the negation of something with sound alone. Some actions have a sound when performed in reverse – ie opening or closing a container, but for many actions the sound of the lack of action is silence. Silence is not useful without a context for the silence.

On the other hand, silence can itself have impact when it is used in context. Silence can be used to separate, to link, and to intensify emotion. In this case, we used silence in the middle to separate the two versions of the scene.

The rate at one which experiences subjective time can be affected by the pace and intensity of background noise.

Similarly, the use of dynamics, and change in dynamics (that sounds odd) affects the emotions a particular sound stimulates.

Show Reflections