Category Archives: Sound Design

For the Love of Math

I want to ask everyone a question. Am I the only one who remembers that at one time they really loved math?

I didn’t always love math, or reading. I found both of them rather difficult my first few years of school. I had classmates who went to preschool or had older siblings or stay at home moms who had a small head start on me for reading. I was determined to learn to read and I quickly caught up and surpassed many of my classmates.

Square One Television

Square One Television

It wasn’t until second grade that I discovered my love of math. There used to be an educational program on PBS called Square One Television. I became obsessed with this show because it took all these arithmetic concepts I had trouble grokking and explained them in a way I could understand.

They also talked about such advanced topics as Cryptography and Tesselations. (I do want to apologize for the dated content, this was created in the 1980’s.)

This show taught me what a googol was before the spelling changed and became a search engine/Big Brother. Even today when I see a number that is the same backwards and forwards I get really excited because I know it is a palindrome.

Yes, that is James Earl Jones.

Yes, that is James Earl Jones.

Notable people like James Earl Jones and Weird Al Yankovic appeared and lent their talents to making math fun for kids. If you do watch any of the clips I have linked to, please to watch the Weird Al one, it is full of Monty Python homages.

So, if I loved learning math so much and I enjoyed being challenged, why did I major in journalism rather than something math related?

My first major in college was engineering. I was bullied a lot in high school and I had a year where the highest grade I got on my report card was a C. As such, I wasn’t accepted to any of the schools I really wanted to go to. I went to the University of Wisconsin-Platteville to major in engineering. The male to female ratio at the time was two to one. After attending a tech conference where the male to female ratio was fifty to one, that seems positively progressive, but at the time, it was a bit of a shock.

I did not fit in with my classmates.

Every class I had I was the only girl. No one would sit next to me. I had a circumference of empty seats around me. If I tried to talk to anyone, they would literally cry and run away.

I took calculus my freshman year and due to a lot of stress and social issues, I received a D. I don’t really remember anything we were supposed to learn after the first week.

Contrariwise, if it was so it might be, and if it were so, it would be, but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic.

Contrariwise, if it was so it might be, and if it were so, it would be, but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.

I felt like a failure. The thing that got me through high school was this mythological idea that I would go off to college and find my people who would love and accept me for who I was. Going and discovering that things were even worse there than they were in high school was a massive shock and disappointment.

I temporarily dropped out of college. I tried working at Border’s for a while, but that went badly, so with nothing else to do, I went back to school. I went to Madison Area Technical college to take some entry level classes to get my grades back up enough to get back into the UW system. I transferred to UW-Whitewater, where I graduated in 2006.

Trying to jump over the negatives to get to the positives.

Trying to jump over the negatives to get to the positives.

I bounced around majors a lot, but I knew for a fact I was not going to do anything math related. I thought I was too stupid to learn calculus. I thought my success with algebra and trigonometry was a fluke, that those things were useless anyway, and that I needed to pick something easy just so that I could get through college because I was told that having a degree in anything would get me a job. *insert hysterical and bitter laugher here*

Journalism didn’t work out. Neither did video editing, sound design, or doing commodity white collar work. Back in 2012 I felt beaten. I had no idea what to do with my life and I contemplated ending it.

Then a miracle happened in a place I did not expect.

I have spoken about how the worst job I had was one where I was told to pretend to do work. I wasn’t allowed to ask any questions and I was supposed to act like I knew a bunch of stuff I had no way of knowing. It was miserable. However, there was a silver lining.

While trying to find something to do that looked like work, I discovered Codecademy. Codecademy began at the beginning of 2012 with the promise that you could learn to code in a year. I had it on my radar, but I was too discouraged from trying to learn programming to give it a try. When I had to find something that looked like work, it fit the bill.

I discovered that all the things that had stymied me for years while I was learning to program all of a sudden went away when I was doing things over and over again and doing them for long, concentrated pieces of time. I could do something I gave up on ever being able to do. I felt joy, and more importantly, peace while I was sitting at my computer feeling the code flow through my hands and onto my screen.

When that job ended I made the radical decision to go back to school full time rather than find another job. I was tired of running. I was tired of feeling stupid. I was tired of being afraid of failing. I wanted to learn to code because I wanted to know I could do it.

The two biggest motivators for me learning to program were Core Audio and OpenGL. I studied 3D modeling and animation along with audio engineering. I wanted to understand how the programs I used worked. I learned all the low level stuff I could find to help me with this quest.

Then I hit a wall.

What on earth does this stuff mean?! Mark Dalrymple knows Greek, right??

What on earth does this stuff mean?! Mark Dalrymple knows Greek, right??

I wanted to program and audio synthesizer. I was lent some Digital Signal Processing books by a friend, but when I look through them, it’s all Greek to me. And yes, I literally mean Greek because there are all kinds of symbols that I remember somewhere in the back of my head writing out and drawing in notebooks back half my life ago that I had buried because the memory of them was too painful.

I am in between conference gigs right now. Got home from CocoaConf Columbus and immediately went to That Conference.

It has been something of a whirlwind and I am still processing a lot of the adventures I had on these trips.

One of the talks that I was most looking forward to was at talk on the Accelerate framework by Mattt Thompson. I really wanted to know more about it, but I walked away disappointed. Mattt said that you couldn’t really utilize the framework unless you understood the math behind it. My talk on GPU programming also had the caveat that you have to understand math in order to fully utilize shaders. I went to no fewer than three talks and one keynote talking about math and our lack of knowledge of it.

I want to do something about it.

My favorite book in seventh grade and my introduction to logic.

My favorite book in seventh grade and my introduction to logic.

I asked the Klein family if I could replace my poorly attended Debugging talk with a talk on math. I want to figure out the most common stumbling blocks people have with the various frameworks and try to explain math to people the way it was explained to me, in a fun and relevant manner so that it doesn’t seem so forbidding and scary.

I am slowly going back and trying to immerse myself in the math that fascinated me as a teenager. I am not doing this because I think it will get me a job somewhere, I am doing this because I miss how I used to feel when I got exposed to something amazing. There are so many secrets and wonders of the universe that are a mystery to me because I shut off a part of me that I couldn’t bear to look at any more. I am sick of being that person. I don’t want to be afraid anymore. I want my love of math back.

My Goals for 2014

I am at a little bit of a crossroads with my blog. When I began this blog last year I wanted to use it to catalog my journey from being a student to being a professional developer. I thought it might help me get a job or provide visibility or something. My goal for 2013 was to learn enough programming to get a job, preferably in iOS development.

I accomplished that goal.

I have been now struggling to figure out where my blog fits into my current situation. I was planning to write about some of the struggles of having a first job, but after speaking to several people I have realized that this is a terrible idea. I love my job. I believe in my company and I am super happy to be here but I don’t think it is wise to write about that experience.

So what do I do? Do I just stop writing my blog? I can’t really talk about personal experiences because the vast majority of my personal interactions are with coworkers and that violates the rule I set up above.

After doing some soul searching and thinking about this a lot, I have decided that I am going to continue this blog in the spirit that I created it.

One thing that has gotten me down recently is this idea that I accomplished what I set out to do. It’s great that I reached that goal, but I also feel a little empty, like now what do I do? I know I have challenges to meet at my job, but it just doesn’t feel the same as when I had this journey I was on to get from where I was to where I want to be.

I think if I don’t keep pushing myself I will get complacent and let my skills atrophy. I want to keep giving myself goals to reach. I want to keep finding new things to learn to push myself to do more than I could last week, last month, last year.

So here is how I intend to proceed with my blog:

Each year I will come up with goals I want to reach. Some of these goals might be long-term, taking five years to reach. Others will be short-term, to be reached by the end of the year.

I will spend time writing about my progress with these goals. I can at least come here once a month to say, “I had too many deadlines and I was too busy to get anything done. Boo. I need to manage my time better.”

Apparently more people read my blog than I think actually read it, so I figure if I don’t keep working on my goals someone on App.net will give me crap about it.

Short-Term Goals for 2014:

  • Get familiar with GPUImage to the point that I can do a project.
  • Finish at least one of the audio programming/math books I got for Christmas.
  • Buy a MIDI wind controller and record at least one song utilizing a sound I designed.
  • Start a good podcast that isn’t just two white guys talking about Apple.

Long-Term Goals

  • Become a master audio programmer.
  • Write a complete synthesizer app.
  • Fully understand the math associated with audio synthesis.
  • Write a programming book.
  • Speak at a conference in another country.
  • Speak at 10 conferences in a year.

Both the short and long term goals will probably get larger over time.

So, challenge for 2014 is to figure out how to manage my time to allow me to get these things done. I am counting on people to hassle me about my goals if I don’t update very often.

I picked the name Red Queen Coder because she had to run as fast as she could just to stay in one place. I finally ran fast enough to get to the place I want to stay. That doesn’t mean that I can take a break and stop running.

Ready? Set? GO!

Oblivion

A while ago my husband and I watched the movie “Oblivion” when it came out on DVD/Streaming. We have very divergent tastes and it’s hard to find things that both of us are okay with watching.

I knew it was going to be a generic action picture that takes place in the post-apocalyptic world.

It is one of the worst movies I have ever seen.

I really can’t tell you what it was about or anything that happened because the sound design was so terrible that I feel compelled to complain about it.

The mixing was done very badly. The bass was set too high for a home theater experience. Every time something exploded our floors rattled because the subwoofer couldn’t deal with the vibrations being forced through it.

I don’t know how they did this, but there was a lot of annoying high pitched artifacts in the sound. So while the floors were rattling from the bass vibrations my ears were bleeding from these weird, inadvertent artifacts in the sound. I would be willing to bet money that the person who did the mix has hearing damage and didn’t bother to run things through a low-pass filter to make sure that anything annoying wouldn’t get through.

The absolute worst thing was the sound track. It was pretty generic, but there was something about the way it was composed that was completely horrible. There was no real melody, it was just a semi-monotonous droning. It was also in this weird pitch register where it needed to be either a lot lower or a little higher.

The soundtrack made me physically feel bad. I only got about two thirds through the movie because the sounds triggered a depressive response and I had to go to the bedroom to cry. It was a physical, emotional response to the music.

I have felt tremendous joy and other emotions to other music I have listened to. I probably spoke about this before, but when I heard Beethoven’s 5th Symphony live it was one of the most moving experiences I have had. When I heard “Skyfall” by Adele on the radio it really didn’t do anything for me, but hearing her perform it live at the Oscars it was a completely different piece of music. Something about the process of polishing and tuning the piece stripped it of its soul. Even though the live version was very badly mixed there was something in the performance that transcended the limitations.

I know most people don’t have the same sound sensitivities that I do, but seriously?? Spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a movie and not care that it sounds like shit? Paying a composer some amount of money for a horrible generic soundtrack? If the soundtrack doesn’t add anything to the movie, get rid of it. The movie would be a lot better if there was no music in the background during a tense moment than it would be with a droning, whiny repetitive melody in the background.

Watch “Star Wars”. They took a lot of care with creating a great soundtrack. They created a lot of their sound effects. The music enhances the tension of what is going on in the scene. Watch “Battlestar Galactica”. The sound was very different than what you usually see in space battle sequences. It was primarily militaristic drums with no orchestral swells. It ramps up the tension and it is genius.

I have accepted that most movies coming out are not for me because they are aimed at teenaged boys in China who do not care about the nuances of American political history. I have TV shows like “Breaking Bad” to compensate me for the loss of American cinema. But it just breaks my heart that sound is on the same pile of things like plot and dialogue that are not considered important enough to even do competently.