July 13, 2000
A Digital Musician Turns a Few Notes Into Web Poetry
By LUCY DEAN
t's not uncommon for me to create, literally, a half-second of sound," said Lem Jay Ignacio, a digital musician who scores original music and audio effects for the Web. "It's exciting to think of sound not as a melody or phrase but as tiny frozen and unfrozen specks of sonic sparkle."
Kim Kulish for The New York Times
Lem Jay Ignacio creates sounds at his studio in Santa Monica.
Mr. Ignacio, who lives in Santa Monica, Calif., is one of the new group of musical composers who are taking their talents to the Web, turning from more traditional formats like radio and television to online magazines, interactive games and Internet sites.
He has created sound for RSUB, which produces and distributes online entertainment content; Movieline.com; Gravitygames.com and the site for Teen magazine. He is also developing sound for the new Web site for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
Mr. Ignacio's striped polyester thrift-store slacks, 1970's high-fashion sunglasses and vintage Santa Monica Track T-shirt reflect his sound aesthetic: retro, pop and humorous.
He grew up in San Jose, Calif., well before real estate prices skyrocketed because of the dot-com economy. He began playing classical piano at age 6 and was soon composing short musical pieces. When he discovered synthesizers as a teenager, he put Chopin behind him and began manipulating sounds electronically, later earning his bachelor's and master's degrees in music composition at the University of Southern California. He became a musical director for numerous Los Angeles theaters while also composing music for videos, commercials and cartoons.
For his first Internet project, Klik-a-Days for the online magazine Word in New York, Mr. Ignacio was asked to compose two-second sound loops for more than 200 animated mini-tableaus, one for each weekday of the year. As he started scoring audio accompaniment to the tiny scenes -- a floating woman, a frog, a truck on a windy road -- he realized that the Web required a new
way of thinking about music and sound. "It's about being creative within two to five notes," he said.
"A lot of the sound on the Web is like, hey, the dorky programmer is in a band, why doesn't he put some music on our Web page."
Marisa Bowe, Word's editor in chief and the executive producer of Sissy Fight 2000, an online multiplayer game, said, "Lem Jay is a poet."
For a new generation of composers, the Web requires a new way of
thinking about sound.
"Klik-a-Days are like haikus," Ms. Bowe said. "They're not about analyzing or saying anything, they just evoke one moment in all its complex subtlety. I'm in awe at the detail, mood and intelligence that he can communicate in just seconds. The animation could be saying, 'This is happening,' but will give you a little signal that not all is as it seems through music."
As he began to score more complicated interactive games and sites, Mr. Ignacio had to reconceive composition once again, envisioning audio components in a nonlinear way, as a kind of architectural space through which visitors proceed from room to room in arbitrary sequences.
Eric Zimmerman, a game designer who collaborated with Mr. Ignacio on Sissy
Fight, said: "Sound on the Internet has to be modular, like a set of Legos.
Audio elements combine and recombine in different ways depending on how you play the game."
Mr. Ignacio works in a wood-paneled studio, a 1950's addition to his house, which he shares with his wife, Tania Fischer. His Macintosh computer is surrounded by a yellow children's xylophone, a 1960's drum set and vintage synthesizers. To achieve his audio effects, Mr. Ignacio uses several sources -- his voice ("The old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons used voices for all their
sound effects, even the crash of a plane," he noted), garage-sale Casio keyboards and vinyl records, which create thin, low-fidelity musical textures, mouse-overs and click sounds.
He then uses digital technology to play and zoom in, cut up and manipulate those sounds. The results are tested on high-quality studio monitors as well as laptop speakers; if the music does not pass muster on either system, he may make a change, like adding treble or altering the volume.
Marina Zurkow, founder of the O-Matic Corporation and the creator and director of Braingirl, a Web animated series on RSUB, said the essence of Mr. Ignacio's style is "sophisticated slapstick."
"It's excellent musicality and a broad musical range, but there's a humor and lightness, too," Ms. Zurkow said.
But audio is becoming increasingly sophisticated as modem speed and bandwidth increase and as companies rely more and more on the Internet to reach a youth market, sell their product and articulate a brand identity. Thomas Dolby's company, Beatnik, whose tag line is "sonifying your digital world," is capitalizing on this growing zeal to incorporate sound into Web sites, creating audio platforms and licensing audio content for users to import to their sites.
An earlier generation of sound composers for games, who scored music and effects for console games and CD-ROM's in the 1980's and 1990's, have paved the way for artists like Mr. Ignacio, said Michael Sweet, creative director of Blister Media, a company in Silicon Alley in New York that develops audio for interactive media as well as television, radio and film.
Audio is becoming increasingly sophisticated as modems' speed and bandwidth increase.
But a cohesive group of Internet sound
designers is only beginning to emerge.
"They're a small community, though
they're growing all the time," Mr. Sweet
said. "A couple dozen of us do it, but we
don't always know who our competition is,
because a lot of independent people are
working out of their basements. You don't
hear about them until you see a fantastic
Web site and ask who did the sound."
Mr. Ignacio creates sharp, distinctive sounds, from the shrill meow of a cat on a new all-terrain-board game to the malevolent cackle of a boy hurling snowballs on Terror Lift (both on Gravitygames.com). But for a six-second background loop, like the recess racket on the Sissy Fight playgrounds or the arrangement for the Mr. Match game show on the Teen magazine site, "there can't be many accents or punctuation, because then the loop becomes apparent," he said.
"The sound has to be watered down, but
watered down stylistically. It has to be more
subtle because of the repetitive nature of the
Since users return to their favorite sites and click the same icons over and over, Mr. Ignacio is building random audio effects into his new projects, including the Museum of Contemporary Art site, a basketball game for Slam magazine's site and broadband sites for Kick Media and Teen magazine. Visitors will hear different sound sequences each time they visit.
"Sound is like confetti," he said. "The user shouldn't know where it will fall."
Mr. Ignacio's most forward-thinking interactive project is Star, on the Word site. Animated red stars multiply and resonate with a drumbeat or a soft, tinkley tone when the cursor moves across the screen.
"Site sound can become like poetry or a new minimalism," Mr. Ignacio said. "Some people think repetition is boring, others think it's natural and eternal, like a heartbeat or running water. But the very simplicity of Star belies the effort behind it. It took 50 tries, a whole day, to get one little second of sound."
As far as more traditional sites go, sound has yet to make itself heard.
"Ninety percent of information Web sites are still stuck in a magazine style of delivering content," Mr. Sweet said, "where you download and read a page, as opposed to having a rich audiovisual experience."
The danger of a "sonified" Internet, however, is sensory overload.
"We have a lot of noise in our culture," Ms. Zurkow said. "Sometimes sound is fantastic and you want to add it, but sometimes it's dissonant and offensive. For electronic texts and e-commerce, I don't want to hear dings, bells, whistles. The idea of ubiquitous sound is frightening."
Tsia Carson, the creative director of Flat
Inc., a company in TriBeCa that was a consultant on
the Urban Outfitters site and is developing
the site for WNYC radio, agreed.
"I'm a killjoy when it comes to sound on
the Web," Ms. Carson said. "Because people
multitask online, they want to listen to
MP3's or CD's of their own preference.
When sound is attached to a game or other
interactive module it's fine, but when it's
applied willy-nilly it interrupts usability."