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BEHIND THE SCENES with Paolo Pietropaolo


Signal to Noise was produced with the support of a Sound Bank grant from In The Dark, a UK-based collaborative radio project that brings together producers and fans to fund new and innovative radio

It sounds like you've been living with tinnitus for quite awhile; what motivated you to produce a piece about it now

To be honest, it was a piece I've been thinking about for years and had almost given up on ever doing - I just couldn't sell the idea to a regular radio program (OK, I only tried twice, and the 2nd time they said yes, but then the show got cancelled). When I heard about Sound Bank, I revived the idea because I thought this might be just the perfect chance to get to do this very personal story about my relationship with sound, and to do it in the adventurous manner that I had always envisioned.

Did working on the piece change the way you think about your condition

Ha! I love this question, because the answer is that until I started working on the piece, I was in my happy place with tinnitus - able to ignore it and live with it. But working on the piece meant that I was once again fully aware of it, and it intensified greatly over the course of the time I spent working on the piece. Which kind of makes perfect sense if you think about how tinnitus works, particularly in my case - it is stronger the more I am aware of it. It's like a positive feedback loop, but fortunately one that doesn't spin out of control

But beyond that, yes, working on the piece allowed me two things: 1) to learn a lot about tinnitus, knowledge which helps me manage it; and 2) to think about the relationship we have to noise and silence and music and to play with that relationship - and, in a way, appreciate what my tinnitus can tell me, just in the way both of the voices featured in the piece suggest.

A lot of the ideas the come up in the piece - re-conceptualizing and valuing noise, listening closely - seem like important skills for a radio producer. Are there ways in which developing tinnitus has strengthened your interest in sound on a professional and artistic level

Definitely. Tinnitus is hard to avoid at times, but especially when you first realize it's there. It was very frightening. (The funny thing is that my tinnitus came to me at a time when I was thinking a lot about sound, and reading a lot about John Cage and Erik Satie, two composers I very much admire, who thought extensively about our relationship to noise and music and silence.

Having the tinnitus and learning to deal with it, by adding noise to my environment, in those early days, got me thinking about noise as being wanted sound - a contradiction, at least by the dictionary definition. And I've been kind of obsessed by the notion ever since.

In this piece you end up as an interview subject as much, if not more, than your interviewees; what was it like being on the other side of the mic? Did you intend for this to happen

This was one of those lovely, lovely accidents that occasionally happen in interviews. I knew I'd have to talk about myself, but didn't intend to use that part of the tape...until I heard it afterward. The interview with Gordon Hempton was recorded as a double-ender, or tape sync as some call it, with me recording at my home, he recording in his on the west coast of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. Hearing myself back recorded on the phone was the thing: It was impossible not to notice that I had become an interview subject (especially since in radio, phone sound almost always indicates the subject, not the interviewer) and I just loved the way it sounded - for this piece, especially, and this topic. It is a personal story. How lucky for me that I ended up having been interviewed about it - by my subjects!

In the past you've produced both radio about sound ( The Wire , etc.) *** and sound-rich radio pieces; Signal to Noise* fits both of these categories, but is this the first time you've produced such a personal piece? If so, what was it like to be the subject of the story

Funny you should mention The Wire, because that's when the onset of my tinnitus occurred, during production of The Wire ; that's why I was thinking so much about Cage and Satie and ambient music. I thought of the tinnitus then as a cruel joke. Now it seems kind of fitting. But I digress

Yes, I think this may be the most personal radio piece I've ever made, and I found it extraordinarily difficult. I found that it's much easier to make decisions (objective AND subjective) when you're looking at a story from outside, or even as a participant-observer. I really have no idea how this piece sounds to anyone else, and at times I couldn't imagine it could possibly be of interest to anyone else. That made it much harder to put together.

You replicate your tinnitus, a sound that only exists inside your brain, as part of the soundscape of the piece. Could you talk about the process of recreating that sound? In the end, do you think you got it right

I don't have perfect pitch, not by a longshot, so you can imagine how satisfied I was with myself when I somehow just knew that my tinnitus was mostly an F natural. I don't know how I knew, but I knew it was a way-up-there high F natural. I listened carefully to it and heard a couple of other, fainter sounds, and because my tinnitus does sound like a sine wave, I simply used a sine wave generator in Pro Tools, picked out my high F, played around with the lower frequencies I was hearing, and then played with the balance of the multiple sounds until I felt I had got it right. Oh yes and I added a faint hissing sound, too, that I created on my Alesis synth

As to whether I got it right - well, the freakiest thing happened to me while producing this. I have a baby daughter, and she was born right in the middle of production. At first I had been using speakers, but as I work at home, after she was born I now continued work on headphones. I blithely worked away at it, and then one day had the opportunity to use the speakers

I was stunned. The tinnitus-sound was SO LOUD in the mix, so much louder on the speakers than it had been on the headphones. I couldn't believe how loud it was. It made me realize I must have really nailed it, because with the headphones on, I was simply hearing it as my tinnitus and barely even noticing it

Somehow, I was able to tune it down mentally - which is how I deal with my tinnitus (quite unconsciously)

I mixed the rest of the time on speakers. And now I'm even more wary about headphone mixing than I was before.

How was your experience working with In The Dark? Did you feel you had certain liberties that you may have not been able to take working with a more traditional radio organization

That's easy, yes. Absolutely. It was a treat to work with them. And, to boot, they gave me excellent feedback. Often when you're producing for a specific radio show, some of the feedback you get is (quite rightly, I suppose, although perhaps not always rightly) intended to make your work fit better with that show, or with that station - in any case, you get feedback that doesn't necessarily have to do with the content or construction of the piece itself

Here it was all about how to make the piece a better version of itself, and I really appreciated that. And especially as it was such a personal topic, I was grateful to have such wonderful ears as the ears of the In The Dark team to use as a sounding board.