Science Rules: Brad Efford on Bill Nye the Science Guy, Episode 12: "Sound"
Your ears are designed to hear things, the science guy says. They collect sounds and focus them, so that they hit your eardrum. The science guy has a way of stating the obvious so that nothing about it is obvious at all.
He stands in front of a massive hunk of curved steel turned upright, on its lip. He resembles a tiny cable repairman tinkering with an enormous satellite dish. Behind him, at the far end of the room, his young assistant, similarly lab-coated, stands in front of a dish of her own. When the science guy whispers into his dish, she hears him through hers. The sound waves reflect, collect, focus, and land.
She whispers into hers: Cool. And the science guy, similarly thrilled, reflecting always his own excitement back onto himself: Cool.
In the summer of 1993, Soundgarden feels poised for greatness. They’ve been a shit band, then a pretty good band, then unignorable, and now they’re ready to get astronomical. Like Nirvana, they sprang fast from sludge-rock roots they’ve been outgrowing since day one, and the fans have repaid their motivation with contempt. They’ve been nominated twice now for Grammys. They’ve moved on.
Soundgarden is in the studio, taking their time this time. They’ve gone with Bad Animals in Seattle since, as Chris will put it later on, There was never a decent studio in Seattle, and now there’s one with a Neve console so it seemed obvious to use it. In the same interview, he’ll attribute their new melodically mature sound to listening to Bryan Ferry—it will be impossible to tell how serious he’s being. When later that year they finally accept their first Grammy, for Best Metal Performance, Chris will thank the label for both letting us do whatever we want and letting us not do anything, if we want. Making Superunknown in the summer of 1993 is that kind of experience. Not total freedom, but not much less than. They know they can’t blow it, and don’t.
In the middle of this: a camera crew. The science guy has asked to sit in on a touch-up session for “Kickstand.” Well, not the science guy specifically. Not literally. But a simulacrum: the science guy as audience conduit, as bare-bones TV crew. Adam Kasper, the sound engineer who will later go on to win two Grammys of his own for his work with the Foo Fighters, explains how the Neve works, how the 48 different tracks allow for each instrument to stand alone as need be, how easily sound can be manipulated. He calls it “engineered.”
He isolates the drums, raises the high end until it sounds like shit—tinny and caustic, the much-derided St. Anger effect—then fills that sound in with some mid-range and bass. He throws it back in the mix when he likes where it stands. Isolates the guitar. Isolates the vocal. Adds a doubling effect. Kicks back in the entire track. Individually, these instruments sound like nothing, like practice, like dicking around, like howling in the shower. Chris’s famously emotive voice, completely on its own, is accentuated by every swallow of air and sentence-ending grunt. You wonder how he knew he’d sound so good couched in instruments.
But then again, that’s a little unfair. “Kickstand” will not become peak Soundgarden. When you write this, you’ll have to scan Superunknown’s tracklist, just to be sure it made the cut. But “Black Hole Sun” is different. Even someone who knows nothing about this band, about Bad Animals Studio or Neve consoles or Adam Kasper, knows “Black Hole Sun,” for the nightmarish music video if nothing else. And “Black Hole Sun,” it turns out, proves Chris’s mettle on the microphone. The song’s isolated vocal track is stunning, not just for its emotive power, but for the layers of harmonies that dogpile on top of each other as the song progresses, for the richness of its range, for the way every pause feels like a vast emptiness you want only to be filled with the sound of this voice. The science guy stopping in for a listen while Chris is getting it just right, lobbing that voice and returning the serve at once, with ease, would be too historic. Too much to ask for.
So we get the camera crew catching the band tracking “Kickstand” and call it a draw, grateful at least for these sounds, humbled by the act of music made manifest in studied amalgamation. Adam Kasper turns the music down, rubs his eye like it’s nothing, means nothing, says, And when it’s all done, it’s on your CD.
The science guy is looking to make music of his own. He leans over a baby grand with the lid lifted, the strings and hammers in rows beneath him like a just-tilled plot.
When you strike a piano key, you set the piano strings vibrating, the science guy says. He strikes a key and the strings respond in kind. Now when the strings vibrate, they vibrate at something called their natural frequency. That’s the frequency they wanna vibrate at naturally.
That he has just imbued manmade objects with earthly, even physiological qualities seems not to phase the science guy all too much. Of course there is a natural state for all things. For steel wire as much as oceanic tides as much as grasshopper wings. The science guy understands the harmony beneath, the rippling cord that connects one to the other to the next. The common thread is sound. Invisible waves that pass through everything, at all times, of any size. The unifier’s the audacity we have in thinking we can harness the thing. Split it into separate layers. Manipulate and judge when we’ve made it something perfect.
Cool, the science guy says, waiting not for someone else to say it back, but for his echo to deliver exactly what he wants to hear.
Brad Efford is the founding editor of The RS 500, a project pairing each of Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time with an original piece of writing. His writing can be found in Puerto del Sol, Pank, Hobart, and elsewhere. He teaches English and history in Austin, TX.