Synesthesia is a perceptual condition in which stimulation of one sensory pathway triggers automatic, involuntary experiences in another sensory pathway. This causes the person to experience something through a blend of more than one sense, such as seeing sounds, tasting colours, or smelling words. People who have this condition are known as synesthetes. An interesting form of synesthesia includes seeing abstract concepts like time projected in the space around them.

Famous Names with Synesthesia
Famous personalities who are synesthetes include Van Gogh, Neil Harbisson- a contemporary artist who can perceive colours outside the range of human vision, cartoonist/animator Michel Grimaud- the creator of the synaesthetic taste sequences in Disney/Pixar’s Ratatouille, and Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feymann, who saw his formulae in colour. Famous musicians who have the condition include Pharrell Williams, Kanye West, Mary J Blige, Stevie Wonder and Lorde, all of whom see music in colour. Lorde’s synesthesia is said to have inspired her album, Melodrama.

How Sounds May Be Seen
A composer who is a synesthete may actually be able to see the shape of sounds made by different instruments. Notes of melodies may be links of rounded cylindrical bubbles of different lengths. A sustained sound may be a long continuous line like a horizon while short, percussive sounds may be a string of sharp angular shards. The volume of a note may determine its size. Anything from differences in an instrument’s sound to the thinness of a flute’s notes, as compared to the fatness of the notes of an electric bass guitar, could be reflected in the difference in the shape of the sounds. 

Synesthesia in Sound Engineering
Baird Hersey has a chapter called ‘The Colours of Your Mind’ in his book. In it, he speaks of how a sound engineer with synesthesia might see the stereo image as a panoramic terrain while mixing music. Each instrument could be placed on the left and right horizontal plane to either differentiate or blend them, with each having its own volume and reverberation to place it in the foreground or distance. The engineer may bring out different parts of its tone quality to give it a sparkling clarity or a shrouded darkness.

In an interesting article in The Journal on the Art of Record Production (JARP), Dr. Eliot Bates writes about his research in recording studios in Istanbul and his findings. He observes Ron, a sound engineer’s use of his right arm while mixing and says that the arm is used as a perceiving organ. Ron uses his right arm along with his monitor and control room to know exactly when the bass sounds exactly right because the ears alone can not be trusted to know it.

Synesthesia & Mixing
Bates goes on to say that there are other engineering practices that demonstrate that mixing is not just a process of aural listening but that mixing also requires a feel. This ‘feel’ is not only metaphoric but also tactile, and is also visually mapped in the workstation. The right arm is this process is a sensing organ and along with a synesthesia of visual and auditory practices makes for the perfect mix.

Research states that synesthesia can also be trained in a person and sound engineers clearly demonstrate that with the practice of riding the fader during live vocal tracking. While it could be easily explained by saying that the engineer ‘knows’ what the vocalist is going to sing beforehand and naturally then anticipates the singer’s next move, this explanation misses the fact that the timing is so narrow that it might well be physically impossible for the engineer to have thought of every fader move they are going to make. Fader riding is a technique which requires a lot of practice and calls into being certain kinds of specialised knowledge, because it entails a semi-autonomic motor process whereby their fader moves correlate almost immediately with raw sensory data, including auditory stimulus (the sound of the singer) and visual information (the sight of the singer). In short, fader riding is thoroughly non-cognitive.

Synesthesia allows people who have the condition to use their experiences to help in their creative process. While the media does write about engineers blessed with ‘golden ears’, this talent might extend to engineers who are synesthetes with golden eyes and golden forearms. After all, studio work is a craft and an art that requires the engagement of multiple senses. And in order to understand it, the synesthesias and sensoriums of audio engineering in different contexts need to be understood.