Wheels On The Bike Go Round And Round (To Make Music)

Feb 1, 2014
Originally published on February 1, 2014 6:45 pm

Steven Baber knows sound. And chances are, you know his work.

The sound designer and composer, who works under the name Johnnyrandom, produces advertisements for companies from Google to Adidas. In fact, he's the mastermind behind the larger-than-life "crunch" sound that caps off the Doritos commercials (How did he do it? Ate two bags of chips into a microphone and layered the audio).

Last summer, Baber took on his own project. He challenged himself to make a piece of music using only bicycle parts. He took a road bike and a mountain bike, and set to work with his microphones.

"I wanted it to be beautiful," he says. "I wanted to capture it in a way that translated well into musical composition."

Baber recorded basic mechanical sounds like spinning pedals, changing gears and clicking brake levers. But he also took creative liberties with his bikes by playing the spokes with a violin bow or dragging a guitar pick along the edge of a rotating tire.

He worked for seven months, collecting thousands of sounds from his "instruments" and weaving them together to finally create "Bespoken," an atmospheric piece of music all the more beautiful considering the unlikely instrumentation.

Here's a preview:

Also on SoundCloud, Baber has a breakdown of selected sound elements.

So what's next for Johnnyrandom? "Well I'm currently tearing apart my kitchen," he says. "My focus is the entire kitchen."

Keep an ear out.

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So tomorrow, of course, is the biggest game of the year. It's also the biggest event of the year for professional advertising.


RATH: I'm sorry. I usually get a snack during the commercials. I thought they turned my microphone down.


RATH: Of course, that's not me. That's the crunch of Doritos.


RATH: Recognize it now? You've heard it in countless Doritos commercials.

STEVEN BABER: Kind of sounds like Godzilla eating chips. It's pretty big.

RATH: That's sound designer and composer Steven Baber. He created that signature crunch.

BABER: It's a very loud, loud multi-layered crunch that was me eating two bags of Doritos.


RATH: For the last decade, Baber has been creating peculiar sounds and writing music with a group of sound designers he founded. They call themselves Johnny Random. Their music is all over the place, like in this Adidas commercial.


RATH: But last summer, Baber wanted to produce something more personal. But where to find that unique, personal sound? Baber is not someone who can just sit down at the piano and write a tune. That's too easy. He took his specialty microphones and set them on a very unusual instrument.

BABER: I wanted to just document every single sound you could possibly get out of a bike.

RATH: That's right, a bicycle.


RATH: But this was about more than just weird sounds.

BABER: I wanted it to be beautiful. I wanted to capture it in a way that translated well into musical composition.

RATH: Baber took two bikes - one mountain bike and one road bike - and he got to work with his microphones. There was the kind of obvious stuff.

BABER: A lot of the most mechanical, recognizable sounds, like peddling and gears turning, the brake caliper snapping back into place.

RATH: Or letting the air out of the tubes, or running a guitar pick along a spinning tire. Then there was the more creative stuff, like taking a violin bow to the spokes on a wheel.


RATH: Like any stringed instrument, the bicycle can be fussy.

BABER: For instance, when you pluck a spoke on a wheel, you're not just hearing one, you're hearing all of them. They all ring out from sympathetic vibration. So the way to solve that was to tune every single spoke to the exact same pitch, which takes forever.

RATH: An hour of tuning per pitch, to be exact.


RATH: So Baber says he collected thousands of sounds - different parts of the bike, different takes - and he took all of those raw elements, processed them, filtered them, and made them groove.


RATH: This is "Bespoken," the track that Baber put up on iTunes under the name Johnny Random. He knew the concept could have been a hard sell.

BABER: When you first tell people you made a piece of music from bikes, they're not exactly eager to hit play.

RATH: But after months and months of work, it's safe to say the song has gone viral - featured on dozens of websites, and shared countless times online. And that means Steven Baber, aka Johnny Random, has his eyes on some new instruments.

BABER: Well, I'm currently tearing apart my kitchen. My focus next is the entire kitchen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.