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Listening to art.
Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

field notes

News, essays, reviews, surveillance

This Week in Sound: Dementia + FM’s Dead End +

+ interstellar radio + video games music + the history of the wah wah pedal + more

A lightly annotated clipping service

Concrete Asylum: News that researchers had connected urban noise pollution to dementia spread widely this week. “Those living within 50 metres of a busy road had a 7% higher risk in developing dementia,” reports Hannah Devlin in the Guardian of the findings, also quoting skeptical voices: “The analyses are exceedingly complex … and this always leads to concerns that the analytic complexity is hiding confounding factors in the analytic pipeline” (theguardian.com, citylab.com).

FRB ≠ BFF: Weird interstellar radio bursts, known as fast radio bursts, or FRBs, have reached a milestone: the first repeating, unidentified signal. Writes Maddie Stone at Gizmodo, the source is three billion light years away.

Little Brother: The big news on the “always listening” front out of CES was the ubiquity of Amazon’s Alexa. But ubiquity isn’t the same as a monopoly. Mattel has employed Microsoft’s Bing/Cortana for its kid-oriented AI device. Writes Laurie Sullivan at MediaPost, regarding privacy issues, “It uses the same guidelines as hospitals.”

End of the Dial: Just last week I mentioned how electric cars don’t play well with AM radio frequencies. FM, apparently, isn’t immune to technological obsolescence. Reporting from Oslo, Reuters (via the Guardian) notes that “Norway will next week become the first nation to start switching off its FM radio network.” This despite overwhelming support for FM. The switch happens tomorrow.

Audio Borg: Google has acquired Limes Audio, based in Umeå, Sweden, to improve the sound quality of online conversations (or calls, or whatever we call them). Via Google.

Tone Man: Pharrell Williams lost a lawsuit last year due to what many consider a ludicrous judicial ruling regarding similarities between a song he produced and the work of Marvin Gaye. Interestingly, tone — sounds that reflect an era — is precisely his emphasis in this article on his role in the score for the film Hidden Figures (nytimes.com).

Game Tunes: While I managed time for best-of-2016 lists about apps, music, and film scores, I didn’t include several lists I’d like to be knowledgeable enough to attend to, among them video game soundtracks. Fortunately, the folks at originalsoundversion.com provide their analysis of exactly that. Visit to see (and hear) to the opinions of Ryan Paquet, Michael Hoffmann, Shawn Sackenheim, and Brenna Wilkes. (Found via Simon Carless’ excellent Video Game Deep Cuts email newsletter.)

Wah Wah: Del Casher, born Delton Kacher, is the father of the wah-wah guitar pedal, writes Jonny Whiteside at LA Weekly, and the pedal turns 50 this year. “I played it for James Brown and he really liked my playing, but he didn’t understand the wah-wah at all. He said, ‘Why the fuck would anyone want a guitar to do that?’” (Via Ethan Hein.)

Philly Sound (Art): Museums often have firsts, as they adjust to changing times and aesthetics. The Barnes Foundation takes firsts with extra consideration. This is the institution that faced legal challenges when its relocation was in the works. Now it is hosting its first sound art installation, titled Unbounded Histories. It’s by Philadelphia artist Andrea Hornick, and it functions as “a string of poems responding to specific works in the Barnes collection.” Visitors to the museum access the audio through “web-enabled phone.” It opened on January 6 and runs through February 19 (philly.com, barnesfoundation.org).

Fade Out
Recent notable deaths

RIP, Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan, sitar star (b. 1929).

RIP, Serbian composer Vlastimir Trajković (b. 1947)

RIP, French conductor Georges Prêtre (b. 1924)

RIP, jazz critic Nat Hentoff (b. 1925)

RIP, composer Karel Husa (b. 1921)

RIP, singer Sylvester Potts (78) of the Contours (“Do You Love Me,” “Can You Jerk Like Me”)

RIP, Hawaiian musician Eddie Kamae (b. 1927)

RIP, British singer-songwriter Peter Sarstedt (b. 1941; “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?”)

RIP, hip-hop producer DJ Crazy Toones (45).

This first appeared, in slightly different form, in the January 10, 2017, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound” email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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Surface Pro 4 Meets a Soft Synth

A little video about touch screen music software

I have a Microsoft Surface Pro 4 for the next few weeks. I don’t think I’m going to keep it, but I may yet switch from my MacBook Air to the Surface Pro 5 when that device comes out, supposedly later this quarter (early 2017). This video is simply a glimpse at how the touch screen works for music, specifically in this case how the Aalto synth, from Madrona Labs, works. Aalto is running here from within Ableton Live. The sound quality is poor because I’m just using my phone for both the video and the audio.

The short version is that the screen is great for this sort of software, something with lots of virtual knobs and patch cords and buttons intended for touchpad/cursor use. Aalto is fine with a keyboard and trackpad, but it’s even better with the touch screen. (Less great was finding an angle that would allow me to play the instrument and yet have the screen fairly visible. This is the best I could manage. I’m not much of a videographer. I annotated the video using iMovie. My iMovie skills are pretty limited, so forgive the junior-grade typography.)

The main thing that happens once you start using a synth like Aalto with a touch screen is that things that aren’t touchable, such as the shape of an envelope, suggest themselves as touchable. Perhaps software will become more touchable as time proceeds, with some features only available on touch screens. As a friend said elsewhere, once some things are touchable, you want everything to be touchable.

Shortly after I posted the video, Randy Jones of Madrona Labs took note of it and said interface adjustments were possible: “Nice. Yes, I could probably do something with those envelope areas.”

In related news, late last year I started this modest subreddit for Surface Pro audio discussion: reddit.com/r/winSurfaceMusic.

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This Week in Sound: CES + Technics +

+ Brian Eno's pricey return to ambient music

A lightly annotated clipping service:

Consumer Products: CES is happening in Las Vegas, where battle lines are being drawn and allegiances formed amid various platforms, with Amazon’s Alexa in a prominent position (zdnet.com).

Godfather Returns: Brian Eno has released a great new ambient album, Reflection, and a quizzically expensive iOS app (brian-eno.net).

DJ Revisionism: And as Jonathan Soble writes in the New York Times, a relaunched Technics turntable is peculiarly detached from its hip-hop legacy (nytimes.com).

This first appeared, in slightly different form, in the January 3, 2017, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound” email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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20 Sonic Milestones from 2016

From CGI sound to noise pollution to the vacuum of space

Music is just a subset of the sound of our lives. As I was thinking, at year’s end, about 2016 and compiling lists of favorite recordings, and movie/TV scores, and mobile apps, I found myself focusing as well on the various sonic milestones that had occurred in the preceding 12 months. The role of sound in daily life is the subject of my weekly(ish) This Week in Sound email newsletter, and I worked up this list of 20 milestones from 2016, ranging from outer space to the public domain, from religious loudspeakers to kitchen-table artificial intelligence, and from sound art to sky fracking:

(1) Introducing the CGI of Sound
For the time being, the computer-generated presentation of humans remains largely a visual situation. The reception of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story shows that the Uncanny Valley between flesh-human and digital-human has yet to be reconciled. Meanwhile, a far deeper divide exists between the verbal sounds emitted by people and machines. There’s a reason that cartoons, computer-generated and otherwise, use voice actors: it’s hard to make a computer mellifluous. However, the underlying technology is improving. Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) this year announced that algorithms are paving the way for audio that passes the “Turing Test for sound.” Meanwhile, WaveNet (“a deep generative model of raw audio waveforms”) has shown how neural networks are rapidly improving test-to-speech (TTS) technology.
Read: mit.edu, deepmind.com.

(2) Debunking the Silence of Space
Space is no longer synonymous with endless silence. Every few months a space probe or monitoring system seems to adjust our understanding of the sonic properties and potential of the vacuum that is our universe. And it isn’t just contemporary research recordings that are informing our sense of space. Earlier this year NASA released audio recorded by the Apollo 10 crew back in 1969 (cnn.com). Looking ahead, in 2020 NASA will include microphones on the next Mars lander (jpl.nasa.gov).
Read: theconversation.com.

(3) Steve Reich Turned 80
Mavericks sometimes have the opportunity to age into a world that resembles the one they had once inhabited alone. There may be no living composer of his generation with more reason to feel at home in the current creative climate — looped-based, pattern-oriented, technologically enabled, immersively audio-visual — than Steve Reich, the minimalist, who celebrated his 80th birthday in 2016. 2017 will, in an appropriately repetitive way, note the 80th of another major minimalist, Philip Glass. (Terry Riley turned 80 the year before Reich, and the year before that was Michael Nyman’s 70th.) Glass’ year kicks off with his collaboration with the team behind the Buddha Machine, who’ve made a small device containing loops of Glass’ music. Somewhere an industrious cultural institution is already planning a heap of centennials.
Read: npr.org, nytimes.com.

(4) “Happy Birthday” Entered the Public Domain
In a long and drawn out series of legal actions suitable to a Charles Dickens novel, the ubiquitous song of calendrical celebration finally entered the public domain, which among other things means that chain restaurants no longer need to devise their own in-house songs in order to avoid paying royalties. The song “Happy Birthday” didn’t transfer easily from the hands of Warner/Chappell Music; the publishing company had to pay a $14 million settlement. And the public domain party doesn’t end with “Happy Birthday.” Songs such as “We Shall Overcome” and “This Land Is Your Land” are now being probed for similar treatment.
Read: arstechnica.com, fortune.com, billboard.com.

(5) The U.S. Regulated Sound in Electric Cars
In the U.S., the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ruled that electric cars must, like their internal-combustion predecessors, make noise sufficient for the safety of pedestrians. Sonic skeuomorphs such as the simulated SLR shutter sound of digital cameras are often dismissed as nostalgic cues, but sounds, especially sounds rooted deep in habit and culture, often have a utility, even if it wasn’t the initial purpose of a given object’s engineering or design. In the case of electric cars, the presence of sound isn’t about cultural legacy; it’s about safety.
Read: cnet.com, nhtsa.gov.

(6) Peak Noise Pollution in India
This list is self-admittedly largely western, and I’m always working to expand my sense of the role of sound in the world as a whole, both at a micro-cultural level (do read Gus Stadler’s piece at soundstudiesblog.com on cultural and racial assumptions in sound studies) and a global one. The main thing that I’ve found this year is that there may be no industrialized country with a greater concern about noise pollution than India (at least among countries with an active English-language news media).
Read: indiatimes.com, newindianexpress.com, dnaindia.com.
(Just a side note, the India Times’ Mumbai Mirror had an interesting story about ham radio operators — why are they always “buffs”? — noting “mystery signal transmissions”: indiatimes.com.)

(7) Muezzins’ Loudspeakers Faced Regulation
Technology provided a spiritual culture clash around the world. Governments in India, Indonesia, Israel, and Nigeria, among other countries, sought to study and curtail the use of loudspeakers by mosques to broadcast the daily Muslim calls to prayer.
Read: nytimes.com, independent.co.uk, theguardian.com, indiatimes.com, bbc.com.
(Side notes: In the small Spanish town of Mostoles, a church faced a potential fine due to noisy bells: catholicherald.co.uk. And in England, the technological mediation of religion played out as St George the Martyr in Borough High Street had a technical issue that led to its bells running continuous through the night: standard.co.uk.)

(8) Amazon’s Alexa Altered the Meaning of “Home Audio”
The question of what the term “home audio” means is going through a major shift. Historically it has referred to sound systems, such as living-room stereos, that allow for music playback. The arrival of always-listening technology — such as Amazon’s Echo and Alexa, which receive voice commands and reply in kind — suggest that the wired home will, perhaps, have microphones as well as speakers. Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant, Microsoft’s Cortana, and other technologies are rising to the challenge. In short time, we may very well think of a home with high-quality audio as one where commands can be uttered anywhere, not just at the kitchen counter. The ramifications of such technology are coming rapildy into focus. At the very end of 2016, Arkansas police petitioned Amazon to release Echo data to help solve a murder case. The smarthome™ doesn’t just have ears. It has a memory.
Read: engadget.com, cio.com.

(9) Los Angeles’ Transportation Department Employed Sound Artist
Los Angeles is one of the automobile-intensive cities on the planet, and what the local government does to regulate that traffic can set models for other municipalities. If the hiring of sound artist Alan Nakagawa helps with L.A.’s citywide “Vision Zero” safety initiative, then we can expect sound experts to be of increased perceived utility. While transportation agencies often have artists in residence, the L.A. scenario isn’t just about exhibits and installations; it’s about the agency’s core mission.
Read: lacity.org, scpr.org, outsideonline.com.

(10) Sonic Boom = Sky Fracking
Triborough residents thought there was an earthquake. It turned out to be the result of a sonic boom, so loud that it wasn’t just heard but was registered by the US Geological Survey. The source was a Navy test of a F-35C stealth fighter. Perhaps “stealth” means disguised as a seismic event. In semi-related news, DARPA cancelled development of robot military dogs because the loud mechanisms were giving away positions.
Read: gizmodo.com, nytimes.com, earthquake.usgs.gov, cnet.com, military.com.

An Additional 10 Sonic 2016 Milestones

(11) Earthquake researchers employ audio for advance notice (uaf.edu). • (12) Video game players dream sound effects (ntu.ac.uk). • (13) Caption studies got its own academic conference (wou.edu).(14) Apple hardware began to ditch the audio jack (theglobeandmail.com). • (15) Apple ditched the laptop startup sound (theverge.com).(16) Electric cars began to ditch AM radio (vice.com, bmwblog.com).(17) A “fire suppression system” intended safekeep a Romanian bank’s data led to its destruction when the loud sound of gas canisters letting loose caused enough vibration to reportedly damage the bank’s hard drives (vice.com). • (18) The “hum” was debated (newrepublic.com, theguardian.com, bbc.com). • (19) Sonification went mainstream (google.com, economist.com). • (20) The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its first “strategy roadmap” for dealing with ocean noise (cetsound.noaa.gov, washingtonpost.com).

This first appeared, in slightly different form, in the January 3, 2017, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound” email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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What Sound Looks Like

An ongoing series cross-posted from instagram.com/dsqt


The doorbell to the San Francisco campus of the California College of the Arts, where I gave my doorbell talk toward the end of last year, by which I mean 2016. Both times I’ve given the talk so far, I’ve started with the doorbell of the place where the talk is taking place. I like the idea that each time the talk will include the doorbells of all the places where I’ve given the talk previously.

An ongoing series cross-posted from instagram.com/dsqt.
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