February 13, 2014, is the official release date for my 33 1/3 book on Aphex Twin's 1994 album Selected Ambient Works Volume II, available at Amazon (including Kindle) and via your local bookstore. • F.A.Q.Key Tags: #saw2for33third, #sound-art, #classical, #juntoElsewhere: Twitter, SoundCloud, Instagram

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

tag: apple

Instagr/am/bient: 25 Sonic Postcards

25 ambient musicians respond to one another’s evocative Instagram photos.

25 ambient musicians created original sonic postcards in response to one another’s evocative Instagram photos.

An Introduction to Instagr/am/bient:

Photos shared with the popular software Instagram are usually square in format, not unlike the cover to a record album. The format leads inevitably to a question: if a given image were the cover to a record album, what would the album’s music sound like?

Instagr/am/bient is a response to that question. The project involves 25 musicians with ambient inclinations. Each of the musicians contributed an Instagram photo, and in turn each of the musicians recorded an original track in response to one of the photos contributed by another of the project’s participants. The tracks are sonic postcards. They are pieces of music whose relative brevity—all are between one and three minutes in length—is designed to correlate with the economical, ephemeral nature of an Instagram photo.

The result of the 25 musicians’ collective efforts is an investigation into the intersection of technology, aesthetics, and artistic process. What parallels exist, for example, between the visual filters that Instagram provides users to transform their photos and the sound-processing tools employed by electronic musicians?

In many cases here, the musicians employ sonic field recordings as source material for their music. In the case of both their photos and their compositions (photography in one case, phonography in the other), documents are altered to emphasize their atmospheric qualities: to eke a modest art out of the everyday.

Thumbnails of the 25 Images:

The full collection is also streaming at soundcloud.com/disquiet.

The 25 MP3s are downloadable for free individually and as a Zip file at archive.org.

Download a 58-page PDF with full-page reproductions of the images and additional information on all the participating musicians: PDF.

A Disquiet.com Project Commissioned by Marc Weidenbaum

Design/Boondesign.com Cover Photo/Brian Scott

This project in no way intends to imply any formal association with Instagram.

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TheAtlantic.com: “Toward Silent Computing”

“Toward Silent Computing” is a piece I had published today at theatlantic.com, the website of the magazine The Atlantic. It’s a combination of news-you-can-use tips on quieting a laptop that’s running the OS X Lion operating system, and a reflection on the unintended consequences inherent in sound design: Remove one sound, and others appear. The background becomes the foreground. In the case of the laptop that is the subject of the piece, my month-old Macbook Air, the removed sound is that of the hard drive and, by extension, the computer fan that is often called into service when the drive or CPU go into overdrive.

Here is the first paragraph:

I changed laptops about a month ago. I had a Windows netbook, and I opted up, as it were, to a Macbook Air. Part of the attraction of the Macbook Air was its solid-state drive. Unlike a traditional hard drive, which is in effect a high-tech LP player with read-write capability, the SSD has no moving parts — well, except at the level of the electrical charge that allows data to be stored. (If you can hear that, please get in touch while the next X-Men movie is still in pre-production.) The lack of a physical interface means the SSD is silent, and also less likely to trigger the computer’s fan, which in most cases is the primary producer of computer noise on a laptop or desktop. (Note: You can, indeed, upgrade netbooks to SSD drives, but the one I had, a slim Acer, had its drive buried so deep in the device that it was beyond my abilities and my time.)

I then cover three particularly annoying sounds: the trackpad click, the boot-up sound, and the plink that accompanies the raising or lowering of the machine’s volume.

Here’s a fourth tip that didn’t really fit in the article:

Once upon a time, in Apple’s OS you could hold Shift+Option while raising and lowering the volume of the computer (speaker or headphone jack), and you’d quadruple the scale at which it shifted up or down. This didn’t make it louder, or quieter for that matter — it just provided a more gradated range between silent and whatever the machine’s loudest level was. That may sound unnecessary, but the fact is that at midnight, if all is quiet, the difference between silent and just a notch above silent can be significant. Unfortunately, Shift+Option doesn’t work in OS X Lion. I tweeted something to this regard (“OS X Lion could use 1/16th the number of keyboard-lighting settings and 16x the number of volume-level settings”), and got a prompt reply from Lin Mu (aka @linmu), directing me to an anonymous post at hints.macworld.com from this past August that provides a hack to regain the finer-grain volume shifting. (For the record, I haven’t actually tried this approach yet.)

Amid all this detailed trivia about the sound design of Apple’s operating system, it’s worth noting that Apple’s OS outdoes Spinal Tap. Its volume control goes to 16:

For a long time, DownBeat (founded: 1934) was the oldest magazine I’d ever written for. Then it was Nature (founded: 1869). But The Atlantic was founded in 1857, so it’s now the oldest I’ve been published in (again, technically, I wrote for its website).

You can read “Tower Silent Computing” at theatlantic.com.

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The Kindle Fire Is Deaf

Note: There’s updated information in the comments section to this post.

Amazon.com earlier this week announced four additional items in its Kindle line of ebook readers.

One caveat for potential consumers, and for software developers: The new flagship Kindle device, named Fire, has no microphone.

The Fire is, of course, more than an ebook reader. While the three other newly announced Kindles (Kindle, Kindle Touch, Kindle Touch 3G) build on the line’s next-generation e-ink technology, the Fire is a tablet computer with a multi-touch color screen. The Kindle Fire is powered by a modified branch of Google’s Android operating system. Other non-Apple tablets and ebook readers are built on Android, and several have been targets of the affections and aspirations of hackers. The Nook, a product of Barnes & Noble, has likely been the most popular ereader for after-market tinkerers. Reports that Amazon will not aggressively derail those who seek to root the new Kindles (i.e., take control of the operating system; see liliputing.com) suggest that the Fire may soon rival the Nook in that regard.

The absence of a microphone, however, has unfortunate potential ramifications, especially if the Fire becomes a top-ranking Android device. For one thing, the popularity of microphone-enabled software will likely suffer — ranging from interactive sound applications like RJDJ (which takes sound in realtime from the microphone and makes new, musical sound out of it) to utilities like Shazam (which identifies songs based on them being “heard” via the microphone). Voice activation overall may be de-prioritized, should Fire gain significant market penetration. Companies may be less likely to innovate with such microphone-sensitive options as the Three Little Pigs children’s book app that makes good on the promise of blowing the house down, or the way the Clif Bar SOS iPhone app fogs up when you breathe into the microphone. Soundcloud.com’s Android app has a record function — will it need to devise an alternate version for deaf devices like the Fire? (Note: not all of these apps mentioned above are available for the Android operating system. They are simply mentioned as illustrations of the range of microphone-sensitive developement.)

The absence of the microphone emphasizes the Fire’s Kindle heritage: it is depicted as a device for consumption, not production. This is why the initial promotional materials for the Fire refer to how you, the Fire user, can “Read Your Documents” (rather than edit or create documents). The key concern is that consumption and production are not mutually exclusive; they are, in fact, two distant ends of a broad and gradated continuum. The apps mentioned above are in several cases examples where microphone use is part of the consumption.

In addition, the absence of the microphone nixes one of the staple utilities of mobile devices: the ability to take voice notes, which is arguably a better user experience when reading an ebook (or web page) than is momentarily switching one’s position in order to type notes.

The microphone is not the only immediately evident technology lacking in the Fire. Also missing are 3G support, and a camera. These absences have been explained collectively as means by which Amazon reached the Fire sale price of $199, which has been widely viewed as competitive (in response to the Amazon release announcement, Barnes & Noble for one day dropped the price of its Nook Color to $150 from $250; via mobilewhack.com). The absences also make for a certain amount of planned obsolescence, providing a simple path for Amazon to the Kindle Fire 2.0, which could add one or more of the missing features, much as cameras were added when the iPad 2 was introduced.

Certainly Android’s preeminence as a mobile-phone technology means that the operating system is, for the foreseeable future, linked to devices with microphones, but the absence of a microphone on the Kindle Fire is an unfortunate development.

More on the Kindle Fire at amazon.com.

And for reference, here are my thoughts on the iPad, a few days after its January 2010 announcement: “Avoiding iPad Bloat.”

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