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: gadget

Is There Such a Thing as a Sonic QR Code?

One needn't watch the new Spider-Man movie for a possible answer.

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There are at least two things that Sony Pictures marketing executives did not consider when preparing a cross-promotion between its new Spider-Man film and the song-identification app Shazam. I first read about this promotion this morning on io9.com, because pretty much the first thing I read every morning is Morning Spoilers on io9.com. The film in question, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, opens this Friday, May 2, in the United States. Expecting extended discussion about Peter Parker’s doomed romance with Gwen Stacy or the rise of his frenemy Harry Osbourne to lead the high-tech firm founded by his father, instead there was news of an intriguing little digital-audio phenomenon.

The Sony-Shazam promotion involves viewers of the Spider-Man movie waiting until the end credits, during which the Alicia Keys song “It’s On Again” is heard. Viewers can then use the Shazam app to identify the song. Doing so brings up a special opportunity to add, for free, photos that hint at members of the Sinister Six — villain characters from Sony’s rapidly expanding Spider-Man franchise — to their personal photo galleries. (It should be noted that the Keys song is itself a sort of cross-promotion. It’s full credit is: Alicia Keys feat. Kendrick Lamar – “It’s On Again.”)

The first of these things that Sony Pictures may not have considered is that Shazam shares a name with a superhero from a rival comics publisher, DC. Would it have been too difficult to sign up, instead, with Soundhound, or MusixMatch, or the elegantly named Sound Search for Google Play, among other song-identification services? Perhaps none of this matters. Sony is already engaged in a cold war with other studios among whom the Marvel universe of characters is subdivided. A second-tier, if beloved, character from another universe entirely means nothing when there are already two Quicksilvers running around in your own. For reference, below is an uncharacteristically stern Shazam, drawn by Jeff Smith (best known for his work on Bone):

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In any case, the second and more pressing matter is that one needn’t stay until the end credits of the new Spider-Man film to activate the Shazam code with the Alicia Keys song. One needn’t even see the Spider-Man film, let alone wait for it to open in a theater near you. Right now, two full days before the film’s release in the United States, you can pull up the Alicia Keys video on YouTube, and the Shazam app on your phone will recognize that as the correct song, and your phone will, indeed, then provide you with the prized photos. In fact, at this point you don’t even need to do that, since the photos have already proliferated around the Internet. (See them at comingsoon.net and at the above io9.com link.)

But an interesting question arises, which is: How different would the Alicia Keys song played during the end credits have to be from the original version of the song for only the credits rendition to be recognized by Shazam as the correct one to cough up the Sinister Six photos? More to the point, can a specific version of a song function as the sonic equivalent of a QR code. QR codes are those square descendents of zebra codes, such as the one shown below. The “QR” stands for “quick response.” They can contain information such as a URL, which when activated by a phone’s camera can direct the phone’s browser to a particular web page. This QR code links, only semi-helpfully, to the web page on which this article originally appeared:

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Of course, from a procedural standpoint, Sony could have gotten around this alternate-version approach by having the song only be available in the credits, but that would have cut into sales of the soundtrack album — which would either have to lack the song entirely, or have its release delayed until several weeks after the film’s debut.

The recipes of these different song-identification apps, such as Shazam and its arch enemy Soundhound, are closely guarded secrets. Enough information is provided to allow for developer-level discussion, but ultimately the apps’ success (both in terms of successful-identification statistics and user adoption) depend on the how-to being at least semi-obscured. But there is quite a bit of information out there, including a 2003 academic paper by Shazam co-founder Avery Li-Chun Wang outlining the company’s approach at the time (PDF), which I found thanks to a October 2009 article by Farhad Manjoo on Slate.com. The summary at the opening of the paper reads as follows:

We have developed and commercially deployed a flexible audio search engine. The algorithm is noise and distortion resistant, computationally efficient, and massively scalable, capable of quickly identifying a short segment of music captured through a cellphone microphone in the presence of foreground voices and other dominant noise, and through voice codec compression, out of a database of over a million tracks. The algorithm uses a combinatorially hashed time-frequency constellation analysis of the audio, yielding unusual properties such as transparency, in which multiple tracks mixed together may each be identified. Furthermore, for applications such as radio monitoring, search times on the order of a few milliseconds per query are attained, even on a massive music database.

The gist of it, as summarized in handy charts like the one up top, appears to be that an entire song is not necessary for identification purposes, that only key segments — “higher energy content,” he calls it — are required. At least in part, this allows for songs to be recognizable above the din of everyday life: “The peaks in each time-frequency locality are also chosen according amplitude, with the justification that the highest amplitude peaks are most likely to survive the distortions listed above.” It may also explain why much of my listening, which being ambient in nature can easily be described as “low energy content,” is often not recognized by Shazam or any other such software. As a side note, this gets at how the human ear listens differently than a microphone. The human ear can listen through a complex noise and locate a a particular subset, such as a conversation, or a phone ringing, or a song for that matter.

Now, of course, there’s a difference between the unique attributes of emerging technologies and the desired results of marketing initiatives. Arguably all that Sony wanted to come out of its Shazam cross-promotion was to get word out about Spider-Man, and to buy some affinity for the Sinister Six with a particular breed of fan, and to that end it has certainly succeeded. Perhaps it also hoped to gain a little tech cred in the process, even if that cred is more window dressing than truly innovative at a technological level.

Still, the idea of a song as a true QR code lingers. Perhaps Harry Osbourne and Peter Parker could team up and develop a functional spec.

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Modular Jazz

By way of Thailand

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The musician who goes by mudlogger, aka Ubon Ratchathani of Thailand, has been uploading modular synthesizer experiments. Among them is this piece, “OrLo,” which he describes as “modular jazz.” No doubt it gets that description because the white noise percussion suggests a robotic trap set, and the intransigent pneumatic piping sounds like a European free jazz saxophone solo. Or perhaps it’s some source material surfacing through heavy manipulation.

Track originally posted for free download at soundcloud.com/mudlogger. More from mudlogger at twitter.com/bitchhands.

You can get a glimpse of (and short listen to) his modular setup in this Vine video:

Video located at Vine video.

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disquiet.gizmodo.com

On Disquiet.com now participating in the Gizmodo ecosystem

These are two things that I think Geoff Manaugh, editor-in-chief of the technology and design blog Gizmodo.com, didn’t know about me when he asked if I’d consider bringing Disquiet.com beneath his website’s expanding umbrella.

1: My “to re-blog” bookmark file has been packed in recent months with scores of items from pretty much all of the Gizmodo-affiliated sites — not just Gizmodo, but io9.com, Lifehacker, Jalopnik, Gawker, and Kotaku. Probably Jezebel and Deadspin, too, but the file is too thick for me to tell.

2: Pretty much the first thing that I read every morning with my coffee — well, every weekday morning — is the “Morning Spoilers” at io9.com, the great science fiction website that is part of the Gawker network that also contains Gizmodo.

I knew Manaugh’s work from BLDGBLOG and, before that, Dwell Magazine. He’d previously invited me to involve the weekly experimental music/sound project series that I run, the Disquiet Junto, in the course on the architecture of the San Andreas Fault that he taught in spring 2013 at Columbia University’s graduate school of architecture. And I am excited to work with him again.

And so, there is now a cozy disquiet.gizmodo.com subdomain URL where I’ll be syndicating — simulposting — material from Disquiet.com, as well as doing original straight-to-Gizmodo writing. I’m hopeful that members of the Gizmodo readership might further expand the already sizable ranks of the Disquiet Junto music projects (we just completed one based on a post from Kotaku), and I’ll be posting notes from the course I teach on “sound in the media landscape” at the Academy of Art here in San Francisco.

For new readers of Disquiet, the site’s purview is as follows:

* Listening to Art.

* Playing with Audio.

* Sounding Out Technology.

* Composing in Code.

I’ll take a moment to break that down:

Listening to Art: Attention to sound art has expanded significantly this year, thanks in no small part to the exhibit Soundings: A Contemporary Score at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. That exhibit, which ran from August 10 through November 3, featured work by such key figures as Susan Philipsz (whose winning of the Turner Prize inspired an early music compilation I put together), Carsten Nicolai (whom I profiled in the new Red Bull Music Academy book For the Record), and Stephen Vitiello (whom I’ve interviewed about 911 and architectural acoustics, and who has participated in the Disquiet Junto). But if “sound art” is art for which music is both raw material and subject matter, my attention is just as much focused on what might better be described as the role of “sound in art,” of the depictions of audio in various media (the sound effects in manga, for example) and the unintended sonic components of art beyond sound art, like the click and hum of a slide carousel or the overall sonic environment of a museum. Here’s video of Tristan Perich’s “Microtonal Wall” from the MoMA exhibit:

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Playing with Audio: If everything is, indeed, a remix, that is a case most clearly made in music and experimental sound. From the field recordings that infuse much ambient music to the sampling of hip-hop to the rapturous creative reuse that proliferates on YouTube and elsewhere, music as raw material is one of the most exciting developments of our time. Terms like “remix” and “mashup” and “mixtape” can been seen to have originated or otherwise gained cachet in music, and as they expand into other media, we learn more about them, about the role such activities play in culture. And through the rise of audio-game apps, especially in iOS, such “playing with sound” has become all the more common — not just the work of musicians but of audiences, creating a kind of “active listening.” This notion of reuse, of learning about music and sound by how it is employed after the fact, plays a big role in my forthcoming book for the 33 1/3 series. My book is about Aphex Twin’s album Selected Ambient Works Volume II, and it will be published on February 13, 2014, just weeks ahead of the record’s 20th anniversary. As part of my research for the book, I spoke with many individuals who had come to appreciate the Aphex Twin album by engaging with it in their own work, from composers who had transcribed it for more “traditional” instruments (such as chamber ensembles and solo guitar), to choreographers and sound designers, to film directors.

Sounding Out Technology: A briefer version of the Disquiet.com approach is to look at “the intersection of sound, art, and technology.” The term “technology” is essential to that trio, because it was only when I learned to step back from my fascination with electronically produced music and to appreciate “electronic” as a subset of the vastly longer continuum of “technology” that connections became more clear to me — say, between the sonics of raves and the nascent polyphony of early church music, or between creative audio apps like Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers’ Bloom and what is arguably the generative ur-instrument: the aeolian harp. With both Bloom and the aeolian harp, along with its close relative the wind chime, music is less a fixed composition than a system that is enacted. As technology mediates our lives more and more, the role that sound plays in daily life becomes a richer and richer subject — from voice-enabled devices, to the sounds of consumer product design, to the scores created for electric cars:

Composing in Code: Of all the technologies to come to the fore in the past two decades, perhaps none has had an impact greater than computer code. This is no less true in music and sound than it is in publishing, film, politics, health, or myriad other fields. While the connections between mathematics and music have been celebrated for millennia, there is something special to how, now, those fields are combining, notably in graphic systems such as Max/MSP (and Max for Live, in Ableton) and Puredata (aka Pd), just to name two circumstances. Here, for reference, is a live video of the Dutch musician and sound artist Edo Paulus’ computer screen as he constructs and then performs a patch in Max/MSP. Where the construction ends and the performance begins provides a delightful koan:

All of which said, I’m not 100-percent clear what form my disquiet.gizmodo.com activity will take. I’m looking forward to experimenting in the space. I’ll certainly be co-posting material from Disquiet.com, but I’m also planning on engaging with Gizmodo itself, and with its broader network of sites. I’ve already, in advance of this post, begun re-blogging material from Gizmodo and from Gizmodo-affiliated sites: not just “sharing” (in the UI terminology of the Kinja CMS that powers the network) but adding some contextual information, thoughts, tangents, details. I’m enthusiastic about Kinja, in particular how it blurs the lines between author and reader. I like that a reply I make to a post about a newly recreated instrument by Leonardo Da Vinci can then appear in my own feed, leading readers back to the original site, where they themselves might join in the conversation. Kinja seems uniquely focused on multimedia as a form of commentary — like many CMS systems, it allows animated GIFs and short videos to serve as blog comments unto themselves, but it goes the step further of allowing users to delineate rectangular sub-sections of previously posted images and comment on those. I’m intrigued to see how sound can fit into that approach. (It’s no surprise to me that Kinja is innovative in this regard — it’s on Lifehacker that I first learned about the syntax known as “markdown.”) I think that all, cumulatively, makes for a fascinating media apparatus, and I want to explore it.

While I typed this post, it was Tuesday in San Francisco. I live in the Outer Richmond District, just north of Golden Gate Park and a little over a mile from the Pacific Ocean. The season’s first torrential rain has passed, and so the city sounds considerably more quiet than it did just a few days ago. No longer is the noise of passing automobiles amplified and augmented by the rush of water, and the roof above my desk is no longer being pummeled. But where there is the seeming peace of this relative quiet, there is also an increased diversity of listening material. The ear can hear further, as it were — not just to conversations in the street and to passing cars, but to construction blocks away, to leaf blowers, to a seaplane overhead, to the sound of a truck backing up at some considerable distance, and to the many birds that (unlike what I was accustomed to, growing up on the north shore of New York’s Long Island) do not all vacate the area come winter. It is shortly past noon as I hit the button to make this post go live. Church bells have sung a duet with the gurgling in my belly to remind me it is time for lunch. And because it is Tuesday, the city’s civic warning system has rung out. 

Dim sum, anyone?

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Cutest Little Synth You Ever Did See

Peter Kirn demos the littleBits/KORG teamup

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Peter Kirn, of CreateDigitalMusic.com, has been exploring the littleBits Synth Kit, developed with KORG. It is a modular analog synthesizer that comes as a collection of small and interchangeable, mix-and-match parts. In addition to a power supply there are these functions: random, micro sequencer, filter, mix, synth speaker, oscillators (a pair), keyboard, envelope, delay, and split. To demo it, Kirn recorded a small bunch of “live jams,” each labeled as an etude. This is his “littleBits Synth Kit Etude #1,” a charming pulsing chime:

Track orginally posted at soundcloud.com/peterkirn.

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More on the littleBits Synth Kit at littlebits.cc/kits.

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Pachinko Fury

A field recording with a warning label

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I’ve regularly said that a multi-floor pachinko parlor in Tokyo is by far the loudest, most aggressive sound I have experienced in person, and I’ve said that as someone who has seen Metallica, Danzig, Fugazi, Slayer, Godflesh, and Napalm Death live in concert, just to name a few bands famed for their volume. The closest I’ve come to the pachinko parlor intensity was probably a Dinosaur Jr. show that was so loud people walked out of the concert hall, though the lack of enthusiasm may also have been because Nirvana was the opening act on that tour, and Nirvana, then still on the rise, was the portrait of a tough act to follow. In any case, as mentioned here recently, Seth S. Horowitz, author of The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind, is currently in Japan and making binaural field recordings of what he witnesses. His latest item from that information-gathering trip is a pachinko parlor, which he tweeted about earlier this evening:

His description of the track, six minutes of white noise so dense with treacly pop music, mechanical fury, and crowd chatter is as follows: “In-ear binaural recording of a soundwalk through 3 floors of the Maruan Pachinko Tower in Shibuya, Tokyo at 11 AM. WARNING: Incredibly LOUD. Use low volume to listen.”

Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/universalsense. More on Horowitz at neuropop.com. Image found via wikipedia.org. Image found via wikimedia.org.

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