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The Conference Call v. Acoustic Literacy

An interview I did with the Article Group

It was a pleasure to have been interviewed for an article about the contentious and ubiquitous sound technology known as the conference call, especially because the article’s author, Rae Paoletta, sets the correct tone right from the start. The article begins: “The conference call is a gangrenous finger on the clammy hand of human achievement.”

After speaking with Paoletta on the phone (not a conference call, just two humans on a shared line, very old-fashioned and convivial), I was a bit concerned with how harsh I was about conference calls, specifically the often non-technological reasons for why they so often fall short of their purpose. How I put it is: “In a broad sense, people are ultimately kind of lazy,” but even before the article gets to my concerns about what I refer to as a societal lack of “acoustic literacy,” someone else says it more directly: “generally people are selfish dickbags and this translates to terrible conference calls.”

In advance of speaking with Paoletta, I sketched out a list of conference-call grievances, key aspects of the conference call, both as a technology and a site of human interaction, that are susceptible to failure. It played out like this:

  • voice quality
  • background noise
  • voice menu commands
  • hold music
    • signature brand sound
    • signature cues
    • signature hold music
    • option for no music
    • options for music
    • misreading digital silence
  • spatial orientation
  • visual orientation (cues on screen)
  • politics of being on hold pre-call

Paoletta’s piece, which also quotes Dr. Julie Gurner, is available at medium.com/article-group.

Not so much ironically as inevitably, I has several conference calls in the wake of speaking with Paoletta, including on the morning the article came out. I imagined this was a jinx, and the call would utterly fail. It didn’t, fortunately. My main observations of the call, in my heightened state of awareness due to the Paoletta conversation:

  • sonic moire/cutouts (from cross-talk)
  • squelchy feedback
  • uneven volume levels
  • Max Headroom vocal glitch
  • cicada-like atmospheric noise
  • background construction noise

I posted that list to Twitter. A friend joked in reply, “The way you describe it, I’m like, where can I find that track on Bandcamp?” This made me realize something: The exact same sonic issues that I abhor in conference calls I seek out in electronic music.

By Marc Weidenbaum

Tags: , / Comment: 1 ]

One Comment

  1. Mala
    [ Posted July 22, 2019, at 10:40 pm ]

    Dear Marc, it was a very interesting article that you have penned. Thank you for sharing your interview experience with us on the omnipresent technology in communications and sound called the conference calls. The differentiation and explanation are acceptable and the sonic issues are rectifiable.

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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