This Week in Sound: Hearing Tiny Earthquakes

A lightly annotated clipping service

These sound-studies highlights of the week are lightly adapted from the April 20, 2020, issue of the free weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound (

As always, if you find sonic news of interest, please share it with me, and (except with the most widespread of news items) I’ll credit you should I mention it here.

“[S]cientists are recording small earthquakes all over the world that normally go unnoticed,” writes Mia Rabson. “All those planes, trains and automobiles that aren’t running because of stay-home policies meant to fight the spread of COVID-19 have cut noise pollution in some cities by more than half, allowing seismologists to record sounds from inside Earth they never could before.”

“We’ve been trying to create sounds which are aesthetically pleasing and calming — sort of anti-road rage,” says composer Hans Zimmer (in an interview by Stephen Williams). Best known for his work on movies like Gladiator, Dunkirk, and Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, Zimmer is describing here his collaboration on the sounds for an upcoming car, the BMW i4. (Thanks, Bruce Levenstein!)

“The neural networks located in data centers are trained using millions of samples in a method that resembles successive approximation; errors are initially very large, but are reduced by feeding the error back into an algorithm that adjusts the network parameters. The error is reduced in each training cycle. Training cycles are then repeated until the output is correct. This is done for every word and phrase in the dataset. Training such networks can take a very long time, on the order of weeks”: Peter AJ van der Made goes into detail on “keyword spotting,” the training of AI to recognize virtual-assistant alerts like “Hey, Google” and “Hey, Siri.”

“The expectation that a sonification of a virus potentially carrying deadly diseases would also sound threatening and deadly, is a deeply anthropocentric one: an expectation that treats a scientific sonification like an aesthetic artifact, a musical composition. Yet, a scientific sonification is not a musical composition“: Holger Schulze ponders the purpose and potential of sonified data.

“Yes, there was a noticeable absence of certain sounds at both morning and night (no doubt conversely permitting other sounds to be heard more clearly), but perhaps these newfound observations might simply be attributed to a state of heightened awareness to my surroundings?” That’s the always interesting Tristan Louth-Robins from his blog on his experience of the Covid-era quietude.

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▰ Shortly before the nation started shutting down, I was due to review a live concert performance here in San Francisco. I canceled the afternoon of the show, due to safety concerns, and my editor was supportive of the decision. This weekend I “attended” a three-hour online concert (streamed live from various locations) for the same magazine, in order to review it. I’ll let you know when the article comes out. In some ways it wasn’t unlike going to a local experimental-music concert, in that I went alone, recognized some people I knew (in the chat room), and spoke (well, texted in the browse) with one of them. [clapping emoji]

▰ Wild weekend. Took almost five minutes to clean the synth patch cables off my home-office floor this morning.

▰ On the one hand, it’s unfortunate Devs was only eight episodes long and now it’s over. On the other, it was only eight episodes long, so I could probably just watch it all over again.

▰ Belated RIP to John Conway, who died on April 11 at the age of 82. Conway was synonymous with the Game of Life, not the Milton Bradley game, but the cellular-automaton evolving system. I spoke with him once on the phone for … I’ve no idea how long. It was a tremendous conversation, not intended for publication so I didn’t record. I’d confirmed with a magazine its interest in me mediating a conversation between Conway and Brian Eno. Eno, through management, was apparently into the scenario, but Conway had retired and told me he was more than ever just focused on the things he wanted to focus on. Thus, the three-way conversation never managed to occur, but I treasure the time I got to speak with him.

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