The Waveforms of War

Interceptions from the front lines

The horizontal waveform has become a ubiquitous visual signifier of audio. It was popularized in particular by SoundCloud, but existed long before that in various digital audio tools, and can be tracked back further to the height of the multi-band stereo-system equalizer in the 1970s. The waveform’s deployment in a New York Times feature story this week (about intercepted phone calls home from Russian military personnel carrying out the campaign in Ukraine) turns the now generic symbol into an urgent harbinger — part surveillance sigil, part ethereal lifeline, part literal cry for help. The source of the recordings is Ukrainian law enforcement agencies, which “obtained recordings of thousands of calls that were made throughout March.” The audio is all in Russian, so the Times superimposed English translations for a broader audience. Watching the sound wave pulse has the sense of a nervous heartbeat as we read what is being spoken, such as “I didn’t know this was going to happen. They said we were going for training.” And: “I don’t want to kill any more people, especially the ones I will have to look in the eyes.”

It occurred to me after I included this in my latest issue of the This Week in Sound email newsletter that I would have loved if the Times had hired Scanner to render these with backing music.


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