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This Week in Sound

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

This Week in Sound: Where Acoustician Careers Go to Die

A lightly annotated clipping service

These sound-studies highlights of the week originally appeared in the October 11, 2022, issue of the free weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound:

ORCHESTRAL MANEUVERS: “Lincoln Center is where acoustician careers go to die.” That’s per Christopher Blair of Akustiks, the firm that led the acoustical engineering efforts on what is now Geffen Hall (formerly Avery Fisher Hall, when I was growing up on Long Island and would take school-chorus trips into Manhattan for the Messiah Sing-In each Christmas). Rivka Galchen, in the New Yorker this week, penned an even more detailed story about the renovation than the one mentioned last week. “I didn’t go to a rock concert until I was forty years old, and they paid me,” Blair tells the reporter. “That was Joan Jett. I told them to raise the speakers twelve degrees off of the floor if they wanted to stop receiving complaints from three miles away.

CHEW ON THIS: “Here we report a bite-controlled optoelectronic system that uses mechanoluminescence-powered distributed-optical-fibre sensors that are integrated into mouthguards,” per the journal Nature. In other words, you can bite to give instructions to a computer rather than type on a keyboard or speak aloud.

LET’S ROLL: There’s a widely shared story by Joanna Stern in the Wall Street Journal that roller coasters are triggering the crash detection feature of the iPhone 14 and Apple Watch. And there is some evidence that some of these incidents, at least at Dollywood, were actually caused when people tried to turn off their phones and accidentally dialed 911. (And I’ve written previously about other ways a phone can inadvertently trigger alerts.) (Thanks, Paolo Salvagione!)

LIFE IMITATES JOKE: A new Google Pixel phone “app listens to the hold music for you, then rings when it hears a human pick up.” Just one of several acoustics-oriented upgrades to the tech giant’s latest attempt to gain hardware market share, per Fast Company.

GLOTTAL STOP: More on the use of fluid dynamics, mentioned here recently, to root out deepfake audios. As it turns out, “deepfakes often model impossible or highly-unlikely anatomical arrangements.” That is, researchers found that deepfaked audio samples simulated vocal tract shapes that do not exist in people. (Thanks, Glenn Sogge!)

BROWN-IN: The Guardian’s Emma Beddington of picks up the currently growing story about the popularity of brown noise for people looking to improve their focus. Brown noise is sort of like white noise with the annoying higher-pitched end sheared off. Author Zadie Smith is quoted: “I listen to brown noise … day and night. I live in this denuded soundscape. (I used a macOS app called Chill for this — I find the “Airplane” setting particularly helpful, and have even listened to Airplane while on an airplane. On my iPhone, I use the “Dark Noise” setting in the Background Sounds feature.) It’s not for everyone. Beddington says her husband, who has tinnitus, “finds it aggravates rather than soothes his symptoms.” (Thanks, Christian Carrière!)

GLACIAL PACE: “Listening back to these field recordings now, I’m particularly struck by how cold the water sounds, as if I’d documented the water molecules’ audible shock of existence from solid to its newly liquified form.” Tristan Louth-Robins reports, in his excellent blog, about a group hike at Fox Glacier in New Zealand — and about revisiting such recordings much later: “Thinking back to these field recordings I made on Fox Glacier in 2010, I feel like they represent the temporality and morphology of place more than anything I’ve ever documented. Of course, you can’t hear this change, but its symbolism is there. Field recordings like this are delicate markers in time, before the ground shifts once again.”

CONSUMER RETORTS: On October 5, the makers of the Bitwig Studio suite of audio tools for musicians sent out an email announcement. They’d added a new piece of software, named Spectral Suite, at an introductory price of 79 (dollars or euros alike — either generously or onerously, depending on your local currency). By October 11, less than a week later, Bitwig had changed course by 180 degrees. Spectral Suite would now be “part of Bitwig Studio,” the software having been updated to version 4.4 to accommodate the occasion. The language is important here, because in the initial announcement on October 5, Spectral Suite was described as “our first add-on product.” Language was at the heart of the issue due the pricing structure of Bitwig Studio. It’s a software subscription service, and “all” “updates” were expected by many users to be part of the fee — what’s an update and what’s ancillary was up for discussion. This new “add-on product” mode appeared to be something different. Except not different enough: The internet being the internet, musicians rallied, sometimes with a ferocity better suited to matters of actual life and death (the word “principle” can be a detrimental rhetorical device, drawing a line in the sand where there is, in fact, neither line nor sand). In the short term, Bigwig could have done a better job laying out its plans, and it has now acceded to the crowd’s demands. A lingering question is whether this “add-on product” model was an important part of the software’s — and the company’s — future business roadmap, and if so how Bitwig will adjust accordingly.

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By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website 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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