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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: He Used to Bite His Music Boxes

A lightly annotated clipping service

These sound-studies highlights of the week originally appeared in the November 8, 2022, issue of the free weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound:

THE WHOLE TOOTH: Robert Friedman, the owner of a piano that once belonged to Thomas Edison, spoke with NPR’s Scott Simon about its bite marks — which are reputed to be those of Edison himself. (Thanks, Rich Pettus!)

Friedman: He used to bite his music boxes, and he bit his piano. …

Simon: I’m trying to imagine anyone, much less Thomas Edison, with their mouth clamped on a piano.

Friedman: The sensation is amazing. It goes up through your skull, your head resonates like a tuning fork. It’s an amazing feeling. It goes through your shoulders, but you get the true vibration of the instrument, and you hear the piano equal, if not better, than if you just hear it through your ears.

HEY BALE: Mark Gurman, Bloomberg reporter, foresees Apple simplifying the voice command for Siri:

“The company is working on an initiative to drop the ‘Hey’ in the trigger phrase so that a user only needs to say ‘Siri’ — along with a command. While that might seem like a small change, making the switch is a technical challenge that requires a significant amount of AI training and underlying engineering work. … The complexity involves Siri being able to understand the singular phrase ‘Siri’ in multiple different accents and dialects. Having two words — ‘Hey Siri’ — increases the likelihood of the system properly picking up the signal.”

FIELD’S RECORDING: Details on the sound design of Todd Field’s new film Tár, starring Cate Blanchett as a conductor-composer: the director wants the audience “to feel [Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score] but almost not hear it”; Blanchett’s title character has misophonia (“which means she’s very sensitive to certain sounds”); omnidirectional microphones were used to record the symphony orchestra, “leaving the sound team more than 50 tracks to work with.”

QUIET TIME: Check out this gallery, on the Dezeen (as in “design”) website, of 10 different “noise-regulating acoustic products for communal interiors.”

This is a product shot of a long table in an stark, white, modern office, each seat with its own computer, and above them the felt lamp shades that are the central point of the image.

Felt Up: The Fost Bulb PET Felt acoustic lamp from De Vorm “provides both sound dampening and illumination.”

Included in the Dezeen feature are office booths, felt light shades, a sensory nook (called the “Sensory Nook,” natch), panels, and more.

TAP DANCE: “After continually deflecting accusations that it surveilled droves of politicians and journalists using invasive phone-tapping software, the Greek government has decided to ban the sale of spyware altogether. But the government also wants everybody to know that this is in no way an admission of guilt and that it definitely didn’t do anything wrong” — is how Gizmodo sums up a recent scandal.

WATER TORTURE: “In the US border town of Niagara Falls, residents accustomed to the soothing roar of the famous waterfalls recently discovered a much less pleasant sound: the ‘haunting hum’ of bitcoin mining farms.” The miners were reportedly attracted by the area’s “cheap hydroelectric power.” Comments from residents:

“It’s very mentally daunting. It’s like having a toothache for 24 hours a day every day.”

“I get four hours of sleep, maybe, because of that constant noise.”

“I’m going to be protesting till the hum is gone, basically, till I get the roar of the falls back because that’s what I used to hear.”

VISUAL HEARING AID: There was a great multimedia piece in the Washington Post that explores what hearing loss is like — and it does so by visualizing the experience. The article is credited to Amanda Morris, a reporter, and Aaron Steckelberg, a “senior graphics reporter” (what a cool job), who did the visuals. No subscription necessary to see it, as I can share this gift link. Audiograms and other graphic aids tell the story, such as how the siren is situated on the chart reproduced below.

This is a chart from The Washington Post. It depicts a bird's eye view of the side of a building, and in front passes a vehicle. Overlaid are diagrams showing relative pitch and volume. A circle marks the vehicle as being quite loud and towards the middle of the pitch zone, as it were.

Freq Out: This example of a Washington Post chart situates the pitch and volume of a passing siren

The horizontal axis “maps the pitches that are audible to your ears, from low-pitched sounds, shown on the left, to high-pitched sounds, shown on the right.” The vertical axis is the volume level in decibels.

AUTO MOTIVE: SlashGear’s Alistair Charlton is not excited about the broadening array of voice recognition systems in cars: “[C]ar manufacturers’ own voice recognition systems? They’re less than stellar. These are often summoned by saying ‘hey’ and the vehicle manufacturer’s name. … Siri is a made up name, and no one goes about their day saying ‘Okay Google’ unless they want to talk to the Google Assistant. But in the car? You’re quite likely to mention the brand of the vehicle you’re in when talking to a passenger, or when you see another one out on the road. Before you know it, your music is muted and the car is listening when you don’t want it to. We might forgive all this if car manufacturers made decent voice assistants, but it’s the tech firms who have the upper hand here. Please, automakers of the world, stick to Alexa, Google Assistant or Siri and leave it at that.” (Just as a side note: I’m not remotely likely to say the name of my car to a passenger, but I’m not much of a car person.)

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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