This Week in Sound: The Difficulty of Not Making Sounds

A lightly annotated clipping service

This Week in Sound

These sound-studies highlights of the week originally appeared in the April 18, 2023, issue of the free weekly email newsletter, This Week in Sound.

▰ FILM THREAT: You’ve probably read enough stories by now about why dialogue on TVs is hard to hear, even if your ears haven’t neared middle age. But there is hope on the audible horizon. A forthcoming feature from Amazon Prime Video, called Dialogue Boost, “lets you raise the volume of dialogue relative to background music and effects.” Does it do this by accessing the source audio from the original production? No, the application uses artificial intelligence — which if it is sentient must be happy to, for a moment, be a savior rather than a threat: “Dialogue Boost analyzes the program’s audio and uses AI to spot points where dialogue may be tough to hear. Then speech is isolated and its audio enhanced to make dialogue clearer.” Now let’s ponder unintended consequences, like people turning off the music entirely from films and recommending their own alternate scores, or movie studios suing to maintain the intended level of mumblefication. (Thanks, Bart Beaty!)

▰ CALL OF THE WILD: In a radio broadcast, KERA’s Krys Boyd interviews New Yorker staff writer Burkhard Bilger on the “surprising musicality” of animals. Bilger profiled neuroscientist-composer David Sulzer in a recent issue of the magazine on this topic. Boyd asks whether we, as humans, invented music, or just discovered it. Bilger replies: “I feel like we invented a certain kind of music but I agree with Sulzer that it’s something that’s sort of threaded through the world around us that we’ve just learned to echo it more than invent it.” (Thanks, Rob Walker!)

▰ OFF THE RAILS: The redevelopment of downtown LaGrange, Georgia, has a perceived sonic obstacle: the noise of its railroad. “The horns can be heard throughout the downtown area, even in the downtown hotel, where guests will complain about the horns blaring,” said Phillip Abbott, who is identified as a local business owner and redeveloper. As a result, the city voted “to determine how much it would cost to convert railroad crossings around downtown to silent crossings.” (Since you may be wondering, as did I: This isn’t the La Grange made famous in the ZZ Top song that goes “haw, haw, haw, haw.” That one’s in Texas. And in any case, the song is about a house of ill repute on the outskirts of town.)

▰ SPLIT TIME: Adam Sliwinski of Sō Percussion does an excellent, playful close read of John Cage’s 4’33”, inspired by the observation that David Tudor, who premiered the work 71 years ago in Woodstock New York, “stopped and re-started the stopwatch between movements.” That’s in contrast with the accepted norm: “Most of the performances I can remember,” he writes, “articulated the movements within the time frame, but didn’t ‘stop’ time in between.” (Thanks, Rich Pettus!)

▰ ON THE CLOCK: There’s a lot of talk regarding autonomous vehicles, as with merely electric and hybrid ones, as to what sounds they should emit. Researchers from Cornell have discerned something: “It was the timing of the sound that was most important. … In analyzing the videos, Pelikan and Jung saw that regardless of which sound they played, the timing and duration were most important for signaling the bus’s intentions.” The study is by lead author Hannah Pelikan, a doctoral student at Linköping University in Sweden (and a recent visiting scholar at Cornell), and Malte Jung, associate professor of information science at Cornell. (And yeah, the word “intentions” is extra interesting in this context.)

▰ QUICK NOTES: Keyed In: If you wish your plain old laptop sounded like a clackety mechanical keyboard, there’s an app for that. And, yeah, it’s called Klack. ▰ Noise Floor: A guy in Hong Kong was tired of his very loud upstairs neighbors so he aimed a speaker at them through his ceiling (and their floor). ▰ Sex Works: Selene Ross (Radiotopia’s The Kitchen Sisters, KALW, NPR, KCRW) on how working in erotic fiction informed her broader work in audio: “I had to ensure every sound effect — every swish of bedsheets shifting, every dress falling softly to the floor — landed the way we wanted.” ▰ Walk This Way: How Sperry, the shoe maker, came up with its sonic brand, “an eight-second sound(plus a shorter, two-second version) composed of ocean sounds and an A major seventh chord played on an acoustic guitar.” ▰ Grate Outdoors: A video from Wired explains how a “line array” speaker system has improved sound at concert festivals. ▰ Foley Folly: The hardest part of action scenes? Shadow and Boneactor Ben Barnes describes “the difficulty of not making sounds during action scenes.”

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