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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 Disquiet.com weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound: thisweekinsound.substack.com.

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.)

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Sound Ledger¹ (Noise, Branding)

Audio culture by the numbers

4,858: Number of tickets issued for vehicular noise pollution in Islamabad, Pakistan, in the past six months

500,000: The number of consumer surveys that make up an an AI-powered service that aims to “predict the granular emotional impact of music” (it’s called OnBrand)

12,000,000: The number of “datapoints” in the OnBrand algorithmic engine

________
¹Footnotes

Islamabad: thenews.com.pk. OnBrand: musically.com

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Guitar as Graphic Notation

An ongoing series cross-posted from instagram.com/dsqt

This is a photo of scratch marks on the rear of a Telecaster guitar.

After working in this little rental office for a while I realized I hadn’t been practicting guitar as much so I bought a used electric guitar from someone who plays in a funk band and was about to become a parent for the first time. These are the markings of the previous owner’s belt buckle on the back of the guitar (it’s a Telecaster, so it’s got a very flat, even back). I love the idea of such scratches being a kind of reverse transcription: musical notation after the fact; the imprint of performance rather than directions for a performance.

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The Magic Number

A 300-year-old violin misunderstanding

Sounds previously considered illusions have turned out to exist. “A musical sound once thought to be heard only in our heads as a quirk of the ear canal is actually real,” writes Karmela Padavic-Callaghan at the New Scientist. “Violins can produce these unusual tones – and higher quality violins can produce them more strongly.” Padavic-Callaghan explains that questions about this third tone — eventually called a “combination tone” — date back over 300 years, to a discovery in 1714 by Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770), a Baroque-era Italian violinist and composer.

A newly published article in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America is the source of the New Scientist piece. Interestingly, in the work of the scientists exploring the subject, it turned out that older instruments produced more prominent third notes.

To put this discovery (credited to Gabriele Caselli, Giovanni Cecchi, and Giulio Masetti) in context, a distinction has now been made between what we experience as heard versus what is actually present in the world. It would be one thing if the sound exists only because of how our ears are structured (“It was thought that these tones arose entirely in our ears, due to the way sound is amplified by the cochlea, rather than actually emanating from an instrument”). In contrast, the violins actually produce this previously mysterious sound. The discovery both upends a long-held misapprehension, and potentially opens up compositional techniques for composers who wish to exploit this sonic phenomenon. (Thanks, Glenn Sogge!)

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Scratch Pad: Mastodon, Mitchell, Rain

From the past week

I do this manually each Saturday, usually in the morning over coffee: collating most of the little comments I’ve made on social media during the preceding week. I’ve long thought of social media — Twitter especially, though I’m taking a break, and Facebook to a degree, and increasingly Mastodon — as my public notebook. Or more to the point, my public scratch pad, which seems a degree more rough and unformed than a notebook. I’ve found it personally informative to revisit the previous week of thinking out loud in public. Also, I think knowing you’ll revisit what you say pulls in the reins a bit, in a good way, on what you do say.

What appears here isn’t a full accounting. Often there are, for example, conversations online that don’t really make as much sense out of the context of social media itself. Some of my notes pop up sooner in expanded form or otherwise on Disquiet.com. And sometimes I tweak them a bit, given the additional space. And sometimes I re-order them.

▰ What is that sound? Ah, “rain.” Not just cars’ tires against moist pavement, but actual impact on the building itself. This is unfamiliar here in San Francisco. They’re probably taking kindergartners outside right now to experience it as a teachable moment.

▰ I just gave about $50 to lurk.org to help support the good it does.

▰ I love Ladies of the Canyon way more than Blue or Court and Spark.

▰ There’s more honking during the rain because everyone forgot how to drive since the last time it rained

▰ Do you listen to MP3s/FLACs/etc. — and if so, do you sync them between laptop/phone/tablet/etc. — and if so, do you recommend a particular approach? I’ve been trying the Match feature from Apple Music, plus apps/services like Doppler, Vox, Plex, and Evermusic, and so far nothing has been particularly enjoyable to use. (I’m very happy if you’re very happy just streaming music. That’s just not what I’m asking about at the moment. Thanks.)

▰ The concept that Mastodon is meaningfully different from Twitter (which it is) is undermined for newcomers by the fact that Mastodon uses the word “toot” for its posts, because that “toot” sounds like a play on “tweet,” which strongly suggests the two are interchangeable.

▰ Just as there’s a meaningful difference between a tweet and a toot, between Twitter and Mastodon, there’s a meaningful difference between paying for a badge and contributing to support a service’s infrastructure. If you’re on lurk, please visit lurk.org and read up on chipping in. (Likewise if you’re on another instance.)

▰ Morning sounds: the whir and rumble of cars passing faster than the nearby stop sign might suggest is possible, a low level electric hum, the buzz of a plane passing overhead

▰ This week marks the 566th consecutive weekly Disquiet Junto project, which means we’ll be 100 weeks (or just under two years) from the 666th.

▰ I rent a tiny office not far from home. It’s got just a desk and two monitors. The space is a blank canvas until I plug in my laptop, and then all of a sudden there are three screens, and the place is full of information and light, which in this context are one and the same. I never tire of this transformation.

▰ I’ve been digging Substack for my This Week in Sound email newsletter (having moved over from Tinyletter when I maxed out its ceiling). I’m not so sure about this Substack Chat feature. Managing a community is a skill — along with a time sink — unto itself. I get where they’re going, and I think some of the existing newsletters will do well with Substack Chat, but others will experience some serious internal strife, which I have little interest in having to manage. I spend enough time on llllllll.co (a Discourse — not Discord — instance that I help moderate), and the Disquiet Junto Slack. Who knows, maybe down the road. For now, I’ll let others beta-test our increasingly siloed online futures.

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  • about

  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com 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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    • December 13, 2022: This day marks the 26th anniversary of the founding of Disquiet.com.
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    • April 16, 2022: I participated in an online "talk show" by The Big Conversation Space (Niki Korth and Clémence de Montgolfier).
    • March 11, 2022: I hosted a panel discussion between Mark Fell, Rian Treanor and James Bradbury in San Francisco as part of the Algorithmic Art Assembly (aaassembly.org) at Gray Area (grayarea.org).
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    • There are entries on the Disquiet Junto in the book The Music Production Cookbook: Ready-made Recipes for the Classroom (Oxford University Press), edited by Adam Patrick Bell. Ethan Hein wrote one, and I did, too.
    • A chapter on the Disquiet Junto ("The Disquiet Junto as an Online Community of Practice," by Ethan Hein) appears in the book The Oxford Handbook of Social Media and Music Learning (Oxford University Press), edited by Stephanie Horsley, Janice Waldron, and Kari Veblen. (Details at oup.com.)

  • My book on Aphex Twin's landmark 1994 album, Selected Ambient Works Vol. II, was published as part of the 33 1/3 series, an imprint of Bloomsbury. It has been translated into Japanese (2019) and Spanish (2018).

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