Colorful Conversation

Out on the farm

Always keeping an eye out for how TV captions evolve. This one was, I think, new to me: different colors signifying different speakers. White is retained for the narrator. The still image is from the BBC TV series This Farming Life, which as (1) urban and (2) American I’d otherwise find utterly unintelligible.

Looking for the Comic in Watchmen

Can TV be as structurally rigid as the original comic?

I caught up with the Watchmen series on HBO last night, episode three. Easter eggs and character references aside, it remains very much a Damon Lindelof creation, which is to say, like Lost and The Leftovers, it’s very much in the early-stage process of flooding the screen with mysteries that will, over time, be sorted out, presumably.

I’m old enough that I read the original Watchmen, written by Alan Moore, when it first came out. That 12-issue series was, combined contemporaneously with The Dark Knight Returns (written by Frank Miller), the comic that got me back into reading comics during college, after I took a break from them toward then end of high school. What really captured my imagination in Watchmen the comic wasn’t just the story, or the critique of superheroes, or the meta-narrative, but the structure on the page. Its famously rigid grid and the use of visual motifs, most notably the blood-specked smiley face, gave it a formal self-consciousness unlike any comic I recall having read before. By the time I read Watchmen, I had ditched computer science as my college major and focused on English, which is to say literature. Watchmen was a playground for a mind currently being trained to observe how texts function.

I came to the Lindelof sequel (extrapolation? spin-off? fork?) wondering how that formal quality would carry over. The HBO series has story, and critique, and meta in spades. The structural features, however, haven’t been anywhere near as present as they were in the comic. Sure, the first episode had lots of circles (reminiscent of the smiley-face pin), and the third episode connected the shape of a certain Dr. Manhattan device with the shape of vestibules that people enter so as to send messages to Dr. Manhattan (in other words, insertion goes both ways). But the show is, ultimately, a TV show. It hasn’t in any way reduced or simplified its storytelling devices the way the original comic did. If anything, it draws fully from the peak-TV toolkit: big name casts, movie-grade camerawork, an utter dismissal anything episodic.

All this was on my mind last night as the episode (“She Was Killed by Space Junk”) played. The world outside my window got darker, and the street quieter, and thus the show louder. I lowered its volume, and eventually turned on the captions. Which is when quite suddenly, Watchmen, for the first time, really reminded me of a comic book:

I was already a bit soured on the extent to which the series is, in any way, wrestling with the formal qualities of the original comic (credit shared by Dave Gibbons, its illustrator). Now I wonder how the show might, creatively, engage with captioning, not merely as a point of connection with comic-book techniques, but as a relatively untapped element of TV narratives. I feel like if Alan Moore (long story, yeah, never happening), or Denis Potter (well, dead), or Terence Davies (OK, it’d be a little slow for the intended audience, but I’d love it), or Jane Campion (aside: just imagine the Michael Nyman score), or Peter Greenaway (ditto) were tasked with adapting Watchmen for TV, captions would have been embraced before the first meeting of the writers room broke for lunch.

I Keep the Subtitles On at Night

A rare moment of dual diegetic ambience cues from Mindhunter

I keep the subtitles on at night. I do this to keep the house quiet, and I do this because, often as not, I’m watching some British show in which everything sounds to my American ears like an erudite mumble. In the case of Mindhunter, the Netflix serial-killer show now enjoying a second season, it’s the former. Everything stated in these East Coast accented voices is distinct and clear to my (natively) East Coast hearing — and the Southern voices, too, perhaps because the Southern accents are being spoken generally by people who want their utterances to be heard (whether they are beleaguered law enforcement, concerned bystanders, or vain convicts).

Late at night, the captions keep the living room’s televised noises from traveling too far around the house, and as a result I get glimpses at the way the hearing-impaired captioning is framing the on-screen action, the encapsulation of the sonic mise-en-scène.

This particular shot (from midway through season 2, episode 6) is a rare instance of dual caption cues. It’s far more the norm for a single sound — “footsteps,” “eerie music,” “fan rattling” — to be selected set the tone for a given moment, but here two distinct elements (“dogs barking in the distance,” “indistinct radio chatter”) combine to achieve the desired effect, the desired summary of effects, the desired way to read the scene. On TV, it’s generally the case that more than one sound is at work at a given time: score plus multiple bits of diegetic ambience, as well as dialog. (Jason Hill’s score to Mindhunter is the show’s main nod to contemporary aesthetics: all warped slivers of sound, synthesized haze, and other such meticulously designed treats.) In the moments when dialog is absent, such as here, the background sounds edge toward the foreground.

As watchers of mysteries, we, the audience, are the dogs in this picture, sniffing out (or, in this case, keeping an eye out for) clues. When two sonic cues appear, our eyes and ears are alerted simultaneously to the seriousness of the moment.

This is of course a David Fincher production, which is to say a hyper-detailed one in which the most mundane physical objects — a period vehicle, an abandoned warehouse, a small forest — is likely to be the result of hours of CGI transformation. At a moment like this, it’s not hard to imagine Fincher himself, the model of a Hollywood perfectionist, having made the call: “No, neither the dogs nor the radio alone is sufficient. We need both.”

This Week in Sound: Mice v. Deep Fakes + Hackers v. Smart Speakers + …

A lightly annotated clipping service

This is lightly adapted from an edition first published in the August 18, 2019, issue of the free weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound (

As always, if you find sonic news of interest, please share it with me, and (except with the most widespread of news items) I’ll credit you should I mention it here.

If you’re a whale, audio surveillance has your (hump)back: A system deployed in the Santa Barbara Channel “could capture whale calls as far as 30 miles away. Cables connected the listening station — about 600 feet below sea level — to a buoy floating on the surface.” The goal is to warn ships away from cetacean hangouts.

Mice may be the canaries in the deep-fake coal mine: “A research team is working on training mice to understand irregularities within speech, a task the animals can do with remarkable accuracy.” Bonus points for distinction drawn between “deep fakes” and “cheap fakes.” (via subtopes)

More mice news, this time relating to repairing human hearing: “Using genetic tools in mice, researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine say they have identified a pair of proteins that precisely control when sound-detecting cells, known as hair cells, are born in the mammalian inner ear. The proteins, described in a report published June 12 in eLife, may hold a key to future therapies to restore hearing in people with irreversible deafness.” (via Tom Whitwell)

No one apparently wants to be left out of the recent speech-to-surveillance bingo matrix: Facebook reportedly “paid contractors to transcribe users’ audio chats.” Thus the service’s Messenger has joined Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google’s more anthropomorphism-neutral Assistant in sounding alarms about consumer voice privacy.

More positive news about voice recognition, from Google’s Project Euphonia: Euphonia is an “attempt to make speech recognition capable of understanding people with non-standard speaking voices or impediments. The company has just published a post and its paper explaining some of the AI work enabling the new capability.”

And a positive spin on deep fakes, as artistic pursuit: For some, the technique is a propaganda tool. “For others, this nascent technology holds great promise, offering realistic vocal models for people with speech impairments, more convincing voice assistants, intimate chatbots, and myriad uses in the entertainment industry. Motivated more by artistic interests than commercial applications, musicians in particular envision different possibilities for the future of human and machine collaboration.”

The room tone of the planet is hell on earth for some: Infrasound is sound at the floor of human perception, but some humans perceive better than others, sometimes to their detriment. “It’s like as if someone is driving needles through me. … It’s not a noise so much as you’re hearing with your ears, it’s a vibration,” says one sufferer.

The city of Malibu is exploring an outdoor public warning system for fires: “The city is asking consultants/consulting firms to identify the optimum placement of multiple sirens along the 21-mile length of the city that could be heard everywhere in an emergency and provide an overall detailed and comprehensive plan for an outdoor siren warning system.”

Your kitchen-counter smart speaker is being recruited as a weapon of sonic terror: “Matt Wixey, cybersecurity research lead at the technology consulting firm PWC UK, says that it’s surprisingly easy to write custom malware that can induce all sorts of embedded speakers to emit inaudible frequencies at high intensity, or blast out audible sounds at high volume. Those aural barrages can potentially harm human hearing, cause tinnitus, or even possibly have psychological effects.”

Movie theaters in Maryland are working to serve their hearing-impaired audiences: Via the Twitter of Sean Zdenek, who notes: “Hawaii is the only U.S. state with open captioning laws.”

Composer Geoff Barrow (of Portishead) agrees that people are using movie soundtracks to score their own lives: “It’s amazing to see just how many people are getting into the idea of listening to film scores, outside of just listening to a band’s album with 10 tracks. It’s because they want a new musical experience. It’s like reading a book, they want to be taken on a musical journey. It’s basically the modern classical.” (This via Jason Richardson, who made similar comments in his blog the week prior.)

In a surprise move, a horror-film director may have exaggerated scientific evidence, in this case of fish noises: The director of 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, Johannes Roberts, says of the movie’s screaming fish, “I wouldn’t want to necessarily swear to it, that that’s a very accurate thing that fish do.”

This Week in Sound: Quantum Microphones + Whispering Whales + …

+ Caption Culture + Sleep Apps + Sonic Erotica + More ...

This is an unusually long issue of the This Week in Sound email newsletter. Why? Because I took off a week. Why? Because of jet lag. So, think of this as a double issue. Because it is. To reduce the impact of so much sound news, I’ve divided this issue in half. There’s a brief intermission in the form of a beautiful excerpt from a bleak novel from 1946. Come to think of it, that doesn’t sound like much of a respite.

A lightly annotated clipping service

As always, if you find sonic news of interest, please share it with me, and (except with the most widespread of news items) I’ll credit you should I mention it here.

Speak Now: There are ebooks and there are audiobooks, and if you purchase “DRM-free” ebooks you can run them through software that reads them to you, but if you purchase “non-DRM-free” ebooks then you can’t, because audiobooks are a big business, and the publishing industry is generally set up to make you buy the book twice. However, Audible appears to be reversing the process, with a new program: “The program, called Captions, which requires the company to transcribe audio to text, was highlighted in a story in USA Today with a headline touting that Audible is looking to let customers ‘”read” an audiobook while [they] listen.’ While the company disputes that description, saying Captions is not at all akin to the act of reading, publishers, literary agents, and organizations representing authors are skeptical. … While Audible said in a statement that Captions ‘does not replicate or replace the print or eBook reading experience,’ publishers are unconvinced.”

Hum Dinger: “The hum” is the term given to a constant sound heard by many people, a sound once written off as tinnitus, but increasingly considered to possibly be something else. The Atlantic highlights a video on the topic, part conspiracy theorizing, part fringe research, part obsessive inquiry.

App Amplitude: “Google has introduced Sound Amplifier which is a new communication mobile app that helps people hear more clearly. What it does is customize frequencies to augment any sound you need to hear.”

Ruido Awakening: The saga of the purported Havana, Cuba, sonic weapon that reportedly led to America diplomats suffering a range of maladies had an update this week, when the New York Times reported that brain analysis of the diplomats indeed evidences “something” happened. Slate followed up with “A Comprehensive List of All the Potential Causes of the Cuban ‘Sonic’ Attacks.” Note that sonic is still in quotes there. (via subtopes)

Shark Tank: The concept of a “sonic weapon” sounds sorta futuristic, but often it’s pretty mundane, like playing annoying songs on repeat to keep people away. In West Palm Beach, Florida, this means children’s music, like the “Baby Shark” song, is now the front line of an effort to disperse the homeless. It seems like a lullaby would be more humane.

Cop to It: “Amazon’s home security company Ring has enlisted local police departments around the country to advertise its surveillance cameras in exchange for free Ring products and a “portal” that allows police to request footage from these cameras, a secret agreement obtained by Motherboard shows.” While we’re busy worrying about the unintended consequences of modern technology, it can be helpful to remember sometimes the intended consequences can also be troublesome.

Vocal Opponent: NPR ran a story about how U.S. technology is helping the surveillance state in China grow stronger. The details about voice surveillance are especially chilling. For the radio spot, NPR had to use a voice actor to read the part of a Chinese interviewee named Alim, and this editorial decision became part of the story itself: “MIT is collaborating with a Chinese company called iFlytek, which supplied voice recognition technology to Xinjiang. By the way, this is why we’re using a voice actor for Alim. China has his voice now. And engineers at NPR told us, even if we tried distorting Alim’s voice to protect his identity, it could be reverse-engineered.”

Leak Siri: A whistleblower opens up about the confidential material overheard when Apple users think they’re just talking to their personal-assistant robot service: “There have been countless instances of recordings featuring private discussions between doctors and patients, business deals, seemingly criminal dealings, sexual encounters and so on. These recordings are accompanied by user data showing location, contact details, and app data.”

Animal Rites: The July 17 issue of New Scientist has reports on both goat and whale sounds. Apparently goats’ bleating actually discloses a range of emotional states, and whales “whisper” to their calves to avoid detection by predators.

Human V. Nature: It’s a core concept in sound studies that human hearing is an evolutionary trait that assists us in sensing danger. As it turns out, much as our ears keep danger at bay, our voices do as well: Researchers have found that “even the gentlest of human speech can make wild animals–even top predators–unnerved and watchful, in ways that shake entire food webs. It’s the clearest demonstration yet that we are among the scariest of animals–a super-predator that terrifies even the carnivores that themselves incite terror.”

A lightly annotated clipping service (continued)

Tiny Tunes: “Stanford physicists have developed a ‘quantum microphone’ so sensitive that it can measure individual particles of sound, called phonons. … The quantum microphone the group developed consists of a series of supercooled nanomechanical resonators, so small that they are visible only through an electron microscope. The resonators are coupled to a superconducting circuit that contains electron pairs that move around without resistance. The circuit forms a quantum bit, or qubit, that can exist in two states at once and has a natural frequency, which can be read electronically. When the mechanical resonators vibrate like a drumhead, they generate phonons in different states.” (via Micah Stupak-Hahn)

Word Play: It’s a bit ironic, for me at least, that this story about the increasing use of captions by people who aren’t hearing-impaired appears in The Guardian, since the primary reason I started using captions was to understand what British people were mumbling on my TV. And then it became something of a norm at home, yielding benefits like the identity of songs that are playing in the background, and unintended humor, like when particular soundtrack cues are identified for their narrative purpose (“solemn music,” “upbeat music,” etc.). Interestingly, this apparently isn’t a particularly recent trend. A study in 2006 found that “of the 7.5 million UK TV viewers using subtitles, only 1.5 million had a hearing impairment.”

I Like Mic: The New York Times Sunday Magazine has this excellent ongoing series where people write in favor of something. It’s titled Letter of Recommendation, and two weeks ago David Rees, best known for the Get Your War On comics, wrote in favor of piezo microphones: “They look unassuming, but once they’re plugged into an amplifier, piezo discs become psychedelic microscopes for your ears, completely changing your sense of sonic scale. I taped one to the bottom of a water bottle on a hot afternoon and ran the signal through a reverb pedal; the ice cubes banging around sounded like gongs from distant planets. Rubbing a piezo mic against a felt cowboy hat sent me down a sound-dappled path of contemplation, musing on the subtleties of surface texture and how difficult it would be to play croquet on a felt cowboy hat if you were, say, 10 molecules tall. My dumb guitar never led me to such insights.

Pillow Talk: Amanda Hess, in the New York Times, surveys the range of sleep aids in the form of meditation and related apps. Helpfully, she provides beneficial context: “Internet culture is often described as hyper-visual, but it has also cracked open new relationships to sound. The rise of podcasts — designed to be listened to alone, in interstitial moments — has forged new aural pathways, and carved out its own aesthetic category: the ‘podcast voice,’ that wry, stammering, cool-nerd cadence. YouTube’s A.S.M.R. practitioners work their whispers and breaths and mouth noises to evoke physical sensations. Even the sounds of jogging geese and crackling ice are preserved for their #oddlysatisfying effects.” Her main focus is the Calm app. (I’d also recommend Insight Timer.)

Good Sex (Writing): And at the New Yorker, Sarah Larson on a subset of post-podcast erotica: “audio details that enhance a sense of pleasure, safety, and calm.”

Material Whirl: The latest edition of the Journal of Sound Studies was edited by Caleb Kelly (author of the excellent book Cracked Media: The Sound of Malfunction, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year). I’m still working my way through it, but it’s packed with interesting material, which makes sense, since its subject is “materials of sound.”

Re: Recount: WNYC recorded what an election recount sounds like, and shared a nicely edited collection of those sounds in a short broadcast segment. (via Mike Rhode)

Semi Annual: The cicada family has some 2,000 species around the world, and, according to Japan Times, some 35 in Japan (where “cicada” translates as “semi”). As with much life here on Earth, the cicada’s sounds correlate with mating. “The distinctive sound, appearance and short lifespan of cicadas have earned them a special place in Japanese culture, and the insects have appeared in numerous pieces of art and literature over the years.”

Elementary, or Not: This is both utterly inconsequential and, yet, for pure curiosity’s sake, worth noting. IBM’s Watson Marketing is now owned by Centerbridge Partners, and that Watson business has been renamed … “Acoustic.” Even though it seems to have nothing in particular to do with, well, sound.

Kitchen Aid: In Puerto Rico, a metal food receptacle, known as the cacerola, has a history as an instrument of protest. (via Sounding Out!: The Sound Studies Blog)

Social Studies: A study finds that people laugh more at televised jokes that are accompanied by laugh tracks. I don’t watch much comedy, so I’ll trust the science on this: “we’re just naturally more receptive to jokes when we already hear people laughing at them.” One additional interesting aspect of the study: autistic individuals made up a third of the people whose reactions were observed. (via NextDraft)

Bone Spur: You know how in every slightly scifi spy show someone puts a finger near their ear and they can tech-magically communicate with someone else on their highly trained squad? Well, bone conduction may yet make that real, thanks to a Kickstarter. (via IFTF)

Game On: The excellent A Closer Listen website singles out the best video-game scores of the year thus far.

Casual FX: A lot of writing about sound in video games comes back to the moment-specificity of sound in massive games that distinguishes them from the fixed recordings that accompany movies. At the Gamasutra website, Pavel Shylenok talks about the other end of the spectrum: casual games.

Reading the web

I’ve had this separate section for a few issues now where I highlight recent blog entries. The fact is, what is and isn’t a blog is a bit hazy, and has been for a long time. In any case, these are interesting, recent items from the blogs of sizable American institutions. If you have a sound/music blog or if there’s a sound/music blog you love, lemme know.

Minnesota Ranger: Andrew Fenchel, who runs the excellent Chicago-based concert series and arts organization Lampo, wrote at the blog of the Walker Art Center about a day-long “marathon” of sound art performances. It’s a great piece, with highlights of work by Christine Sun Kim, Walter Kitundu, Haroon Mirza, and other artists.

Summer Schooled: A summer intern at the Library of Congress writes about his dive into the institution’s resources: “I was able to find a few news articles about why music gets stuck in your head, and using the Library’s database resources, I located quite a few journal articles relating to the topic of earworms, or, to use the more scientific terminology, involuntary musical imagery (INMI). Interestingly, these journal articles dated back to the mid-2000s at the earliest–for some reason it was not a topic that was studied very extensively until the 21st century, and there still is no definitive answer as to why earworms happen. However, most studies I looked at found that longer note lengths and smaller intervals between notes made songs more likely to appear as INMI.” (via Mike Rhode)

This is lightly adapted from an edition first published in the July 28, 2019, issue of the free weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound.