This Week in Sound: The Aural Periodic Table

A lightly annotated clipping service

These sound-studies highlights of the week originally appeared in the January 10, 2023, issue of the free Disquiet.com weekly email newsletter, This Week in Sound.

▰ PERIOD PIECE: Jill Linz, a physics instructor at Skidmore College, has a project that “mapped atomic data into unique audible tone,” yielding an “aural periodic table.

“By examining the waveforms and tonal qualities of each element in the table, she’s beginning to explore how this ‘sonification’ of atoms might reveal unexpected structural relationships among elements.” 

These are waveforms of the first dozen elements: 

“From top to bottom, the left column shows hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium; the middle column shows boron, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen; and the right column shows fluorine, neon, sodium, magnesium.”

Listen at skidmore.edu(Thanks, Glenn Sogge!)

▰ BLIND SPOT: A point, from Fast Company, about how noise-canceling headphones can be too good at their job. This is in the context of the Dyson Zone, which combines air filter mask and ear gear:

“Then there’s the noise-canceling issue with the headphones. Yes, noise pollution is certainly a problem in cities like Manhattan with its cacophony of car horns and sirens. But, as annoying as those sounds can be, completely cutting them out in a dense metro area could constitute a health hazard. Situational awareness is pretty important with that many vehicles and people nearby.”

▰ TALK THERAPY: Novelist V. V. Ganeshananthan, author of Love Marriage and Brotherless Night, wrote for Time about turning to voice recognition software after losing use of her hands — and how much the tools still need to improve in order to truly serve the disabled:

“I found that I preferred Mac voice control and Google Docs voice typing because the lag between what I was thinking and what the software was typing was shorter; even if the difference was infinitesimal, it mattered. Because of its speed and its slightly better performance with non-Anglo proper nouns, I chose Google Docs for my novel. Sometimes I closed my eyes and muttered scenes into the screen, my former copyeditor’s self unable to bear the typo-written transcription. Sometimes when I could not resist touching the keyboard, I ended up having to wear ice sleeves. Sometimes I opened my eyes only to find that the dictation had stopped working partway through my sentences. If I used a phrase that was also a song or film title, Google would sometimes capitalize it. (“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” one character might have said to another.) As when I had typed for myself, I found that I could not write fiction in the presence of others. It felt too intimate. But eventually that self-consciousness fell away. It had to: The software was capable of composition, but when it came to revision, the amount of time and skill it would take to get things done was beyond me and my looming deadline.”

▰ SPEAKER SYSTEM: Apple is experimenting with using AI voices to narrate audiobooks: “[S]ome in the publishing industry are skeptical about replacing human narrators—often professional voice actors or the authors themselves—with A.I. They say that audiobooks are a form of art, and that human narrators help enhance the experience.” Meanwhile, apparently Amazon requires its Audible audiobooks “be narrated by a human.”

▰ BUG REPELLANT: The noisier humans get, the less successful grasshoppers are at having sex. Even though “their calls can reach intensities of 98 decibels at one metre, which is about as loud as a hand drill,” we can muffle that with our own sound: “As this species is highly dependent on acoustic communication for mate location, the reduced calling effort demonstrated by males at both study sites might have a negative impact on mating success.”

▰ QUICK NOTES: RING TONE: The Kitchen Sisters have an episode on the great sound artist Bill Fontana’s work based on the silenced bells of Notre Dame(Thanks, Lotta Fjelkegård!) ▰ LIST LESS: Nothing particularly sound related ranked among the top 10 technological innovations as determined by MIT’s technologyreview.com, nor among the four additional items readers are to vote for. ▰ LEADER BILLBOARD: Ranking the 10 best games based on their sound design: thegamer.com▰ FOLEY DU JOUR: Learn how game designers behind Dead Island 2 made the sound of zombie guts, among other subjects.

This Week in Sound: The Daily Hum of Nearby Surroundings

A lightly annotated clipping service

These sound-studies highlights of the week originally appeared in the January 3, 2023, issue of the free Disquiet.com weekly email newsletter, This Week in Sound.

RATTLE & ROLL: All about a device that helps us experience “The Unheard Symphony of the Planet” — read on nytimes.com via this gift link (and thanks, Paolo Salvagione!).

“The Raspberry Shake — a small device that combines a cheap computer called a Raspberry Pi with a monitor that measures minuscule ground movements — has, since 2016, helped to make seismology more accessible to the public. Raspberry Shakes are less sophisticated than professional seismographs but a fraction of the cost, and around 1,600 of the devices are scattered around the planet, livestreaming their open access data online to form the largest, real-time seismic network in the world. The network of “Shakers,” as the community likes to call itself, is made up of hobbyists, professionals and educators, whose instruments pick up the seismic waves of earthquakes as well as the daily hum of their nearby surroundings.”
THE SPINAL TAP THEOREM: “A team of researchers at the University of Manchester’s Centre for Audiology and Deafness, has found that musicians tend to listen to music at louder volume than non-musicians.” (Thanks, Glenn Sogge!)

To 11 and Beyond! Research by Antonia Olivia Dolan, Emanuele Perugia and Karolina Kluk

JUST DESERTS: Erik Davis brings us up to speed on Kim Haines-Eitzen’s book Sonorous Desert: What Deep Listening Taught Early Christian Monks — and What It Can Teach Us:

“In this relatively brief and beautifully written volume, Haines-Eitzen interleaves a study of what McLuhan would call the “acoustic space” of early desert monasticism — whose promise of silence struggled with winds, canyon echos, beasts, and demonic noise — with the author’s own quest to both understand the yen for silence that seizes many of us today (including myself) and to record the sonic landscapes of the world’s deserts (with QR codes at the end of the chapters linking to her lovely recordings online).”
SPEAK NOT: About that smart speaker your cousin gave your for the holidays — via researcher Matt Kunze:
“Once a hacker manages to connect their account to the Google Home speaker, they get access to the smart devices in the victim’s home. The bad actor could operate switches, play music, turn on and off appliances, and more. A hacker can also initiate a phone call via the smart home speaker, making it possible to record everything happening in the victim’s home. While in a phone call, the smart speaker’s lights turn blue, but if the victim is someone who doesn’t use this feature or isn’t well versed with Google Home’s options, they might just assume the speaker is updating or otherwise busy.”
BACK UP: Warren Ellis ponders always-on “memory prosthetics,” quoting Matt Webb:
“Sooner or later, every single conversation I have will be recorded and transcribed and I’ll be able to look back at it later – details from a phone call with the bank, in the hardware store asking a question, someone mentions a book at the pub, an idea in a workshop. Ignoring the societal consequences for a sec lol ahem… how should the app to manage all that chatter work?”
QUICK NOTES: BOW FLEX: The Musée Mécanique, here in San Francisco, where I live, has a thing called the Mills Bow-Front Violano Virtuoso, “a century-old self-playing device which performs duets on piano and violin.” (Thanks, Rich Pettus!)WHAT’S SHAKIN’?: All about EarSpy, an experiment in using motion sensors to tap into mobile phone conversations. ▰ WAX ON: A device called the Endpoint Cylinder and Dictabelt Machine has allowed fragile wax cylinders, over 100 years in age, to be digitized. (Thanks, Brian Biggs!)BOSS LEVEL: What is the greatest ever sound effect from a video game? ▰ DEVOTION COMMOTION: Reportedly there is faith-based sonic warfare happening in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh through loud prayer. ▰ LATEST BUZZ: Perhaps the first instance of a mysterious hum in 2023 has been reported in the town of Hinckley in Leicestershire, England.

This Week in Sound: Are Electric Cars Killing AM Radio?

A lightly annotated clipping service

These sound-studies highlights of the week originally appeared in the December 13, 2022, issue of the free Disquiet.com weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound: thisweekinsound.substack.com.

BUG OUT: Scientists are recreating the sounds of ancient insects. It’s like Jurassic Park, but smaller, and less of a DEFCON threat. It’s also considerably older.

Scientists had already suspected that katydids might have changed their tunes before mammals evolved better hearing about 160 million years ago. But they had no evidence for that hypothesis until [Michael Engel [at the University of Kansas] and his colleague Bo Wang at Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology in China discovered a collection of 63 very well-preserved male and female katydid fossils, representing 18 species from the Middle Jurassic Epoch, 160 million years ago, in north-eastern China.

The team photographed the three-dimensional fossils to investigate the males’ stridulatory organs – a set of five structures on the forewings that produce and radiate sound – and both sexes’ hearing organs, which resemble a somewhat simplified form of the human middle and inner ear structures and are located on the two front legs. In both modern and ancient species, all katydids have ears, but only males have stridulatory organs.

SONIC REDLINING: Students of Erica Walker, assistant professor of epidemiology at Brown University, have looked at how different neighborhoods around Providence, Rhode Island, were affected differently by noise pollution: “In the areas around highways and in neighborhoods with more non-white and low-income residents, students in Walker’s class found noise pollution levels were higher — sometimes above the maximum decibel levels set by city ordinances.” As part of the research, they produced heat maps displaying the relative impact.

Island Noise: Relative volume levels of Providence neighborhoods

RED EAR: The Mars rover was hit by a nearly 400-foot-tall dust storm and lived to share what its onboard microphones recorded: “The sound of the dust devil, published Tuesday to accompany a paper in the journal Nature Communications, is subtle. It’s crackly and percussive, like radio static, though one might more generously imagine a breeze ruffling some distant palm fronds.”

“[ISAE-SUPAERO planetary scientist Naomi] Murdoch said the team’s success in capturing a dust devil’s sound reflects both luck and preparation. The rover’s microphone takes recordings lasting a little under three minutes, and it does that only eight times a month. But the recordings are timed for when dust devils are most likely to occur, and the rover cameras are pointed in the direction where they are most likely to be seen.” (Thanks, Mike Rhode, for the Washington Post gift link!)

RADIO INTERFERENCE: One victim of electric vehicles appears to be AM radio, which (see nytimes.com gift link) is being dropped by numerous manufacturers, including Audi, Ford, Porsche, Tesla, Volkswagen, and Volvo:

An increasing number of electric models have dropped AM radio in what broadcasters call a worrisome shift that could spell trouble for the stations and deprive drivers of a crucial source of news in emergencies.

Carmakers say that electric vehicles generate more electromagnetic interference than gas-powered cars, which can disrupt the reception of AM signals and cause static, noise and a high-frequency hum. (FM signals are more resistant to such interference.)

Despite this industry-wide shift, the eradication of AM isn’t necessarily inevitable: “Some experts say the reception problems are not insurmountable.”

TAPE HEADS: A perspective on physical recording media, via New Scientist: “[A]udio on cassette doesn’t sound as good as hi-res streaming, so what is the appeal? Well, it is the same reason vinyl has made a comeback – the enduring lure of retro technology. Earlier this year, a series of experiments carried out by a team including psychologist Matthew Fisher at Yale University showed that people tend to prefer technology they think was invented before they were born, an effect that holds even when the technology isn’t as old as people think.”

QUICK NOTES: WHALE OF A MYSTERY: Whales are making their songs deeper. Scientists have found “the tonal frequencies of the songs had been sinking to even greater depths for three straight years.” And no one knows why. (Thanks, Erik Davis!)SKULL CANDY: WBUR covered how Berklee College of Music professor “Richard Boulanger turns … brainwaves into music in a high-pitch, high-tech demonstration.” ▰ BAD LANGUAGE: “[Research] suggest[s] that some sounds — plosives and affricates in particular — are more suitable for profanity than others. This may be because they sound more abrasive or aggressive than other sounds, and so make language harsher when used.” (Thanks, Christian Carrière!)PIER PRESSURE: Noise pollution of Hong Kong is keeping dolphins from being able to communicate with each other. ▰ BAND AID: Apple’s watchOS 9.2 has expanded its environmental noise detection offering. ▰ F(L)IGHT CLUB: It’s not just people who get road rage: “A recently published study has found that human-made traffic noises are linked to increased physical aggression in rural European robins.” ▰ NORTH STAR: Anchorage, Alaska, has tripled the fee for noisy vehicles, to $300 from $100. ▰ DIAMOND AGE: “The earliest transistor gadget to hit the market was a hearing aid released in 1953. Soon after came the transistor radio, which became emblematic of the 1960s.” And now the transistor has turned 75. ▰ CAM NOT: The organizer of the Citizens Noise Advisory Group in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is not convinced that so-called “sonic cameras” are the answer to the problem of vehicular noise pollution, noting vandalism, theft, and location avoidance as issues to be considered. ▰ RUMP ROAST: John Hodgman weighed in on whether the word “fart” counts as onomatopoeia — and whoever wrote the headline deserves a Pulitzer.

This Week in Sound: A Lone High-Pitched Honk

A lightly annotated clipping service

These sound-studies highlights of the week originally appeared in the December 6, 2022, issue of the free Disquiet.com weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound: thisweekinsound.substack.com.

SILENT VS. DEADLY: “The nearly silent motor of the ebike — a factor that can make them an accident risk in the busy city — has become the surprise secret weapon for saving the world’s most endangered species.” Yeah, park rangers are using ebikes in Mozambique, on the southeast coast of Africa, to catch poachers.

BATS, MAN: One thing that Substack subscribers helped me do was rationalize a subscription to New Scientist: “Bats are known for their high-frequency calls, which they use to echolocate and catch prey, but they also let out much lower frequency calls for bat-to-bat communication. The structure in a bat’s larynx that lets them produce these sounds is the same one used by death metal singers to growl out low notes. … Lower frequency squeaks came from the bats’ false vocal folds, which get their name from the fact that ‘in humans they are rarely used, never for speech’.” (Thanks, Rich Pettus)

BATHROOM TONE: “Scientists have created a machine that will listen to your farts, pee, and poop. Yes, that’s right. The machine will recognize and analyze the sound of each bathroom-related activity.” It is not April Fools Day, though the scientists sure have a sense of humor. The machine is called Synthetic Human Acoustic Reproduction Testing machine — or S.H.A.R.T. for short. “Scientists are training AI to detect and scrutinize scatological sounds so that it can one day help in diagnosing deadly diseases like cholera and nip a potential outbreak in the bud.”

GADGETS WITH BIG IDEAS: Popular Science’s list of the year’s 100 best inventions includes at least one mentioned here previously (Sony earbuds with an “open ring” to make sure you hear the outside world while you’re outside in it, for safety’s sake). ▰ There’s also GameDAC (digital audio converter), which “connects to multiple systems and pumps out high-res certified sound with 360-degree spatial audio from whatever source you choose.” ▰ And a soundbar, the Diome, that may be worth the price. ▰ And most interestingly (to me), a drone (named the Zipline) that use sound to avoid obstacles: “Eight microphones on the drone’s wing listen for traffic like an approaching small plane, and can preemptively change the UAV’s route to get out of the way before it arrives.”

This is an image showing how flying objects can avoid each other
Air Lines: Graphic from the flyzipline.com website illustrates how drones “autonomously and continuously monitor for airspace traffic”

GOOSE CHASE: One of my favorite newsletters (Substack or otherwise) is This Week in Birding by Bob Dolgan, whose writing about his dedicated pursuit can be quite beautiful. Here he is on the trail of the Cackling Goose, which sounds like something Edward Gorey might have come up with:

“I stood on a snowy baseball field and looked up a cackler video on my phone and compared it to the birds around me. The nearby geese were considerably larger with a slightly different posture than the bird in the video. As I was doing this, a lone high-pitched honk pierced some momentary quiet and seemingly hung in the wintry air for a moment.”

BOXED IN: A “boxy” heating solution called the heat pump is gaining popularity in Germany, but first someone has to sort out the noise concerns. (Thanks, Mike Rhode!)

Aware of the problem, German manufacturers have been fine-tuning their machines to make them quieter. Vaillant has altered the angle of the blades and cut zigzagged notches into their edges, testing the results in an acoustics room on the premises of their factory.

QUICK NOTES: STILL LIFE: John McNamee looks at the role of silence in the comics of the Norwegian cartoonist who simply goes by the name Jason (via Mike Rhode). ▰ DEAF TONE: There’s lots of talk about recent legal changes opening the market for cheap(er) hearing aids — now there’s news about low-cost tests for hearing loss, too. ▰ FOOD FIGHT: I couldn’t help but notice that the Kenyan “upmarket” suburb where a local restaurant has gotten noise complaints is named Karen. ▰ PING PONG: I love when a UX fetishist details such a minor thing as the change in sounds made by Google’s Messages app. ▰ WILD THINGS: At least 53 creatures “thought to be soundless are actually communicating with vocalizations” (and more at nature.comthanks again, Rich Pettus!).

This Week in Sound: Seeing the Sound Effects in Video Games

A lightly annotated clipping service

These sound-studies highlights of the week originally appeared in the November 29, 2022, issue of the free Disquiet.com weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound: thisweekinsound.substack.com.

HOLD YOUR APPLAUSE: As I mention each week, I love getting TWiS tips from readers, especially regarding topics (e.g., sports, fashion, romance fiction) in which I am virtually illiterate. Bruno Ruviaro wrote in about the World Cup:

“With the World Cup going on and all my family and friends in Brazil watching games, I came across this interesting & unexpected effect of online streaming delays and communal sound. Soccer fans in Brazil who watched the game via streaming got extremely annoyed when they realized they were so behind the others who were watching on regular TV. They would hear the uproar of neighbours celebrating Brazil’s goal, while their own screen was still 30-40 seconds in the past. In soccer’s terms, of course, 30 seconds is an eternity. Totally ruined the game for streaming viewers.”

And he shared some coverage from newsbulletin247.com:

“Fans reported … having been warned about … goals in advance, through the screams and fireworks of neighbors. ‘I’m spoiling all the goals because of the neighbors,’ posted one Twitter user. ‘It’s so much different delay that each person here in the building reacts at a different time,’ wrote another.”

BOXED IN: Caity Weaver, writer, and Alec Soth, photographer, teamed up for “Could I Survive the ‘Quietest Place on Earth’?” — a New York Times piece about an anechoic chamber in Minneapolis. That it takes its origin from a story in, of all things, the Daily Mail, is somewhat troubling, but Weaver makes a solid case for the specific location’s internet fame (a term I predict will someday replace the current meaning of the word “infamous”), thanks to the groundswell that initially informed the Daily Mail story, and more recent attention on TikTok and YouTube. The Minneapolis spot isn’t the anechoic chamber where John Cage had his silence epiphany. It’s a discarded one from Sunbeam, purchased from the appliance manufacturer by Steven J. Orfield, of Orfield Laboratories, in the 1980s. Among many things of interest in the story, including Weaver’s fine description of facing the challenge of monumental silence, is a showdown between Orfield and Microsoft for the Guiness Book of Records title. (Read free with this gift link — and thanks to the many people who shared the story with me.)

IVONA BE A CONTENDER: There’s so much news about the declining profits (and future) of the seemingly ubiquitous voice assistants like Alexa, Google Assistant, Cortana, and Bixby that I’m still wrapping my head around it. Here’s one bit, from Gizmodo:

“Amazon marketed Alexa at a low price in order to use it as a conduit to get consumers to purchase more from Amazon, but the voice assistant quickly became the subject of innocuous requests to play music and to relay weather conditions, not to purchase more laundry detergent. … ‘Alexa is a colossal failure of imagination,’ an anonymous former employee said to Insider. ‘It was a wasted opportunity.’”

KEY OF LIFE: Like a lot of “why” news stories, the NPR discussion “Why the key change has disappeared from top-charting tunes” is more of a “that” story — that is, it says “that” happened, without much concrete why. In brief, according to Chris Dalla Riva, a musician and data analyst (at Audiomack): “from the 1960s through the ’90s, roughly a quarter of No. 1 songs changed keys.” By contrast: “in the entire decade from 2010 to 2020, there was only 1.” (See this week’s TWiS Sound Ledger for its identity.) Dan Charnas, author of the great book Dilla Time, suggests that overfamiliarity undid the technique: “Charnas says the key change kind of got stale. It sort of became a crutch.” NPR host Ari Shapiro notes changing times: “Instead of melody, popular music today often prioritizes rhythm, like rap and hip-hop.”

Chartbreaker: No messin’ around, the key change has been in serious decline for years (via flowingdata.com)

I wonder if part of the decline in the popularity of the key change has to do with music becoming more always-on in our age of streaming (Audiomulch, Riva’s employer, is itself a streaming service). There’s an argument that most music today is experienced as ambient music — that is, as background sound that one might elect on occasion to actually pay attention to – and that for many people, its purpose is to set a consistent tone and back away. That would mean that songs are most appreciated when they don’t change, and that they’re appreciated precisely when they hold a certain emotional tone for the length of their playing time. (Thanks, Rich Pettus.)

RING CYCLE: Major thanks to the folks at eurogamer.net for introducing me to the concept of the “Sound Ring” in the video game Fortnite. In brief, the Sound Ring visualizes sound effects, so you “see” the sound effects as they occur. Says one Eurogamer writer:

“For someone with hearing issues like me it’s a game-changer, but I’ve been talking to a number of people who don’t have hearing issues and who also use it and also find it to be a brilliant thing.”

And another:

“I think it’s a fantastic piece of accessibility design and a genuine aid for everyone. It helps me play better — prioritise what I’m going to do next based on something’s proximity, discover chests or other players I might not have had cues to. It makes me more alert to the game and its world feel more alive to see visual clues to things I might not have picked up myself.”

Even if you don’t play video games, it’s a fascinating UX topic. Note that these aren’t visualized like comic book or manga sound effects. It’s something quite different. Here’s a still image via fortniteintel.com:

Apparently, though, the Sound Ring is (or was?) somewhat controversial. Some gamers are (or were) quite opposed to the Sound Ring (assuming you’re not deaf or hearing impaired), at least in part because when first deployed, the in-game sound was reduced from stereo to mono, though apparently that issue was corrected at least a year ago

QUICK NOTES: NO KITTEN: A cat owner, Lucas Fischer, in Indonesia uses AI to “scientifically measure” how “annoying” his pet is: “The app uses Apple’s Sound Analysis framework to recognize the noises made by a cat. Sound Analysis can identify over 300 specific sounds including laughter, applause, and, of course, meows” (meow.lucas.love). ▰ HANDS-FREE AUDIOBOOKS: When using Audible on iOS you can now use Alexa voice commands to navigate your audiobook, such as pause or repeat a section. ▰ OFF THE HOOK: The airline Frontier has done away entirely with human phone support in favor of “fully digital communications.” ▰ LET’S SUBMERGE: The Unreal Engine now supports multichannel audio, meaning game developers, among others, can newly “couple a 3D interface with 3D sound.” (For someone like me who mostly loiters in video games, this is a virtual flâneur’s dream come true.) ▰ FLY LIGHT: The Candela P-8 Voyager, due in 2024, is a “flying, whisper-quiet explorer vessel” with an “electric hydrofoil” that is said to significantly reduce sound underwater. ▰ REST IN PIECES: Tom Phillips, the British painter perhaps most widely known for his work with Brian Eno, King Crimson, and the Who, and for his decades-long collage exploration, The Humument, died yesterday, November 28, at age 87. (I fell hard for Phillips during high school, and never lost interest. I treasure my hardback copy of the original A Human Document book, by W.H. Mallock, on which Phillips’ The Humument was based.)