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tag: this week in sound

This Week in Sound: Bracelet of Silence + …

A lightly annotated clipping service

This is lightly adapted from an edition first published in the February 17, 2020, 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.

“I know the microphone is constantly on,” said one computer scientist to the other. They are spouses, and the microphone in question was in their home. So while much of society routinely accepts domestic surveillance as the price of convenience, Ben Zhao and Heather Zheng set out to find a solution, and in the process developed a “bracelet of silence” (much tidier than the old Get Smart cone), though still somewhat clunky, like the severed arm of a robot octopus. “[T]he bracelet has 24 speakers that emit ultrasonic signals when the wearer turns it on. The sound is imperceptible to most ears, with the possible exception of young people and dogs, but nearby microphones will detect the high-frequency sound instead of other noises.”

“A new kind of red light is going viral — one that stays red as long as drivers keep honking their horns.” If you follow the noise-pollution beat, you know that no English-language reporting amasses more coverage than that originating in India. Mumbai has taken a highly tactical approach to the problem: “The police hooked a decibel meter to the signal and said if the decibel level went over 85, the red light would get longer.” (Factoid side note: “Mumbai and Manhattan don’t even crack the top five noisiest cities, according to the World Hearing Index: ‘Guangzhou, China, ranked as having the worst levels of noise pollution in the world, followed by Cairo, Paris, Beijing and Delhi.'”)

“Square’s acquisition of Dessa comes after the financial tech company snatched up Eloquent Labs, a conversational AI services business founded by two leading natural language processing researchers.” AI startups are sometimes described as technologies in search of solutions. The company Dessa, born, specializes in deepfakes, both visual and audio, and has been acquired by Square, the financial technology company led by Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey.

“Google has started adding an incredibly error-prone automatic punctuation feature to its voice typing input method that can’t be turned off, and it’s driving. People. Nuts.” If you’ve ever tried to insert punctuation with voice technology, you know the drill. Google has tried out a solution, but it’s. Causing. More problems. Than perhaps were. Expected.

“For X-Files fans and nerdy boys n’ girls who’ve crushed on Anderson for decades, it might all be too much.” Gillian Anderson has recorded ASMR to promote her new comedy, Sex Education.

“A telescope in Canada has found a source of mysterious fast radio bursts that repeat every 16 days, according to a new paper. It’s the first regularly repeating fast radio burst known to science.” The signal’s origin is reportedly about half a billion light-years away from Earth, so you have time to re-read Childhood’s End.

“Your personality’s central organ is your voice”: That’s one of numerous sentences that volunteers must repeat as part of a Northeastern University project to “donate their voices” for use by others who lack their own voices: “For someone who has never been able to speak due to conditions like cerebral palsy or severe autism, VocaliD can blend a donated voice with the nonverbal sounds from a recipient to create a personalized voice that represents what that person would sound like if she could speak.”

When the Oscars were being broadcast last weekend, I didn’t pay a lot of attention. I was cooking dinner. When someone called out the nominees for a given category, I’d take an educated guess as to who might win. That’s how the Oscar game is played. But when it came time for the best composer, I said I would guess not who I thought would win, but who I wanted to win: Hildur Guonadottir. Then her name was announced (for Joker), and I screeched loud enough to alarm the neighbors. She was the first woman to win in nearly a quarter century. Last year was a blockbuster for Guonadottir, who also did the music for the HBO series Chernobyl. (Forgive me for not including the accent marks, but at the moment the third letter in Guonadottir breaks my website’s content management system. I’ve been looking into it.)

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This Week in Sound: Death of a Field Recording Artist + …

A lightly annotated clipping service

This is lightly adapted from an edition first published in the August 26, 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.

Field recording is not for wimps. Remember the scene in Grizzly Man, the Werner Herzog documentary, in which we watch the director’s slowly contorting face as he listens, in a mix of fear and astonishment, to the audio of a dying Timothy Treadwell, the film’s title character, as Treadwell (an unfortunate name in this circumstance) is mauled by a bear? Keep that in mind as you read about the reported death of Julien Gaulthier, a “French artist who used sounds of nature in his music.” Gaulthier had been traveling in a remote stretch of Canada with a biologist, Camille Toscani, “recording new sounds for his work.” Toscani reports a “bear entered their camp at night and dragged Gauthier away.” (via Daniel C and Tobias Reber)

Sarah Jeong, a member of the editorial board of the New York Times, writes about Facebook and audio surveillance as part of The Privacy Project. It’s a limited-run email newsletter. The crux: “insistence that Facebook is not listening to you is, predictably, undermined by Facebook, which sometimes is secretly listening to you.” Jeong is distinguishing a widespread perception (that Facebook or some other service is serving something up to you in an ad or other content based on something you have said) from a reality (that Facebook, for example, is using humans to transcribe audio you may believe to be entirely private). This is the difference between a deep-seated anxiety and a practical, uncomfortable reality.

Consider sonic warfare as a subset of “hostile architecture“: that is, as an audio parallel to uncomfortable benches, skateboard-resistant ledges, and spiked window ledges.

“The harvesting of biometric data from sometimes vulnerable populations has raised concerns about the potential for mass surveillance.” Madhumita Murgia, European technology correspondent for the Financial Times, ties audio surveillance together with eye, face, and other technologies into a concern about biometric data.

That hyperviolent fighting video game is actually vegan food-violence porn. Or at least its sound effects are. (via NextDraft)

“Last month alone, Americans received an estimated 4.7 billion illegal spam calls.” Apparently a dozen major telecom providers are teaming up to fight this. The name of the underlying technological fix is STIR/SHAKEN, which sounds like a James Bond reference, apparently stands for “Secure Telephony Identity Revisited and Secure Handling of Asserted information using toKENs.”

The only thing worse than receiving a call from a spam number may be inadvertently asking your voice assistant to dial one. Your robo-assistant may be doing you a disservice that has nothing to do with invading your privacy. At least not in the manner you’ve come to be concerned about.

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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.”

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This Week in Sound: Nuromuscular Signals + AI Drummer +

A lightly annotated clipping service

This is lightly adapted from an edition first published in the August 11, 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.

Head Gear: A device called AlterEgo can hear when you talk to yourself. “The technology involves a system of sensors that detect the minuscule neuromuscular signals sent by the brain to the vocal cords and muscles of the throat and tongue. These signals are sent out whenever we speak to ourselves silently, even if we make no sounds. The device feeds the signals through an A.I., which ‘reads’ them and turns them into words. The user hears the A.I.’s responses through a microphone that conducts sound through the bones of the skull and ear, making them silent to others. Users can also respond out loud using artificial voice technology.” (via subtopes)

Intelligent Drum Music: “Sony is the latest company to dip its toes into AI-powered music. The company revealed this week that its researchers have created a machine learning model that can create kick-drum tracking.” Fun fact: “In order to train the AI system, Sony’s researchers compiled data from 665 different songs from a wide range of genres including pop, rock and electronica.” If they’d only gone for one more, they coulda given Black Sabbath’s Bill Ward a run for the heavy-metal money. More at

Virtual Hassle: “In scripted media like a pre-rendered 2D video, you always know where sound should come from — the audio levels for each channel never change from one viewing to the next. Even a 3D game has a workable level of complexity thanks to the predetermined parameters of the environment. With VR, there are simply too many variables to create perfect, realistic sound from every perspective.” And how a new algorithm from Stanford researchers may fix that. (via the Institute for the Future)

Earworm Autopsy: “I like the sound of instruments when they’re not perfectly in tune. It’s more interesting, this feeling of humanness that comes through when things aren’t perfect, or when a sound has a subtle sourness to it.” That’s composer Nicholas Britell in a great Vulture interview about his theme for HBO’s TV series Succession.

Et Tu, Skype?: Reportedly: “Microsoft contractors are listening to conversations between users on Skype who use its translation feature, according to Motherboard. This is done only if users are performing a translation function in Skype and not during any other typical Skype voice or video call.” More at

Smarter Phone: How do you hide where you are? Funny you should ask: “sophisticated products have started to emerge that add noise near a device’s microphones to mask sound in vicinity of the device.” (via subtopes)

TV Talk: Kalev Leetaru, a Forbes contributor, visualizes the consistency of the number of words per minute spoken on TV news: “The timeline below shows the average number of words spoken per second on CNN by day from July 2, 2009 to June 30, 2019, looking only at its captioned airtime. Over the past decade this rate has remained remarkably steady, decreasing ever so slightly through early 2015 and slowly edging back up ever since.” (via Sean Zdenek)

Secret Hideout: “After selecting the way I’d like to feel in an app (I believe I chose ‘energize’), I lie down on a leather pad, don headphones, and close my eyes, listening to a soothing world beat with a strong Om undercurrent. Ross is a big believer in the healing power of color and sound. (Her team went so far as to develop an installation at Milan that demonstrated how just sitting in different rooms can affect your core physiology.) For 15 minutes I wonder what I’m doing, wasting time on this silly bed. Then I stand up, eyes suddenly alert with a skip in my step.” Mark Wilson of Fast Company describes a visit to Google’s “top-secret design lab.” (The Ross is Ivy Ross, “vice president and head of hardware design.”)

Going Quiet: “I knew I had a problem when I started wearing headphones around my apartment,” begins Joel Pavelski’s GQ story about taking a “month-long sound fast.” First he had to hit rock bottom, which happened when his shower speaker broke: “I stopped and listened while my breathing went slowly back to normal. The shaky, queasy feeling went away. And, after a moment or two, my own thoughts rushed into the void. For a few brief, blissful minutes I re-acquainted myself with my internal monologue. It felt like a phone conversation with a friend that I hadn’t talked to in years.” Of course, once you stop using headphones, you don’t stop listening. Some might say that’s when you actually start.

Reading the web

As always, if you have a blog related to sound or music, let me know. Both this week’s entries are from Australia, per chance.

Reel Life: Jason Richardson picks up the story (from last week’s This Week in Sound issue) of Sony’s purchase of the Milan Records movie-soundtrack label, with observations about fellow students in TV production, specifically their habit of “adding soundtrack-style music to their own lives for feeling of being part of a movie.”

Sound Flâneur: The sound artist Tristan Louth-Robins has renewed his blogging vows with a lengthy update on his creative pursuits, including his great Fleurieu Sound Map, shown above.

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This Week in Sound: Chakra Con + Sleep App-nea +

+ Label M&A&R + the Music Conservatory of Minecraft + More

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.

Chakra Con?: “For centuries, various cultures, including my own, South Asian,” writes Amitha Kalaichandran in the New York Times, “have used sound as a part of religious ceremonies and prayer, with one goal being to promote and facilitate meditation. In that sense, it’s not terribly different from singing hymns in a church. Most religions and cultures use music and sound for spiritual reasons. … But what about the promise of healing? After all, the use of sound is advertised as an activity that can do many things, including ‘realigning your chakras’ and ‘mind expansion.'” The article explores the growing phenomenon of “sound bath” as a practice and a service. Some scientific studies are providing that show evidence of health benefits, especially for stress and depression.

Mozart Effect: BBC Radio 3, which focuses on classical, jazz, and other non-popular music and audio, has reported an impressive 6% growth since this time last year. Given the increasing prominence of chillout playlists on streaming services like Spotify, it’d be interesting to know if this is an example of listeners also seeking “functional” or background music.

Sleep App-nea: More on music to sleep to. Last week from the New York Times. This week from the Los Angeles Times. That both articles focus specifically on the same app (Calm) in what is actually a wide and diverse field (including Insight Timer, Endel, Headspace, etc.) suggests this cycle of cultural discussion is being led by a line item in a single company’s marketing budget, which is exactly the sort of thing that keeps me up at night.

The Business of Music: (1), the online musical-instrument retailer, was bought by, the DiY marketplace, just a few weeks ago. (2) Now this week, Milan Records, a major force in the soundtracks of movies and, to a lesser degree, television, has been bought by Sony Music. (3) And between those two announcements, the sound branding agency Listen became part of Superfly, which has its own creative agency and produces festivals like Bonnaroo and Outside Lands. These are all situations in which companies that serve(d) sizable niches have become, over night, components of larger, related businesses. These deals get at how the internet has made such niches more substantial. Milan has a sizable catalog of exactly the sort of music that Sony had long defined itself as above, as apart from. Sony has released plenty of movie soundtracks over the years, but the perception to some degree is that Sony releases the major works (or, to borrow its label terminology, Masterworks), leaving the vast remainder to labels like Milan, Lakeshore, and Varèse Sarabande. Now that distinction is muddier, as Sony gets deeper into the field. The question that such deals, especially when occurring in close proximity, raises is: What’s next? Does SoundCloud become part of some other, adjacent streaming business, like YouTube or, who knows, Netflix, which might seek a way to entertain its subscriber base when the audience’s eyes aren’t available? Does the manufacturer Native Instruments join Beats as part of Apple? Does Ikea outright purchase Teenage Engineering, its recent collaborator? Will an app like Calm or Insight Timer become a part of the audiobook service Audible, itself bought by Amazon just over a decade ago? And more importantly, what happens when such businesses become part of a larger organization? Do they reap benefits of a broader audience, or get whittled down due to larger internal forces? We’ll see.

The Key of 3D Flat: Have you ever taken a music-theory course involving a live flames (see below), or giant pits filled with a human-scale mechanical sequencer? Well, if you make it through the Minecraft Conservatory of Music, you’ll be able to answer in the affirmative. That’s the name of a new video series on YouTube by a longtime player of the retro, 3D-block video game, and who also has a master’s degree in music performance (focused on bassoon). The first video explains how “blocks” are employed inside Minecraft for musical expression, with examples including works by Tchaikovsky, Bach, and Gershwin, and a modern classic: Legend of Zelda. Episode two discusses time signatures.

Human Touch: Back in January, Apple put up a large billboard in Las Vegas ahead of the Consumer Electronics Show. Apple historically hasn’t participated in CES, but as a cheeky gesture it did deign to join the conversation this year, speaking in large letters above the Strip. The billboard read, “What happens on your iPhone stays on your iPhone,” which was both a play on Las Vegas’ long-running tagline, and a not-so-subtle critique of the role passive surveillance plays in Google’s advertising network, not to mention the broader privacy issues of the Internet of Things. Barely half a year later, Apple is dealing with its own privacy concerns, following revelations about how things dictated by users to Siri are reportedly sometimes overheard by flesh-and-blood contractors. Now Google, Apple, and Amazon are taking action. The latter, whose Alexa service is reportedly on the largest number of internet-connected consumer devices, is providing ways to “let customers disable human review” of their audio.

Phone Bank: You know the saying about how every company is now a technology company? Well, that means that every company has the opportunity for tech-company woes: “A bank has left more than one million audio recordings of phone calls seemingly made by bank employees exposed to the open internet, letting anyone listen in on sensitive conversations, including ones with potential customers.” The exposed folder contained recordings dating back to 2015.

Richter Roll: I’ve been a curious admirer of the 1974 film Earthquake for years, in particular due to the balance of John Williams’ score and the film’s sonic effects. Marke B. (a friend since the mid-1990s) takes a deep dive into the subwoofer for a Red Bull Music Academy article on the equipment constructed for the movie: “When it was time for the theater to quake, the soundtrack played two inaudible ‘control tones.’ These tones would trigger a special Sensurround box, which would use what was called a pseudorandom noise generator to create the low frequency rumble, sending it out to the amplifiers in the specially constructed speakers.”

Rotor Rooters: Helicopters are being normalized as a form of high-flying commute and general-use transportation in the New York City area, leading to complaints about noise pollution, in addition to concerns about safety due to increased air traffic. “Just because somebody’s got a couple hundred bucks to get to the airport,” says a Queens resident, “doesn’t mean they should be doing that to the negative impact of somebody else. They can get to the airport the same way everybody else gets to the airport.” (via Ethan Hein)

Sweet Little Things: “There’s something immensely calming about the turtle dove’s song,” says singer Sam Lee to journalist Patrick Barkham. “It has this low frequency that suddenly appears and disappears. It’s almost the flicker of a film – and such a metaphor for its own situation. The silence around it is as powerful as its presence.” Barkham writes at length about the threat of extinction for the famed migratory bird. (via subtopes)

Song Kraft: In a ruling whose ramifications are still being sorted out, a “nearly 20-year legal battle over the unauthorized sampling of a Kraftwerk song appears to finally be near an end after the European Court of Justice ruled in favor of the pioneering German group.” An initial read of the decision seems to state that artists will need approval from the original artist before recognizably sampling their work. While there are clarifications, this certainly seems troubling. Makes me wonder if I needed to copy that sentence in quotation marks, even though I’m including the link here to the source.

This is lightly adapted from an edition first published in the August 4, 2019, issue of the free weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound.

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