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tag: this week in sound

This Week in Sound: Deepfakes, Subways, NSFW

A lightly annotated clipping service

It’s been a while. Best way to dust off the This Week in Sound apparatus is to kick out a new issue, which I did last night (subscribe at tinyletter.com/disquiet). Things have been busy. A lot of writing, a lot of working, a lot of pandemic-era living. As always, tips on topics related to sound are always appreciated. Send them my way, please. They’re in no short supply, but the best examples often originate from sources deep into a seemingly non-sonic topic that ends up having unique sonic components.

There’s a company called Pindrop that was created to pinpoint the presence of deepfakes. They think they’ve sorted out which bits of the recent Anthony Bourdain movie, Roadrunner, were created artificially. The director, Morgan Neville, had said they would be “undetectable,” writes Tom Simonite, when Neville elected to have machines impersonate Bourdain to record things the late author and television personality had written but never spoken. Pindrop (and various online commenters) now think otherwise. As for the filmmaker’s ethics, this section of Simonite’s Wired story is especially solid: “[I]t is still possible to inform listeners about the source of what they’re hearing. At one point in Roadrunner, a caption advises viewers they are hearing ‘VOICE OVER – OUTTAKE.’ It’s not clear why Neville didn’t use a ‘synthetic audio’ caption for his AI-generated clips — or if disclosing them in the film, not just interviews in which he boasted they were undetectable, would have softened the backlash.”
https://www.wired.com/story/these-hidden-deepfakes-anthony-bourdain-movie/

I can’t remember the last time an article was shared with me more often than the recent New York Times online piece, complete with audio selections, about the sounds of subways around the world. It’s filled with choice details, such as how the “synthetic ‘doo-doo-doo'” of the Montreal system has its roots in a sound that was a byproduct of the circuitry. And with nuances regarding the employment of sound: “It seems to a layperson like a door chime is innocuous, but it’s a really critical part of keeping the capacity of the subway up,” reports a New York City Transit conductor. (Article by Sophie Haigney and Denise Lu, design by Gabriel Gianordoli and Umi Syam.)
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/08/13/arts/subway-train-sounds.html

Without quoting it directly, I will simply say there is a NSFW and highly satisfactory anecdote in Rebecca Mead’s profile of Jesse Armstrong, writer and creator of the HBO series Succession. I recommend reading the whole thing, but you can also just search for the word “slapping” and learn about the role of music in masking the sonic byproduct of certain group activities.
https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/08/30/the-real-ceo-of-succession

R. Murray Schafer, to whom we owe the modern concept of the “soundscape,” has died at age 88. “In a way, the world is a huge musical composition that’s going on all the time, without a beginning and, presumably, without an ending,” he is quoted by Robert Rowat in this obituary. Schafer died a little under a month after his birthday, July 18, which has served, in his honor, as the date of the annual World Listening Day.
https://www.cbc.ca/music/r-murray-schafer-composer-writer-and-acoustic-ecologist-has-died-at-88-1.5404868

Quiet Parks International (quietparks.org) is identifying the “last quiet places” on our planet, ranging from the rural, such as the remote Zabalo River in Ecuador, to urban ones, such as Hampstead Heath in London. According to Nell Lewis, the organization has identified “260 potential sites around the world.”
https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/quiet-parks-quiet-places-noisy-planet-spc-intl/index.html

Hans Zimmer has written music for numerous movies, and now he’s added a book to his resume, alongside providing sounds for everything from apps to cars. He hasn’t written a book. He’s written music to accompany a book, specifically a limited edition art book on Denis Villeneuve’s forthcoming adaptation of the Frank Herbert novel Dune. Zimmer also scored the film, of course. And don’t fret the “limited” situation. Abbey White reports that it will be available for streaming and download.
https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-news/hans-zimmer-second-dune-score-film-companion-book-1234997876/

Windows 11 is due make users less “jumpy” thanks to a new suite of sound cues produced by sound designer Matthew Bennett. “The new sounds have a much rounder wavelength, making them softer so that they can still alert/notify you, but without being overwhelming,” according to a company spokesperson. Bennett shared some examples, including default beeps and calendar notifications.
https://www.cnbc.com/2021/08/22/microsoft-delivers-calm-system-sounds-in-windows-11.html

The “quiet” of the title locale in journalist Stephen Kurczy’s new book, The Quiet Zone, is not literal. The town is Green Banks, West Virginia, and the “quiet” involves restrictions on “devices emanating electromagnetic emissions,” writes Don Oldenburg. This is all so as to not interfere with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. And as it turns out, this town is in many ways the opposite of quiet.
https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/books/2021/08/04/stephen-kurczys-the-quiet-zone-explores-town-without-cell-phones/5471413001/

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This Week (or So) in Vocal Deepfakes:

Lightly annotated

  1. The director of a documentary film uses an AI engine so that his celebrated, deceased subject can speak from beyond the grave: theverge.com.

  2. A musician creates a business built around deepfake technology, letting other musicians engage with her voice: rollingstone.com.

  3. Bedroom producers make “fan fiction” songs featuring the AI-engineered voices of actual stars: billboard.com.

  4. Synthetic voices belatedly catch up with CGI, and all-digital animation may be in our near future: technologyreview.com.

Initial vaguely related thoughts:

  • All bands start as cover bands.

  • There’s a whole culture of nightclub performers, cover bands, and actors having careers (or partial careers) being other people.

  • There’s an uncanny valley between John Fogerty being sued for sounding like himself and the verdict against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams in the “Blurred Lines” case.

  • A lot of the voices of fictional robots and androids in film and television are the voices of humans (see: 2001: A Space Odyssey, WarGames, Max Headroom, Colossus: The Forbin Project, and so on).

  • The future is especially meaningful when viewed through the lens of the past.

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Soundbites: Deaf Bell, Social Sound, Venue-less Gigs

Recent reads (etc.) on sound

A lightly annotated sound-studies clipping service, collected in advance of the next issue of my This Week in Sound email newsletter (tinyletter.com/disquiet):

The mother of the father of the telephone was deaf. Alexander Graham Bell’s own father developed a system called Visible Speech to facilitate communication. Bell eventually himself married a woman who had lost her hearing in childhood. And now, Katie Booth, in her new book, The Invention of Miracles: Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell’s Quest to End Deafness, traces this throughline in Bell’s life and work: “his creative genius and his misguided efforts to eradicate Deaf culture,” as Valerie Thompson puts it in a review. Here’s a particularly damning statement from Bell’s wife: “You are tender and gentle to deaf children, but their interest to you lies in their being deaf, not in their humanity.”
https://blogs.sciencemag.org/books/2021/04/06/the-invention-of-miracles/

LinkedIn is reportedly looking to add an audio chatroom feature, which makes sense, given how much of Clubhouse, the “audio social network,” has been professional conversations. This feature expansion would be part of a broader range of changes LinkedIn is making to flesh out its social capabilities.
https://www.firstpost.com/tech/news-analysis/linkedin-confirms-that-it-is-working-on-a-clubhouse-like-audio-chatroom-feature-9483741.html

Miss live music? Then I recommend this Gabriele de Seta essay on Hong Kong’s “no-venue underground” (a term credited to Rob Hayler), drawing from personal experience (2012-2016) playing in a city with few places to perform experimental music in the first place: “It is somehow ironically appropriate that, in this city without ground, experimental musicians find themselves relegated to a precarious underground actively carved out of fleeting spaces strewn across the upper floors of post-industrial peripheries. These precarious venues appear and disappear following the inexorable inflation of property prices and the investment decisions of landlords, leaving local show organizers to work in the present tense with whatever space is available at the moment.” It’s a timely, applicable piece during our moment of place-less livestreams. The essay is from the new book Fractured Scenes: Underground Music-Making in Hong Kong and East Asia, edited by Damien Charrieras and François Mouillot, both professors at universities in Hong Kong.
https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-981-15-5913-6_7

Erik Davis, author of Techgnosis and a friend of mine since college, writes about taking guitar lessons for the first time since high school. I myself started taking weekly lessons a few years ago, and can relate to this distinction he draws: “Rather than playing guitar, I am practicing with it. I don’t mean rote exercises — though I do some of those — but something more like meditation practice: a daily commitment to disciplined method and unpredictable encounter, to emotional exploration and deconstruction, to attention and listening as much as to performance or ‘doing.’” Likewise, he talks about trying to reconsider the role of recording in his efforts: “I want the recording device to become part of practice rather than ambition, no longer a staff sergeant of the Productivity Regime but a challenging feedback friend, breaking the spell to deepen it.”
https://www.burningshore.com/p/open-tunings

News of Google’s Project Wolverine goes back a month, but I don’t want to lose track of it. It’s reportedly a supercharged earbud. According to a summary by Ashley Carman, “[T]hey’re currently trying to figure out how to isolate people’s voices in a crowded room or make it easier to focus on one person when overlapping conversations are happening around you.” Carman compares this with Whisper (whisper.ai), and others to the lamented, defunct Doppler Labs. As David Pierce put it in his overview of Doppler’s fall back in 2017, it “had the bad luck of being a hardware company at a time when the biggest players in tech — Microsoft, Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook — are all pouring billions into developing their own gadgets.” Now Google appears to be pursuing the endeavor.
https://www.theverge.com/2021/3/4/22313421/alphabet-project-x-wolverine-hearing-aid-project
https://www.businessinsider.com/google-x-alphabet-hearing-project-wolverine-codename-augmented-reality-2021-3

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Soundbites: Audio Branding Audio, Ikea Podcast, De-gendered Siri

Recent reads (etc.) on sound

These are the sort of items I’d usually put in the This Week in Sound email newsletter (tinyletter.com/disquiet), but I’ve been super busy, too busy for a new issue, and so at a friend’s suggestion I am initially noting some here.

The serial-fiction audio/text hybrid company Serial Box has changed names. It’s never a particularly good idea to make such an announcement on April 1, as Realm (né Serial Box) elected to do, but there was nothing inherently funny in the company’s blog post, so no reason to doubt it. The name change arrives with other changes, like the availability of some Realm shows as podcasts. Next up: “some fancy brand sounds,” de rigueur for many companies these days, and virtually essential for a company whose product line is largely sonic itself. The key thing isn’t the name. The key thing is how complicated it is to characterize Realm, because it was never just audiobooks, or just a publisher of original fiction, and now it’s that plus podcasts. It’s all those things, wrapped in a new subscription service, with a la carte fees retained for some titles. A new name for the company is a step forward. But what Realm may really need is a name for what it is. (And if you’ve read this far, I recommend the series Ninth Step Station.)
https://www.realm.fm/blog/serial-box-is-now-realm

Also not an April Fools joke (and announced in March, anyhow) is that Ikea has rendered its catalog as a podcast, having previously done so, two years ago, in Swedish for the hometown audience. In a piece for Quartz, Anne Quito connects the move to phenomena like lockdown acculturation to podcasts and a rise in “the voice shopping feature on Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.” (Via Rob Walker)
https://qz.com/1982468/ikea-replaced-its-print-catalog-with-an-audiobook/

It’s said that you can judge a culture by how it treats its most vulnerable. So, too, its AI. To wit, Apple’s Siri now has more voices than ever, but more newsworthy is the removal of a female voice as the default. No less than the U.N. has called out Siri and Alexa for what could be called, quite literally, codified sexism. The default of the subservient role in many countries to a female voice was one among a larger set of symptoms. From an earlier New York Times piece by Megan Specia on the topic: “The [U.N.] report borrows its title — ‘I’d Blush if I Could’ — from a standard response from Siri, the Apple voice assistant, when a user hurled a gendered expletive at it. When a user tells Alexa, ‘You’re hot,’ her typical response has been a cheery, ‘That’s nice of you to say!'”
https://techcrunch.com/2021/03/31/apple-adds-two-siri-voices/

“In 1878, Thomas Edison recorded — on a piece of tinfoil — 78 seconds that may be the oldest playable recording of an American voice and the earliest known recording of a musical performance.” That’s from a Library of Congress announcement of new audio added to the National Recording Registry. (Via Lowell Goss)
https://www.loc.gov/item/prn-21-015/

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Sound Bites: Pandemic Playlists, Disliking Dislikes, Martian Noise

Recent reads (etc.) on sound

These are the sort of items I’d usually put in the This Week in Sound email newsletter (tinyletter.com/disquiet), but I’ve been super busy, too busy for a new issue, and so at a friend’s suggestion I am initially noting some here.

It’s good YouTube experiments with hiding dislikes. I’m not sure it’s just about creator ego or hate mobs. The interface is flawed. We’re used (post-Netflix) to dis/liking things to nudge the algorithm. Hiding lets users register taste without offending. (I wrote about this two years ago in “Speaking Privately to the Algorithm.”)
https://www.theverge.com/2021/3/30/22358992/youtube-hiding-dislikes-experiment-creator-review-bomb

“Getting ‘vaxxed at moscone and they’re literally playing Here Comes the Sun on the PA and I’m shaking,'”: Peter Hartlaub quotes local food critic Soleil Ho at the start of this piece about the playlist at Moscone Center, one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s major vaccination centers. Her tweet was the first I’d heard of the music there, as well. I’m still ineligible for vaccination, but have been following along as folks tweet (and otherwise share) their shots. The playlist originated, interesting, not for patients but for administers: “it was initially created for staffers arriving early for their first day of work.” (via Daniel Raffel)
https://www.sfchronicle.com/local/article/Here-s-the-story-behind-the-amazing-Moscone-16061677.php

Robocalls have altered our relationships with phones, both household and mobile. Good news: The FCC has been taking action. Less good: “A fine, even the biggest in the agency’s history, is unlikely to rein in robocalls. In fact, there’s evidence to suggest they haven’t been effective at all.” More good: “If there’s good news, it’s that the FCC isn’t limiting itself to fines. In a separate announcement, the agency detailed its new anti-robocall agenda. Acting Chair Jessica Rosenworcel has established a Robocall Response Team. Made up of 51 FCC members across six offices, the team will coordinate the agency’s anti-robocall efforts and develop new policies for it to put in place.”
https://www.engadget.com/fcc-225-million-fine-194419208.html

We’ve been back on Mars barely a month and already introduced noise pollution: “It’s so noisy that Dave Gruel, the lead engineer for the EDL (entry, descent and landing mic) system, said he’d pull over and call for a tow if he heard these sounds while driving his car.” (And, yes, I first read that as Dave Grohl, too.)
https://www.engadget.com/perseverance-driving-on-mars-sounds-063118359.html

Geeta Dayal surveys the past and future of music at Mills College, which has been home to such musical mavericks as Pauline Oliveros, Darius Milhaud, John Cage, Fred Frith, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Laetitia Sonami, and Roscoe Mitchell, in light of the institution ceasing to grant degrees.
https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/30/arts/music/mills-college-music.html

You know how with each successive generation, ties to ethnic and cultural heritage diminish? It’s true of birds, too. “As the population of the critically endangered regent honeyeater plummeted over the years, some young birds could no longer find older ones to teach them to sing, a new study reports.”
https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/17/science/bird-honeyeater-australia.html

The Foghorn’s Lament: The Disappearing Music of the Coast, a new book from Jennifer Lucy Allen, is due out in later this year (May in the U.K., where she is based, and July in the U.S.). Allen received her PhD, with a thesis titled Fog Tropes: The social and cultural history of the foghorn 1853 to the present day.
https://www.hachette.com.au/jennifer-lucy-allan/the-foghorns-lament-the-disappearing-music-of-the-coast

Whale song can be used “to map undiscovered faults through tectonic sound recordings of the sea,” Geoff Manaugh notes from paper in Science. https://www.bldgblog.com/2021/03/cetacean-surroundsound/

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