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tag: this week in sound

This Week in Sound: Dementia + FM’s Dead End +

+ interstellar radio + video games music + the history of the wah wah pedal + more

A lightly annotated clipping service

Concrete Asylum: News that researchers had connected urban noise pollution to dementia spread widely this week. “Those living within 50 metres of a busy road had a 7% higher risk in developing dementia,” reports Hannah Devlin in the Guardian of the findings, also quoting skeptical voices: “The analyses are exceedingly complex ”¦ and this always leads to concerns that the analytic complexity is hiding confounding factors in the analytic pipeline” (theguardian.com, citylab.com).

FRB ≠ BFF: Weird interstellar radio bursts, known as fast radio bursts, or FRBs, have reached a milestone: the first repeating, unidentified signal. Writes Maddie Stone at Gizmodo, the source is three billion light years away.

Little Brother: The big news on the “always listening” front out of CES was the ubiquity of Amazon’s Alexa. But ubiquity isn’t the same as a monopoly. Mattel has employed Microsoft’s Bing/Cortana for its kid-oriented AI device. Writes Laurie Sullivan at MediaPost, regarding privacy issues, “It uses the same guidelines as hospitals.”

End of the Dial: Just last week I mentioned how electric cars don’t play well with AM radio frequencies. FM, apparently, isn’t immune to technological obsolescence. Reporting from Oslo, Reuters (via the Guardian) notes that “Norway will next week become the first nation to start switching off its FM radio network.” This despite overwhelming support for FM. The switch happens tomorrow.

Audio Borg: Google has acquired Limes Audio, based in Umeå, Sweden, to improve the sound quality of online conversations (or calls, or whatever we call them). Via Google.

Tone Man: Pharrell Williams lost a lawsuit last year due to what many consider a ludicrous judicial ruling regarding similarities between a song he produced and the work of Marvin Gaye. Interestingly, tone — sounds that reflect an era — is precisely his emphasis in this article on his role in the score for the film Hidden Figures (nytimes.com).

Game Tunes: While I managed time for best-of-2016 lists about apps, music, and film scores, I didn’t include several lists I’d like to be knowledgeable enough to attend to, among them video game soundtracks. Fortunately, the folks at originalsoundversion.com provide their analysis of exactly that. Visit to see (and hear) to the opinions of Ryan Paquet, Michael Hoffmann, Shawn Sackenheim, and Brenna Wilkes. (Found via Simon Carless’ excellent Video Game Deep Cuts email newsletter.)

Wah Wah: Del Casher, born Delton Kacher, is the father of the wah-wah guitar pedal, writes Jonny Whiteside at LA Weekly, and the pedal turns 50 this year. “I played it for James Brown and he really liked my playing, but he didn’t understand the wah-wah at all. He said, ”˜Why the fuck would anyone want a guitar to do that?’” (Via Ethan Hein.)

Philly Sound (Art): Museums often have firsts, as they adjust to changing times and aesthetics. The Barnes Foundation takes firsts with extra consideration. This is the institution that faced legal challenges when its relocation was in the works. Now it is hosting its first sound art installation, titled Unbounded Histories. It’s by Philadelphia artist Andrea Hornick, and it functions as “a string of poems responding to specific works in the Barnes collection.” Visitors to the museum access the audio through “web-enabled phone.” It opened on January 6 and runs through February 19 (philly.com, barnesfoundation.org).

Fade Out
Recent notable deaths

RIP, Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan, sitar star (b. 1929).

RIP, Serbian composer Vlastimir Trajković (b. 1947)

RIP, French conductor Georges Prêtre (b. 1924)

RIP, jazz critic Nat Hentoff (b. 1925)

RIP, composer Karel Husa (b. 1921)

RIP, singer Sylvester Potts (78) of the Contours (“Do You Love Me,” “Can You Jerk Like Me”)

RIP, Hawaiian musician Eddie Kamae (b. 1927)

RIP, British singer-songwriter Peter Sarstedt (b. 1941; “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?”)

RIP, hip-hop producer DJ Crazy Toones (45).

This first appeared, in slightly different form, in the January 10, 2017, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound”email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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This Week in Sound: CES + Technics +

+ Brian Eno's pricey return to ambient music

A lightly annotated clipping service:

Consumer Products: CES is happening in Las Vegas, where battle lines are being drawn and allegiances formed amid various platforms, with Amazon’s Alexa in a prominent position (zdnet.com).

Godfather Returns: Brian Eno has released a great new ambient album, Reflection, and a quizzically expensive iOS app (brian-eno.net).

DJ Revisionism: And as Jonathan Soble writes in the New York Times, a relaunched Technics turntable is peculiarly detached from its hip-hop legacy (nytimes.com).

This first appeared, in slightly different form, in the January 3, 2017, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound”email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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20 Sonic Milestones from 2016

From CGI sound to noise pollution to the vacuum of space

Music is just a subset of the sound of our lives. As I was thinking, at year’s end, about 2016 and compiling lists of favorite recordings, and movie/TV scores, and mobile apps, I found myself focusing as well on the various sonic milestones that had occurred in the preceding 12 months. The role of sound in daily life is the subject of my weekly(ish) This Week in Sound email newsletter, and I worked up this list of 20 milestones from 2016, ranging from outer space to the public domain, from religious loudspeakers to kitchen-table artificial intelligence, and from sound art to sky fracking:

(1) Introducing the CGI of Sound
For the time being, the computer-generated presentation of humans remains largely a visual situation. The reception of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story shows that the Uncanny Valley between flesh-human and digital-human has yet to be reconciled. Meanwhile, a far deeper divide exists between the verbal sounds emitted by people and machines. There’s a reason that cartoons, computer-generated and otherwise, use voice actors: it’s hard to make a computer mellifluous. However, the underlying technology is improving. Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) this year announced that algorithms are paving the way for audio that passes the “Turing Test for sound.”Meanwhile, WaveNet (“a deep generative model of raw audio waveforms”) has shown how neural networks are rapidly improving test-to-speech (TTS) technology.
Read: mit.edu, deepmind.com.

(2) Debunking the Silence of Space
Space is no longer synonymous with endless silence. Every few months a space probe or monitoring system seems to adjust our understanding of the sonic properties and potential of the vacuum that is our universe. And it isn’t just contemporary research recordings that are informing our sense of space. Earlier this year NASA released audio recorded by the Apollo 10 crew back in 1969 (cnn.com). Looking ahead, in 2020 NASA will include microphones on the next Mars lander (jpl.nasa.gov).
Read: theconversation.com.

(3) Steve Reich Turned 80
Mavericks sometimes have the opportunity to age into a world that resembles the one they had once inhabited alone. There may be no living composer of his generation with more reason to feel at home in the current creative climate — looped-based, pattern-oriented, technologically enabled, immersively audio-visual — than Steve Reich, the minimalist, who celebrated his 80th birthday in 2016. 2017 will, in an appropriately repetitive way, note the 80th of another major minimalist, Philip Glass. (Terry Riley turned 80 the year before Reich, and the year before that was Michael Nyman’s 70th.) Glass’ year kicks off with his collaboration with the team behind the Buddha Machine, who’ve made a small device containing loops of Glass’ music. Somewhere an industrious cultural institution is already planning a heap of centennials.
Read: npr.org, nytimes.com.

(4) “Happy Birthday” Entered the Public Domain
In a long and drawn out series of legal actions suitable to a Charles Dickens novel, the ubiquitous song of calendrical celebration finally entered the public domain, which among other things means that chain restaurants no longer need to devise their own in-house songs in order to avoid paying royalties. The song “Happy Birthday” didn’t transfer easily from the hands of Warner/Chappell Music; the publishing company had to pay a $14 million settlement. And the public domain party doesn’t end with “Happy Birthday.” Songs such as “We Shall Overcome” and “This Land Is Your Land” are now being probed for similar treatment.
Read: arstechnica.com, fortune.com, billboard.com.

(5) The U.S. Regulated Sound in Electric Cars
In the U.S., the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ruled that electric cars must, like their internal-combustion predecessors, make noise sufficient for the safety of pedestrians. Sonic skeuomorphs such as the simulated SLR shutter sound of digital cameras are often dismissed as nostalgic cues, but sounds, especially sounds rooted deep in habit and culture, often have a utility, even if it wasn’t the initial purpose of a given object’s engineering or design. In the case of electric cars, the presence of sound isn’t about cultural legacy; it’s about safety.
Read: cnet.com, nhtsa.gov.

(6) Peak Noise Pollution in India
This list is self-admittedly largely western, and I’m always working to expand my sense of the role of sound in the world as a whole, both at a micro-cultural level (do read Gus Stadler’s piece at soundstudiesblog.com on cultural and racial assumptions in sound studies) and a global one. The main thing that I’ve found this year is that there may be no industrialized country with a greater concern about noise pollution than India (at least among countries with an active English-language news media).
Read: indiatimes.com, newindianexpress.com, dnaindia.com.
(Just a side note, the India Times’ Mumbai Mirror had an interesting story about ham radio operators — why are they always “buffs”? — noting “mystery signal transmissions”: indiatimes.com.)

(7) Muezzins’ Loudspeakers Faced Regulation
Technology provided a spiritual culture clash around the world. Governments in India, Indonesia, Israel, and Nigeria, among other countries, sought to study and curtail the use of loudspeakers by mosques to broadcast the daily Muslim calls to prayer.
Read: nytimes.com, independent.co.uk, theguardian.com, indiatimes.com, bbc.com.
(Side notes: In the small Spanish town of Mostoles, a church faced a potential fine due to noisy bells: catholicherald.co.uk. And in England, the technological mediation of religion played out as St George the Martyr in Borough High Street had a technical issue that led to its bells running continuous through the night: standard.co.uk.)

(8) Amazon’s Alexa Altered the Meaning of “Home Audio”
The question of what the term “home audio” means is going through a major shift. Historically it has referred to sound systems, such as living-room stereos, that allow for music playback. The arrival of always-listening technology — such as Amazon’s Echo and Alexa, which receive voice commands and reply in kind — suggest that the wired home will, perhaps, have microphones as well as speakers. Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant, Microsoft’s Cortana, and other technologies are rising to the challenge. In short time, we may very well think of a home with high-quality audio as one where commands can be uttered anywhere, not just at the kitchen counter. The ramifications of such technology are coming rapildy into focus. At the very end of 2016, Arkansas police petitioned Amazon to release Echo data to help solve a murder case. The smarthomeâ„¢ doesn’t just have ears. It has a memory.
Read: engadget.com, cio.com.

(9) Los Angeles’ Transportation Department Employed Sound Artist
Los Angeles is one of the automobile-intensive cities on the planet, and what the local government does to regulate that traffic can set models for other municipalities. If the hiring of sound artist Alan Nakagawa helps with L.A.’s citywide “Vision Zero” safety initiative, then we can expect sound experts to be of increased perceived utility. While transportation agencies often have artists in residence, the L.A. scenario isn’t just about exhibits and installations; it’s about the agency’s core mission.
Read: lacity.org, scpr.org, outsideonline.com.

(10) Sonic Boom = Sky Fracking
Triborough residents thought there was an earthquake. It turned out to be the result of a sonic boom, so loud that it wasn’t just heard but was registered by the US Geological Survey. The source was a Navy test of a F-35C stealth fighter. Perhaps “stealth” means disguised as a seismic event. In semi-related news, DARPA cancelled development of robot military dogs because the loud mechanisms were giving away positions.
Read: gizmodo.com, nytimes.com, earthquake.usgs.gov, cnet.com, military.com.

An Additional 10 Sonic 2016 Milestones

(11) Earthquake researchers employ audio for advance notice (uaf.edu). ”¢ (12) Video game players dream sound effects (ntu.ac.uk). ”¢ (13) Caption studies got its own academic conference (wou.edu). ”¢ (14) Apple hardware began to ditch the audio jack (theglobeandmail.com). ”¢ (15) Apple ditched the laptop startup sound (theverge.com). ”¢ (16) Electric cars began to ditch AM radio (vice.com, bmwblog.com). ”¢ (17) A “fire suppression system”intended safekeep a Romanian bank’s data led to its destruction when the loud sound of gas canisters letting loose caused enough vibration to reportedly damage the bank’s hard drives (vice.com). ”¢ (18) The “hum” was debated (newrepublic.com, theguardian.com, bbc.com). ”¢ (19) Sonification went mainstream (google.com, economist.com). ”¢ (20) The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its first “strategy roadmap” for dealing with ocean noise (cetsound.noaa.gov, washingtonpost.com).

This first appeared, in slightly different form, in the January 3, 2017, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound”email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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This Week in Sound: Ambient Eno +

sound maps + space silence + Mac startup + Westworld's Djawadi + ...

1. This Week in Sound

A lightly annotated clipping service:

Well, at least the first day of 2017 will be good. Brian Eno (via brian-eno.net) has announced that he’s putting out a proper ambient album through the Warp label on January 1. And in the process he’s pushing back a bit at the broad use of the ubiquitous term. In a note album the forthcoming album, titled Reflections, he writes “I don’t think I understand what that term stands for anymore — it seems to have swollen to accommodate some quite unexpected bedfellows — but I still use it to distinguish it from pieces of music that have fixed duration and rhythmically connected, locked together elements.”

Emily S. Rueb writes at nytimes.com about an effort in Manhattan “to create an aural map that a group of researchers hopes will help city agencies monitor and enforce noise pollution, and will empower citizens to assist in the process.”

Monica Grady at theconversation.com explores sounds that push back at the idea of the vacuum being truly silent.

Rhett Jones at gizmodo.com notes the passing of the Mac startup sound.

Jordan Pearson at motherboard.vice.com ponders whether whales are the source of a mysterious “pinging” sound in the Arctic.

You know how every show with top-shelf surveillance, from Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to the much missed Person of Interest, has people tap near their ear to suggest they’re interacting with some sort of near-invisible walkie talkie? Well, the headphone company Bragi, according to Mitchel Broussard at macrumors.com, is coming out with headphones enabled with “MyTap” that “lets them control the headphones through tap-based gestures placed directly on their cheek.”

Speaking of which: For those watching (and especially writing about) Westworld, while it’s of note that composer Ramin Djawadi also writes the music for Game of Thrones, please note that he in addition wrote the music for Jonathan Nolan’s previous AI-themed show, Person of Interest. People keep citing the Djawadi-Thrones connection (newyorker.com, independent.co.uk, and theguardian.com just to name a few) as direct or indirect evidence of HBO’s ambitions for Westworld, without mentioning that Nolan and Djawadi have a longstanding collaboration. (If you haven’t seen the fantastic Person of Interest, it is essentially an extrapolation of Colossus: The Forbin Project.) There are many mysteries to the enjoyable Westworld, and one thing I am fixated on is the (admittedly baseless) idea that while in the fictional Wild West of the AI theme park, guests themselves hear the same filmic background music that we, the show’s viewers, do. And, yeah, the anachronistic player piano music is fascinating, especially as the piano serves as a way to connect the code-enabled mechanization of AI to an old-west technology. By definition, the term “AI” is best used to describe machine intelligence that we haven’t yet normalized. No doubt those old pianos freaked out their share of saloon regulars.

2. Low(e) Tones

This is a public service announcement that “You Make Me” has become my favorite Nick Lowe song. It’s been “Without Love” for the longest time, but that’s changed. You learn a lot about a song if you sing it every other night to your kid at bedtime for six months straight. That’s especially true if you do so at increasingly slower tempos (which is my parenting sleepy time zen voodoo Jedi protip). I watched a bunch of videos recently about the Zvex Lofi Junky — it’s a nifty guitar pedal I noticed being used by a musician I admire — and I realized that what I like about it is how it sounds like it sounds when you sing something extra slow. The wave form, the ebb and flow, of your tone becomes an effect put upon the syllables that you’re singing. That’s a “warble” if it’s got some speed to it, but it’s warpy and syrupy and off-kilter if you do it super super slow. And I mean really slow. Gregorian Chant slow. Anyhow yeah, “You Make Me” is now my favorite Nick Lowe song, with the understanding that I mean “song” not “recording,” and I mean you sing it slow.

3. Recent Notable Deaths

RIP, pianist and songwriter Mose Allison (b. 1927)

RIP, David Mancuso (b. 1944), DJ and club culture figure

RIP, Billy Miller (b. 1954), Norton Records label founder

RIP, singer songwriter Leon Russell (b. 1942)

RIP, Victor Bailey (b. 1960), Weather Report bassist and ubiquitous sideman

RIP, George James (92), one of the last remaining Navajo Code Talkers of World War II

RIP, Leonard Cohen (b. 1934), who’s headed home to collect some serious royalties.

RIP, early synthesizer musician Jean-Jacques Perrey (b. 1929)

This first appeared, in slightly different form, in the November 15, 2016, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound”email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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This Week in Sound: Sounds of and for the Cosmos +

hospital music + phone hiss + speech recognition + Smule + sound grands + notable deaths

A lightly annotated clipping service:

Bedside Manner: Medicine X is Stanford University’s initiative to explore “the future of medicine and healthcare.” As summarized by Andrea Ford at the school’s Scope publication, MedX has an artist in residence, Yoko Sen, who is addressing issues of noise pollution in hospitals: “She played the audience a track of beeps, buzzes, alarms, and mumbled voices; other hospital sounds include patients screaming, and the empty silence after bad news is delivered.” 

Phone Hum: Much of the yap about the iPhone 7 is its haptic (touch) improvements, but as Matthew Hughes reports at the Next Web it “makes an audible hissing noise whenever under intense strain.” Hughes credits the detection to Stephen Hackett, who “eventually realized that the noise wasn’t coming from the speaker, but rather from the logic board itself.” Hughes quotes Marco Arment correctly likening it to the sound a laptop fan makes when the CPU is being overly taxed. Other theories exist, too, the most colorfully named being “coil whine.”
(via Warren Ellis’ Sunday email newsletter)

Always Listening: “How we learned to talk to computers, and how they learned to answer back” — those are the questions that Charles McLellan seeks to answer in his detailed TechRepublic piece, tracing it from the dissection of human speech through computer recognition, the role of neural networks in passing the WER (or “word error rate”) test, on through natural language understanding, and a sense of where AI is headed.

V’ger’s Greatest Hits: The Voyager space probes carried a “Golden Record” conceived by Carl Sagan that contained exemplary sounds of our planet to hypothetical intelligent civilizations far beyond our modest solar system. David Pescovitz of Boing Boing is leading a Kickstarter project to make the record available closer to home, a gorgeous box set with three vinyl LPs and a collection of images from the probes.
(via Rob Walker, Bruce Levenstein, others)

Smule’s Pitch: At forbes.com, Murry Newlands interviews Smule’s CEO and co-founder, Jeff Smith, about the business side of the social-oriented music-app developer, looking at matters of profitability, misperceptions about the scope of the music market, and the unique nature of the sounds they produce. Says Smith, “For example, because our community is creating the music, we’re not using that master recording, and we’re not licensing the master recording from the label. Instead, we’re licensing the copyright to the composition from the publisher, from the writer. And we pay royalties out to all the writers.” 

Sound Awards: At least three of this week’s announced MacArthur Grant winners work in sound and music: Daryl Baldwin, a linguist working on cultural preservation in a culture that “lost its last native speaker in the mid-twentieth century”; Josh Kun, a cultural historian of popular music (I helped out on the pop-up Tikva Records store Kun and others at the Idelsohn Society put together in 2011); and Julia Wolfe, composer and co-founder of Bang on a Can.

Tome On: While physical and ebook sales are slipping (paperbacks have risen), Alexandra Alter reports in the New York Times that audiobooks sales are up.

Olde Tyme: The Internet Archive (which is housed walking distance from my home, and just a block from where I first lived when I moved to San Francisco in 1996, 20 years ago) reports on the process of saving 78-rpm records in collaboration with New York’s ARChive of Contemporary Music.
(via Joseph Witek and Michael Rhode)

Recent notable deaths:

RIP, Don Buchla (b. 1937), synthesizer legend

RIP, Charmian Carr (b. 1942), aka Lisel von Trapp from The Sound of Music

RIP, Trisco Pearson of the Force MDs

RIP, Curtis Hanson (b. 1945), 8 Mile director

RIP, actor Terence Bayler (b. 1930), aka Leggy Mountbatten, manager of fictional Beatles-parody band The Rutles

RIP, songwriter John D. Loudermilk (b. 1934); songs played by Paul Revere & the Raiders, Nashville Teens, Roy Orbison, Marianne Faithfull

RIP, Earl Smith Jr., aka DJ Spank Spank, of acid house group Phuture

RIP, Haakon Sørbye (b. 1920); as a member of WWII-era Skylark B, he relayed German troop information to London

I tweet notable passings (among other things) from my twitter.com/disquiet account as I come upon them. I’ll see about collecting them here, as well, henceforth.

This first appeared, in slightly different form, in the September 23, 2016, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound”email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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