Looking, Listening, Recording

Welcome to the world of Season

There’s a cool recent video game called Season in which you wander the rural landscape on a bicycle, taking pictures and, quite wonderfully, making audio field recordings — all in the shadow of a looming catastrophe. I have a full page review of it in the new issue of The Wire (June 2023: the one with a bright red cover that’s dedicated to The Fall). 

I’ll post the full text in a month when the next issue comes out. Meanwhile, here’s the opening paragraph:

Have you ever paused in the middle of a video game simply to contemplate your virtual surroundings? Not paused as in hit the pause button — not turned off the game, just eased your urge to level up: to shoot or run or jump, or whatever adrenaline-raising action the game was engineered to impel you to accomplish. Now, what if a game was explicitly designed for you to take such a pause? What if paying attention to the world around you — to the world within the game, the world of the game — was the goal of the game? What if observing — looking, listening, recording — was itself the principal game mechanic?

. . .

Screen shot of a detail of the printed page:

This Week in Sound: Ways of Listening Beyond the Human

A lightly annotated clipping service

This Week in Sound

These sound-studies highlights of the week originally appeared in the April 11, 2023, issue of the free Disquiet.com weekly email newsletter, This Week in Sound.

▰ BACKING TRACKS: How does music support work activities? Nikki Forrester of Nature spoke with a variety of scientists, including Manuel Gonzalez, an organizational psychologist at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey: “Gonzalez encourages his lab members to avoid music when delving into new territory, so that they can apply all their mental resources to process what they’re doing and learning. As researchers become more proficient in particular methods, complex tasks can start to feel routine, a better scenario for incorporating music.”

▰ AIR HAZARD: A lizard called the Colorado checkered whiptail deals with noise pollution by stress-eating: “After aircrafts passed, the lizards’ levels of cortisol, a hormone linked to stress, had skyrocketed, the team reports in a paper published last week in the journal Frontiers in Amphibian and Reptile Science,” writes Carolyn Hagler of Smithsonian Magazine. “Their behavior also shifted—the lizards moved around less and ate more in a likely attempt to rebuild the energy resources lost during their stress reaction.”

▰ AUTO PLAY: Wired’s Boone Ashworth profiles Jeremy Yang, lead sound designer for the robovan company Zoox: “Robotaxis have to use a whole suite of noises to guide a rider through the journey and keep them from doing anything stupid along the way. Most of it is standard car stuff: sounds to let you know a door is ajar, sounds to tell you to put your seat belt on, sounds to alert you that the route has changed. The challenge is making the bleeps and bloops communicate as clearly as a human would.”

▰ VEG OUT: More on the sounds of agitated plants, via the New York Times’ Darren Incorvaia: “The vexed vegetables didn’t air their grievances randomly but rather made specific complaints that matched up with the type of stresses they were under. A machine-learning program could correctly tell, with 70 percent accuracy, whether the grumbling plant was thirsty or at risk of decapitation.” (Thanks, Mike Rhode!)

▰ OTHER EARS: Ithaca College hosted a presentation by Kate Galloway on video games that engage with animal perspectives, and how doing so “articulates the complexity of human-animal relationships, displaces the boundaries between human and other, and articulates ways of listening beyond the human to actual and virtual sensory ecologies.”

▰ QUICK NOTES: Growth Market: Noisy incubators could stunt the growth of premature infants (usnews.com). ▰ GPS Whiz: Meet Karen Jacobsen, whose voice is used ubiquitously by Google Maps — and yet which Siri has difficulty recognizing (standardmedia.co.ke). ▰ Ear-ly Adopter: Martha Joseph of the Museum of Modern Art surveyed MOMA’s past engagement with sound art (moma.org/magazine). ▰ On Brand: Wikipedia debuted its new sound logo (fastcompany.com). ▰ Road Rage: Traffic noise makes blood pressure rise (bbc.com).

Scratch Pad: Negativland, AI, Comics

I do this manually each Saturday, usually in the morning over coffee: collating most of the little comments I’ve made on social media (as well as related notes), which I think of as my public scratch pad, during the preceding week. These days that mostly means post.lurk.org. Sometimes the material pops up earlier or in expanded form.

▰ Oh, cool. The Wire has a new design — and that mention of Negativland on the cover of the issue due out next week is for a new documentary I reviewed, Stand By for Failure, directed by Ryan Worsley.

▰ Best spam comment my blog has received in quite a while (this was on a post simply titled “520 Hz”)

▰ “Traverse the world’s lush soundscapes and record them with defined, dimensional precision.” Season: A Letter to the Future, a new video game in which a young woman collects memories, including audio field recordings, of a world in decline, is available as of today, after a long long wait, on PlayStation and Steam.

▰ Not all AI art looks like it belongs framed on a wall in Beaker’s living room, but if it looks like it belongs framed on a wall in Beaker’s living room then it’s likely AI art.

▰ Maybe 2023 has just melted my brain, but this captcha looks like it was created by an AI:

▰ Me a week ago: I really don’t care about whatever DC’s big new movie/TV changes turn out to be.

Me this morning: What?! There’s an Authority movie coming?! I am deeply invested in all casting news, especially Jack Hawksmoor.

▰ Sometimes you just need to stop reading that book you’ve been reading and move on (not a book I’ve mentioned here)

▰ Dang, the #HourlyComicsDay2023 hashtag yields exactly one participant from my Mastodon vantage. I recommend looking on Instagram if small-press comics are your thing.

▰ It’s a good day when I spell R. Murray Schafer’s name correctly the first time.

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.

Street Fighter x the Visually Impaired

Accessibility and gaming

Sound in video games isn’t merely about immersive reality. It can be a matter of life and death — for the player characters, that is, especially the ones operated by visually impaired gamers. The current beta version of Street Fighter 6, an update of the venerable franchise that originated as a 1987 arcade favorite, apparently has exceptionally inclusive accessibility options. Shown here is one of several in-game menu pages that allow for customizing the controls. “For visually impaired players,” writes Chris Moyse of destructoid.com, “Street Fighter 6 seemingly offers a custom sound deck, that not only offers up spoken signals for the game’s menu system and select screens but also features fully customizable sound options for the fight itself. Players can adjust the balance and sound applied to all manner of in-game commands — from accurately ascertaining distance, to whether a strike has connected or been blocked, Drive Gauge gain/burn, even when a player performs a jump attack, with alternate sounds if it ‘crossed-up’ the opponent.”

The image above is a screenshot I took from footage posted on Twitter by @_REMless that was a source for Moyse’s article. A reply to the initial tweet reads: “As a totally blind person who loves the Street Fighter series, I think this is a great step forwards. The only thing missing would be voiced spoken menus.” Video gaming for the visually impaired is a real thing, and its ongoing development has ramifications for future interfaces in our increasingly technologically mediated world. (That’s a phrase I use a lot, and that I see variations of frequently in my reading. I sometimes wonder if it’ll ever get shortened to something like OITMW. Perhaps there’s already slang for the underlying phenomena. I learn most of my slang from words I fail to get right in the New York Times Mini Crossword and Spelling Bee.)