Soundscape Analysis: The Best Sleep of My Life

Introduction

This soundcape represents one of my most unexpected auditory experiences in recent memory. While I have lived the majority of my life within 1-2 hour access to oceans (or the ocean-like Great Lakes), and have several times stayed in oceanside towns/resorts on the Atlantic and Carribbean, a trip to Miami in 2011 was an unexpectedly enjoyable aural experience.

The conference that brought me to Miami that November, the National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing, reserved rooms at a resort hotel on the beach in the north end of the city. Situated on a narrow isthmus between Dumfoundling Bay and Sunny Isles Beach, I experienced what I now feel to be the perfect balance of nature and man-made ambient noise. From the 9th floor, I was close enough to the waves to hear the Atlantic’s continual ebb and flow, but far enough to only occasionally hear the traffic from Collins Avenue/A1A, the major arterial highway that runs the length of the coast from Ft. Lauderdale to South Beach.

I happily slept each night with my balcony door open, but one evening in particular ensconced me in the most soothing, calming sleep soundscape I have ever experienced: the Atlantic churning implacably in the distance; the almost imperceptible rumble of a distant storm’s thunder; and occasional, unobtrusive and fleeting reminders that I wasn’t alone amidst several hundred thousand of my fellow man.

This soundscape attempts to relate the balanced, connected peace of that night.

Analysis

The keynote sound of the soundscape is clearly the omnipresent Atlantic Ocean, rising and crashing on the beach several hundred feet away. Every other distinguishable sound, even the similarly powerful and natural thunder, must share the stage with the waves. It’s easy to let the ocean waves haze out into a constant hiss, becoming a nearly featureless white noise, but the separate crashes of hundreds of waves can be isolated with focused listening. Admittedly, the imperfect recording hardware used is more to blame for this sound haze than the actual soundscape.

This soundscape isn’t complex, but it is interesting. The signal sounds come principally from three events: a passing car’s horn, the rumble of thunder, and what is possibly a distant heavy truck’s softly squealing brakes. Of those, the passing car’s horn is interesting because of its identifiable pattern of attack and decay. The Doppler effect of the blaring horn approaching, passing, and receding is evocative both of the spatial proximity and because listeners may be able to identify a time when they have either received or dispensed a similar honk.

The thunder is faintly present throughout the recording, but due to the storm’s significant distance, only once steps forward for a few seconds of recognizable low-frequency power of a close rumble. Even then, the thunder isn’t startling or even particularly loud. It recedes once more, again a soft, barely perceptible knocking on the edge of awareness.

The final sound that is identifiably different from its ocean surf background is more enigmatic: a spectral rise and fall of high-pitched whine sounds mechanical and but is simultaneously reminiscent of whale song or another large animal’s call. A listener may find this sound an appropriate fusing of the soundscape’s distinct natural and artificial inputs.

Only the car’s horn and perhaps the thunder stand out as potential soundmarks. Miami, like many large cities, experiences a great degree of traffic and therefore a great potential for aggressive driving. The highway nearby, Collins Avenue/A1A, is essentially the highway that will guide vehicles down to and from South Beach, Miami’s most-visited public beaches, hotels, shopping, and water access to Biscayne Bay, among other destinations. It is therefore easy to imagine this car horn, while superficially identical to any other car horn in the world, may represent a sonic community touchstone. The distant thunderstorms, which are again the same as any other storm in Florida or elsewhere in the world, may again be an authentic soundmark for Miami residents, who experience a fairly active weather system.

I feel fairly confident that this particular evening’s aural performance isn’t abnormal for the southern end of Florida, but I can speak only to how I personally perceived the psychoacoustics of the sounds I experienced. I’ve always found wind and water to be a calming and centering experience, even in the midst of storms or choppy seas. I prefer to sleep with a background of white noise, so this was a no-brainer once I realized just how close my room was to the sea. What I didn’t expect was the comfort I drew, traveling alone as I was, from the reminders of human activity that were just as close as the water.

As a result of my brief few nights in Miami, it has become a personal desire to see that Jessica and I find a similar place to live some day – specifically as close to the sea as I experienced at the hotel. I don’t know if we’ll ever follow the grand Michigan “snowbird” tradition of living out the cold northern months in southern Florida once we retire, but I know I would be an extremely content man to fall asleep to this soundscape every night if we did.

How I produced this soundscape – SPOILERS

During my trip, I didn’t have the foresight to simply turn on my phone’s audio recorder and lay it on my bed to soak in what I personally found so enjoyable. If I had done so, I would almost certainly have had a perfect excerpt of the soundscape in need of little or no editing. As it happens, all I had was the audio from a few short videos I took of the view from my balcony – outside. Anyone who has ever recorded in such an environment knows what dominated the recording: wind. The iPhone 4 was a great video recorder, but like any other phone, had no way to block out the wind noise.

After extracting the audio track, I ended up with about two minutes of sound from two separate recordings at sunset and at night, each peppered with periods of intense wind hammers that blew out the sound levels. I tried several methods to extract or mask the wind, but the result was always noticeable distortion of the waves and ambient noise left behind. My only choice was to simply delete the portions of the audio that featured these wind punches, doing my best to keep the wavelines roughly similar on either end. It was an inelegant kludge, but it worked. I had about 50 seconds of usable, roughly wind-free waves and city ambiance.

The spectral truck sound at the end of the recording is an original part of what I actually recorded one night. I still have no idea what it was for certain, but I am extremely grateful it survived in one of the moments the iPhone’s mic was shielded from the wind. The car horn is an addition, but it is a pitch-perfect match to my memory of the same night I awoke briefly to the sounds of the rumbling storm and traffic outside.

That brings us to the storm. I didn’t want to have to make my own storm sounds, but the recordings were unfortunately from a night when the weather was clear. I had decided I’d leave the sound out because I couldn’t think of how to accurately portray it. I discovered a happy accident of my earlier wind deletion, however: I kinda botched it. The wavelines when I was editing the tracks matched, but I didn’t think to take a few tenths of a second on either side because I was trying to conserve as much usable sound as I could. The result is that each deletion left behind fractions of a second before and after the wind punches that were lower-frequency, but still a bit of a rumble. As a happy accident of novice audio editing, I had my thunder almost perfectly as I recalled it from that night: barely audible and distant. From there, it seemed more acceptable to add a single louder rumble to tie the unintentional editing boon in to the rest of the track, and to accurately portray the occasional breakthrough rumble of the night I was attempting to reproduce.

Before undertaking this reproduction project, I’d though of that night as aurally defined by just the surf. While I gained no great rhetorical insight from the soundscape I chose because it was a passively-experienced event, it made me consider just a little bit more the component sounds of an aural experience.

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