Category Archives: Sonic Rhetoric
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.
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.
Jacqueline Waldock’s critique of the rise of sound mapping sites was interesting to me as a longtime listener to public radio stations, which have been a principal driver of the trend. This also revisits a blog post from October 2012, written only two months after I had moved from Michigan and was in the grips of homesickness. I had returned to Michigan Radio’s Sounds of the State page, selecting
a lone blue dot in East Lansing titled “MSU Medley.” My ears drank in ducks on the babbling Red Cedar River, Beaumont Tower’s distant carillon bells, and the route announcement of a CATA bus. I was immediately resituated from my desk here in Smyrna to the riverside between the Hannah Administration building and Wells Hall, my feet dangling over the water and ducks pulling at my shoelaces because I was too slow in crumbling up the stale bread I’d taken from Brody Hall’s cafeteria earlier that morning.
That soundscape has become part of my experience, and will always be one of the places I can situate myself. I was there. That has meaning to me.
Waldock takes some issue with the predisposition of these sound map projects to focus on “public” sounds rather than private:
A large majority of the recordings are of something else or at least are tagged as something other and are always tagged in the impersonal: ‘Church bells’, ‘Frankie and Bennies’, and not: ‘my dog’, ‘my front room’, ‘my church bells’. The sounds are tagged as observations of something else. This creates a tension between the personal and the other, as the act of recording and the choice to record are inextricable from the personal.
I would argue quite the opposite. Sound maps, to varying degrees of success, are meant to reproduce sounds of public significance and provide routes to experiential resonance. Mission drift invariably strikes these sound collections, but these sounds are intended to draw power from common experience. I know that the person who recorded that MSU soundscape heard something within it that powerfully conjured the aural umwelt of that location, and they knew that it would do the same for others. It says a lot about the private meaning of this public sound space that I decided to include it in my own sonic memoir earlier this month, completely forgetting until now its significance when I had visited the Sounds of the State page.
Waldock suggests the trend toward exclusion of private sound experiences is missing the greater experiential significance of personal moments that, if I can extrapolate for the author, are potentially just as powerful in their revelation of similarity in our intimate lives. I don’t think Waldock is wrong, exactly, but I do believe the nobility of best intentions are quickly sabotaged by human tendency toward narcissism. That the prevailing expectation of sound maps is to upload publically significant sounds keeps people honest; otherwise, we’d be quickly overwhelmed by sounds that may be accessible only to a relative few. Waldock intends to show the value of a personally-aware, private recording by providing a sample taken from two speakers who are directly aware of and address the recorder in the room as they attempt to have a conversation. The effect is they end up doing neither very well; their conversation is stilted and overly expositional like poorly-written movie dialogue, and the listener thus gets no sense of what their home life is really like. Recordings like these lack both the opportunity for experiential resonance and the insight of truly candid expression.
I wanted to resist Michael Bull’s overly simplistic suggestion that we use iPods to recontextualize our worlds into something more experientially desirable than what’s really taking place around us. Annoyed at first by the implication that iPods (and now, I suppose, smartphones at large) are somehow accomplishing a sonic isolationism that Discmans, Walkmans, or personal radios did not, I wanted to dismiss Bull altogether, But I really can’t.
Early on, Bull very nearly attributes a willful choice where there likely isn’t, or at least not one made consciously: “iPod users aim to create a privatised sound world, which is in harmony with their mood, orientation and surroundings, enabling them to respatialise urban experiences through a process of solipsistic aestheticisation. iPod users aim to habitually create an aesthetically pleasing urban world for themselves as a constituent part of their everyday life” (199). While I still resist Bull’s implication of grand intent, I acknowledge this passive act of privatized soundscapes evident in the personal narratives of iPod users. I realize that I too have experienced moments where privately-consumed music has converged with the world I view around me to give each a significance unattainable without the influence of the other. A moment I recall particularly well was almost too perfect: while listening to R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People while working in a café, I just happened to observe a perfect stranger look up from their phone in frustration, presumably having read something greatly distressing, and close their eyes in an entirely relatable effort to collect their temper. As if Michael Stipe was speaking directly to that moment, the lyrics of “Everybody Hurts” rang through my earbuds, inducing an almost tangible sense of sonder: the occasional moments of clarity we experience in which we are acutely aware that the background characters in our lives have lives every bit as complex, interwoven, and important as our own. While I don’t think that we are often deliberate in Bull’s posited act of aural terraforming – and I certainly have no idea why this would be any more pronounced in urban life than elsewhere – our music does inform the soundscapes we inhabit.
1 0:00 ATL to FNT
2 0:10 Popping into…
3 0:31 …the Meridian Farmer’s Market
4 0:40 “Mr. Austin!”
5 0:53 Feeding Red Cedar Friends
6 1:08 The Reason We’re Here
7 1:24 Batting for the Lugnuts…
8 1:35 …but Losing to Loons
9 1:47 Stretch
10 1:58 Tilting at (Mid-Michigan’s) Windmills
11 2:09 Michigan’s West Coast
12 2:22 Pier-ing into Lake Michigan
13 2:31 Spouting Flumes
14 2:40 Welcome (Back) to ATL
Seth Horowitz’s first chapter of The Universal Sense is practically tailor-written to my interests. I’ve always been fascinated by the collision of space bodies, and the high-velocity impact experiments designed to simulate the conditions of these impacts (at a very small scale) was a great segue to the pivotal role sound has played in our evolution. It’s easy to think of sound as an invisible force with an almost physically solid presence. When we hear sounds, it’s so often a result of an observably physical interaction. A hammer strikes a nail and an appropriately sharp and loud sound accompanies. Tires squeal, horns blare, and steel crumples to announce an automobile accident. Soft clicking and clacking, sporadically rapid, telegraphs the process of composing this blog post.
Perhaps it is because our most intellectually and emotionally meaningful auditory experiences – chiefly music and speech –run contrary to this falsely-percussive trend, we yet maintain a peripheral awareness of sound as something more intangible. As Horowitz explains beautifully, we are evolutionarily hardwired to pay immediate and fearful attention to loud, sudden, booming sounds. We’re unnerved by thunder, low-flying jets, or any other eruptive or explosive sound because our primitive, skittish, self-preserving brain kicks in with the message “I have no idea what that was; time to go!”
This is beautifully demonstrated in the well-documented reactions to February 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor event. Scores hundreds of videos on YouTube depict the moment the sonic boom strikes thousands of Russians, minutes after the meteor rips through the upper atmosphere. As the boom hits, people run away from breaking glass, scream in shock, or swerve erratically when driving. As is the case with the man recording the video below (about 30 seconds in), the primate brain kicks in each time, always with the impetus to duck or flee. It may be physically intangible, but sound’s presence in the human mind is solid as a rock … ripping its way through Earth’s atmosphere at supersonic speeds.
It was interesting to learn of the mp3’s functional history and to explore its status as a cultural artifact. A lot of attention is paid to the effect of the mp3 on the music industry, but I wonder if this article is situated at a turning point, published as it is only a year before the smartphone explosion kicked off with the introduction of the iPhone. Before that point, mp3s were a convenient format for those who wanted to carry a large music library with them wherever they went, but they were far from a necessity, so the industry saw no need to unify under a single format. Even if they were a ubiquitous luxury, dedicated mp3 players were a luxury nonetheless, so producers were content to pressure users to stay within their proprietary systems. Smartphones expanded the userbase for digital music significantly and rapidly, and it may have been at this point that the battle of the dominant format was decided. With digital music players landing in so many pockets, major distributors of music saw further compartmentalization of the market into proprietary file formats as unprofitable. By 2010, the largest providers of digital media, Amazon, iTunes, and Google, had all switched to MP3 as their music sales service’s file format, albeit at the data compression rate at 320 kbps. Apparently the music industry has accepted that the digital music genie won’t go back in the bottle, and has given up using file formats that limit the free exchange of files, opting instead for the expansive compatibility of mp3.
That these services chose 320kbps signifies a lot. If, as we learned from Jonathan Sterne, the brain/ear does a lot of the work to fill in the possible gaps created by the mostly lossless 128kbps, the distribution of so high an encoding rate could be as much a choice of vanity as it is functionality. Knowing that the digital music buying public was fractured over which format was the best compromise of quality and file size, encoding at 320kbps was a boost to consumers’ perception of the audio file’s use-value. At the same time, music sales services have enjoyed expanded sales by lowering the price points of complete albums, and media storage devices have continued the general trend of greater capacity at lower cost, boosting the exchange-value. Sterne suggests on page 831 that no one is buying mp3s. I’m not so sure that’s the case now. I know I certainly see the value of a sure bet 320kbps album for only $5 over attempting to piece together the same thing via piracy.
As for my own conceits concerning audio quality, I believe I can tell the difference between 128 and 320kbps encoding fairly easily. When a song comes up in my library that sounds kinda off to me, more often than not, it’s an older encoding at 128kbps, a leftover from when I cared more about conserving disk space than audiophonic purity. Each time I discover one of these albums/tracks in my collection, I silently vow to re-encode them as soon as I can get my hands on a CD.
For some fun, try this quiz that tests your ability to distinguish between low and high encoding. Good headphones or speakers are a must.