Hiding noise with more noise

A few days after that post on tinnitus, this Quartz Obsession email arrived in my inbox, all about white noise. Apparently white noise technology is big business now, as more and more of us get increasingly fed up with noise pollution and are seeking a way out.

White noiseQuartz
The business of white noise has been commodified and packaged as a path to “silence” in a noisy world. Therapists and attorneys place white noise machines outside their office doors, like tiny privacy sentries. Parents clip white noise machines masquerading as cuddly lambs and owls to car seats and cribs to soothe babies to sleep. Apps offer personalizable white noise soundtracks.

As the world gets louder and noise pollution scales to what some claim as a public health crisis, white noise technology is facing a demand like never before, and business is quietly booming.

I hadn’t realised how much it can help with tinnitus, though.

Tinnitus is a chronic condition associated with the misfiring of neurons damaged by high excessive noise-exposure that leads to hearing phantom sounds. People affected by extreme noise are also more likely to develop dementia, anxiety, and have their learning ability impaired, suggesting sound exposure may have even wider neural effects. White noise is being pitched as one of the solutions to the problem. Research backed up by studies done on mice suggests low-level noise can reduce symptoms of tinnitus, and has become a recommended treatment method.

And it can come in all sorts of flavours, too.

Colored noise, and how it can help you focusYouTube
Colors like white, pink and brown aren’t just for clouds, flowers and cows! They also describe special sounds that can actually help you focus and sleep!

But let one of my favourite authors have the last word.

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
William Gibson, Neuromancer

Can you hear this?

It’s been there since my teenage years, I think. But this last year, it’s really been making its presence felt.

Tinnitus
Tinnitus is when you can hear sounds inside your head that are created by your hearing system, not your environment. It could be a ringing, humming, pulsing or hissing. It is more prominent in quiet areas or at nighttime. … You can’t turn it off or move away from it, so it can be spectacularly annoying.

I think mine’s something like Tone 5 in this video of examples — very high pitched. The thought that the ringing will never, ever stop feels more stressful than the ringing itself, sometimes. Is this going to get worse?

Does tinnitus lead to hearing loss?
Even though tinnitus can’t be cured, there is still lots you can do to help with your symptoms. It’s important to understand that with rare exceptions, tinnitus isn’t caused by a serious condition and doesn’t lead to other symptoms. It certainly isn’t because you’re going mad. Nor is it going to keep on getting worse – in fact, it often gets less noticeable over time.

I’m not the only one with this problem.

White Noise – Tinnitus Radio Documentary
What happens when sounds exist inside your head? How do you cope with an internal soundtrack from which you can’t escape and only you can hear? These questions are explored in White Noise, a new Documentary On One production that investigates the mysterious world of people who suffer from tinnitus and the impact it has on their lives.

A fascinating, moving, award-winning documentary, full of people trying their best with this, created by someone who knows what she’s talking about.

Living with tinnitus – Documentary On One
I was prompted to make this documentary when I was diagnosed with tinnitus myself. About two years ago, I noticed an intermittent sound in my head that, over time, became a constant presence. You’ll hear tinnitus sufferers talk about ‘their sound’ and mine resembles stormtrooper boots marching on loose gravel, if you can imagine that. Then I began to wonder who else had it, and how do they cope with it on a day-to-day basis.

Will there ever be a cure?

Tinnitus: why it’s still such a mystery to science
It’s estimated that 30% of people worldwide will experience tinnitus at some point in their life. This number is likely to rise, as increases in life expectancy and exposure to loud music are all reasons people develop tinnitus. But while it’s more important now than ever to find a cure for this condition which is likely to become more common, researchers still struggle to find one because of how complex tinnitus is.

There seems to be no lack of research going on, though.

Tinnitus Week 2019
The positive take away from this, Dr. Aazh concludes, is that there are a number or rehabilitative approaches such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, that can help a patient reduce their annoyance and the emotional distress caused by tinnitus, thus reducing the perceived volume of the tinnitus. This is something many people can achieve.

In the meantime, I should start following this advice from the British Tinnitus Association, and r e l a x .

Relaxation
The beauty and strength of the breathing exercises are that you can do them anywhere and at any time – standing, walking, sitting or lying down. They can be extended and control of the abdominal muscles can be introduced and combined with breath control. You can find more breathing exercises in books on stress management, relaxation, yoga, etc. so take an interest in learning to control your breath. Making breathing exercises a routine will allow you to see “letting go” as a first resort, not a last resort, in times of stress.

Here’s another take on that.

What being a tinnitus sufferer has taught me about silence
The only thing I can liken it to is when you own a refrigerator that hums, it’s really annoying and at first it’s all you can hear, but then as you live with it for a while your brain learns to tune it out – because it’s irrelevant noise. I’ve tried all kinds of ‘remedies’, I even got referred to the audiologist and had a full check up but no source for the tinnitus was found. The last thing the audiologist said to me when I left was “just try and forget it” – that’s pretty lame advice coming from a medical practitioner, but he was right actually. There is no known cure for tinnitus and the cause of mine is still unexplained, but sure enough things did get easier when I gave up trying so desperately to solve it, because the more attention you give to a sound the more prominent it will become.

I see his point in theory, but …

Sounds good to me

Yes, it can get a little too loud for us oldies sometimes, but movie music — and cinematic sound more broadly — is such a fascinating area.

Making Waves: The art of cinematic sound
Directed by veteran Hollywood sound editor Midge Costin, the film reveals the hidden power of sound in cinema, introduces us to the unsung heroes who create it, and features insights from legendary directors with whom they collaborate.

An incredible amount of vital yet laborious work goes on behind the scenes.

A new documentary explores the underrated art of movie sound
Synchronised sound came in with “Don Juan” in 1926, and synchronised speech followed in 1927 with “The Jazz Singer”, starring Al Jolson. But sophisticated sound design wasn’t born until 1933, when Murray Spivack created the giant ape’s bellow in “King Kong” by mixing a lion’s roar with a tiger’s roar, and playing it backwards at half-speed. Cece Hall did something similar on “Top Gun” more than 50 years later. Actual fighter-plane engines “sounded kind of wimpy”, she recalls, so she concocted her own substitute from big-cat growls and monkey screeches. The producers nearly fired her for her pains, she says, but she went on to win an Oscar.

The documentary is the work of Midge Costin, a sound editor-turned-academic. It took some time to get off the ground, however — getting clearance for the samples of so many movie clips can be a costly affair.

Making Waves: behind a fascinating documentary about movie sound
The courts have since ruled that sampling footage will be acceptable so long as it’s done in the spirit of public edification, and just like that, Costin was off. Between the connections she’d made in the industry and favors called in from fellow sound people, she put together an all-star lineup of commentators. From her former student Ryan Coogler to Steven Spielberg, who named her the Kay Rose chair at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, the deep bench of experts dissect scenes classic and contemporary to illustrate the great quantities of work that go into creating and fine-tuning a soundscape. Spielberg, for example, goes into the subtly expressionistic quality of the shellshocking beach invasion that opens Saving Private Ryan.

The bizarre methods by which sound effects are captured often remains a mystery, but in this music video, it’s all on show.

A brilliant highly rhythmic music sample created from abandoned industrial equipment on the docks
Multimedia artist Daniel Gourski and DJ Jonas Appel have created “Docks”, a brilliant, highly rhythmic music sample made entirely from abandoned industry equipment. Gourski and Appel creatively banged, scraped and knocked at the waterside equipment with all sorts of objects.

Gourski & Appel – Docks

Can you hear that?

After that post about movie music being too loud for Hugh Grant and others, myself included, here’s an in-depth investigation into more noise pollution, this time of a quieter but more insidious kind.

Why is the world so loud?
Some nights, Thallikar couldn’t sleep at all. He started wearing earplugs during the day, and stopped spending time outdoors. He looked for excuses to leave town and, in the evenings, returned to his old neighborhood in Tempe to take his constitutionals there. As he drove home, he’d have a pit in his stomach. He couldn’t stop himself from making the noise a recurring conversation topic at dinner.

Not only was the whine itself agitating—EHHNNNNNNNN—but its constant drone was like a cruel mnemonic for everything that bothered him: his powerlessness, his sense of injustice that the city was ignoring its residents’ welfare, his fear of selling his home for a major loss because no one would want to live with the noise, his regret that his family’s haven (not to mention their biggest investment) had turned into a nightmare. EHHNNN. EHHNNNNNNNNN. EHHNNNNNNNNNNNN. He tried meditating. He considered installing new windows to dull the hum, or planting trees to block the noise. He researched lawyers. And he made one final appeal to the newly elected members of the Chandler city council.

The eventual cuplrit? CyrusOne, a massive data centre just down the road. It already looks enormous but, according to the slick promotional video, it’s set to get much larger.

just-turn-it-down

Lots of talk about security, air flow, redundancy and so on, but nothing about the effects of noise pollution on the neighbouring residential areas.

After a few other stops, we doubled back to concentrate on the area around CyrusOne. For more than an hour, we circled its campus, pulling over every so often. As the sun and traffic dropped, the intensity of the hum rose. The droning wasn’t loud, but it was noticeable. It became irritatingly noticeable as the sky dimmed to black, escalating from a wheezy buzz to a clear, crisp, unending whine.

“This is depressing,” Thallikar said as we stood on a sidewalk in Clemente Ranch. “Like somebody in pain, crying. Crying constantly and moaning in pain.”

We were silent again and listened to the data center moaning. Which was also, in a sense, the sound of us living: the sound of furniture being purchased, of insurance policies compared, of shipments dispatched and deliveries confirmed, of security systems activated, of cable bills paid. In Forest City, North Carolina, where some Facebook servers have moved in, the whine is the sound of people liking, commenting, streaming a video of five creative ways to make eggs, uploading bachelorette-party photos. It’s perhaps the sound of Thallikar’s neighbor posting “Has anyone else noticed how loud it’s been this week?” to the Dobson Noise Coalition’s Facebook group. It’s the sound of us searching for pink-eye cures, or streaming porn, or checking the lyrics to “Old Town Road.” The sound is the exhaust of our activity. Modern life—EHHNNNNNNNN—humming along.

How about we end with a more lyrical hum?

Philip Glass – Changing Opinion

Affecting and infecting movie music

In this video from Vanity Fair, director Todd Phillips talks us through a few of the opening scenes from his new film, Joker.

Joker director breaks down the opening scene

At 3:40 or thereabouts, he’s talking about what really helps Joaquin Phoenix get into a scene.

And I think, if I remember it right, in this particular scene I was playing the score for him, in the room, because – we had Hildur Guðnadóttir, who was our composer, I had her write music before we shot the movie, which isn’t done very often, and she wrote it based on the screenplay – and I wanted that because I wanted the music to really affect and infect the set in a way, really, even the camera operators, the set dressers, wardrobe, everybody to feel this music.

(That’s a name to look out for in the future.) Todd Phillips is not the first director to use this technique, however.

Why Sergio Leone played music on set

It might be too much for some people, though.

Deafening cinema sound is ruining films, claims Hugh Grant
Joker, the sinister hit starring Joaquin Phoenix, is dividing film critics. Hailed as a masterpiece by some, it has left others balking at its violence. For the actor Hugh Grant, the experience of watching at his local London cinema last week was “unendurable”, but not because of Todd Phillips’s menacing vision as director.

Grant felt high noise levels in the auditorium had made his trip to see Joker at the Vue in Fulham “pointless”, he complained on Twitter, adding: “The joke was on us”. “Am I old or is the cinema MUCH TOO LOUD?” the film star asked.

Futuristic noise pollution

This story of unforeseen consequences of new technology reminds me of those energy-efficient LED traffic lights that couldn’t cope with snow.

Here’s The Guardian last year.

New law to tackle electric cars’ silent menace to pedestrians
They are green, clean and make very little noise. It is this latter quality, initially seen by many as a good thing, that has become an acute concern for safety campaigners, who fear that the rising number of electric vehicles constitutes a silent menace.

When they travel at under 20kph (12 mph) the vehicles can barely be heard, especially by cyclists or pedestrians listening to music through headphones. “The greatest risks associated with electric vehicles are when they are travelling at low speeds, such as in urban areas with lower limits, as the noise from tyres and the road surface, and aerodynamic noise, are minimal at those speeds,” said Kevin Clinton, from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.

But the days of silence are numbered. From July next year, all new electric and hybrid models seeking approval in Europe will have to emit a noise when travelling at low speeds. Existing vehicles are expected gradually to be retrofitted with devices.

So, it’s now ‘next July’, and has the situation improved?

Futuristic sounds to make electric buses safer hit wrong note
John Welsman, from the policy team at Guide Dogs UK, who attended a TfL presentation last month, described the sounds as “all very spaceshippy” and said he would prefer electric buses to be fitted with a canned recording of the old Routemaster bus.

Welsman added: “They did play us a sound like someone blowing bubbles through a pipe. That just wouldn’t work. And there was an intermittent bleeping sound like an email alert that would increase or decrease in rapidity depending on the the speed of the vehicle. It was very irritating.”

Buses that sound like e-mail, cars that sound like something out of Star Wars.

Electric cars could sound really weird thanks to new EU regulations
After mood boards, focus groups, and plenty of testing, Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) came up with a futuristic sound akin to a spaceship in a sci-fi film – a suitable representation of the modern, sleek vehicle. But then they tested it on people, rather than looking around for the oncoming car, they looked up – apparently wondering where the alien spacecraft was. “It was very futuristic and did cause people to look in the wrong direction… upwards rather than outwards,” says Iain Suffield, noise, vibration and harshness engineer at JLR …

Some carmakers are already trying to be a bit different. Citroen’s concept car, the Ami One, has a unique sound design for its AVAS. Here, the aim is to use a human voice — not to shout warnings to pedestrians while it glides by them, but as the basis for the sound, layering a male and female voice together into the sustained sound required by regulations. It sounds a bit like a digital backup singer, or a robot humming.

Perhaps they should copy these old electric vehicles and use the clinking of hundreds of glasses bottles.

Listen to this, ol’ timer

Here’s an addition to the god-that-makes-me-feel-old list — the Walkman turns 40 this year. Fancy having to explain to someone what a Walkman was. Or what Napster was…

Walkman turns 40 today: How listening to music changed over the years
Though it was first invented 40 years ago, in 1979, the iconic cassette tape player defined the decade when legwarmers weren’t part of costumes and Reaganomics ruled the land. It was the first device that allowed listeners to take music with them on the go (hence, the name).

Since then, we’ve evolved to CDs, iPods, and the current age of streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music. It’s easy to forget how revolutionary the Walkman was for its time, and that it marked a pivotal moment in the nearly 150-year-old history of recorded music.

With that in mind, here’s a look at how we’ve listened to music through the years — from the 1800s to today.

There are some great photos here. We’ve certainly gone through a number of formats here. I wonder what’s next.

listen-to-this-1

listen-to-this-2

Seeing sounds

It was the one on how quartz watches work that first caught my eye, but I’ve been enjoying working my way through the rest of Steve Mould’s science videos.

These two are my favourites so far, though I’ve yet to see them all.

Laser + mirror + sound
A laser shining on a mirror driven by a speaker creates cool patterns.

Interaural time difference and how to find your phone instantly
The science of sound localization is really interesting. This video is specifically about interaural time difference and how mobile phone ringtones are badly designed for the way our brains detect sound direction. You can make you phone easier to find by changing the ringtone to white noise. Also, emergency vehicle sirens like ambulances are badly designed for the same reason.

The sounds of up north

Made as part of BBC4’s ‘Listen to Britain’, this glimpse into a typical day and night round here shows that it’s not all green Dales and romantic moors.

That Yorkshire sound
A hand drawn animated documentary, following the rhythms of a day in Yorkshire. It captures the sound of Yorkshire, from it’s multicultural and bustling cities like Bradford and Sheffield, to the delicate sounds of birds in the country side and the hypnotic rhythm of the motorways and train tracks.

Charting frustration

An interview with US artist, Christine Sun Kim.

An artist who channels her anger into pie charts
A series of her large-format charcoal drawings, which explore navigating the hearing world as a deaf person, are now on view at the 79th Whitney Biennial in New York. The six works pair depictions of varying mathematical angles with correlative, rage-inducing encounters that are both broadly applicable — “being given a Braille menu at a restaurant” or “offered a wheelchair at an airport” — and painfully specific to her experience — “curators who think it’s fair to split my fee with interpreters.”

charting-frustration-1

Channeling her experiences into images of geometric angles, musical notes and meme-like pie charts, Kim playfully combines different sign systems to create what she calls a “common language that all people can connect to.”

Sound mirrors

With parallels to that giant, concrete speaker in Taiwan, photographer Piercarlo Quecchia has tracked down all of Britain’s remaining strange and sculptural sound mirrors, built after World War 1 to detect incoming enemy aeroplanes.

Acoustic defense: photo series reflects on derelict British “sound mirrors”
“They represent an incredible demonstration of how sound can generate a physical form: both the curvature radius and the dimensions of the dishes are studied and designed according to the sound frequency that they must reflect,” explains the photographer. He hopes the series will continue to raise awareness of these artifacts.

sound-mirrors-1

There are more images of these brutalist-looking structures on his website.

Sound Mirrors’ Portraits – Piercarlo Quecchia
They consist of concrete parabolas with a diameter of a few meters. In the twenties of the last century, their use combined with microphones, allowed to intercept planes directed towards the coast, discovering in advance any possible attacks. The need to be positioned near the coasts mainly in raised areas, the strong materiality of the concrete and their huge dimensions make them spectacular and extremely fascinating structures, able to dominate the entire surrounding landscape.

sound-mirrors-2

Sonic art in Taiwan

What can one do with a 10 metre high brutalist concrete speaker on a Taiwanese island that was used to blare out propaganda across the sea to China? Use it as the venue for “Sonic Territories”, of course.

Beishan Broadcast Wall: Taiwan’s eerie sonic weapon
It is the Beishan Broadcast Wall on one of Taiwan’s Kinmen Islands, just 2km (1.2 miles) away from China’s Xiamen city. Built in 1967, the broadcast wall used to be a strategic military stronghold that played a key role in sonic warfare across the straits, blasting out anti-communist propaganda. Nearly three decades after the tower stopped functioning, a group of artists based in Berlin and Taiwan are turning the forgotten historical site into an experimental art stage that investigates the idea of ‘territories’ beyond the conventional definition.

Such a strange place. It’s difficult to imagine what life must have been like to live there during that time.

The interaction with the local people during the performance, however, can only faintly bridge the gap between young Taiwanese and history. “To me Kinmen is an insane place. We visit the islands as if they were a history museum or a cabinet of curiosity. People there still live in another era, and young Taiwanese cannot imagine how they felt living under the terror of dictatorship,” Chang says.

ArtAsiaPacific: Sonic Territories Performance Recap
Berlin-based French artist Augustin Maurs’ segment reflected on the opposition between sound and silence in relation to trauma. His sound piece, played via the wall of speakers, comprised incantations of statements about that duality—sound and silence—including a translated, Mandarin version of a gut-wrenching speech made in opposition to gun violence by 16-year-old Emma Gonzalez in the wake of Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting earlier this year. In explaining his work, Maurs told ArtAsiaPacific: “It is about silence and the act of choosing when to speak, even when one does not necessarily wish to do so.”

sonic-3

Aural exhibition inspired by Kinmen’s Beishan Broadcast Wall bound for Berlin
Yang said instead of focusing on the pain caused by war, the exhibition emphasizes blessings, peace and the need to cloak the former battlefield with a sense of spiritual calm. It is also an attempt to heighten international awareness of Kinmen’s complicated history and the development of democracy in Taiwan, she added. […]

According to Yang, recordings of Kinmen residents detailing life on the island, as well as the sounds of the waves, wind and other signature aspects of the local soundscape, will take center stage at the Berlin leg of the exhibition. These are to be complemented by an atmospheric video capturing the visual contrast between Beishan and the nearby shoreline.

You can see that shoreline with Google Maps, as well as get a sense of the distances these broadcasts were originally travelling, across to China.

sonic-2

Bei Shan Precipices

Or take a trip there to see for yourself.

Beishan Broadcasting Wall: Classic Kinmen Travel
Situated on the cliff on Beishan, the Broadcasting Wall was built to protect speakers in the broadcasting station, and has a square shape formed with 48 speakers. From the exterior, it looks like a hive, and the sound can travel as far as 25 kilometers… And is the only tourist site all over the country where visitors can announce and spread propaganda mimicking a psychological warfare.

Sounds familiar? Maybe not, anymore

Another online museum to lose yourself in.

Conserve the sound
»Conserve the sound« is an online museum for vanishing and endangered sounds. The sound of a dial telephone, a walkman, a analog typewriter, a pay phone, a 56k modem, a nuclear power plant or even a cell phone keypad are partially already gone or are about to disappear from our daily life.

sounds-familiar-2