kottke.org posts about audio
When you open the glove compartment on this car, it sounds like light jazz. And with that, it’s time inaugurate a new tag on the site: things that sound like other things, which includes my all-time favorite, this shovel falling sounds exactly like Smells Like Teen Spirit. (via @kepano)
Steve Wiles is a band director from Oklahoma who is a extremely talented whistler. Wiles can whistle two melodies at the same time.
Competitive whistler Christopher Ullman is pretty good too — he doesn’t kiss before competitions and his best friend is a tube of Chapstick.
When Roger Whittaker whistles, he sounds like a damn bird! Pavarotti was also not too shabby a whistler.
Just launched on Kickstarter: a gorgeous reproduction of the Golden Record that was included on the Voyager space probes when we shot them into space almost 40 years ago. The records contained images and sounds from Earth that some extraterrestrial civilization may someday view and listen to.
The Voyager Golden Record contains the story of Earth expressed in sounds, images, and science: Earth’s greatest music from myriad cultures and eras, from Bach and Beethoven to Blind Willie Johnson and Chuck Berry, Senegalese percussion to Solomon Island panpipes. Dozens of natural sounds of our planet — birds, a train, a baby’s cry — are collaged into a lovely sound poem. There are spoken greetings in 55 human languages, and one whale language, and more than one hundred images encoded in analog that depict who, and what, we are.
This is so cool. When I was doing the packages with Quarterly, one of the ideas I had on my list was to replicate the Golden Record. The production values would have been a lot more limited than this effort and the rights issue is ultimately why I never pursued it:
The overwhelming majority of the funds raised from this historic reissue will go directly to the high production costs, licensing, and royalties incurred in creating this lavish box set.
See also the Contents of the Voyager Golden Record and The sounds of Voyager’s Golden Record.
A compilation of all the unusual noises — henh! hwuah! masanoonaa! eescrong! — Kanye West makes in his songs.
When you put a vacuum cleaner and a harmonica together, you get something that sounds a lot like the THX intro sound. This make me laugh SO HARD. See also the shovel that sounds like the Smells Like Teen Spirit intro.
For an episode of food podcast Gastropod, hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley consider how sound influences our perception of food and drink.
In this episode, we discover how manipulating sound can transform our experience of food and drink, making stale potato chips taste fresh, adding the sensation of cream to black coffee, or boosting the savory, peaty notes in whiskey.
One takeaway: don’t listen to the sound of breaking glass if you want to continue eating potato chips:
He recruited 200 volunteers willing to eat Pringles for science, and played them modified crunching sounds through headphones, some louder and some more muffled, as they ate. And he found that he could make a 15 percent difference in people’s perception of a stale chip’s freshness by playing them a louder crunch when they bit into it.
“The party version” of this trick, according to Spence, was developed by colleagues in the Netherlands and Japan. Volunteers were asked to crunch on chips in time with a metronome, while researchers played crunching sounds back, in perfect synchrony, through their headphones. All was well until the researchers replaced the crunching with the sound of breaking glass-and “people’s jaws just freeze up.”
The human brain is fascinating.
This 90s TV interview with Seinfeld theme song composer Jonathan Wolff is more interesting than you’d think. He talks through how he matched the theme to Jerry’s standup delivery tempo and how each episode’s song had to be customized the match the pacing of Jerry’s particular monologue that week. (via digg, which is particularly good today)
Update: The Sideshow podcast featured Wolff on an episode last year.
The show’s producers were having difficulty finding music that wouldn’t overpower the comedian’s opening routines. “Jerry, you’ve already given me the melody and theme,” Wolff told Seinfeld. “My job is going to be to support you and the organic nature of your voice.” Wolff sampled his own mouth noises and slapped some funky bass over it and the rest is history. He built the theme to be manipulated - the rhythm of the mouth pops, shakers, and bass notes changed ever so slightly to fit the different monologues that opened every show.
My therapist and I have yet to figure out why, but I have a soft spot for objects that do unexpected impressions of other things and people. Like this sliding door that sounds like R2-D2 screaming. Or the falling shovel that plays Smells Like Teen Spirit. Or the door that can do a wicked Miles Davis impression. Or the nightstand door that sounds like Chewbacca. I even found one of my own a few months ago: the elevator door at the old Buzzfeed office sounded like Chewbacca as well. (via @williamlubelski)
As part of the Moby Dick Big Read project, dozens of people collaborated on an unabridged audiobook of Moby Dick. Each chapter has a different reader and the readers included Stephen Fry, David Attenborough, and Benedict Cumberbatch. Tilda Swinton started things off with chapter one:
At the risk of turning this into an Adele fan site, here are the isolated vocals for her performance of “Hello” for Saturday Night Live. They are raw and flawless and real and everything pop music isn’t these days.
Update: That YouTube video got yanked, but I found the vocals on Soundcloud. We’ll see how long that’ll last.
Update: Welp, that lasted about 10 minutes. Digg has embedded their own video. How fast will that one disappear?
The University of California, Santa Barbara library is digitizing its collection of wax cylinders from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Over 10,000 audio files from the collection are now available online.
The UCSB Library, with funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Grammy Foundation, and donors, has created a digital collection of more than 10,000 cylinder recordings held by the Department of Special Collections. To bring these recordings to a wider audience, the Library makes them available to download or stream online for free.
This searchable database features all types of recordings made from the late 1800s to early 1900s, including popular songs, vaudeville acts, classical and operatic music, comedic monologues, ethnic and foreign recordings, speeches and readings.
The Foley Artist a charming short film on how a Foley artist would sound design a day in an ordinary life. Running hands through spaghetti noodles stands in for hair washing, a spray bottle sounds like rustling sheets, that sort of thing.
See also this fascinating short documentary about what a Foley artist does.
Edward Snowden has come up with a solution to the Fermi Paradox that I hadn’t heard of before. Maybe we haven’t discovered intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe, says Snowden, because their communications encryption is indistinguishable from cosmic background radiation.
“If you look at encrypted communication, if they are properly encrypted, there is no real way to tell that they are encrypted,” Snowden said. “You can’t distinguish a properly encrypted communication from random behaviour.”
Therefore, Snowden continued, as human and alien societies get more sophisticated and move from “open communications” to encrypted communication, the signals being broadcast will quickly stop looking like recognisable signals.
“So if you have an an alien civilization trying to listen for other civilizations,” he said, “or our civilization trying to listen for aliens, there’s only one small period in the development of their society when all their communication will be sent via the most primitive and most unprotected means.”
After that, Snowden said, alien messages would be so encrypted that it would render them unrecognisable, “indistinguishable to us from cosmic microwave background radiation”. In that case, humanity would not even realise it had received such communications.
Snowden shared his hypothesis with Neil deGrasse Tyson on Tyson’s podcast, StarTalk.
Skip Lievsay is one of the best sound designers in the business, having won an Oscar for his work on Gravity and worked on such films as Goodfellas, Silence of the Lambs, Do The Right Thing, and all of the Coen brothers’ movies. Jordan Kisner recently profiled Lievsay for The Guardian.
It is a central principle of sound editing that people hear what they are conditioned to hear, not what they are actually hearing. The sound of rain in movies? Frying bacon. Car engines revving in a chase scene? It’s partly engines, but what gives it that visceral, gut-level grist is lion roars mixed in. To be excellent, a sound editor needs not just a sharp, trained ear, but also a gift for imagining what a sound could do, what someone else might hear.
My commute these days doesn’t lend itself to listening to headphones and I can’t listen to anything with words while I work, so I don’t listen to many podcasts. But I’ve been driving more than usual this summer, so I’ve had a chance to dip into some shows, old favorites and newcomers alike.
I’ve only listened to the first three cases so far, but Starlee Kine’s new Mystery Show is particularly well done. The conceit of the show is that each week, Kine and her team of investigators solve a mystery for someone. Everyone loves a mystery, but the real draw of the show for me is Kine’s ability to get normal people to say interesting things about themselves along the way.
The second mystery concerns a not-so-popular book seen clutched in Britney Spears’ hand in a paparazzi photo. [Mild spoilers follow…listen to the show if you wish to remain unsullied.] Where did she get it? Did she read it? And if so, did she like it?
The celebrity aspect and the Britneyology was interesting — What sort of person is Britney? Is she a reader? — but the best part of the whole thing was Kine’s conversation with Dennis, a Ticketmaster customer service representative. She asked Dennis his opinion of Britney and somehow the exchange very quickly got intimate. You could feel their crackling connection right through the phone line, and seemingly out of nowhere, he utters the line, “you can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness”, which totally left me breathless. Kine, Dennis, Britney, and I, all suddenly exposed. Fantastic stuff.
Two weeks ago, 99% Invisible broadcast an audio documentary from 1998 about one of the last remaining flophouses on The Bowery in NYC called The Sunshine Hotel. It is an amazing time capsule from a Manhattan that just doesn’t exist anymore.
The Sunshine Hotel opened in 1922. Rooms — or really, cubicles — were 10 cents a night. The Sunshine, like other flop houses, was always a men-only establishment. In 1998, the hotel had raised it’s rates to 10 dollars a night and it was managed by resident Nathan Smith. He sat behind a metal cage at the front desk, answering the phone and doling out toilet paper to residents for 35 cents. Smith had once worked in a bank until he was injured, and then fired. His wife left him and he ended up in the Bowery, and eventually at the Sunshine Hotel.
The interviewees sound like they’re characters in a play, not real people. It’s so good. There is also a documentary film released in 2001 about The Sunshine Hotel which is available on Amazon Instant; here’s a trailer:
Oh man, this episode of This American Life on desegregation and the Normandy School District (aka the Missouri district that Michael Brown attended) just totally wrecked me. Tears of sadness and rage.
Right now, all sorts of people are trying to rethink and reinvent education, to get poor minority kids performing as well as white kids. But there’s one thing nobody tries anymore, despite lots of evidence that it works: desegregation. Nikole Hannah-Jones looks at a district that, not long ago, accidentally launched a desegregation program.
America likes to pride itself on its focus on the importance of education and everyone getting a crack at living the American Dream, but as this story makes clear, neither of those things are actually true. See also part two of the series and Hannah-Jones’ series on segregation at ProPublica.
The Rosses were expecting twins but learned that one of the two, Thomas, wouldn’t live much past birth. They decided to donate Thomas’s body to science. And then, they decided to investigate just what it was they had given and how it had helped others. Great piece by Radiolab.
See also this piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The next day, Gray met James Zieske, the institute’s senior scientist, who told her “infant eyes are worth their weight in gold,” because, being so young, they have great regenerative properties. Thomas’ corneas were used in a study that could one day help cure corneal blindness.
Thirteen more studies had cited that study. Gray felt a new emotion: pride.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has digitized their vast library of animal sounds, dating back to 1929, and made them available online.
It took archivists a dozen years to complete the monumental task. The collection contains nearly 150,000 digital audio recordings equaling more than 10 terabytes of data with a total run time of 7,513 hours. About 9,000 species are represented. There’s an emphasis on birds, but the collection also includes sounds of whales, elephants, frogs, primates and more.
Even with those thousands of hours of recordings, some contemporary species remain unrecorded. The library maintains a list of their most wanted calls. On the list for North America are the Arctic Loon, Shiny Cowbird, and Surf Scoter. (via @alexismadrigal)
When they were launched in 1977, the two Voyager spacecraft each carried with them a 12-inch gold-plated copper record containing images and sounds of Earth for the viewing pleasure of whichever aliens happened across them. NASA has put the sounds of the Golden Record up on Soundcloud. Here are the greetings in 55 different languages (from English1 to Hittite to Polish to Thai):
And the sounds of Earth (wild dogs, Morse code, trains):
What’s missing from the two playlists is UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim’s greeting:
…as well as several other UN greetings overlaid with whale sounds:
Due to copyright issues, also missing are the 90 minutes of music included on the record. Among the songs are Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry, The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky, and Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground by Blind Willie Johnson. Here Comes the Sun by The Beatles was originally supposed to be included, but their record company wouldn’t allow it, which is pretty much the most small-minded thing I have ever heard.
From Aaron Reese at Hopes&Fears, a piece on sci-fi movie sound effects. It’s chock full of interesting tidbits, like where King Kong’s chest-beating sound came from:
Initial attempts hitting a fixed kettle drum with paddled-drumsticks didn’t work, with Spivak saying the sound wasn’t “fleshy” enough. An experiment beating the floor failed as well. So Spivak decided to beat one of his assistant’s chests with drumsticks instead, saying “If wood will not take the place of flesh, then let’s use flesh.” Sure enough, this was the sound used for production.
The stabbing noise in Psycho is a knife plunging into a melon:
In a recording studio, prop man [Bob] Bone auditioned the melons for Hitchcock, who sat listening with his eyes closed. When the table was littered with shredded fruit, Hitchcock opened his eyes, and intoned simply: “Casaba.”
And my favorite, from Terminator 2:
In Robert Patrick’s T-1000 prison break scene, the robot phases through the cell bars with a slurpy metallic sound. Oscar-winning sound designer Gary Rydstrom revealed the effect was achieved by a simple solution from the sound of dog food being slowly sucked out of the can.
See also a short video tribute to the sounds of Star Wars.
The New Yorker did a short feature on Charlie Pellett, the voice of the NYC subway.
This deep, sometimes vexing voice — which also apologizes for “unavoidable delays” — belongs to a man named Charlie Pellett. A radio anchor for Bloomberg News, Pellett was raised in London but cultivated an American accent by listening to the radio. His work for the M.T.A., which is done on a volunteer basis, is the only non-reporting voice-over work that he’s done.
Taking inspiration from the opening sequence of Contact, lightyear.fm is a musical journey away from the Earth. As you get farther out (say, 10 light years away, just past star Ross 154 in the constellation of Sagittarius), you hear music that was broadcast on the radio at that time (Gold Digger by Kanye West).
Radio broadcasts leave Earth at the speed of light. Scroll away from Earth and hear how far the biggest hits of the past have travelled. The farther away you get, the longer the waves take to travel there — and the older the music you’ll hear.
This is the coolest.
A company called Persistent Surveillance Systems has built a “pre-crime” surveillance system. The idea is that you fly a cluster of video cameras over an area that can be the size of a small city — using an airplane or even a drone — and you transmit the day’s activities of the entire city to a computer on the ground. When a crime is committed, a system analyst can scrub the video forward and backward in time to find out where the perpetrator came from and where they go after. Ideally, this happens minutes after the crime is committed so the perps can be apprehended. Radiolab recently had a great piece on this technology and its privacy implications.
The system also has other uses — like tracking traffic patterns — but yaaawn. In one of the trials of the technology described in the show, the surveillance video of a hit on a police officer in Juarez, Mexico by members of a drug cartel showed them driving back to what turned out to be the cartel’s headquarters. Another trial, in Dayton, OH, resulted in the capture of a burglar only a few blocks from where the crime was committed. Radiolab called this technology a superpower, like Batman hacking into all of the world’s cellphones or Superman hovering above the Earth listening to everyone’s conversations. Less imaginary comparisons would be to London’s network of CCTV cameras or the NSA’s recording of a large amount of the world’s electronic communications. Fascinating and terrifying all at once.
♬ With the shovel out, the ice’s less dangerous / Drop the shovel, entertain us / I feel stupid and contagious / Drop the shovel, entertain us ♬
Magisterial. I love the internet. This is even better than the door that sounds like Miles Davis. (via @slowernet)
Update: Oh, and this nightstand door sounds like Chewbacca. (via @steveportigal)
On Vox, Phil Edwards has a feature on Susan Bennett, the voice of Siri, and how the art of voiceover is changing in the digital world.
Siri needs to be able to say just about everything in the English language, and that took a lot of hard work.
“I recorded four hours a day, five days a week for the month of July,” Bennett says. For a voice actor, that workload causes a lot of strain. “That’s a long time to be talking constantly. Consequently, you get tired.”
The original Siri “was to sound otherworldly and have a dry sense of humor,” Bennett says. She added that to her take on the character, even as she focused on staying consistent and clear.
Watch all the way to the end for some sounds that didn’t make it into the movies.
A profile of Gregg Barbanell, who is a Hollywood Foley artist responsible for the ambient sounds (walking, clothes rustling, gunshots, etc.) in Breaking Bad, Little Miss Sunshine, and The Walking Dead. The best bits are about how specific sounds are made.
Popular apocalyptic zombie TV series The Walking Dead has no shortage of gore — and as the show’s Foley artist, Barbanell is tasked with creating most of its gruesome “blood and guts” sounds. “They’re pulling organs out of bodies, they’re slicing heads off, reaching into bodies, pulling out things,” says Barbanell, with disgust. “So, we get creative.”
For “gushy, squishy sounds” like oozing blood, Barbanell uses chamois (a leather cloth made from the skin of mountain sheep). “You soak it, then lay into it, and it just oozes — it’s something you can control really easily,” he says. “And when you put pressure on it, you get these amazing, gory noises.” Sometimes, when that extra oompf is needed, he’ll go out and buy a whole, raw chicken to stuff the chamois inside of.
For “breaking bones,” big, full stocks of celery are employed — not merely individual stocks, mind you, but HUGE bunches capable of producing layered, complex snaps. “They give you this huge, sinewy stringy sound,” adds Barbanell. “It’s very effective.”
Oh, and his collection of shoes for making different walking sounds, some of which are shown here:
I love that Foley is still something done by hand, but sometimes it’s a bit too much, less like ambient noise and more like these exaggerated Wordless Musicvideos.
If you play this video (click the sound on) and look at the man on the left side, it sounds like he’s saying “bar”. But if you look at the man on the right, it look like he’s saying “far”!
And if you close your eyes, it’s “bar” again. (via @arainert)
Update: This is called the McGurk effect.
The McGurk effect is a perceptual phenomenon that demonstrates an interaction between hearing and vision in speech perception. The illusion occurs when the auditory component of one sound is paired with the visual component of another sound, leading to the perception of a third sound. The visual information a person gets from seeing a person speak changes the way they hear the sound. People who are used to watching dubbed movies may be among people who are not susceptible to the McGurk effect because they have, to some extent, learned to ignore the information they are getting from the mouths of the “speakers”.
Update: The Vine clip I previously posted just yanked the bar/far comparison from a AsapSCIENCE video, so I’ve replaced the imposter with the real thing. (via @michaelck & jess)
Someone edited the courtroom scene from A Few Good Men and took out all the dialogue, leaving just the reaction shots. It’s surprisingly coherent and dramatic.
See also Dr. Phil without dialogue and musicless music videos. (via @pieratt)