segunda-feira, 21 de dezembro de 2009

The monster of lake loudness

I recently stood at the Park St. station of the Boston T waiting for my train to get back home. Suddenly a horrible, piercing,  incredibly loud sound started. I tried to move away from it only to find out that it was impossible. A “network” of boxes similar to that small red one on the top left corner of the photo. They were spaced  about 5 m from each other and provided a completely homogenous sound field from which one could not escape. I moved through the platform and grabbed my iPhone —running a wonderful app named SPL which turns the iPhone into a sound level meter— and measured about 106 dB at 2-3 m. This value is not 100% accurate, but it gives you a fair idea of what was going on.
All the passengers seemed to reflect the disturbance this annoying sound caused, many tried to protect themselves by covering their ears with the hands. 
I don’t know if this was some sort of malfunction, a drill or a real accident but everybody was trying to run away from this inferno, and the expected communicational value of this “signal” soon became totally lost.
I cannot imagine any MBTA official, or the  “acoustic” engineers who “designed” this system to deliberately expect that such an aberration can actually work, or give credit to a poorly designed emergency system like this one. On the other hand, they might have their ears in such a poor condition that they themselves don’t realize how harmful this is to their passengers.

Anyway, if you happen to be in Boston, have to take your 5 o’clock T and find yourselves in the middle of this incredible cacophony, you’d better carry some really heavy duty hearing protectors or prepare to sue the company. 
This way they might have to redesign the entire system...

domingo, 20 de dezembro de 2009

We’re still awake and still singing

According to the Media Daily News “The (American) Senate may green-light legislation compelling advertisers to turn down the sound on commercials. But although much of the public is annoyed by the high volumes, a minority feel the government should get involved in the issue.”
Daniel Levitin writes in his wonderful book The World in Six Songs “The surprise, predawn attack was a gruesome innovation in prehistoric warfare. The attackers would wait until their opponents were in deep sleep and attack just an hour before dawn, sometimes in complete silence, sometimes with a fanfare of menacing instruments, creating as much noise and mayhem as they could to terrify their victims. (...) Those bands of early humans who were unable to develop a strategy for fending off such attacks were killed. Their genes did not endure in the population.”
Whatever compelled bands of primitive people to turn that volume knob increasingly up during commercials we will never know... 
What we do know however is that, still according to Levitin, “A few clever humans did develop countertactics —no doubt as a direct consequence of the increased size of their prefrontal cortex (...) These countertactics may well have involved staying awake at night and singing as a way to broadcast, ‘We’re awake, and we are here.’ “

Still singing after all these years...

domingo, 6 de dezembro de 2009


I always find it fascinating and moving to watch music students carrying their instrument cases, going to or coming from their music  school, to take their classes or returning home from them. It is the same all over the world. I’ve seen it in Boston, Utrecht, Budapest and a few other great music centers. They flock into their schools with the sole goal of learning and mastering their instruments to make music. 
It looks like a godless religious experience where they tenaciously pursue these rites with the discipline and devotion of an acolyte. But they are not driven by the fear of committing any sinful act, to avoid possible punishment or as a consequence of a fabricated code of conduct. They worship  music. 
Music is to me a far more enrapturing experience, more capable of enticing the righteous attitude, of bringing out a sense of togetherness and communal feeling than any religion. 
Astute religious leaders have taken advantage of this power of music, long before their faithful followers did, only to surreptitiously add a spurious, useless and parasitic role to the music: to serve their religious experience. But music is the (a) religious experience! 
As all the music students, carrying their instruments in and out of their music schools, have always known...

sexta-feira, 26 de junho de 2009

Practising sports may be hazardous to your health

At least to your aural health... Not that long ago, the newspapers reported that a study on the effects of golf practicing on the ear concluded that the use of  thin-faced titanium drivers to propel the ball further could cause serious damage to one's hearing. Not the standard thicker stainless steel drivers mind you. The reports quoted a researcher who found evidence of temporary and even permanent cochlear damage due to the use of these drivers. Ping G10 was the worst producing over 130 decibels.
Tennis anyone...? Well, you better keep your ear plugs close by. Tennis is also a source of aural concern. Julian Treasure of the blog Sound Business writes about the racquet's racket. "Grunting, screeching, shrieking" by one player during the game can seriously affect the other player's concentration and game. The problem has become so serious that the International Tennis Federation’s thinking about adjusting the players code of conduct, "which could mean noisy players being muted permanently." There's even a list of the current top five noisiest players —the A(N)TP?— Treasure writes:
"5. Venus Williams 85 decibels Equivalent to: A food blender, city traffic (from inside a car).  
4. Serena Williams 88.9 decibels Equivalent to: A truck passing by at 10m or a farm tractor. 
3. Monica Seles 93.2 decibels The inspiration for the famous Centre Court ‘gruntometer’. Equivalent to: an electric drill, a motorcycle at 25 ft, or a power mower.
2. Maria Sharipova 101 decibels Equivalent to: A jet flying over at 1000 ft, a typical house stereo at maximum volume, a table saw. A walkman at maximum level.
1. Michelle Larcher De Brito 109 decibels (apparently) Equivalent to: A night club on the dance floor, front row at a rock concert, a jet taking off, a car horn."
Please, forgive this burst of patriotic fervor but the noisiest tennis player in the world is Portugal's Michelle De Brito. 
And she's only 16! 
Imagine the possibilities! I can assure you that we are all very proud of Michelle's performance here, although we will soon not be able to hear her, literally!

If only she'd use titanium thin-faced tennis racquets too...

sexta-feira, 24 de abril de 2009

A new meaning for “ear-witness”?

Otoacoustic emissions (OTE) constitute a well known phenomenon, first observed and described, if I am not mistaken, by David Kemp in the 70's. The news these days, at least for me, is that OTE is the latest addition to the  biometric techniques chest. 
The ear produces a unique sound signature, which can identify you in  a way similar to your fingerprints. 
Forget the musical ear, the thinking ear, the absolute ear. The ear produces sound! An accusing sound. We belong to the deaf culture. We are endowed with the guilty ear. 

Don't you dare play by ear, it may be held against you. 

quarta-feira, 25 de março de 2009

And the rest is noise...

Instead of lulling you to sleep the new gadget in the picture produces a variable “soundscape”. And for those who live in a noisy neighborhood and are prone to sleep disturbances  the novelty of this machine lies in the fact that if its sensor detects extra noise in your bedroom, its generators start producing extra noise. A cloak of noise to mask ... noise! Smart move.
I thought that all you need to get a repairing sleep is quiet, but I may be wrong.
I even thought that these sudden bursts of noise, which seem to be the main feature of this contraption, could cause a lot of damage if experienced frequently. I’ve heard, for example, that when your sleep is interrupted by these noise bursts your body cannot generate insulin which in turn can lead into diabetes.

Don’t just take my word. Go get one of these Ecotones and find out for yourself... If you don’t get diabetes after a few years it is possible that I was wrong.

segunda-feira, 23 de fevereiro de 2009

Great documentary (2)

Here’s the final cut of Raquel Castro’s film “Soundwalkers”, about which I wrote something here on Fragments (check it here), when it premiered in Lisbon.

sexta-feira, 20 de fevereiro de 2009

No cause for alarm

Charles Darwin is a name you hear quite often these days. He wrote the following:
“Not a single domestic animal can be named which has not in some country dropping ears; and the view suggested by some authors, that the dropping is due to the disuse of the muscles of the ear, from the animals not being alarmed by danger, seems probable.”

For the acoustic ecologist there is a strong metaphor in here somewhere I’m sure...

sábado, 14 de fevereiro de 2009

The end of muzak? (2)

Following my previous post about Muzak Holdings filling for bankruptcy I feel the need to complement my previous  commentary. I have been involved in acoustic ecology studies since 1974. My interest in this area stemmed from two facts. Firstly, in those days I was disappointed with my "career" as a musician and composer. I felt that (my) music was becoming more and more meaningless, and that some sense of purposefulness was urgently necessary. Secondly, I sensed a gradual and growing public "deafness". People were talking, making music and other sounds but  they weren't listening. I became aware of the acoustic environment because I became aware of its mechanisms. You don't pay attention to your ears until they hurt, and ordinarily you shouldn't have to pay attention to the acoustic environment's mechanisms either. They're just there for grabs! 
The centre of the global crisis is deafness. No one's listening properly anymore. 
Your voice will never be heard unless you shout, with everybody shouting you close your ears, the more you close your ears the worst  the situation becomes. This situation has not changed in 35 years. It has probably become even worse.
Humans are sonic creatures. Look at us! Look at the workings and the extent of the evolutionary process on our listening and voice production apparatus. There used to be a balance between sound making  and listening. In balanced societies there's no such thing as noise and deafness. You produce whatever sounds you have to and listening  is not a capability you are discouraged to practice. Even some musicians, I feel, seem a bit deaf sometimes...
Within this seemingly atrocious panorama (purposefully distorted, I'll give you that, to help understand my point of view...)  professional sound makers have the greatest responsibility in producing purposeful and balanced sound. In music, radio, television,  the interactive technologies, but in fact in any situation in which human acoustic communication is involved we are probably the example everybody else would look up to. 
Muzak Holdings is not the cause of all evil in the world. They are probably even genuinely convinced that they have a positive role in society. But their product is no less toxic than sub-prime mortgages. If we detain ourselves over the problem of the production of useless, sonic garbage we must come to the conclusion that Muzak is its most successful example and its greatest symbol. 
Anything that can reverse this situation is thus more than welcomed. When one finds out that the greatest producer of sonic dump in the universe is closing its doors due to the competition of other companies, themselves about to close their doors also, one cannot but feel happy. 
You want to know why? Because we have enough competitiveness. We need solidarity instead. Solidarity is dialog and dialog is listening. 
Forget about global warming, the sub-prime crisis or financial toxic products. We have become totally deaf! Human sonic waste has clouded the Earth for long, it prevents acoustic communication channels from functioning properly, and yet we seem to neglect to see that this is the origin of many of our problems. 

Acoustic privacy is not mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and unfortunately there are no legal grounds for suing Muzak for attempted crimes against human rights, but that is just a legal matter...

quarta-feira, 11 de fevereiro de 2009

The end of muzak? (1)

Muzak Holdings filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. This is surely sad news for its workers.  But even if it doesn’t mean the end of piped music, the consequences and the symbolism of all these events constitute a chance to enter an era of aural hygiene that I salute and consider a great opportunity...