Category: ‘Research tools’

Sensory Postcard – Bikes (Binaural edition)

August 16, 2016 Posted by Milena D

I haven’t written about sensory postcards in a while but that’s definitely not because I haven’t been doing them, but because of, well, time, and trying to move more pressing projects out the door. I am applying for various grants to make my urban soundscape project “Listening to the City” (Listening as Intervention) a reality – that includes creating an interactive map of my recordings and short videos, featuring the capabilities of various apps, etc. If I get a bigger grant I’m going to be expanding my project to a more complete urban soundscape ethnography using mobile tools. So fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, one new and exciting development has been using in-ear binaural mics to record in the city: Roland CS-10EM. They do seem to be the best on the market, aside from the newcomers Hooke Audio for mobile devices (iPhone). They start shipping this September so the headset isn’t quite out yet. Here’s my review of the Roland buds: while the design is contoured for the ear canal I still had a lot of trouble keeping the buds in my particular ears, they kept falling out and generally feeling loose and kinda off. The good news: these mics produced amazing quality sound with very very little handling noise. To be honest I expected quite a bit of handling noise and wind noise just from my head movements, but in fact there was less body transfer noise than when using an external mic with a field recorder. It is also particularly nice to be able to monitor and record at the same time and on the same device – they look completely discreet and unobtrusive, and generally less equipment to carry around. It does, however, get exhausting on the ears after a while to hear everything in such an exaggerated manner, so I found I had to take breaks and turn off monitoring.

My initial goal was to record the sound of biking. I have been thinking about creating an ethnographic multi-channel sound story about biking in the city, mixed with listening to music and various city sounds that kind of weave in and out during a typical journey. I had been experimenting with a Zoom H1 for a while, with various placements on my body, upper pocket, back pant pocket, leg strap – but alas, everything produced the expected result – a fair bit of handling noise and tons of wind from the movement itself. Not something I could simply edit away, it’s throughout and it kind of drowns the sound of the bike itself.

With binaural mics it’s not too much different really, except if I am stationary in a place where a lot of bikes pass through (bike lane) I can capture some really neat bike clicking and wheel spinning sounds with Doppler shifts.  Interestingly, I would recommend recording Doppler shifts with a stationary field recorder, because due to head movement it’s actually harder to localize movement with binaural mics. Dopplers are best heard when stereo-flattened (but with decent left-right isolation). Here’s what I was able to record on the Seawall in Vancouver’s Yaletown district with my binaural Rolands.


Sensory Postcards as New Media Ethnography

March 14, 2016 Posted by Milena D

For a couple of years now, ever since I ‘seriously’ started engaged my dissertation research, I’ve been forming up this idea of sensory postcards as a methodology for doing everyday ethnography – but also, I guess, sensory postcards as a DIY new media practice that is facilitated by the ubiquity and mediation of mobile smart technologies. I even wrote this little thing for the Ethnography Matters blog. What I want to suggest is that by taking pictures, collecting environmental data and creating and sharing videos and recordings online, end users are participating in a kind of methodological approach to re-mediating experience and environmental surroundings. The only difference between that and a citizen-science or citizen-journalist initiative is that the same activity (of capturing multimodally) has a specific organization and structure, aimed intentionally at a public outcome. This post has actually marinated in my draft folder for a long time and I’d like to just let it go for now because there is a lot lot more to it, and I won’t fit it all in one entry, but one has to start somewhere. This blog is in fact already a collection of different ways of doing ‘new media ethnographies’ or ‘mobile ethnographies’ of the everyday: using visual, locative, measurement-based, and aural materials; putting them together in a variety of ways. The one limitation I have placed on my practice has always been – whatever can be accomplished on the device alone. Nothing leaves the device to be dissected and remediated on the computer as I’m truly interested in how mobile devices can be used, and how designers in fact respond to the on-the-ground use of these devices, so I see it as essential to continuously push the limits and communicate publicly about these experiments. Below is a small collage I made using several different apps: Over, which allows poster-font annotating of photos, SpeakingPhoto, which takes a static picture and overlays 10 to 30 seconds of sound recording over it, and again, SpeakingPhoto which allows collaging – stringing together of different ‘aural postcards’ into a slideshow. What I find interesting in making a slideshow is that it not only strings together individual entries into a narrative, but it also readily highlights the contrast between different sonic environments, by virtue of sharply transitioning from one to another.

Making Sense – Intersensory workshop (RE/Lab)

December 1, 2015 Posted by Milena D

A month ago @multisensorymel (Melanie McBride) and myself improvised a small-scale intersensory workshop out of Ryerson’s RE/Lab (Responsive Ecologies Lab) with the support of lab director Jason Nolan, as well as Daniel Harley and several RA colleagues. A combined blog post is still forthcoming, but I wanted to take the opportunity to start jotting down some initial impressions of the experience. So the idea, for me, was to 1) try and combine more than one sensory modality as an inquiry entrypoint, and 2) try and incorporate a ‘making’ aspect in the workshop as a meaningful way of transforming participants’ sensory experience.

There really are a multitude of ways to go about engaging with sound in ‘real’ or non-real time that lend themselves to various forms of sensory attention in the moment. I have less personal experience but do love the idea of ‘sonic graphs’ which entails logging sonic events, textures and ambiences through an often ad-hoc notation system. Sonic graphs would be done at a stationary position either at intervals of time, or for a particular duration. Soundwalks on the other hand, are silent walks that focus on walking and movement and experiencing sound while moving. A sound map (the second image) representing different sonic features of a community or area is another way of engaging with sonic environments. A sound map would be typically something one draws from a stationary position or after a listening experience, and the idea there is to capture something more general about the soundscape – the prominence of different sounds and where they originate in the soundscape (acoustic profiles), the timbral and textural qualities of different sound sources, and the relationships between different sounds relative to the listening subject.






















I’ve experienced many types of soundwalks that others have led and each person, naturally, has a different approach to them. Over the years, some trusty guidelines for doing soundwalks have accumulated for me:

  • silence. when you’re speaking you’re not listening, and it’s very hard for someone who isn’t very experienced with soundwalking to switch between modes of aural attention and other attention: because we use sound (speech) to communicate and use our ears for other contextual and practical information our brains literally process sonic information in two different areas of the auditory cortex, making it very difficult cognitively to switch back and forth.
  • pacing. movement is very much linked to sensory perception and processing of sensory info – that has been pointed out by many, and the thing that makes a difference in my experience of soundwalking is slowing down from a purposeful fast walking pace (which puts our senses on a level of ‘functional’ everyday routine) to a contemplative pace that makes our sensory system sort of restart, ‘clean the cache’ so to speak and introduce some novelty in perceiving (similarly to the model of ‘deep listening’ developed by Pauline Oliveros)
  • resetting. in general our perceptual apparatus is predicated on detecting differences against a constant, which, in the case of sound, allows us the evolutionary possibility to become habituated to all sorts of urban noise, household hums and drones and the like. So a ‘refreshing’ or re-setting of our listening strategy is always a necessary part of a soundscape awareness exercise.
  • contrast. In soundwalks one approach that helps with resetting our listening sensibilities is organizing a route around contrasting sonic spaces: areas of quiet followed by noisy street, outside-inside contrasts, monotone-type soundscapes vs. timbrally/spectrally rich soundscapes, and near-far sonic experiences: e.g. leading a group close to a sound source and then away, experiencing the acoustic profiles of prominent or interesting sounds in a given environment.
  • sociality. a soundwalk of one doesn’t really work that well. There is a kind of magic that happens when a sizeable group of people move through space together without soundmaking: we stand out in a different way, but it also de-normalizes typical sociality because instead of discussing things as they happen we must stay present and reflect privately, together.
  • post-discussion. As John Dewey states, we don’t learn from experiences, we learn from reflecting on our experiences. Well, that’s debatable, as I would say we do learn something from just experience. For a soundwalk to have its proper impact, however, a group discussion after the experience is very important as it allows folks to share and compare impressions and work out-loud the experience of being a listener in this novel way.

Eatons Smell/Soundwalk (Nov 9, 2015)
The soundwalk into Eatons centre certainly contained excellent examples of contrast, e.g. between the acoustically dry underpass from the metro line to the centre, to the vast open reverberant space of the Eatons atrium full of sounds and music spilling out from every shop against the constant keynote of the fountain in the centre. What always fascinates me about malls is the negotiation (or lack thereof – implied mutual acceptance) between public and private space that can be felt so tangibly in the sonic realm – while the common areas are semi-public, they are overflown with music that signifies private commercial efforts designed for a particular brand identity and customer experience. At the same time the space itself, in its very architecture of high domes, glass and aluminum, is designed to create a sound field of masking of human sounds. Instead of being able to segregate conversations, the space creates a soundscape of one never-ending hubbub of voices, shuffling objects, echoing footsteps; I want to think of this phenomenon as having a certain rhythm, but it’s easier to think of it as a texture. The water feature, one of the only intentional sonic designs is intended to ‘equalize’ and further mask individual sounds with its wide frequency spectrum. Almost makes me want to look into the history of the ‘water feature’ as an element that has been introduced in city design, but also as a marker of wealth, style and class in private real estate. I find it a bit laughable because the sound is kind of lost in the midst of all the noise that is bouncing off all the glass domes, and all the competing music spilling out into the atrium. I certainly have never been able to sit by a mall fountain and suspend my disbelief about where I am and imagine I’m sitting by a bubbling brook in the forest. I do, however, think that the space design of malls is – whether intentionally, or unintentionally – designed to create a soundfield that de-emphasizes individual experience, hiding individual sounds inside the field, matching the mall’s purpose as an anonymous commercial space, and not the village square of personalized exchanges. At the same time, the constant dynamism of ‘anonymous’ indeterminate noise fits the mall’s character as a vibrant, happening space of commerce, socialization and the ‘right’ kind of lifestyle. Short clip:

In terms of smells, some interesting things I learned from Mel was that the rubbery, industrial smell in sports shops like Foot Locker is actually off-gassing from the production and materials used in lower-end versus higher end shoes, clothes, etc. A similar off-gassing from fabric colouring and polyester would be found in department clothes stores. By contrast high-end clothes shops (symbolically located on the upper, quieter floors) smelled like coffee and nice tobacco, fresh linen and dried fruit. Basically like natural fibers and materials. Very interesting to explore the private-public spaces in that way, through smell, and sound at the same time. Smellscapes were much more contained and intense in my view, I’d say more subliminal as symbolic experiences. The atrium smelled very much like lots of people, contained air and around the fountain – vaguely like minerals and chlorine.

Sound Study: Yaletown (Part 2)

March 13, 2015 Posted by Milena D

After a longer hiatus than anticipated comes the second installment in my Yaletown sound study. Where we left off things in the last post, I started out recording without a specific idea and ended up making some interesting comparisons between sound environments in close proximity to one another, as well as observations about how the visual and sonic surroundings sort of coalesce in my perceptual (and culturally informed) sensibilities.

Pushing beyond these initial observations I began walking down the Sea wall, listening. I want to take a moment to comment on the fact that I’ve never been a ‘recordist’ in the sense that a lot of acoustic ecologists (those that record anyway) have a tendency to record continuous long stretches of their soundwalking experience. To me, recording, while accentuating certain sonic characteristics, kind of detracts from the holistic experience of listening for me. So I don’t tend to record unless there is *really* something I want to be recording. Sure enough, as I walked and listened, staring as usual into the alley-side town homes and condos I was struck by the presence of something I hadn’t noticed before – water features at every building. Different types of fountains, artificial creeks and waterfalls adorned every single multi-million dollar condo along the Sea wall. For the first time I was struck by the juxtaposition of natural water (oceanside) a few feet away from a gated water feature; water features being a luxury only a place like Canada can afford, which, for now, possesses unlimited water resources. Still, why would the residents need their own water feature when their property is ‘oceanside’ for starters, is beyond me. This is when an interesting idea occurred to me – survey the different water features in surrounding areas and see whether the type of water technology and soundscape is related to the (assumed) property value of each building. Once again i used SpeakingPhoto to record short vignettes of water features. The following is a compilation of these that illustrates some of the variety and configurations.

Still not sure whether or in what way precisely water feature soundscapes correlated to property values but in short it did appear that the buildings directly on the Sea wall (so most expensive) had the most elaborate, extensive, fastest running water features. Alternately, a big building a block away had only a contained fountain basin shared with a large courtyard. Another block away was a large building complex which shared an artificial waterfall with rather slow-falling water that barely masked the constant traffic noise, however provided a visual reference for its proximity to the ocean, even though the ocean wasn’t visible from there. Another building, similarly located, contained a small bubbling fountain right by the front door as if to simply tip off its hat to the expectation that a building in this part of town *must* have a water feature.

In any case, I’m presenting these approaches and observations as a kind of methodology for using mobile tools to conduct sensory ethnographies of place and culture; to probe lived, everyday experience, urban design, built environment and culturally-informed perceptions and assumptions.

Sound Study: Olympic Village

November 11, 2014 Posted by Milena D

So in the past six months I’ve been thinking about the concept of sound study as something more than a ‘postcard’, a sustained exploration of the geographical, sensory, cultural and social environment through the channel of listening. At the same time understanding that listening is always connected to the other senses and to the social experience of being in place.

Sensory Postcard: The Sound of Coffee

June 28, 2014 Posted by Milena D

I came by an interesting post today on Facebook, from the Creative Post about a study (I am yet to read, but very curious) which suggests that coffee shop ambience fosters creative intellectual labour. The story goes as so – as more and more independent creative contracts are moved to the cafe instead of to the (home) office there is a new ‘normal’ for creative workflow. Apparently ambient cafe noise at around 70dB is optimally productive, while levels pushing the 80dB are distracting (not to mention harmful, given the average laptop worker spends over 3 hours in a cafe).

I’m reading this in a cafe called The Bean in Mid-town Manhattan NYU, right across the Strand bookstore, and below we see the sound levels, which are in the mid-70s. So even according to the author of the original article this is a bit high. The problem is it’s hard to find a place that hovers at the flat 70dB mark. In my, now over four-year long extensive ‘study’ of North American coffee shops, it is quite rare to find a place that comes in at any less than high-60s dB. In fact, a popular ‘working’ cafe with all the ‘fixin’s’ – constant coffee machine turnover, steam, dishes, lots of voices, shuffling of chairs, background music – typically measures at mid-70s to 80dB. According to worksafe regulations, regular working exposure to sound at a magnitude of 85dB or over causes hearing loss over time. If we spend more and more working time in cafes, I ask then, why don’t we care more about the levels of sound we expose ourselves to? And what about those who work in cafes and restaurants? Restaurants are even louder than cafes, in my experience, based on past measurements.

In fact, not only isn’t anyone bothered (ok, I know that’s an overstatement) but people seem to like loud-ish environments to do creative work in. The article also pointed to a website called Coffitivity, which showcases an app, or rather a ‘revolution’ I think in productivity apps. Coffitivity offers the light ambience of a cafe for the creative worker who is getting writer’s block or coming up dry in the creativity department in the silence of their home. In fact, Coffitivity cite a paper that suggests some levels of noise is positive and productive for creative pursuits. The Creative Post article actually rallies against cafe noise, however, instead advocating ‘rain’ apps. That’s right, apps that play you an ambient rainscape that you can control in terms of intensity and type of rain. I am writing about this today because I’m just caught totally incredulous and open-mouth about this. It reminds me of the time I first heard about white noise machines for sleeping. The idea of adding undifferentiated constant sound when I need silence to sleep seemed like the strangest idea.

So, having grown up in a ‘keep-silence’ type of educational environments I cringe at the idea of adding ambient noise to my workflow in order to squeeze more creativity out of myself. Especially given that I hate the sound of North American cafes and whenever I am there I work ‘despite’ the noise, not because of it (or at least that’s what I tell myself). But I am starting to think there is something to the idea of sound levels and intellectual labour. In the past six months I’ve been intensively writing my dissertation at a work group on one of the SFU campuses. A public space, which albeit quiet, is still distracting. I’ve been listening to music on headphones while I work, and over time I noticed, when I turn it down I am much more distracted by it then when I turn it up past a certain level. Past that level my brain somehow puts it in a different category and it functions concurrently with thinking/writing instead of competing with my brainwaves. Very strange for me, because I am so fundamentally uncomfortable with the idea of pumping noise into my ears in order to drown out distractions. It’s like a metaphor for urban noise – because the idea of eliminating it seems impossible, we instead focus on managing and counteracting it with other noise. And then again, maybe we haven’t eliminated city noise because we do in fact function better with it somehow.

Sensory postcard: People & Urban Spaces

February 12, 2014 Posted by Milena D

Following the previous post, I continue my offerings of Speaking Photo and Picle-inspired slideshow recordings, a series I’d like to call people in spaces. Meaning, what interests me is the type, level and timbre of ambiance that happens when you put one, two or many people in a given space. Once again, because I’m using the same software for all of these, it is interesting the compare the different sound envrionments through the slideshow. This one below begins in a mall on a typical weekend, followed by a dense house party over Xmas – apartment sized space without music; after that we zip over to a busy popular restaurant at night time, a large space with many nooks and crannies – sounding almost identical to the house party; finally we have the overall quieter ambience of an apple store.

One thing that frustrated me in these exercises using the apps was the lack of annotation on the pictures. It is weird when you think of it – even for a slideshow program, not to be able to input a title or heading or something of that sort. The program certainly doesn’t input anything itself. So, I decided to extend the experiment and involve another app – Over. Over allows you to annotate pictures with funky fonts and titles. But, the problem is, what I’d have to do in the otherwise spontaneous moment, is pull out my phone, take a picture, open it in Over, enter a title, save it; open Speaking Photo, select the annotated picture, and press record. Basically takes the spontaneity out of it a bit. What should be a 10-second maneuver, becomes a 1 minute maneuvre, and if there was a transient sound I really wanted to capture, there it goes. It is also cumbersome and makes me want to do it less. This is exactly how apps and technology encourage – not define – but encourage specific behaviours and not others, specific expectations too. I expect for an app to do everything I want it to do. And when it doesn’t, I’m upset.

I don’t know why, but I like the recording better in this next video. Perhaps Speaking Photo has a higher quality of recording but these are better. I won’t explain the locations because they are listed this time. All I’ll say is that these spaces and actions sort of encapsulate my day working in gastown – including inside the office space, at lunch break, in the elevator, etc.

Sensory postcard: Downtown Vancouver in Transit

February 12, 2014 Posted by Milena D

Even though I drive now, and have been for a while, the sound of various transit and traffic vehicles are still quite forefront in my experience and my urban sensibilities. After all, even when I walk on the street, I am affronted with the sounds of various cars and public transit vehicles. In celebration of finally upgrading my phone from a 4 to an iphone 5S, I have been on the lookout for various applications for ‘urban experiencing’ to play around with. I was hoping for a newer and improved version of RJDJ which would take advantage of the new Motion+ chip, but alas, there appears to be no money in that as RJDJ have closed doors and abandoned even hosting the scenes and recordings I used to be crazy about (see previous posts and this one too). I was dreaming about even more ‘reactive ambient experiencing’ from the company, but alas. They have focused on a niche of ‘intelligent’ delivery of music. Strange, I digress, but their model originally was always that – to deliver music in the urban soundscape, as a music label company. The reactive environmental sound pickup was actually just a smart gimmick – an add-on, to promote small music labels. Yet I’m sure I’m not the only one who got crazy about the concept and idea of picking up live sound and processing it in real-time. I didn’t really need any musical accompaniment?! I mean, it *sounds* like music, once you grab sounds around you and modify and filter them in, it’s magical, everything is animated, like your otherwise boring commute is telling you a story. Well. That was that. End of rant.

Below, are two videos of an app I have been experimenting with – Speaking Photo, and later, Picle. Both  essentially allow you to snap photo + record sound. Both encourage you (seem to be geared towards) combining these tiny static videos into a ‘story’ or ‘slodeshow’. Picle is better looking but more crashy, and allows only up to 10 seconds of recording (perhaps tearing a page out of Vine’s book?). Speaking Photo is not the prettiest thing but it works and allows up to 25 secs or so of recording (taking after Instagram). I want to come clean right away – what I really wanted was Foundbite but sadly and I’m sure purposefully, it only comes for Windows Phone 8. Foundbite seems perfect – an all-in-one: location-based geo-tagged, you record sound while you take multiple pictures and the app puts it together for you in one nice, slick package – a little slideshow that gets tagged to a location on a giant (global?) soundmap. Oh well. The moral of the story is, there simply isn’t enough interest in audio-based or primarily audio-based applications for ambient, locational experience. I did dabble a bit into Digisocial, Dubbler and Hubbub, which besides the horrible off-putting names (who comes up with this seriously? why does a sound-based social network’s name have to sound like a fat bee buzzing around). But ultimately they all seem a bit silly. Dubbler allows you to change the pitch of your voice (or any sound) as you record so it’s trying to encourage a bit of experimentation, but mostly browsing around it, I’ve found people recording themselves signing, etc. Doesn’t really work as a social network. I mean, part of text-based platforms like the web (and yes, I know it has images) is the anonymity. Voice feels wayyyy too personal, far too revealing about ourselves. I just can’t see it working, and I really want to.

So once again, below is a slideshow of one of my first attempts at using Picle. It’s comprised of several typical downtown Vancouver spaces featuring….yes, the sounds of traffic. Especially when listened to on headphones, what is interesting is to hear the difference in sound levels and sound quality in the different times and conditions. That’s kind of what I like better about this approach to sound recording versus pure sound recording. The photo does provide the context I think, for fully appreciating the contrast between the different sound environments.

In this one here, while it’s just a continuation of my recordings in-transit, is interesting I think because it features richer details of the soundscapes inside different public transit vehicles. I especially like the second one because it is done in one of the skytrain cars from the old, original skytrain – the King George line. That line I find has a pronounced train-like sound, there is something about the construction of the wheels and cabin, how they travel over the rails that is very attractive and more pleasant for me. The newer lines sound very sterile inside, still loud, but somehow wooshy and ambient and hydraulic. Less like a train. The last bit in the video is actually me standing outside, in a bus loop while hearing the passing of skytrain cars overhead.

From the Walkman to RJDJ

May 4, 2012 Posted by Milena D

A recent interview I accidentally came into with Co-op radio Soundscape programme hosted by Brady Marks urged me to rediscover my previous work with RJDJ. Since I’ve been driving, it’s been honestly less enticing to use soundtrips and such, and work hasn’t allowed me that much time for playing around with interactive music and process composition. While preparing some new recordings for the broadcast I came to appreciate it once more – and was especially excited to discover a ton of new user-generated scenes. I kept forgetting they show up under interactive and not soundtrips. This is a short one I did in a nosy area near my house walking to the taco place. I am having to upload these sounds to Soundcloud, because honestly, I feel like RJDJ has completely abandoned what I thought they stood for, which is building a community around creating, composing, sharing and exploring reactive music, augmented listening and such.

Perhaps I was wrong all along, but after Inception – which I’d still applaud for its clever and aesthetically/musically striking design (a little boo for using Hollywood commercial music) – after that, it’s all been downhill in my most humble opinion. The scene uploading, the RJDJ app, the RJC1000 software are no longer (or not currently, for a while) being updated due to developers being busy with other projects – Dimensions and a brand new project, called Project Now. Those however, to me, are the components that made RJDJ a community, an open-source mobile music movement, and not just a company for apps. I was expecting a newer, better RJC1000, with more options to create more striking augmented soundscapes. With Dimensions I was expecting an auditory treasure hunt – a geo/art cache app with sounds. Perhaps because of my foundations in soundscape listening and composition, and acoustic ecology, I had been wrong all along, and RJDJ is actually just an alternative music label, a support platform for delivering commercial music, I don’t know. But I do know that they started something maybe they didn’t even expect, that has now been dropped by the wayside. if there seems to be any spite in my words, it’s only passion because I care. Or I did. But I’m just one person.

Taking back the soundscape!

April 9, 2012 Posted by Milena D

Just a little Prezi thing I put together for last day of class (Cmns258) a bit of a hodge-podge of different initiatives, projects, uses of sounds and listening that are, at least in my view, transgressive and interesting.