Posts Tagged: ‘sensory postcard’

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.

Bulgaria 2015: Subliminal sounds

September 18, 2015 Posted by Milena D

So this is one of several posts finally on sound, from my recent visit to Bulgaria. I think sound is so much my default I decided to leave it for last this time but I also don’t want to forget anything. It really all started with the birds in Cambridge. More specifically, the owls, or what I assumed was owls, and then turned out to be doves – but like the fancy, feathery doves, not pedestrian pigeons. I noticed two things – the thick, luxurious sound of the friction of their wings flapping as they take off in the air, or perch down on a branch; that their hoot was different than the ones I’m used to in Vancouver. The doves in Vancouver go “wuu-wuuuuuuu” but the ones in Cambridge go “tuh-tuuu-tuuuuuuu” with an emphasis on the second sound. Likely due to my overall impression / assumption of Cambridge as a very posh, manicured place, I took the doves’ hoot to be the sort of distinguished register of dove-language RP (received pronunciation – as I understand, the utmost crust of educated British). This is a very *obvious* point, but at the time it was a novel discovery that, of course, bird sounds are culturally-influenced just like human sounds are. With this in mind, I listened more carefully in Bulgaria to discover what the crude regional accents of Eastern European doves sound like. From what I observed / listened to (but was unable to record anywhere), eastern doves go “wuuuuuuuuuuh-wuh” with emphasis on the last bit, and what I figured for that is that in Bulgarian, unlike in English, the emphasis often falls on the first or middle syllabus; that, and the fact that Bulgarian folk music has notoriously irregular meter (e.g. chalga). Is it possible that even doves hoot in irregular, Eastern rhythms?

It’s funny that I am noticing so much on this trip because I decided to pay attention, conduct a sort of ad-hoc “sensory ethnography”. The only thing I noticed last time I came here were the birds, just that one time, on one of the warmer days in late October (2011). I was pulled towards that sound because the previous rainy and cold days had been much devoid of bird song. This is the soundscape I recorded:

Now when I listen to it it sounds like the rain forest or the jungle, so many singing birds. And I don’t know how I didn’t notice before that Bulgaria has a lot more urban birds than Canada. Particularly – sparrows. Sparrows are everywhere, they are beautiful fliers, the way they flap their tiny wings and then glide through the air as if rolling down invisible rollercoasters. Their sound matches their whole look – sharp, melodic, bright in timbre. They tend to nest at corners of ceilings and I noticed many cafes and restaurants had installed a wooden slat or two to help sparrows build their impossible corner nests. The more I noticed the birds the more I asked myself, why, why this, here, soundscape, that is different than Vancouver – what else is different here. So, once again, I’ve talked about that in relation to smell, but deciduous trees make a big difference in the whole ecology of wildlife – and thus greatly influence the soundscape. Here is an additional chorus of bird sounds recorded just last month in the countryside (whereas the previous recording was of an urban soundscape).

And this brings me to the truly subliminal sound I discovered this time. When I finally got to my grandmother’s house and spent a night there, open window due to the August heat, I heard a sound there, a night-time sound. My first thought was, I don’t recall hearing this sound in Vancouver, it must be local, and then …. but wait, I do recall hearing this sound throughout my childhood here, as a regular staple of nighttime. Suddenly I remembered decades of getting lulled to sleep by this chorus of what I always assumed were crickets. Now that the clash of old and new sonic realities and listening positions brought my attention to it I got curious. Started trying to listen everywhere for it, countryside and urban spaces, night time and daytime. I did some research online (yes, indeed) to discover that this chorus is actually regional cicadas, not crickets. Cicadas are so fascinating to me because they make a full-bodied chorus and yet they are so small they are practically invisible. So the experience is like listening to something that you can’t see the source of, which is rarely the case in natural / everyday listening. It so happened that my father and I went to visit the neighbourhood he grew up in, Galata, and trekked down through a wooded green area to a small fisherman’s beach. The chorus – in the daytime no less – of cicadas was the loudest, brightest and most timbrally rich I’d ever heard so far.

Back in the city, the cicadas are a bit different. I want to share this next sound because there was such a strong discrepancy between what I heard, my experience of listening, and then re-listening to the recording. I was walking home late-ish, after dinner with friends, along a pedestrian walkway lined with leafy trees, but beside a sort of freeway. I mean cars are cars everywhere, they are loud, but overall I have found the urban soundscape a bit quieter in Bulgaria. As I walked, a little tipsy (thus, relaxed) and because it was quite dark I got to listening to the cicadas. It was so peaceful and decadent I stopped to record it. But my surprise when I listened back to it was, where are the cicadas? All I could hear in the recording is traffic, when at the time, all I could hear was the cicadas. Only around the middle of the recording can I discern the cicadas. See what you can make of it:


Further listening: this glorious collection of birds sounds of the world by Cities and Memory

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: Yaletown (Part 1)

January 14, 2015 Posted by Milena D

This post has been coming for six months. I created this study in the summer of 2014 and I felt that it was so successful as an ethnographic methodology and experiential, inductive form of inquiry that I presented about it at the 2014 Social Science and Humanities Congress, at a special session called “The Digital Gymnasium”. What I like about it the most is that it developed as a totally organic activity. Here I was, cat-sitting in Yaletown for a friend of mine, and with the beautiful weather and being so close to the Sea wall I kept going out and enjoying the neighbourhood. Now these days I usually get into an intensive process of audio recording + decibel readings + notes and observations when I travel somewhere different than my usual surroundings. It’s hard to maintain a constant attentiveness and interested – not so much in listening – but in carefully documenting the surrounding soundscape (a topic that I dedicated an upcoming entry at the CASE blog series). But seeing as I was now staying at Yaletown, a place I don’t spend that much time in, but a staple of a neighbourhood in Vancouver anyway, I decided to treat it as a ‘foreign’ place and go around recording and documenting sound, seeing what might emerge from being attentive to the soundscape. As I’ve mentioned before, I think of these media vignettes as ‘sensory postcards’ of a place, that together, as a digital archive, sort of reveal something bigger, holistic, more than the sum of its parts about the community, geographical place and its culture.

The specific apps I used to create sensory postcards include Faber Acoustical’s app dB, a Recorder app, audio-photo apps Picle and Speakingphoto as well as social podcasting apps soundloud and audioboo. The dB app listens silently through the mic input, and displays a running decibel level. Picle uses a photograph and overlays 10 seconds of sound onto a picture. Yaletown is a wealthy area that overlooks the English Bay and is in the heart of downtown Vancouver. I wanted to explore how different spaces are characterized sonically and visually, and compare the recordings I made with my direct experiences. One of the first things that caught my attention was how the landscape and soundscape interacted to form an almost intentionally designed experience, and in particular, the way the careful arrangement of the visual environment tricked my ears into hearing less noise, and ultimately experiencing my surroundings as peaceful and serene (in correspondence with the ‘sailboat’ postcard view on offer).

This first example is literally two sides of the same street, a few feet away from each other. On one side we have a popular open patio restaurant, a lot of music and people talking leaking out to the street. Across from it we overlook the marina and the Sea wall, which is often used by people biking and walking. Here’s what they sound like. Notice how crossing the street shaves off almost 10 decibels. And yet even for the ‘quiet’ one, we’re still in the high 60s, not exactly the serenity one would expect.

Now my personal view is that this perceptual convergence I’m experiencing in putting together the soundscape with the landscape is less of an intentional design (as if city planners actually considered sound in any aesthetical, rather than purely functional and logistic sense!), and more a result of habituation to constructed media images, where soundscapes are always ‘replaced’ and carefully matched to the ‘mood’ or atmosphere of each image. Here is another example just from around the corner, where a grocery story (Urban Fair) overlooks the Roundhouse courtyard. Notice that once again we have an almost 10 decibel difference.

The expected irony of course is that the supermarket is way noisier than the outside, even though the area is fairly busy with local and distant traffic. And speaking of traffic, staying at my friend’s place near the Sea wall but a few blocks away from the water – boy was it loud! Here, for comparison we have a kind of ‘urban’ playground’ across from the Roundhouse, and the soundscape leaking into an 8th floor apartment a few short blocks away.


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: Ghost Train 2014

November 4, 2014 Posted by Milena D

Following last year’s Ghost train ride, I went again this year, and this time I was prepared to record. Last year’s entry is special to me, because it was really one of the first experiences that made me reframe my entries from ‘aural’ to ‘sensory’ postcards. There was something about riding on that tiny rickety train, on real tracks, through the foggy night forest of Stanley Park, stacked up against other people, and surrounded by mechanical props as well as live actors, that made that experience particularly multi-sensory. And coming to expect these impressions, I set out to record them this year, as well as just pay more structured attention to them. Here is a shorter vignette version of the ghost train experience this year, themed “Mother Goose”. On a side note, I think the funding for this year’s festival was severely cut as there were about 1/10th of the amount of props and actors pulling this together. And here is a longer audio recording in Audioboo of a section that was particularly eerie where the train goes over the little lake. You can almost hear the fogginess of the night forest, the echoes and reflections off the water coming from multiple installation sites in the vicinity. Plus the foreground audience reactions and rhythmical tacking of the train itself.

Sensory Postcard: Galiano Island

October 20, 2014 Posted by Milena D

So once again, it was the time of my annual pilgrimage to Galiano Island, where I spent two weeks with one dog, two cats, and one girlfriend (one of the weeks). I have listened, thought and written about this before (including at the Acoustic Ecology journal), so nothing new…but this time around I had some new thoughts, because I spent even more time outside sitting with my thoughts, while the dog rolled around in the wet sand. This is something I hardly do any more, but used to do a lot when I walked my dog in my childhood – walk silently with my thoughts and experience the surrounding environment.

2014-09-27 13.22.44One obvious delight about the house where I stayed on Galiano was of course the massive expanse of acoustic horizon, the fresh air that I was really appreciating this time, and just all kinds of little bits of material things – weird field spider webs in the morning, crisp smell of morning dew, grass, pine trees. I also love the resident crows that make their daily circles at dusk sort of chatting (quarreling?) back and forth to each other. I’ve actually gotten to be really fascinated with crows lately…they are super intelligent, and I always feel like their behaviour and language is just beyond my understanding but so close I can tell it is intelligent and meaningful. It’s hard to describe how us humans as intelligent beings can recognize (or think we can recognize) and tell apart meaningful exchange from instinct-driven behaviour?…

Anyway, this post was meant to be a tribute to the materiality of existance, finding joy and awakening in smelling, feeling, listening, seeing beauty and life in nature, in its serenity and chaos. I love to just sit an observe small areas like tidepools, or ant-hills, everything has a place, and it’s a microcosm within the social construction we call ‘culture’ – as if, delusionally, we are the only ones here, or the only ones who matter.

Sensory Postcard: Snowshoeing

February 10, 2013 Posted by Milena D

2009-12-31 11.51.12I think it was on this snowshoeing hike that I finally realized I had been thinking about this all wrong. It’s not really about aural postcards, it’s about sensory postcards. Snowshoeing is a very loud activity indeed, which is why I am not offering a sound recording. It was simply useless to record anything because all I’d hear is the loud slushy footfalls of my shoes and my laboured breathing. Instead a stopped a few times just for the sheer enjoyment of the multi-sensory experience around me. My original thought was of ‘enjoying the silence’ but once I stopped it really struck me that this wasn’t just any silence. What made it special was the entirety of the setting, the cold crisp air, higher elevation , brightness of the snow, the bits of sun poking through the sky, the hazy foggy landscape up top, the openness of the physical surroundings, and yes, of course the faint but characteristic magical sound of snow melting. Like tiny little clicks synaesthetically reminiscent of sparkles dancing on top of the sea on a sunny day. It’s not just that the sound was pleasant to hear, it was, I think the minimalist quality of it, the simplicity, that made the contrast to my usual surroundings (noisy urban soundscape) all the more striking. Noise in the city – to generalize grossly here – makes us have to raise our voices, the voices of our machines, and so the collective result is a never-ending loudness war. This sound of snow melting (and it actually reminded me of a similar sound I experienced kayaking in the West Coast – the sound of seaweed drying on rocks) makes us all have to quiet down. It certainly made me regret the racket we’re all making snowshoeing up the mountain and wish we could somehow soundlessly glide up there, all the while enjoying the sights and the sounds. My second strong sensory experience up on the mountain was of drinking hot chocolate. By the time we got up the first peak we were cold but pleasantly tired and energized. The sip of hot drink I took was almost painful due to the temperature difference of breathing cold cold air and then suddenly gulping a hot sip. I had this curious sensation of visualizing my esophagus exactly because i could feel it being illuminated by heat in between what i presume were my lungs full of arctic air. I don’t know why but this also seemed like a wonderful sensory experience – perhaps because of the crispness of the realization, the present nature of the experience. Being present is pretty difficult in everyday life, for me at least, being in my body in the now is challenging. So this was a gem of present moment. So yes, in conclusion, I really have to majorly rephrase my way of thinking about these experiences. While sound and listening have brought me to them, it is the sensoriality, in all its modality forms that I am really thinking about, writing about and feeling. I think this first started to become more clear to me on the Ghost Train, but I couldn’t really articulate it until now.


Aural Postcard: The Sound of Coffee

May 12, 2010 Posted by Milena D

Well, as I suspected, and now is confirmed, I DO spend a lot of my time at different coffee shops around town, and some of my social time at a few restaurants and small venues. As I am still doing collection of soundscape information, impressions, etc. I will have more and more iterations of “The Sound of Coffee” to come…actually this makes a great title… 🙂 for my book… mwahahahaha 🙂 So this is a new iteration of my previous coffee shop soundscape posts.

On a side note, I am sitting at a Toyota dealership, getting zit’s brake pads fixed. There is free coffee, free wireless, a bar desk, it is quiet (there is a TV in the background but it’s quiet, and some low-level conversations with customers). Wow! It is way better to work here than a coffee shop – how very bizarre indeed.

Annotation: As usual (so far) the recording was taken with my iPhone and the reading with the app “dB” which I now realize is often (not always) fairly accurate – after I calibrated my SPL (Six Digital) app against a digital sound level meter, I realized .. heh… things are actually even louder than they seem. I mean, really, the quietest I’ve ever found in the urban jungle is still around 35 dB – and that would be considered “silence”.

But I digress.

Narrative: So back to coffee shops, here is one from Our Town, a place I frequent because of its airy, sunny disposition, tique furniture and neo-ironic hipster vibe. As far as ambience, I suppose it is not any quieter or louder than most cafes, but there are a few keynotes I have noticed. Their cooler is so loud that even though you habituate to it, once it stops (as it does occasionally – once it reaches optimal temperature I guess) I swear I can see faces in the room looking up from their laptops and facebook pages – “What just happened?” The absence of the seemingly atmospheric sound is more astounding than its constant, ominous presence! I guess the removal of a sound we become accustomed to tuning out makes us tune in!

 OurTown3 OurTown2 OurTown1

The screenshots above are all at the same location, and I have started to take multiple pictures at every location I measure/record, so as to give a better sense of the architecture – it helps for listeners to be able to visualize how sounds move, reflect, get trapped, etc. in any given space. It is interesting to note that two of the readings that are very similar are actually taken on different days – a different month in fact! – so they most likely represent the average level of sound amplitude in the space. The reading that is higher was taken on the same day as the one next to it, 10dB quieter, and that has nothing to do with reliability of measurements, it is simply a reflection of the RANGE of decibels in that environment – it could have been a loud passing car, as the coffee shop is located at the intersection of two very heavy-traffic streets. Or it could have been a loud conversation near me, someone laughing, etc. In any case, the point is – all things equal it is loud enough there – below is an expert recording from a typical ambience. Keynotes – steam machine, coffee grinder, banging of espresso handle, opening and closing of cash registers, conversations, and quite often – traffic from the outside, seeping in through thinly insulated windows.

I almost feel like too much of an insider to even have something insightful and reflective to say about this particular coffee shop ambience – I am there so often! I suppose, I frequently find it a bit too loud and regret having decided to study there, but then I forget and go again. I guess I often go when I want to feel the sense of community or being around life, people, and noise equals life sometimes. It’s funny how many faces noise has. Sometimes it is so overwhelming it is poison, but sometimes it is joyful – hustle and bustle of being around people, being together, not alone. I do however, wish someone would invent quiet coffee equipment, I swear the banging and steamers seem comparable to me to factory environments of the past (and present). And on top of that – let’s not forget music. Many coffee shops also play music or the radio (but most often, music) I would guess not to mask the disruptive equipment sounds – I don’t think anyone is aware of them as preventable annoyances – but to add to, or create an atmosphere.

Just as with the earlier Blenz example, where they had techno music blasting, other places try to create other atmosphere with their music – be it female singer-songwriter stuff, soft rock, or industrial punk stuff…each place uses music as a cultural stamp. Unfortunately it only adds to the already noisy environment, though I wouldn’t necessarily get rid of it – I’d just reduce mechanical noises or educate employees to use equipment with more care. If anybody asks, that is.