Posts Tagged: ‘urban soundscapes’

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.

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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.

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

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.