“Toward Silent Computing”

“Toward Silent Computing” is a piece I had published today at, the website of the magazine The Atlantic. It’s a combination of news-you-can-use tips on quieting a laptop that’s running the OS X Lion operating system, and a reflection on the unintended consequences inherent in sound design: Remove one sound, and others appear. The background becomes the foreground. In the case of the laptop that is the subject of the piece, my month-old Macbook Air, the removed sound is that of the hard drive and, by extension, the computer fan that is often called into service when the drive or CPU go into overdrive.

Here is the first paragraph:

I changed laptops about a month ago. I had a Windows netbook, and I opted up, as it were, to a Macbook Air. Part of the attraction of the Macbook Air was its solid-state drive. Unlike a traditional hard drive, which is in effect a high-tech LP player with read-write capability, the SSD has no moving parts — well, except at the level of the electrical charge that allows data to be stored. (If you can hear that, please get in touch while the next X-Men movie is still in pre-production.) The lack of a physical interface means the SSD is silent, and also less likely to trigger the computer’s fan, which in most cases is the primary producer of computer noise on a laptop or desktop. (Note: You can, indeed, upgrade netbooks to SSD drives, but the one I had, a slim Acer, had its drive buried so deep in the device that it was beyond my abilities and my time.)

I then cover three particularly annoying sounds: the trackpad click, the boot-up sound, and the plink that accompanies the raising or lowering of the machine’s volume.

Here’s a fourth tip that didn’t really fit in the article:

Once upon a time, in Apple’s OS you could hold Shift+Option while raising and lowering the volume of the computer (speaker or headphone jack), and you’d quadruple the scale at which it shifted up or down. This didn’t make it louder, or quieter for that matter — it just provided a more gradated range between silent and whatever the machine’s loudest level was. That may sound unnecessary, but the fact is that at midnight, if all is quiet, the difference between silent and just a notch above silent can be significant. Unfortunately, Shift+Option doesn’t work in OS X Lion. I tweeted something to this regard (“OS X Lion could use 1/16th the number of keyboard-lighting settings and 16x the number of volume-level settings”), and got a prompt reply from Lin Mu (aka @linmu), directing me to an anonymous post at from this past August that provides a hack to regain the finer-grain volume shifting. (For the record, I haven’t actually tried this approach yet.)

Amid all this detailed trivia about the sound design of Apple’s operating system, it’s worth noting that Apple’s OS outdoes Spinal Tap. Its volume control goes to 16:

For a long time, DownBeat (founded: 1934) was the oldest magazine I’d ever written for. Then it was Nature (founded: 1869). But The Atlantic was founded in 1857, so it’s now the oldest I’ve been published in (again, technically, I wrote for its website).

You can read “Tower Silent Computing” at

Tangents: Lunch Sounds,, Polluting Noise, …

Audio Flaneur: The excellent by Nick Sowers is three deep in a new series of “Lunchwalks.” What’s a lunchwalk? Explains Sowers, “Got an hour? Take a walk. Inside of a thirty-minute radius, an infinitely detailed (though finitely bound) landscape is within reach.” On each walk, he records the sounds he encounters. He maps the walks, and takes photos, which tend to feature his microphone, which in turn takes on the appearance of Sowers’ fuzzy walking buddy (see above). His descriptions are splendid (“The gear boxes and cable junctures add a constant hum to the background static of the city”), and he also posts samples of the audio, such as this from his third walk:

Read them, as his walking progresses, at

Banner Music: I don’t look too deeply into the statistics for this site. When you write about free music and about galleries that require no entry fee, as well as commercial music that often sells in the under-500-unit zone, the whole notion of pageviews can be an exercise in misdirection, if not futility. I do take note, because the dashboard in WordPress (the publishing tool that is this site’s backend) puts the information front and center, that this site seems to get a lot more visitors via Facebook than Twitter, even though I dedicate more time to Twitter than to Facebook. (Perhaps the automated posting of Disquiet’s RSS feed to Facebook that currently occurs is something I should do more of on Twitter? Somehow that doesn’t seem right. My approach to Twitter is conversational.) Anyhow, in the mix of sites sending somewhat significant traffic to this one is a service that was previously unfamiliar: The site is an aggregator of blog-filtered music (it bills itself as an “audio magazine made by music blogs”). You can search and sort by artist, genre, blog, and so forth. And, niftily enough, you can end up navigating this very site with a top bar that lets you listen to the music on a given page and navigate the site that way. The following link, unlike the previous one in this entry, will take you to an example: For the time being, the service doesn’t seem to be infringing on this site’s non-commercial Creative Commons license, though there is a page on the site that talks about advertising.

Outside Man: Perhaps the craziest thing about the movie Bunraku isn’t its surreal set (part Kill Bill, part Sin City), its peculiar cast (Demi Moore and Ron Perlman and Woody Harrelson and Josh Hartnett), or the voice of its narrator (Mike Patton, of Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, Fantômas, etc.), but that the score is by trumpeter Terence Blanchard, best known for his numerous Spike Lee films. (The New York Times called the movie “a potpourri of genres that ends up a morass of clichés”) Back in reality, Blanchard is also tied to Red Tails, about the African American Tuskegee Airmen.

Dark Portal: The second and third freely downloadable volumes of the score to the excellent video game Portal 2 are available at The first volume was covered here in late June, in the Downstream department. (Via and

Polluting Noise: Noise pollution is a subject that gives noise a bad name. A story in a local news site in my area, the San Francisco, touched on how emotions color perception of noise: “On Sept. 12, 2001, no flights took off at San Francisco International, but complaints were lodged nevertheless.” The science-and-scifi site has been noting how birds and dolphins have shown adverse effects of human-made sound.

The Listener: Author Warren Ellis has launched a new podcast. Second episode came out the 5th of this month, at, featuring such favorites as Daphne Oram and Scott Tuma. Episode one had Moondog and Tangerine Dream.

Blurry Images from the Right Coast

As we know from William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, sometimes fuzzy images that you come upon courtesy of the Internet carry the greatest meaning, if only in terms of mystery.

The following two arrived in quick succession from my mother this evening, straight from her BlackBerry, with no additional information:

She and my father live on Long Island, and I knew they were headed to a concert that evening, so I guessed that the blurry shots of junkyard metal were from the performance of Magnus Lindberg‘s Kraft, which has three performances this week in Manhattan by the New York Philharmonic. (More on the dates at Though the work’s composition was completed a quarter century ago, this is its New York premiere. There’s a great video on of Lindberg in which he talks about, among other things, the influence of Einstürzende Neubauten on Kraft:


In a PDF of program notes provided by the Philharmonic, some text from that video is transcribed:

I was living in Berlin in those days, and that was the time when the alternative music scene in Berlin was very strong,with a kind of post-punk music and groups like Einstürzende Neubauten. They had drills on stage, and they made an amazing noise with a kind of non-tonal pop music, and this aspect of it I found very fascinating. In a way, it was a shock for me to see that this kind of music was going on, and I was jealous about the sound — the impact of the sound and the huge forces they managed to put together. And I thought, “Why couldn’t we do this with the forces of the symphony orchestra, which has so much potential in different types of sound?”

After the concert, I received an email confirming my guess. Wish I could have been there.

In London, Noise = Noise

A live show from the London-based Noise = Noise concert series has been posted by Charles Céleste Hutchins, whose set, despite reported technical glitches (of the “messed-up sound system” variety, not the “inspired by Oval” variety), provides heady drones worth submerging oneself in. And just as those lulling tones fill the sonic periphery, easily mistaken as both sensory overload and sensory deprivation, in clicks the 4-bit percussion, and then a nearly sub-aural bass that rattles not only ears but body cavities. And when there is feedback (of the “messing with tech variety,” not the “messed-up sound system” variety), it is that digital squeal that’s the laptop equivalent of Hendrix’s burning guitar (MP3).

[audio:|titles=”Lupita”|artists=Charles Celeste Hutchins]

Writes Hutchins of the set, which was put together quickly:

In the first part of it, I’m playing my MOTM synthesizer and live sampling that in my SimpleSample SuperCollider patch, controlled by a wireless gamepad. However, one channel seemed to be out on the PA and it seemed like a lot of my SC stuff wasn’t making it out to the PA either. At some point, the joystick gave up the ghost completely, so it switched to being all modular synth.

More on the event at More on Noise = Noise at More on Hutchins at

Top 10 Posts & Searches from April 2010

Fully half the top 10 most popular posts on in the past month were not MP3 downloads (out of a total of 44 posts in April). It’s always a little rewarding to know people are checking out the site for something other than free music. These entries include: (1) the second in a series of probings of George Prochnik‘s new book, In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise; (2) a questioning of the definition of the term “music industry” in Megan McArdle‘s essay “The Freeloaders” in the May 2010 issue of The Atlantic; (3) a critique of founding virtual-reality technologist Jaron Lanier‘s new book, You Are Not a Gadget; (4) a note on the arrival of the Apple iPad, focusing on the transition of software from small screen to larger screen; and (5) a look at the handmade retro-futurist musical instruments of Arius Blaze, as shown up top.

The other five most popular posts this month were in the site’s Downstream series of (legally) free MP3 downloads: (6) great old-school hip-hop instrumentals by Damu the Fudgemunk (cover shown at left); a (7) very different take on turntablism by Christoph Hess (aka Strotter Inst.), who treats his wheels of steel with sewing needles and rubber bands; (8) still yet another turntable fantasy, this time Achim Mohné‘s dust-inspired locked grooves; (9) music derived from recordings of backyards by Tristan Louth-Robins and Sebastian Tomczak; and (10) electronica-ly enhanced European free improv from the groups Diatribes and HKM+.

The most popular post of both the last 60 and 90 days was a piece on a handy little homebrew tape-loop device, shown below, developed by musician Marc Fischer, no doubt thanks to considerable push by Rob Walker‘s focus on the cassette tape as an object of consideration at his great blog (and, more recently, as the subject of his “Consumed” column last Sunday at

The top 10 (in fact 11, due to a few ties) search terms on this site for the month of April were: “performances,” “topic,” “ito,” “postclassic,” “best cds 2005,” “best cds 2007,” “biggs” (as in artist Brian Biggs, who contributed the first in what I hope to be a series of “curating Twitter” illustrations of sound-related objects), “black to comm,” “rss,” “The rest is noise,” and “vinyl.” Those first three items (“performances,” “topic,” “ito”) have been standard for a few months, though I don’t for the life of me know why.