Soundbites: Deaf Bell, Social Sound, Venue-less Gigs

Recent reads (etc.) on sound

A lightly annotated sound-studies clipping service, collected in advance of the next issue of my This Week in Sound email newsletter (

The mother of the father of the telephone was deaf. Alexander Graham Bell’s own father developed a system called Visible Speech to facilitate communication. Bell eventually himself married a woman who had lost her hearing in childhood. And now, Katie Booth, in her new book, The Invention of Miracles: Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell’s Quest to End Deafness, traces this throughline in Bell’s life and work: “his creative genius and his misguided efforts to eradicate Deaf culture,” as Valerie Thompson puts it in a review. Here’s a particularly damning statement from Bell’s wife: “You are tender and gentle to deaf children, but their interest to you lies in their being deaf, not in their humanity.”

LinkedIn is reportedly looking to add an audio chatroom feature, which makes sense, given how much of Clubhouse, the “audio social network,” has been professional conversations. This feature expansion would be part of a broader range of changes LinkedIn is making to flesh out its social capabilities.

Miss live music? Then I recommend this Gabriele de Seta essay on Hong Kong’s “no-venue underground” (a term credited to Rob Hayler), drawing from personal experience (2012-2016) playing in a city with few places to perform experimental music in the first place: “It is somehow ironically appropriate that, in this city without ground, experimental musicians find themselves relegated to a precarious underground actively carved out of fleeting spaces strewn across the upper floors of post-industrial peripheries. These precarious venues appear and disappear following the inexorable inflation of property prices and the investment decisions of landlords, leaving local show organizers to work in the present tense with whatever space is available at the moment.” It’s a timely, applicable piece during our moment of place-less livestreams. The essay is from the new book Fractured Scenes: Underground Music-Making in Hong Kong and East Asia, edited by Damien Charrieras and François Mouillot, both professors at universities in Hong Kong.

Erik Davis, author of Techgnosis and a friend of mine since college, writes about taking guitar lessons for the first time since high school. I myself started taking weekly lessons a few years ago, and can relate to this distinction he draws: “Rather than playing guitar, I am practicing with it. I don’t mean rote exercises — though I do some of those — but something more like meditation practice: a daily commitment to disciplined method and unpredictable encounter, to emotional exploration and deconstruction, to attention and listening as much as to performance or ‘doing.’” Likewise, he talks about trying to reconsider the role of recording in his efforts: “I want the recording device to become part of practice rather than ambition, no longer a staff sergeant of the Productivity Regime but a challenging feedback friend, breaking the spell to deepen it.”

News of Google’s Project Wolverine goes back a month, but I don’t want to lose track of it. It’s reportedly a supercharged earbud. According to a summary by Ashley Carman, “[T]hey’re currently trying to figure out how to isolate people’s voices in a crowded room or make it easier to focus on one person when overlapping conversations are happening around you.” Carman compares this with Whisper (, and others to the lamented, defunct Doppler Labs. As David Pierce put it in his overview of Doppler’s fall back in 2017, it “had the bad luck of being a hardware company at a time when the biggest players in tech — Microsoft, Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook — are all pouring billions into developing their own gadgets.” Now Google appears to be pursuing the endeavor.

This Week in Sound: Wonky Skulls

A lightly annotated clipping service

These sound-studies highlights of the week are lightly adapted from the July 27, 2020, issue of the free weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound (

As always, if you find sonic news of interest, please share it with me, and (except with the most widespread of news items) I’ll credit you should I mention it here.

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The big sound-studies story this week has been the fake (or “fake”) crowd noise at professional sports events being broadcast during Covid. How long these events will go on is unclear, what with Major League Baseball having postponed two games scheduled for this evening. Igor Bonifacic reports that the NBA will be using Teams, the Microsoft answer to Slack: “The displays will allow players to see and hear the people who are watching them via Teams.” How long that’ll last before people start making noise and doing things at home they wouldn’t do in person is also unclear. Joe Reedy notes: “Stadium sound engineers will have access to around 75 different effects and reactions.” These sounds originated in the video game series MLB The Show. (And since most of what I know about baseball originates either as scandal in the news pages or as fiction, this scenario has sent me back to reread Jonathan Lethem’s short story “Vanilla Dunk.”) “You’re still focused on the game but that noise is very helpful. I could tell the first few scrimmages with pure silence was tough for some guys,” Reedy quotes Eric Sogard of the Milwaukee Brewers.

Before getting to all those stories about how quiet the world is getting, first note that noise complaints in New York City are up nearly 300 percent. Shaye Weaver attributes the uptick to “more people crammed together at the same time,” as well as to protests and the fireworks running up to the Fourth of July. The research cited was an analysis by of data from NYC Open Data.

“We can safely say that in modern seismology, we’ve never seen such a long period of human quiet,” according to seismologist Raphael De Plaen. Tanya Basu writes on how Covid has quieted the planet: “Everyday urban activities like commutes, or stadiums full of fans simultaneously going wild in ‘football quakes,’ are strong enough to register on seismometers.” (Thanks, Rob Walker!)

Michael Le Page reports on “optical cochlear implants that use light to stimulate the nerve cells.” Note that the nerve cells must be genetically modified for this to take effect.

“The two major tools to promote deaf accessibility in video games are (1) subtitles/captions and (2) visual cues.” Morgan Baker provides a detailed primer.

“In most toothed whales, the internal organs in the skull are squashed into the left side to make way for soft tissues which help them to echolocate”: Katie Pavid explores the science of why whales look that way. Apparently such skulls are called “wonky.” The article uses variations on the word “wonky” eight times. (Via Cheryl Tipp)

“A team from the Systems Engineering Department at the University of Lagos in Akoka, Lagos, Nigeria, have discovered that people can identify other people by the matchless nature of their laughter because, unlike voice and manner of speech, laughter almost cannot be mimicked,” writes Anton Shilov. In other words, your next password may be your laugh, no kidding.

“Half a century later and visual and voice deepfake technology can give a glimpse at an alternate reality where the landing failed”: The landing is the U.S. arrival on the moon. The deepfake is of Richard Nixon announcing the death of the astronauts. There are 98 days until the next U.S. presidential election, and the concept of audio deepfakes isn’t quite keeping me up at night, but it sure is heavy on my mind. Read Eric Hal Schwartz on the topic. And if your middle name is Hal, it’s sort of inevitable you end up on the artificial intelligence beat, right? (This isn’t the first time I’ve quoted Schwartz in the newsletter, but I think it’s the first time I’ve made that joke.)

“Hackers use machine learning to clone someone’s voice and then combine that voice clone with social engineering techniques to convince people to move money where it shouldn’t be,” writes James Vincent of the “audio deepfake scam.”

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▰ The trailer for the upcoming TV series Biohackers features an amazing urban doorbell and a homebrew “biopiano” using plants. I’m in. (And a silent rave, too, which Beth Elderkin of io9 pointed out.) The Netflix algorithms have my number.

▰ The narration of this audiobook I’ve been listening to while going for walks is so stilted, I bet if I found a printed copy I could confirm pauses align with pages being turned. Also, though it’s from the library’s online service, it includes spoken instruction to change CDs.

▰ I don’t miss concerts half as much as I miss running into people at concerts.

▰ The unique internet pleasure of observing a musician you admire purchase a used piece of music equipment in which you are interested, and then awaiting a release that features the result.

▰ My next sequencer is MIDI data of people nodding in agreement on Zoom conferences posted to YouTube where folks are in sync, so to speak, with what the speaker is saying.

▰ Ableton Quantum Entanglement Link

This Week in Sound: Windows on the World

A lightly annotated clipping service

These sound-studies highlights of the week are lightly adapted from the July 20, 2020, issue of the free weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound (

As always, if you find sonic news of interest, please share it with me, and (except with the most widespread of news items) I’ll credit you should I mention it here.

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“Sonic aesthetic moralism has been taken up by NIMBYs opposing affordable development, suburbanites in defense of their decision to live far from the city core, urban planners rallying around pedestrian-friendly street design, public-health officials citing the physiological effects of noise, and environmentalists advocating for sustainable building practices”: Kate Wagner takes admirable issue with the perceived concepts of “good” and “bad” noise. (Thanks, George Kelly!)

“The absence of noises, replaced in parks by the sounds of leaves crunching under shoes or birds creating their own symphonies, is what draws so many of us to them,” says a director of the National Parks Conservation Association, in an article by Jenny Morber, referring to natural silences “values” that are “under threat.”

“Sound studies experts say that while LRADs and flash-bangs are worrisome tactical escalations that can permanently injure people by rupturing eardrums, they are rooted in the long, uncontested tradition of the state utilizing sound as a means of social, cultural and political control”: Luke Ottenhof on the use of sonic weapons by law enforcement.

“The game in Anaheim might well have had the loudest pregame boos in modern baseball history”: Sam Miller on what sports fan will miss beyond sports itself. (Via Dave Pell’s Next Draft)

“When chickadees see a pygmy owl, they increase the number of “dee” notes and call “chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee.” Here, the number of sounds serves as an active anti-predation strategy.” Nice details in this piece by Andreas Nieder on the power of numbers among animals. (Thanks, Fari Bradley!)

“State Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty late Friday afternoon ordered state judges and magistrates to stop issuing ‘no-knock’ search warrants to police.” You must knock, or ring, before entering.

Geoff Manaugh picked up that story about noise-cancelling windows, and ran with it, exhibiting characteristic extrapolative aplomb: “combine luxury frequency-reduction techniques with seismic wave-mitigation and perhaps you’ve just designed the future of architecture in global earthquake zones.” (Thanks, Thorsten Sideb0ard!)

“A recent Stanford University study found the speech-to-text services used by Amazon, IBM, Google, Microsoft and Apple for batch transcriptions misidentified the words of Black speakers at nearly double the rate of white speakers”: Jeff Link on racial bias in voice recognition. (I don’t know much about this website, which has a modest Facebook and Twitter following, but the piece is well-researched.)

This Week in Sound: Web-Only Edition

A lightly annotated clipping service

I haven’t sent out an issue of the This Week in Sound email newsletter ( in awhile, not since mid-May. The world and life are complex right now, demanding in unfamiliar ways. I had some material stored up last week, but just didn’t have the time. Or more to the point, I had time, but not the time; the time I had, I spent alternately. As many who are spending far more time at home than they might be accustomed to, the logical expanse of time that might result from stationary existence is an illusion; there is, in fact, less time. Certainly less productive time, because recuperation is harder to come by, and more necessary than usual. The world outside is both more quiet and, especially in metaphoric terms, more noisy. Inside, we focus, take breaks, make progress.

In any case, had an issue of This Week in Sound gone out last Monday, this is the core of what would have been in it. I hope to get back to the email version soon.

And as always, if you find sonic news of interest, please share it with me, and (except with the most widespread of news items) I’ll credit you should I mention it here.

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“[A]nimals that lower their voices to sound bigger are often skilled vocalists,” goes an uncredited story at “Both strategies — sounding bigger and learning sounds — are likely driven by sexual selection, and may play a role in explaining the origins of human speech evolution.”

Mariusz Kozak wrote in the Washington Post about the role songs play in protests: “The first is that the meaning of music is deliberately imprecise — in technical terms, music is referentially ambiguous. The same song can be significant in different ways to different listeners, or even to the same person on different occasions. The second feature is that listeners can still connect with each other emotionally by moving together in synchrony with what they hear and with each other.” (via Diana Deutsch)

Much as Darth Vader has that trademark breathing sound, “a distinctive ambient sound,” in the words of sound designer Ben Burtt, was also planned for Boba Fett. The problem was, the audience never heard it “because he never appeared in a quiet place.” Germain Lussier gets into the details.

“What started as a minor change to a common song has now morphed into a continent-wide phenomenon before our very ears,” writes Carly Cassella of a sparrow’s song, and its viral influence on the broader bird population. “Between 2000 and 2019, this small change has travelled over 3,000 kilometres (1,800 miles) from British Columbia (BC) to central Ontario, virtually wiping out a historic song ending that’s been around since the 1950s at least.” (via subtopes)

“Scientists have developed a gadget that can reduce the intensity of noise pollution passing through an open window,” writes Anthony Cuthberston. “A proof-of-principle study is published in the journal Scientific Reports, detailing a prototype that makes use of 18 microphones and 24 speakers to eliminate half of the sounds passing through a window.”

There’s a fundraiser to save the Dream House of La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela.

Reading John Zorn on the late Ennio Morricone is like reading Zorn on Zorn: “Having roots in both popular music and the avant-garde, Morricone was an innovator, and he overcame each new challenge with a fresh approach, retaining a curiosity and childlike sense of wonder.”

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▰ The local school district is SFUSD (San Francisco Unified School District). When there’s an auto-call with an announcement of some sort (tl;dr: “You probably wanna know if school will open come fall. Well, so do we.”), the alert pronounces it as if it were a name: “Suh-fuh-sed.”

▰ One word disappointingly absent from all those tracks listed in the upcoming expansive box set of my favorite Prince album: “instrumental.”

▰ I’m not practicing guitar. I’m performing a trio with dishwasher and passing traffic.

▰ Aretha Franklin foresaw the nuanced social negotiations involved when planning virtual-conference events during a pandemic. “You think you’re smooth / And you can pick and choose when the time is right.”

▰ I recently watched both seasons of Star Wars: Resistance, and the the best caption was “[distressed beep].” Those rollie droids sure are emotive.

▰ Once I realized that the voice actor of Neeku in Star Wars: Resistance is the same actor as Big Head in Silicon Valley, it all made sense.

▰ Heads up to musicians who regularly send out PR announcements to as many email addresses as they can. Those are, increasingly, showing up in my spam folder. Having your email designated as spam is the internet’s karmic response to what is, big surprise, actually in fact spamming.

▰ Why does Twitter keep recommending that I follow the account of a composer who died toward the end of 2016, an account that hasn’t been updated since about a month prior to the death?

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