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A Sound Education

Bong, Bong, Bong.

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"If it weren't for Philo T. Farnsworth, inventor of television, we'd still be eating frozen radio dinners."

Johnny Carson

Eighty-six years ago, three musical tones, "G-E-C," were played on a fledgling network of radio stations. What started as a technical cue for local stations, has become an instantly recognized trio of notes woven into the American identity.


Double-Naught Spies

Double-Naught news

"They number girl spies different. She's what you call a 36-23-36."

Max Baer, Jr. as "Jethro Bodine"

Double-Naught Spies

This month, the new James Bond spy movie Spectre will be released. It's the 24th film in the long-running franchise based on Ian Fleming's novels. "Hot Dog!" as Jethro Bodine would say. James Bond and all his gadgets were hatched from Fleming's experiences while serving in the British Navy Intelligence Division during World War Two.

Gathering intelligence during any war requires innovative and clandestine communication techniques, especially deep within the enemy lines. In the Revolutionary War, invisible ink and garments on a clothesline were tools to send secret messages. The Civil War saw women disguising themselves as nurses, slaves, and even soldiers to gather and smuggle information. During World War One, the human body itself became a vehicle for secret messages via invisible tattoos.


Podcasting Revisited

Podcasting news

"Podcasting - I swear to you - on its worst day, the podcasts are better than our best films. Because they're more imaginative, and there's no artifice, and it's far more real."

Kevin Smith

Podcasting Revisited

Modern podcasting has now been around a little more than 10 years now. The roots go back much further, into the 1980's in fact. The idea of subscribing to an internet-delivered audio service dates to the early 1990's. But it wasn't until portable devices, such as the iPod, came onto the scene that it really took off. History shows that portability drives popularity – the battery-operated radio, the portable record player, the audio cassette, and the funky 8-track. I remember the iPod being described as a digital "Walkman," even though poor Sony already had moved beyond the cassette into portable digital players.


That Magic Sound


"Science is magic that works"

Kurt Vonnegut

That Magic Sound

Researcher Dr. Diana Deutsch at UC San Diego has been studying the psychology of sound since the mid-1960's. Her findings illustrate how people can hear musical tones wildly different from each other. These "illusions" can cause great disagreements between listeners, even highly trained musicians. And interestingly, one group of stereo illusions has right-handers and left-handers perceiving them differently.


Shhh! Be Quiet!!!

Shhh Be Quiet news

"If a tree falls in the forest, and hits a mime, does anyone care?"

Gary Larson

Shhh! Quiet!

Have you been hiking lately? Where'd you go? Red River Gorge? The Smokey Mountains? Yosemite? In the last 10 years, have you ever experienced a place devoid of all human sounds? Gordon Hempton, an Emmy-Award-winning recordist, claims there are less than a dozen places left in the continental U.S. that are "quiet." Hempton defines "quiet" as a natural environment that has no human-intrusion sounds for at least twenty minutes.

In 1984, Hempton, who has been recording nature sounds since the mid-1970's, identified 21 locations in his home state of Washington that were "quiet." By the early 90's, there were only 3 places left, one of which is tucked away in Olympia National Park. He won't reveal where the other two are. Sadly, he believes there are no quiet places left in Europe.

The documentary Sound Tracker follows Hempton in his quest for these quiet places throughout the Pacific Northwest. His efforts over the last 25 years to preserve the sounds of nature have culminated in his campaign "One Square Inch of Silence." He seeks to identify and protect places that are totally free of human sounds. The focal point is that place in Olympia National Park's Hoh Rain Forest, which is marked by a small red stone given to him by an elder of the Native American Quileute tribe.

About five years ago, I took a portable recorder on a hike into the Red River Gorge. I wanted to capture long periods of natural ambience for my sound effects archives. It was a flop. You'd be surprised how often a plane or jet flies overhead, a loud muffler guns it up a hill, someone yells or whistles, or - gasp - a gunshot goes off. As anyone who has worked outside on location knows, it's nearly impossible to have even thirty seconds of silence.

The only time I can remember being out of earshot of any human for an extended length of time was on an island beach off the Gulf coast of Florida. This was in the late 1980's on a weekday before the tourists showed up. The loudest sound I heard was a flock of flamingos taking off. After about 20 minutes, the sounds of "civilization" started to ruin my solitude.

With all the debate over environmental pollution, sound is rarely included in those discussions. Maybe it's about time to address it. Airplanes, sirens, loud cars, loud traffic, loud music, generators, ships, trains - you name it, we have more of them. And coming to a quiet place near you, drones. The next generation of humans may never get to experience "quiet places." If they do, it might frighten them.

More about Sound Tracker

Excellent article and interview with Gordon Hempton in The Sun

Did You Know?

  • Gordon Hempton won an Emmy for his PBS documentary Vanishing Dawn Chorus.
  • Why does Hempton define "quiet" as 20 minutes? It's the approximate length of a 7" reel of analog tape running at 15 inches-per-second.
  • Before digital recorders, Hempton captured sounds in the field using a Nagra reel-to-reel portable recorder. The Nagra was considered one of the purest and most accurate reel-to-reel recorders ever produced.
  • Studies have shown that noise pollution affects some species' survival rates, especially those that rely on sound more than vision.
  • Oceans even have noise pollution from shipping, pipelines, and Navy sonar.
  • For decades, people around the earth have complained about low humming sounds. They have been wrongly blamed on power transformers, submarines, pipelines, and fish. But recent discoveries by seismologists point the finger at microseismic reactions from ocean waves pounding the sea floor. Our planet vibrates and hums naturally.
  • Birds in rainforests that imitate other sounds have begun to sing like cell phones, chainsaws, and car alarms.
  • The Hoh rain forest in Olympia National Park has an average yearly rainfall of 12-14 feet.
  • The popular philosophical question, "If a tree falls..." can trace its origins to 1710 from philosopher George Berkeley's A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. "But, say you, surely there is nothing easier than for me to imagine trees, for instance, in a park [...] and nobody by to perceive them."
  • The philosophical question has sometimes been turned into a scientific one, noting that sound is a human experience. Air molecules bumping into each other only become sound if they are captured by a human ear and transmitted to the brain via nerves.
  • Some funny twists of the phrase include "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, where are they?" by The Canadian Air Farce comedy troupe; and "If a man speaks in the forest, and there is no woman there to hear him, is he still wrong?" by singer Maura O'Connell.

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Voice Talk

voice talk news

"Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning."

Maya Angelou

Voice Talk

There was a recent study* that tried to understand how audio quality affected the perceived quality of the human voice. The researchers understood from the beginning that the results could be highly subjective, but they approached it using measurable methods. While tallying up the results, they were surprised by one finding they weren't attempting to measure. But it's something we in the advertising and production business already knew.


Keeping an Ear on Crime


"What the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes."
Harry Houdini

Keeping an Ear on Crime

The NSA is listening to our phone calls. The FBI is using face detection to catch wanted criminals. Apu at the Kwik-E-Mart is watching Bart Simpson with surveillance video. And now the police are listening for gunshots in neighborhoods across the nation.

Like GPS, radar, and the microwave oven, technology developed for the battlefield has found itself on Main Street. Gunshot detection is another military trickle-down technology that police are using to protect our citizens. Police departments all over the world are placing these listening devices in urban areas that have a history of or potential for high crime rates. Most systems detect, analyze, and alert police within five seconds of a suspected gunshot.


Audio Clichés

"It is a cliché that most clichés are true, but then like most clichés, that cliché is untrue."

Stephen Fry

Audio Clichés

You're watching a movie and somebody rides by on a bicycle. What do you hear? Ring-ring! Yep, it's a tried and true "audio cliché." I'm guilty of using it. Or how about when the scene shifts to London, we see the House of Parliament and hear Big Ben striking it's bell. Or a jet touches down on the runway and we hear the screech-screech of the tires.

We use clichés in everyday life, it's how we communicate. Sometimes it's just so easy to use a tired phrase like "next thing I knew." I cringe when someone says "at the end of the day," or "it's a win-win situation." I wish those people would just "think outside of the box" so they would have a "paradigm shift" and "take it to the next level."


Ring in the Old Year


"Before anything else, preparation is the key to success."

Alexander Graham Bell

Ring in the Old Year

A new year always brings excitement and great expectations. What will happen? Will there be a big event that will shape the world for generations? What new technology will come? The 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2015) has already promised us a 3D-printed titanium bicycle, super thin 4K TV sets, realistic robots, and a plethora of miniature drones with cameras. And everybody's wanting to lay eyes on the first Apple Watch. One hundred years ago, people were just as intrigued with the promise of new technology.



"Any effects created before 1975 were done with either tape or echo chambers or some kind of acoustic treatment. No magic black boxes!"

Alan Parsons


Echo, reverb, delay, and ambience. There's a difference between them (see "Tech Notes" below) and they're often confused with each other or used incorrectly. But each one has an important place in recording with technology often dictating their use. Reverb/echo/delay can make or break a recording. Thanks to the American Legion Hall in New York City, Decca Records found the perfect effect for Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock." Columbia Records built their own "echo chamber" for such hits as Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" and Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue." And U2's Edge has created a patented sound for his guitar with electronic delay.