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kottke.org posts about audio

Jimmy Iovine and most bomb record in the solar system

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 15, 2017

While preparing for a conference talk/conversation I’m doing in Amsterdam this weekend, I was reading about the Golden Record that NASA sent along as a potential greeting from Earth to alien civilizations who might run across the Voyager probes in interstellar space millions of years from now. For the 40th anniversary of the Voyager launches, science writer Timothy Ferris (author of the Pulitzer-nominated Coming of Age in the Milky Way) wrote about the production of the Record for the New Yorker.

In the winter of 1976, Carl was visiting with me and my fiancee at the time, Ann Druyan, and asked whether we’d help him create a plaque or something of the sort for Voyager. We immediately agreed. Soon, he and one of his colleagues at Cornell, Frank Drake, had decided on a record. By the time nasa approved the idea, we had less than six months to put it together, so we had to move fast. Ann began gathering material for a sonic description of Earth’s history. Linda Salzman Sagan, Carl’s wife at the time, went to work recording samples of human voices speaking in many different languages. The space artist Jon Lomberg rounded up photographs, a method having been found to encode them into the record’s grooves. I produced the record, which meant overseeing the technical side of things. We all worked on selecting the music.

Carl Sagan was project director, Ann Druyan the creative director, and Ferris produced the Record. And the sound engineer for the Golden Record? I was surprised to learn: none other than Jimmy Iovine, who was recommended to Ferris by John Lennon.

I sought to recruit John Lennon, of the Beatles, for the project, but tax considerations obliged him to leave the country. Lennon did help us, though, in two ways. First, he recommended that we use his engineer, Jimmy Iovine, who brought energy and expertise to the studio. (Jimmy later became famous as a rock and hip-hop producer and record-company executive.)

Lennon, Springsteen, Tom Petty, Patti Smith, Stevie Nicks, Interscope, Dre, Snoop, Death Row Records, Eminem, Lady Gaga, Beats By Dre, Apple, *and* The Golden Record? Iovine is like the record industry’s Forrest Gump or something. How was this not in The Defiant Ones?

Google’s impractical voice experiments

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 13, 2017

Google has launched a series of voice experiments that work with Google Home and also in the browser. For example, Mystery Animal is a 20 questions style game in which you attempt to guess the identity of a particular animal. Here’s how it works:

Another of the experiments, MixLab, helps you make music with simple voice commands (“add a club beat”, etc.). The experiments use AI to understand what people are asking them.

Nicole He, who worked on Mystery Animal and another experiment called Story Speaker, explains why it’s an interesting time to be goofing around with voice technology.

Talking out loud to computers has always felt more science fiction than real life. But speech recognition technology has come a long way, and developers are now making lots of useful things with voice devices. These days, you can speak out loud and have your lights turn on, or your favorite music played, or the news read to you.

That’s all nice and good, but there’s something clearly missing: the weird stuff. We should make things for voice technology that aren’t just practical. We should make things that are way more creative and bizarre. Things that are more provocative and expressive, or whimsical and delightful.

We’re in what I’m going to call The 1996 Web Design Era of voice technology. The web was created for something practical (sharing information between scientists), but it didn’t take very long for people to come up with strange and creative things to do with it.

I am terrible at 20 questions, so of course Mystery Animal stumped me. My last guess was “are you a zebra?” when the animal was actually a panda bear.

Dot Piano

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 18, 2017

Dot Piano

Dot Piano is a web-based visual piano that works with a MIDI keyboard peripheral or with your regular computer keyboard. As you play, colorful dots dance across the screen in a variety of ways. Hit record and you can easily save and share your composition with others. This one is fun to watch. (via prosthetic knowledge)

Band uses video delay to create “a mesmerizing visual loop sampler”

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 04, 2017

A band called The Academic cleverly took advantage of the slight broadcast delay in Facebook Live to construct a loop sampler out of video, so that at any given moment, each member of the band is performing with their past and future selves and bandmates.

We rearranged each instrument on “Bear Claws” to fit Facebook Live’s delay, with each loop getting more complex, adding instruments, rhythms, and melodies. Additionally, by projecting the video live from a soundstage we created an infinite tunnel consisting of all the previously recorded loops.

OK Go is probably kicking themselves for not thinking of this first. See also Piano/Video Phase, David Cossin’s performance of Steve Reich’s Piano Phase with himself. (via clive thompson)

The death (and possible rebirth?) of the fade-out in pop music

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 06, 2017

The fade out used to be ubiquitous in pop music and the technique has some advantages over other ending methods. In one study, participants tapped along to the beat for a couple seconds after songs with fade outs ended, as if the fade out helped the song live on after it had ended. What musician wouldn’t want that? So why has the fade out fallen out of favor in the past few years?

Also, I love the lo-tech origin story of the fade out: composer Gustav Holst had someone close a door on a choir during a performance in 1918.

Composer Gustav Holst understood the power of the fade-out and employed one of the first at a 1918 concert. For the “Neptune” section of The Planets, Holst had the women’s choir sing in a room offstage. Toward the end, he instructed, the door should be closed very slowly: “This bar is to be repeated until the sound is lost in the distance.” Given the subject matter — Neptune was thought to be the most distant planet in the solar system — Holst’s attempt to conjure the remoteness of the planet and the mysteries of the cosmos makes sense.

The technology for recorded music wasn’t any more evolved…if you wanted to fade a sound out, you had to physically carry the recording device (the phonograph or microphone) away from the audio source.

Inside Music, an interactive musical exploration & remix tool from Song Exploder and Google

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 06, 2017

Inside Music is a Web VR tool from Google and Song Exploder that lets you explore how songs from Perfume Genius, Phoenix, Ibeyi, and others are put together. Here’s a short video explanation:

You can turn different parts of each song off and on…guitars, bass, vocals, etc.; it’s cool to isolate different parts of each song. This works pretty well in the browser but I would imagine it’s a whole different deal if you have a VR rig.

Google has put the code for Inside Music on Github so if you’re a musician, you can explore your own songs in VR or put them up on the web for others to explore.

J.R.R. Tolkien reads from The Hobbit

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 05, 2017

In 1952, a friend of J.R.R. Tolkien showed him a tape recorder, which the author had never seen before. Delighted, Tolkien sat for his friend and read from The Hobbit for 30 minutes “in this one incredible take”. The audio is split between these two videos (with visuals and music added later):

Given the circumstances, the clarity of this recording is pretty remarkable. Give it a listen for at least the first two minutes…hearing Tolkien do Smeagol/Gollum’s voice is really cool. (via open culture)

How to hear what your voice sounds like to others

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 29, 2017

Chances are, you hate the sound of your own voice because when you hear it played back on recording, it doesn’t sound anything like what you hear when you talk. Vocal coach Chris Beatty shows us a simple trick to hear our own voice (in real time) closer to how others do.

The infinite auditory illusion that makes the Dunkirk soundtrack so intense (and good)

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 31, 2017

I remarked on Twitter recently that “Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack for Dunkirk is outstanding”. The music blends perfectly with the action on the screen without being overbearing; it’s perhaps the best marriage of sound and visuals I’ve experienced in a movie theater since Mad Max: Fury Road or even Tron: Legacy.1

Zimmer and Dunkirk director Christopher Nolan achieved that effect by utilizing an auditory illusion called the Shepard tone, a sound that appears to infinitely rise (or fall) in pitch — the video above refers to it as “a barber’s pole of sound”. From a Business Insider interview with Nolan:

The screenplay had been written according to musical principals. There’s an audio illusion, if you will, in music called a “Shepard tone” and with my composer David Julyan on “The Prestige” we explored that and based a lot of the score around that. And it’s an illusion where there’s a continuing ascension of tone. It’s a corkscrew effect. It’s always going up and up and up but it never goes outside of its range. And I wrote the script according to that principle. I interwove the three timelines in such a way that there’s a continual feeling of intensity. Increasing intensity. So I wanted to build the music on similar mathematical principals. Very early on I sent Hans a recording that I made of a watch that I own with a particularly insistent ticking and we started to build the track out of that sound and then working from that sound we built the music as we built the picture cut. So there’s a fusion of music and sound effects and picture that we’ve never been able to achieve before.

  1. I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned this — because it fits somewhere between “unpopular opinion” and “embarrassing admission” on the scale of things one doesn’t talk about in public — but seeing Tron: Legacy in 3D IMAX was one of the top 5 movie-going experiences of my life. The Light Cycle battle was 80 feet tall and because of the 3D glasses, it looked like it extended out from the screen to immediately in front of my face, to the point where I actually reached out and tried to touch it a couple times. And all the while, Daft Punk was pounding into my brain from who knows how many speakers. I was not on drugs and hadn’t been drinking, but it was one of the most mind-altering experiences of my life.

40 hours (and counting) of relaxing Planet Earth II sounds

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 24, 2017

The producers of Planet Earth II (aka probably the best thing I’ve watched in the past year) shot a loooooot of footage for the program. Most of it got cut, but they’ve cut some of it together into these 10-hour videos of relaxing sights and sounds. So far, they’ve done mountains, the jungle, island, and desert.

This guy has an A+ Sports Announcers Voice

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 12, 2017

Bob Menery is an actor who has a perfect voice for sports announcing. Not only is his voice expressive, but he’s got the cadence and patter down as well.

This video is going a little viral right now. I couldn’t track down Menery’s original upload, but I did find a little-seen video he did four years ago, messing around with the same voice in his car:

See also the homeless man with a golden voice.

Exploring the sound design of Star Wars

posted by Jason Kottke   May 09, 2017

When considering the massive success of Star Wars, special effects and the Jospeh Campbell-inspired story always get their due. But the sound design of the film was just as important and revolutionary as the visual effects. From Darth Farmer’s overdubbing with James Earl Jones’ voice and the now-famous breathing noise (created using a SCUBA apparatus) to the lightsaber battles (the lightsaber noise comes from the hum of film projectors plus the buzz from a CRT TV set), the sounds added to the film hold everything together, creating the illusion of reality where none actually exists.

How fake are nature documentaries?

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 26, 2017

When you’re watching a nature documentary, you notice it right away: there’s something odd about the sound effects. They seem a little too…Hollywood. When Vox did their series on how the BBC made Planet Earth II, they didn’t mention the sound:

I hope the third program is on sound, which has been bugging me while watching Planet Earth II. I could be wrong, but they seem to be using extensive foley effects for the sounds the animals make — not their cries necessarily, but the sounds they make as they move. Once you notice, it feels deceptive.

Several other people noticed and complained, causing the BBC to explain that getting real sounds in many cases was impossible. Audio producer Matt North adds some context:

Whilst I’m no wildlife expert, it’s fairly straightforward to conclude that such an unpredictable and uncontrollable subject as wildlife would have prompted the need to often shoot on long lenses, thus making it almost physically impossible for a sound recordist to obtain ‘realistic’ recordings that would match the treatment and emotive style of the programme. Combine this with the shooting climate, as well as the need for frequent communication between crew just to capture the necessary shots that will cut well in the edit suite and you have a recipe for failure in regards to obtaining useable sound. Therefore, it’s not only impractical but virtually impossible to capture the ‘real’ sound that some of these disgruntled viewers may be protesting for.

As Simon Cade shows in the video above, sound is only one of the ways in which nature documentaries use editing to “fake” things. Is it manipulation? Or good storytelling? And what’s the difference between the two anyway? A silent security feed of a Walmart parking lot is not a documentary but The Thin Blue Line, with its many dramatizations and Philip Glass score, is a great documentary.

Update: 99% Invisible recently did a show on the sounds in nature documentaries as well. (thx, everyone)

WhaleSynth, a neat online toy for generating whale sounds

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 15, 2017

WhaleSynth

WhaleSynth is a cool little instrument for making whale sounds. There are three different species of whale to choose from, you can add clicks and sonar echoes, and you can also adjust the depth and number of whales in your chorus. Warning: this might occupy many many minutes of your time but could also soothe frayed political nerves.

The relaxing sounds of an Arctic icebreaker

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 07, 2017

Need to sleep, focus on work, get away from the news, meditate, or just tickle your ASMR receptors? Try 10 hours of ambient noise from a Norwegian icebreaker idling in the frozen Arctic.

10 hours video of Arctic ambience with frozen ocean, ice cracking, snow falling, icebreaker idling and distant howling wind sound. Natural white noise sounds generated by the wind and snow falling, combined with deep low frequencies with delta waves from the powerful icebreaker idling engines, recorded at 96 kHz — 24 bit and designed for relaxation, meditation, study and sleep.

That is some “Calgon take me away”-level shit. See also the most relaxing song in the world. (via bb)

This ping pong volley sounds like Super Mario Bros

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 07, 2016

This volley played during a game of ping pong sounds a lot like the first few bars of the music from Super Mario Bros. (thx, david)

This happy dog sounds like a TIE Fighter

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 20, 2016

Animals make all sorts of crazy noises when they’re happy or when they laugh, like Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop. This dog, named Geraldine, sounds pretty much like a TIE Fighter from Star Wars when she gets excited. (via @jhgard)

Voice doubles

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 06, 2016

Hello! For today’s installment of I Totally Didn’t Know This, we’re going to talk about voice doubles. When you’re making a movie or a TV show and you’re in the editing phase, cutting a trailer, or doing promotional videos, sometimes you need some extra dialogue that you didn’t get during the main filming. So you get the actor to come in to do the new dialogue. But sometimes, if the actor is famous and super busy, they might not be available. So there are voice actors whose job it is to impersonate the real actor’s voice. Saaaaay whaaaaat?

It’s an example of ADR, Automated Dialogue Replacement. Amy Landecker, who plays Sarah Pfefferman on Transparent, has done this job for movies starring Julia Roberts. She sounds amazingly like Julia:

She even did most of Julia’s dialogue in this Duplicity trailer:

Jim Hanks has done voiceover work for his brother Tom in the past:

He does the voice for Woody in all the Toy Story video games…it’s not an exact match, but it’s pretty good. (via vulture)

Update: Nolan North voice doubles for Christopher Walken.

(via @Han_So)

This car’s glove box plays light jazz

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 26, 2016

When you open the glove compartment on this car, it sounds like light jazz. And with that, it’s time inaugurate a new tag on the site: things that sound like other things, which includes my all-time favorite, this shovel falling sounds exactly like Smells Like Teen Spirit. (via @kepano)

The most amazing whistler in the world

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 23, 2016

Steve Wiles is a band director from Oklahoma who is a extremely talented whistler. Wiles can whistle two melodies at the same time.

Competitive whistler Christopher Ullman is pretty good too — he doesn’t kiss before competitions and his best friend is a tube of Chapstick.

When Roger Whittaker whistles, he sounds like a damn bird! Pavarotti was also not too shabby a whistler.

The 40th Anniversary Edition of the Voyager Golden Record

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 22, 2016

Just launched on Kickstarter: a gorgeous reproduction of the Golden Record that was included on the Voyager space probes when we shot them into space almost 40 years ago. The records contained images and sounds from Earth that some extraterrestrial civilization may someday view and listen to.

The Voyager Golden Record contains the story of Earth expressed in sounds, images, and science: Earth’s greatest music from myriad cultures and eras, from Bach and Beethoven to Blind Willie Johnson and Chuck Berry, Senegalese percussion to Solomon Island panpipes. Dozens of natural sounds of our planet — birds, a train, a baby’s cry — are collaged into a lovely sound poem. There are spoken greetings in 55 human languages, and one whale language, and more than one hundred images encoded in analog that depict who, and what, we are.

This is so cool. When I was doing the packages with Quarterly, one of the ideas I had on my list was to replicate the Golden Record. The production values would have been a lot more limited than this effort and the rights issue is ultimately why I never pursued it:

The overwhelming majority of the funds raised from this historic reissue will go directly to the high production costs, licensing, and royalties incurred in creating this lavish box set.

See also the Contents of the Voyager Golden Record and The sounds of Voyager’s Golden Record.

Kanye West’s favorite noises

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 09, 2016

A compilation of all the unusual noises — henh! hwuah! masanoonaa! eescrong! — Kanye West makes in his songs.

Low budget THX intro sound

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 24, 2016

When you put a vacuum cleaner and a harmonica together, you get something that sounds a lot like the THX intro sound. This make me laugh SO HARD. See also the shovel that sounds like the Smells Like Teen Spirit intro.

The plates are alive with the sound of food

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 27, 2016

For an episode of food podcast Gastropod, hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley consider how sound influences our perception of food and drink.

In this episode, we discover how manipulating sound can transform our experience of food and drink, making stale potato chips taste fresh, adding the sensation of cream to black coffee, or boosting the savory, peaty notes in whiskey.

One takeaway: don’t listen to the sound of breaking glass if you want to continue eating potato chips:

He recruited 200 volunteers willing to eat Pringles for science, and played them modified crunching sounds through headphones, some louder and some more muffled, as they ate. And he found that he could make a 15 percent difference in people’s perception of a stale chip’s freshness by playing them a louder crunch when they bit into it.

“The party version” of this trick, according to Spence, was developed by colleagues in the Netherlands and Japan. Volunteers were asked to crunch on chips in time with a metronome, while researchers played crunching sounds back, in perfect synchrony, through their headphones. All was well until the researchers replaced the crunching with the sound of breaking glass-and “people’s jaws just freeze up.”

The human brain is fascinating.

How the Seinfeld theme song was made

posted by Jason Kottke   May 26, 2016

This 90s TV interview with Seinfeld theme song composer Jonathan Wolff is more interesting than you’d think. He talks through how he matched the theme to Jerry’s standup delivery tempo and how each episode’s song had to be customized the match the pacing of Jerry’s particular monologue that week. (via digg, which is particularly good today)

Update: The Sideshow podcast featured Wolff on an episode last year.

The show’s producers were having difficulty finding music that wouldn’t overpower the comedian’s opening routines. “Jerry, you’ve already given me the melody and theme,” Wolff told Seinfeld. “My job is going to be to support you and the organic nature of your voice.” Wolff sampled his own mouth noises and slapped some funky bass over it and the rest is history. He built the theme to be manipulated - the rhythm of the mouth pops, shakers, and bass notes changed ever so slightly to fit the different monologues that opened every show.

(via @TheFarceur)

Update: Here’s a recent video about Wolff and how the Seinfeld theme came to be.

Of course the network hated the song. Of course.

This sliding door sounds like a screaming R2-D2

posted by Jason Kottke   May 25, 2016

My therapist and I have yet to figure out why, but I have a soft spot for objects that do unexpected impressions of other things and people. Like this sliding door that sounds like R2-D2 screaming. Or the falling shovel that plays Smells Like Teen Spirit. Or the door that can do a wicked Miles Davis impression. Or the nightstand door that sounds like Chewbacca. I even found one of my own a few months ago: the elevator door at the old Buzzfeed office sounded like Chewbacca as well. (via @williamlubelski)

Update: Here’s a video full of things that sound like Chewbacca.

Moby Dick Big Read

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 15, 2016

As part of the Moby Dick Big Read project, dozens of people collaborated on an unabridged audiobook of Moby Dick. Each chapter has a different reader and the readers included Stephen Fry, David Attenborough, and Benedict Cumberbatch. Tilda Swinton started things off with chapter one:

(via @sampotts)

Adele’s isolated vocals from SNL

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 23, 2015

At the risk of turning this into an Adele fan site, here are the isolated vocals for her performance of “Hello” for Saturday Night Live. They are raw and flawless and real and everything pop music isn’t these days.

Update: That YouTube video got yanked, but I found the vocals on Soundcloud. We’ll see how long that’ll last.

Update: Welp, that lasted about 10 minutes. Digg has embedded their own video. How fast will that one disappear?

Online collection of digitized wax cylinder recordings

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 10, 2015

The University of California, Santa Barbara library is digitizing its collection of wax cylinders from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Over 10,000 audio files from the collection are now available online.

The UCSB Library, with funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Grammy Foundation, and donors, has created a digital collection of more than 10,000 cylinder recordings held by the Department of Special Collections. To bring these recordings to a wider audience, the Library makes them available to download or stream online for free.

This searchable database features all types of recordings made from the late 1800s to early 1900s, including popular songs, vaudeville acts, classical and operatic music, comedic monologues, ethnic and foreign recordings, speeches and readings.

(thx, greg)

Sound designing a life

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 28, 2015

The Foley Artist a charming short film on how a Foley artist would sound design a day in an ordinary life. Running hands through spaghetti noodles stands in for hair washing, a spray bottle sounds like rustling sheets, that sort of thing.

See also this fascinating short documentary about what a Foley artist does.