Sound

Quiz: Who invented the first sound recording device?

Nope, not this guy.

by David Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

If you’re recently downloaded a sound-meter app onto your smartphone, or purchased a handheld sound-level meter, so that you can begin gathering data on unnecessary noise in the places you care about, then this bit of history may interest you. Here’s the quiz question: Who invented the first device for recording sound? If you guessed Thomas Alva Edison (who was famously deaf), you’re wrong. Edison didn’t (re)-invent the sound-recording device until 20 years after the first guy, a Frenchman named Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinsville, patented his invention in 1857.

Unfortunately, M. de Martinville didn’t know what to do with his invention, so he never pursued it. That didn’t stop him from being annoyed when Edison showed up in Paris 20 years later with his own sound recording device covered by American patents. But then Edison didn’t know what to do with it either—he thought he was perfecting Alexander Bell’s work. Only later did Edison decide to market his discovery as the “phonograph”—i.e., a device for recording and playing back sounds, thereby inventing the recording industry as well as the sound-level meter and a whole profession devoted to measuring noise.

Interested in history? Then you’ll definitely want to follow the Princeton researcher and MacArthur Fellow who re-discovered M. de Martinsville, Emily Thomson PhD. And if you’re reading this column you’re probably interested in urban noise and what can be done about it. Well, Dr. Thompson has written a fascinating book about urban noise and its history titled,“The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933” (MIT Press, 2002).

Dr. Thompson is definitely worth knowing about, and her work is a pleasure to read.

Originally posted at The Quiet Coalition.

David Sykes chairs/co-chairs four national professional groups in acoustical science: The Acoustics Research Council, ANSI S12 WG44, The Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Working Group. He is also a board member of the American Tinnitus Association, co-founder of the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics (LARA) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0 (2012, Springer-Verlag), and a contributor to “Technology for a Quieter America” (2011, National Academy of Engineering). A graduate of the University of California/Berkeley with graduate degrees from Cornell University, he is a frequent organizer of and speaker at professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

The sound of the city

Olga Yurkina, Worldcrunch, writes about how “some local governments [in Switzerland] are turning to sound specialists to make cityscapes easier on the ears.”  Yurkina introduces us to Fabian Neuhaus, an acoustician who runs a firm that specializes in sound architecture. While his company mainly works on upgrading the sound quality of industrial spaces and concert halls, Neuhaus believes that outdoor spaces “need to be properly ‘tuned’ to produce pleasant sounds.” “Unfortunately,” he adds, “it’s rarely a priority in an urban project.”

But not any more. Far-sighted public officials in two Swiss cantons are beginning to seriously consider acoustic features in urban design. To that end, the cantons have engaged Neuhaus’ firm to offer guidelines for “a well-designed soundscape along local roads.” “Instead of fighting against noise pollution afterward, we should include the acoustic dimension in the project from the very beginning,” asserts Neuhaus.

Urban planners are also thinking about the design of outdoor urban spaces and what can be done to make them more interseting and aurally pleasant. For example, Trong Maag, an urban planner in Zürich, notes that large uniform facades of glass and steel are “real torture for our ears,” while a gravel or sand path will offer “a soothing rustle,” trees can act as a sound barrier, and a green wall can absorb high-pitched sounds.  And other designers have come up with interesting options, like anti-noise modular screens “with flexible acoustic correction” or singing fountains. Designer Andres Bosshard hopes that at some future time “acoustics will be an integral part of urban design and we will create something with sound rather than just block noises.” After all, he adds, “[w]e have to keep in mind that in a city, sound is central to our sense of well-being.”

Click the link above to read this fascinating article in its entirety.

Link via Antonella Radicchi.

Can plants hear?

Yes they can. Marta Zaraska, Scientific American, reports on a new study indicates that “some flora may be capable of sensing sounds, such as the gurgle of water…or the buzzing of insects.” If plants can hear, are they susceptible to noise pollution? Sadly, the answer could be yes.  Zaraska writes that the research “raises questions about whether acoustic pollution affects plants as well as animals.” Monica Gagliano, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Western Australia who worked on the research project said that “[n]oise could block information channels between plants, for example, when they need to warn each other of insects.” So throw out the gas-powered leaf blower and buy yourself a rake. Your flora will thank you.

Humans can use sound to estimate sizes of enclosed spaces

ScienceDaily writes about fascinating research in echolocation in “Echolocation: Sizing up spaces by ear.” The article tells us about research conducted at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU), and led by Lutz Wiegrebe, a professor in the Department of Biology at LMU, that has shown that sighted people can be taught to estimate room size with the help of self-generated clicks. The research also found differences in how reflected sound affected the visual cortex of sighted versus blind participants.  Namely, with a “congenitally blind participant…reception of the reflected sounds resulted in the activation of the visual cortex.” “That the primary visual cortex can execute auditory tasks is a remarkable testimony to the plasticity of the human brain,” says Wiegrebe. Interestingly, sighted subjects “exhibited only a relatively weak activation of the visual cortex during the echolocation task.”  Click the link above to read the entire article. It’s a very interesting read.

Link via Cheryl Tipp.

The natural world isn’t necessarily quiet or peaceful

Meet some of the world’s noisiest animals. They had me at synalpheus pinkfloydi, “a newly discovered species of pistol, or snapping shrimp, which uses its large pink claw to create a noise so loud it can kill small fish.”  How loud?  Try 210 decibels, which may be enough to kill a man as well.

Link via Hyperacusis Research.

This is pretty cool

CanadaSound aims to make library of Canadian noises. Haydn Watters, CBC News, reports that a “new project is hoping to round up Canadian noises like these to make a soundscape of the country.”  So, what iconic sounds are on the short list? “The roar of a snowblower. An orca’s breath underwater. Bed sheets on a laundry line, snapping in the Newfoundland wind.” Watters writes that the project, The CanadaSound, wants people to submit “their Canadian noises” online with the aim of making those sounds accessible by musicians “making new music.”  

We think this is an excellent project and would actively encourage a similar one for the U.S. What iconic U.S. sounds would you include? The cruel and relentless drone of the Mr. Softee jingle? The ear-blasting screech of New York City subway cars braking as they enter Union Square Station? The loudest stadium crowd roar encouraged in a sadistic display of bravado by sports team franchises? Or perhaps the unconscionably loud scream of a motorcycle with an after market tail pipe racing down a residential street, setting off car alarms in its wake.  Oh….never mind.

Adding that the sound of the wind blowing through a wheat field or waves lapping up on a beach–any beach–at dawn would be pretty fabulous. Your suggestions?

Link via London Sound Survey.

 

Scientists are learning to decode the sounds of icebergs

Sarah Laskow, Atlas Obscura, reports about what scientists have learned from “Listening to Icebergs’ Loud and Mournful Breakup Songs.” Laskow writes that seven years after the largest iceberg broke off of the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica, “the largest remaining chunk floated out into the South Pacific where, in the warmer water, it began to disintegrate.”  And for the next year, “the ocean was noisier than usual.”  Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had suspended hydrophones underwater and they “were picking up strange signals.” Interestingly, the scientists “didn’t even know that icebergs made noise,” says Haru Matsumoto, an ocean engineer at NOAA who has studied these sounds.”  But now they do and they measure “the extent to which those sounds contribute to the noise of the ocean,” because “the sounds of ice could help them understand the behavior and breakup of icebergs and ice shelves as the poles warm up.”

Click this link to hear what the scientists are hearing.