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Unusual Noises

Being confronted with something unheard of

PART 1

I’m setting out on a journey to create a noise that nobody’s ever heard before. Recently I was wandering down Kingsland Road at night and I heard a strange sound as I passed by a building site. I don’t remember what it was, mostly because I didn’t have any context to associate it with, but it was such an oddity that it knocked me out of my thoughts and set my mind down a new path, my senses attuned to new things everywhere, thinking ever so slightly differently.

So that got me trying to compose the same situation for others. I want to create a moment of strangeness for a stranger in the same place as me. A brief moment of unique sound, unrepeated and short enough that they question what they heard. Did they hear it at all? A trick of the mind? Was it something else? What did it mean? Ultimately they determine it’s something without meaning, something novel. They continue on with their senses expanded.

I’m writing this now, before having made anything to get a clear picture of what I set out to do. I find that when working on projects it’s very easy to lose track of what I’m actually trying to do and I end up being set on just getting things done and doing something ‘successfully’, rather than fulfilling the richness of the original ambition. Often success is orthogonal to the real value of what I’m creating. Sometimes an original failure is worth more than successfully popping something out of a mould.

I feel that it’s essential to capture the excitement of the concept itself, while it’s still grand and untamed by the constraints of reality. I need that when I’m looking at a bunch of wires and bits of wood and trying to remember why I thought this was going to be fun and interesting in the first place.

So my first thought is to get a basic understanding of sound’s parameters so I can look at everyday sounds and then tweak each one so that my sound becomes entirely unique. My first port of call was my colleague Frank, a former audio engineer who filled me in on auditory variables beyond frequency like wave shape and phase.

PART 2

I spent some time consciously paying attention to all the sounds around me in a standard urban environment. Walking down the street, on the bus, in my office, sitting at home. There are lots of noisy noises. Windy, rustling, rumbling imprecise sounds. Then noises that stand out because they are high pitched and have recognisable tones in them. An oyster card beep, a piece of music, a bird’s call. And then the most distinguishable third category seems to be the human voice. It’s hard to say what makes it distinct, but it definitely is even when the content is inaudible. It has a kind of undulating quality, containing lots of different tones.

Playing with synths didn’t get me too far. I spent some time learning about synthesisers, how to manipulate them and produce different sounds. I never managed to create something that was wildly different from a synthy sound. It still sounds recognisably like someone bashing a keyboard even when only heard for a moment. Making noisy sounds is easy, but rather pointless as these just fade into the background of buses, cars and wind. The synthetic simpler tones are too easy to dismiss as the response of a computer.

In the course of my research I stumbled across some recordings of unusual noises supposedly heard around the world. These sky trumpets are enough to make people stop and stare in unison trying to make sense of it all.

Sadly I don’t think I can make a noise this loud. What makes it interesting is the lack of context. And at a normal volume it’s just another example of another noisy noise.

I was discussing this problem with my friend Michael and I asked him how he would go about trying to create a sound that no-one had ever heard before. He suggested that instead of trying to synthesise the sounds, I could just make them with my mouth. It actually works pretty well.

So what I ended up doing is recording my voice making strange sounds and then putting those through Garageband to create complex sounds that I could then tweak to be just outside the range of what seems human.

I spent some time wondering what the cheapest arduino setup I could use so I wouldn’t be too much out of pocket if someone pinched it. It turns out however that you can get an iPod shuffle knockoff, a speaker, battery and electronics project case for about £15. So I went with that and loaded the tracks onto the mp3 player with an hour of silence inbetween each noise.

PART 3

Of course, the hardest part of this project is actually going out and putting it somewhere. That’s the extroverted part of this project and the whole reason why it’s exciting to me - having people interact with it. Programming is easy. I can do it any time of day or night. All the tools are readily available without delay. There’s never any social risk whatsoever. Actually going out and testing things is hard, there’s a risk of rejection and public failure.

In a similar vein, I wasn’t sure how to document this project. It’s part of my methodology to start small and experiment and learn. To do that I need to understand what the impact is. Of course, to do that here I’d have to hide in the undergrowth with a video camera, and then draw an inference from whatever small reaction someone had to the sound. You can watch what an idealised version of what might happen in the video at the top.

So in this case I had to be a little unscientific. I ended up leaving it in Peckham Rye park for a week (the limits of the USB battery packs I used) tied to a tree in a spot where it couldn’t be seen but there are a fair bunch of people milling about most of the time. Then at the end of the week I went and cut it down again. I have no idea how well it worked, or indeed if anyone even heard it at all. It’s difficult making art like that.