Bits, Books, Buildings

Over the last six months I've been making things behind the scenes, from bits to books to buildings. A sorry excuse for not posting anything on the blog, really. But there is a lot of process here that I am excited to share.

From On the Making of Islands, 2012

I am making things at all scales. Small to Large. Architecture teaches us that the parts must relate to the whole, and that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The small parts give me as much pleasure to work on as the big parts. When it comes to putting together a building, everything from the interface with the building environment (a light switch, a door handle) to the total experience of living/working inside the building must be considered as a cohesive thing.  Not an easy task, given that projects stretch out for years. The office I am finishing up in San Francisco is just under two years in the making.

Meanwhile, little bits can be prototyped in an evening. Using Arduino and Pure Data, I made a useless prototype in which my computer says out loud "The light is on" when I switch the light on in my dining room and "The light is off" when I dim the light beyond a certain threshold. It was just a pure experiment to see if I could get things to talk to each other, and  yet, there is a kernel of something essential in this experimentation.

Architecture is expanding, both toward the small and the large. The traditional building is becoming less and less the vehicle for architecture (in which architecture is defined as an experimental spatial practice, not a service). We are witness to the most staggering scales of development around the globe, and simultaneously architects are getting ever smaller and focused with installations, digital tools, rapid prototyping, etc... as though architecture can live at all of these scales at once. And I do believe it can.

The ongoing experiments here at Soundscrapers:

Bits 1: C / C++ / Python / Pure Data

I have started to pick up a few programming languages, just to gain the basics of how programs are organized -- the software architecture. After reading the standard programming text "K & R" and working through the surprisingly fun "Learn Python the Hard Way", I discovered that the programming environment that seems to have been conceived for specifically me, the sound architect, is Pure Data. It's a visual programming language that among many many things, makes sound, and allows you to change sounds by connecting lines to boxes. About that simple, too.

A musical score composed graphically in Pure Data:

Bits 2: Sensors / Hacking the Home

I got a big box of sensors (detecting flame, humidity, light, magnetic fields, touch, sound, vibration...) plus an Arduino board. Plugging + unplugging, fingers crossed that nothing fries... modulating voltages, cutting and pasting little bits of code to see if the sensors can talk the way I want them to. And then, at a GAFFTA workshop, I got even deeper into the madness trying to get it all to talk to a network and... still working on this.


Bits 3: Hydrophone Recordings

Back in September I made a hydrophone and went "Soundfishing". I then produced an installation of this work in the entry at my office this January. It is a stereo recording of the Oakland shipping channel, in which I pan from underwater hydrophone recordings to above-water recordings.


Sound painting of bits: pushing sonic bits from a landscape we know into another that is unknown, an experience only possible via digital montage.

Book 1: On the Making of Islands - 184 pgs.

This release was long overdue - in December I put out a document of my thesis work and world travels documenting bunkers, former military bases, and current US military bases overseas.

The project zooms in on a fictional jet noise barrier on the island of Guam, where the military built up a colossal landscaped edge to an Air Force base in order to block the sound of its runway. The landscape becomes home to the endangered species on the island, and eventually the military leaves due to internal pressures.  This book is the document of six professionals ranging from a geologist to a sonic archivist who go to the island 15 years after the military has left to examine what has become of it - a tourist mecca, a cave-dwelling bird sanctuary, a monument to military ruin.

From the preface:
In 2009 I traveled the islands of the world. The itinerary included actual islands such as Guam, Okinawa, Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Azores, and Crete. I also traveled to places not normally described as islands: military bases, bunkers and walled cities clearly lodged within a continent. The common denominator of these “islands”, both actual and metaphorical, follows a simple rule: an island is exclusionary. ... The process of an island growing more distinct as an island or, alternatively, dissolving into its surrounding ocean, is fascinating to behold. It is a geologic process compressed into an observable timescale. The process of islands in the making and falling apart drove my travels during the year and continues to shape my perception of landscapes.
The publication is hosted on Issuu and available in print on Lulu. (Also mentioned on BLDG BLOG / Books Received)

Building 1: San Francisco Office

Certainly the most consuming work for an architect is the daily work of bringing architecture to fruition. Architects sketch, draw, make nice pictures, but it all comes down to seeing a project through, reinforcing the decisions made early in the design process. I have been fortunate to see through every detail of this remodel of a 1925 concrete building in the historic Jackson Square district of San Francisco.


I could offer a lot of observations here on the construction process but one really stands out for me. There are moments in the construction of a building when the reasons architects do what they do become absolutely clear. Even in the middle of the construction "mess", or perhaps especially because of the mess, the design intent of a project starts to feel realized. An imagined-reality becomes an ever richer lived-reality. Light comes down through a skylight and it feels as though you are seeing light for the first time. Trees beyond the unglazed skylight rustle in the wind and the stillness in you hears the sound of leaves brushing on leaves for the first time.

Building 2:

Lastly, a different sort of building project. Call it an "interiors" project. Together with the landscape collective DEMILIT (including Bryan Finoki and Javier Arbona) we are building an 8-speaker Ambisonic array - to play back 3-dimensional sound recordings from my Ambisonic mic!

More to come on the Ambisonic array, stay tuned.


Roll, Align, Draw, Record

 "Rolling ruler used by the architect Cedric Price"; Image courtesy of Geoff Manaugh & CCA

A few years ago, Geoff Manaugh of BLDG BLOG shared this photo while he was blogging from the archives of the Canadian Centre for Architecture. It is a rolling ruler used by the late British architect Cedric Price. This pocket tool undoubtedly aided the architect in his sketches, speculations, and visionary projects. Whipping the ruler around, movements of a pencil-poised hand could quickly turn a blank page into a tiny world of ideas, drafted, aligned, exact yet also invitingly inexact.

The pocket rolling ruler is a vestige not only of the drafting days but also the days when architectural visions were best crafted in a sketchbook. Plenty of architects still sketch, but, needless to say, the laptop is the portable tool of choice. And what amazing tools we have there! I feel no nostalgia for hand drafting tools and in a way architects are becoming more crafty by "making" their own tools i.e. designing scripts, simulations, and so on.  Still, there is something to be said of the simplicity of Price's rolling ruler. An architect may have a studio full of tools to render and represent a building, but all the tools needed to craft an idea should fit in a pocket.

Fun Palace by Cedric Price
Price was a paper architect. The ruler assisted Price in drawing lines on a page to represent his ideas. A sound architect is equally engaged in the world of ideas, as opposed to built things. Moving beyond the page, however, the sound architect cannot shape ideas without also shaping sound. A simple analog to Price's ruler is the microphone. It is portable; it has its own metrics (i.e. gain, directionality, frequency response); it can be tracked along an x, y, or z axis just as the rolling ruler slides along (though only in a single axis).

The microphone is good at recording voice, music, or, in my experience with field recording, an ambient scene. I have used microphones in stereo/binaural combinations which allow for a more spatial recording than a single microphone. Yet, the problem is essentially one of representation versus simulation. Both the rolling ruler and the microphone are concerned with representation. The ruler says: "How can I make a legible image that stands in for something else?" The microphone is a painterly tool as the holder of microphone decides what to record, how close, etc. The end result is an audio image, played back on a pair of speakers or headphones, which merely represents the space recorded by the microphone. Little of the "space" is being simulated there. A stereo recording is largely a flat canvas.

Shaping sound, shaping architecture, should be anything but flat. Architecture and sound decay; architecture moves in time; sound reverberates. Why have we (architects) not brought to the complex task of constructing things in four dimensions a tool which is adequate to capture those dimensions? More than capture, more than represent, a tool adequate to simulate four dimensions?

Enter the Ambisonic microphone.

I first mentioned Ambisonics here on Soundscrapers two years ago, while taking part in a CCRMAGray Area Foundation for the Arts workshop on spatial sound. Ambisonics is a sound format which permits a full three-dimensional representation of sound--Up, Down, Left, Right, Front, Back, and all directions in between, known as periphonic recording. A good setup, with enough speakers, does the amazing thing of making the speakers disappear. Sound does come out of the speakers, but you don't hear the individual speakers; what you hear is a field of sound, seemingly without a locatable source. At least the artificial source is camouflaged by the mirage of real sounds in space.

To demonstrate Ambisonics during the workshop, the organizers took a pair of keys and jangled them at close proximity around an Ambisonic microphone that was in the other room. While I was sitting in the sweet spot of the speaker array, I felt as though a colossal pair of keys were being shaken all around my head. The idea that the speakers were playing sound disappeared, and I was left with the unforgettable, impossible sensation of a pair of keys larger than the room itself, somehow moving around my head.  That was architecture.

Recently I looked into what it would take to get into Ambisonics, beginning with a microphone. I was thrilled to learn I could build my own Ambisonic microphone! This task would require assembling four microphone capsules into a perfect tetrahedral frame, while making over a hundred soldered joints, any number of which not done right could short out the microphones.  Having only soldered a few times in my life, and despite knowing that so many things could go wrong with the construction of this tool, I felt it necessary to craft the microphone myself. Traditional Japanese carpenters, after all, must shape their own tools, if only for the practical reason that a tool with heavy use will require constant tuning and repair. But for a more spiritual reason too: the tool is to become a part of its maker. I wanted to do more than own a tool. I wanted the tool, the microphone, to be a part of the way I experience the world and consequently give shape to it.

The process began with the construction of a tetrahedral, made from copper wire. Hours turned into days. Measuring, snipping, torching, filing, grinding, cursing, soldering, sighing, sanding. The frame was done. Over the following days, I set in the microphone capsules and wired them up.

Construction of an amibsonic microphone. More photos here.
Next the enclosure, a black box. (I felt it was inevitable that when I finished the microphone would not work, and I would be left with this mute, black box...). I dropped in at a hackerspace, Ace Monster Toys, to use their drill press.

The Black Box.
I soldered dozens of resistors, diodes and capacitors to the circuit boards. Wires with their frayed ends, one by one, found a home. The circuit boards (which amplify the microphone signals) slid into the case. I dropped two 9V batteries in, screwed the frame closed, and flipped the switch.

Tool of Choice: The Finished Ambisonic Microphone.
A tiny light came on. I registered audio signals on each of the four microphone inputs. The microphone is live. And there is a new tool in my pocket.


The Sound of a Dan Flavin

I visited Dan Flavin's Untitled Marfa Project in 2009 on a fellowship studying the spectrum of new uses on former military bases. One such base, decommissioned shortly after WWII ended, is Fort D.A. Russell in Marfa, TX.  The property is home to the Chinati Foundation and contains ammunition sheds, old barracks, and various other military structures. Some buildings are vacant and some are filled with sculpture by Chinati's founder Donald Judd. In the 1980s, Judd invited Flavin to come and do an installation. His piece opened in 1996, the same year Flavin passed away.

While I was walking around Marfa with a sound recorder, picking up things like the specific resonance of Judd's concrete sculptures, a curiosity entered me about approaching any artwork with a sound recorder, especially a predominantly visual one like Flavin's. What is to be captured with the sound, and how does looking at something change when listening momentarily displaces looking as the primary means of taking in a piece of art?

Flavin's installation, a painting with light, deliberately includes the sources of light, the ready-made fluorescent lamps, as part of the composition.  But the lamps are also participating in the art because they emit a sound.  The faint buzzing sound has a base frequency of about 120 Hz, with several multiples of that frequency also noticeable.This buzzing comes from the ballast which keeps the current flowing through the fluorescent tubes below a safe threshold. The electricity is dampened, and the output is sound.  

Every Flavin piece will sound different. The specific configuration of lights, the number of them, the proximity of the lights to nearby walls--these factors will have subtle yet palpable effects. In addition, the light itself, its color and intensity, must have an effect. Are there certain colors which bring out the buzzing, or conversely permit the viewer to shut away the sound? Do certain colors shift the perception of certain frequencies, i.e. does a blue light point our attention to the lower note, and a yellow light to the higher note? Is there a color which allows all background sounds to melt away? 

Spending countless hours, days, and years to get his installations just right, was Flavin using the buzzing sound to inform his work? Or, how could he not? He would be subjected to it possibly more than any human being that has lived since the invention of the fluorescent bulb. We can no longer ask the artist these questions. Nevertheless, the project continues, a grand experiment to re-draw space with light and sound.  The artist here has presence; his work continually re-configures the interior of this army barracks, each day that the power is flicked on.  Flavin made a place for questioning how we perceive space.



"the most important thing to understand with regards to human underwater listening is that our ears are mostly useless" via

Introducing Soundfishing, the latest sporting activity in the great outdoors of the San Francisco Bay Area.  In a city that is all about recreation, water activities, fitness, etc., what is there to do for the non-sporty among us? To prove my credentials (in being un-sporty), I have caught exactly one fish in my entire life.

The recreational landscape of the Bay is all about the shoreline. We have hundreds of miles of it. The wrinkly edge (when it's not impenetrable due to industry or freeways) is a varied landscape for interaction between people and the water. We can imagine the soundscape of this edge - wind rustling sails, birds, water surging over rocks when a large boat passes by.  It's predictable. It's also not as clean as that. There often is a freeway nearby, or any number of sounds. But what about sticking a microphone beneath the water's surface. What does this tell us about the urban, watery edge?

Soundfishing bypasses the usual urban soundscape for an entirely new one, in which motor boats sound like angry hair-dryers, and the propellers of cool old ships produce lo-fi drone music for anybody listening in.

I like environments where it is difficult to hear. Difficult, not because it is loud, but because we are not made for a particular listening environment. When a human ear is underwater, the ear drum does not vibrate the same way that it does in air. The ear barely works under water, so the way we hear is actually through bone conduction. Pressure in water is translated to our skull, which transmits the sound directly to our inner ear.

If my ears are useless, then lend me a microphone. In order to listen to this underwater world, we must augment our hearing. I like that, the opportunity to question how we hear sound and what we might do to hear things differently. So I made a hydrophone with about 15 dollars worth of electronic parts and threw it in the water.

The hydrophone as "bait" , coated in silicone

In water, sound travels four times faster than it does in air. It's a thick medium for sound, which means sound travels well and quite far. It also means certain sounds are not able to move far, such as high frequency sounds. Above a few thousand kilohertz, sound dies off shortly after it is emitted.

My first fishing expedition was in the Oakland shipping channel off the shore of Alameda. I saw a couple people pulling out actual fish. I certainly wouldn't want to be a fish in these waters, not just for the fear of being prey but it is LOUD in there. At one point I was listening to five boats motoring around, plus a jet ski. It just sounds like a bunch of mad screaming lawn mowers and pencil sharpeners under there.

But there are some cool, subtle sounds, and a lot more exploring to be done of the Bay.  Stay tuned.