What Design Sounds Like

In two days I will be presenting at Design Observer's What Design Sounds Like conference, held at the School of Visual Arts (logically!) in New York.  I am excited to be a part of a great group including Nicola Twilley who will be talking about sound and food in "Sound Bites", Alexander Chen who will be presenting his work on music and code, and numerous others with presentations that sound fascinating. I'll be talking to Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG in the afternoon of the conference about a whole range of topics related to sound and space. On the docket: silent cities, ancient ninja defense systems, quasi-forensic acoustic testing of space, and kitchen sinks that sing.

Although What Design Sounds Like will not be cast live on the web, you can follow along with @DesignObserver .

Relatedly, I have also just started a series of sound walks with Bryan Finoki titled (in)Fringe.  We'll be walking along, over, under, and through the varying edge spaces of San Francisco. Our line of inquiry runs like this:

We're intrigued by what constitutes a sonic fringe physically, culturally, and experientially. Questions we’re asking include: Can the shifts in power of a place be heard, and how (if at all) should we listen to them? How can a place be defined by an edge, or a lack thereof? What do these fringes suggest about the cultural dynamics of a given place?

Our first walk takes us to the Mission District, where we encounter forces of change in the historical and cultural center of the city. We walked a number of the streets in alleys in search of evidence of an "edge" condition - simply put, where the new meets the old, and how they mix (or don't mix) together. Have a listen:

Bryan and I will be continuing the exploration in future posts about the Mission, post-military sites such as Treasure Island and the Presidio, and more. Stay tuned!


Virtual Kabul

I had the pleasure of meeting Francesca Recchia last week while she was visiting the SF Bay Area. She is the author of several books which have come out this year. One of them is The Little Book of Kabul, which follows the lives of several artists living in Kabul over the course of a year. Francesca has been based in Afghanistan now for a few years, and she shared some great insights on life in a world where daily tension is quite palpable, and walking around a city, as much as we enjoy it here in the States, is greatly limited. 

We got to talking about sound sooner than later, and I found out Francesca has written a score for a construction site where she spent a lot of idle time, just sitting and listening to the sounds around her. She said the idea came to her while she was "bored".  Boredom, I believe, is where many wonderful creations begin.

I have always been interested in the sounds of construction sites, from the pile driving at massive building sites to the little pneumatic nail guns popping and hissing when stick-built houses are being framed up. These sounds reveal a lot about the culture of construction, the available technology and labor practices, and the larger economic changes that can sweep across a neighborhood. There is a lot to hear in the noise of a construction site, especially if you live next to one!

Francesca's site in Kabul, a restaurant under construction, was fascinating in part because her score was rich with sound that I could easily imagine hearing. What was more fascinating even was the spatial detail, the layout of the "orchestra", from left to right, front to back.

Here is an excerpt from the score:
{The wheelbarrow enters from the left, across the unfinished door, stumbling over the pink hose.  It is old and rusty; it squeaks its way across the courtyard}

Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak

{A shovel lifts the dirt and scratches the bottom of the wheelbarrow.  The worker with broken fingers mixes the mud to plaster the wall}

Shhhtickkkk Shhhhhhtickkkk Shhhtickkkkkk Shhhhhhhtickkkk

{At the far end of the courtyard, the plastic hammer hits on wood: the frame of a window is coming into shape}

Thud Thud Thud Thud Thud Thud
Thud Thud Thud

{Bits of wood fall on the mud floor, like flapping wings of a lost butterfly}

An attempt at performing the score was in order. Francesca came into the Soundscrapers studio in Oakland, and we just started dropping construction sounds into the spatial mix.

In the sound studio, I have command of an 8-channel 3d sound array, which gave Francesca no small thrill when I demonstrated the array by sending WWII planes buzzing overhead, or when I filled the room with a large jazz ensemble. With our mix of sounds for this little site in Kabul, I think we knew it wasn't meant to replicate the actual experience, but rather prove a small point that a real place can be re-imagined, and re-made, into any number of scenarios.

The construction site itself is a place in transition, going from an existing space (an empty site or an old building) to some place new.

This piece has been composed for binaural playback, which means it is best heard with headphones. Listen:

I stayed truthful to things like the Kishore Kumar Bollywood song from 1969, emanating from one of the construction workers "shitty" cellphones. Other sounds we quickly downloaded from freesound.org (thanks to freesound users: EelkeGood_vibes420, zinzan_101, and monotraum).

I shared an initial mix with Francesca a few days after she left, and she sent a note in reply:

"I like this almost symphonic dimension that this little piece evokes... it is not realistic, but opens to the possibility of imagining Kabul, of thinking about it beyond the sounds of war. This to me is incredibly powerful and fully embodies the spirit of the book."

I feel very much encouraged by this soundscape work, a kind of construction site in itself in terms of a virtual place born out of the fragments of sound left around on the internet, assembled in my 3d sound array. Not quite going the direction of music (see Schneider TM via @subtopes), but staying somewhere in the imaginative world of field recording.

Please visit Francesca's blog and you can follow her on twitter here.


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.