Sunday, 29 March 2009

Lets all go down the pub

I haven't been in a Wetherspoons pub for a long time but on Friday night I found myself in there on someones leaving do and was immediately struck by a sound that was instantly familiar, the sound of Wetherspoons.

Walking in from outside is like stepping into a filtered world where all of life's sonic nuances are stripped out and replaced by an echoey din, a high pitch whir that is at once disconcerting.

At first it is easy to think that this is just what it is like in pubs when they don't play music, but it isn't, I've been in plenty of pubs that don't play music and they are full of intricate creaks and vibrations, not standardised white noise.

The reason that Wetherspoons sound like they do is of course partly to do with not playing music, but it is equally because they all have the same carpets, chairs, tables, fittings, cutlery, and glasses, and they are almost always large glass fronted buildings. Their pricing policy also attracts a certain type of clientele, particularly at the weekend, and encourages fast, heavy drinking which brings with it it's own noise in the shape of glasses constantly banging on the bar and tables, and also in the form of loud and boisterous conversation.

People spend a lot of time acoustically designing bars and restaurants these days to encourage people to eat and drink quicker with loud music and bright reverberant rooms, or to slow them down with soft fabrics which soak up the din and make you more relaxed. It's worth thinking about this the next time you're in a pub or restaurant, what does it sound like and why? Is this what attracts you to it?

As for Wetherspoons, well for a pub that doesn't play any music it's a pretty intrusive sonic space, and from everyone I know its not somewhere you go for more than three drinks if you can help it, whether this is because of its sonic makeup is for you to decide.

Monday, 23 March 2009

The Soundtrack of our Lives

I have realised that in documenting the sound of my environment over the last few months that I have largely ignored my own sonic impact on the world. I have noticed recently though that particularly on work days I have my own soundtrack, and I think that however spontaneous we consider our lives to be, we probably all have at least a small period of repetition within our days in which we create a sequence of similar sounds from day to day.

Mine begins in the morning with the same jittery high pitched alarm gradually increasing in volume, intensity and closeness, followed by the gentle creek of the bed as i stretch to turn it off and a little bang as i place my phone back on the table. My bare feet then make a soft padding sound as i cross the wooden floor, less rhythmic than my normal walking pattern, before the soft wispy scraping of the bottom of the wooden door drags back and forth, ending in the click and clunk of the door shutting again.

Into the reverberant tiled bathroom and there is the startling shudder of the shower door vibrating fiercely as it is pulled open, the thudding clunk of the steel tap pulled on and then the rushing pixelated fall of streaming water, battering off of the hard plastic tray, hissing, dripping and bouncing, a whole array of frequencies building a wall of sound. The shower door shudders again upon exit, and soft drips patter onto the floor.

In the kitchen the kettle boils with rumbling intensity, a cereal packet rustles as my breakfast plinks into the bowl and juice pours softly and fluidly into my glass. The kettle hisses and stutters as it boils whilst a metallic spoon chinks and chimes against my china bowl. Coffee soars into my flask enveloping its way upward and the lid bumps and screws into place before sharply clipping in dead mid range.

Back to the bathroom and the brushing of teeth like scratching vinyl meets glugging water flowing softly from the tap, hard soled shoes bang abruptly against solid wood and brittle, cold sounding tiles. A zip scrapes gently as my bag shuts, wavering in pitch and meeting the sound of man made fabric brushing metalically. Finally my keys jangle brightly and reverberantly before the hard clunk of the lock turning over, the solid bump of the door closing behind me and a couple more clunks as it locks.

There will be more of my daily soundtracks to come, but if anyone wants to leave a comment documenting any of theirs it would be really interesting to read.

Friday, 20 March 2009

The Weekly Report: Sound in the News

Welcome to my weekly roundup of sound in the news.

Firstly we have reports from Chicago that a school has installed a mosquito devise to stop kids loitering in the corridors. For anyone unaware of the mosquito, it is a devise which emits a distressing high pitch sound supposedly only audible to the under 25s. These devises are commonly used by shop keepers to keep kids from hanging around their shops but are also craftily used as ring tones because they are largely inaudible to teachers. Not sure I agree with these devises at all, they seem too close to sonic torture to me, although its good to see the kids turning them to their advantage.

Secondly we have a bar owner in Barcelona jailed for five and a half years for continually playing music so loud that he caused physical and mental pain to his neighbours. Makes living near Sankeys seem like the middle of the countryside.

Thirdly someone has developed an app for the trusty iPhone which will supposedly suck up all the unwanted noise that surrounds us and spurt it back out as something altogether more soothing. Once again top marks for an Apple product encouraging us not to engage with our environment. If it isn't enough that most people don't even hear what's going on around them anymore because they have a pair of tiny white earphones blocking it all out, now their phone can decide what their environment should sound like for them. Nice one.

And finally, how about Boris Johnson not quite understanding why the good people of East London are just about fed up with city airport, surely not. I went to university right across the dock from that airport Boris and have never heard such noise.

More news next week, hope the stories have entertained.

Monday, 16 March 2009

The Silent City

In a bid to give people some peace they are creating 1000 silent zones in Mumbai, places where people have to be respectful and quiet so that others can escape the constant noise of the city. Check it out here

Its an interesting idea but I can't really imagine how they will manage to police it, and given how far sound travels I can't exactly envisage 1000 pockets of absolute tranquility amongst the hustle and bustle of city life, but I do like the idea and it's definitely something that needs to be considered given the ever increasing noise of city life and the adverse effects this Can have on peoples health.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

How Noisy is Your Area?

Just found a pretty interesting government site where you can type in your postcode and find out how much your area is affected by noise from road, rail, industry and aircraft. It makes for some interesting viewing, check it out here

The Sound of the Future

I have long considered electronic beat music to be pretty futuristic, using technology to create sounds and arrangements that are unnatural and machinic, pushing the boundaries of sonic exploration in the dark area between noise and music and creating sounds almost impossible for human replication.

Many artists involved in experimental electronica, dubstep and techno talk of the influence of the urban and industrial landscape on their work, synthesised with science fiction and the desire to create a space beyond the city, beyond the here and now.

I have always tended to agree with this theory, believing that the best music is created through understanding and borrowing from what has come before, synthesising this with the sounds and emotions of the current environment and the vision and philosophy of the creator.

But listening to the birds today in Grosvenor Square opened up a whole new dimension to my thinking on electronic music. The intricate rhythms, indescribable sounds and unfamiliar arrangements that i associate so heavily with technology and electronic music making were being created by the orchestra of birds that surrounded me.

Short high pitched stabbing bursts interspersed with long, soft drawn out whistles. Mid range ratcheting triggers, like rounds of gun fire, interrupting melodic whistles and sharp grating screams. Distant warm low warble providing the sub bass over which a mid range call brings to mind the sound of snare drums stacked close together on a Cubase grid, stretched and clipped.

At times many of these sounds dispersed, leaving space for melody to chirp through, joined by soothing whistles and reverberant spacious calls, before gradually building again in call and response until i was listening to a complex layered arrangement coming together quickly and intensely as if the filters had suddenly been removed.

This was syncopation and polyrhythm as i have never heard it before, so many interesting sounds and movements, spaces and intensities, all fitting together intelligently and intricately, as nature intended, leaving me listening to the most enjoyable and cacophonous beat i have ever heard.

In our exploration of the possibilities of technology it is important not to lose sight (or sound) of the possibilities of nature too, because those complex futuristic sounds that many of us seek are already out there, you've just got to know where to find them.

Saturday, 7 March 2009


A comical but slightly sad story here about the council in Stoke-on-Trent building a library next to a loud speaker shop (you couldn't make it up could you).

Shop owner Simon Boote claims that the shop is well known to the council having supplied and tested PA equipment for the mayor, and cannot believe that instead of buying him out the council have built the library next to his shop and are now threatening his living with visits from environmental health officials instructing him to keep the noise down.

All quite funny on the face of it except that Mr Boote believes that this will lead to him having to lay off staff. As he says himself, this isn't exactly in line with the government's policy of protecting small businesses in the economic downturn

This Town is Bringing Me Down

Saturday morning by the waterside in Sale was a strange sonic experience. Whereas everywhere I have listened before has had something distinct which has grabbed my attention, be it the overpowering noise of rush hour outside Central library, or the cacophony of bird song in St Johns Gardens, today's sonic field immediately struck me as nothing more than a dull amalgamation of now familiar sounds.

The airy whoosh of traffic merged blandly with the hum and rumble of the tram, whilst the exhaling shush of a bus engine combined unremarkabley with the shudder and screech of it stopping. There was faint birdsong in the air but it wasn't beautiful as it had been last week, it merely synthesised with the beep of traffic lights and indecipherable high pitched drones that rung in the air.

After previously hearing these sounds close up and en mass, today they seemed tame and distant, uninspiring and insignificant in comparison. But perhaps this is the most interesting thing about them, perhaps this is the thing that helps to explain the relationship between sound and place.

Sale is not an inspiring place, it is neither small and beautiful nor vast and imposing, it is average, ordinary, full of chain stores and soulless pubs, it is like any small town anywhere. The older people who wander around look comfortable and content, but the youth look troubled, bored and claustrophobic. Emotions this soundscape evokes at once. The sound of average.

I felt so unenthused that I was about to leave, but realised that gradually one or two sounds were breaking through and creeping into my more immediate hearing. The dragging, scraping and ricketing of solid plastic pulling over a rough concrete car park, the high pitched translucent chime of rolling glass, the faint sweeping softness of a brush, and the immediate mid range banging of metal.

A still car across the water became apparent to me with the stuttering, ticking air of a low running engine, soft and peaceful, regular and constant. The thin plastic film of a cigarette packet danced around me, fluttering, scraping and fidgeting as it bounced on the concrete, short crackling, crisp sounds ruptured by time in transit.

As the church bells began to strike out across the town, bridging the gap between distance and immediacy, I set off on my bike wondering just how different Sale would feel if it sounded different, and whether the blandness of its overall soundscape perhaps enabled me to hear the more minute sounds that I eventually engaged with.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Birdsong in the City

Having read Bernard L Krause's lovely book Wild Soundscapes last week, I set off this morning in search of the sound of nature in the city centre. I found it at 9.45 in St Johns Gardens in Castlefield.

Although the engulfing ambient fuzz of traffic was still apparent, as soon as I stepped into St Johns Gardens I was immediately struck by the array of bird song that surrounded me, at first creating an alternate backdrop to compete with the mechanic hum of the city, and soon providing a cacophony of rhythms, melodies and intensities as I became more attuned to my new sonic environment.

High pitched, soft, sweet melodies, whistled, twinkled and reverberated around me, audibly bouncing off of the surrounding buildings. Call and response played out in the air above me in darting panorama, sweet songs frequently interrupted by abrasive stabs of stark, brash, inharmonious mid frequencies.

The low, warm, throaty warble of pigeons created rhythmic flutters on the ground in front of me
whilst the ratchety, mid range clacking of wings soared above, loud, quick and intense as they neared; low, soft and peaceful as they flew away.

Bushes rustled gently as the drawn out dongs of a church bell sounded in the distance, whilst the faint sound of laughter and soft chatter briefly entered my ambient hearing, only adding to the overall peace of my environment.

What amazed me about this array of bird song was how so many layers, pitches, speeds and intensities fit together so effortlessly. Every sound had its place; warm, sweet warbles and melodies naturally filtered to dance amongst raw, brash stabs of noise.

The only intrusion today was a long, high pitched airy burst which grated its way into my hearing for a few seconds before disappearing and leaving me once again to the natural sounds of a Sunday morning in Manchester.