36. Thursday Today

Last night I read an extract from Sarah Maitland’s A Book Of Silence, about her time spent in solitude and muteness. The extract discussed aspects of psychological and physiological phenomena that she and many others have experienced in such situations. It is relevant in many ways to my project and sparked my interest significantly.

One of the things I found most interesting was her discussion about experiencing things that weren’t real, especially of hearing voices. She refers to Steven Pinker’s book The Language Of Instinct in which he describes hearing voices from a randomised synthesiser. She goes on to theorise that voices she heard, specifically singing, could have been caused by a similar phenomenon, that of the reduction of speech into narrow bands of frequencies. She supposes that the wind could conjure some specific combination of pitches to approximate the sounds she supposed she was imagining. I would say that in such an event it is unlikely you would mistake the sound for long, however she does strike on an interesting subject which (thankfully) sparked my interest today.

It occurred to me that, up until that point, I thought I had never heard voices before, but then I remembered that several times (not just during the isolation) I have imagined hearing people calling me, always when I have had headphones on. It is easy to rationalise this clear case of overactive imagination, indeed it takes only moments to realise my mistake, but in fact it is not a far cry from what Maitland describes.

In phonetics, formant is a term used to describe the frequencies that disambiguate vowels. It takes at least two formants to be able to distinguish which vowel is being heard and their frequencies range between approximately 100hz and 2000hz, though this spread can be significantly narrowed. Here is a very brief experiment with the application of this theory:

random talker right click and ‘save as’

In acoustic theory, any complex waveform, or sound, can be expressed as a series of sinusoidal components. This means that we can extract data about which frequencies are most prominent in determining and distinguishing sounds. The reverse is equally true: sine waves can be stacked at different frequencies to re-synthesise sounds, a process called additive synthesis. What I started to wonder was whether a random process could be allowed to run and, through long periods of listening, would suggest to the listener sounds that were not actually being heard, in a similar fashion to what Maitland describes.

I tried various different implementations:


sineman3 shorts

sineman4 longs right click and ‘save as’

Needless to say, these were not very successful. The problems here are to do with a lack of complexity and enveloping, the speeds and shapes by which the volumes and pitches change. I should have continued and tried to get something good out of these experiments, but I got bored.

Here is my first attempt at ‘modelling’, a kind of sound synthesis which involves representation of real (that is tangible) objects. For example: a model of a piano would involve algorithms that imitate the behaviour of hammer on strings, the way keys depress, the resonant chamber, sympathetic resonance etc.. I wanted to try and imitate wind sounds with a view to hearing Maitland’s phantoms.

the wind

Here the modelling involves white noise whose amplitute is controlled by random ramp generation. The controls at this stage could be called ‘blusteriness’ and ‘rate of change’. The white noise then moves to what one might consider the physical objects the wind encounters. These are simply resonant filters, cutting out large chunks of the spectrum and leaving bands for the wind to whistle through, so to speak. The narrower the band, the higher the resonance and the more whistling you get. The objects also respond to the ‘force’ of the wind, their pitches shifting slightly in accordance.

The last notion was to create an array of ‘instruments’ that could be placed in the path of the wind, responding and making noises. I only got as far as modelling bottles to sit and resonate. Their noise is approximated using the same technique as above, but with added overtone resonance. The notion was to make automative music. The objects could be placed in a virtual space and their attributes could be adjusted etc.

(The title isn’t intended to cast aspersions on the state of the other tracks as music.)

wind music 1

Yeeeeaaaah, byyyye.


6 Responses to “36. Thursday Today”

  1. Tasneem Says:

    Sineman 3 sounds like R2D2!!!

    Love the wind music and very glad to see you have got your inspiration back. xx

  2. Dad Says:

    I also love Wind Music 1. It sounds like the soundtrack to a horror movie.

    If I didn’t know better, I’d think you just left a mike by the back door when the wind was blowing.

  3. khalil Says:

    What was apparent from sineman2 and to an extent the other tracks, if a voice had suddenly “appeared” in the middle of the track it would have been quite shocking and unexpected, like walking through a house one is sure is empty only to hear a voice or be confronted by a presence. The makers of films must know all about that, how to create a certain expectation and then do something completely contrary. Its an interesting area. Creating unexpected fear/shock/horror seems relatively easy but how about unexpected joy?

    Yes, The Wind, are you sure you didn’t just stick the mike out the window?!

  4. Jo Says:


  5. Jack Says:

    I learnt from this, thankyou teacher. ALSO if you play all the tracks at the same time it sounds like a futuristic horror movie, Bladerunner comes into my head.

  6. D Says:

    Nice, we had a whole module on sound synthesis last year… We had to create a huge amount of sound effects (cat miaow, wind, frogs, cauldron bubbling, dog bark) using Reaktor for an exam. Pretty strange exam to say the least! Kinda fun though…

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