This week we’re listening: Letting the noise in
Having released episodes since 2016, Twenty Thousand Hertz is an icon in the podcast world. Aptly, it’s all about sound.
- Format: Single episode
- Year: 2021
- Listen on: Apple Podcasts or Spotify
One of the most recent episodes of Twenty Thousand Hertz investigates the devices that shape the auditory landscape, taking the listener on a journey to the origins of noise-cancelling headphones, white noise machines and nature recordings.
You become accustomed to the hustle and bustle of the city, the car hooters and electricity buzzing, the hiss of the coffee machine and the calls of phones ringing. Often, one only notices when you step out into the quiet how noisy your world has become.
From melodies of the natural world to man-made jingles, sound is all around us and it affects our environments in ways we often don’t realise.
As they say, knowledge is power, and once humans figured out we could control our environments by controlling sound we tapped into that.
“If I’m feeling distracted and I need to focus, I might put on some lo-fi hip-hop. If I’m frazzled after a long day, I’ll put on some jazz. But it goes beyond just music. I also use a white noise machine to help me fall asleep at night. And when I’m travelling, and the noise around me is just too much, I’ll put on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones,” says host Dallas Taylor.
“Technologies like these help us create our own personal sonic bubble.”
Sonic bubbles, guest Mack Hagood explains, offer us self-control through sound control. “They help us control our own attention, and the way we feel, by controlling what we hear,” he says.
Hagood’s book, Hush: Media and Sonic Self-Control, explores how humans use technology to control their sonic environments through what he has dubbed “Orphic media” or “technologies that generate a safe space through sound”.
Taylor takes the listener back to the 1920s, telling the story of science fiction writer Hugo Gernsback.
“Gernsback kept getting distracted while he was trying to work, so he invented a device that he called The Isolator. It was this huge rounded helmet that completely covered your head. It had black eyes, and honestly looked like something out of a horror movie.
“It looked like an old-fashioned diving helmet. It had a little slit for eyes so that you could only see the line of text that you were trying to write, and it blocked out external sound. In fact, it covered your head so completely that you needed to use an oxygen tank in order to wear this thing,” Hagood explains.
(As you listen to the sounds of muffled breathing and the hiss of oxygen, is there anything more science fiction than The Isolator?)
Understandably, this invention never quite caught on. But the sounds that Gernsback was trying to escape were not going anywhere, so similar inventions, all trying to find a way to block out noise, soon followed.
The world was opening up, and with the factories, highways and cities that were rising from the industrial revolution came the bangs of car exhausts, the clang of metal and the grinding of gears.
“And all of that machinery made noise,” Taylor says. “Noise, which was sort of this industrial by-product, was something you didn’t want, right? As the years went by, these noises kept piling up,” Hagood explains.
“We get these innovations like the jet airplane, the interstate highway system, the open-plan office, all of these things amplify and proliferate noise. But there weren’t just new sounds to avoid. There were also new sounds to enjoy,” Taylor adds.
“We got used to mediated sound like listening to records or talking on the telephone, or listening to the radio. As a result, people’s relationship to sound changes and we become these kinds of sonic consumers,” Hagood says.
Now people are not just trying to drown out noise, especially since it seems almost impossible to escape it completely, but rather to modify, manipulate and get creative with the sounds we are exposed to. Cue white noise.
“One of these innovations was the harnessing of white noise. White noise is made up of all of the possible frequencies that we humans can hear, at equal loudness, which is roughly 20 hertz to 20,000 hertz. So, just like white is all of the different colours combined, white noise is sort of like all of these different frequencies combined,” explains Hagood.
In the 1960s, a travelling salesman named Jim Buckwalter invented the first white noise machine. Buckwalter was staying in a motel with his wife, the room they had checked into had a broken air conditioner and the couple was struggling to sleep.
“Not because they were too hot, but rather because there was a poker game going on in the next room and they couldn’t sleep because of the noise,” Hagood says.
His wife then turned to her husband, saying: “If that air conditioner was working, we’d be asleep right now. I bet you could invent something like that, to make that sound.”
Which he did.
“His goal was to replicate the hum of an air conditioner, but without the air part. In other words, it would be a sound conditioner. The device he came up with looked like a white plastic dome with a small fan inside,” Taylor says.
His invention, the Sleep-Mate, was an instant success.
“The reason that this white noise is useful in that circumstance is that white noise is basically sound that’s covering all the possible sounds that your ears could hear,” Hagood explains.
“Our auditory systems have evolved over time to aid us and to protect us, and to be alert and ready for things. It was probably pretty useful when we were sleeping outdoors on the savannah to be a light sleeper and be tuned into sounds that are happening out there. So, just because our physical circumstance has changed and we sleep in these quite safe houses, that doesn’t mean our auditory systems have completely changed in that way.”
A few years later, another inventor, Irv Teibel, did something similar. But, instead of creating a “new” noise, Teibel was the very first person to record nature sounds and capitalise on that as a relaxation tool.
Teibel’s plan was to go out and record in nature and put the sounds onto records. Each side of the record would be a different sonic environment.
“To make his first record, Teibel recorded beaches around the world. But when he got home and listened to the tape, it sounded flat and uninspiring. So … he took the tape to a friend who worked at Bell Telephone Labs. At the time, this was one of the few places where you could find an actual computer. Teibel and his friend used this early computer to edit and manipulate the recordings. They kept working until they felt like it captured the majestic sound and feel of the ocean. Tiebel called this track “The Psychologically Ultimate Seashore,” Taylor says.
“The album was a hit. One critic wrote, ‘Waves come splashing out of the speakers’.”
Teibel called his records “applied psychology devices in recorded form”, claiming they would “counteract the damaging effects of noise pollution, and help users achieve alpha brainwave states of consciousness. They would help you read faster,” Hagood explains.
While that may seem unbelievable today, people bought into it at the time. And today research has progressed to show the benefits of nature noise.
Teibel was also on to something when he felt that his nature sounds were uninspiring. Hagood explains that humans are particularly picky when it comes to what noise they like and what noise they don’t.
“You might think, ‘Well, rain is rain’. But, actually, people want the exact kind of rain that they have a really positive, emotional, psychological association with. These app developers get requests for every kind of rain you can imagine. People want rain on a tent, rain on a tarp, rain on a tin roof, rain on a slate roof. They want a big storm or they want a light drizzle. I had one guy tell me, ‘If I have to make another kind of rain, I’m going to lose my mind’,” he says.
The next invention that controls the sonic environment was invented by Amar Bose in 1978: noise-cancelling headphones. Here again, the idea was to take control over one’s sonic world by canceling what we don’t want to hear and, instead, focus on what kind of sounds we want to let in.
“As wearable technology continues to develop, these devices have the potential to totally reshape our relationship with the sonic world. Pretty soon, we could all be wearing a high-tech headset that filters out any noise we don’t want to hear,” Taylor says.
While this episode is seemingly a tribute grasping control of audio, Hagood also posits that perhaps we are too attached to the idea of control.
“Do we always need to be in our own personalised sonic bubble, hearing precisely what we want?” “Or do we want to have space and openness for happy accidents to hear things that we don’t even know we want?” he rightly asks.
“I think it would be sad to be in a world where everyone just has their headphones on all the time, right?”
Taylor ends the episode with this:
“I really don’t want people to further isolate themselves, and live their entire lives in a hyper-customised sonic bubble. So, once this episode is over, take a few minutes to just listen to the world around you. Because whether it’s a quiet road out in the country, or a noisy street in the city, there is so much sonic beauty around us. And it’s worth hearing.”
And you, are you listening? DM/ML