Sonic Assassins

russiawave

In a developing mystery, Associated Press is reporting that US diplomats stationed in Cuba are complaining about ‘health attacks’ which appear to be linked to some kind of odd sound phenomenon. The incidents have taken place both in the homes of the diplomats and in hotels, and are said to be “confined to specific rooms or even parts of rooms with laser-like specificity”. One victim reported experiencing the ‘agonizing’ sound only in his bed; when he walked to the other side of his bedroom, it was completely absent.

“In several episodes recounted by U.S. officials, victims knew it was happening in real time, and there were strong indications of a sonic attack.”

The episodes seem to take the form of “vibrations and loud ringing or a high-pitch chirping similar to crickets or cicadas” and a “blaring, grinding noise”. So far, doctors have examined 21 affected Americans, diagnosing them with mild traumatic brain injury (or concussion) and permanent hearing loss. Some victims now have problems concentrating or recalling specific words, and other symptoms include brain swelling, dizziness, nausea, severe headaches, balance problems and tinnitus, or prolonged ringing in the ears.

Puzzlingly, some people have reported some of the symptoms, but have not heard unusual sounds of any kind.

Speculations that some kind of ‘sonic weapon’ has been brought to bear are hard to substantiate. Devices that might cause these kinds of effects using only sound are not known to exist, and even if they did, they would be large and require a considerable amount of power – not the kind of thing you could sneak into someone’s house unnoticed.

“Brain damage and concussions, it’s not possible,” said Joseph Pompei, a former MIT researcher and authority on focussed sound technology. “Somebody would have to submerge their head into a pool lined with very powerful ultrasound transducers.”

So what’s going on? Have malevolent anti-US agencies discovered a new quirk of physics that they’ve deployed into a frightening sonic brain laser? Is it a manifestation of collective obsessional behavior? Or is there some more mundane explanation that has yet to be uncovered?

Stay tuned, we’ll keep our fingers on the pulse of this one.

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Brainless

Over the last few months I’ve had numerous articles pop up in my Facebook news feed of the kind that promise to reveal some new ‘scientific’ discovery or other that will just amaze the socks off me. One of the favourites – going by the number of times I’ve seen it shared – is this one:

“According to Scientists, This is The Most Relaxing Tune Ever Recorded”

The one page sound-bite rich story is widely dispersed over numerous ‘health and wellbeing’ type websites (like this one), where it is for the most part uncritically accepted as a proper piece of news. It outlines the results of ‘a study’ that has honed in on the single most relaxing piece of recorded music ever to have graced human ears. I know – quite a bold claim – but it’s science, my friends, so you couldn’t just pull that kind of thing out of your ass, right?

The ‘tune’ in question turns out to be a piece called Weightless by ambient music trio Marconi Union. You should probably listen to a little bit of it before we go on – I hope it won’t relax you so much that you can’t come back after the break.

Well. Cute idea for a video, but in my considerable experience of the genre, that’s fairly generic electronic ambience.

According to the ‘news’ article:

This eight minute song is a beautiful combination of arranged harmonies, rhythms and bass lines and thus helps to slow the heart rate, reduce blood pressure and lower levels of the stress…

…and

The results showed that the song Weightless was 11 per cent more relaxing than any other song and even caused drowsiness among women in the lab.

The more you read, of course, the more you begin to see the divergence between the hyperbolic claims of the headline and the actual content of the piece. “11 percent more relaxing than any other song”? What does that even mean? 11 percent more relaxing? Calibrated how? Any other song ever written? Any other song of the same genre? Or just any other song on the iPod of one of the ‘women in the lab’ (is it just me, or is the implication here that the men in the lab were far too macho to be influenced by the wafty charms of the New Age ditty?).

Oh, here we go:

this song induced the greatest relaxation, higher than any other music tested till date

Right. So that would be how many songs, exactly? Not all the tunes ‘ever recorded’ is my guess.

Having worked for many years writing music for advertising, I can easily spot a marketing campaign when I smell one, and this one veritably reeks of fish. But a marketing campaign for what, exactly? There’s no product mentioned in the article, and it doesn’t seem like a promotion for the band. But I guess that’s possible. Let’s see what the internet has to say about Marconi Union.

OK, not much to be gleaned out of the obviously self-penned Wikipedia entry, other than that Marconi Union uses the flimsiest of pretexts to contrive to have their name linked with that of ambient music guru Brian Eno (in several different ways).

What about the ‘scientists’ involved in this astounding breakthrough? The experiment (we’ll call it that for expediency’s sake) was run by an entity by the name of Mindlab International who describe themselves as  a ‘neuro’ marketing company. Their website is slick and snappy.

But here’s one thing I’ll tell you about marketing – it’s not science. The sole goal of any marketing company on the planet is to gather enough data to convincingly support exactly what their client already believes to be true, extracting a generous fee in the process. Not convinced? Consider this: the marketing company is hired by the product maker. The product maker already thinks their product is the best thing since sliced bread. The marketing company who tells their client otherwise is therefore wrong, and gets fired. Marketing companies are the definition of the messenger who really doesn’t want to be shot. So, being a successful marketing company is all about finding convincing ways to make the message appealing to the client. If you can also convince them that you had a hand in increasing sales, that’s a bonus, but don’t think for even a second that that’s their raison d’être (notwithstanding the fact that many of them apparently believe that it is).

In case it needs to be said, none of this is the job of science. Science is about determining truth, no matter what the consequences to human sensibilities or dog food sales. Good science is out of a job when it comes to the advertising business.

The fact that this story involves a marketing company and a bunch of exaggerated claims  immediately raises red flags. It’s quite obviously not concerned with giving the reader factual news. No,  it’s solely about selling something. The more observant among you will have noticed that the video of Marconi Union’s Weightless – linked in the article (and above) – is interestingly named. It has the peculiar bracketed codicil ‘Radox’ in the title.*

Ah, yes. It’s all starting to make sense. So factoring ‘Radox’ into a search with ‘Marconi Union’ and ‘Mindlab International’ gets us straight to the nitty gritty. The first sentence on this page at a site called musicactivation.com reads:

Radox Spa brand has made an ambient track that is scientifically proven to be more relaxing than a massage.

Oh, now what a coincidence! The ambient track Weightless, which was made by (I think we can assume ‘commissioned by’) Radox Spa bath salts just turns out to be ‘the most relaxing tune ever recorded’.

Are you smelling any science here, sports fans? Or are you getting an overpowering aroma of horseshit? For the full experience, you might like to watch this:

Well, that was the biggest load of bollocks I’ve seen in a long while. I wonder how many completely unscientific instances of prestidigitation you caught there? If you needed proof that Mindlab International is entirely unconcerned with actual science, there’s plenty of ducking & weaving going in that clip.

What’s happened with this whole thing is that hundreds of websites have mindlessly snapped up a piece of marketing propaganda (something that was, no doubt, fed out to the media machine as a press release from Mindlab International) and completely credulously echoed it far and wide across the social networks as if it actually had meaning. I probably don’t need to rephrase it to reflect actuality, but for amusement’s sake, this is how that headline should really have read:

“According to a Marketing Company, a Piece of Music that their Bath Salts Client Commissioned is the Most Relaxing Tune Ever Recorded”  

Not something that’s going to rapidly circulate on the social media, is my guess.


*Update: since I penned this piece, Marconi Union seem to have disassociated themselves from Radox, so the original video I linked here has disappeared. References to Radox don’t appear on the re-uploaded version of Weightless

The Sound of Distant Drumming…

bilbo

With Peter Jackson’s movie version of The Hobbit killing box offices around the world, most people can hardly have failed to notice that, like Spielberg and Lucas before him, Jackson is using his considerable clout to spearhead another leap in technical quality for the cinema experience. I am talking, of course, about The Hobbit‘s release at the projection speed of 48 frames per second, which has already become popularly known by its acronym, HFR (high frame rate).

Jackon’s decision to use HFR for the film was almost certainly prompted by the desire to increase the quality of 3D – something which it indisputably does. Unfortunately, HFR got off to a bad start when news got out that audiences at the CinemaCon preview of The Hobbit in April of 2012, were finding the high resolution experience rather disconcerting. Mostly, the criticisms centred on the HFR looking ‘stagey’ or ‘fake’ or ‘cheap’. Peter Jackson brushed off the criticisms, saying we’d all get used to it, but there is no question that HFR has some ‘issues’. Since the release of the full movie, there have been many dissections of the curious nature of the 48fps effect in the film, some smart and some fairly far-fetched. I have my own hypothesis as to why we have trouble with the HFR experience, but I mostly want to talk about one aspect of that here. And it’s an aspect that no-one seems to have picked up on yet: the sound.

It’s not really that surprising to me, I have to say, that no-one has thought to scrutinize the part that sound plays in the perception problems for a high frame rate experience. People hardly pay attention to sound at the best of times, and in this particular case the whole issue has been entirely one of ‘the look’. A movie, however, is not all about what you see.

For you to follow my argument in this post, I need to just give a brief overview of the usual experience of sound in the cinema. Currently, most movies you see are delivered to an audience in a format that was first formulated in the 1970s by Dolby Laboratories and then widely adopted in the 1990s for the cinema. It is called 5.1 surround sound (some high end modern movies use a variation of 5.1 called 7.1, but for purposes of this discussion it’s essentially the same thing). 5.1 is arranged in such a way that three speakers across the screen deliver most of the critical sound. These are designated as Left, Center and Right. Usually these speakers are placed just behind the screen, along a horizontal center line halfway down. Two further speaker groups (they are usually groups, but just think of them as single channels, because that’s how they are treated) are designated Left Surround, and Right Surround. These are placed to the side and behind the audience. This array, the L,C,R,Ls,Rs is the ‘5’ of the 5.1, referred to in the profession as ‘5.0’. The ‘.1’ is the Low Frequency Extension, or LFE, which is situated behind the screen with the LCRs, usually on the floor. The important thing about the 5.0 array is that this is what determines the spatial placement of sounds for the audience.

soundlayout

Over the last couple of decades, the surround sound array has proved to be a versatile and durable system, providing considerable enhancement of the 2D experience. Here’s the thing to keep in mind, though: the key to the effectiveness of the whole notion of surround is that the sound can be made to appear to be – fairly convincingly – anywhere inside the theatre in front of the screen. The whole surround sound concept is based on the idea of enveloping the audience.*

The increasingly fashionable use of 3D over the last five or six years has, however, introduced something new into the movie experience: depth. 3D imaging is, in a way, the complete obverse of surround sound. 3D doesn’t bring the image out into the theatre as much as it expands the depth behind the screen into which the viewer looks. This creates an obvious problem for sound: how do you make the sound feel like it’s back there with the image?

If an object – let’s say a racing car – is on a flat screen (in 2D), then no matter where it is on that screen, it’s always on the same plane as the the speakers reproducing its sound. If  the car appears to be receding into the distance, we have learned by cinema sound ‘convention’ that its sound will get quieter (fade away) to make it seem like it’s attached to the car, but in realistic terms it simply can’t appear to be coming from a point source a  hundred meters beyond the screen (it’s crucial to understand here that our ears don’t judge the location of a sound solely by its loudness. In addition to loudness, we detect small differences in delay times to place an object aurally in space, as well as as different kinds of reverberation textures and times, and comparisons to other sounds we might be hearing. Our brain’s processing of audio information is complex and detailed, and artificial sound reproduction has pretty much always been a kind of ‘cheat’). As it happens, it’s perfectly acceptable in 2D because the image of the racing car and its sound never actually go off that 2D projection plane.

In 3D in the movies, though, our brains are forced to deal with a kind of cognitive dissonance. The racing car appears to be much more realistically moving at some distance away from us, but we hear the sound that it’s making on the same screen plane as every other sound we’re hearing! In fact, the 3D ‘world’ space and the domain of surround sound hardly overlap at all.

3dcover

This odd paradox is a legacy of the stumbling technical evolution of the cinema. The whole point of introducing surround sound into the movie environment was to attempt to create another level of involvement for the audience. Because the image on the screen was flat, no-one really thought of having the sound go beyond the screen; like the wall of the cinema to which it was attached, the screen plane has always been treated as a hard and absolute boundary (aside from anything else, there would be the technical and economic consideration of having speakers – and a whole room – on the other side of the screen). The difference between 5.1 and everything since old fashioned mono, was that surround was largely about pulling the sound forward and off the screen, by creating the ambiences of things that you did not see.

With 3D, a whole new space opened up – a space full of things we can see and that can be anywhere from slightly in front of the screen plane to an infinite distance away. And if those things make sounds, then our brains quite understandably expect those sounds to be glued to their matching apparent position in space.

This was never a problem in 2D, because 2D is a stylized way of looking at the world which we have learned to accept as ‘reality’ through massive exposure to 2D images over more than a century, and to which we have become habituated. Up until The Hobbit came along, there wasn’t even much of a problem with 3D, because the quality of 24fps 3D is not really that great and you just didn’t notice the ‘gluing’ error that much. But with the extraordinary detail that is available in HFR, the 3D begins to push a level of resolution that approaches reality. And, as that happens, our brains start to tell us that something is out of whack: “That horse galloping off into the distance! It’s very quiet, but its sound is coming from right in front of us!”

Not that we process it consciously, of course, but it adds to the sum feeling that there is something kind of wrong with what we’re experiencing.

While I was watching The Hobbit this strange dissociation of sound and image kept catching me at every turn: Bilbo runs behind a rock but his footsteps are unattached from him; an arrow hits a distant ledge in a cave and it sounds like a small stick being thwacked next to my ear; a warg runs off into the distance and its growling doesn’t manage to go with it. In general, the whole soundtrack is somehow ‘smeared’ and its details diffuse. Now, I know the guys who did the sound on this film, and I can tell you – they really know their stuff. And I’m willing to bet that when I get to view The Hobbit in 2D here in my studio in 5.1 on BluRay, it will sound spectacular. I believe that the problem is not with the way the sound is done, but with the way the sound is done for an HFR 3D film. The sound for The Hobbit has been created in the manner in which we normally create sound for the surround cinema environment and that process is now approaching a point where it’s simply not adequate to create an illusion of reality.

This difficulty is not confined to the sound alone. In The Hobbit, a similar predicament exists with the lighting and other aspects of its cinematic ‘world’. We’re at a stage with this technology where the whole technical way we make films needs to be rethought.

For sound, I don’t really know how we can easily remedy this situation. One of the other technical innovations that was rolled out for The Hobbit was a new sound format by Dolby Labs called ‘Atmos’ (which unfortunately I didn’t have  a chance to experience, since there are no cinemas in the southern hemisphere – other than the Embassy in Jackson’s home town of Wellington, NZ – equipped with it). Dolby understands that as cinema image resolution increases, the 5.1 (or 7.1) array will start to struggle to hold its ground. The Atmos system is an effort to expand the level of detail of, and control over, the aural environment. Atmos employs a speaker array with an astounding 64 programmable point sources throughout the theatre – that’s 58 more speakers than 5.1 – but I’m sure you’re ahead of me here: this hasn’t changed the overall concept of cinema sound. The sound is still inside the auditorium, not back where the 3D is happening. It is likely that Atmos will give a new level of detail to what you hear in the theatre, but it still needs to somehow address the sound on the other side of the artifical boundary that is the screen plane.

Of course, there is a way to tangle with this puzzle, but as I said, it’s not likely to be easy. Or cheap. It involves computers, and sound modelling and other kinds of new tech. It’s rather too complicated to go into at the end of this long post, but maybe I’ll attack it at another time.

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*Director John Boorman, an outspoken critic of surround sound, bemoaned the fact that he’d spent his whole career attempting to get his audience involved in what was happening on that flat screen and now he was expected to embrace a technology that was trying to pull them out of it.

Horses Don’t Think

We’re all familiar with the phenomenon of pareidolia – the tendency of the human brain to try to make sense of random visual information by forming it into something we recognize (like the face of Jesus on a tortilla or a likeness of Mother Theresa on a cinnamon bun). Today on Hummadruz we’re going to look at an aural version of pareidolia which goes under the name of Electronic Voice Phenomena, or EVP.

EVP is the term given for the appearance of strange, indistinct human voices on previously recorded magnetic tape – voices that supposedly weren’t there when the original recording was made.

This phenomenon was first ‘discovered’ by Attila von Szalay, in the early 1940s. Von Szalay was a ‘ghost’ photographer and was looking for some additional corroboration of his belief in a spirit world. After making recordings of ‘silence’ on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, von Szalay claimed to have captured voices on his tapes, voices that he believed belonged to people who had died. With psychic researcher Raymond Bayless, he published his findings in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research in 1959.

In that same year, philosopher, film producer and birdwatcher Friedrich Jürgenson had made some recordings of bird sounds in the backyard of his Swedish house. On playing back those recordings, Jürgenson became convinced that they contained the voices of his deceased father and wife speaking to him, and he published his experiences in a book: Voices from Space. A few years later, Latvian author Konstantīns Raudive read Jürgenson’s book and, intrigued, contacted him. The two men began to make recordings of the ‘voices’ and compiled an astonishing 100,000 of them, which Raudive went on to document in his 1968 book Unhörbares wird hörbar (“What is inaudible becomes audible”), later published in English in 1971 as Breakthrough: An Amazing Experiment in Electronic Communication with the Dead. Over the course of their experiments, Jürgenson and Raudive became completely convinced that these faint voices that appeared in the etheric hiss of the magnetic tape were nothing less than the spirits of the dead attempting to make contact with us living folk. Furthermore, the two men were of the mind that they could actually communicate with these spirits by asking questions and then leaving pauses in which the voices might answer.

I have an original copy of Breakthrough. It is, I have to say, pretty much unreadable. A small portion of the book is given over to explanations of how the spirit voices are captured and to rambling accounts, daft philosophizing and pseudo-scientific jargon about the voices and hypnosis and psychology and acoustics and all manner of other abstruse matters.

The larger part of the book consists of transcripts of what the voices had to say. The thing that becomes apparent very quickly on reading them is that if these really are the spirits of the dead trying to communicate with us, then the dear departed have either all gone completely bonkers, or only the lunatics among them are bothering to keep in contact. To make things even more crazy, the messages Raudive and Jürgenson received were also polylingual, with the ‘spirits’ sometimes speaking in German, sometimes French, Swedish or Russian, and sometimes in Raudive’s own Latvian tongue. Often they alternated language on every second word. Here are just a smattering of the things the spirits wanted Raudive to know (you can read the interminable babbling of the spirits for yourself here, should you care to):

Nedoma zirgi (Horses don’t think)

Matei sip galva (Mother has a headache)

Tada flickes nakti (Such a girl at night!)

Golva! Golvas nav! Konstantin, Konstantin, esmu ar tevi vienmer (Head! No head! Konstantin, Konstantin, I am always with you)

Vi koordinati (We are co-ordinated)

Ka tu skrini var tupet? Furchtbar tu dzer, muns Koste! (How can you hover in the cupboard? You drink terribly, my Koste!)

Kosta, van, pietiek ar muziku (Kosta, friend, it is sufficient with the music)

Nomierinies, te Erde oben (Calm yourself; up here is the earth)

…and on and on and on for hundreds of pages with thousands of other incomprehensible and/or dreary snippets. The voices seem entirely incapable of stringing together more that about a half a dozen words into any semblence of coherence. Frankly, if you accept that EVP has any credibility at all, the afterlife comes across as some kind of huge dull and sprawling cocktail party filled with the kind of people you’d step in front of buses to avoid. All on acid.

I know you’re dying to hear some examples of what I’m talking about, so here are some clips from recordings made in the 1970s by EVP researcher Raymond Cass, who is a well known figure among the EVP community, and whose recordings have been collected in recent times on the CD The Ghost Orchid. In each these examples, Mr Cass tells you what you should be hearing. Now go to another page on the same site and see if you can figure out what any of these voices are saying.

As quaint as it all sounds, EVP is not merely an archaic remnant of fin de siecle spiritualism. There are numerous EVP societies still in existence, some even progressing on from analog magnetic tape methodology to embrace new media such as digital audio recording and computer technology. In addition, the phenomenon appears in popular culture from time to time, such as in the film White Noise (where it formed the basis for a lot of extra silliness) and in tv shows such as Fact or Faked. Paranormal Files (where it is invoked to provide silliness in its own right). And, of course, the wonderful eclectic ramble of the internet has seen to it that EVP, like so many other misguided interpretations of the world, continues to have some traction among the less rationally minded.

The mechanisms for recording EVP vary considerably, but they all basically boil down to one thing – getting a recording of something that has a vague enough informational content to allow the listener to impose a personal interpretation on it. Mostly this is done by creating a recording that has a very high noise floor. In audio terms, noise manifests as an evenly distributed amount of random audio information – you would be familiar with it as the sound you hear along with the static that you see on a tv screen that isn’t tuned to a channel. In early EVP recordings, this kind of sound was quite likely to occur on a recording because in those days electronic sound equipment was much more prone to high levels of system interference and tape noise than today. An early EVP researcher might typically proceed by making a recording with a microphone in a sealed cabinet in a quiet room, or even by dispensing with the microphone entirely and simply setting the recorder running with the gain turned up high. This would pretty much ensure plenty of wide bandwidth noise in the end result, along with the amplification of any electrical hums, buzzes, whines and static that can easily be induced in these old electronic systems.

The application of this kind of technique in the late 1940s and early 1950s coincided with another helpful element for EVP: the rise of radio broadcasting. When these old tape machines were recording with the gain turned right up, there was a very high likelihood that they might pick up and amplify extraneous radio signals. These faint signals – in those days more often than not consisting of  spoken word – would wax and wane under the threshhold of the noise floor and background hum and voila! – on listening back to the ‘blank’ tape: ‘spirit’ voices.

The funny thing is, to me this seems so obviously all that is happening that it’s hard to understand how anyone can think it’s anything else, but in the ’40s and ’50s (and being generous, even in the early ’60s) I’m willing to accept that it possibly could have seemed more mysterious. These days, though, with the explanation readily at hand and easily demonstrated, it’s perplexing that anyone can still maintain a belief that EVP is any kind of communication from the spirit world. There are so many questions that must be answered before Occam’s Razor can be blunted here: Why are the spirit voices always so indistinct and their words so open to interpretation? How is it that they sound so much like snippets from terrestrial radio broadcasts? Why do they speak in platitudes and non-sequiturs and can hardly ever manage a  sensible or meaningful sentence? In short, why do they seem so much more like the vague dissemblings of spirit mediums and the abstruse meanderings of astrologers than concise communications from sentient beings? Even if we accept that the vague vocal mutterings are from spirits of the dead, what is the point of talking to them if they make no sense?

Like many matters of pseudoscience and superstition, most of the EVP phenomenon comes down to the peculiar psychology of the human brain. There is no doubt that practitioners and exponents of EVP want their recordings to be evidence of life after death. This powerful influence sways their judgement in such a way that the phenomena of pareidolia (discerning patterns in randomness) and apophenia (finding significance in unconnected and meaningless events) conspire to provide, for them, persuasive evidence for their already-formed beliefs, even in the face of a much more likely and scientifically demonstrable explanation.

This will become a core theme of the matters we will go on to examine in Hummadruz, there is no doubt.