Humz R Us


The hummadruz hit the mainstream news this week with the Guardian science pages asking on Wednesday What is the mysterious ‘global Hum’?

The article features the investigations of science teacher and university lecturer Glen MacPherson, who, among other things, has created the formidable World Hum Map and Database an interactive website where users can register their encounters with the Hum. MacPherson believes that a scant 4% of humans are able to hear the Hum and has carried out numerous investigations as to what it might be.

Probably unsurprisingly for readers of Hummadruz, he can trace it to no single cause, and cites everything from freeway noise, through ventilation systems to blast furnaces as possible candidates. He does not mention fish. Ultimately, he concludes that the Hum is not based in any real world noise generation:

Rather, he argues it involves a neurological element

You will, of course, have already surmised that I am in accordance.

Photo by Francesco Paggiaro from Pexels + Photo by Linus Nylund on Unsplash

Resting on Yer Yannies?


So, you’ve almost certainly encountered the phenomenon doing the rounds that is the Laurel/Yanny meme. For those living on remote mountain tops who only come down from time to time for the internet connection, it goes like this: there is a voice recording of the word ‘Laurel’ that is variously heard by listeners as either Laurel, or, bizarrely, as Yanny. I say bizarrely, not to contradict all those who hear the word as Yanny, but because the word that is being said is actually Laurel, no matter which way you perceive it.

If you haven’t come across it, you can make yourself familiar with its oddness on this YouTube clip from The Guardian:

What did you hear – Laurel, or Yanny? Either way, don’t worry, it appears that the vote is pretty much split 50/50 at time of this writing, with Laurel very slightly ahead. Personally, from the original recording it always sounds like Laurel to me, but others vehemently defend it as Yanny. So what’s going on here?

I think it’s all about frequency response. I was intrigued to hear friends say things like “It sounded like Yanny on my laptop, and then later when I heard it through my Beats, it sounded like Laurel…”  so I decided to do a little experiment. Have a listen to the clip below – preferably through decent speakers or headphones (your laptop or tablet speakers will colour the result), and tell me if you think I’m right. Initially, I thought the computer voice used in the original was playing a significant role, but in this demonstration, I’ve done the same thing with my own voice, and while the treated version sounds to me more like nearly than Yanny, the effect definitely persists on a real voice.*

What I think is going on is that the formants used in the word Laurel have high-frequency overtones that are more apparent in some circumstances than others. The more biased your playback speakers are to the high frequencies, the more likely you’ll hear Yanny. The more low frequency content, the more likely you’ll hear Laurel.

What do you think? Do you hear differences in the above clip? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

UPDATE: This Wired deconstruction is the best examination around. I completely concur with the technical discussion toward the end, which follows on from my thoughts above.

FURTHER UPDATE: Brainstorm/Green Needle ~ here is a different – and for my money, better – demonstration of a shapeshifting word from Twitter user @maxmoefoe

*I invariably hear the yanny as yearly, and I know this is true for others. The Yanny contingent variously hears yanny, yammy, yearly, yelly, yermy, but the Laurel contingent only ever hears Laurel

Typical Audio Misrepresentation

A couple of friends have pointed me to this piece of egregious nonsense over the last week. If you haven’t already seen it, you can watch the [largely ridiculous] clip here (I can’t embed it, since it’s some kind of proprietary format).

In any case, the image above tells you everything you need to know; basically, a piece of Vivaldi plays while you watch a spiky and glitchy circle wobble (on the left), which is meant to represent a ‘typical’ CD recording. Meanwhile, on the other side of the screen, a circle supposedly representing a ‘typical’ analog recording also does its wobbly thing, only with curvier lines and colour.

This piece of claptrap offers up a much perpetuated myth about digital recording: that somehow the discrete sampling bits make digitally recorded music sound spiky and colourless, and inferring that analog must certainly be better because it’s more ‘natural’ (or something). Worst of all, the video is useless even as an analogy because it literally doesn’t convey ANY information. It is the equivalent of the old Colgate ‘Mrs Marsh’ advertisement of the 1970s:

It’s bogus ‘science’, appealing only to those who think they understand something, but really don’t.

I’ve said it here before, but I’ll say it again: the quality of a well mastered CD recording is not, in any way, inferior to a vinyl LP. Vinyl is different, and that is all. If you think you can hear a difference in high frequency content, you can’t. If you think vinyl sounds ‘punchier’ and ‘warmer’, you’re probably hearing the effects of the substantially different mastering techniques that are used for vinyl (and that’s mostly equalization and compression).

And before you start to take exception to what I’ve just said, go here and witness a whole lot of people who think like you do failing to be able to tell the difference between cables, amps, DACs and all kinds of formats in controlled blind and ABX listening tests. Mostly to their own disbelief.