Takeoffs and Landings


So I ran into a newsletter subscriber in real life recently, and she said, “I think somehow I was taken off your mailing list!” And then I had to say, “Well…probably not…it’s just that it has been a while since I sent out a newsletter…” And then I backed away slowly.

But that little interaction gave me the spark I needed to write a new—kind of long!—newsletter, and also to rethink how this whole newsletter thing functions. Lots more on that below, but first some notes on ambisonic recording, what makes ambient music “ambient,” and why ASMR is so popular. All that plus a new Spotify mix.

Know The Lingo: Ambisonics

Spring has finally arrived in Madison, and that means watching and listening to storms from my front porch while planes land and cars zoom by. (That’s what you are hearing in the clip at the top of this email.) In truth, my neighborhood is pretty quiet, so getting all three of those things happening at once was kind of a happy accident. Glad the mic was on.

In truth it was four mics. That recording was made using a technique called ambisonics, which uses multiple microphone capsules to more accurately capture the way humans hear sound in three dimensional space. Think of it this way: stereo recordings present audio on the left and right, but ambisonic recordings also give you up and down. The concept has been in use since the 1970s, but has recently made a comeback because of its applications for virtual reality, video games, and environmental field recordings. Conveniently, they make microphones that have all four capsules in one unit, so you don't have to go lugging four mics around.

The cool thing about ambisonics is that because so much sound is recorded, you can then use a computer to mix the four channels of audio down into a variety of other formats, including our old pal stereo. But the recording above is actually mixed to “binaural,” which—dig this—simulates the presence of your head in between the left and right channels (which means it only really “works” when you’re listening through headphones). Nowadays it’s easy to make this happen using software, but some old-school binaural microphones actually look like mannequin heads.

The reason you would go through all of this trouble is that the recorded sonic environment should sound very realistic—like you were sitting on the front porch with me. The downside is that it might sound weird on stereo speakers, but is anyone listening to this newsletter through a stereo? (Which would actually be awesome…?!) Whatever: plug in your headphones (or connect via Bluetooth, if you must), listen to that minute of audio, and let me know what you think.

Can Humans Make Ambient Music?

Speaking of immersive audio, I am always on the lookout for distraction-free background music. In the last few years, a handful of online services have sprung up offering “generative music,” which is music that is made by computer programming. It’s music as code, with the software engineer as composer. Because of its algorithmic nature, this music can often play for hours and hours (maybe forever!) without repeating itself. In fact, one of these algorithms just signed a major label record deal. I recently tried and enjoyed brain.fm, but I didn't want another subscription service in my life. Then I found generative.fm, which is the same idea but free and open source.

Alex Bainter, generative.fm’s creator, is unsurprisingly a disciple and advocate for generative music as a technique. But in this Medium post, he makes an interesting observation: Brian Eno, widely heralded as the godfather of ambient music, made all of his ambient albums using generative systems. And furthermore, Eno considers the album format a necessary but ultimately incomplete record of his generative process. Here's the key quote:

My records, however, were always recordings of the output of one or another of these [generative] systems: though it could produce original music forever, what went on the record was a 30-minute section of its output, which would then be identical each time you played it. However, what I always wanted to do was to sell the system itself, so that a listener would know that the music was always unique.

— Brian Eno, “Generative Music,” in A Year With Swollen Appendices

Now, the idea that albums are an incomplete record of certain sonic experiences is actually not uncommon among experimental composers; I need to re-read this book, but as I recall that is the basic premise of Records Ruin the Landscape. However, the larger idea is that we’ve had the very definition of ambient music wrong the whole time. I thought many composers—even me!—could “make” ambient music at our keyboards (both kinds). But perhaps true ambient music can only be made by evolving sonic processes programmed by people but only “performed” by systems.

Little Fluffy Clouds

The New York Times recently covered the phenomenon of A.S.M.R., which I will now link you to with little comment or fanfare. When people ask me what I do, and I mumble something about “audio production,” a surprising number of folks immediately follow-up by asking me something about ASMR: Have I heard of it, is it real, do I have it, etc. I have, it is, I don’t, but I do find it fascinating, especially as a theory for Bob Ross’s success.

The Field Mix Vol. 4

The newest mix is here, and while it does not have any Brian Eno or ASMR sounds, it does have a track from a 1950s theremin concept album called “Perfume Set to Music” and much newer music from the likes of producers Sage Caswell and Still Woozy. Also featured: Karen O, Lamin Fofana, Ken Stringfellow, and Youth Lagoon. Have at it, and be sure to “follow” the playlist on Spotify so you always have the freshest fresh.

And if you are ever looking for a song from one of the old playlists or want to travel back in time, those are all gathered in a master archive playlist. Check it.

A New (but not that new) Newsletter

Finally, you might have noticed that things look a little different around here. That’s because I’m sending you this newsletter from a new service called Substack instead of TinyLetter. There are two reasons for this switch.

First, the Substack team is thinking hard about how podcasting and newsletters might inform and reinforce each other. In fact, it’s now possible to launch and host an entire podcast through their newsletter platform. That’s not what I’m doing here—Field Noise the podcast will still be hosted on fieldnoise.com—but I am experimenting with putting additional audio out into the world through this newsletter, as per the next point.

Secondly, Substack allows me to have a subscription tier to support this newsletter and, by extension, my podcast and other work. For everyone already signed up, nothing will change—but if you do want to support the newsletter and the program financially, you now can. With even a small amount of money coming in I’ll be able to write and record for this passion project more consistently, and in return I’ll be sharing some new writing and recordings solely to paid subscribers. One of the benefits of the paid tier will be a private podcast feed including additional field recordings, extended interviews, and commentary.

I think this is all really promising from a creative standpoint, and I hope a few of you will want to subscribe. Regular prices are $5/month or $50/year, but as early supporters of this project you can get 25% off, which is automatically applied when you checkout. I’ll just leave this button right here in case you are feeling inspired.

If you don’t subscribe, very little will change—in fact, you may actually get more content than before. Hope you’re cool with that!

Other Noise News

Stare with Your Ears

Remembering Ken Nordine

We lost Ken Nordine this week. He was 98 years old and had been making amazing radio / music / spoken word hybrids since he coined the term for his work with the album Word Jazz in 1957. Hearing his stuff for the first time in a graduate seminar in 2006 changed me; it opened up totally new worlds in terms of what I thought was possible with radio and sound design and mixing sonic and visual metaphors. He said things like, “Stare with your ears,” and I did.

Nordine was a master of language and had a magnificent voice, but to me the real genius of his work is in how he created intimacy. A lot of people use the word “intimacy” as an inherent quality of radio (and now podcasts), but Nordine's work foregrounds how intimacy is constructed: close miking, winking asides, stereo panning, EQing. His intimacy borders on campy, but that's what makes it work. He traffics in the the pleasure of hearing juicy gossip at a party; now we're all in on these delightful little secrets. Take, for example, "Yellow," from his 1966 album Colors:

Nordine’s direct addresses in this piece—“You know how green can be”—are absurd on the surface, yet they immediately bring us into his world. But they work because we do, when we think about it, know how green can be: envious.

Nordine also used sound design to bring us inside his own mind. Here's the classic “Looks Like It's Going to Rain,” from that original Word Jazz album:

Later pieces take this idea even further, with Nordine in conversation with himself while we eavesdrop. My favorite example might be “The Mind Reader,” a six-minute joke about clairvoyance and gurus that is also a subtle portrait of male fantasies and insecurities.

When I learned about Nordine's work in that graduate seminar, I was so enamored that the professor encouraged me to email him and propose driving down to Chicago for the weekend for an interview. I sent the message—replete with flattery for his piece "The Ish Fish"—and we had a nice little exchange:

Nordine was already old, but still busy—in an earlier email he mentioned he was “working on something with David Bowie”!!—and still he took the time to tell a super green kid who knew nothing about radio that he was up for some sonic fun and games. And included a poem about blogging. And used the phrase “up to my ear brows.” I'll never forget any of that. For a bunch of reasons, but mostly his health and schedule, I never went to Chicago to meet Ken Nordine, but damn I wish I had.

For obvious reasons, a Nordine track kicks off this month's Spotify mix.

Field Noise Episode Update: ThatsLife

Speaking of that Spotify mix, it also features a song by Janesville, Wisconsin, producer Max Rammer, who records under the name ThatsLife. I first learned about Rammer through Holly Henschen and I was immediately struck by his story. After suffering a severe spinal cord injury and enduring months of rehab, Max connected with a music therapist who encouraged him to return to electronic music production, a hobby of his before the accident. The result is an EP called 2125, after his room number in a Chicago hospital. My interview with Max will be on an upcoming episode of Field Noise.

New Work: Danell Cross and the Metcalfe Park Legacy Garden

Back in September I drove to Milwaukee to interview Danell Cross for the Lands We Share project. Cross is, in a word, a badass. She spoke for an hour very frankly explaining her work, how she builds community, and how she makes sure her community is represented in and consulted for plans to "revitalize" their neighborhood. The interview was super inspiring. This short piece focuses on Danell’s work with the community garden, which is only one aspect of the great work she does as the director of Metcalfe Park Community Bridges.

Listen at the Wisconsin Life website.

See you in a month or so, with new updates on the show and probably some thoughts on the state of podcasting in light of Spotify's recent buying spree.

New Year, New Noises


Ahh, 2019: the year the Field Noise podcast might actually launch—I mean, there is even a new little beta website. But let’s start with the baby.

♫ It’s just a supercut of Otis ♫

Yes, that should be sung the way Lorde sings “It’s just a supercut of us” in “Supercut.” (And if you watch that video and are a mic nerd, have you ever seen anyone take an SM7 off a stand and rock it in their hand like that?! All of “The Louve” is performed this way!)

Anyway, I recorded my son Otis for a bit recently and put the best parts of his babble into a little clip, which is posted right at the top. Featuring baby snorts and sneezes!

New Work: The Hakes Meet the Vangs

Cheu and Chia Vang run the appropriately named Vang C&C Vegetable Farm, a certified organic plot in Jefferson County, Wisconsin. Everything that happens on the farm happens with their four hands—they have no staff and no seasonal workers. Before they owned the farm, it was a Grade A dairy run by the Hake Family. In this piece, some of the Hake children who grew up on the farm return for the first time in years to meet the new owners. It aired on Wisconsin Life.

Production Notes: What is Reading?

One of the episodes in the first season of Field Noise is tentatively titled “Reading by Ear,” and it explores this history of sonic reading technologies for the blind, including Talking Books. These audio recordings were the precursors to the audiobooks that we know today. There is a lot to this story, which is based on the research of Mara Mills, but one interesting element is that while most blind readers receive text in many different ways (via Braille, audiobooks, or computer text-to-speech readers, for example), they treat it all as reading. Some people might prefer one mode over another when reading certain kinds of material, but in other cases they might not even remember how they read something. Here’s what researcher Josh Miele told me in a recent interview:

I use “read” whether or not I'm listening to a book, listening to email using text to speech, listening to an Audible book, or if I'm reading in Braille—I call all of those “reading.” I don't really differentiate between them.

And actually when I think back to how I read something I often can't rememeber if I read it in Braille or if it was an audiobook or if it was text-to-speech. For me they all tend to get processed pretty similarly.

Now, Mara has been talking about for this for a long time, but sighted people can and probably should approach reading in the same multimodal way. So, for 2019, listen to more audiobooks! And don't just take my word for it—here's an article in the New York Times that says, among other things, “research shows that adults get nearly identical scores on a reading test if they listen to the passages instead of reading them.”

Field Mix - January

The new mix is up over on Spotify, featuring some moody winter numbers, some uplifting ones, and some that are both, like Shugo Tokumaru's "Sleet." Also this month: Kids See Ghosts, Warm Ghost, Field Works, Yves Tumor, Arp, Mount Kimbie. Have a listen:

How Siri can hear you over the music

Speaking of music, Apple's audio engineers published a crazy article in their Machine Learning Journal about how Siri can hear commands through the new HomePod speaker. The article is really technical, even for my taste, but just scroll down to the audio clips for examples of this machine listening. Note especially Figure 7, where Siri can pick up your voice over super loud music—something that even my human ears can't do based on the audio example.

More Noise in the News

Get Born


Two things were born this month: this newsletter and my son Otis. One has been in the works for nine months, and the other has been in the works for…much longer than that.

I’ve used the name “Field Noise” for a variety of projects going back to at least 2010. It was the working title of my dissertation at some point, it was my first Wordpress blog, it was a concept for an online commons for sound studies academics, and probably a few more things along the way. In essence, “field noise” has become an umbrella term for my overlapping interests in sound, environment, history and technology. And this newsletter is a place where I’ll talk about those things and share some sounds.

So, yeah, Field Noise is a newsletter, and one day might be a podcast, and is also a Spotify playlist (see below), and maybe one day will be…a bi-monthly curated box of snacks?

Otis Says Hi

Having a kid is crazy on several levels, but one of the craziest is the huge sounds that can emerge from such a tiny body. The clip at the very top of this email is of me changing his diaper, and, um, him not exactly liking it. Don’t worry, I’m also trying to get cuter sounds, like baby hiccups. Baby hiccups are freaking adorable.

New work: Laura Manthe

For the last few months I’ve been working with the Lands We Share project, a traveling museum exhibit based on oral histories and archival research on farming in Wisconsin. I've been helping the team behind this project shape some of their recordings to be played in the museum space and on public radio.

Our public radio partner is the great show Wisconsin Life. They just aired an interview with Oneida tribal member Laura Manthe, who started a group dedicated to growing white corn using heirloom seeds and traditional practices. I edited this from two interviews with Laura done by James Levy, the historian running the project. You can listen on the Wisconsin Life site.

Field Mixes

In an earlier version of the "field noise" web presence, I used to make weird little mixes culled from YouTube vids, stuff I found on UbuWeb, digitized old records, etc. It was cool, but crazy time consuming. If you’re curious, they are still on my SoundCloud page.

I want more mixes in my life, but I think I'm just going to go with a monthly Spotify playlist of songs and sounds from their catalogue—which can still surprise me with its depth. This month's mix features new music and old field recordings and covers of classic rock songs. Seriously, have you heard the 9-minute cover of “Like a Rolling Stone” by the 70s rock band Spirit? It’s amazing for a lot of reasons, one of which is that it sounds like it could have been recorded last weekend by some reverb-loving throwback band.

Anyhow, the playlist will update automatically every month, so click the “follow” button and you’ll always be current. I'm going to go ahead and call this one the December playlist to give myself a few days head start.

In the news: cargo ships interfere with whale sounds

Low-frequency hums from maritime traffic are causing whales to stop their own singing calls, sometimes for up to 30 minutes after ships have passed by.

The researchers also noted that fewer male humpbacks were singing in the shipping lane areas compared with the surrounding parts of the ocean.

Read the full article on Science Alert.

Yes, I made a video about shortening a headphone cable

Ask yourself, a) Do you wear Sony MDR-7506 headphones? b) Do you wish the cable was shorter but don’t feel like soldering anything? If you are in the very small group of people who answered yes to both of those questions, well, here’s a video for you:

Thanks for listening—and if you know someone who you think might enjoy this newsletter, forward this along or send them this way to sign up.

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