r _Web.log

tag: sound

Global Breakfast Radio

I've long had a fascination with the power of radio as a medium of transportation to another place or time, a passion I discovered I share with Seb Emina, author (of The Breakfast Bible) and digital dilettante. About a year and a half ago, Seb and I started discussing the idea of a radio station that spans continents and timezones, linking disparate places together by one simple common thread: breakfasttime.

The notion was to produce a radio station that always broadcasts live radio from wherever people were eating breakfast right now: following timezones westwards, moving across oceans and continents on the crest of a wave of sunrise.

The idea grew into an experiment and, after twelve months of research, listening, cataloguing and development, has finally seen the light of day as a fully-formed work:

Global Breakfast Radio

As the sunrise line slowly tracks west across the globe, the radio stream shifts from broadcast to broadcast, always selecting stations within what we call the "global breakfast window": a period of a couple of hours after sunrise in which people are waking up, stretching blearily, and making a bowl of cereal, changua or shakshuka.

Global Breakfast Radio draws from a pool of over 250 stations in more than 120 countries, from Radio Wassoulou Internationale in the Wassoulou region of Mali to KUAM Isla 63 AM, the oldest existing radio station on the western Pacific Island of Guam, broadcasting since 1954. It, and the listener, leaps in an instant from Sarajevo to Prague to Reykjavik, where you'll be briefly humming the same tune as the butcher, taxi driver and lawyer waking up in these far-flung places.

The site is backgrounded by a continuous stream of photographs portraying sunrise from the current broadcast location, selected from a pool of 10,000+ Flickr Creative Common images tagged with "sunrise". Sunrise and sunset images are a ubiquitous trope across the Instagrams of the world, one that we have repurposed to give the site a real sense of place, underscoring the way in which Global Breakfast Radio puts you in the eyes and ears of thousands of unknown people around the globe.

As we've discovered since launching the station, streaming URLs change and disappear at an incredible rate, making maintenance of Global Breakfast Radio a Sisyphean battle against internet bit-rot.

Unusually for a project of this kind, the public and press response to Global Breakfast Radio has been uncommonly deep and engaged. The Guardian report back on a 24-hour period of listening, The Onion AV Club describe it as "basically morning methadone", and BBC Radio 4 talked to us about Global Breakfast Radio on — appropriately enough — their Sunday morning breakfast show. More lovely coverage has come from the likes of It's Nice That, New Statesman, Smithsonian and Monocle. We also did a launch interview with Wired covering some of the more esoteric elements of the work.

Many thanks to all of the listeners and broadcasters who have made the first months of Global Breakfast Radio such a rich and rewarding endeavour.

More: Global Breakfast Radio

Berlin sound art gallery Singuhr ceases regular operations

Sad to belatedly discover that Singuhr, the venerable sound art gallery sited in an underground former reservoir in Prenzlauer Berg, has wound up its operations due to a shortage of funding. The internal architecture of the Wasserturm -- a network of concrete alcoves, with a large circular tunnel around the perimeter -- made for a unique and powerful acoustic environment, exploited by many of the artists who exhibited there.

Hearing Gordon Monahan's Resonant Platinum Records there was one of the most singular listening experiences I can remember, lightly resonating through the vaults. Its quietness in the cavernous space gave a unique and unexpected kind of intimacy.

Gordon Monahan, Resonant Platinum Records (photo: Gordon Monahan)

It sounds like Singuhr intend to continue programming events elsewhere on a project-by-project basis. Let's hope that upping sticks will give rise to new locations and new sonic possibilities.

Living Symphonies

A new year always seems like an appropriate time to push new projects out into the bright lights of the world. So, after almost a year of R&D, I'm very happy to be able to announce a major new work that will be occupying much of my 2014.

Living Symphonies is the latest collaborative work by Jones/Bulley. It is a sound installation based on the dynamics of a forest ecosystem, growing, adapting and flourishing in the same way as a real forest's flora and fauna. Modelling the real-world behaviours of over 50 different species, it will be installed in a series of English forests over the course of summer 2014, adapting to the inhabitants and live atmospheric conditions of each site.

In the heritage of Variable 4, it will be heard as a multi-channel musical composition of indefinite duration, with precomposed and generative elements intertwined through a web of algorithmic processes. Here, however, the dynamic model underlying the composition is quite beyond anything we've done before. It is based upon a simulation developed in conjunction with Forestry Commission ecologists, extending models produced as part of my evolutionary dynamics PhD work. And because each forest has a drastically different ecological makeup, the resultant composition will sound completely unique at each location — site-specific by its very nature.

We are in the process of mapping out the precise ecological makeup of a bounded (30x20m) area of each forest, charting its wildlife inhabitants with a 1m˛ resolution. This map is then used to seed an agent-based simulation, which links each species to behavioural and musical properties, spatialised across a network of weatherproof speakers embedded throughout the canopy and forest floor.

We'll next be dedicating a great deal of studio time to recording thousands of musical fragments, with orchestral musicians playing short motifs corresponding to particular kinds of ecological processes. These will then be processed by the compositional system and linked to the ecological model's current state, supported by further generative processes to create live interactions between each musical element.

Thetford Forest

In September, we carried out a successful outdoor prototype of the project in East Anglia's Thetford Forest. Though still in its embryonic stages, it was pretty enthralling to hear these sonic organisms roving amongst the undergrowth.

Supported by Sound And Music and Forestry Commission England, and with the support of an Arts Council Strategic Touring grant, Living Symphonies will be touring four different forests between May and September 2014:

Thetford Forest (Norfolk/Suffolk), 24 — 30 May 2014
Fineshade Wood (Northamptonshire), 20 — 26 June 2014
Cannock Chase (Staffordshire), 26 July — 1 August 2014
Bedgebury Pinetum (Kent/Sussex), 25 — 31 August 2014

Much more news will be available on the forthcoming Living Symphonies website, launching imminently.

The Markup Melodium

I was recently invited by Mozilla to be a fellow on their Webmaker program, an excellent initiative to foster web literacy. As part of the fellowship, I was asked to create something which exploited the affordances of their maker tools.

I was drawn to the immediacy of Thimble, a browser-based interface to write web code and immediately see the results. I began pondering the potential for using Thimble as a kind of live coding environment: could an HTML document be translated into a piece of music which could be edited on-the-fly, hearing an immediate reflection of its structure and contents?

The outcome is this: The Markup Melodium. Using jQuery and Web Audio, it traverses the DOM tree of an HTML page and renders each type of element in sound. In parallel, it does likewise for the text content of the page, developing the phoneme-to-tone technique we used in The Listening Machine.

In way of example, hear Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky as rendered by the Melodium. To explore the basic elements, here is a short composition for the Melodium. And the really exciting part: using Thimble's Remix feature, you can clone this basic composition and immediately begin developing your own remix of it in the browser, before publishing it to the world.

As the Markup Melodium is implemented through pure JavaScript, it's also available as a bookmarklet so that you can sonify arbitrary web pages.

Drag the following link to your browser's bookmark toolbar: Markup Melodium.

And, of course, all of the code is available on github.

The name is in tribute to The Melodium, a 1938 musical instrument created by German physicist Harald Bode, whose pioneering modular designs anticipated today's synthesizers by many decades

Generative Notation and Hacking The Quartet

The last few years have seen a proliferation of hack days, in which participants spend a day or two sketching and building prototypal ideas with code. For me, the most appealing are those that deal with a specific concept, with participants given free reign to explore a small zone of creative ideas -- often a more inspiring starting point than a series of data sets.

Thus, it was impossible to resist the allure of Hack The Quartet: a two-day event hosted by Bristol's iShed, which gave guests the rare opportunity to spend two days working closely with a world-class string quartet. The event brief sums up part of the appeal really nicely:

A quartet is like a game of chess; simple in its make up and infinite in its possibility. So how can new technologies be used to augment performance of and engagement with chamber music?

In my mind, there's a perfect balance in the relative constraints of this ensemble size, coupled with the opportunity to link the richness of virtuoso musicianship with the possibilities for algorithmic augmentation. I've been thinking a lot about these ideas since writing The Extended Composer but it's rare to be able to put them into practice in a live environment, particularly with players of the calibre of the Sacconi Quartet.

Generative Notation

I went into Hack The Quartet with an unusually well-formed idea: to create a tablet-based system to render musical notation in real-time, based on note sequences received over a wireless network. Though there are plenty of iPad score display apps out there, the objective here was to begin with a set of empty staves, onto which notes materialise throughout the performance.

The potential uses for this are manifold. Imagine the situation in which a dancer's movements are tracked by camera, with a piece of software translating their motions into musical shapes. These could be rendered as a set of 4 scores - one for each musician - and performed by the quartet in real-time, creating a musical accompaniment which directly mirrors the dancers' actions.

Of course, we can substitute dancers' movements for sensor inputs, web-based data streams, or any kind of real-time information source. The original motivation for the project came out of discussions surrounding The Listening Machine, which translated online conversations into musical sequences based on an archive of around 50,000 short samples, each representing a single word or syllable. Creating a sonification system based on fragments of pre-recorded audio was all very well, but imagine the fluidity and richness of interpretation if The Listening Machine's sentence-derived scores were performed live by skilled musicians: almost as if the instrument itself were speaking a sentence.

For Hack The Quartet, I worked closely with the all-round sonic extraordinaire Nick Ryan to devise a set of compositional processes that we could realise over the two days, which we continued to discuss in depth with the Sacconi players. Given the boldness and risk inherent with playing a score that is being written at the moment it is played, the quartet's confidence and capability in performing these generative sequences was quite remarkable. The resultant piece included complex, shifting polyrhythms, with algorithmically-generated relationships between note timings, which didn't phase the players in the slightest.

Visually, the notated outcome is surprisingly crisp and satisfactory. With Socket.io for real-time communications, isobar for algorithmic pattern generation, plus a quartet of Retina iPads, we now have a framework that is sufficiently stable and flexible to explore the next steps of live score generation.

for n in range(16):
   p = PWChoice(notes, [ n ] + ([ (15-n) ] * (len(notes)-1) ))
   events = PDict({ "note" : p, "dur" : 6, "amp" : 64 })
   event = events.next()

   if n == 0:
     event["annotation"] = "Arco pp, slow trill"
     event["annotation"] = "%d" % bar_number

   bar_number += 1

And the sense of hearing a nuanced rendition of a living score, never before heard, was simply something else. Having only just got my breath back from last-minute technical challenges (never, ever use Bluetooth in a demo setting. Ever.), it was just gripping to hearing our code and structures materialise as fluttering, breathy bowed notes, resonating through the bodies of the Quartet's antique instruments. Despite the mathematical precision of the underlying processes, the results were brought to life by the collective ebb and flow of the performers' pacing and dynamics.

With so many elements open to exploration, it is an approach that could bear a seemingly endless number of further directions. It feels like the start of a new chapter in working with sound, data and performance.

Thanks to Peter Gregson for his invaluable advice on score engraving, and Bruno Zamborlin, Goldsmiths' EAVI group and the iShed for iPad loans. Special thanks to all at the Watershed for hosting Hack The Quartet, and to the Sacconi Quartet for their exemplary patience and musicianship.

Chirp: A platform for audible data

Over the past few months, I've had my head down working at Animal Systems on a tremendously exciting new platform by the name of Chirp. In a nutshell, Chirp is a way to treat sound as data, enabling devices to communicate with each other using short packets of audio. A sender emits a series of tones; a receiver hears and decodes them, translating them into a code which can point to a picture, text, URL, or even another piece of sound.


Chester, the bird-robot-hybrid avatar of Chirp

My work has been focused on developing an iOS app which will very shortly be seeing the light of day, App Store pending. The experience is simple: Alice want to send a picture to Bob, so she imports it into Chirp, hits a button, and the device chirps it (a sound like this). Bob's phone, and any nearby devices within earshot, can then decode the chirp and display the image. No painful Bluetooth pairing, no typing of email addresses, no USB-stick fiddling.

Of course, the system isn't breaking the laws of entropy and cramming a large JPEG into a second of audio: behind the scenes, the data itself is transferred to a cloud infrastructure and translated into a "shortcode", which is then sent over sound, decoded and resolved. There's an inherently low bitrate in a noisy sonic environment. But then, the bitrate of human speech is estimated at less than 100bps, and spoken language has turned out to be quite a useful feature.

One of the big lessons for me has been the sheer amount of engineering required for a magically simple transaction. Developed from conversations about the information-theoretic properties of avian linguistics, Chirp screenshot Chirp's audio system has been honed over countless months by a team of DSP gurus based in Barcelona, with an array of simulations operated from UCL's Legion supercomputing cluster, rendering it resilient to hostile reverberant and noisy conditions; the underlying network consists of an infinitely-scalable REST API that we have designed over many iterations, developed by a team of inveterate network architects and now residing in the cloud. The inverse correlation between intuitive simplicity and actual complexity, in the tech domain at least, couldn't be clearer here.

The app is an exploratory first step, and there are almost too many next steps to contemplate. Anything that can transmit sound can send a chirp, so we've been experimenting with all sorts of lo-fi devices: the joy of sending a YouTube video link via a dictaphone is pretty much unrivalled. Throw an Arduino into the equation and suddenly there's an explosion of possibilities of conversing machines.

And there's an equal amount of philosophical potential in this research. Suddenly, the dumb alert tones produced by phones, lorries and fire alarms seem absurd. Why aren't these designed for machine as well as human ears, conveying valuable information about the state of the world? Why is the visual given default primacy as an information medium? And what happens when the typical silence of network communications are suddenly tangible, embodied, and broadcast?

Chirp will be free on the Apple iOS App Store.

Maelstrom at FutureEverything

The third iteration of sound installation Maelstrom (James Bulley and Daniel Jones, 2012) can be found from now until June 10th at FutureEverything 2012, in the incredible 175-year-old surrounds of Manchester's Museum of Science and Industry.

Maelstrom at FutureEverything

It generates a continuous piece of music purely using audio fragments taken from YouTube and other media-sharing websites, using new material that is constantly being downloaded, fragmented and categorised based on tonal attributes.

The consequence is that it is an extraordinarily strange system to compose for: we score the dynamics, pitch and spatialisation sequences, but the timbral properties of the sound are constantly shifting beneath us. Each repeat of the same section may thus be radically different, rendering it an ever-changing, amorphous hyper-instrument.

Maelstrom at FutureEverything

The whole of the FutureEverybody exhibition revolves around ideas of collective action and participatory technologies, with many other great works. Ollie Palmer's Ant Ballet draws on ideas from cybernetics and self-organised behaviour to create a multimedia showcase of his experiments with artificial pheromones to influence the movements of real ants, symbolically conducted by a robotic arm.

Jeremy Hutchison's Extra! Extra! elevates Facebook wall postings into analogical headlines, using sandwich billboards from the Manchester Evening News. It's one of those pieces where the actual visual impact is quite different to how it sounds on paper, highlighting the different modes that our mind places itself in when absorbing information from different contexts. The absurd ring of importance that the piece gives to the utterly banal ("Emma Russell: Having An Okay Day").

Visualisation is one of those tricky areas where it's easy to fetishise the beautiful over that which gives real insight, but Stefaner, Taraborelli and Ciampaglia's Notabilia is one of the more . In general, the curation of the exhibition (by Glaswegian Deborah Kell) is top-class, avoiding the typical trappings when staging a show that's firmly tech-centred and focusing on works that are asking significant and engaging questions, resonating deeply with Manchester's history of decentralised growth and social sprawl.

SuperCollider UGen templates for Xcode

K http://www.erase.net/projects/sc_xcode/

Tired of doing search-and-replace on the SuperCollider distribution code when developing unit generators, I figured it was about time that some kosher Xcode templates existed for the purpose. And lo, here they are.

Features a standard audio/control rate UGen, plus a version which performs dynamic memory management and thus requires a destructor function.

Norman McLaren's pioneering geometric animations

Norman McLaren was a Scottish animator who, from the early 1930s, produced a huge amount of pioneering film works. Drawing directly onto film stock and making use of new multilayering and colour techniques, he produced some fantastically stylised animations, drawing in abstract and surrealist influences.

Check out this animation of ghosts and ghouls having a party when the clock strikes midnight, soundtracked by Saint-Saëns' Danse Macabre. Watch out for the charming Pacman/Galaga-esque visual cast list!

Spook Sport (1940)

He also produced a number of education films and advertisements, for the British General Post Office and National Film Board of Canada amongst others. The Obedient Flame (1939) was a promotional short for British Gas, extolling the virtues of gas power for housewives, and has that wonderful mannered delivery and diagrammatics that never fails to provide amusement.

Still from The Obedient Flame Still from The Obedient Flame

He also experimented extensively with the opto-acoustic techniques used by László Moholy-Nagy and others: drawing onto film and translating the results into sound, using a sound-on-film techniques and a Moviola device to synchronise both tracks. Pen Point Percussion (1951) is a brilliant documentary about the technique with several sound examples. Dots (1940) is a film produced using these visual and sonic methods together.

Dots (1940)

via Tom

mp3 artefacts becoming preferred by young listeners?

K http://radar.oreilly.com/.../...

O'Reilly Radar reports that the 'sizzle' sound of mp3 artefacts is becoming increasingly preferred by music listeners. Yes, preferred; in listening tests performed annually over 6 years, listeners have increasingly rated songs with low-bitrate mp3 compression above those that a higher rate.

The author suggests that this is akin to vinyl listeners preferring the crackle of wax over the cleanness of digital recordings — though I have always figured that the vinyl preference is less subjective and more to do with its innate warmth and high-frequency rolloff. The "hot dog at the ball park" analogy is compelling, however, and there's undeniably something comforting about (say) the compression of FM radio when indoors on a cold winter's night, or listening to a cassette through a battered pair of headphones. It's not inconceivable that the mp3 sizzle could be headed for the same fate.