One of the things that has come up when discussing sound walks and headphones with a few friends and colleagues is the additional sounds people claim that they are able to pick up on when they listen to the sounds of the city via a microphone and headphones as opposed to without such technology. I thought this was quite interesting, given my interest in the brain and its processing of stimuli. It reminded me of some reading I’d done on ‘the cocktail party’ effect, ie, the brain’s ability to interpret various audio signals, filtering out those that might be deemed extraneous to the situation. This can be observed in people’s ability to focus on one conversation over a many in a crowded noisy room, hence its name. Somehow, the sense of disassociation that accompanies listening to the world via a microphone and headphones seems to negate this particular ability.
When looking at urban and suburban audio, the effect is similar. Without this cognitive ability, the urban soundscape would likely be unbearable due to the chaotic noise. In A New Sense of City Through Hearing and Sound, Eva Kekou and Matteo Marangoni discuss the chaos of urban sound.
There is a paradox between the fact that cities are highly structured spaces in which almost everything one senses has been processed through a human brain to be orderly, and the fact that interactions therein are far too complex to be controlled.
I wanted to design a technology that somehow worked as an artificial, controllable form of this inherent audio filtering ability. Using the mobile application template, I thought about designing a way of running the phone microphone input via a number of variable audio filters. The audio would then be fed out of the phones 3.5mm audio output to headphones. This technology would not be particularly difficult to design and implement, given Pure Data’s compatability with a number of mobile devices.
This has a couple of applications: firstly, as a more socially beneficial way, this technology could be adapted for use in dealing with various audio/noise issues. In another discussion with a colleague who had suffered a stroke, I was told that since then he finds it incredibly difficult to focus on sound: often conversation can be difficult when there are several sources of sound in the area, as he finds it impossible to concentrate. I thought this application could be quite helpful, enabling him to potentially filter out those undesired noises. The second use, a little more creative, is as a filter for use in an instrument, a sort of ambient subtractive synthesiser. I feel that this could make for an interesting piece of technology that could be used as a way of providing a fresh perspective of the city soundscape.