Buzzing Brains and Digital Noise

The sounds you hear are an unnerving glimpse into the electromagnetic activity of an iPhone, captured using a telephone pick-up coil. 

We may not hear these electronic signals with our ears but could it be possible that this digital noise can interfere with with the delicate electronics of our brains? If so, how might this noise be affecting our minds? 

Switch your phone off, leave it at home, buy an analogue alarm clock. Stop the buzzing in your brain and find time for some digital silence in your life. 

Carry Farm

The following winter soundscape is one of a collection of recordings taken during a soundscape study of Carry Farm holiday park and campsite. The recordings demonstrate that even a comparatively small area of land can be home to a soup of complex and shifting soundscapes.

Carry Farm is an excellent location to take a soundwalk. Start by wandering through the expansive soundscape of the grassland that blankets the Carry peninsula (heard in the clip below) before heading down to the beach to follow the sound of the waves northwards along the coast. Eventually you will hear the light cracks and crunching of a soft bed of ground seashell beneath your feet. This signals your arrival at the jurassic coastline of the Carry Farm pinewoods where, in a gentle breeze, the grand canopy of the scots pine will whisper high above your head and a gentle swell will collapse wearily upon the beach, sweeping atop the cemetery of shells with a vigorous hiss. If you are lucky, just as each breath you take welcomes that of the rippling air around you and the strains of body and mind drop guard to the soft, primordial pulse of mother nature, you may be brought swiftly to the moment by the sharp, pre-historic cackle of a heron returning to her nest from across the bay. 

Bees

With a weekend off from playing at weddings I made an escape out to Tarbert on the west coast to visit my grandparents. My grandpa is a beekeeper and so I took my microphones to take some bee sound recordings.

Honey bees flap their wings at a rate of approximately 190-250 times a second and sure enough a spectral analysis of my recording reveals a dark band within this frequency range. The lowest dark band represents this fundamental (1st partial) tone that the bees produce and the larger dark band above represents the 2nd partial harmonic which occurs at double the frequency of (or an octave above) the fundamental tone. Above the 1st and 2nd partials the harmonics of the swarm become weaker and less distinguishable from the background ambience. When a bee flies close to the microphone however a clearer spectral signature can be seen (an example is highlighted why the red box below). Now that the bee is closer more of the constituent harmonics of it's 'buzz' are visible.

Research has suggested that the frequency of a honey bee's buzz can vary depending on the age of the bee, it's role within the hive and the overall health of the hive. Interestingly, it was long thought that honey bees are deaf, however, more recent research claims that they can hear sounds of up to 500Hz. This is within the range of the buzzing sound that they make with their wings (see the above spectrogram) and it is thought that the bees may use this sound to communicate during their famous waggle dances.

There are countless interesting routes for further study of the sound of bees. How does the pitch of a hive vary through the year? How does the size of a bee and it's social status or role within the hive affect it's sound? Can the mood of a bee be determined by analysing it's buzz? Hopefully I will find the time to return to the hives at Tarbert and answer some of these questions in the not to distant future! 

Autumn in Glasgow

Autumn is loved for it's spectacular colour palette and cosiness as the days shorten and we retreat earlier and earlier each day to the warmth of our houses. Outside cold winds howl and rattle the trees and the leaves take a final bow, exploding into a fiery display of colour before quivering and spiralling to the ground. When the leaves can no longer be heard rustling in the wind and the birds have taken their cheerful songs south to decorate the soundscapes of southern Europe and Africa a stillness and deadly silence will hang in the air. It is then and only then that we will know winter has creeped upon us to begin his still and silent rule.

As I walk through the park on a cold and windy Autumn afternoon hundreds of mechanical ticks and tocks chase me along the path, skipping impatiently at my heels and hasting me forwards with gentle urgency. This is the final breath of  the leaves and my favourite sound of all.

As their dry carcasses are swept, gliding and tumbling to leafy graves the final whispers of the leaves are carried by the wind. 'Life is short and nothing lasts forever so hurry along now and make good use of the time ahead of you'.

Why?

As a musician and sound artist, I have spent most of my life as a contributory to the soup of sound that we call music, an art form that we consider to be an essential component of our cultural identity. After years of making music I started to become interested in the ways that the music of our modern day society has to constantly seek new ways to be heard above the noise that saturates our everyday sound environment, be it music from the exponentially growing number of music and sound artists worldwide or from the constant man-made noise that pollutes the acoustic environments of our cities, towns and villages and forms the monotonous soundtrack to our increasingly urbanised lives. I began to realise that, whether the practitioners that shape today's sound culture seek to compete with the escalating levels of noise in our lives or differentiate themselves from it, it is inevitable that so long as sound is made our lives will get louder. 

As our cultural, technological and domestic priorities increasingly pollute the planet with noise, we are day by day losing our naturally pure soundscapes, where the uncorrupted voice of nature can be heard and true peace, quiet and solitude found. After years of making sound as a musician I began to simply listen, not to the anthropological noises of our everyday lives, industry and culture but to the biological, meteorological and geological sounds created by the natural world. I realised how little we, as humans, understand our relationship with our planet's natural soundscapes and how we inhabit and share these acoustic landscapes with our fellow living creatures in harmony with the natural environmental cycles and systems of our world.

The day we stop listening only to ourselves and open our ears to the complex melodies, harmonies and rhythms of nature we will discover a whole new dimension of and appreciation for the natural world. It is then that we will be able to take action to preserve our natural soundscapes and defend the principles of wilderness, peace, quiet and solitude that are essential to sustaining a harmonious and sympathetic relationship with our natural environment.  

Please subscribe to my blog and follow my exploration of the natural soundscapes of Scotland, a country whose dramatic landscape, rugged coastline and dynamic climate hosts a breathtaking, sophisticated and inspiring symphony of natural sonic wonders. 

The Gloup, Orkney

Formed by coastal erosion and the roof collapse of a sea cave, for a sound recordist a location with such an enticing onomatopoeic name was not to be missed!

In the darkness of the 25m deep chasm sunlight shines through a small opening out the sea.

The Gloup has an interesting reverberant acoustic and, although on the day we visited the sea was calm and gentle, I wondered what it must sound like in a winter storm with a large swell crashing against the entrance, causing the tall chamber to resonate like an immense natural instrument.

Is it possible that as the tide rises and falls the pitch of The Gloup shifts accordingly? I look forward to future visits to record how these variants in weather and tide might affect the timbre, rhythms and pitch of this great instrument. 

Bats!

To see in the dark, nocturnal world that they spend their woken hours in bats 'see' using ultrasonic calls. After making these calls in a series of melodic swoops the bat can create a picture of the surrounding environment by sensing and analysing the ultrasonic sound reflections. Unbelievably, this unique sense is so refined that a bat can chase it's prey through the air using sound alone.

Occasionally, as I recorded, a bat would make an escape from the wall and fly off to hunt (this particular bat can be seen as a faint blur in the centre of the image).

The sensory-spacial sounds made by bats range from around 20-200kHz which is beyond the limit of human hearing and the designed frequency responses of most standard microphones. Aside from their state of the art sonar systems however, bats make audible (to the human ear) squeaky calls and, as the clip below also demonstrates, can make quite a rumpus if they decide to nest in the walls of a building. Using contact microphones stuck to the walls of a wooden chalet I could hear a colony of bats squeaking and scrabbling as they wake up to hunt when darkness falls.  

Bending Sound

On my visit to Rothiemurchus forest I had recorded very early in the morning in the forest on the opposite side of Loch Morlich from the passing road. I was amazed at just how obtrusive the noise of an occasional passing car or truck could be to the entire southeastern side of the loch and I remembered as a child enjoying an illustration that I thought might explain this phenomena. After a nostalgic flick through the yellowing pages of the Life Science Library book of Sound and Hearing from my grandpa's Life Science Library collection (the book that inspired my interest in all things relating to sound) I found the pages I remembered so well. 

The pages below explain that in the morning when the air just above the ground is cold (due to the extraction of heat from the air into the ground at night) and warms as the altitude increases sound waves can be reflected by the warmer air mass above and focused back towards the ground. The reason that this warm air reflection effect occurs is because sound travels through warm air faster than it does through cold air. Furthermore calm water, as was the state of Loch Morlich on this particular morning, is a very good reflector of sound waves and therefore when both reflection effects work together sound is focused across the water in a tunnel that disappears later in the day when the lower altitude air warms in the sun.

Coll

The soundscapes that I recorded on my visit to the island of Coll where as spectacular and refreshing as the scenery and the solitude that the island provides. Coll, despite being similar in size to it's sister island Tiree, only hosts a population of 195 compared to Tiree's 653 making it very easy to find stunning coastline and space to yourself.

P1020006.jpg

One of my favourite sounds is that of Atlantic waves crashing on Scotland's west coast beaches and it is exciting to stand by the water's edge on a beach like Feall Bay or Hogh Bay on Coll and listen for hundreds of miles out into the Atlantic Ocean. Without a doubt one of the best ways to experience the raw power of nature is to listen to the sound of waves crashing on a beach during a storm. It has even be claimed that infrasound (sound below the threshold of human hearing) from breakers on both the East and West coasts of the U.S has been detected in the Rocky Mountains!

A picture of me recording the soundscape of Feall Bay, Coll. 

A picture of me recording the soundscape of Feall Bay, Coll. 

Glen Lyon

At 25 miles long Glen Lyon is Scotland's longest glen and as I travelled along it's valley floor by the bank of the river Lyon I enjoyed a soundscape that strikes a comfortable balance between man-made and natural sound. This is largely due to the fact that the road through Glen Lyon serves only the Glen itself and not as a through road to elsewhere. As a result the traffic through the Glen is actively travelling to visit or sustain it's relatively small population and wildlife rather than passively passing by. It is this passive traffic flow that degrades the soundscapes of many of the great Scottish lochs and glens (for example Glen Coe, Glen Orchy, Loch Lomond and Loch Ness) as their long, flat valley floors lend themselves well to main road construction and have served civilisations for thousands of years as natural, passable routes across the country. 

In contrast to the bare roar of the Eskdalemuir beech trees in early May the beech trees in my late May recording from Glen Lyon have sprouted their leaves and they dance in a gentle wind in the foreground of a view across the river Lyon.

 

 

Aberdeenshire

From the Cairngorms National Park I headed east towards Aberdeenshire hoping to find a quiet location to record the North Sea on the east coast and what I discovered was one of the largest noise polluted areas in Scotland. Aberdeenshire is littered with thousands of minor roads that spread across the land rendering almost the entire landmass of the district from the east cost to approximately 30miles inland extremely vulnerable to traffic noise. On top of this the extensive farming of land in Aberdeenshire makes the district suffer from large volumes of agricultural noise - both machinery and animal noise. 

 A small portion of the extensive road network in Aberdeenshire.

The extent of the noise pollution in Aberdeenshire was unexpected and got me thinking about the various factors that affect sound propagation and how the flat geography and relatively dry climate (at least in comparison to the west coast) might make sound travel particularly well within the region. 

Rothiemurchus

Rothiemurchus forest is one of the few remaining pine woods in Scotland that once made part of the Great Wood of Caledon, the extensive pine wood forest that stretched across the entire highlands of Scotland. Scottish pine woods such as Rothiemurchus are thought to be reduced to as little as 1% of the original wood and despite being around 7000 years old it is humans that have caused much of the damage to the great wood to the extent that only a few scatterings remain. 

A view through the Scots pine trees to Loch Morlich.

A view through the Scots pine trees to Loch Morlich.