Monday, July 17, 2017

Harnessing the Power of Sound: Behavior and Invention

Sound is a force of nature that has its own special and unique properties. It can used artistically to create music and soundscapes and is a vital part of human and animal communication, allowing us to develop language and literature, avoid danger, and express emotions.  In addition, understanding and harnessing the unique properties of sound has resulted in some surprising and fascinating inventions and technologies. Below are some interesting notes on the behavior of sound and some novel technological uses, both as a weapon and in contrast in medicine and health care.

The Speed of Sound

 Sound exists when its waves reverberate through objects by pushing on molecules that then push neighboring molecules and so on. The speed at which sound travels is interesting as it behaves in the opposite manner of liquid. While the movement of liquid slows down depending on the density of the material it is trying to pass through, for example cotton as opposed to wood, sound actually speeds up when faced with denser material. For example, sound travels in Air (21% Oxygen, 78% Nitrogen) at 331 m/s, 1493, m/s through water, and a whopping 12,000 m/s through Diamond. 

This sound behavior is also evident in how quickly it can pass through the human body, which is generally around 1550 m/s, but passes much more quickly through skull bone at 4080 m/s which is much denser then soft tissue. Interestingly, the average speed through the human body is very similar to that of water, which makes sense because human beings are 90% made up of water. 

Sound in a Vacuum 

Not only does the density of objects increase the speed of sound, sound needs material to be present in order to "make sound" in the first place. Because, it exists when sound waves reverberate through objects. Without objects present, sound does not exist, such as is a vacuum. This makes as a vacuum is an area of space that is completely avoid of matter and therefore has no molecules. This video demonstrates the effect of a vacuum on sound. As the air is sucked out of the bell jar, the bell can no longer be heard.

Sound is in the Ear of the Earholder

For humans and animals, the perception of sound waves passing through their ears, depends on the shape of the ear, which influences that vibrations. The shape of an animal's outer ears determine the range of frequencies that they can hear. Elephants have flat and broad ears, which allow them to hear very low frequencies, which they use to communicate. Lower frequencies are associated with large surface areas, such as bass drums, so this makes sense. Mice have ears that are round, which allow them sensitivity to sounds that come from above. Again, this makes sense as they are tiny and close to ground and all threats would be coming from above: hawks wanting to eat, cats hunting, humans screaming and jumping on chairs, etc. The tall ears of rabbits make them sensitive to sounds flying around horizontally, obviously so they know when to jump. Owls work their famous head pivot to create a precise sound listening experience while checking for prey and threats. Deer work to avoid predators with muscles in their ears that allow them to point in different directions.

Sound as a Weapon

The Long Range Acoustical Device (LRAD) is a machine used to send messages and warnings over very long distances at extremely high volumes by law enforcement, government agencies, and security companies. They are used to keep wildlife from airport runways and nuclear power facilities. The LRAD is also used for non-lethal crowd control. It is effective in crowd control because of its very high decibel range which can reach 162. This exceeds the level of 130 decibels, which is the threshold for pain in humans. It is very precise and can send a "sound beam" between 30 and 60 degrees at 2.5kHZ and will scatter crowds that are caught within the beam. Those standing next to it or behind it might not hear it at all. But those who do report feeling dizzy with symptoms of migraine headaches.  This is called acoustic trauma and depending on the length of the exposure and it's intensity, damage to the eardrum may result in hearing loss. Since 2000, the LRAD has been used in many instances of crowd control throughout countries in the world, and even on pirates attempting to attack cruise ships. 

Almost humorously, high pitched alarms can also be used to deter teenagers from loitering around shops or engaging in vandalism and drug activity. The "teenage repellant" has been used throughout Europe and the US. Since teenagers have a higher frequency range of hearing than adults, it targets them specifically, while adults are spared the annoyance of the 17.4KHz emission. There are critics that state these devices unfairly target specific groups (youth) and are therefore discriminatory.
Sound Levitation

Sound levitation, or acoustic levitation, uses sound properties to allow solids, liquids and gases to actually float. It uses sound wave vibrations that travel through gas to balance out the force of gravity and creating a situation in which objects can be made to float. Dating back to the 1940s, the process uses ultrasonic speakers to manipulate air pressure and points in the sound wave that counteracts the force of gravity. A "standing wave" is created between a "transducer," such as a speaker and a reflector. The balancing act occurs when the upward pressure of the sound wave exactly equals the force of gravity. Apparently the shape of liquid such as water can be changed by altering the harmonics of the frequencies that result in star shaped droplets.

In terms of practical uses of sound levitation, they do improve the development of pharmaceuticals. When manufacturers create medicines they fall into two categories called amorphous and crystalline. The amorphous drugs are absorbed into the body more efficiently than crystalline drugs. Therefore, amorphous are ideal because a lower does can be used so they are cheaper to create. So, during evaporation of a solution during manufacturing, acoustic levitation is because it helps prevent the formation of crystals because the substance does not touch any physical surfaces. Acoustic levitation, in others words stops substances from crystallizing, thus creating a much more efficient method of drug creation. In addition, sound levitation creates essentially a zero-gravity environment and is therefore an excellent environment for cell growth. Levitating cells makes sure that a flat shape is maintained which is the best for the growing cell to absorb nutrition. It could also be used to create cells of the perfect size and shape for individuals.

Sound behaves in its own fashion and is a phenomenon that can be used in force and in healing. It taps into the physics of the natural world and through its interaction allows for all sorts of human invention. Surely, sound will continue to be researched and pursued as a powerful natural element to be used in a myriad of new ways.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Google Close Captions Sound Effects

Google, ever the inventors of new technology and the owners of, have broadened their work into the area of sound effects, specifically through the audio captioning on their YouTube network. Traditionally "closed captions," which provide text on the screen for those with hearing challenges, provided dialog and narration text from audio. Now, however, Google has rolled out technology that can recognized the .wav forms of different types of sounds to include on their videos, dubbed "Sound Effects Captioning." They do this to convey as much of the sound impact as possible from their videos, which is often contained with the ambient sound, above and beyond the voice.

In “Adding Sound Effect Information to YouTube Captions” by Scorish Chaudhuri, Google’s own research information blog, three different Google teams, Accessibility, Sound Understanding, and YouTube utilized machine learning (ML) to develop a completely new technology, a sound captioning system for video. In order to do this, they used a Deep Neural Network (DNN) model for ML and three specific steps were required for success: to accurately be able to detect various ambient sounds, to “localize” the sound within that segment, and place it in the correct spot in the caption sequence. They had to train their DNN using sound information in a huge labeled data set. For example, they acquired or generated many sounds of a specific type, say “applause,” to be used to teach their machine.

Interestingly, and smartly, the three Google teams decided to begin with 3 basic sounds that are listed as among the most common in human created caption tracks, which are music, applause, and laughter: [[MUSIC], [APPLAUSE], and [LAUGHTER]. They report that they made sure to build an infrastructure that can accommodate new sounds in the future that are more specific, such as types of music and types of laughter.  They explain a complex system of created classifications of sounds that the DNN can recognize even multiple sounds are playing, meaning the ability to “localize” a sound in a wider variety of simultaneous audio. Which, apparently they were successful in achieving.

After being able to recognize a specific sound such as laughter, the next task for the teams was to figure out how to convey this information in a usable way to the viewer. While they do not specify which means they use to present the captioning, the different choices seem to be: have one part of the screen for voice captioning and one for sound captioning, interleave the two, or only have the sfx captions at the end of sentences. They were also interested in how users felt about the captions with the sound off and interestingly, discovered that viewers were not displeased with error, as long as the majority of time the sound captions communicated the basic information.  In addition, listeners who could hear the audio did not have difficulty ignoring any inaccuracies.

Overall this new system of automatically capturing sounds to display as closed captioning via a computer system as opposed to a human by hand looks very promising. And, as Google has shown time and time again, they don’t seem to have a problem with the constant evolution of products that succeed and that users value. They stress that this auto capturing of sound increases specifically the “richness” of their user generated videos.  They believe the current iteration is a basic framework for future improvement in sound captioning, improvements that may be brought on by user input themselves.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Inspiring and Musically Powerful World of DIY Instruments

What is a musical instrument? It is an object that creates sound for the purpose of creating music. The definition of  “music” is a topic for another post, but for our purposes here let’s assume that we all know what music is, or at least have our own interpretation of what constitutes music. Regardless, musical instruments have been a vital part of human culture that dates back to the dawn of human history. There are reports of flutes made from mammoth ivory found in Germany that are dated to be close to 43,000 years old. These early DIY musicians had a different means for securing instruments than we do today: they made the instruments themselves. In contrast, in today’s world, many of us think of musical instruments as products made by a manufacturer in a factory, or meticulously crafted with the highest quality tools and technology in a professional workshop. They are consumer items that we consider products to purchase from music stores or bought used from other musicians. However, we must remember that for the majority of human history, instruments were handmade, and most likely by the musician themselves.  Below are three impactful instruments assembled by the musicians themselves that create stunning results, ranging from the simplistic to the complex.

DIY Percussion: Power Through Simplicity

Very likely the first instruments created by man were percussion pieces, as they require little effort to produce.  Anything, really, can be used to create a drum. Related to this, my personal favorite DIY instruments are percussive as they can be so simple and yet used to create incredible rhythmic performances live and in the studio. One drumming set up that deserves recognition is the construction-bucket drum sets that are used in cities throughout the world by street musicians. They are used on streets throughout Washington DC in the United States and traditionally have been used by street musicians to play DC “Go-go” beats, a rhythmic music that originated in and is special to that particular city. These drums are made from buckets that originally held paint or plaster and have been tossed from construction sites, coupled with the orange cones used for caution during road repair and construction. Ingeniously, a player mounts two buckets atop the cones by simply draping the metal handles over the top, one on each side for balance, and voila, a drum set. Different sized buckets produce different tones, and often the players use pieces of wood instead of traditional drumsticks in the true DIY spirit. In addition to this set-up, I have also seen  “bass drum” accompaniment in which a drummer simply uses an upside down massive plastic trashcan. Generally, shopping carts are used to move the set from location to location. This may seem simple to create, but often the beauty of genius is its simplicity. Furthermore, the beats that the players produce can be top-notch.

This following video must be included as well, as these Chicago street drummers take DIY to its most basic level, simple and awesome, one bucket each.

Pipe Guy: Unique Flair with Techno Intent

Related to percussion instruments are mallet driven instruments such as the xylophone and the marimba, glockenspiel, and the vibraphone. A musician named Jake Clark, who goes under the moniker “Pipe Guy,” creates a similar type of instrument, but with his own unique flair. And, his mallets are flip-flops. He uses PVC pipe to build elaborate multilayered instruments, beaten with flip-flops, to produce dance music, which is astoundingly sonically similar in tone to synth sounds used in traditional house and techno music. He began on the streets of Adelaide, South Australia, and has since moved to the stage. He has a presence on Facebook under the user name pip3guy and seems to be constantly building new set-ups. His creations are difficult to explain so viewing this video is the easiest way to understand.

The most impressive element of Pipe Guy’s instruments is the original way in which he plays them as dance music instruments. Pipe Guy’s use of PVC pipe is in the vein of a multitude of DYI instruments such as flutes, xylophones, rain sticks and more that can be created with PVC pipe. But Pipe Guy personally takes the material to a higher level of complexity for DIY instrument creators and carries it into a specific music genre: techno. Now, it must be stated, there are similar and more massive instruments created by the producers for professional outfits such as the Blue Man group, easily found on Youtube and wildly impressive. However, Pipe Guy is one-man-show, a true DIY musician.

Clearly, Pipe Guy has tuned his instruments to use a minor scale, common in traditional techno. Essentially, he uses the same physics of sound employed by anyone creating an instrument from piping, regardless of material. Basically, making music with pipes occurs through creating pressure waves by beating on one end of the pipe. The length of the pipe determines the note, as different lengths of pipe create different wave lengths. Interestingly, the width of the pipe changes the tone of the sound, but not the note. The thickness of Pipe Guy’s choice of PVC affords him the deeper tones and most likely his choice of rubbery flip-flops affords the buzzing electronic sound he is creating. A drumstick would create a higher faster popping hit, whereas the flip-flops provide a softer punch and perhaps allow the pipes to reverberate more.  Here is what happens when Pipe Guy’s PVC instrument meets a street bucket player called “Techno Hobo”:

Mark Applebaum: The Ultimate Level of DIY Musical Complexity

The third example of DIY musical instruments requires the high technological know-how and the creator is a PhD and an associate professor of music at Stanford University, named Mark Applebaum. He is a renowned composer and has made significant contributions in orchestral, chamber, operatic, choral, and electro-acoustic music, which has been performed throughout the world. He states that after learning and mastering different types of musical instruments he becomes bored, and therefore creates new instruments. While there are many examples of fresh new instruments, it may be that Applebaum’s creations take the cake. He specifically states in the below video that “boredom,” not lack of funds, or the need to build something, is the catalyst for his creations. In other words, he is inspired by his boredom and makes incredible creations as a result. He is tired of traditional instruments and music from the traditional cannon, such as Beethoven and therefore has created in this instance a musical instrument that is, simply, incredible. This instrument, called the MOUSEKETEER is demonstrated at 4:42 in this video:

As shown, his fantastic conglomeration of objects constituting the Mouseketeer includes a massive array of items such as door stops, combs, whistles, strange pieces of metal, wood, and plastic, bells, as well as a live bank of electronics that the somehow influences the sounds emitted. The instrument appears to be a one in all entire orchestral percussion team. It is more than that, in fact, it produces both musical sounds as well as sound effects. He can play this with mallets and a bow, and most likely in many other ways. The mix from the instruments apparently is fed through the electronic sound bank.

As he states, humorously, he is the “world’s greatest Mouseketeer player.” Which is true if one considers this interesting statement. A DIY musician is truly the greatest player of their instrument in the world as their instrument is unique and they are the unique creators. They are inventors, as Applebaum calls himself. Musicianship and invention go hand in hand because what is original music, but a fresh invention of sound. Musicians and sound designers are inventors. They are designers of material and sound. 

Whether simple or complex, all three examples in this post are impactful, rather through their raw musical power such as the bucket drums and drummers in the first example, the novelty and originality and unique presentation/vision of Pipe Guy, or the complex technological design of Mark Applebaum. All three are DIY, though of course Applebaum’s takes special engineering and knowledge of electronics. The point is, music can be created in an infinite multitude of ways for an infinite number of purposes.  Any object, or set of objects, coupled with a unique vision and the intent and motivation of the inventor/musician will result in new musical creations.  Surely in the future we will continue to see people make fascinating new combinations of materials that create never-before-seen instruments. Only the imagination of the human mind limits the possibilities, and the human imagination is unlimited. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Full Sail University and Point Blank School: Real Alternatives to Traditional Post-Secondary Education

Traditionally, post-secondary education in Western culture for years has been hinged on both parents and students desiring education that “rounds out” the student’s mind, ie a “liberal education.” This concept of the liberal education still commands the trajectory of many high-achieving students who graduate high school in the US, and gymnasium in Europe. The goal, as many still believe, is to then attend an expensive college or university to learn the higher concepts of Western academics: philosophy, literature, history, and the social sciences. However, as the world changes based on obvious technological advances involving computing, the internet, and digital production, there are now new choices for those students and families who choose not to adhere to the beaten path.

Simply put: there are now more choices to post-secondary education and one path is sound and music and media production.  This is a good thing.

Two schools, one in the United States, and one in the United Kingdom, exemplify this forward motion into the future of post-secondary education by emphasizing education based on media production, and de-emphasizing traditional courses in Western philosophy, for example, Shakespeare. The two schools covered below offer real degrees or certificates and more importantly, practical career benefits upon graduation. They differ somewhat in their approaches, degrees, and course selection, but are similar in their intent: to provide pragmatic post-secondary education to talented and creative young adults who are intent on pursuing creative passions while earning real incomes after graduation.  The two schools covered below are Full Sail University in the United States and the Point Blank School in the United Kingdom and this article simply intends to lay out the presentations and claims of both for any student seeking a higher education in sound and media production.  The contrast between the two is rather striking. However, both are sound, no pun intended. Simply put, for readers heading toward a career in sound, music, and media, both schools are worthwhile, high quality, and have a track record of success among their alumni.

Full Sail University is located in Winter Park, Florida in the United States and bolsters an interesting and vibrant history. The inception of the school began in 1979, as a recording workshop called “Full Sail Recording Workshop” in Dayton, OH, by a Mr. John Phelps. Throughout the years, driven by student interest and teaching success, the school now commands a 192 acre campus with 49 degree programs and 2 graduate certificates which include nearly every form of digital media production avenue available to future digital media content providers. They provide degrees in music and recording (including studies in sound recording and design), games, art and design, technology, media and communications, art and design, and media and sports business.

There is credence to their degrees. They are licensed by the Commission for Independent Education (Florida Department of Education) to offer Associates through Masters degrees.  They are also accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC), an organization that is recognized as a national accrediting school by the U.S. Department of Education. Meaning, and this is very important for students who desire a valid BA, Full Sail provides degrees that will be recognized by other schools in the United States if a student may want to achieve a Masters Degree in Sound Design or other media discipline at another university or college in the United States.  In addition, their Bachelor programs are efficient and can be completed in 20 to 29 months. Programs begin monthly and therefore there is no need to wait through semesters of time to begin studying. Many of us perhaps remember slogging through low paying jobs during summers waiting for school to begin. This waste of time does not happen at Full Sail. Graduation for the hard working student can come in half the time of a traditional 4-year college. This will give any graduate an edge in entering the workplace at younger age than their peers, ready and prepared for their career possibilities of the future.

In addition to their massive array of course offerings in multiple media disciplines, Full Sail functions as a proper university, providing financial aid and housing options near the campus. Upon graduation, they provide assistance for career development and work on job placement. They use a unique combination of technology such as networking with classmates and easy access to instructors online, continuous technical support, video conferencing, the ability to create via laptops from anywhere at anytime, and the use of cutting-edge media creation software to teach multi-media production. They couple this effective use of technology with the traditional model and rigors of a 4-year bachelors, requiring many hours of study and a wide array of courses needed to earn a degree. In all, Full Sail appears to provide a solid education in a wide array of media disciplines and the school and staff work diligently to aid their students in careers after graduation. One quick glance at their Alumni page attests to the success of their graduates, who work in film and sound capacities with the top media production firms throughout the world. This school is a valid option for students passionate and interested in media production.

The second school mentioned in this post, is the Point Blank School, an Electronic Music School that teaches music production and performance skills and techniques in London, England, Los Angeles, US, Ibiza, Spain, and online.  At the onset here, one must agree that it would be hard for anyone interested in music production not to salivate at the possibility of attending a campus to study electronic music on the island of Ibiza. This would be a young DJ’s heaven. On the island of Ibiza, specifically, it appears that students study by day and then at night are given the opportunity to rub elbows with highly successful DJ’s and are afforded the opportunity to perform at internationally renowned nightclubs on the island. This sounds like a win-win for those who can afford to attend.  Regardless of the three locations, it is clear that Point Blank is a successful electronic music school that attracts globally successful DJ’s and producers as instructors and most likely is helping to create the next generation of electronic music producers. On an academic note, Point Blank School has a an affiliation with Middlesex University, which validates their Higher Education classes and those who complete the Point Blank set of courses receive a certificate and award upon completion. Middlesex apparently also “validates” the BA Music Production & Sound Engineering program.

To sum it up, both Full Sail and Point Blank provide top-notch media production education. The location in which you live may determine your preference. Clearly, if you are in the United States, then Full Sail is more accessible and if you are in Europe then Point Blank is the closer option. Full Sail has a longer history and a vastly larger set of course offerings. They have managed to achieve accreditation as a “four year” university that bestows actual BA’s that in theory will transfer to other schools. The programs are steeped in a wide array of disciplines and many of their students move into the media industry with great success. For the youngster graduating high school in the US, or those willing to trek across the pond and can afford it, Full Sail is a valid, excellent alternative to the traditional liberal arts education and provides not only electronic sound and music production, but video arts and other media productions fields as well. They also have, which has not been mentioned yet in this article, a massive film set/lot where Hollywood sized films can be created. They command one singular massive campus with a four year college degree experience.

In comparison and contrast, Point Blank is equally passionate and active in their own realm. Their realm is more singular however, catering to the world of elite DJ-ing and production and focusing on electronic music production and performance only. Clearly, the school has succeeded in attracting excellent talent to instruct and built campuses in three of the most illustrious places in the world (London, Los Angeles, Ibiza) to be an electronic music artist. Clearly their combination of talented instructors, course layout, and very importantly the exposure for current students to the club scenes of their various locations, are all major pluses. It depends on what one’s goals are as an aspiring sound/media artist and the degree you would like to have upon your graduation. Full Sail will give you legitimate academic credentials, serious professional contacts, a community, and support. On the other hand, Point Blank will give you expert skills for rocking dance floor, a certificate and perhaps a BA. Mostly, though, it seems it will give you high level contacts and experience in the world of globally recognized DJ’s. Both schools rock. Hats off.

Monday, May 29, 2017

A lovely movie with music supplied by Shockwave-Sound

Our customer and movie director Christopher Robin Collins has launched his film "Little Thief", which is now available to buy or rent through Amazon.

Little Thief, Amazon U.S.:

Little Thief, Amazon U.K.:

"Little Thief" is a a touching drama about the complex relationship between two misfits; Hyun, a lonely Korean man and Martina, a young orphaned girl - set in Sydney, Australia.

The movie itself as well as the trailer (available to view at the above Amazon links) feature music licensed from

Trailer now available at YouTube: