The Soundtrack of the Prohibition
"Once, during Prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water."
W. C. Fields
100 years ago, a restrictive law popularized a new American art form. PLUS, find out what's been going on in the studios of Dynamix Productions.
"I got rhythm, I got music, I got my man
who could ask for anything more?"
George and Ira Gershwin
Do animals have rhythm? I found myself wondering that as I watched my cat's tail thump. Because of some slight annoyance only a cat would have, Onslow thumped his tail rhythmically several times, then slowly stopped after about a minute. In fact, he did what we call in music, a retard. That is, his tempo slowed down in a methodical manner, each successive tap mathematically slower than the previous. I actually tapped my finger nearly in time with his tail as it came to a stop. So was he singing Brahms' Lullaby in his head, or was he just becoming less annoyed?
Researchers have been wondering for a long time if animals understand music. Specifically – can animals follow a beat? Charles Darwin, while writing about the evolution of music, postulated that music tapped deep into the roots of evolution and was spread across the animal kingdom. After all, frogs chirp in a rhythm, fireflies blink to a quasi-beat, and elephants can dance. But these delightful displays of disco-like rhythm can't really answer that question without more study.
Enter Snowball. Snowball is a cockatoo that was brought to a bird rescue organization in 2007 that loves to dance to music. In fact, Snowball can dance to different tempos, rhythms, and songs. What started as a novelty turned into full-blown scientific studies and a new field of study. Scientists began observing how a variety of animals that are exposed to music behaved, and found that those that could vocally reproduce sounds they've never heard before (vocal learning) are more likely to be able to "entrain," that is respond to an external beat. These include parrots, elephants, and us.
The working hypothesis was that only vocal learners could entrain. But a rescued sea lion named Ronan clouded the picture. Researchers at UC-Santa Cruz used a thin evolutionary connection between walruses and seals (which can imitate speech) and their distant cousin, the sea lion (which can grunt or bark on command and at different speeds) to push the limits on the vocal learning theory. Ronan first learned to bob her head to simple metronome beats, but graduated to real music. EWF's "Boogie Wonderland" was a favorite, as well as Snowball's fave "Everybody" by the Backstreet Boys.
Primates, previously thought to have no response to music, began to show they could groove as well. Though great apes are nonvocal learners, wild chimpanzees and bonobos have been observed drumming their hands and feet on their bodies. Recent controlled studies had bonobos drumming in sync with humans, but the jury is still out on whether that's a result of them becoming too humanized while in captivity.
So now the working theories started to get out of step and lose their groove. Do animals need vocal learning neural circuits in order to have rhythm? We know the body can move with a beat, but what about the brain? Scientists began looking back at neural studies about rhythm to see. In 2005, researchers found that certain neural circuits will oscillate in time with external rhythmic tones. Subsequent studies have found the same thing occurring in other animals, like monkeys and zebrafish. To take it further, and deeper into the brain, researchers found that neural circuits used for motion control also process auditory rhythms. And they seem to store patterns for us to reproduce later. Even when one is at rest, the motor circuits are active and anticipating when the next beat will be.
So why would the brain want to connect hearing and movement? Maybe it goes way back in evolution to being chased: the anticipation of the next footfall behind you or the swing of the predator's claw toward you could save your life. Rhythm is all through nature, from birds flying in formation to the highly coordinated hunts of wolves. But cockatoos, elephants, and humans that can vocalize may have a more highly developed response to music. It's been theorized that creating and responding to rhythm is mostly a social behavior. Human, parrots, and elephants are social species that use vocalization to communicate. And vocalizations are rhythmic in nature. Our ancestors, it's thought, sang and danced as social ritual before refining language. The next question in this research is, how do we motivate other animals enough to reveal their true musical abilities? Can a fish perform synchronized swimming? Can a horse clomp to the theme song from Mister Ed? Can my cat learn to dance? Well, probably. But he doesn't want to, because he's... you know...a cat.
The Sound of Progress
"These fellows blow their horns just to see the people jump, I believe."
Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison, 1902
At the turn of last century, the automobile was poised to overtake the horse as the preferred mode of personal transportation. But there were detractors to the coming sea change. Much as we see driverless cars as a potential danger today, "horseless carriage" opponents saw the drivers themselves as dangerous.Read More...
Listening to Light
"All that's to come
and everything under
the sun is in tune
but the sun
is eclipsed by the moon."
from "Eclipse" on the 1973 LP release "Dark Side of the Moon"
For generations, humans have been trying to link sound and light together. We have succeeded.
Jar Fly Blues
"Again and again, the cicada's untiring cry pierced the sultry summer air like a needle at work on thick cotton cloth."
Recording location audio outside can be challenging at best. The video team wants an exterior shot because architecture or a landscape in the background can add to the image. But alas, there are often unwanted sounds like cars, HVAC blowers, and other manmade annoyances that we must work around. There's one sound though that is nearly impossible to eliminate, fix, mask, hide, or yell-at-to-be-quiet. It is guaranteed to ruin almost any exterior recording in the summer: the mating song of the cicada.
These little bug(ger)s come out of the ground periodically (mostly every 13 or 17 years here in the Ohio Valley) to anchor themselves to a tree and incessantly cry out for all to hear. It's not their little vocal chords that are producing these 120-decibel cries. The jar flies are contorting their torsos to flex in and out, causing two tymbals, or ribbed membranes, to vibrate 300-400 times a second. This produces a noise that's as loud as a jet engine and between 3KHz and 16KHz - right smack in the middle of the human speech range.
Human speech generally falls between 3KHz to 5KHz, like the sound of an old-time phone call. The nuances of intelligibility, such as the consonants S, H, F, and so on, are heard above 5 KHz. That makes removing the background sounds of cicadas difficult because you could also remove subtle sounds of speech. Noise reduction software has become very sophisticated today, but dynamic sounds like cicadas (their cry rises and falls in pitch and loudness instead of being drone-like) poses many challenges. We can painstakingly "paint out" some of the offending sounds, but it's best to leave some of it in so we don't lose key frequencies in the voice. If a dialog track with cicadas is heavily edited, then this can result in having cicadas in one clip and not the next. Or falling in one clip and rising in the next. This is jarring to the listener and is very difficult to fix. We sometimes actually add cicada song back in underneath to mask those continuity-challenged edits.
While recording, we can sometimes position the microphone and talent to reduce the cicada song, but inevitably a critter in another tree fires up his belly to blow the take. There's just no easy solution to this dog day dilemma. The sound is so hated, Japanese television has a Godzilla-like monster called "Cicada Man," probably created by a sound engineer. They're so passionately tired of them in Mexico that Raymundo Pérez y Soto penned the great mariachi song "La Cigarra."
But leave it to the U.S. Navy to find the positives in the piercing cicada death song. The Navy is no stranger to harnessing wildlife to help their efforts. They have a marine mammal program that uses bottlenose dolphins and sea lions for mine detection, ship and harbor protection, and equipment recovery. What on earth could they use a cicada for?
The Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Rhode Island has been studying this tiny creature's anatomy with a CT scan-like technology called microcomputed tomography to try and figure out how it makes its loud chirp. They've found that a cicada's two tymbals act as dual speakers when the insect contracts and releases their ribs. It's a highly efficient way of producing twice the sound with one action. And why would the Navy be interested in sound? Why sonar of course. Doubling sonar's efficiency is like seeing twice as far with radar.
It seems that Raymundo Pérez y Soto was ahead of his time in the 1950s when he wrote La Cigarra. He may have foretold the odd marriage of the cicada and the Navy:
Don’t sing to me anymore, cicada
Let your singsong end
For your song here in my soul
Stabs me like a dagger
Knowing that when you sing
You are announcing that you are going to your death.
Tell me if it is true that you know,
Because I cannot distinguish,
Whether in the depths of the seas
There is another color blacker
Than the color of my sorrows.
One Giant Leap for M_-_//_ _nd
"It's an interesting place to be. I recommend it."
Astronaut Neil Armstrong commenting about the moon
Every time I hear the timeless phrase Neil Armstrong uttered while stepping on the moon, I can't help but remember the first time I heard it. It was 50 years ago at about 11:00 PM on July 20, 1969. I was eight-years-old and had fallen asleep waiting for them to get out of their strange looking space craft. Our family was vacationing in a cabin on a lake in southern Ohio, and Dad had hauled our portable black-and-white TV from home. We had a lot of trouble getting any TV stations out in the country on that little box. I seem to remember him fiddling with the rabbit ear antennas and positioning all of us at different places in the room like chess pieces so the picture wouldn't flutter.
Our Sped Up Life
"Radio is a hungry monster that eats very fast."
Everything today seems to be sped up. We speed to work, we speed to pick up the kids, we speed home, we speed around the kitchen, we speed watch TV, we speed listen to podcasts, we speed, speed, speed...then we speed sleep so we can get up and do it all over again. And as if on cue, much of what we watch and listen to is also sped up.
For years, top 40 radio stations sped their turntables up so that songs played faster, albeit at a slightly higher pitch, to fit more tunes within an hour. They claimed it gave more energy to the station's sound, but profit was definitely the motivator because one or two more commercials could be fit into an hour. They also sped up those commercials for the same reason. Think this is ancient history? Nope. Some stations still do it with digital software that plays the songs faster without the pitch problem. Commercials are also still sped up, and pauses and silence gaps in talk shows are digitally removed so that they can - guess what? – fit more commercials in the hour. What's friendly for the station isn't always friendly to the artist. When the Go Go's released "We Got the Beat" in 1980, sales weren't very good in the UK. The band felt the low sales were partially due to the sped up tape for the 45 RPM release.
Television isn't immune to the speed wars either. Cable TV networks are notorious for editing and time compressing programs to jam into a time slot and – play more commercials. I remember first spotting this television trickery when watching a very long movie in just two hours with commercials. They really want to sell us more U.S. Mint Gold collector coins and life insurance.
The broadcasters aren't the only one thinking about squeezing media. The 78 RPM record, or "single," as the record company muckity-mucks now call it, was typically 3-minutes. So songwriters were encouraged to write nothing longer than 3-minutes, preferably 2. That same philosophy carried over to the 45 RPM record (which actually held about 4 1/2 minutes). You can hear this push for short singles in early Beatles records. "Love Me Do" debuted in 1962 and was 2:22 long. The moppy-haired head-shaker "She Loves You" a year later was even shorter, clocking in at 2:18.
One trick in getting song lengths down was to get to the chorus early. Sticking with the Beatles (and why not?), "Can't Buy Me Love," "Help," and "She Loves You" all start off with the chorus before getting into the first verse. Another composition method that may shorten a song is AABA, which harks back to the Tin Pan Alley days of simple phrase construction. The first two phrases (A & A) are similar, the third phrase (B) is different, then the last phrase (A) is similar to the first two. Songs with this structure are "Over the Rainbow" and "Blueberry Hill."
The time signature will sometimes shorten a song, though mostly unintentionally. Instead of the traditional four beats to a measure, 3/4 time has only three. The waltz, in 3/4 time, is a centuries-old method of getting people off their feet to dance. It (and its cousin 6/8 time) has been used in pop tunes such as "Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be Will Be)," What the World Needs Now Is Love," and "Take It to the Limit" by the Eagles. And we can't forget about 7/8 time, like the classic "Money" by Pink Floyd.
They say that what goes around comes around. Today, streaming services such as Spotify are influencing how songs are written based on the artist payout structure. Because physical sales (CDs and records) of music are way down, more and more money is made from streaming sales. Those payouts are based on listens, specifically if the listener hears at least 30 seconds. According to "Switched on Pop" host Charlie Harding, the average song length has decreased from 4:30 in the 1990s to 3:42 in 2019. Instead of long intros, artists are now introducing part of the chorus early in the song to get the hook in the listener's ear so they stay around longer. Albums or collections of songs also contain many more short songs than they used to. More songs listened to mean more money for the artist.
Surprised that artists are manipulating your buying habits? Well, the music business is just that – business. As Paul McCartney commented on the fortunes that "Can't Buy Me Love" brought to the Beatles, he said 'It should have been "Can Buy Me Love."'
Audio Letters to Home
"It was easier just to say it out on a tape than trying to write it because it will take a lot of writing paper in order to get it straight."
Private First Class Frank A. Kowalczyk
Long Binh Post, Vietnam, 1969
Back when it was expensive, or impossible, to call someone long distance, friends and family members would send messages on records and tapes to each other through the mail. Not only was it more affordable, it was a more personal way to stay in touch with each other and have some fun doing it. When I digitize some of these audio letters for customers, and feel like I'm transported back in time that a way that a letter can't take me.
"Nostalgia is not what it used to be."
Record stores all over America will be opening their doors on April 13th for National Record Store Day. But cassettes are sneaking in through the back. These portable petite plastic packs from the past now have their own Cassette Store Day each year in October, and they're winning over some fans that also shop for vinyl. In fact, annual sales of music cassettes were up 23% in 2018, and 70% since 2016. Artists and studios are rethinking this ancient format and not only re-releasing albums popular during cassette's halcyon days, but new music as well. What's with the retro rewind?
Shortwaves, Long Memories
"TV gives everyone an image, but radio gives birth to a million images in a million brains."
The recent presidential elections in Nigeria and Senegal stirred fond memories of my childhood. Specifically the "sounds" of Africa I remember growing up with. I haven't had the good fortune to go to Africa, but I've listened to it from afar. In the 1960s and 70s, radio was perhaps at its peak. AM radio stations played the hits, FM radio played the albums, and CB radios were in kitchens and cars. A lot of homes also had a shortwave radio. Today it's the internet that ties us all together. Back then, CBs connected us with our friends, AM and FM connected us with the country, and shortwave connected us with the world.
The Loudest Sound
My favorite saying is, 'If it's too loud, turn it up.'
You often hear the phrase "The shot heard 'round the world," referring to the first shot fired of the American Revolution in Lexington, Massachusetts. Or for us baseball fans, Bobby Thompson's dramatic game-winning home run when the New York Giants beat the Brooklyn Dodgers for a trip to the 1951 World Series. Both of these pale in comparison to the 1883 explosion of the Krakatoa volcano. Dubbed as the loudest sound in history, it was also the farthest traveled.
Calling All Cars
10:40 p.m. “I got about 2,000 college students coming from Walnut Street to 30th to Center City.”
10:46 p.m. “It’s endless, chief. Endless.”
11:11 p.m. “They’re on top of trash trucks. There is to be no one on top of trash trucks, guys.”
11:14 p.m. “We have multiple people on Broad Street swinging on light poles.”
11:20 p.m. “Climbing the trash trucks at 13th and Market.”
11:25 p.m. “I need to get the fire extinguisher out of my trunk. I got a fire on Broad Street just south of South. Someone lit a Christmas tree on fire.”
Philadelphia Police radio transcripts after the Eagles won the 2018 Super Bowl
Do you remember the old movies from the 1930s when a radio in a police car would blare out "Calling all cars! Calling all cars!" The diligent policemen would zoom away in their car with the siren screaming. The dispatcher had no idea if the radio cars heard the frantic call because two-way radios were uncommon and expensive. So from the late 1920s until after World War II, most police departments relied on their cruisers having radio receivers only. Today, police use digital radio systems that carry data, video, and other information.
How Things Work
Inside an Engineer's Mind
- Thomas Edison
- Alan Parson
- Am radio
- Am Radio
- Amateur radio
- Amy Winehouse
- Angels on Stage
- Artificial intelligence
- ATR Magnetics
- Audio engineer
- Bela Lugosi
- Bell Labs
- Big Bang
- Book on tape
- Brown noise
- Carrier pigeon
- CB Radio
- Civil War
- Dies irae
- dorian mode
- Dynamix Productions
- ear training
- Film Sound
- Fleetwood Mac
- Fritz Lang
- George Clooney
- Guinness World Record
- Hearing aid
- Jack White
- John Mellancamp
- John Williams
- Ken Burns
- Led Belly
- Led Zepelin
- Lenny Kravitz
- Les Paul
- Mary Ford
- Morse code
- mykola Leontovych
- Noise Pollution
- Noise reduction
- Oculus Rift
- Peter J. Wilhousky
- Pink noise
- Ray Bradbury
- Recording arts
- Recording school
- Reel to reel
- Richard Wagner
- Rudy Van Gelder
- Rupp Arena
- Secret messages
- Silent film
- Sir Isaac Newton
- Smokey and the Bandit
- sony walkman
- sound effects
- sound level
- sound pressure level
- sound wave
- Star Wars
- surround sound
- Taylor Swift
- The Beatles
- Thomas Edison
- Time travel
- US Navy
- virtual reality
- Wax cylinder
- White noise