I’ve become completely addicted to this little app for the iPhone called CameraBag. It basically lets you take iPhone snaps and apply various filters to them. It’s nothing you couldn’t do in Photoshop, and the quality is kinda crap, but there’s an immediacy and grit to the whole process that reminds me of my old Polaroid days. Except it’s about a billion times cheaper.

(Seriously! Does anyone remember how expensive Polaroid film was? I think for my treasured SX-70 Alpha I got ten shots for something like 15 or maybe even 20 dollars. And that was a lot more money in those days…)

While in my local video store a few days back, in a rare moment of consumer weakness1 I succumbed to a ‘buy-one-get-one-free’ offer and picked up a DVD compilation of all the episodes and the ‘movie’ of the 80s science fiction tele-epic V.

It didn’t seem like such a bad deal really – Violet Towne and I both had fond memories of V. You remember the schtick I’m sure: huge alien space ships the size of Donald Trump’s ego appear rather abruptly over a good number of the world’s major cities and hover there j-u-u-u-s-t long enough to give everybody the heebie jeebies. It turns out that the wait is merely due to the alien leader putting on her face. The doomsaying of a few negative Earthling Cassandras is, it appears, just overactive xenophobia. Shucks – the alien ‘Visitors’ are a jolly happy lot who want nothing more than to lend a helping hand to the struggling new kids on the intergalactic block. And to eat all our hamsters, steal our water and suck out our brains – but it’s not like anyone could have seen something like that coming, right?

Sure, there were a few troubling indicators, if you knew where to look: the aliens’ appalling dress sense (well, it was the 80s, so it’s not like they stood out that much), their insistence on wearing sunglasses indoors (that didn’t start happening for Earthlings until the 90s, so I guess that was a demonstration of the visitors’ advanced culture) and their habit of snacking on mice out of dumpsters (but hey – if you’re discreet…). Oh, and if you happened to tear their skin off, there was a surprise lizard underneath.2

In any event, it didn’t take VT and I long to realise that our fond memories of V had taken on the rosy glow that only nostalgia can lend. The series (which David Icke probably thought was a documentary), was, in fact, pretty damn awful. The general structure of the thing certainly did have potential (ham-fisted Third Reich analogs notwithstanding) and the feeling of distrust and helplessness in the face of an implacable adversary is an idea that has a lot going for it. Our twenty-something selves evidently saw past the frightful soap-quality acting and into something of the concept’s promise – over the years our memories have thankfully expunged much of the dreadful dialogue and appalling plot contrivances.

Last night we got to the end of Series 2, in which, overcoming the sobering improbabilities of mammalian and reptilian genetic structures being anywhere near compatible, one of the cast gives birth to alien twins, the arrival of the second of which was undoubtedly supposed to instill terror in the viewing audience. But when the little toothy green reptile muppet ‘baby’ lunged ‘menacingly’ toward the camera (several times for good measure) Violet Towne and I simultaneously shrieked in unison, snorted our pinot through our noses and fell on the floor laughing. How did we ever accept such abominable bathos? I mean it’s not as if there wasn’t any better precedent – V post-dates Ridley Scott’s impeccable (and still mightily effective) Alien by a full 5 years! I guess we were just a lot better at the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ in those halcyon days (and it was television – which in those times was in most cases notably inferior to anything you could see on the big screen).

At several times during our V marathon, VT and I remarked that it was surprising that no-one had attempted a remake of the concept, and, of course, teh internets piped up to let us know that someone is doing just that. It will no doubt thrill all you V aficionados down to your little webbed toes (and have David Icke struggling even harder in his straight jacket) to know that ABC is airing a new series of V this November. And the subset of those devotees who are also fans of Joss Wheedon’s lamentably short-lived Firefly will be doubly chuffed to learn that the Visitor leader is being played by Morena Baccarin – a woman so impossibly beautiful that apparently she can only get roles that require an impossibly beautiful woman who is really a lizard (well, seriously – after a smashing debut in Firefly, she fairly disappeared without a trace. WTF?) Alan Tudyk (Firefly‘s ‘Wash’) also has a major role in the new V3

I think we can assume that ABC is attempting a Battlestar Galactic-style remake of V, which, all things considered, could be kinda fun. At least we can expect the acting to be better, and hopefully something a little less lumpen in the way of allegory and story.

I have to confess, though, Faithful Acowlytes, that these musings have become something of a digression from my original purpose for this post – I meant to use my examination of the colourful antics of V to illuminate an entirely different matter involving aliens and earthlings. As this post has already become rather lengthy, I’ll forbear for now. But stay tuned for Part 2, in which we’ll ask some serious questions about alien/human interaction. And no, it doesn’t involve kinky lizard porn.

  1. I’m not much of a ‘bargain’ shopper – I figure that bargain is just retail code for “We’ve got too many of these bloody things Hank – see what you can do to free up some shelf space…” []
  2. In what must be one of the cheapest budget decisions made for a science fiction movie EVER, the Visitors never appeared as their lizard selves. Never. Not once. They goose-stepped around earth in their orange-uniformed monkey-suits, procreated with Earth women without giving anything away (now that must have been interesting) and relaxed in the privacy of their own off-Earth ships in their stretchy homo-prostheses. No alien in the history of science fiction has shown such dedication to keeping incognito! []
  3. One is inclined to speculate that people at ABC actually watched Firefly (unlike anyone at Fox, evidently) and knew a good thing when they saw it… []

Computers have become so powerful now that it is possible to do things that are quite mind boggling. I have no doubt that you’re all aware of what’s going on in the realm of digital image, but us sound dudes can do some pretty cool stuff too.

Let me tell you about convolution reverb.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that no matter what your level of vocal talent, you will always sound better singing in the shower. The technical reason for this is that bathrooms have nice shiny reflective tile surfaces, and the reverberation off those surfaces allows you to hear your voice more clearly.1

It follows logically, then, that if you sound good in the shower, you’ll sound really good on stage at, say, the Sydney Opera House, with all its great reverberant reflections and acoustic properties. Of course, it’s not possible for you or me just to whip up an a capella version of Copacabana on the Sydney Opera House stage on a whim… or, at least it hasn’t been possible until now! Yes folks, not only can you now hear how your best Barry Manilow impersonation would sound onstage at the Sydney Opera House, but we can precisely simulate your performance in any acoustic space – caverns at Carlsbad… Wembley Stadium… Abbey Road studios… in a glass jar, a metal bucket or even a broom cupboard (where Barry Manilow would, arguably, sound most appropriate).

All this thanks to fast computer processing and ‘convolution’ mapping of acoustic spaces (stick with me folks, it’s pretty damn cool…)

As I’ve already mentioned, we gauge the details of the sound of a room by the reflections off surfaces in that room. Our ears are able to hear very small variations in frequency, and our brains, by comparing the information from one ear with the other, determine the exact aural characteristics of the environment we’re in. Quite obviously, every acoustic space is completely unique – it has an acoustic ‘fingerprint’ if you like – and we are able to very accurately judge aspects such as size, shape, harmonic frequencies and surface qualities of our surroundings. All this happens completely automatically of course – you don’t think ‘Ooh, I’m in a room thirty metres long with a fundamental harmonic frequency of 160Hz and plasterboard walls!’, but rather ‘This is a big hollow space!’ or ‘This is a cupboard!’

So, how does that become useful? When we record instruments of voices in a studio, we mostly strive to get the ‘cleanest’ most unaffected-by-the-environment recording we can, so that we may add acoustic effects such as reverberation and delay at some later date. This is done for two reasons – one is that any reverberant characteristics originally recorded with an instrument are ‘stuck’ to it – you cannot remove them. A flute recorded in a big church will always sound full and awash with reverb – nine times out of ten, that’s not desirable. The second reason that we prefer a ‘clean’ recording, is that we can apply reverb and other effects judiciously as we need, to make for a better and more pleasing balance in the audio mix.

When it comes to music recording and film sound, then, you can understand that being able to call up particular audio characteristics on demand has significant value. Up until now we’ve relied on artificially created approximations of real environments – good enough to fool your ear, but nothing like the real thing. Now, we can get so close to the real thing that even experts have trouble picking the difference. In other words, we can now use on our recordings the beautiful, real, rich ambiences that have been created in performance spaces and studios around the world. Or, if we need to, the sound spaces of interior cars, hallways, schoolrooms, water towers, aircraft hangars or jam jars – you can see how we film people might like that kind of thing.

So how is this impressive audio magic done? Well, if I don’t go into too much technical detail, it’s actually quite simple. We take a sound – optimally a tone sweep2 – and play it in the environment we want to model, re-recording it in high quality within the acoustics of that place. Then, using some fancy software, we compare that with a ‘pure’ version of the tone sweep. The software calculates the difference between the two sounds and uses that to build a map of the frequency responses and delays of the actual space. It takes my computer about a second to process the file – incredible. From this I get a ‘convolution map’ that I can then use in my audio software to apply to any other sound.

As I mentioned in my most recent post about Masthead Island, the Pisonia forest in the middle of the island had some very nice acoustic characteristics. I wasn’t able to take up equipment for making tone sweeps, but I recorded some ‘make-do’ resonses with sharp hand claps.

So, after such an exhausting technical lesson, I know you’ll want to hear some demonstrations of what I’ve been yammering about, and, lucky for you, I have prepared some earlier! So first of all, we need to start with our source sound, and I’m sure you’re way ahead of me with what that might be…

1. Here we have a duck’s quack as you might hear it in a field, with no acoustic reflections:

Download Raw Duck

2. Now, a duck as you might have heard it in the Pisonia forest on Masthead Island:

Download Forest Duck

3. Next, a duck on stage at the Sydney Opera House (as you might hear it from the stalls):

Download What’s Opera Duck?

4. And finally, a duck recorded in a washing machine just before you throw the spin cycle switch:

Download Washed Duck

There were, alas, no actual ducks on Masthead Island, but I can assure you, if there were, they would sound much like #2 above.

So, faifthful Acowlytes, that’s the TCA Crash Course in convolution spatial mapping. Your task for this week is to listen. That’s it: simply listen. As you walk about your daily lives, listen to the way your voice sounds in different rooms. Listen to the ambience on the street as sirens sweep by. Listen to yourself singing in the shower. Listen to how the sound of your voice changes as you walk from one room to another.

And marvel with me that we can now reproduce the acoustics of all those experiences exactly.

  1. It’s pretty hard to ‘hear’ your own voice in your head. When you sing, you are using reflections off the space in which you happen to be to judge your pitch – this is the reason that people often sing out of tune when they’re listening to music in headphones. []
  2. This is basically a sound that starts off really low in pitch and ‘sweeps’ to really high over a few seconds. A sharp transient sound like a pistol shot, or an electrical spark or a balloon pop can also be used – hence the term impulse response that you’ve heard me use. []

Early Programmers

A little while back I wrote about a project that Microsoft had in development called ‘MySong’. As you will recall, MySong was a software gew-gaw that analysed a singing human voice and then, supposedly, arranged a musical accompaniment for it. A YouTube video that was included with the breathless press release for MySong featured a tuneless singer showing us how MySong could manufacture a suitably tuneless musical arrangement for her atonal warbling. You will also remember not being surprised that I was fairly scathing of MySong and its potential.

Well, Mr Gates didn’t listen to me (he never does) and has ploughed ahead to commercially release the software under the name of SongSmith.™ Here’s a little ad about how SongSmith™ will Change Your Life!™

Now, get up off the floor and calm down. Because Reverend Anaglyph is going to astound you by declaring that SongSmith™ is a work of genius. I had mistakenly jumped to the conclusion that the aim of SongSmith™ was to try and make average normal Mary or Joe sound like a pop star, but I was wrong! It can now be revealed that Microsoft is much cleverer than I had ever imagined and that the real purpose of SongSmith™ is to show the average normal Mary or Joe that pop stars can’t really sing either! The only thing between the offerings of professional cash-earning musicians and the bathroom yodelling of the non-talented proletariat is the musical arrangement of their songs!

Not following me? Here, take a look at this and all will become clear – this is The Police, performing Roxanne, as Songsmith™ reveals Sting’s true talent!

I know exactly what you’re thinking – how did this man ever go on to release a string of solo CDs, make millions of dollars and land a part in Dune?!

You may want to go on and do some further investigation on your ownsome – YouTubers have been busy concocting all manner of new arrangements of your favourite artists. Discover that Marvin Gaye was a toneless moaner; marvel at how Radiohead ever made it to Number One with this abominable whining; wonder how Oasis ever got Wonderwall played on the radio with this irritating caterwauling! (Oh, very well, I guess it does make Van Halen slightly more entertaining… actually, a LOT more entertaining…)

Apple raised the barrier with iPhoto, iMovie and Garage Band to show normal, average people that they, too, could produce professional quality creative works with just some nicely produced software enablers. Microsoft once more has galloped to the fore to trump them, by demonstrating that in reality no-one has any true skill at all, and in fact the world is full of talentless schmucks.

I guess it helps make them feel better.


UPDATE: Sadly, the Sting video embedded above has been removed. But this moving version of Motorhead’s ‘Ace of Spades’ might serve to illustrate my point.


October 15, 2008: ABC News Online:

Australia will join five other countries in what scientists describe as one of the most ambitious explorations of the Antarctic.

Buried deep beneath the Antarctic continent is a mountain range of such a huge scale that scientists are almost in awe of what they are about to do.


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