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Becoming Sound Literate

Posted on 4 May 2011

Over the weekend, David-Noel shared a link which led to this:

“Audio is a “Speed-dial to the emotions,” Ljung argued, noting that audio use online is evolving to the point where people are learning not to just ‘read’ sound, but to ‘write’ it too. We’re becoming ‘Sound literate’, he believes.” (Spotify and SoundCloud on the futue of online audio at the Next Web Conference)

Ljung is the CEO of Soundcloud, a service that I have been following with some interest. While it’s a great way to discover music, what’s even more interesting to me is their quest to add audio to our grab-bag of ways to share things. Based on what I see here and elsewhere, they want to be the audio version of what Twitter is to text, YouTube is to video and Flickr or perhaps Instagram is to pictures. In other words, they want to put the ability to share sounds with the world into our pockets via smartphones. It’s an interesting quest, but one thing that’s bothered me this whole time is the question of why hasn’t this happened before?

Prince George Noises by AndrewCellsOut

In web-years, none of the above are that new. Some form of sharing video, pictures, and statuses has existed since the rise of smartphones, and pretty much ever since the social media shift began some years ago. But the idea of sharing sound– not music, just sounds– is something Soundcloud is basically pioneering. Why?

I think it’s because there is no pre-smartphone device aimed at mass audio collection. I’ve been playing with video cameras since elementary school. Pocket cameras were everywhere in high school, and pocket video wasn’t far behind. This was just before cellphones started taking off, and close to a decade prior to the iPhone. People have a single-function reference point for what cameras and video cameras should look like before everything was folded into smartphones. This understanding is the basic language used in every smartphone camera and camera app, both audio and video. Pure audio: not so much.

How often did you see someone carrying around a portable tape recorder? I know they existed, but who used them? Especially en masse. Why record the audio of a birthday party when you could snap some photos or combine the audio-visual experience by bringing out the camcorder? Pure audio has largely been irrelevant in the daily sharing of our lives, both before and since the internet.

I think another challenge is that while you can see the image you are taking as you are taking it, there on the screen before you snap the picture, you can’t easily “hear” things as they will be recorded as you are recording them. One of the biggest learning curves in my training as a professional sound gatherer has been learning to interpret those green, yellow and red lines and adjusting the audio accordingly on the fly. Unless you have the ability to listen to what’s being recorded AS IT’S BEING RECORDED, you’re just kind of guessing. Check YouTube to see how many horribly distorted sound there is on your average concert video. If it’s video, at least you have a visual context. If it’s pure audio, it’s nothing but white noise and distortion– useless.

Shad at Coldsnap 2011 – Yaa I Get It by AndrewCellsOut

I’m not going to say that being a pro audio gatherer is more difficult than being a pro photographer or videographer, but I do think their is a steeper learning curve for people who just want to dabble— that is, being an amateur sound-gatherer is more difficult than being a point-and-click photographer.

I’m also not saying I don’t admire Soundcloud’s vision. From what I’ve seen they’re very smart people and I’d love to see the world become more “sound literate.” As someone who works in radio, I obviously think there’s a huge value to pure sound. But I think they are starting from a more difficult position than it might appear.

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Filed under: Best Of, ideas, social media

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