How Many Words Is A Sound Recording Worth?

“Seeing is believing, but hearing is hearsay” — Julian Henriques, Sonic Bodies (2011)

Like a lot of people, I’m a fan of Instamatic, a smartphone photo app, because it makes me feel like a skilled photographer. The app is essentially photo editing software that allows you to quickly–really quickly, with the tap of a virtual button, actually–apply a range of filters to your photo to make it look sharper and just plain cooler. Cooler because the filters make your photo look old, moody, vintage, over-saturated, analog old-school, or as Leonard Koren might describe the worn aesthetic–wabi-sabi (you can read more about this Japanese concept here). Instamatic is also a social app, allowing you to share pics with other Instamatic users. So I imagine there are billions of Instamatic photos floating out in the ether, capturing and constructing cool wherever we users happen to point our camera-phones. It feels that easy to use: point, shoot, add filter. Here is one of my pics:

You get the idea.

Thinking about it, it strikes me that Instamatic encourages people to think photographically–to be on their toes, ready for cool sights to capture and render. This is a good thing in that the app pushes us to be visual ethnographers, documenting the passing, strange, and wonderful of our everyday lives. When we take pictures, we see the world differently for a few moments. We think about how we can “frame” what we observe around us, and how we can compress the seen into a visual document for posterity or for our friends. A lot is captured in a photo too. Consider the adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” which refers to the idea that a complex idea can be conveyed through a single image. If this isn’t literally true, then pictures at least provide the illusion of capturing ideas because in pictures we notice so many details, contrasts, and relationships.

But here are my questions: How many words is a sound worth? And if there were an Instagram-like app for capturing, filtering, and sharing sound (calling all app developers out there!), would have it have the same emotional resonance as Instagram?


I decided to experiment with taking a field recording I made on my iPhone and running it through some effects processing to try to create some different aural moods. The recording is of a man playing the accordian on a subway platform at Grand Central Station in New York City. After listening to him for a while, I donated some money and he turned to face me so I could take a photo. I liked the music he was playing, and liked it even more as I fiddled around with adding effects to it.

Here is my original field recording:

Here is the clip with delay added so that it sounds like the instrument is bouncing off walls, all dubby and mysterious:

Here is the clip with static added so that it sounds somewhat like an old recording:

Here is the clip with chorusing and flanging added:

Here is the clip with distortion added:

Here is the clip with reverb added so that it sounds like it’s in a cave or large cathedral:

Here is the clip with a glitch-y effect added:

You get the idea. (My favorite, by the way, is the clip with delay added.)

Now one question is whether or not the application of these audio effects affects the mood of the original recording. The answer, I think, is yes, but exactly how the effects alter the mood is somewhat hard to describe. A second and even more fundamental question: Do the audio clips convey as much as the photo of the accordian player conveys? I think so, though the things they tell us are of a different order. Given that I have included a photo of the musician above, we can directly compare the different kinds of information the visual and aural media bring to our awareness. Looking at his photo, you might notice how he’s dressed (casually in jeans, and with a baseball cap), the expression on his face as he plays (pretty neutral, though he was smiling for my picture), or even the heft of his instrument–it almost looks like it’s a struggle just to get those accordian bellows to wheeze into life. My photo captures these bits of information, but it leaves other things out. By contrast, the audio recording isn’t static like the photo is. Instead, it captures the accordian player’s performance over time (about a minute and half of time, in fact). This allows us to experience the non-musical ambient sounds of the subway too–for example, the sounds of other people, and the sounds of spare change landing in the musician’s open instrument case. Without anything to see, we can only focus on the audible information, but we’re granted the luxury of letting that information reveal itself over a duration. Finally, what’s most striking to me when comparing the photograph of the accordian player with a recording of his music is that the music seems more melancholy and expressive than its maker actually looks. The music seems to tell a story that we might miss if we were only looking.

On Vintage Fetishism And Rustic Analog Appeal: From Urban Outfitters To Bon Iver

While waiting for some take out food I dashed into the clothing store Urban Outfitters to have a look around. Founded in Philadelphia in 1970, Urban Outfitters specializes in hipster aesthetics–specifically, making clothes that look vintage and of an older era. Originally a single store in lower Manhattan, the company now has retail outlets in 38 states as well as in Europe, bringing the out-of-date-and-therefore-cool look to the suburban masses everywhere. As I walked around I passed racks of t-shirts that were replicas of ones from the 1970s and 80s depicting cartoon images of boomboxes and turntables, Mr. T, the Star Wars and Atari logos, and so on. This is the kind of clothing which, if you grew up in the 70s or 80s like I did, you might have actually worn. Even if you didn’t, the iconography of these brands and personalities still resonates deeply (I have fond memories of the audio and video game technology in particular). This resonance triggers a nostalgia (nostalgia is Urban Outfitter’s fashion currency) for the past and you find yourself thinking: “That time was pretty cool wasn’t it?” Of course, back in the day, the stuff wasn’t vintage, it was just youth fashion or leading edge technology. This all reminds me of my fashionable sister exhorting me in the 1980s to explore the real vintage/second-hand clothing stores to search for real old stuff–like plaid shorts. (Which I did find and I did wear. Thanks MEB–but that’s for another forum!)


Urban Outfitters also sells vintage-style technology. By the front door of the store I spotted the Lomokino 35mm movie camera, a new machine designed to look and function like the 35mm cameras of old.  Who, you ask, would use this when we have cell phones that ably do the job?  I don’t know, but here it is:

I also saw the Music Hall USB-1, a turntable with a USB wire to connect to your computer. What would I do with such a machine? For one thing, if I were a vinyl collector I could dub those vinyl sounds off the vinyl and into a hard drive. So maybe this old-new technology could be useful:

Finally, I saw a small and carefully chosen selection of recent-ish recordings re-released on vinyl. Even in our digital era it’s not unusual for musicians to release limited vinyl editions of their work. DJs like vinyl for its supposed superior sound quality, and some non-electronic musicians who release music on vinyl think the format is cool because that’s how all recorded music once existed (which is a kind of vinyl/analog fetishism if you ask me). And why does Urban Outfitters sell vinyl? Maybe because, like the Atari t-shirts downstairs, vinyl signifies the past.

One album that I recognized on the rack because I listened to it a few years ago was Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago (2007) (see lower right hand corner in photo).

Iver (Justin Vernon) is an indie folk-rock musician who famously recorded For Emma by himself in a Wisconsin country cabin over the course of a three-month retreat (he was recovering from a relationship plus a bout of mononucleosis) using very low tech (vintage, really) means: an acoustic guitar, some drums, an amp and a mic, and an old computer. Here’s Iver: “I had a very light set-up, a basic small recording set-up: a Shure SM57 and an old Silvertone guitar. I had my brother drop off his old drums… some other small things–things I would make or find lying around.”

Iver’s overdubbed vocals are imperfect, ragged and rustic, his foot stomping percussion gritty and ad hoc, and his guitars noticeably out of tune. The sound conjures a timeless, worn, and definitely vintage aesthetic. Here is Iver’s song “Skinny Love””: