This past week the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act (CALM) went into effect. The law requires broadcasters to use technology that regulates the difference in volume between normal programming and commercials. As Congressperson Anna G. Eshoo mentions in a letter to the FCC on the legislation she sponsored, “[I]n 21 of the 25 quarterly FCC reports on consumer complaints between 2002 and 2009, abrupt changes in volume during transition from regular programming to commercials was the top consumer grievance related to radio and television broadcasting.” The complaint and resultant law suggests that, despite television’s reputation as a primarily visual medium, advertisers understand that it is sound that captures the attention of viewers ready to move on to do other things during the commercial break.
This disparity in volume seems all the more egregious during sports broadcasts, where the need for live sound-mixing makes adjusting for difference all the more difficult. I should know, as I spend about half the year listening to the television—baseball season. From early April until sometime in October, baseball broadcasts are the “background noise” at my place. Five to seven nights a week, I watch—but really listen to—Mets games.
There is something about the rhythm of baseball—maybe it is really the rhythm of the broadcasts—that allows the viewer to do other things while following the game. Baseball does not demand every moment of your attention and yet, any moment—any pitch, any swing of the bat, any dash between bases—can be dramatic, stellar. While some friends have ribbed that my ability to split my attention really serves as an indication that the game must be boring, I prefer to think of baseball as moving at life’s rhythm. I love listening while I cook, running into the living room to catch a play (or replay) when I hear Gary Cohen’s voice get pitched in the way it does when something exciting is happening, like a bang-bang double play or when he calls a homerun. And even if I am in the room with the TV, I am reading a book or futzing on my laptop, looking up when the sound alerts me.
Commercials are an important part of this listening practice. Since commercials come fairly often in baseball (every half inning and during pitching changes), they are an important signal to me that I can stop my active listening and focus more intently on the book I am reading, the student papers I am grading, or the garlic I am chopping. No matter how shrill the voice of used car dealers or how annoying the jingle for a local aluminum siding installer, I can usually tune out the commercials and pick up the game again when the timbre of the general sounds change back to the flaring music and subdued baritones the announcers use when not shouting their excitement.
For the last few seasons, however, the NY State Smoker’s Quitline—a frequent sponsor on the SNY channel—arrested that ability to tune out the commercials, to ignore them by not seeing them, by introducing sound to their graphic images of tumor-ridden lungs and clogged aortas as a way to dissuade smokers.
An early example of these commercials was a series featuring Rinaldo Martinez, who narrates his tale of throat cancer through an electrolarynx.
This particular commercial’s use of the intersection of voice and baseball through Martinez’s now unattainable dream of being an umpire is crafty because the sounds of the game around Martinez could fool a listener into paying attention because the ad relates the public service announcement to the mode of entertainment with which the listener is primarily engaged. However, played as much as these commercials are (probably eight or nine times over the course of a game), I was able to ignore it as well, the electrolarynx voice becoming the cue to cease my active listening.
The emphysema cough commercial from this past season is not so easily ignored. The loud arresting sound is deeply troubling. The captions between shots of the man coughing may explain the daily misery of the disease, but they are superfluous compared to the sound itself, which tells the story the way no verbal retelling can accomplish. In fact, the commercial’s visual elements seem designed to foreground the sound, as the featured smoker sits with his back to the camera, and the eventual close-up focuses on his mouth. The man’s wheezing and the desperation that it evokes as he tries to get a decent breath is difficult to ignore. The pathos of the commercial is that much more visceral when divorced from the personalized suffering of the electrolarynx commercials. The coughing disrupts the rhythm of the baseball broadcast experience (including the ignorable commercials) to suggest that such an affliction does not obey the patterns of sounds and actions that might bring us comfort.
Truly, there was not a time that that pained coughing would echo through our apartment that my partner did not complain about how disturbing it was, or that my cooking, grading, reading, writing was not interrupted for a moment—even if I succeeded at not looking at the TV. And now, long after the season is over the commercial resonates with me. I cannot speak to its effectiveness in dissuading smokers (having quit smoking over 15 years ago), but in terms of making an impression on TV listeners, there is no doubting its effectiveness.
While equity of volume between shows and commercials can be legislated, ultimately, it is the context of sounds that make an advertisement stand out. Furthermore, the experience of repeatedly hearing this commercial has made the role of sound in how and what we view exceedingly evident—telling us when to look (or look away). The loudness of TV commercials may be mitigated, but the way in which their sounds can capture our attention, disrupt our activities or haunt our days without recourse to the visual calls on critical viewers to also be critical listeners to become aware of their enduring influence.
Osvaldo Oyola is a regular contributor to Sounding Out! He is also an English PhD student at Binghamton University.
*a companion piece of this research, on electronic sounds as lively individuals, is forthcoming in the American Quarterly special issue on sound, September 2011.
Not long ago, while researching the history of synthesized sound—or taking a break to troll for interesting synthesizers for sale online (activities that, for me, inevitably blend together)—I came across a thriving industry of small companies that offer custom-made wood panels to adorn the sides of old and new synths, like Synthwood, Custom Synths, Analogics, and MPCStuff.
As Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco note in Analog Days, their history of Moog synthesizers, an “analog revival” is underway: “Today in the digital world, there is a longing to get back to what was lost” (9). The music technology magazine Sound on Sound concurs, documenting a renewed interest among electronic music-makers in modular synthesizers like those popularized by Moog and others in the late-1960s. Yet there seems to be more at play with this proliferation of wood customizations than merely nostalgia for analog synths, Hammond organs, and hi-fi cabinetry. How might we interpret this desire to adorn—lovingly, even obsessively—steel-encased machines that produce sound by electronic means, with various species of wood? What does this realm of audio esoterica reveal about material and social aspects of musical instruments, and the workings of contemporary media cultures more broadly?
On Contingency and Faith: Walnut, Purple Felt, and the True Cross
Pinch and Trocco describe the Minimoog as the first synthesizer to become a “classic,” due to its relative ease of use, widespread availability, portability and compact design (214). In the retrospective imaginations of historians and musicians, a significant feature that established its classic design was the walnut wood case on an early generation of Minimoog models.
However, Bill Hemsath, an engineer who assembled the first Minimoog prototypes in 1969-70, told Pinch and Trocco that these instruments were assembled from “junk I found in the attic” and an assortment of affordable materials cobbled together in the moment (214). Jim Scott, another engineer who worked on developing the Minimoogs, explained in a 1997 interview: “the reason we made it walnut [was] because Moog had gotten a deal someplace and had a whole barnful.” He noted that “the musicians certainly appreciated the fact that it was made out of walnut,” but eventually the designers “ran out of walnut and started buying something else and slapping paint on it to make it look like walnut.” The various kinds of wood used on models from different years, and the exact start and end dates of the coveted walnut models, remain contested matters among Moog enthusiasts.
Hemsath elaborated on this history in a 1998 interview by making an analogy to “classic” piano design: “There’s a similar story from Steinway. Back when they first got started in the U.S. they used to buy their felts from a feltmaker in Paris… And they got a lot of purple felt because [the supplier] used to be the felt maker for Napoleon’s army, and had a lot left over. So the colored cores in the hammers of those old Steinways were purple because of Napoleon’s army. Well, [the supplier] ran out, and [Steinway] said, red’s fine. They started making pianos with red felt, which is what they have today, and people started complaining, saying, it’s not a real Steinway, it’s not purple.” Like the proverbial purple felt on original Steinway pianos, walnut panels on synthesizers became “classic” because of their association with an originary moment, however happenstance, in the history of a particular instrument, and a limited supply and production run that rendered the material in question relatively rare.
So, a contemporary synthesizer enthusiast’s desire to acquire a “classic” walnut Minimoog, or to commemorate its aesthetic with customized wood panels, is in part an effort to establish a material connection to history. Synthesizer history unfolds in the deep time of technoscience which, as Donna Haraway has argued, often “barely secularize[s]” Judeo-Christian narratives of first and last things, of figural anticipation and fulfillment (9-10). The concern among some synthesizer enthusiasts to possess either the actual wood of an early-model Minimoog, or a faithful substitute for it, indeed resonates with Christian material cultures around relics of the True Cross and next-best artifacts with suitable provenance. A historical conjuncture that is contingent on otherwise unremarkable circumstances (e.g., Bob Moog’s good deal on a barnful of walnut in upstate New York) is marked as an originary or otherwise defining moment (the “invention” of a “classic” synthesizer) for a culture that defines itself as proceeding from it; the former is made to anticipate the latter, and the latter comes to fulfill the former.
Taking Stock: Materialities of Instruments, Sounds, Ecosystems
What kind of wood panels live in my studio? The manual to my Jomox XBase 09 drum machine, from 1999, details that its “steel sheet body” is bookended by “varnished side panels made of alder wood.” Wikipedia‘s pop-anthropological roundup of alder’s “use by humans” includes smoking various foods, treating skin inflammations and tumors, and building electric guitars. Fender Stratocasters have been built with alder since the 1950s. Guitar enthusiasts are notoriously fussy about which type of wood comprises the instrument’s body because of its effect on tone. Scientists, meanwhile, have taken to applying medical imaging techniques to Stradivarius violins, trying to “crack the mystery” of its prized tone. (Some say it’s due to the particular density of slow-growing trees in the Little Ice Age; others conclude it must be the varnish.)
Given these interconnected concerns with instrument materials and the composition of tone, one might venture an etymological connection between timbre—which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as the character or quality of a musical sound depending upon the instrument producing it—and timber, which references “the matter or substance of which anything is built up or composed.” Music scholars often characterize timbre as the materiality of sound. Despite longstanding knowledge of the relationships of timber and timbre among instrument builders and musicians, and possible overlaps in historical applications of these words, placing wood panels on the sides of synthesizers surely has no effect on the resulting tone. Or does it? Audiophiles are prone toward occult-like habits, such as placing a single coin on top of a speaker to absorb vibration; and wood panels may well have subtle effects on the overall stability of an electronic instrument, resulting in barely perceptible sonic artifacts.
My Virus B synthesizer from the late-1990s has darker wood side panels than the Jomox, sort of a faux mahogany. Recently I wrote to Access Music, explaining my research on synthesizer history and inquiring what kind of wood they used. They replied that the B series featured stained beech wood (also commonly used and appreciated for producing smoked German beers and cheeses). Virus volunteered that they “in general do not use any kind of tropical wood for our devices.” Using sustainable wood has become a mandate and marketing concern at the Moog company as well; Moog’s wood “comes primarily from Tennessee. Hardwoods in Tennessee are growing faster than they are being harvested… US hardwoods are a world-wide model of sustained forest management.” Among contemporary synthesizer companies, there is often a selective eco-consciousness; as synthesizer designer Jessica Rylan suggested in our interview for Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound (Duke: 2010), it is arguably impossible to build a synthesizer that does not incorporate at least some materials that are toxic in stages of manufacturing and/or disposal.
The paradox of dressing up an electronic machine made partly of toxic materials and processes with a sustainable-wood exterior is a fitting metaphor—like a contemporary fig leaf—for how we outwardly express environmentalist concern, despite plenty of contradictions in practice. Wood-adorned electronic devices, in all their glorious contradictions, are especially resonant in this cultural moment; see Asus’s EcoBook, Karvt’s lineup of custom wood skins for MacBooks, and, my favorite, Flashsticks: handmade wood USB “sticks” that combine “the high tech world of computing with the simplicity of the world of nature.” The story of Flashsticks’ handmade creation is a case study in eco-contradiction: the website implies that no trees were harmed in the making of their USB sticks—the company uses locally-sourced, “fallen wood from the previous winter’s storms”—yet we do not hear of the toxic materials that may comprise the drive itself.
Wood panels indeed work to conceal inconvenient truths. As Ruth Schwartz Cowan pointed out, the midcentury aesthetic of hiding household appliances behind wood paneling typified a culture that concealed gendered divisions of domestic labor (205). Lisa Parks has documented the similar recent phenomenon of dressing up cell towers as trees, which obscures the politics of media infrastructure behind a cloak of “nature.”
This is also a story about the mirage of a space between nature and artifice. Retro-culture enthusiasts celebrate that “real cars have fake wood paneling.” Meanwhile, a company called iBackwoods has engineered a “real wood” iPhone case that pays tribute to “timeless style of a wood panel station wagon.” Moog’s new Filtatron application for iPad, a software emulation of the company’s Moogerfooger filter pedal, is rendered authentic by its virtual wood panels. All of these examples reveal the “nature” of wood paneling to be cultural all the way down.
Ultimately, wood paneling might prompt us to recognize the interconnectedness among seemingly divergent materials, environments, and social practices. Consider, as a useful comparison to the climate-forged Stradivarius, the ash baseball bat: cherished by players for its “magical” effects on hitting, and now threatened by a warming climate and killer beetle in its source forests in Pennsylvania. Every synthesizer likewise holds and explodes into an ecosystem, and sometimes sounds like one too. The composer Mira Calix has suggested that analog synthesizers, with their individual quirks that increase with age, are much like wooden instruments; both seem to breathe like “little creatures” and take on a unique character, like a human voice. Our synthesizers, our kin.