Tag Archive | baseball

Taking Me Out of the Ball Game: Advertising’s Acoustic Pitch

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.

Keith Hernandez – former MLB player, ex-smoker and current SNY broadcaster.

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.

Oh Say Can You Hear?: Singing the National Anthem

Photo: "Coors Field, Denver, national anthem" by Flickr user MelvinSchlubman under a Creative Commons 2.0 licenseIn my decade as a play-by-play broadcaster and sports reporter, I’ve covered more than 1,300 games in sports ranging from high school football to Major League Baseball. Every one of those games has been preceded by “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the national anthem of the United States of America. One season, I was responsible for selecting the national anthem singers for all the home games of a minor-league basketball team I worked for. I’m about as familiar with “The Star-Spangled Banner” as someone who’s never performed the song can be. Yet, I wonder why anyone would want to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a sporting event.

For starters, it’s a very difficult song to sing, which isn’t surprising when you consider that “The Star-Spangled Banner” wasn’t originally designed to be sung. What we now know as our national anthem started off as part of a poem written by lawyer and author Francis Scott Key. The poem, titled “Defence of Fort McHenry,” was Key’s thoughts on a battle he witnessed during the War of 1812. [See guest blogger Jeb Middlebrook’s post “Prison Music: Containment, Escape, and the Sound of America” for more on the Star Spangled-Banner as a prison song.–Editor] Key’s brother-in-law noticed that the poem’s words could be set to the music of “The Anacreontic Song“, a popular English drinking song. Within weeks, Key’s words were printed in newspapers throughout the country, the name changed to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Although all four verses of Key’s poem were converted to song, only the first verse was designated as the official national anthem of the United States of America in 1931.

No one has pinpointed the first sporting event that had “The Star-Spangled Banner” sung before it. However, there’s evidence the song was sung both before and during Major League Baseball games while World War I was going on. During the first game of the 1918 World Series between the visiting Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs at Weeghman Park (known today as Wrigley Field), a band performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the seventh-inning stretch (“Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was ten years old in 1918, but the Tin Pan Alley song had yet to become a seventh-inning stretch standard). It wasn’t until World War II when the national anthem was performed before every baseball game, an affirmation of the American spirit during such a difficult time.

Photo: “National Anthem” by Flickr user Wilson-Fam, under Creative Commons 2.0 

It’s fitting that baseball was the first sport whose games were preceded by the national anthem; baseball’s status as America’s national pastime and as one of its defining cultural institutions was undisputed for most of the 20th century. Also, in the 1940s, professional basketball was just getting off the ground, professional football was barely 20 years old, and professional hockey was dominated by Canadians and only played in a handful of American markets. If the tradition of pre-game anthem singing had begun in one of those sports, it would’ve taken much longer to catch on, if it caught on at all. Eventually, all the other professional leagues followed baseball’s example.

When I was an account executive for the Yakima (Washington) Sun Kings of the Continental Basketball Association during their 2002-2003 season, my boss assigned me the responsibility of choosing our pre-game national anthem singers. Fortunately, it proved to be an easy task, since folks who were interested in singing regularly called the team’s offices, and as long as they could hold a tune I booked them. All I could give the singers were tickets to the game at which they were performing, but no one ever bemoaned the lack of compensation.

When I think about all of the games I’ve covered, I honestly can’t remember any vocal renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that stand out because of their greatness. However, I remember all of the terrible singers I’ve heard. There was the raven-haired woman in Keizer, Oregon who got halfway through the song, screwed up the lyrics and started over. There was a middle-aged man in Binghamton, New York who messed up the song’s pitch and pacing so badly, there was a good three seconds of stunned silence when he finished, followed by polite applause. There was the teenager in Kalamazoo, Michigan whose voice cracked every time she hit a high note. And, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. So, you work your butt off to sing an extremely difficult song, you manage not to mess it up, you get some nice applause once you’re done and then you’re forgotten right after the first pitch. Singing the national anthem is a thankless job, yet there’s no shortage of people willing to do it.

When I think about the people who volunteered to sing at Yakima Sun Kings games, I don’t recall anyone who who looked at singing the anthem as a way to honor their country. There was one woman who lived an hour and a half away who volunteered her anthem-singing services to every professional and college team within three or four hours of her home. I asked her why she put in all this effort and she said “I just like to sing.” The one singer I rejected was an eight-year-old girl whose mother bragged over the phone about her daughter being such an outstanding singer that “she brings people to tears.” Her mother seemed to think singing the national anthem before about 3,000 people in the middle of nowhere would lead her daughter to stardom. I was out of the office when a CD arrived with 10 tracks and the young lady’s picture on the cover (her mother called the office twice to make sure her husband had dropped off the CD and that I had received it). I listened to the one track that featured her singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and I didn’t think it was very good; she had a nice voice but she was trying way too hard. Thankfully, I never heard from her mother again.

Other than that young lady (or, more accurately, her mother), none of the aspiring anthem singers I encountered seemed to be seeking stardom. Perhaps these singers were more patriotic than they – or I – realized. Perhaps they just wanted to cross an item off their bucket list. Or, they were big sports fans and relished an opportunity to go to a game free of charge. Maybe they just thought it would be a cool thing to do and a great way to gain the admiration of their family and friends; many people are petrified of doing anything in front of an audience and those who aren’t are often seen as heroic, even if their anthem singing is immediately forgotten.

Photo: “National Symphony Orchestra violinist plays at Nationals v. Diamondbacks” by Flickr user angela n. under Creative Commons 2.0 License

However, the best way to get your rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to be noticed and remembered is not to sing it but to play it on a musical instrument. Live instrumental performances of the national anthem are rare, so even an average instrumental rendition is more memorable than a great sung rendition. In my stint as national anthem booker for the Yakima Sun Kings, I encountered just one non-singer: a 13-year-old boy who taught himself how to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” on his saxophone. The amount of positive feedback I received from the fans on his rendition was easily double or triple the feedback on all the anthem singers combined; he was one of only two performers I booked for multiple games. When I lived in Binghamton, New York, my favorite national anthem performers were a pair of trumpeters; they played “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a variety of sporting events in the area. I still get chills when I think about the exceptional national anthem rendition performed by trumpeter Jesse McGuire – the former lead trumpeter for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in New York City – prior to the seventh game of the 2001 World Series in Phoenix, Arizona, the only World Series I’ve covered.

Nowadays, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is far from the only song sung at many American sporting events. In games featuring teams from Canada (the NBA, MLB and NHL all have Canadian franchises), “O Canada”, the Canadian national anthem, is sung pre-game along with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” “O Canada” is a much easier – and shorter – song to sing. Many baseball teams also recruit singers for “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch. You don’t even have to sing as much as you have to lead the crowd in singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and being an expert singer isn’t required. However, my guess is more people would rather sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” over anything else at a sporting event. Singers aren’t looking for easy or simple. They’re looking to showcase their talents singing a song we all learned growing up, a song we’ve heard countless others sing on big and small stages and a song that demands the utmost respect and importance requiring both fans and participants alike to stop what they’re doing and to salute the American flag.

Robert Ford is currently a reporter and radio pre- and post-game show host covering Major League Baseball’s Kansas City Royals. He has also been a radio play-by-play broadcaster for several minor league baseball, college and high school teams, allowing him to call places like Yakima, WA, Kalamazoo, MI and Binghamton, NY home at various points in his life.  Follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/raford3 and read his blog: http://radioguydiaries.wordpress.com/

Into the Woods: A Brief History of Wood Paneling on Synthesizers*

Various Species for the Prophet 08, Analogics

*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.

The Moog Minimoog B (with walnut case), ca. 1970, Audities Foundation

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.” Wikipedias 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.)

The author

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.

A Flashstick USB drive that incorporates wood from Berkshire, England

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.

Washington DC - National Museum of American History: America on the Move - Park Forest, Illinois 1950s by Wallyg (via Flickr)

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.

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