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The Sight of Sound: Mapping Audio

The Sight of Sound: Mapping Audio

New Orleans:



DIY Cartography:

List of Sound Maps and Mapping Resources:

Ive been fascinated lately with the number of extremely elaborate sound maps that have cropped up online.  The massive collaborative efforts that this kind of work inspires (the New Orleans map is incredible in this respect), and the elaborate digital design of the maps themselves are really impressive accomplishments.  But for me, sound maps also raise a lot of questions about what seems to be an emerging trend in audio work: the visualization of sound.  For instance, take a close look at the interfaces of audio software like Audacity and SoundBooth, and then compare those interfaces to video editing software.  The formats are strikingly similar, despite the fact that they are used to manipulate different modes.  Visualizing sound in this software enables users to capture it, play with it, and break it down in order to work with it.  As this popular software demonstrates, there seems to be a push to transform sound into something concrete--something visual--and many technologies are beginning to make this possible.     

There is something about mapping that seems almost antithetical to sound.  The idea of mapping stems from our desire to know where we are going.  In order to orient ourselves, we need to create grids and boundaries.  But boundaries don't apply to sound.  Unlike maps, sound does not rely on surfaces or depths; rather, it penetrates them.  Sound waves literally impinge upon bodies; they break through the boundaries of organic and inorganic bodies in the form of vibrations. Sound is experienced as simultaneously interior and exterior, but mapping (in the case of place) only deals with exteriority.  It helps us to make sense of territories, to objectify and dissect landscapes so that they are easier to interpret and navigate.

I think part of what intrigues me about sound mapping is that it depends upon something that is constantly changing.  Sound is ephemeral.  Unlike visually depicting buildings or landmarks, if I stand in one spot and record sound for a few minutes, and stand in the very same spot and record even a few hours later, the sounds I capture will not be the same.  They may be relatively similar in some cases, but they would not be the exact same sounds.  These maps, then, are snap shots of sound.  Thus, in the process of creating more dynamic representations of the places they map, sound cartographers are also transforming sound into something static, something that we can repeatedly experience.  This seems far removed from the embodied experience of encountering sound in its original environment.

Similarly, the recorded voices (those contributors who share stories or sound bites from their daily lives) are able to give us a glimpse into the rich culture of a place.  But at the same time these voices and sounds appear to make the map come alive, they are also recordings from a particular historical moment that has already passed.  Treating the map as a current representation (as opposed to an historical archive) would require constant and continual participation and maintenance.  But is a current representation what sound cartographers are after?  Perhaps this kind of mapping is better suited for historical study.  I'm curious to know more about how the information embedded in these maps is actually being used.  Who is using this information and for what purposes?  What are the limitations of this information?  

With the explosion of geolocation technologies and new sound apps, sound may soon become a naturalized feature of cartography.  So I think it's important to ask more questions about what these maps enable and/or disable.  What are we losing by visualizing sound?  What are we gaining?  What is at stake? 



Here is a useful typology of sound maps that might help us think through the various functions of this kind of audio work. These were sent to me by Benjamin Tausig:




Anonymous (not verified)

i wonder to what extent we need to think about something like echolocation in light of some of your questions. after all, sound has been and continues to be used to map. boundaries would seem absolutely to apply to sound at least provisionally here. 

on the claim that sound cartographers are making sound static, i wonder again to what degree this is an old question and reality. i think of doctorow's novel _ragtime_  and the little boy listening over and over again to see if the record sounds any different when listened to repeatedly. i think you're right to think of these maps in archival terms. how else might they function? how can we use them as living entities representing presence? why would we want this?

i read through the post quickly and would like to look at the maps more. maybe i will have more to say. great post.