Blog Post

Paperphone: beta-releasing a scholarly audio application

Paperphone: beta-releasing a scholarly audio application

A scholarly voice playground, Paperphone is an interactive audio application that processes voice and sound materials live and in-context. Designed to challenge the privileging of text over act in humanities scholarship, Paperphone is a performative platform for scholars to unravel the expressive potential of voice and audio in sharing academic works. Paperphone is made to be discoverable. With Paperphone, we want to ignite a praxis-based opportunity for the scholar community to play with poetic and experimental forms of utterances and to explore the semiotics of voice-based effects.

A collaboration with experimental music artist Jonathan Zorn, this project explores the intellectual and sonic potentials - literally and playfully - emerging at a conjuncture between humanities scholarship and sound design.

We just beta-released Paperphone! Read updates on Paperphone to download and play with a beta version of Paperphone. As we finalize our sound design, we would love your ideas for effect presets!


Paper presentation is an important ritual in academia. It is a site in which scholars sound and resonate with knowledge, physically and intellectually. Deemed professionally significant, however, the practice of paper presentation is under-considered in almost all contexts of praxis. In the humanities especially, scholars deliver their papers by reading them. The practice of reading prioritizes reason over emotion. The lack of a conscious engagement with the expressive, emotive, sense-based potentials of speech often makes audience’s experience of hearing a paper dull and uninteresting.

Reading reinforces the privileging of text over act, of print over speech. Print as a medium to express scholarly content connotes permanence; speech, by contrast, is a performance-based mode that is transient and inextricably tied to its temporal and spatial context. As a fixed object, a printed academic text can be used to construct a disembodied “reality” – a reality of an objective academic past, the grand narrative of the history of academic knowledge.1 The act of reading an academic text as it is written promotes the value of permanence and context-free interpretations.

A software project, Paperphone provokes emerging conversations related to scholarly communication that foregrounds sound and voice. Enacting the performative possibility of knowledge transmission, this project encourages scholars to interpret meaning of scholarly texts through a sense-based engagement. This modal redefinition will hopefully spark a fruitful interplay among various intellectual, emotional, and other imaginative and sense-based relationships to texts.


Using Paperphone

How does sound rematierialize text? How does sound recontextualize the meaning of text? How do the sonic qualities of speech affect the meaning of text? We used these questions to guide our design decisions; and ensured that our design will eventually enable scholar users to explore these questions in light of their own research.

With Paperphone, the scholar user could begin to imagine while exploring the expressive possibilities of delivering scholarly content. For instance, reverberation, a technique that creates an illusion of a sound within a resonant space, could add emphasis to a key utterance such as a thesis statement. A counterargument in an essay could be delivered with a small amount of Distortion; a citation with Pitchshift; rhetorical questions with delay. One could also imagine the use of effects to convey scholarly content beyond rhetorical emphasis. An explanatory sounding of concepts related to intersubjectivity, for instance, could be boosted by the Chorus effect, simulating the convergence of multiple sounds/voices with roughly the same pitch and timbre. A statement based on circular reasoning could be enhanced with the feedback sound of itself.

Additionally, we provide a suite of effect presets, a set of preprogrammed effect combination and settings with a suggested function or concept. In designing these presets, we imagined qualities of audio effects that are potentially useful for expressing humanistic scholarship. This phase required a thoughtful consideration of (the meaning of) physical, rhetorical, and associative qualities of audio effects. For instance, we created a preset called “Intercom” based in a combination of Reverb and Filter. This Intercom effect produces sounds as if they were coming out of small speakers in an empty room. The user could deploy this effect to emanate ideas associated with institution, analog broadcast systems, or other centralized structure or mechanism.

There are other potential applications of Paperphone besides scholarly paper presentations. We encourage unconventional applications such as academic karaoke (e.g. “critical karaoke”), cross-genre production like scholarly poetry (i.e. blurring the boundaries between expository and creative writing), collaborative performance modes like scholar-artist tag teams (e.g. scholar talks while a sound artist interacts with the sound in real-time).

What's Next

We are making the Paperphone Max patch (both editable and standalone versions) available online, as a part of Soundbox Provoke! collection. The work will be licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License. We thank Duke University's Franklin Humanities Institute and the great folks behind the SoundBox of the PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge for making this project possible.

[1] In his essays in Text and Act (1995), Richard Taruskin exposes the dominance of musical notation over performances in musicological research. The privileging of scores over performances in musicological research is illustrative of an underpinning ideology also found in print culture. Unlike performance, notated scores presume music as a fixed object, one that is unchanged by its context. Similarly, scholarship in the print medium connotes fixity.


No comments