Acoustic Space, Community, and Virtual Soundscapes

Authored by: Barry Truax

The Routledge Companion to Sounding Art

Print publication date:  August  2016
Online publication date:  July  2016

Print ISBN: 9781138780613
eBook ISBN: 9781315770567
Adobe ISBN: 9781317672777


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The human auditory system has a remarkable ability to perform what I call “dual processing”—that is, a process of simultaneously extracting two distinct types of information from a sound event. I am not referring to the common distinction of separating sound from its structural pattern of organization since the latter occurs over a much longer timeframe. Instead I am referring to the perception of a single sound event, or short gestural pattern, that yields complementary types of information. One of the most basic examples of such processing occurs when we identify both the nature of a sound source and the energy input that set it into vibration. The latter is called the excitation function in acoustics, and although the resonant properties of most objects are relatively fixed, different kinds of excitation can bring out differences in the perceived timbre of a sounding object. Early psychoacoustic experiments on the perception of everyday objects found that listeners could easily identify both some quality of the sound source, for instance, the hardness of a material, while at the same time obtaining information about the nature of the mallet that struck it or the process of excitation, such as bouncing or scraping (Freed 1990; Gaver 1993; Warren and Verbrugge 1984). Trevor Wishart (1996) has further identified situations where there is a single energy input, or repeated sequence of inputs, which results in the inherent qualities of the sound source being emphasized, compared with continuous energy input that results in a perceived gesture (or “imposed morphology” as Wishart puts it) whether that of, for example, the wind or some form of human or mechanical energy. This latter situation can be compared with the process of modulation, where information is encoded (and later decoded) into the pattern of change of a given parameter of a carrier, whether it is an audio signal, an electromagnetic wave, or the air stream passing through the vocal tract. Listeners clearly have a detailed knowledge of what kinds of gestures are associated with natural, human, and mechanical energy sources.

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