Home Is Where the Quiet Is; or Who’s Flying That Jet So Loud?
The distant but not so distant din of interstate traffic. The constant whine of any number of electric motors, power lines and generators. The ubiquitous drone of airplane flyovers.
These are the noises that are part of our daily landscape. They’re not sounds. They’re noise. They don’t represent much in detail or memory, but I can’t think of more than two or three places in the United States where one won’t always hear at least one of those noises constantly.
Noise pollution. This was the one the biggest topics mentioned in my quick survey of audio producers in late December. People who work in audio are always listening for meaning in the world. What are sounds telling us?
Well, you can’t tell what a specific sound is telling you, if you can’t hear it because of the constant racket that the modern world makes.
The twenty-first century is a very loud place. Much of the noise comes from transportation and energy being done bigger, faster, screechier than ever before. Entire floors of urban chrome and glass buildings are dedicated to air-conditioning units. Florescent lights buzz and whine away in every workplace. Machines pound away. Every computer hums—until you don’t hear it anymore.
Not to say there isn’t a natural din out there. The world has always been a noisy place. Volcanoes make noise. Ice makes noise. Birds! Birds make lots of noise. I read one time that 150 years ago before Iowa was plowed under and made safe for agriculture one couldn’t hear oneself think for all the millions of songbirds that were singing away. Lest we forget elephants, crickets and those rattling Aspen leaves.
Yeah, there’s always been noise. Try talking over Niagara Falls. But there’s something different about noise pollution. Like a layer of soot or an extra dose of lead in our water, noise takes something away from us.
Constant noise erodes our health. Labs, factories, and even offices have noticeable high-decibel dins that eventually erase or notch out some of our hearing. After awhile our ears and brains create filters that simply stop listening to certain sounds and frequencies on both a physical and psychological level. You don’t hear the noise, but you’ll also most likely miss information and sounds in a certain hearing range.
Noise confuses and degrades communication. “Hey, watch out.” “What?” “Watch out, a bus is coming.” “Huh, I can’t hear you over the traffic.” “Get out of the way.” “Yes, you have a nice day.” Splat.
Noise diminishes memory. The squeak of a child’s tricycle. The quiet of a neighborhood bookstore. Your mother humming in the kitchen. These sounds evoke memories, specific images. The sounds of your childhood may still be out there. You just can’t quite hear them over the din.
There is no one government agency like the EPA that regulates noise pollution. Sometimes it’s the local police answering a nuisance call (because noise isn’t really a problem—it’s just a bother), sometimes it’s OSHA and sometimes it’s the Department of Agriculture (Try standing next to grain dryer sometime, it’s like standing next to a jet airplane).
So, what can the audio engineer and the hunter of realistic sound effects do? Here are a few things you can do personally to lower the din. 1. Use less energy. The wheels of industry with squeak less if you ask less of them. 2. Oil the squeaky wheel. Proper maintenance is always a good thing. 3. Turn it down. You’ll be saving your ears as well as others. 4. Turn it off. Give your ears a break.
There are so many important and interesting sounds out there that are worthwhile hearing that it’s worth our while to have a world where we can find them. I for one, would hate to miss a single one.
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