Emoticon-management shareware

Nancy Reagan, ew

The war against reverb

I just got back from a lecture by Emily Thompson, a technology historian — on the how the sound of reverberation was considered deeply uncool in the early 20th century.

Acousticians, enamored with the discover of signal-to-noise ratios and the idea of “clarity” in the way-new technology of radio, apparently found reverb kind of distracting and annoying. They did studies showing that reverb hurt comprehension.

The end result was a total war on reverb — in buildings that had been constructed spefically to have reverb, such as churches and auditoriums. A physicist named Wallace Sabine invented these sound-dampening tiles (he put peat inside tiles and fired it in a kiln; the peat immolated and left sound-aborbing tiny holes in the tiles) and slapped them all the hell over the place. One of his first experiments was on St. Thomas’ Cathedral on Fifth Avenue in New York. Within ten years or so, everyone in New York was crazy for silence and the tiles were in huge demand.

A few years later, radio signal-processing dudes invented artificial reverb — piping a sound signal into a chamber, or in between steel plates or along springs — to create the illusion of reverberant space during radio broadcasts. Thus, in the space of a decade, technology essentially uncoupled the traditional relationship of space and acoustics. We removed the reverb from places that naturally created it; and we created it artificially in virtual spaces.

Thompson has written an extremely cool book about this.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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