11 December 2011
I flip the switch and it was clear as a bell. It was as clear as the most beautiful radio signal you're ever heard in your life. It was perfect. It was right in my ear. There was nothing I needed to do. There was zero dropout, zero static, zero interference, zero hum. It sounded like a CD. It was amazing. And I just started to cry. I hadn't heard sound that good live in a year. I could probably hear better than the people who weren't using the loop. I could hear every single word. I didn't need the captions.
There are many reasons for that. The loop was great. The sound mix was great. Another very important thing is this: It was coming directly into my hearing aid, which is a sound environment that I know extremely well. Here was the absolutely perfect solution to a problem that had really put me in despair for a year.
Since that experience at the Kennedy, I've actually gone to the trouble of learning as much as I possibly can about the technology. I've even taken a three-day class in how to install them, crawling around on the floor, taping the loop down--it literally is a loop of wire--setting up the amplifiers, adjusting the sound. It is not as easy to set up as an FM system or an infrared system, which are the common ones that we see, but it is a far, far better system when it is properly set up. I'd like to see it in all the major concert halls in the United States.
We need a word for an environment that does not have a hearing loop. Hearing disabled?
Disgraceful. There are 36 million people with hearing loss in the United States. This is a figure that will double in the next 5-10 years because of the Baby Boomers who are turning 65 this year. I am not the only person who can't go the theater. Since I can't go to a theater, a ticket is not sold. Sales are going to plummet unless hearing assistance improves dramatically. The place where you start improving hearing assistance is with loops.
Who bears the responsibility for looping these environments?
For me, the interesting question is operational. Who's going to pay for it? Who should pay for it? The answer is, anybody who's got the money and who cares. In terms of the public sector, people with hearing losses need to make it as clear as they possibly can that if the government is going to provide help to the disabled--which I think is a moral imperative--then assistive listening devices need to be improved. The government needs to change its standards. The Americans With Disabilities Act should be updated and better hearing assistance should be mandated.
What about applications beyond the theater?
Loops are very flexible. They can be used for hearing assistance for subways, going to a bank, ordering at McDonald's, or at the Apple Store--which is a terrible environment for me. Loops are convenient and dignified. Where can't they be used? The major drawback is that they are mono only.
In what ways will you be involved in these issues in the future?
Bringing the technology that I know and use every day to bear on the question and the problem of improving hearing assistance technology, particularly hearing aids. Hearing aids are optimized for speech, but they don't sound good for music or anything else but speech.
Interestingly enough, there are two parallel industries that work in sound. I had no idea about this until I lost so much hearing. The hearing aid industry works on sound reproduction: it uses microphones, speakers, and all sorts of signal processing. The professional audio industry does exactly the same thing. But while the two of them know about each other, the hearing aid industry doesn't understand how advanced professional audio is and the professional audio industry doesn't understand how large a market there is for high sound quality in hearing assistance.
The major focus that I hope to have is in bringing the people in these industries a little bit closer together so that they can grasp the importance of it. I'm not making any money of it. I'm actually losing a fortune considering the amount of hours I'm working on it without getting paid! The only thing I want to do is to get better sounding hearing aids. And the only way I can think of doing is that is to take the technology I use everyday as a record producer, engineer, and composer and get more of it in my ear.
Is there room for a Richard Einhorn composition for orchestra and sound loop?
The sound loop is essentially just a sound delivery system, but I am working on a piece with my friend Bill Morrison--who did the films for the live version of The Origin--for the opening of a space in New York in the fall of 2012. Bill and I were talking about what had happened to me and he got this idea for an installation. Without giving too much away, there will be a lot of interactivity and a lot of very, very cool sounds rather than upsetting sounds. So, I guess I am still working with space.
Richard Einhorn's The Origin (CD cover image above) is based on Darwin's life and work.
05 December 2011
While the air sac makes possible booming vocalizations, it may have prevented the production of the rich variety of distinctive sounds that is exploited in spoken language. A paper published last month in the Journal of Human Evolution, "Loss of air sacs improved hominin speech abilities," explores this relationship. From the abstract:
Air sacs are a feature of the vocal tract of all great apes, except humans. Because the presence or absence of air sacs is correlated with the anatomy of the hyoid bone, a probable minimum and maximum date of the loss of air sacs can be estimated from fossil hyoid bones. Australopithecus afarensis still had air sacs about 3.3 Ma, while Homo heidelbergensis, some 600 000 years ago and Homo neandethalensis some 60 000 years ago, did no longer. The reduced distinctiveness of articulations produced with an air sac is in line with the hypothesis that air sacs were selected against because of the evolution of complex vocal communication. This relation between complex vocal communication and fossil evidence may help to get a firmer estimate of when speech first evolved.
The researcher, Bart de Boer of the University of Amsterdam, attempted to recreate the sounds of our inarticulate ancestors by forcing air through artificial vocal tracts of plastic tubing, some of which contained an extra chamber to model the air sac. The results can be heard here courtesy of New Scientist.