HarSMedia

A found tapes meta-map

november 08, 2009.

After the das kleine performances I had an interesting discussion with some of the visitors saturday october 17th at the Leipziger gal.lery, on the subject of Penelope's recordings.
To begin, it surprised me to find that they (all students of Leipzig University, though in very different subjects) did not seem to be bothered too much by the very considerable material and physical difficulties of Penelope's odyssey. The task that she performed was titanic, maybe not in absolute terms, but definitely as far as one single person goes. Not in absolute terms, as the use of on the average 21 cassette tapes per day will have been far below the daily tape turnover of a retail shop in whatever reasonably sized Western city in the heydays of the compact-cassette. A quick calculation shows that stacking all of the cassettes that went through Penelope's hands in the twenty years of her recording project would fill up just a bit over 20 cubic meter of space . truck To give you an idea how much - or how little - that is: all of them would easily fit into the medium sized truck that you see in the picture, which has a capacity of about 25 cubic meters. (Mind you though that the truck in the picture would not be suitable to transport the cassettes. The block of tapes would weigh about 10 tons, while the truck as pictured is apt to transport loads up to 7.5 tons only...)
I was actually somewhat disappointed when I first realized that for storing twenty years of audio-recordings on compact cassette one needs but relatively little space. That was when Penelope showed me the cellar in Meerssen where she kept them all. I would have estimated one and a half hundred thousand tapes to take up far more room, but no: all of the sounds of one's life's best years, written onto 4.75 centimeters of plastic ribbon per second, together not even completely fill up a medium-sized truck...

[ One of the events related to Penelope's tapes that in the near future I will attempt to realize: display (given a suitable place and the right conditions) her complete archive as a 20 cubic meter solid block of cassettes ... ]

Also Penelope herself originally largely over-estimated the actual volume of tape that was involved. For a while she had been developing the idea to, at the very end of it all, somehow slice all tapes together, and find a way to - physically - take the resulting mega-tape on a world tour and film a documentary of its (un)winding, while making a full circle around the globe. She gave up on that when she found out that in fact the total length of tape that she had used at the end of her twenty years amounted to somewhat less than twelve and a half thousand kilometers. It thus would not even get her one third of the way around.

But we all will agree that for one individual to handle 144.567 cassette tapes of course is gigantic, not even to mention once again the relentless, clock-like 24/7 regularity, that Penelope imposed upon herself for twenty years in one long stretch without breaks: it was a continuous and virtually unending ritual.

The students that I spoke to, though, were not so much interested in quantities and volumes. They were far more curious to learn about the social aspects. And especially the girl was eager to find out what sort of a relationship I had with this Penelope. "Have you known each other for a long time? How did you meet? Where is she now? And why does she allow you to access and use these personal recordings?"
sony It showed on her face that she tried to imagine how it would feel to - first - record all of your deeds and doings, and then - second - hand all of it over to some artist type, who would listen to all of your [[ sleeping, showering, shitting, eating, working, drinking, shouting, kicking, fucking, bathing, sleeping ]] and divulge it in places much like the one on the cold landing of which we were standing, smoking and drinking a beer. It looked as if the mere thought of it made her shudder, more than did the draught.

...

Penelope's recordings and her archive of tapes are among the subjects of a book on the noble art that is foundtaping, which I currently am in the process of writing/assembling. The text concentrates on the tapes that over the years I picked up in the Netherlands. Its main language will be dutch, but as substantial parts will be in English (adapted from some of the entries on the subject that have appeared over the years in the SoundBlog), it might be of interest also to non-Dutch readers.
The title will be: "Alle Geluid Van De Wereld" (All sounds in the universe).
The book started out as an introduction and extended offline 'manual' to the Found Tapes Maps, that I have been working on over the year. Thanks to a project-grant of the Netherlands Foundation for Visual Arts, Design and Architecture, I was able to spend the time necessary not only to finally bring the online exhibition up to date with the actual findings, but also to create and maintain a database of all the finds (at the time of writing that is 664 items), which soon will allow you to visit the found tapes collection in other than just the current chronological way, for example via a Googlemaps based interface.

The following Googlemap pictures the area just a little to the north of Paris where four suburbs meet: Pantin, Aubervilliers, Bobigny and La Courneuve.

bobigny ft map

For several years I have been teaching at the IUT Bobigny, part of the Paris XIII University. I then went to Bobigny once, sometimes twice a week, during semester periods. I walked up to the campus from one metro stop or another, did my teaching, and then walked back again. Sometimes I stayed over for lunch.
When the weather was fine, I went out for a walk.
And when I did, I often came upon some piece or other of cast-away tape.
Where that was, you see indicated on the map above.
The Bobigny campus is right in its middle.
Isn't it amazing to see how over the years my steps to and from the Bobigny university campus literally became tape-spangled?

It was also over in Bobigny that I picked up what became the very first item in the Found Tapes Exhibition, on march 21st, 2002. The about 13 hours long found tapes audio stream starts with a fragment from "Okie from Muskogee", which I found on that Bobigny tape.
I began writing the SoundBlog at about that same time; so these found tapes were among the first things that I wrote about, in early september 2002, and some of the blog's readers helped me to identify these earliest bits of 'found music'. A little later I thought up my own web-based ad-hoc method for identifying fragments of pop music. It was a bit laborious, but worked rather well. To use it tracks had to be songs, though, written in a language that I understood. And the audio fragments had to include part of the lyrics. (I would search the web for the lyrics; the search would give me a title and artist names; I then would try to check the sound on the tape against recordings of the songs that I looked for in their preview versions on e.g. iTunes or Amazon's.)

Nowadays I can do much, much better using online music recognition services like the Shazam application on my iPhone. (Still only in the case of pop(ular) music, though.)

For many years I had wished for such a powerful tool to help me identify audio fragments on the tapes I picked up. I wanted an audio search engine, something like a GoogleSound, which would allow one to upload parts of a sound file, upon which the engine then would return title, artist and maybe even a preview as results. I honestly thought that gentle giant Google would attempt to create a service like this. For a while I even toyed with the idea of applying for a job at Google's (that was the time Google was hiring at a mega-scale), thinking specifically of - research / datamining - work somehow related to audio file search and indexing.

A service like the one these days provided by e.g. Shazam is precisely the thing that I was hoping for, but which I thought still far beyond our algorithmic and computational reach.

shazam Until the day I first saw the app perform its 'magic'.
...
For those who do not know Shazam, here is how the app works: you are somewhere hearing some (recorded) music playing and say to yourself: "Stop, hey, what's that sound?" ( * ) ... You then pick up your iPhone, launch Shazam, click its tag button, and point your mobile's microphone towards the source of the music. The app 'listens' for about 15 seconds. During that time it records a sound clip which then is sent to the Shazam server. Shazam runs its pattern recognition algorithm, that looks for a recording in the database with an audio fingerprint (contructed from a series of intensity peak frequencies, as derived from the audio file's spectrogram) which matches that of the sample. If close enough, the closest match will be the result that appears on your phone's screen within seconds. The screen shot shows you some of the 'found music' that the app recently recognized for me.

The algorithm developed by Avery Li-Chun Wang and others at Shazam is remarkably powerful. Pretty much all of the popular music I searched for was recognized; even if its origin was slightly less western, as for example in the case of turkish popular music. It is not infallible, though, and while testing the app I did come across curious and obviously incorrect results every now and then; so if the answer is of some importance, one should always verify, and not take Shazam's word for it. But the algorithm proves itself an amazingly reliable guesser; though it will, obviously, only identify recordings that have been fingerprinted and added to the Shazam database. That base currently contains about 8 million recordings. Which is impressive enough, though surely it is but a tiny part of all the recordings in the world. Very true: "Most sounds you will never hear, " once said Penelope, with a sigh accompanied by the strangest of little smiles. It left me wondering what she meant precisely, or that maybe she was merely being ironic.

Shazam is a commercial enterprise, that - at least publicly - is concentrating all of its efforts on recordings of popular music. As far as I understood it, the method will work equally well for recordings of other types of music. And what about 'sound recordings' in general? Field recordings? Interesting questions, trying to find the limits of the method. Are there classes of sounds that not let themselves be 'summarized', and 'recognized' via a 'fingerprint'? Would I be able to compose a sound y in a such way that it would fool Shazam into identifying it as recording x? And if so, what would a y sound like? Would y be unique, or are there many different y's? ... Wouldn't it be great to be able to experiment with this? It should be not so difficult for Shazam to create an interface allowing users to fingerprint private recordings and play around with this, but I guess this will be somewhat beyond their current business plan.

A comparable (and equally commercial) service, that I only recently found out about and tested, is called Midomi, by a company called Melodis Corporation. Unlike Shazam, which is free, Midomi is a relatively pricy iPhone app (€ 3.99). The algorithmic approach to audio file recognition used by Midomi is also based upon 'fingerprinting', but I do not know how their Sound2Sound™ method relates to that used by Shazam ( * ). Newcomer Midomi compares well to Shazam: it apparently makes use of a larger database; and it will also try and identify a song that you just sing or hum into the microphone.
Now you probably will be quick to believe that my singing is no longer what it used to be in younger days. Nonetheless Midomi did quite correctly identified my renderings of (in that order) 'Vader Jakob', Amy Whinehouse's 'Rehab', McCartney's 'Yesterday' and Ray Davies' 'Waterloo Sunset'.
Also, and contrary to Shazam, Midomi did recognize my Alban Berg Quartet recording of Beethoven's Große Fuge. Only at second try though, for at first it gave me a Mozart Trio as result ...:-)
[ Added february 13th, 2010: Midomi meanwhile changed the name of its music identification application to Sound Hound. Overall, I actually find that Shazam is more straightforward its use and more reliable for my purposes. ]

Midomi btw is able to perform its 'singing trick' because it encourages users to record their singing online. As a registered user (and aspiring singer), you are invited to record your a cappella interpretation of whatever song or piece of music. Your efforts are added to the Midomi database. Fellow singers may listen to your singing, and can comment upon and rate your recordings. That is the carrot meant to get you to sing in the first place. All of the data thus collected are then used in the attempts to identify the clip sung or hummed by someone in search of a title's song... ("What's that sound?") That's a pretty smart and devious trick to compile and fill up an audio database.

All of this makes me wonder what lies ahead... I for one would like to have a local version of such an audio search application. Or an online interface that would allow me to fingerprint the files that make up my personal archive of audio recordings. I can think of an awful lot of fascinating ways in which these data then could be used and put to work. Finally, we might imagine the creation and use of a collaborative, universal database, to assemble fingerprints and data of 'all the recordings in the world' ... Or will the commercial interests of the owners of the principles of the audio search technology as above prohibit the development of non-commercial, 'open source', versions? Is there currently any substantial open-source work going on in this direction?

...

More on audio search later.
First let me finish writing "Alle Geluid van de Wereld".

...

It will be like a found tapes meta map.

previous Leipzig entry : Penelope Audela: das leipziger kleine ]

notes __ ::
(*) Chorus line from the Buffalo Springfield song For What's It Worth [ ^ ]
(**) The "Robust and invariant audio pattern matching" used by Shazam, is the subject of a patent assigned in june 2003 to Shazam Entertainment Ltd., with Avery Li-Chun Wang and Daniel Culbert as its inventors. [ ^ ]

tags: acoustic fingerprint, found tapes, maps, soundmap, iPhone, Penelope Audela

# .335.

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