They Just Don't Make Sounds Like They Used To
Roy Rivenburg Los Angeles Times
Back in the prehistoric 1970s, one
of life's little pleasures was the ability to slam down a telephone on annoying
callers. Now, thanks to the rise of cordless phones, the best you can do is
fiercely poke the off button -- or, if money is no object, throw the receiver
into a wall.
The slamming phone, like dozens of once-familiar sounds, is headed for
extinction. As technology advances, more and more noises -- the pop of
flashbulbs, the gurgle of coffee percolators, the clatter of home-movie
projectors -- are fading into oblivion.
While audio junkies scramble to preserve samples for future generations,
psychologists debate the consequences of this noise exodus. Some foresee a sonic
revolution -- one that could launch a surprising wave of silence and perhaps
force Hollywood studios to rethink the way they tell stories.
Inside a bombproof vault a few blocks from the White House, Dan Sheehy is
surrounded by audio ghosts: the clicketyclack of typewriters, the tumble of
glass bottles inside a soda machine, a 1960s-era telephone ring.
Here, sonic blasts from the past are entombed in a hodgepodge of vinyl records,
compact discs and reel-to-reel tapes. ``We are a museum of sound,'' said Sheehy,
whose job is to preserve America's acoustic heritage for an obscure branch of
the Smithsonian Institution.
Sounds are like smells, he says. They can transport the listener to another time
and place. The buzz of an airplane propeller sends Sheehy's mind back to hot
afternoons in 1950s Bakersfield, Calif., playing in the yard while aircraft
sputtered overhead. ``The sound immediately triggers memories of time and
temperature,'' he said.
A handful of obsolete noises are so ingrained in our consciousness that
filmmakers and advertisers still use them to evoke audience reactions. In the
2002 movie ``Undercover Brother,'' for instance, a phonograph needle scraping
across a vinyl record signaled an abrupt halt to the action.
The emotional power of vintage sounds might explain the popularity of cell-phone
ring tones that mimic rotary telephone bells. ``It's one of the biggest ring
tones we sell,'' said Tom Valentino, president of Valentino Production Music,
the nation's oldest sound-effects warehouse. In a similar vein, slot machines
that pay out vouchers instead of cash often play a recording of cascading coins
because research found customers missed the jackpot noise.
Valentino has heard a lot of sounds come and go over the years. In 1932, his
father got into the business by recording a milk wagon traveling down a New York
street, the first of what is now a library of more than 50,000 sound effects.
(The elder Valentino worked with Orson Welles on ``War of the Worlds'' and once
captured the chug of a steam train running full tilt by greasing the railroad
tracks at Grand Central Station so the locomotive couldn't move.)
Many of the company's recordings are now historical relics. A slamming car door
from the 1960s, for example, sounds more metallic than today's rubberized thunk.
Sounds are always mutating, Valentino said, but the pace accelerated after the
advent of computerization. Electronic cash registers eliminated the ka-ching of
their ancestors; digital cameras erased the traditional shutter-click and
advancing-film noises of their predecessors; PowerPoint presentations chased
away the clunks and whirs of slide projectors.
The lifespan of sounds seems to be shrinking, Valentino said: ``We sent our
engineers to Fort Bragg 25 years ago to record military tanks. All those sounds
are now totally historical.''
So are old pinball machines, car horns and pull-chain toilet flushes. Even the
scratch of chalk on a blackboard is being exiled by the squeak of markers on
For most of history, the soundscape rarely changed.
``From the birth of man until the late 1800s, the predominant sounds human
beings heard arose from nature,'' said Rex Julian Beaber, a psychologist and
attorney in Los Angeles.
The Industrial Revolution upended all that, unleashing a cacophony of man-made
noise. Today, another sonic revolution is under way. Although many observers
fear the planet is about to become louder (check your local Dolby surround-sound
cinema), Beaber foresees a wave of silence. Modern technologies are turning down
the volume of our mechanized society, he says.
So far, the differences are subtle, such as the click of a TV channel knob being
muzzled by electronic remote controls. But eventually, when the roar of the
internal combustion engine is muted by the whir of electric or fuel-cell motors,
``we will return to the world from which we came, one in which the big sounds we
hear are from nature,'' Beaber predicts.
Although the invention of a digital leaf blower probably wouldn't upset anybody,
other changes in the sonic tapestry might create a sense of loss. That's where
Folkways Records enters the picture. In 1948, Moses Asch, an electronic engineer
who spent the early part of his career installing public-address systems, set
out to immortalize ``anything that is sound.''
Most of his catalog was music (he was the first to sign Woody Guthrie and
Leadbelly), but he also issued recordings of elevators, jackhammers, mosquitoes,
cocktail parties, calliopes and an acetylene torch cutting through an automobile
engine, to name a few.
Before his death in 1986, Asch agreed to donate his archive to the Smithsonian
Institution -- on the condition that everything would permanently stay in print
and be available for purchase.
``Do you delete the letter Q from the alphabet just because you don't use it as
much as the others?'' he reasoned.
Asch's legacy is mind-boggling. ``If I did nothing but listen to the collection
40 hours a week, it would take two years to hear everything,'' Folkways director
At the label's Web site (www.folkways.si.edu), visitors can buy or sample
hundreds of acoustic oddities, from ``Supervised Surgical Operation on a Small
Boy With a Cyst in His Neck'' to ``Sonoran Spadefoot Toad When Seized by a
(At least one recording might be fake. A 1950 disc, ``Sounds of the Rain
Forest,'' is rumored to have been taped in a New York shower.)
Why do some antique sounds, such as steam locomotive whistles, remain widely
missed while others go to the graveyard barely noticed?
Part of it is personal taste. ``Noise for one person is hi-fi for someone
else,'' said Steven Feld, a professor of anthropology and music at the
University of New Mexico in Santa Fe.
In the United States, movies and television have trained the human ear to think
some studio-created sounds are more ``real'' than the originals. In winter
scenes, for example, the crunch of someone walking across 50 pounds of
cornstarch seems more authentic than the muffled noise of real snow, Valentino
However, the ability of Hollywood sound engineers to conjure audience emotion
will fade in the near future, Beaber predicts.
Right now, sounds such as creaking doors help create drama on the screen, he
said. But the day is coming when door technology, which hasn't changed in
centuries, will switch to an airtight, silent mechanism like something out of
``Star Trek,'' he said.
``Once people have lived in a world where doors don't creak,'' that sound effect
will lose its dramatic punch, Beaber said.
Eventually, Hollywood will have to rely more on visual cues than audio effects,
Nostalgia for expired noises is similar to not noticing the hum of a
refrigerator until it shuts off. ``You only remember the sound in retrospect,''
and then you quickly forget about it again, said Diana Deutsch, a psychology
professor at the University of California, San Diego.
When compact disc players first hit the market, music lovers initially grew
hyper-aware of all the cracks and pops on their old phonograph records, she
noted. Some people even missed the scratches, comparing the background noise to
the crackle of a fire.
In the long run, every audio dinosaur will suffer the same fate, Beaber said.
Air raid sirens, stock tickers, Pong video games -- each one carries
significance for the generation that grew up with it, but once that generation
dies, the sound, too, becomes lifeless.