The 21st UNESCO Sound Week, which takes place from January 15 to 28, focuses on the overcompression of sound and its significant effects on hearing health. This year, researchers and acousticians are proposing the creation of a sound quality label, a sort of “nutriscore” for sound which will be affixed to albums and musical platforms. A problem that we addressed during Sound Week 2022 with its founder Christian Hugonnet.
Take care of the sound, so as not to become deaf
It is urgent to decompress, you say…
We lose our ability to listen for two reasons: the omnipresence of noise and the compression of sounds. Today in the industry, we crush sounds, their modulation, to make a kind of cake, which we put at different levels to always be above the ambient noise, always heard. We made guinea pigs listen to compressed sounds for four or five hours, and we noticed that the hair cells of the inner ear, very similar to those of humans, ended up no longer working. That is to say, we hear less well, we lose nuance.
So it’s not the headphones’ fault that we’re all going a little deaf…
This is mainly due to the compression that is used everywhere, on radios, albums, and we end up with sounds that hurt the ear and end up impairing hearing. This is why Universal joined us to be able to launch a label within the framework of UNESCO. It will guarantee sound quality and will be put on the albums. We will ensure a quality of listening and recording that respects the listener. A sort of Bio audio. Because if we stop listening to low levels, as we do now, tomorrow we will no longer be able to perceive them because the plasticity of the ear will have been lost.
You also talk about a generalization of spatialized immersive sound, in collective equipment.
We are going to experience a major development in multichannel audio, spatialized in all collective places. What didn’t work for individuals will work in shared spaces. Because this distributed sound will allow us to listen perfectly, whatever our position in the room, in the theater, at the concert, at the cinema, in class… This will also make it possible to reduce the volume and stop offering earplugs. when we enter a concert. Because when you multiply the sound sources, the immersion is stronger, without having to increase the volume.
Will the car allow this spatialized sound for individuals?
We get very pleasant immersion experiences in the car. With sound sources that are dissociated from each other, you can follow a form of conversation without having to increase the sound level. We don’t saturate the auditory space, we make it subtle.
As a reminder, if you have two people speaking in mono at the same time and coming from the same speaker, you cannot understand them. That’s the whole problem with radio. Now, if you distribute the sounds spatially, you can hear two people talking at the same time very well and you will perfectly localize and hear what they are saying.
Moving from noise to sound
You make noise a social issue, with this strong sentence: “Noise for the poor, silence for the rich…“
We worked on a map and in Paris, the price per square meter is almost completely correlated to the noise level. With silent and expensive neighborhoods on one side, and streets and suburbs on the other where noise is everywhere. We observe a direct relationship between noise and social conditions.
Is there more noise than before?
The real difference is that the noise is now continuous. In many cities, we now live in what we call a sound shroud, a sort of permanent sheath of noise that covers everything, whereas at one time, at the beginning, in the 60s, we were more on loud, but momentary sounds. The passage of a jet plane, tractor noises. Now, we are on a continuum which is linked to traffic, air conditioning, district heating, and which harms our concentration. Noise ends up invading our brains and deprives us of what is most important, which is silence. Micro-silences essential to reflection and therefore to intelligence.
What did we learn from the silent city from the first confinement?
During confinement, the sound returned to 70 decibels, that is to say the level of a calm voice. In this unprecedented silence, people rediscovered their city and the buildings. Quite simply because (relative) silence allows us to see better. The architecture had not changed, but the perception was very different. We also conducted an experiment with IRCAM in the past where we projected the same images to two groups, but one of the films had degraded sound. All participants then claimed that the “images” were less beautiful. Which conversely means that good sound also creates a beautiful image.
We also became aware during confinement of the noise from air conditioners and cooling systems which are permanent. And many Ile-de-Europe residents in particular have become much more sensitive to noise and want a calmer environment.
How do cities deal with noise?
For now, we are doing acoustic correction. We intervene in repairs. We will have to become proactive and think about sound from the design stage. We are in a retinal world and we are just looking at the world. Urban planners should start listening. And systematically ask yourself the question of sound before launching a project: “How do I want to organize the circulation of the streets, how do I organize public squares? What materials should I use to dampen or let the sound do its work…”
We should move on from the major issue of noise to that of a positive use of sound in the city.
With the electric car, will noise in the city decrease drastically?
With silent electric motors, warning noises will become one of the new issues in public spaces. The sound is the alert. Any vehicle will need to have a quality sound arsenal, cars, bikes, scooters. Today, we observe numerous accidents linked to the fact that traffic noise does not allow us to hear electric vehicles coming. So we will have to reinvent a pleasant urban soundtrack.
Can we imagine sound cities, with some of today’s visual indications available in sound?
It’s the future. But we must not add noise to noise. We will have to work on materials and the acoustics of buildings and neighborhoods before we can develop a more creative and inclusive use of sound.
What do you think of the synthetic voices that are beginning to respond to us, to surround us?
Their potential is very significant, because they will be able to make a lot of information accessible. On the condition that they improve further, especially on sentence attacks or consonants. The lack of intonation gives the feeling of a lack of energy. However, the ear is extremely respectful of tone. We see it today among hearing aid professionals. The main problem with prostheses is not the content that we hear, but the restitution of the tone. The ear is extremely fine and much more demanding than the eyes.
Investing in an ultra-high-growth sector
Audio, a sector that weighs as much as the pharmaceutical industry in Europe
We commissioned a study from a consulting firm and we arrived at the unprecedented figure of 30 billion euros per year for audio. Almost 2% of GDP, which roughly corresponds to the budget of the army or the budget of the pharmaceutical industry. Audio covers a very wide spectrum of activities.
This includes construction, building acoustics, insulation, thermal regulations which have also continued to grow. Health and prosthetic issues to support those who are born hearing impaired and those who become hearing impaired with age. We have made spectacular progress and today we can completely eliminate deafness through a small wire that we insert into the inner ear. Then we have the production industries, recording industries, and now multi-channel with all the related devices. The fourth sector is that of the relationship between images and sounds, all audiovisual and cinema. Finally, the last sector is music. And it’s very wide.
Voice, an identity card
Treble notes are the beginning of life, and are then always associated with youth. Because everything that is small produces high notes, with high frequencies because these sounds are easily localized. You can clearly hear a baby’s cries…
Conversely, bass is gained with time and age. The vocal cords become less and less flexible. And symbolically, the bass is associated with a form of maturity and wisdom. It has been observed that female politicians have a voice that becomes deeper when they gain power…
But what really strikes you in a voice is its timbre, which mixes bass and treble but also, the frequency, the way we make the sentences breathe, the way we accentuate certain parts. It’s the combination that makes each person easily recognizable on the phone. And which also gives many indications about mood and health… We know, by listening, how a person is doing.
Listen to the world to see it better
There has been a change around audio. We have become aware of its importance. Because we have noticed that images often deceive us, that we are tired of a saturated visual universe. We now see a whole youth who…