Grant recipient RMIT, in partnership with the University of Technology Sydney has been investigating the management of motorway noise through acoustic treatment using noise cancellation and transformation technologies. The project has brought together world-leading experts to conduct unique experiments into the potential shaping of noise to create new and different listening environments.
Project leader, Jordan Lacey from RMIT – Jordan has been kind enough to give us his take on this exciting innovation.
What if the sound of traffic was actually music?
Motorways are an integral infrastructure of modern cities. Certainly, in sprawling cities like Melbourne, they are unavoidable. Unless we send every motorway underground or pour funds into a tight network of public transport such that every urban dweller is in walking distance to a train station, then the noisy environments generated by motorways will endure. Someone has to live next to this infrastructure and incorporate the consequent noises into their everyday life experience – and it is with these people that our research interfaces.
Our project takes a unique position on this problem. What if the sound of traffic was actually music? From a creative perspective, any sound is potentially interesting. There is a history of composers who take a nuanced view around the sounds of traffic – not least John Cage and Luigi Russolo – and others who have sought to create an environmental music to soften infrastructures – most famously, Brian Eno creator of Music for Airports. The point being that any sound that is considered noise, could to others be considered music.
Before Transurban’s Innovation Grant came to my attention, I had long wondered if it would be possible to recreate the sounds of traffic into ocean sounds. Indeed, I have discussed with many people the seeming similarity of these sound types. I can listen to the sound of the ocean and easily be lulled into a peaceful countenance, and the sound of traffic can have the same impact, the difference is that the sounds of the ocean are always shifting. The tides, the wind direction, the weather – all these factors lead to a diverse soundscape. Traffic sounds certainly have a rhythm over a 24-hour period and of course seasonally, but the micro-expressions of traffic – tyres on road surface, braking trucks – are very repetitive.
In our research, we investigated ways that we could make these motorway sounds more diverse, information-rich and stimulating to the ear. Using live microphone feeds, we have transformed motorway sounds into shimmering, sometimes melodic and even cinematic experiences. Most acoustic engineers who encounter this description are immediately sceptical, given that their primary brief is to reduce the volume of traffic. However, the increase in volume is a mere 1-2 dB, and yet the perceptual changes in the soundscape are remarkable. This is not an ambit claim, but one verified by our ethnography researchers, who worked with the community to find out whether or not they would like to live with the transformed soundscapes we had designed.
The community members were in fact very positive about what they heard. With a few caveats. The most interesting one being that if people could open their window, or walk out on to their balcony or their backyard and hear the sounds we had created, then that would be more desirable than having to listen to the same traffic drone. Only if they could not hear the transformed sounds once they had gone back inside their homes. People stated that the transformed sounds made them feel less anxious and that it made backyards and grasslands feel more habitable. The melodic soundscapes were preferred by most.
Our research is unusual in that we have taken a positive attitude to urban noise. I describe the reasoning for this in my book Sonic Rupture and a recent article for The Conversation. It should be said that this is an approach not favoured by all. There has been some criticism that our research is a quick fix solution, and that instead we should be investigating ways to get traffic off roads. However, as desirable as this would be, I see it as an idealistic aim for a sprawling, car-loving country like Australia. And so, why not take advantage of the extraordinary talent we have in this country in relation of our sound artists, sound designers and urban designers, who could transform these undesirable spaces into new audio landscapes that at the very least are able to give communities more enriching experiences as they step outside their homes.