Nomadic Noise Residency Collaborators

Scott Kobewka - Communications Designer


Toronto, Canada


I am a writer, researcher, and observer. I explore cities on my bicycle, in writing, and through technology. I love thinking about how cities work and who (or what) uses them. I have lived in five cities, visited more than 60, and I am always looking for a new place to discover. I am interested in the complex interactions between urban and non-urban areas and I am intrigued by urban nature.

Twitter: @CivicImages



Sound PrintsNomadic Residency Adventure #4

I forgot to write a post for Adventure #3 because I was busy getting a start on my project. Perhaps I’ll write an Adventure #3 post after this one, but for now I want to start by describing the project that Sheraz and I are working on.

Sound Print Sample #1

As I mentioned in my Sound Maps post, I have chatted with Ryerson’s SMART Lab about their sound mapping project. Sheraz joined me in our second meeting because he know GIS stuff and has a better grasp on the math behind their work than I do. But firs, let me explain the basics of our idea.

The SMART lab has over 1,000 recordings from all round the City of Toronto and they have software that can analyze it for different kinds of data. They have done some studies with this data and have focused on three kinds of information that will predict whether a particular sound will create a stressful sonic environment. The three things they look at are spectral irregularity, pulse clarity, and RMS.

Sound Print Sample #2

RMS is the easiest to understand. It is, essentially, loudness; the higher the RMS the louder the sound. Pulse clarity is pretty straight forward too. The higher the pulse clarity value, the more rhythmic the sound. Finally, spectral irregularity indicates what the sound looks like when mapped across the sound spectrum. The easiest way I found to understand this is to compare white noise, which has a flat line across the spectrum (check out for a great example–a life-saver for tinnitus sufferers) to the erratic noise of a construction site, for example. A high spectral irregularity means it is difficult, or impossible, to plot the sound in a nice, straight line on the sound spectrum. Or, this is the difference between graphing a smooth line and a jagged line with lots of peaks. Again, I don’t understand math well enough to really explain this.

So the basic idea is to take these three bits of information and map them on to hue, saturation, and value (brightness) of the pixels in an image. We’re creating a bit of a tenuous relationship between sound and colour values, but the idea is to create images that present the meaning of the data and get people interested and engaged with the sound map.

So far the plan looks something like this: Spectral Irregularity will be mapped to hue using random Gaussian numbers, pulse clarity will be mapped to saturation, and RMS will be mapped to brightness. We still need to figure out some of the math and we also need to figure out some of the technicalities behind processing over 1,000 images.

So far Sheraz and I have been working on a Processing sketch that does some of the math we want. Ideally, we’d have an interactive website with a heat map of Toronto and the user would be able to “walk” through the manipulated images using Street View. I think there are some restrictions on how Street View is used, though, so I think I’ll be difficult to make this work. Right now I’m working on grabbing a static street view image from each location.

Sound MapsNomadic Residency Adventure #2

For this adventure, I chose to explore the pathway between Brookfield Place and Union Station. Since it was Saturday, the hallways were pretty empty, but I can imagine that on a weekday morning they’re crammed with people moving between Union Station, the subway, and the office buildings. The sonic environment of these hallways is defined by commerce. People commuting to and from work probably generate most of the noise in these pathways. The sound generated here is a product of the socio-economic geography of Toronto.

Since starting out on this project, I’ve been thinking about mapping sounds of the city. My brother’s friends Max and Julian Stein have set out on this project and have a really astounding database of Montreal’s sounds. They explain:

Sound maps are in many ways the most effective auditory archive of an environment, touching on aspects political, artistic, cultural, historical, and technological. . . . The soundscape [of Montréal] is constantly changing, and this project acts as a sonic time capsule with the goal of preserving sounds before they disappear.

I experienced a great example of this the other day. My brother, Jonathan, lives in Edmonton, Alberta, my home town. He called me just before he got on the bus on his way to work. He works at a museum. I wasn’t sure where he was in the city, but I know where the museum is. While we were talking I heard him get off the bus, so I knew we’d have to end our conversation soon.

And then I heard it. I high-pitched vibration accompanied by a low rumbling. I knew exactly where he was and which direction he was walking.

The sound I heard was cars driving across a bridge with a steel grate deck. Edmonton has two of these bridges, and they’re frightening to ride your bike across, but there is no other sound like them in the city. The one he was walking across connects downtown to the west end over a steep ravine, and the museum is just half a block away from it.

I have since gotten in touch with Frank Russo from Ryerson about He has a huge databse of Toronto sounds that aren’t online.

Things You Always HearNomadic Residency Adventure #1

About a year ago I started hearing a hissing noise in my ears. You know that sound you hear after a night a the club or a loud concert. Yeah, tinnitus, I have it all the time. I freaked out, “What if I’m going deaf!” I thought. Well more than a year later, I’m not deaf. I still hear a hissing that sometimes turns to a ringing or buzzing, but I can still hear.

In the months after I first noticed my tinnitus, I started noticing every sound around me; the sound of the wind whistling through a window, a vent fan in my office, the distant click of a heel on a tile floor, the crunching of snow under my boots, everything. I would walk around in silence just listening to things. I wanted to document sounds in some way that would let me remember them if I were going deaf. The only thing I could think of was to record them.

I haven’t worked with sound much before, so it wasn’t until this week that I started to take recording ambient sounds seriously. So, to start, here’s a sound I hear every day. It’s the streetcar near my house.

Lakeshore Streetcar

Our silent sound walk through downtown made me think it would be interesting to map quiet routes through the city. So, just like you can ask Google Maps for bicycling directions, you could ask it for directions based on your sound preference.