Introduction: Industrial ASMR: Introduction and a Guide to Listening

About: Engineer, specializing in fixing tools that aren't working the way the users want them to in the first place. Author of too much open source software, including drivers for many obscure pieces of hardware (in…

Well, here we are. What could possibly be the first Autodesk Artist in Residence project that requires its own instructable on how to experience it.

I always have to be the special one, I guess.

Step 1: What

So, exactly what is Industrial ASMR?

Let's break down the title:

  • Industrial: I'm what the kids used to refer to as a rivethead. I say used to because all of those kids are in their 30s now, if not worse. Anyways, that means I'm a fan of industrial music, though that's a genre that branches all over the place these days. So for this case, it's mostly referring to early 80's work by Einsturzende Neubauten, Cabaret Voltaire, SPK, Test Dept, etc. People banging on things (instruments, pieces of metal, each other) with power tools for various philosophical/artistic/drug-induced reasons. For way, way more information on the movement, I highly recommend Assimilate, a wonderful critical history of Industrial. If you're looking for an example, check out the Neubauten Video in the media section of this step, particularly focusing on how sexy Blixa Bargeld is, and also maybe the music.
  • ASMR: Short for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. You know when you get a tingly feeling when some certain action that creates a certain sound happens? And almost every time it happens, so does the tingly feeling? That's ASMR. All I can give you is the what, the why is still a mystery, though neuroscientists are working on it now. Anyways, the internet being the internet, there's a community that's built around these experiences, since a sound/action seems to cause this response in many people (when there's 7 billion of us, statistics works in our favor). There's a huge Youtube community, involving videos of people whispering, crumpling paper, brushing things, hell, just search youtube for ASMR, it's a neverending plethora of tingle. The video in the media section of this step is 4.5 HOURS of someone's accumulated trigger videos. This is a thing.

Putting those two together, we get Industrial ASMR. This project is about seeking out sounds in the Autodesk Pier 9 workshop that could possibly cause that tingle. Of course, in that list I just provided, it doesn't really seem like "whispering" goes with "cutting through large sheets of metal with drills or 50000 lbs of water pressure" (though someone has actually tried to do postapocalyptic ASMR, and Night Vale Radio is also sited as that sometimes). But, hey, for some people (like me), it might. Not to mention, just because a big nasty machine makes big nasty sounds doesn't mean it doesn't also make quiet, contemplating, interesting sounds. So this is as much about mining for the unheard as much as it is about accentuating or changing the context of what is normally heard.

Step 2: Why

Given access to the Wonkaesque wonderland of hardware that Pier 9, many people might ask "Why sound?". I have a couple of justifications for this. One artistic, one necessary, both the truth. More or less.

Justification The First:

Sounds are an under appreciated part of the experience of building things. Sure, there's a new video every week of someone cranking out the Star Wars theme on whatever new gadget they got that has stepper motors. This doesn't really outline how to experience the usage of a machine and the way it changes a material, though. Experienced machinists rely on sound as well as vision to know if a material is being machined correctly. The sound of something like the Metabeam laser cutter is something that once heard, many people instantly identify and remember whenever they see a piece that's been cut on it. Then there's the unheard sounds, either from tiny motors that are drowned out by larger ventilation systems, or from things not acoustically relayed, like electrical fields. These unheard sounds can provide a view into layers of the complexity and intricacy of a machine that may not be easily regarded otherwise. Taken together, these sounds can add new context and perspective to Pier 9, even for daily users of the workshop.

Justification The Second:

While I've got an extensive background in topics that involve hardware, like robotics, it's not really the thing I do. I'm a software/electronics engineer. I am lazy and just tell electrons what to do.

Pier 9 is a place full of "things I don't do". Or, well, didn't. I'd never worked with most of the tools in the workshop before, so coming in with little experience to speak of, I had to plan my overall project as an insurance policy to make sure I came out with (in priority from most to least):

  • Experience with as many things as possible
  • A way to take that experience and do things I wanted with it
  • A starting point to take things further because 2 hours of a class on a machine and 2 months of use does not a machinist or mechanical engineer make
  • Something to show for that experience (I suppose this being dead last in priority is kinda antithetical to the whole idea of the residency. Oops.)

Thus, use something that ALL of the machines make: sound. I love sound. I love field recording. I will put mics and recording equipment all sorts of places just to see what happens. One of the best parts of Pier 9 is that they'll let you put them all sorts of places. Really stupid places sometimes. They'll even help you do so.

This project ended up being my way to explore and learn as much as possible while not leaning too hard into any one certain aspect.

Step 3: How

Now with the what and why out of the way, the how. Here's the recording equipment I used while doing the Industrial ASMR Project. It's a small list because I didn't have a lot of time, and more choices = more decisions = more time. I tried to tailor for a combination of equipment that would work with the environment but would also take nice high quality recordings.

Pier 9 is an extremely difficult recording environment because it's a rapid prototyping shop, not a sound studio. This means dealing with fun things like ventilation systems, other people walking through/talking/generally not being aware you're trying to record, large machines running at all times, rooms made completely of hard surfaces, etc. So I tried to focus on a balance of acoustic (picking up sounds from the air) and non-acoustic (picking up sounds from surface vibration, electrical fields, etc) mics to capture the full range of sounds of the workshop.

Note that I am in no way a professional audio engineer, so I basically went with what I knew, or what people that are professional audio engineers recommended.

tl;dr list: Sound Recorder, Microphones, Preamps. Read on if you want to experience gear nerdery.

  • Sound Recorders
    • Sound Devices 722
      • This is the bottom of the top of the line, with 2 channels using Sound Devices fantastic mic preamps, meaning our recordings come out with only what the mic pics up, though depending on the mic, that could mean a lot of different things. You could also use something like a Zoom H6. I really don't recommend the Zoom H4n, as while popular, it's also a noisy mess, and some of the sounds we're recording are very quiet.
    • Sony PCM-M10
  • Microphones:
    • Condenser Mics
      • Sennheiser MKH8070
        • This is a REALLY long shotgun that I could've easily used to record machines from the far side of the pier if I wanted to. It's got an extremely narrow pickup range, meaning that it's great for picking up sounds from far away when needed (like try to record the inside of the DMS router while it was working)
      • Sennheiser MKH8040
        • A much smaller cardiod mic, good for picking up a larger area, and can easily be put in small spaces. This got used for things like 3D Printer and Laser Cutters, where I could put it in the bed of the machine and have it record the heads as they moved.
    • Contact Mics
      • JrF C-Series Contact Mics
        • Just about the best non-instrument specific contact mics you can get. Hand built in the UK, sturdy, and matched for stereo pairs.
      • Aquarian Audio H1-A Hydrophone with a H1-A Contact Mic Adapter

        • Hydrophones are made for recording underwater, and of course I want to do silly things like recording in the bath of the waterjet as it's cutting. The contact mic adapter allows you to set the hydrophone on surfaces, and it is far better at picking up lower frequencies than normal contact mics.
    • Induction Coil Mics
      • These microphones are not well known or widely used, but can be a lot of fun. Instead of picking up vibration from either air or surface, they are used for sensing electrical fields. They are usually sold as recording devices for old analog phones that used voice coils to relay sound. Making one is fairly simple, any most induction coil hooked to a pair of wires will do. However, sturdy commercial versions are available for super cheap. You can find them at places like Radio Shack for $6-10 (similar to I can't find the radio shack link right now but it might be worth checking stores). If you're in Europe and want one with some of the limiting circuitry removed, try

  • Mic Preamps: For contact mics, we'll need a way to make the mic impedance match the recorder input impedance, otherwise we'll get silence or a high pitched mess. This has been written about to death around the net, with one of my favorite version being so I highly recommend educating yourself there if you're not familiar with the needs to contact mics.

Step 4: How to Listen, Part 1: Listen

Now we get to the sounds. The soundcloud set above contains all of the recordings I've managed to get onto soundcloud as of whenever you're reading this. There will be more.

So why do you need instructions on how to listen to them?

Well, maybe you don't. But I was told by Pier 9 staff that most instructables users were huge One Direction fans, and these recordings deviate from that sound slightly, so I figured I would give some guidance on what to listen for. These steps aren't required reading as much as they are an overview of how I approach consumption of sound art.

First off, for an absolutely fantastic overview of field recording, why it's done, etc, I highly recommend Lawrence English's A Beginners Guide to Field Recording article. In fact I recommend it so much that if you read it before you read the rest of these steps, you're going to notice a lot of similarities.

Before first listening, the initial expectation may be to hear something "composed". I mean, I recorded the sound, why not arrange it into something musical, right?

I often get asked "So what are you going to compose with that?" when taking recordings. People also wonder why I'm angry all the time.

This is somewhat similar to asking a photographer what kind of collage they're going to make out of the photos they're taking. While, sure, that CAN happen, there's art to being in a place, with the equipment you've picked out and placed, and hitting the record button (or whatever the name of that clicky button on cameras is that takes the picture) whenever you decide to. That isn't an a priori event, it required intervention of the artist in order for the thing to happen. Recording isn't subjective by any means.

Screw it. I'm just gonna quote straight from Lawrence's article:

China’s Yan Jun addresses this recognition of subjectivity through much of his work. “There is no such thing as documenting a reality,” he tells me, “There is no divide between documenting and creating. The point is I don’t build dreams neither by field recording nor by playing my electronics instruments or computer. To choose equipments, choose position and push record button are acts of composing. Tiny meaningless noises can be a beautiful composition. To summarise I can use this equation – I push the record button = someone making a musique concréte piece = Bach.”

Couldn't have said it any better myself.

Step 5: How to Listen, Part 2: No, Seriously, Listen.

First listening over. Now you may be all like "Well great, Kyle. You recorded some noisy things. I expected them to be noisy, and they were noisy. Fine artistic work there. *slow clap*".

Yeah. Ok. It's not exactly music (except for the induction mics on the 3D Printers, but sometimes auditory serendipity happens), I'll admit. But there's other things to listen for.

Instead of listening for melody/harmony/etc, it's time to concentrate on the timbre. (Turn to the person nearest you, and show them the word "timbre". Then have them say it, then you say how you thought it would sound. I swear the pronunciations will always differ. I'm not sure I even pronounce it the same way twice, ever.)

Anyways, timbre is about the "quality" of a sound. Instead of pitch and volume/intensity, it's everything else.

Yes, it really is that abstract.

The easiest way to understand timbre is by thinking about musical instruments. Sure, a piano and a violin can produce some of the same notes, but how can we instantly tell one is a piano and one is a violin? Both put out sounds, but one is doing so via hammers striking a string, one is using a bow to cause friction against a string. Thus, we get completely different, identifiable sounds.

We can use this idea with the recordings I've taken at Pier 9. We know that all of these machines are either adding to or subtracting from a material. Assuming you didn't see the titles, how can you tell which is which? What can you tell about them? What does this make you think about the experience of using the machine, of the material in the machine, or of the workshop itself?

Step 6: How to Listen, Part 3: Now Listen Again.

With the explanation of timbral listening, we loaded our listening basket with all sorts of context and identification. Now let's strip those away and make the listening more personal.

On second listen, what does the sound make you think of, stripped of context? What are your first connotations and thoughts throughout the recording? What events did you notice, and what do you think they are? Combined with a concentration on timbral listening, does the timbre add or remove anything from those impressions?

Of course, these are field recordings, and I've spent most of this instructable talking about how they were taken and what they're of. It may be difficult to strip context completely at this point. I've added youtube links for a few different artists: Merzbow, Tim Hecker, and Jim Haynes (with the Haynes piece probably most similar to what I was aiming for with this project). These can all be classified as composed noise (ok all music could be called composed noise and the classification of noise music is a Grand Canyon of skronk/static/whatever but bear with me here), though they differ greatly from each other. You can try those two things to test the ideas of timbral listening I mentioned in the previous step.

Step 7: How to Listen, Part 4: Ok. You Listened. Now What?

Two listenings here qualifies as "the good ol' college try". So what if you don't like it?

Well, that's cool. You don't have to like all art. 'skinda what art is about, right?

But still, even if you didn't like it, how would you describe it to someone?

This is where the ownership of the experience you just had exists. Some people will like the sounds. Some people will hate the sounds. But everyone's experience will be different, even though they heard the same thing (though pieces do exist that will be physically experienced differently by everyone even if they're all listening to the same recording). That experience gives each listener an ownership of the sound that is completely unique to them, and that's pretty awesome and why I do this stuff at all.

For seeing how this discussion of timbral listening, ownership, and generally "dealing with the experience of noise" plays out elsewhere on the net, I recommend this MetaFilter thread, "Explain noise music to me". It provides a lot of different perspectives on how to perceive music, asked by someone who wants to try to find new ways to approach something they just can't get into.

Step 8: Now Go and Listen More, or Play With the Recordings I Took

This Instructables collection contains all of the instructables about recordings I've taken at Pier 9, and the results that came out of them.

Also, all of the sounds that I recorded during my residency will be available in a Creative Commons Licensed pack as soon as I get them indexed. There are a LOT of them, so this may take some time. I'll try to update this instructable with the link for them once that's done, but if you're interested in getting them, please comment.