Need to clear your head and get away for a few minutes? Slip on a pair of headphones and visit Washington Square Park in New York City without paying subway fare–or getting on a train. It’s not just spots around New York, either. The Sound City Project documents locations around the world including Oslo, Florence, Bergen, Stockholm, and San Francisco.
Yet project co-creator David Vale isn’t just pulling out his phone and using the voice recorder, he’s trekking around with a 3-D printed device that looks like a drone with four human ears. It captures realistic noise for a 360-degree stereoscopic experience. Here’s what it looks like.
The audio is directional, and accompanied by a beautifully designed websites. When you move through the site’s imagery, the sound changes as well. You hear the same sounds, but the perspective changes as if you were really there. In other words, nothing about the sound you’re hearing is simulated, it’s true-to-life accurate from every angle.
To do this, Caco Teixeira, a sound designer with Sonoplastico, helped take Vale’s idea put it into practice with four microphones and create a custom model. This concept went through several phases starting with styrofoam and ending with the sleek and scary four-eared “soundhead.”
“We made sure to build the prototype according the anatomy of a human head,” says Vale. “That meant respecting the distance between the ears to make the head related transfer function (HRTF) possible. It’s not a perfect model because it still lacks some details like the ear canal, but that would create the need of extra post-production of the sound files.”
Once sound was captured, it then had to be mixed, matched to the panoramic picture, and added to the site–the last of which presented the biggest challenge working with multiple-channel audio.
Using WebAudio allowed for a lot of freedom and the ability to handle lots of audio files, but it also meant building everything from scratch including the basics like play, pause, and scrubbing.
“Usually when I use audio in a web project I use Howler.js,” says co-creator Rick Van Mook. “But once we figured out we wanted to use four-channel audio files we had to go for something custom. The usual audio libraries only deal with loading and playing audio, which makes sense, of course. We needed a way to download multiple files, merge them together, and manipulate the individual channel data.”
The technically impressive audio is coupled with monochrome imagery that subtly highlights each location’s charm, while the overall navigation of the site makes “traveling” to the different spots immersive.
Sound City is an ongoing project so if you were hoping for things like a mobile app, new locations, or even a live version to continually check in with, don’t fret because those are all on the to-do list.