Tilted Spheres

Richard Serra’s giant concave artworks can produce an astonishing diversity of sounds.

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I stumbled across this Richard Serra sculpture when flying back from Tononto Airport. Clapping is one way of exploring the space, it’s like having a giant sound-effects unit to play with. Get the right place, and the focused reflections from the arcs follow repetative patterns creating Gatling gun echoes.

The start of this video nicely shows off the effects of clapping

It’s also fun to listen out for people with noisy roller suitcases walking down the middle. What’s nice about this sculpture is being outside a gallery means the public can play with the sound. Here is a spot of impromptu singing exploiting the acoustic.

Location

Pearson Airport. Terminal 1, after security, International departures, hammerhead F.

Credits

Photo: By Ken Mist from Brampton, Canada – Tilted Spheres, CC BY-SA 2.0

Elogio del Horizonte

This large sculpture plays with the sound of the wind and waves.

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If you stand in the center of the structure, the sound of the wind and the waves at the bottom of the cliff are intensified. The experience makes you feel as though the elements are swirling around your head.

Expedia travel guide

Created by Basque artist Eduardo Chillida, this curved concrete sculpture creates a clear and strong amplification of the sounds of the sea crashing at the bottom of the cliff. You have to stand in the center of the sculpture. Close your eyes, you will hear the noise of the waves breaking against the rocks, but the sound comes from the upper area of ​​the sculpture. Apparently it is an accidental sound scuplture, with the artist being surprised when he first heard it.

Thanks to J.Oscar for providing some first hand experience of what is going on (see first comment). It’s a reflection from the underneath of the upper ring. But the other key acoustic element is the lack of any sound straight from the breaking waves to your ear because the edge of the cliff is in the way. This lack of direct sound is what causes the image to falsely appear to come from above, and also why you’re surprised to suddenly hear the sea as you walk into the focus point.

Does anyone have recordings?

Location

The scultpute can be found in the grassy Parque del Cerro de Santa Catalina, at the top of Cimavilla, Gijón.

Credits

Photo: By Triplecaña – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Site suggested by Santiago Álvarez-Buylla

Thurgoland railway tunnel

This railway tunnel creates an extraordinary metallic flutter.

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This old railway tunnel near Sheffield creates an extraordinary metallic flutter when you shout or clap your hands. I was alerted to this strange acoustic when I was interviewed for the Channel 5 programme Walking Britain’s Lost Railways. While many tunnels have lots of reverb, it’s unusual to have such a warbling effect.

Listen to the warble in the Thurgoland Tunnel

The warble is a type of flutter echo, caused by repetitive reflection paths. The animation shows sound being modelled as a simple bouncing ball. At each wall the ball follows the law of reflection (angle of incidence = angle of reflection). The source is the black circle and the red circle is where the listener is. You can see that the sound keeps returning to the receiver, but it takes a few reflections before it returns. There is a pattern of regular reflection arrivals, but the bowed shape of the tunnel creates paths that traverse the width more than once before returning to the receiver. There’s a slightly longer explanation on my acoustical engineering blog.

A simple ray tracing in the Thurgoland Tunnel

Logistics

If you want to experience it yourself, it’s open as part of the National Cycle Network. The tunnel is here.

Credits

Photo Dave Pickersgill under this Creative Commons Licence.

Emanuel Vigeland Mausoleum

A beautiful reverb surrounded by vivid and explicit frescos.

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This doesn’t appear very high on lists of tourist attractions in Oslo, but it deserves to be much better known. It was built in 1926 by the artist Emanuel Vigeland as a gallery. Luckily, for sound tourists the windows were later filled in when it was turned into the artist’s mausoleum. Every surface in the room is now concrete or stone, and this means the sound bounces and rings around the room for an extraordinary long time. Norwegian acoustician and composer Tor Halmrast describes it as the most reverberant place for its size that he had ever experienced. When I sang a few notes, the notes hung in the air for 10-15 seconds. I can see why musicians like to perform there, because the reverb is very rich and seems to gradually cascade down from the ceiling.

Here is a simple balloon burst I recorded:

An acoustic analysis of the balloon burst and the acoustics can be found here.

The room is more dimly lit than the photo above shows, but after a while once your eyes have adapted to the dark you start to pick out the frescos covering the walls and ceiling that depict conception, life and death in very explicitly. One of the most famous mural is above the door just above the urn holding the artist’s ashes. A plume of babies rise above a pair of skeletons reclining in the missionary position.

Location and logistics

There are official tours of the site.

Anechoic Chambers

A claustraphobic silence that some find unpleasant and others love.

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The anechoic chamber at the University of Salford, UK
The anechoic chamber at the University of Salford, UK

When someone talks in a full anechoic chamber, their voice sounds muffled, like your ears need to pop while in an aircraft. Some visitors find the disjoint between the visual and aural unsettling. This is a room where you can see but not hear walls. One scientific study showed that if you turn the lights out, after a while some visitors will start to have hallucinations in the chamber.

Anechoic chambers are incredibly quiet and the walls of the room don’t reflect sound. This enables acousticians to test products and sound phenomena without interference from outside noises or reflections from the walls. A well designed anechoic chamber is so quiet that no sound enters your ear canals, the only sounds you hear are generated by your own body. You might hear blood moving through your head and/or a high pitched hissing originating in the auditory nerve. But the extraordinary quiet isn’t the main reason why some visitors ask to leave the chamber. The walls, floor and ceiling are covered in absorbent wedges that mean no sound reflects back to you when you talk and this sounds impressive.

This video is the best illustration I know for how quiet the space is:

And this sound of a balloon burst is a great illustration of how the anechoic chamber stops reflections, turning the normal bang into a brief click:

Location and logistics

There are many anechoic chambers in the world, but you need to find a high quality one with an absorbing floor and very low background noise level to get the full aural experience. At Salford University, our anechoic chamber opens up during open days for public tours.

Teufelsberg, Germany

A disused listening station from the Cold War that has powerful echoes from the near-spherical radome and you can whisper into your own ears.

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Listening station

The abandoned spy station at Teufelsberg, Berlin is on top of Devil’s Mountain rising up from the Grünewald forest. This man-made hill was constructed from millions of cubic metres of rubble created by bombing raids and artillery bombardments during World War II. The remarkable acoustics is in the almost spherical radome on top of the highest derelict tower. These domes used to cover listening equipment used by the British and Americans to spy on the East. There are a number of different sounds effects you can play with in the dome. Climb on top of the concrete plinth and get into the middle of the sphere and the strong focus creates richocheting sounds when you clap your hands.

Alternatively, you can try whispering just off-centre, and see if you can find the right spot for whispering into one of your own ears. If you go to the side of the dome and a friend goes to the opposite side, you can use the walls as a whispering gallery. Whisper into the wall and your voice will skim the inside of the walls and your friend will hear your words apparently emerging from the graffitied walls. If instead of whispering quietly you make a loud bang near a wall, then you can hear the bang pass you several times as it does complete circuits of the dome walls. This sound example has three balloon bursts:

Being reverberant, the dome also attracts musicians to play music.

Location and logistics

Visiting details

Echo, Château de Chinon

A strange local rhyme exploits this distinctive echo.

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This way to the echo

How can a Sound Tourist resist a road sign pointing towards an echo? Despite having no decent sound recording equipment, no aptitude at speaking French and ignoring the fact I was wearing a cycle jersey of dubious taste, I attempted to capture the event on my mobile. You might need to turn up the volume to hear the echo.

A description of the echo appears in the Rough Guide to the Loire which describes a traditional local rhyme which exploits the timing of the echo:

Me: Les femmes de Chinon sont-elles fidѐles

Echo: Elles?

Me: Oui, Les femmes de Chinon

Echo: Non!

Which translates into English as:

Me: Are the women of Chinon faithful?

Echo: Them?

Me: Yes, the women of Chinon

Echo: No!

And I can confirm the description is correct –  by that I mean the echo rhyme really works, I know nothing about the faithfulness of Chinon women! The echo is a reflection from the side of the chateaux and is beautifully clear (if a little quiet for recording on a mobile).

Location

If you exit the Château visitors’ centre northwards away from the town (it seems like the back entrance) you’ll pass L’Echo de Rabelais. Across the road you’ll see a big sign to the echo vineyard close to the smaller sign for the echo. Follow the small Rue de l’Echo for 200m and you’ll find a small raised vantage point. A

Stonehenge Replica

Experience a impression of the ancient acoustics of Stonehenge.

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What was the acoustic like within Stonehenge thousands of years ago? It’s difficult to get an impression at the real Stonehenge because too many stones are missing or displaced. However, a trip to this complete replica in the USA gives an impression of the old site. The replica was built as a monument to those who died in World War 1. Although made from concrete rather than stone, the acoustic within the circle is similar to the original.

Rupert Till explores how a drum beat is changed by the stonecircle.

The effect of the stones can be heard by comparing these two recordings. The first is a recording of clapping away from the standing stones out in the open and the second a recording of clapping within the stone circle. The sound can be heard to ring and reverberate within the stone circle – it is surprising how long each clap rings for, considering there is no ceiling on the stone circle to stop the sound disappearing into the sky.

Clapping away from the standing stones out in the open
Clapping within the stone circle

Location

The Maryhill Stonehenge is part of the Maryhill Museum of Art three miles east of the museum just off Highway 14.

Credits

Sounds from Bruno Fazenda University of Salford and Rupert Till University of Huddersfield

Bell Caves

What makes the echoing sound of these caves unusual, is the way the different chambers are connected together.

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The Bell Caves have a unique sound. What makes the Bell Caves unusual and worth a visit is the acoustic effect created by the connections between the chambers. As the sound moves between the large chambers along the passageways, a very distinctive reverberance is heard, as sound sloshes about from one chamber to another.

The caves were quarries which were excavated at different times in history, but it is claimed some date back to the 4th century B.C. The walls are made of beige coloured limestone.

Location

The Bell Caves are in the Beit Guvrin National Park. The park also contains a Roman amphitheatre.

Credits and sources

Singing roads

A road which plays tunes using rumble strips.

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Want to listen to a poor quality, out-of-tune rendition of a famous melody when driving your car? No need for an expensive car stereo, a singing road can do this using wheel vibrations.

If you drift off the side of a road and hit a rumble strip, you’ll get a distinctive sound intended to alert you and prevent an accident. The pitch of the sound you get depends on the spacing between the bumps or ridges. So if you make lots of ridges like a rumble strip and vary the spacing between the ridges correctly, then different musical notes can be made. Close together ridges (say 6mm apart) give high notes, and far apart ridges (say 12mm apart) give low notes. Make the right pattern of ridges then as a car drives over them, a tune is played. Mind you, in most cases the sound quality is pretty poor, and if the car is at the wrong speed it sounds even worse. Rather amusingly, when Honda tried to create such a road for an advert, they got the spacing wrong and so their version of the William Tell Over­ture was very out of tune. Here is my acoustic analysis of the road.

Videos of musical roads in USA, South Korea, Japan and Denmark

Location

In City of Lancaster, USA, the road is found along the westbound stretch of Avenue G between 30th and 40th Streets West. It was moved from its original site following concerns about noise disturbing nearby houses.

Alternatively, the Japanese have the most melody roads: twelve listed here. Suggested optimum driving speed is 28mph (45km/h). Those shown on the map are:

  • Hokkaido: drive west
  • Route 370, Wakayama prefecture, plays Miagetegoran Yorunohoshiwo
  • Numata-shi, Gunma prefecture, plays “Natsuno Omoide (Summer Memories)”

The road in Anyang, Gyeonggi, South Korea is meant to play Mary Had a Little Lamb when driving at 100 Km/h and was designed to help motorists stay alert. However, the videos I have heard all sound pretty terrible and the tune is unrecognizable.

Credits and sources

  1. Map photo: shidax (c) some rights reserved