White Noise on White Noise
From sonic architecture to London's vanishing noises, for this series we're listening to the sounds of the city in all their glorious, distracting variety.
Sometimes, though, you need something to block it all out. It was time to tackle our namesake and review the hero of many a ten-hour YouTube video: white noise.
It was somewhere in 2008, and my housemate's impulse purchase of a digital radio had turned us all briefly moonish. We'd sit in the kitchen traversing radio stations, alighting on stretches of Bhangra, show tunes or Russian pop before setting off again. As we chatted, prepared dinner or drank tea, nothing could grab our attention for more than a song or two – until there was Birdsong.
Materialising without explanation, the station broadcast the sounds of a garden – and nothing else – all day, every day. We became mildly obsessed. What were we listening to? Was it live or a recording? Was it an art project, a resource for relaxation, or some kind of mistake? What was that rumble? Did a horse just whinny? Birdsong was a maddening, somniferous mystery. It was possible to spend hours listening to it without quite realising that you were doing so – a part of your brain distracted, calmed, somewhere else.
With a customary absence of fanfare, one day the trills and warbles were exchanged for the contemptuously-named Amazing Radio. Later, we learned that the broadcast was a looped 1991 recording of a Wiltshire garden, used by sound engineers to test the frequency.
While its conventional replacement was probably more commercially sensible, Birdsong's owners had missed an opportunity. Nature sounds have diverse uses besides general loveliness, from sending babies to sleep to assisting in hospice care to masking the symptoms of tinnitus. A recent study from the University of Sussex confirmed the long-espoused idea that naturalistic sounds and “green environments” promote mental and bodily relaxation, focusing the brain's attention outward rather than inward.
The internet, unburdened by the need to pay multiplex carriage fees, has exploited the gap previously filled by white noise machines and tricked-out alarm clocks. YouTube is accordingly littered with hundreds of ambient noise videos, produced by channels with names that sound like euphemisms for murder cults like Ultimate Relax Club and The Guild of Ambience.
In an attempt to eat itself, ouroboros-like, White Noise has decided to review white noise. It's possible to find videos that simulate the sounds of starship sleeping quarters, haunted Halloween mansions or the Gryffindor common room, but we're limiting ourselves to the real world, or at least the parts of the real world that increase rest-digest nervous system activity and produce better performances in external attentional monitoring tasks.
Night Rain on a Car
It rains more on YouTube than it does in Cardiff. If you're watching a video of nature sounds, it's probable that the weather is inclement – the site's most popular ambient-sound video (with 25 million views) reproduces ten hours of rain, while the second most popular provides ten hours of a thunderstorm. There are videos to cater for every possible precipitation predilection, from a slight drizzle to move-your-valuables-upstairs torrential downpour. The accompanying imagery is often suspiciously uniform: you can watch rain pleasantly bash an umbrella in an old park, but ten hours later the rain is still going strong and it's no darker or lighter out.
A personal favourite is Night Rain on a Car. For once, the comments are a joy. Instead of conforming to the YouTube default (illiterate, vitriolic), people wish each other a good night and write things like, “It feels like I'm at a sleepover with everyone in the comment section.” There's a weird sort of romance to the endeavour: it's possible to imagine that you're at a motorway service station, taking a brief stop during a long drive through the night. Outside the rain is pouring but it doesn't matter because you've packed some cheese rolls and you're on an adventure.
Relaxing Train Journey
If the ten hours of continuous snowy forest didn't give away that this video wasn't shot in Britain, the word “relaxing” attached to “train journey” surely would. The novelty here is that it initially appears to depict a genuine trans-Siberian voyage, the footage shot from a slightly awkward fixed position in the train's sleeping car. To save you ten hours of suspense: sadly, at no point does a yawning Russian commuter emerge into frame, confused by the camera yet comforted by the monotonous churn of the wheels. Also, disappointingly, after watching the view out of the window for a minute or two you realise that the footage is looped, unless Siberia is really just the same small bit of forest over and over again like a cheap cartoon.
Campfire by the River
Distant rains. A burbling stream. Birds singing. The hiss and snap of a fire. If there was a way to somehow get a train in this video it would have everything. The surplus of noise, however, proves to be its downfall: by trying to do too much, the soundscape is distracting rather than comforting. You can't be lulled by the stream because the fire is popping every few seconds, and you can't listen to the birds because it sounds like someone is running a bath in another room. In producing such audio material it's clear that less is more, unless you're talking about time in which case you apparently need to make a video that's three times the length of Titanic.
Frozen Arctic Ocean with Polar Icebreaker Idling
The general aim of nature sound videos is to partially deceive your mind into thinking it's in another place. You're not lying in bed awake at three in the morning, you're wandering down a forest road sometime in autumn, listening to the rain on the leaves. The idea of being in the Arctic seems romantic, but beyond the groaning ice and howling wind is the reality that you'd likely be getting a bit chilly. Despite its ominous potential, the Arctic makes a surprisingly effective balm. Most ambient videos can grate after a while, but the low rumble of the polar icebreaker is indistinct enough that you can almost forget it's there.
At a relatively austere 10 minutes, this entry is by far the shortest on the list, but is included because of an odd ritual I've been performing for some time: as I start playing the video of seagull sounds, I also put on 'By the Sleepy Lagoon', better known as the theme music from Desert Island Discs. When the two audio tracks are listened to at the same time, the experience is transporting: Eric Coates' light orchestral serenade is the sound of isolation, perfectly complemented by the mental image of warm sand and wheeling gulls overhead. Better still, after the song ends there's still a good six minutes of plaintive cawing to go – the orchestra has packed up and left, and now it's just you, the birds and the shush of the sea.
Much of what we think of as white noise, including the videos above, doesn't strictly qualify as such. These sounds are technically pink or even blue noise, but there are enough convoluted definitions of the term that you can find yourself in a grey area. Or perhaps it's a blue area – who can tell any more. Confronted with actual white noise, it's hard to decide whether it sounds like rushing water or your own approaching death, but any extended listening swiftly makes me long for Birdsong again. I'd certainly take a haunted swamp or an hour of creepy forest sounds over it, maybe even twelve hours of the Starship Enterprise's idling engine. The verdict is sad and inescapable: white noise should be avoided at all costs.
Photos: carloscastilla and ozgurdonmaz / iStock.
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