A blustery day in March. And I resist the temptation to shiver because I know my sensitive audio recorder will pick it up. I’m standing in the middle of Winston Churchill Square, recording a 3D impression of the ambience of Edmonton’s downtown just shy of the carillon chiming at the top of the hour. My vigil is interrupted.

“Where’s the courthouse?” a somewhat distressed man demands to know. Fixed like a statue, I say nothing. He can’t see that I’m recording with two small microphones in my ears, which serve as a ‘dummy head’ to authentically capture the sonic environment. Just then the bells ring. “Damn,” I mutter under my breath. The man takes no heed and shouts after another passerby…

For several months, at different times of day and weather and season, I recorded the ever-changing and dynamic flux of the acoustic environment in the Square. Located in the heart of the city’s cultural district, it bustles with traffic of every sort. Even when it’s empty of people, Winston Churchill Square is never vacant of sound.  And a lot of that sounds different depending on where you are located.  So, if you saw a guy standing motionless for a long, long time, and thought something out-of-the-ordinary was going on, well…that was me.

Thanks to a generous Canada Council research grant, I have been able to investigate my hunch that the carillon bells can shape and refashion the audio image of the Square.  And that it is possible to reframe the problem of unpleasant urban noise by adding sound from the bells to alter the ‘pitch’ of the downtown core.

Here’s what else I learned:

Churchill Square has an acoustic personality — moods that shift in temperament like the weather.

The harmonic range of the carillon is sufficient to make a generative countermeasure to the ‘pink noise’ of ventilation motors and ambient mechanical sounds of every sort.

Pleasing washes of sound from the bells are more affective when the ‘striking pace’ is deliberately timed to echo and ping-pong off office towers and buildings in the vicinity of the Square.

It is also possible for the bells to tease out unusual sonic information that is otherwise transparent in the downtown civic space. The pace of striking a bell can be manipulated to produce ‘echo location’ effects (the pitch frequency will change Doppler-style depending on where you are situated) that arise from percussive-like ‘chirp’ sounds bouncing off nearby buildings.

And ‘white noise’ — the persistent hiss of sound associated with the splash pool in front of City Hall and the waterfall in the Square; heating & ventilation near the Law Courts Building and inside the City Centre Mall bus shelter; as well as winter ‘slush’ kicked up by road traffic — is somewhat calming, and works well as a foundation for harmonizing the bells within the aural backdrop.

I also learned something astonishing and unexpected about the value of ‘white noise’, but let me complete the 3D audio demonstration recording before I tip you off to one of the ‘sweet spots’ for sound in the Square.

Perhaps you’ve already heard it and know of where I speak? If so, I would be very pleased to hear from you!

Let’s compare notes.

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