The miracle of human hearing goes well beyond audiophile snobbery over “high fidelity,” or the machinations of sometimes-arbitrary, designed-by-committee industry specifications. But, in the context of my rant about perceived myths in audio, what can we hear, really?

And how much perceptible sound can you squeeze into an MP3?

For his master’s thesis at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Kyle McDonald investigated the deeper, existential issues behind common digital audio specifications. The question: what if you could play every single distinguishable sound that the MP3 specification can accommodate? (For the technically minded, that means iterating through every possible MP3 frame.)

The resulting sonic composition holds a mirror to the way the specification describes our own psychoacoustic capabilities. Just don’t expect to be able to process the answer if you’re in a hurry. Kyle’s “answer” to this ultimate question of noise, encoding, and everything takes some 10^450 years to complete. (That’s a lot of zeros, if you’re keeping score at home.)

Kyle explains:

The composition iterates through all the possible sounds MP3 can handle, and assuming that corresponds to our psychoacoustic limitations, all the sounds we can handle. I have some hour-long excerpts up, which should be easier to skip through than the live stream from last month 🙂

I wrote a short thesis exploring these ideas, too: [link fixed]
Dealing with questions like “what is noise” and “how are biases embedded and revealed”.

I’m not as interested in copyright issues as I am in asking MP3: “what do you sound like, really?”, exploring the intersection of glitch art and enumerative pieces (Every Icon/Wishing Well) + “empty” conceptual art (4’33”, Duchamp’s “Fountain”).

The results aren’t going to settle any debates, but they might at least silence a debate. The results, to me, are strangely beautiful. The sonification vibrates and chirps like a small collection of half-cyborg insects, humming away a summer evening on an alien world. You could meditate to it. (If CDM ever starts a digital audio healing center, we’ll be set.)

The visualizations, at top, are just as aesthetically beautiful, and begin to provide actual information about the quantity and patterns of data that emerge.

A question like “does this MP3 sound good?” or “is this recording any good?” seems simple enough. Kyle’s thesis doesn’t answer any questions, so much as reframe those questions in a beautiful way. But that’s not to say this is all meaningless. The scale of real-world frequencies your ear and brain can perceive is immense and measurable. It’s enormous to conceive, but it’s a real thing. The potential data storage of our technology is vast, too, but it’s still no match for your mind. And if that doesn’t give you an excuse to invest in some ear protection before the next concert, or just give yourself part of this afternoon off, listen to an album, and let your brain relax a bit, I don’t know what will. If you’re still not convinced, breathe deeply and listen to some of Kyle’s sound excerpts for half an hour and get back to me.