We have been experimenting with ways of collecting and exploring interesting sounds. One of the first attempts at tackling this activity idea was to dust off our collection of piezo microphones, and try out a number of different ways of capturing captivating sounds from everyday or unexpected objects.
A piezo microphone is also knows as a contact mic, and will amplify tiny movements and vibrations of any surface it is in contact with—hence the name. We have been thinking about it as a “magnifying glass for your ears.”
As often is the case, before trying an activity, especially a new one, with the public, we like to immerse ourselves in it in the Learning Studio. So we mounted a few piezo mics on sticks, connected them to portable amplifiers and donned large headphones, and went on a sound harvesting “safari.”
One of the first things we noticed was how immersive it is to listen to highly amplified sounds, especially with headphones on. We became floating listening vessels focused on our own experiences to the point of isolation, occasionally looking up to find, to our mild surprise, that there were other people in the room. We were all having very immersive experiences but no way of sharing them with others, you'd look up grinning because you had just discovered a delightfully unexpected sound from something really tiny, only to realize nobody else can hear what you can.
Amy tried modifying her mic and interact with it by blowing on appendages.
Meg tried squeezing air out of packing bubbles, and others tried listening to their own heartbeat, experimenting with metal bowls with different size balls in them, etc.
We also tried recording the sounds in a prototype version of Scratch that allows for more sophisticated sound manipulation than the currently available version. We had initially imagined that we would spend little time exploring sounds and digitally manipulating them, and the majority of time actually building some kind of project using those sounds. An initial idea was to have several colored dots on the screen, each of which could be assigned a sound, and then interact with those either with the mouse or with another sprite, triggering sounds in rhythmical ways.
Somewhat surprisingly we discovered that the initial part, the sound harvesting and exploration, was rich enough and complex enough to hold our attention for the whole duration of the prototyping session. There was much to discover and get lost in when looking for sounds, and no clear stopping point. Some people set little challenges for themselves, like making a long non-repeating sound for example. Others spent a long time with the sound editor in Scratch experimenting with slowing down or speeding up, adding echo, and distorting it.
We’ll keep experimenting and trying to find a good balance between exploration and construction. Meanwhile an early test in the Tinkering Studio revealed itself successful! Kids stayed a long time and were very interested in this new “set of ears” that the piezo mics provided them with.
This project was made possible through the generous support from the LEGO Foundation and the Simons Foundation.