Monday, December 31, 2012

Saving everyday voices

Verlyn Klinkenborg in the New York Times wrote a piece that struck a chord with me: "So Many Snapshots, So Few Voices Saved". We are used to having hundreds or thousands of photos of our loved ones, but we almost never have sound recordings of them except as incidental byproducts of video recordings. Yet our loved ones' voices can be important keys to remembering them. Klinkenborg muses as to why we make so few audio recordings.
Now, it’s every bit as easy to record sound on a smartphone as it is to record images. And yet because sound is always a function of time, most of us still prefer to capture digital snapshots instead of digital audio samples, even in the form of video. There is still a kind of documentary formality in setting out to record the sound of your parents’ voices — a formality that has vanished entirely from photography.
I don't think Klinkenborg quite hit the mark.

It's certainly true that even today, it's more natural for people to take snapshots rather than video snippets. Part of the reason, I expect, is "a function of time", as Klinkenborg says: while we're used to sitting still for the few moments it takes to take a photo, we're not used to remaining "camera ready" for longer periods.

And we do insist, by and large, on making ourselves camera-ready, don't we? I don't agree with Klinkenborg that a sense of "documentary formality" has vanished from photography, at least on the part of the subjects. Photographers, of course, whether amateur or professional, strive to capture "unscripted" or spontaneous moments. Most of us on the other end of the lens are less enamored of spontaneity: all of us have been caught in unflattering poses. We may be primarily visual creatures, but we aren't always ready for our visual selves to be immortalized in photos.

We want to make a good impression in an audio recording, too. The question is, how?

There are two components to our "audio selves", the voice and what we're doing with it (singing or speaking). We don't think much about our voices: they are the way they are and there isn't much we can do to pretty them up. What we say, though, we can control fully — and that can be nerve-racking.

Most video recordings are of an event in which we have natural roles to play, even if we're only spectators. We don't worry about what we do on camera: there generally isn't anything we can do to make ourselves look better in motion anyway. We also don't worry about chattering constantly: conversation is an adjunct to the visuals. By contrast, a pure audio recording is all about the conversation, or even worse, the monologue. Audio-only recordings are especially unnatural because rarely, if ever, is there a reason to make one instead of an audio-visual recording.

Making audio-only recordings even more unnatural is the reality that the usability and fidelity of consumer audio equipment lags consumer video equipment by a lot. Getting a decent snapshot or video requires no work on the part of the subjects; getting a decent audio recording, on the other hand, requires them to be cognizant of the microphone's location and sensitivity, raising or lowering their voices as need dictates.

I've only mentioned the awkwardness of audio-only recording prior to the actual recording. Listening to the result ... that's a different kind of awkward. In my experience, people hate the sound of their own voices. They sound unnatural to themselves. (My guess is that our voices sound a lot warmer in our heads due to bone conduction.) A lot of people never want their voices recorded again, and who can blame them?

All that said, Klinkenborg made a good point: "... the intimate sound of a voice that has gone missing in your own life ... recovers memory and emotion and loss itself". When I think of my long-dead father, I don't just see his face: I hear his voice, especially his chuckle. He wouldn't be alive in my memory without sound.

Of course, he wouldn't be much of a memory without the visual of his face, either, so perhaps I've just made the case for the video as the best archive.

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