Interview With Brandon Mechtley
Brandon Mechtley is a computer programmer whose interests include audio feature extraction, probabilistic segmentation/classification of sounds, location-based retrieval, and mapping of acoustic activity information. He is currently working on his PhD in Computer Science and Arts, Media and Engineering at Arizona State University. Recently I spoke with Brandon about his influences, his reflections on attending the recent “Listening For the Future” symposium, his work with Soundwalks.org, his involvement the Southwest Society for Acoustic Ecology, mobia.tv, and his other ongoing projects.
Dan: How did you first get interested in phonography?
Brandon: I had a bit of a background in music performance when I was a kid, and upon my last year of college, studying Computer Science, I was getting a bit frustrated and realized I wanted to be doing something with sound again. I sent emails to about 10 professors I’d never met before in engineering and music, and it turns that the person who would end up being my adviser, an electrical engineer who was working with composers and choreographers (“what?!”), was the only one to respond. I worked with him from that point about 4 years ago until now on signal processing related to environmental sounds, and I guess it turns out that once you start listening to something for long enough, you start to gain an aesthetic appreciation for its richness and nuances.
The more practical reason is that I’ve had some unsuccessful attempts at composing musical sounds and figured that a true audiophile doesn’t need headphones or loudspeakers anyway. I also go to sleep to a recording of chirping frogs, so natural sound environments have always had a special place in my heart.
Dan: What are you studying at Arizona State University? Why did you choose that academic path?
Brandon: Right now I’m working on my Ph.D. in Computer Science with a concentration in Arts, Media, and Engineering (AME). I’m working on understanding how people socially construct and are affected by acoustic environments. Specifically, I’ve collaborated on some work on segmenting and comparing environmental sound recordings and am working on a website, soundwalks.org, that aims to be an acoustic map that can infer what a place might sound like based on its acoustic traits (nearby sounds) and semantic features (such as roads, major landmarks, etc.)
I think the academic route has worked well for me, because out of college, I was pretty specialized in one discipline and probably would have ended up working as a database programmer for a large company until my soul had sufficiently faded away. I don’t think I would have known how to bridge my passions in computer science and acoustics as well as I do now. Luckily, the AME program has helped foster some of my more interdisciplinary interests so that I actually have an idea of how support them later in my life.
Dan: You have a background in design and engineering. How do you bring your background to recording and sound ecology?
Brandon: Acoustic ecology lends itself well for being balanced between holistic and more quantitative ways of understanding. A soundwalk helps us intuitively understand our environment, but we do have a natural barrier of only being able to listen to recordings or go on soundwalks for 24 hours a day. I’ve tried it, and it’s painful. Any kind of summarization or large-scale comparison, whether it be through a visual map (“where are the birds?”) or a generated soundscape, is either going to require a lot of editing work or some automation. We’re hoping that a tool that can help people extract some useful information from hundreds of thousands of recordings, combined with the easy recording capabilities of most smartphones, will inspire people to make recordings on a regular basis and stir up discussion about our soundscapes.
Dan: What are some things that you like about the area where you live?
Brandon: I’d be lying if I didn’t say the greatest thing about Phoenix is that it is only a short drive from great hiking and camping, two hours away from Flagstaff and Sedona, and six hours away from San Diego and Las Vegas. That being said, the valley is an amazing case study for anything involving sustainability or environmental science, as you have an enormously sprawling, homogeneous city surrounded by the Sonoran Desert, which is one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet.
Dan: What are some characteristics of some of your favorite soundscapes out there?
Brandon: I love heading out East of Apache Junction to the base of the Superstition mountain range where street lights never shine, you can hear your neighbor breathe, you can make out individual crickets, and you can hear the occasional scurrying animal. I love the sound of cities, but, besides a handful of places, a lot of Phoenix lacks the noise of people, replaced instead by the sounds of commuting.
Dan: What are some things that you like about soundwalks?
Brandon: I can’t think of many people that don’t like to go out on a walk to get out of their heads, but it’s pretty easy to get stuck thinking or talking at length about our concerns from the day. I especially enjoy going on soundwalks in the city, because it helps me learn how to be resilient and stay in the moment in even the most stressful of environments. It’s like moving meditation.
Dan: What are some of your plans for the Soundwalks.org website?
Brandon: Soundwalks.org is being developed as a social network around an acoustic map in order to emphasize our commitment to discussing soundscapes rather than only re-experiencing or exploring them. We’re trying to make use of people’s existing comfort in using social networks to help them learn about their auditory environments. Additionally, through these discussions (either implicitly through conversations and comments or explicitly through activities such as tagging or rating), we get a lot of information about the recordings that can help us communicate more relevant information to the users.
Dan: What kinds of plans are being made for the Southwest Society for Acoustic Ecology?
Brandon: SSAE is brand new, so we’re just getting off the ground and organizing things for the coming year. For World Listening Day, some of us explored where people go to hide from the 111 degree summer heat, and hopefully we will get a chance to schedule more community soundwalks in the future. We have a pretty interesting mix of people that do everything from practicing science and engineering to performing, DJing, and composing, so hopefully we can plan some shows or workshops in the coming year. We will also be getting a website up shortly.
Dan: It was good meeting you during last month’s “Listening to the Future” American Society for Acoustic Ecology symposium, thanks for coming to Chicago! For you, what were some highlights of the symposium?
Brandon: The greatest thing about the ASAE symposium was just being able to meet and chat with such everyone in person. We really have a great group going that is filled with kind, passionate people. Chicago itself is amazing as well–it’s interesting how you can walk just a few blocks and be in an entirely different type of neighborhood. Although the neighborhoods are quite different, there are always elements that connect them such as sounds from traffic or the L.
Dan: What are some other projects you’ve been working on?
Brandon: I’m collaborating with a friend, Dan Roth, on a media platform, mobia.tv, that aims to bring local performers to the forefront by allowing people to view series of geotagged performances on their smartphones. With all the great new affordable video cameras out there, we’re hoping that location-specific media can help out independent artists and local businesses and help make people more engaged in issues surrounding their communities.
I also have a few sonic pieces I’ve been working on involving some explorations of the human voice and enjoy clockmaking.