Before we entered a pandemic, the average person in the United States was spending 87% of their time inside buildings (according to the EPA). How close to 99.9% will we get? One thing about the great indoors is that you can attribute to it a particular sound. A gentle drift, a hum, the sound of air bound like a coiled spring. In audio engineering this is referred to as room tone. Room tone is a function of the size of the room, the amount of absorption on the walls, and the background sounds which filter in from the outside. Some small amount of room tone is desirable in a recording as it helps audio engineers avoid the empty pit of digital silence. Room tone can also serve to ‘color’ a space. Each room has its own tone.

As we enter a new world full of Zoom meetings and endless hours spent in rooms, I am recalling my experiments in amplifying room tones in the Vessel Workshop in 2019. I built a room to amplify its own room tone. It’s a RoomToneRoom.

In the audio file, you can hear the background sound of the workshop being layered over itself as in a feedback delay with safeguards to prevent the ear piercing scream that we associate with feedback. The room tone of the workshop is being played on multiple channels inside the listening room through ambient sound panels. Sitting inside permits a kind of audio magnifying glass of the ambient sound without.

(This room later migrated out of the workshop and evolved into a Jet Sound Bath)

The sound is driven by a MAX/MSP patch and funnels into 8 channels in the walls (two channels per wall) and two channels of bass frequencies in the floor. The evolving room tone is all that you can pay attention to. Unlike an unmediated, “natural” room tone, this augmented room tone flops over, breaks itself, finds a reset, then goes on to warble and wobble until it breaks again.

If you feel yourself slowly going crazy, just know that it’s not you, it’s the room.