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I think all of us will admit that we sound-ish people inhabit a very small world. If it isn't small, then it's certainly insular. We make our lives and livings on an island of microphones and sample-rates and plugins. When I sit down to it, I can't think of more than a handful of people outside of my audio friends who even know what sound design is, let alone the processes, technologies, and skills involved. There are few who understand and even fewer who actually do it.

In spite of this there is an entire industry kept afloat by the monetary expression of enthusiasm by people like us. All of those cables and interfaces and field recorders and batteries and windscreens and midi-controllers and god-knows-what-else are made, if not exactly at our behest, then in the expectation that we will happily stand in line to buy them. And we do. Some things we buy because we really want them. Others we buy because they're the cheaper version of the one we really do want but can't afford. Nevertheless we buy the stuff.

Now, I'm not about to go all anti-capitalism on you. But lately I've been thinking a lot about a number of ideas that have implications almost beyond reckoning. Not least of these is the question of sustainability.

I've just finished what seems to be becoming an annual re-watch of The Corporation. As I said, I'm purposely avoiding the Capitalism debate, but one of the points that hit me strongest this time around was the need for consumers (us) to think about the products they buy in terms of their ecological impact.

A question rises to mind when I consider that everything, and I mean everything, we use to detect, aquire, preserve, reproduce, and to a large extent, produce the sounds from which we derive our means of economic, creative, and emotional survival are the result of some kind of industrial scale mass production process. Then I think about the materials that are used in those processes; copper for our cables, oil for their rubber coatings, lithium for our super-duper long-life batteries, silicon and gold and aluminium and plastics for our computers and harddrives and recorders. Teflon for our speaker cones. Petrocarbons and polymers for our room treatments. All of these things have been forcefully taken from the ground beneath somebody else's feet and will never, ever go back again.

The question I ask with a quiveringly guilty heart is what impact does this have on the world around me? How much damage is my self-indulgent obsession really doing?

Like the Capitalism thing, I don't want to get into an argument about how much impact our little group could possibly have, and how much would be going on anyway. Pointless is the only word I can think of when it comes to that.

What I do want to get into is a discussion about the possibilities and choices that I, and more importantly all of us, can make with regard to this. Are there companies that make sustainable audio products? Is there an alternative to copper cabling, for which so many ecosystems have been destroyed? Is there a non-synthetic choice of windscreen that will not require me to skin an actual cat?

Is it even possible? This is the one that scares me the most. Are the tools that we require to do what we do inherently destructive and damaging to the environment which we with so much hubris take for granted?

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I don't think sound is that self-indulgent really. Being a sound person is a relatively niche role, and it takes just a second of thinking about fashion, advertising, or the military, to feel better, if only a little bit.

Unusually this is where I'd go back to mentioning not buying cheap stuff on the basis of it being easily replaceable, because that's borderline consumerism. At the same time, quite understandable high end gear is not in everyone's reach, so I think the key is calculated buys. Get a discussion going, speak to the best people in the field, and know what to buy so you don't end up buying the same thing twice. Also pass down your used kit instead of keeping it to yourself. Secondary market may be bad for the makers but it's far better for the environment I think?

However, what many of us do by recording sound is capture and recycle time. How many people do that? It's got to be cool, no?

  • @georgi.m, That idea assuages the guilt somewhat. Conservation within and by way of conscious consumption. I like it. – g.a.harry Jul 3 '11 at 21:12
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Fwiw, lithium is 100% recyclable, and the miners who extract it are treated generally pretty well. Also, because it's incredibly light (2nd on the periodic table) it's going to give you the best energy/ weight ratio outside of oil.

This means that lithium is key to the next generation of sustainable energy because there's not going to be a more efficient way to store solar/ wind/ geo etc.

http://www.npr.org/tablet/#story/?url=/2011/05/09/136029474/lithium-battery-industry-keeps-going-and-going

Also, the corporation is a good flick. :)

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Not to state the obvious, but has anyone ever tried to use sound to create electricity/energy on a large scale with microphones? If you could harness the vent noises and all the sounds that a city creates, you could generate a form of natural, clean, efficient energy.

  • Hook up turbines to VU meters - the louder the VU the more energy it creates and voila. – Utopia Jul 3 '11 at 21:10
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Back in high school, I did FOH for a jam band that was powered completely with three 1kW hydrogen fuel cells. They powered the guitar amps, keyboards, and PA, and with a few tanks of hydrogen, we could play a full set for hours. The system would output massive amounts of audio and water, running us off the grid. It was really fun.

I know that Auralex has some green studio foam products, but beyond that, I haven't come across a lot of info on sustainable gear. Interesting idea.

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This is a great question, g.a.harry, and one that only a handful of my friends and colleagues ask themselves — let alone those working in a field related to sound.

The entire musical (and associated sound recording/reinforcement) industry is based around the 'must have'. If I may take your cue and avoid talking about capitalism explicitly, it's certainly enough to say that equipment marketers are relentlessly pushing the latest must-have gear. It's the mood of trade shows like NAMM, where reputations for innovation are born and maintained. Companies that fail to introduce new products are forgotten.

Of course, almost all products as you point out are made with materials which are some combination of harmful to produce, difficult to repair or troublesome to safely dispose of. And let's not forget that on top of all that manufacturing, often achieved in places like China with very poor environmental and workplace safety records, there's the issue of transporting these items all over the world. Few people have the option to 'buy local' when it comes to gear.

Every item that is manufactured — be it toothpaste tubes, glass jars, beer bottles, office chairs, silicon PCBs or cat litter boxes — must be disposed of at some stage. And more often than not, that involves burying it in landfill. Few of us would bury an office chair in a national park. But the idea is not entirely removed. Even recycling doesn't get us off the hook, because it in itself is very energy intensive and generates carbon and further waste through the need to transport material back and forth for processing.

There's definitely something to be said for buying well-made, longer-lasting tools — although in many ways that runs counter to the ethic of having 'as broad a palette as possible' to work with as a sound designer, disqualifying flimsy, throwaway gimmicks like the Korg Monotron or Gakken plastic synths for example. And not just stuff that's made well physically; also things that will remain appropriate to your needs for a longer time. The higher model, if you like.

A lot of us could also achieve very similar effects to most hardware if only we had the skills and knowledge to using software instead, either off the shelf or custom written. This isn't always practical or possible.

While the latter suggestion could significantly reduce the amount of stuff being brought into the world, it doesn't seem likely. Instead, I think a good approach involves two important things:

Someone, do something

Companies here and there are making small attempts to improve the sustainability of their products - although are they? I can't think of an actual example - but nobody is making a very concerted effort to position their products as environmentally responsible. Surely there's a decent market for somebody to step into. The question is, can it even be done? Are the more responsible alternative materials and manufacturing processes available at a price that won't exclude every well-meaning sound designer, musician or tech?

When disposing of old equipment (that can't be repaired or reused), take it to a computer recycler. The parts must be at least partly similar, and some can be salvaged for other uses. Pool resources, repair broken gear, keep your spaces organised so you don't lose important components/parts/adapters, accidentally destroy things or become frustrated and set fire to them. Encourage your electronics retailers to pass feedback about build quality back to manufacturers.

Don't buy new shit

You mostly don't need it, but you think you do... right? People were still making amazing work five years ago before today's must-haves existed. Perhaps they made the work in a slightly different way. Likely it was a little bit harder. But they got there.

I'm not saying we should all be running frantically with our feet when we drive, like the Flintstones or something. But you can probably do without that brand new Sennheiser condenser, those very cool looking Audio Technica headphones or that pair of iPads. You don't need those newly designed pickups that badly, and your old synth is actually as powerful as that new Korg Radias anyway, even if it doesn't look as good.

Maybe you can't do without it — so a reasonable compromise is: 'don't buy it new'. You can find almost anything you may need, in at least roughly equivalent form. Be patient, even. Encourage your peers to find new ways to use old tools, rather than letting the tools lazily suggest new ideas. Read all you like about new gear, but use that research to fuel your creativity with existing stuff. Borrow, lend and share more. Don't fetishise the new and exciting so much.

Anyway, this was probably a dumb rant but it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. People are always finding justifications for why they can't afford to change the way they do things. That's why nothing ever progresses. Because we're often too selfish.

Over the past month or two, I've been trying to exercise a sort of policy within my own life wherein I won't buy anything that has excessive packaging, I'll repair rather than replace anything I possibly can, I'll try to avoid using significant objects that are made of materials I wouldn't bury in my own backyard (so timber over MDF, paper over plastic), and refrain from buying something new (apart from food etc obviously) unless I absolutely 'need' it and can't source it some other way.

It has sometimes been hard not to bow to temptation and/or convenience and I haven't always succeeded, but it's a step in the right direction and an important thing to try. I'll see how long I can make it last.

ps. Haven't seen The Corporation.

  • @pointy, Dang. That's a f*ckin' answer. - I recently had a revelation. I do most of my work in stereo, 16bit, 48k. Along with this, PT9 will very happily work at its highest quality levels through my macbook's headphone jack, meaning I can still edit and export higher sample-rate recordings. 8 months ago I bought an M-Audio Fancy McFire Thingy that does 8 channels of 24/192. Then three weeks ago I realized that I didn't know why. I spent $800 for something new and shiny that does almost nothing for me. I'm now in the process of selling the Firethingy and going back to my old M-Box2 mini. – g.a.harry Jul 12 '11 at 22:40
  • The reason for the realization is twofold, 1) I'll soon be moving to Scotland, 2) I don't have a lot of money. So, I've got a whole fancy system sitting here that functionally speaking is about 7000 times more powerful than anything I've needed it to do for the last couple of years, and I can't figure out why I bought all of it. I mean, none of it is smashtastic gear, but it's better than a lot of people have. And I've got soooo much of it. The money question nixes shipping it all to Scotland, and I wouldn't want to carry all of it with me anyway. And I'm sitting here looking at all of... – g.a.harry Jul 12 '11 at 22:49
  • ...this crap and thinking about how much diesel or whatever was used to ship all of it here from Indonesia, China, Japan, and wherever else. I guess I'm trying to figure out why I thought I needed it. Even why I thought I needed the 8-channel model in stead of the 4 or 2. Why I've got 7 guitars and 2 drumkits and 3 sets of speakers and 2 laptops and aaaaaaahhhhhhh! Know what I mean? So it's quickly becoming my mission to jettison all of the sh*t and get down to the brass tacks of what I need and what I can carry on my back, not buying ANYTHING unless I will otherwise die. – g.a.harry Jul 12 '11 at 22:54
  • Well, @g.a.harry, that's the thing. Surely you felt at the time that 7 guitars all sound different and play differently. Maybe some of them are crap and some are better. You thought they'd all have their place, and maybe they did, but I often wonder if that many people can even tell the difference. I've had arguments with my housemate, a recording engineer, about whether his vintage-amp-and-three-mic techniques (paraphrase) are any different to 99% of listeners to Guitar Amp modelling in Logic. He says there are infinite human variables, but really, the answer these days is closer to 'no'. – pointy stumps Jul 13 '11 at 3:58
  • It isn't so bad to have an 8-channel interface, if you have the space. My first (and only) interface is a MOTU 828. It has ten inputs. Most days I use two at a time. Sometimes I use four. Never have I used ten. So it may exceed my needs on a day to day basis, but in another way it's futureproof. I s'pose there's a fine line between futureproofing and keeping it simple/realistic. One thing I regret having is the M-Audio Fasttrack I got secondhand. Noisy and useless. Now that was a real waste - can't even give it to anyone, really, because there's so little point. – pointy stumps Jul 13 '11 at 4:02
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Pointy Stumps covered the mindset side of this wonderfully. These are the guidelines by which I adhere to.

  • Use recharable batteries in all devices. These cost more initially, but save you so much money in the long run. It also means you always have extra batteries provided you have spares and a charger. Most importantly, you're buying say 10 batteries in five years as opposed to possibly hundreds of disposable batteries in the same time period.

  • Recycle unwanted objects into Foley props. I've found some of my favourite props on hard rubbish day.

  • Avoid gear acquisition syndrome. Only buy gear if it's essential - not just because you want it

  • If you do need it, see if you can buy it second hand. There's really no reason to buy a new mic stand.

  • If you do need to buy new, do some research into the company and be aware of over-packaged products. And if ordering online try shipping from within your state as opposed to overseas. Avoid buying a cheap product if the company production methods are questionable.

  • Make use of already occurring events. Air shows, car races, rocket launches - these are all things that would be expensive and resource intensive to stage a session for.

  • Consider making things you need. Use recycled materials and build your own speaker stands, sound absorbing pads ect.

This approach can extend to the rest of your life - and for those interested, I find the Kinokofry comics are great source of inspiration: http://kinokofry.com/bec/

  • @Squeakyfish thanks for the link, its pretty cool! – Filipe Chagas Jul 15 '11 at 13:43
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Recyclable Sound Waves! Turn that noise pollution into noise producin!!

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In regards to creating energy from sound alone, I stumbled on this recently that sparked my interest:

Charge Your Phone With Your Shirt

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