One writer’s wild ride down audio rabbit holes
Updated: Apr 27, 2022
I spend a lot of the day with words, reading, writing, researching—the works. But when my eyesight finally glazes over for the day, my sense of curiosity never rests. So I’ve been exploring a bit beyond words.
It’s not a secret that I’m always hunting down the road less traveled, looking for far-out ideas that rearrange a few brain cells. Right now, I’m super into bizarre and wild, psyche-rocking audio. Beware: it's about to get spooky up in here.
The depths of the Earth
Deep in the Arctic Circle, there’s a rusty manhole drilled shut by 12 industrial-sized bolts. According to locals, it’s a tight seal on Hell itself—a roughly 7.6-mile hole the Russians bored down towards the core of the Earth in the 1970s. An artist sent a mic down this spooky pit, and well, this is what she heard.
Some think MDZhB, a radio station broadcast since 1982 and known as “The Buzzer,” is a speed gun capable of tracking the altitude of incoming missiles. For Scandal fans, it might instantly trigger memories of the numbers station that brought in Huck’s ol’ B613 secret spy pals. They were all trained to listen to a frequency that broadcast a rather eerie song, only interrupted by a hair-raising number sequence when it was time to get spyin’.
Others think it’s a Russian “Dead Hand” signal, meaning if a devastating attack destroys the source, the silence will autonomously trigger a nuclear response. Whatever it is, nobody is claiming responsibility for it. Listen for yourself, but probably not at night and not alone.
The sounds of the sun
I love this one because it shows what’s hidden in the universe if we have a little patience.
Listening in real-time, the sound of the sun is far too deep for our human ears to pick up on. You’d quickly skip that track. But in this simulation, they speed 40 days of solar audio into a clip that lasts only a few seconds. Dip into the rumbly chaos of nuclear fusion and coronal mass ejections.
So 2% of folks around the world can hear this chilling noise collectively known as “the hum.” The most surprising thing about it? It’s not a localized phenomenon. It can be heard in all corners of the world, and you can even check The World Hum Map to find out if it’s been heard in your neighborhood. Theorists brainstorm its source: maybe some people can hear electricity thrumming through power lines, nearby data centers churning out Hamilton and TikTok dance routines—or it’s just a stubborn band of folks that refuse to admit they have tinnitus. Either way, you can hear a sample of this mysterious sound recorded in Taos.
The disorientation of silence
Grab the head-exploding emoji for this one—you’re going to need it, literally.
If you want to truly experience this insane sensation, you’ll need to head on over in-person to an anechoic chamber at Orfield Laboratories in Minnesota or at Microsoft HQ in Seattle. The ultra-quiet room dampers all sound reflections so engineers can perform experiments free of interference or simulate the crumbling silence of outer space for astronauts in training. You won’t need to block out too much time for your visit because staffers won’t let you stay longer than a few minutes, lest your organs might actually melt. Just as a loud AF rock concert can jangle your innards, utter silence can drive you to hallucinations.
You can get an idea of what it’s like on this tour.
CQ...CQ...This is W9-GFO here, come back?
If you've made it this far, you're probably wondering why I find this bone-chilling audio so fascinating. Before you call for a straight jacket, we can blame the movie Contact, a 1997 Jodie Foster SciFi flick that I first saw in the theaters when I was 11.
Jodie plays a kooky and somewhat ostracized scientist with a penchant for listening to patterns in washing machine noise for signs of chaos. Perhaps even more whacko to the astronomy elite—she shoots mics up to the sky to listen for little green men.
Not to spoil the plot, but just as the entire scientific community loses faith in her, she captures an absolutely wild transmission from the stars.
The sequence is eye-popping: it sounds like an out-of-control freight train tightening its brakes around rail corners. Plus, the signal pumps out a pattern counting up prime numbers. Things are definitely getting spooky.
Deep in the folds and frequencies of the signal, they eventually discover that it contains far more than just audio—it’s a TV transmission masking a set of blueprints for building a very complex machine for space travel. I'm not sure why my mom took me to theaters for this one as an 11-year-old, but I'm glad she did, as it's one of my most-loved flicks of all time.
Hearing is a very mysterious sense
The world is ridiculously loud: we’re subjected to an unsolicited din of traffic, jet engines, coffee shop chatter, and weed whackers. We willingly add an extra layer, bombarding our eardrums by choice with podcasts, Spotify playlists, meditation apps, and Cris Collingsworth on Sunday nights.
Our ears are always so busy that we forget to hear the sounds that thrum underneath this combination of wanted and unwanted noise. By peeling back a few layers, we can tune into what lies beneath.
There’s a lot more to be heard out there, folks, and it’s a lot of fun exploring this unexpected sound sandbox.