Spacing Out with Dallas Taylor of 20,000 Hz
November 1, 2022 |
Spacing Out with Dallas Taylor of 20,000 Hz
November 1, 2022 |
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Today we talk to Dallas Taylor, host of the most popular sound podcast on the planet, Twenty Thousand Hertz. I like to think our show sounds pretty good, but Twenty Thousand Hertz is next-level audio production, some of the very best in the podcasting business. And Dallas prides himself on making a podcast for absolutely everyone. As he told me, he tries to make a show that’s just as mainstream and approachable as a true crime show.
We start off with a chat about Dallas’s background in music, how he entered the world of sound design, what inspired him to start the podcast, and how he was discovered by Roman Mars of the legendary design podcast 99% Invisible.
Then we jump into the nuts and bolts of how he and his team make Twenty Thousand Hertz. Dallas was kind enough to share the stems for my favorite episode, titled “Space,” so we will do a Song Exploder-like anatomy of that episode before listening to the full episode in the second half of the show.
Today’s show was edited by Craig Eley with additional help from Ravi Krishnaswami. Our Production Coordinator and transcriber is Jason Meggyesy.
[4:45 Start of Dallas Taylor Interview]
[28:10 Start of Space by Twenty Thousand Hertz]
Ethereal Voice: This is Phantom Power.
Dallas Taylor: Now we’re at home here on Earth. We’re not gonna stay here for long, but it’s worth mentioning the amazing diversity of sound on our planet.
The Sandy deserts. Lush forests.
The sound of the ocean.
both on the surface
Mack Hagood: Hey, and welcome to another episode of Phantom Power, where scholars and creators talk about sound. I’m Mack Hagood, and I think a lot of you recognize the voice that I just played. That’s Dallas Taylor, host of the most popular sound podcast on the planet Twenty Thousand Hertz. You know, I’ve had the good fortune to not only host this podcast for five years, but to make appearances on a number of other people’s podcasts.
Some very niche. Some with huge audiences, but I think the biggest thrill that I’ve gotten as a podcast guest is when I heard my own voice bathed in the gorgeous production values of Dallas’s show.
Dallas: In the story, Jason and the Argonauts are sailing to the edge of the world.
Mack: Jason and the Argonauts encountered the sirens who were these bird-like women with these amazing voices, hypnotizing voices that would lure people into danger and death.
And so when they encountered the sirens, Orpheus protected himself and his fellow Argonauts by singing his own counter song.
Dallas: Orpheus created a kind of sonic shield. He drowned out the song of the Sirens, which allowed his fellow Argonauts to safely pass by
Mack: I mean, damn. I think our show sounds pretty good and we get compliments on our own production values all the time, but Twenty Thousand Hetz is next-level sound, some of the very best in the podcasting business. And while our show tends to attract students and artists and scholars obsessed with sound and music, Dallas prides himself on making a podcast for absolutely everyone.
He told me that he tries to make a show that’s just as mainstream and approachable as any True Crime podcast. So to use a film metaphor, you know, if Phantom Power is, I don’t know, aspiring to be John Cassavetes or something, Twenty Thousand Hertz is achieving Spielberg levels of audience and production.
[Music from Space by Twenty Thousand Hertz]
On today’s show, I talk to Dallas Taylor. We start off with a chat about his background in music, how he entered the world of sound design, what inspired him to start the podcast, and how he was “discovered,” so to speak, by Roman Mars of the legendary design podcast. 99% Invisible. But then we jump into the nuts and bolts of how he and his team make Twenty Thousand Hertz and get this.
Dallas was kind enough to share the stems for my favorite entitled “Space.” In fact, we’re listening to music from that episode right now. So we’ll do this kind of Song Exploder-type anatomy of that episode, and then we’ll listen to the full episode in the second half of the show.
And just a note here, we recorded this interview a couple of years ago, so some minor details like how many shows Dallas has put out, or how old his daughter is, are a little out of date.
But what’s not out of date is our “What’s Good” segment for our patrons, which Dallas recorded just a few days ago. He’s got some recommendations for you, including an audiobook that I now have in my own queue. That’s on our patrons-only feed. To learn more about that, go to patreon.com/phantompower.
Okay, here’s my interview with Dallas Taylor.
[Music from Space by Twenty Thousand Hertz Fades]
Mack: I was thinking maybe we could start off by talking just a little bit about your background, you know, where you grew up, what you were like as a kid, what you were into.
Dallas: So I was a pretty poor kid in the delta of Arkansas. That’s the far east side right along the Mississippi River. And the only thing that I was good at at all was playing the trumpet.
In sixth grade, they put a trumpet in my hands, and somehow I became good at it. , thankfully, because I was a, you know, very average student on every other front. So I spent, I don’t know, eight years playing the trumpet at a pretty decently high level where it’s really common to think about the idea that your best performance will be in a practice room. That’s something I heard all the time.
So you have to be so good in the practice room in order to get close to that in a performance. That phrase stuck with me so much to the point where I was like, I don’t want my best performance to be in a practice room. I want to make a thing and it stays made.
And then in my junior year of college, like suddenly I got massive performance anxiety when I was performing. And so that’s what kind of led me into post-production audio. I went to a recording school, the Dallas Sound Lab, and that’s where I started to learn about audio production. And what was fascinating about that is that I had spent five years in college playing music and thinking that I was at a really high level, But the very first week of recording school, I learned so much about the physics of sound that should have been the first week of music school.
For example, the difference between being a section trumpet player and being a solo trumpet player. And it all had to do with the harmonics, like the way that you kind of shape your mouth and the way that you approach the horn to soar over an orchestra versus play with the orchestra. And so we’re just manipulating our frequencies to do this.
But that was never discussed. I never once in all of five years of music school had a single moment of hearing about how sound works and it’s so relevant.
Mack: And there’s like a language difference there, right? There’s a language barrier when it comes to talking about sound, right?
Dallas: Yeah. Language and culture difference. Whereas I look at the two and go, they’re so intertwined. Uh, there’s so close to each other. So through that process, I kind of went over to think about music, when I went to recording, because you know, obviously, I was coming from this music background, I didn’t love the culture of that world.
Now granted I was very inexperienced at the time, but it was like this weird, bizarre culture of like who could be the coolest person in the room. Like it didn’t feel like it was about the music. I very quickly, like within a week or two, discovered that sound people have to work on movies and television shows and ads and trailers and all of those things, and I just discovered that there was this entire huge world over in film, television, ads that needed this same thing that I loved so much. This sound thing.
It was almost like the culture was more of like a science, nerdy, creative culture. It was like very intellectual. It was very story driven generally, and that just kind of sucked me right in. And so that led me into really sideways audio jobs. And I was kind of mixing shows on the side in my basement.
And eventually decided to do the flip over to doing my own thing. And that was 2009. And I, yeah, started my own company called DeFacto Sound, and the stuff that we’re working on is like, you know, huge advertising campaigns, like big car spots and car launches. We do tons of Netflix trailers. I think we did 38 Netflix trailers this week.
Because we’re going into a holiday. I know people listen to this at different times of the year, but that. I think we did, I don’t know, five, six HBO trailers. We’re doing these ad spots. We do game trailers, all kinds of stuff. So like that’s kind of my day job.
Mack: So, I think it was in late 2016 that you officially launched your podcast, Twenty Thousand Hertz and I think it’s safe to say that, you know, this is the most listened to podcast about sound around. You won a Webby Award.
What inspired you to start this project? Because it sounds like you were already busy and taking on a podcast, as I have learned, is a lot of work. So what made you go in this direction?
Dallas: Yeah, so I was always just so blown away with how much of an afterthought sound was even in the industry that I was in. I hated that whole workflow that like, we were just like a finishing thing and we were just like a polish that all surrounded the sense of sight here. and really like no one thought very deeply about how sound could motivate people.
And so I think I had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder and I was like, “I can’t be another sound person that’s just a grumpy guy, like in a dark corner of a room with a bunch of knobs and synthesizers.” And at the time I was seeing like a lot of people just like, you know, “Sound is 50% of the picture,” and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
And at some point, I was like, “We gotta stop with the lecture aspect of sound and we’ve gotta start demonstrating it.” And then, luckily I had kind of my own company playground and so there would be times where half our week was just kind of chill or a quarter of our week or something. What do we do with that time other than just back up and clean up?
And so that was something that I was like, “I want to utilize that time for something that’s kind of OUR passion project.” Because podcasting was always something I was super interested in. But at the time, as far as other podcasts about sound, I didn’t really know if there were, they were hard to find, but I did know that like 99% Invisible were routinely making shows about sound.
And I remember every time they did, I would like, immediately drop everything and listen to it. And then over the years, I was like, “I feel like there’s a space for just sound stories.” Like if 99% Invisible only did sound stories, I feel like that is what I want to devour all the time in podcasting.
So we started working at it and we didn’t know when we were gonna launch. If it was gonna launch. The first two episodes that we did took an entire year to produce.
[Snippet from Voice of Siri by Twenty Thousand Hertz ]
You’re listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz, the stories behind the world’s most recognizable and interesting sounds. I’m Dallas Taylor.
This is the story of the voice that launched a thousand apps.
Siri: I’m Siri, your virtual assistant
Dallas: Or rather voices.
[Many Siri Voices]
It’s also a fun toy. Siri beatbox for me.
Siri: I could do this all day.
Dallas: And then the second episode was about the NBC chimes.
[Snippet from NBC Chimes by Twenty Thousand Hertz]
For being only three tiny notes, the NBC Chimes have had a colossal impact on media and culture for nearly 90 years. It was back in the late 1920s when NBC started using this for the first time to identify itself on the radio.
And they’re like 12 minutes long. They’re so short. Because we just didn’t know what we were doing. The way that I performed was really bad. I’ve even gone back and re-recorded my narration for those shows because it was so bad. So it’s been lost to history. And then halfway between my second and third episode, I bump into Roman Mars at a podcast conference.
[Snippet from 99% Invisible]
Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
Dallas: And he goes, “I love what you’re doing. Can I play last week’s episode next week on 99% Invisible?” And I was like, “Of course, you can do that!”
[Snippet from 99% Invisible]
Roman: My love of sound and story is why I was excited to find the new podcast Twenty Thousand Hertz, which tells the stories behind the most recognizable and interesting sounds, and I’m pleased to present one of their episodes today.
Dallas: So the day we put out the third episode was the same day, 99 PI put out our second episode and then like that’s kind of like “the rest is history” moment. Everything kind of just exploded in a single moment over the course of like a day.
Mack: Well, let’s talk a little bit about what you actually do on the podcast because, you know, one of the things I most appreciate about your show is that every profession has its lore and its legends and its language, and its stories that get passed between professionals.
So you know, things like Jack Foley’s invention of Foley, or The Wilhelm Scream, or the NBC chimes that you mentioned, or like in the world of music, something like the Amen Break. All of those have been covered on Twenty Thousand Hertz. And I think what you do is you, you sort of take this insider knowledge and you make it known and understandable to non-experts. Is that the way that you were thinking about it when you started?
Dallas: Very much so. Like Twenty Thousand Hertz is a show about sound for like everyone. It is, all of our editorial decisions are based off of one: will my seven-year-old daughter be able to understand this and take something away from it? And will like my great-grandmother be able to also enjoy this?
So that’s kind of the thing is like, I want the show to be a show that’s just as common as like a True Crime show or anything, like it’s just as approachable from anyone out there who has the sense of hearing. And if you don’t have the sense of hearing, like we put out full transcripts on all the sites and we’ve interviewed multiple people who don’t have a hearing or have lost hearing and stuff.
So, you know, another thing is like the show came out in the week of the 2016 election. Like, this is also kind of like my own personal protest to focus on science and hearing and unifying and human common like a human common thing. So, yeah, so like me personally, I use it as my own mechanism for my own protest.
I don’t ever talk about politics, but that is my protest.
Mack: Right. Just trying to think empirically, scientifically, and culturally about sound and the ways that sound unites us.
Dallas: Right. I have like a righteous anger that I focus into something that’s joy-filled that can be consumed in a car with a parent and a child.
Mack: For me, you know, I would love to hear you break down the episode called “Space.” It’s my favorite episode of yours. I find it completely delightful.
[Snippet from Space by Twenty Thousand Hertz]
Dallas: The best marketing tagline in movie history may have been from the Ridley Scott film Alien. “In Space, no one can hear you scream…”
Out of 110 episodes. The space episode is my favorite.
Lori Glaze: You don’t have sound in space because sound requires molecules.
Mack: So in this episode, you sort of posed the question of “what would it sound like to be in space?” What would it sound like to be on other planets in our solar system? So yeah, maybe you could walk us through the production process of this one.
First of all, how do you come up with ideas like these, and then what are your first steps?
Dallas: So, yeah, with Space, I remember thinking, “Okay, we all know that like the whole, or actually we don’t all know that there is no sound in space.” And that’s something that I think here in the sound world that everyone knows that like there is no sound in a vacuum. So there’s that aspect of like, it will be an “aha” moment for some people just to know that there is no sound in space.
And that’s also going to teach somebody about physics. Like the whole show was really a way to talk about very light atmospheric pressure, like the show is about atmosphere at the end of the day. That’s pretty much every episode is like, I have like a little interest. I’m like, “Something interesting is here, but I don’t really know the science. I don’t really get how this works.”
And so I need to find people for that who can really eloquently talk about that. And so I lived near the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. And I had a friend who works on the Hubble and they kind of got me in and out of all the, I don’t know, thousands of people who work there, he was like, “Oh, you probably wanna talk to like the atmospheric studies people and like, you want this person who studies Venus specifically since that’s a very interesting planet and you probably want this person who studies Mars.”
It was so funny when I talked to Lori Glaze, I remember it was just like, “Oh, we’re gonna talk like who is in charge of Venus. Like or like when I talked to the Mars guy, Scott Guzewich, I remember when I got off the call, I didn’t put this in the show, but whenever we were wrapping it up, I was like, “So just tell me what the rest of your day looks like. I’m so fascinated with what you do.”
And he was like, “Oh, I’m about to go to like mission control and command the Mars Rover to tell it what to do today.” And I was like, “What what? That is amazing.” So anyway, so basically how I started this is just finding people who are passionate about it.
[Snippet from Space by Twenty Thousand Hertz]
Ketih Noll: My name is Keith Noll. I’m the chief of the Planetary Systems Lab at Goddard Space Flight Center.
I think I’ve studied almost every planet or satellite in the solar system that has an atmosphere.
Dallas: There were three interviews and so, you know, we gather all this tape, we send all of these interviews through transcription. Then I send these to a writer who is really into this specific thing.
Part of the reason that we don’t write things internally is because it’s a checks and balances system. Like if we’re making a show that’s supposed to be for normal people, I need the writer to be a person who’s not a sound expert. I want them to be very great writers. But I need for them to write it like a normal person, not like a sound person.
So then the writer gets that, they get all this stuff, they’re just listening and they’re going through the transcripts. They’re just hacking away at it, like getting all the way down to like what’s actually usable. You know, if we take three hours, this show is maybe 20, 22 minutes. Out of that half, a third of its narration.
So we go from three hours down to 12 minutes maybe, maybe 10 minutes if we’re lucky. Maybe even like six minutes of actual tape from these interviews. Now, eventually over six weeks now we have a full script that like has a title and then it has music cues and all that. Once that’s ready, we all get together, back in those days, it would be me, the lead sound designer on it, and the writer. And then we would do a live table read of the whole thing.
And then maybe another pass or another pass, and then eventually we go, “Okay, we are happy with this.” And then we can get it in audio and go, “Ooh, that’s not working.”
Like every show we’ve ever done it’s never a one-to-one from the script to audio. We probably then go through an average of six to 10 more rounds internally, like where we’re tweaking and tweaking and tweaking, like every nuance and every beat, and I’m rerecording narration to make it simpler.
In this show in particular, in the Space one, we were working on special processing to like mimic what the planets would sound like. Because I see NASA and space visualizations of stuff all the time. Like, “Oh, we found a possible habitable planet, 40 light years away from us. Here’s a picture, an artist rendering of what this may look like.”
But we never have really gotten oralizations of these things. And I was like, “Wouldn’t it be cool to do, like with the guidance of these top NASA scientists, do oralizations of what they’re talking about.”
Mack: Maybe we can take a listen to a moment in the podcast where you’re taking us on this journey sort of from the sun outward through the different planets, and you make a stop at Venus.
[Snippet from Space by Twenty Thousand Hertz]
Dallas: Next up, Venus.
Lori Glaze: In my mind, what sound would be like on the surface because you have this really dense atmosphere, much denser than Earth’s. The sound would be more like or tend toward what things sound like when you’re underwater. If you could imagine something in between air and water, that kind of density, you’re running your hand through that, and you would feel that.
[Artificial Sound of Venus]
If you were to just materialize on the surface in that environment of 900 degrees Fahrenheit and a hundred times our atmospheric pressure. You would first be crushed and then you would probably just burn up completely.
Keith Noll: One thing we do know about Venus is that it has lightning. So you might hear thunder.
[Artificial Thunder from Venus]
Dallas: I wonder what other things, like my voice, might sound like.
I’m on Venus, in this ethereal world, that’s a mix between a gas-like atmosphere and water. I’m almost floating, but yet it’s not as restrictive as being submerged in water. My voice, the thunder, it’s all slightly muffled and distorted as it travels through the thick atmosphere.
Mack: So, can you give us a little bit of an anatomy of that scene and how you did that?
Dallas: Yeah, we’re really pulling off of what Lori is saying. And that’s the cool thing when we’re building the structure of it. A lot of this information, like even me talking about like it’s all, we’re all, I’m almost floating, but it’s not as restrictive as water.
A lot of this information that I get, that I kind of add to the story, what’s great about it is a lot of this stuff came from the interview, but it could have been Lori going like, “Oh yeah, this, you know, you’d almost like be floating or something,” but you know, and she might be going into another word and it’s like a hard bite to cut just for her. Because she may have been saying it as a passing moment or something.
So this happens all the time where I basically like pull these ideas out and try to craft the narrative there. And as you can see, like we’re trying to make it very, almost romantic in its own way. The interviews are never romantic like these most of the time. You know, sometimes in, we do some music shows and we do some personal shows and those can get very emotional, but generally with science shows, the scientists usually are pretty matter of fact with what they’re saying, and they’re not in this like constant state of like, you know, emotion and stuff.
And that’s really what my job is to do, is to take what they’re saying and make like an emotional arc.
[Music from Space by Twenty Thousand Hertz]
We’re so accustomed on earth to hearing sound associated with what we see. But in true outer space, no one can hear a titanic supernova explosion or a hurdling asteroid smash into the moon or even hear you scream.
Lori Glaze: How rare is sound in the known universe? It’s pretty rare. Even just in our known solar system, places like the Moon and Mercury and these rocky bodies with no atmospheres or would be similar to being in space, there would not be much sound if any.
Dallas: With Venus, you have a ton of pressure. It’s almost like you’re well deep into the ocean. There’s so much pressure, there’s lots of medium for sound to travel through. It’s just gonna sound a lot different than Earth. With Mars, there is still atmosphere, but it’s way less than Earth. So, It’s like the opposite.
There is sound. It’s just that the amount of atmospheric pressure is so low that you’re only gonna really hear certain elements. And I remember going like, “I want to find a way to accurately depict what Mars sounds like through, you know, storytelling with sound.”
[Artificial Sound from Mars]
Mack: And there’s that lovely little detail that sounds like the dust of Mars sort of caressing your space helmet.
Dallas: Yeah. The sound designer was Colin DeVarney, by the way. He’s awesome. So like I said, like this whole show was just an excuse to like, talk about atmosphere and tie our ears to our planet.
Mack: One last favorite moment for me is really towards the end, and it’s just a moment of reflection, I guess you could say.
So why don’t we listen to that one real quick.
[Music from Space by Twenty Thousand Hertz]
Dallas: Sound as we understand it is so unbelievably rare, but it’s abundant right here. Where we are, within this thin blanket of atmosphere. But if we travel straight up, it goes away very quickly.
It gets quieter and quieter until it’s gone.
Dallas: I haven’t heard that in a long time.
Mack: Yeah, it’s a great moment and really again, emphasizes that idea that we are evolved specifically for this planet. And really, unless we can perfectly terraform another planet to make it very, very, very much like Earth, you know, space is gonna remain a very inhospitable place to us.
Dallas: Right. We’re very visual creatures. That is perfectly fine. But if you look in any direction, anywhere, like whoever’s listening to this right now, like look around and think what was not designed by a human? Everything is meticulously designed visually.
With sound, though, culturally, we have a block, like culturally, we think of sound and we think of music and then we end it.
But beyond that, we can make our sonic world better. If I say right now like, stop for a second and put all of your mental energy into what you’re hearing in your room right now.
[Music from Space by Twenty Thousand Hertz]
That is a thing that, that is powerful, like when people do it because it’s something that’s there all the time, but we don’t really think consciously about it. And if we kind of exercise like that and think about it like, and make our spaces better. I mean, we already know noise pollution cause problems with health and aging and stress and anxiety and all these things.
But, yeah, so that’s kind of like the mission behind this.
At the end of the day, it’s still a little podcast about sound, but I’m hoping that message carries on and that people can make their lives better with it.
[Music from Space by Twenty Thousand Hertz Fades]
Mack: Dallas Taylor. Big thanks to Dallas for being on the show. Thanks also to Casey Emerling at Twenty Thousand Hertz for helping set everything up. And thank you also to Ravi Krishnaswami. And to Craig Eley for doing the final edit and mix on this episode.
And now in its entirety, here is a special remixed and remastered edition of Space by Twenty Thousand Hertz.
[Space by Twenty Thousand Hertz]
The best marketing tagline in movie history came from the Ridley Scott film, Alien: “In Space, no one can hear you scream.” That phrase is true and not only because of the distance from Earth. It has to do with how sound travels.
Lori: You don’t have sound in space because sound requires molecules.
That’s Dr. Lori Glaze, from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Lori oversees about 300 scientists that study all the planets and small bodies of our solar system.
Lori: You have to be able to move the molecules with the sound waves, and without the molecules there, the sound just doesn’t move. You can try and use your lungs to push the sound out of your mouth but it won’t travel anywhere.
That tagline from Alien I mentioned earlier, no one actually heard that either… as it was never read as a voiceover in the trailer. It was just text, silent text, perhaps meant to imitate the specific science that explains how sound travels… or how it doesn’t travel.
Keith: My name is Keith Noll. I am the chief of the planetary systems lab at Goddard Space Flight Center. I think I’ve studied almost every planet or satellite in the solar system that has an atmosphere.
Sound as we think about it could be vastly different in other places in our solar system. Keith has some ideas on how other planets might sound to our ears..
Keith: What is sound? It’s the vibrations of molecules in the air [SFX]. It’s a pressure wave. Of course, sound can be transmitted through any kind of physical medium. If you are in a swimming pool [SFX] you can still hear sound. That’s being transmitted through water. Earthquakes [SFX] are essentially sound waves being transmitted through the solid earth.
Sound takes on many forms but the kind we’re most familiar with is pressure waves moving through gas.
The most common example of how different gasses affect your vocal cords is the old party trick of breathing in a helium balloon.
As the gasses, you’re pushing it back out of your lungs over your vocal cords, [SFX: play example] because the density is lower, the vibration frequencies end up being higher and that’s why you sound like Mickey Mouse.
Let’s go from planet to planet in our solar system to find out what each surface would sound like. To our ears. To be clear though, you’d pretty much die instantly everywhere, except for here. But, for these examples, we’re going to pretend to have superhuman powers that will keep us alive. So, with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s start closest to the sun.
Lori: Places like… Mercury and these rocky bodies with no atmospheres would be similar to being in space. There would not be much sound if any.
Keith: Mercury is an airless body, so we’re back to listening for Mercury quakes [SFX], essentially. That would be really the only source of sound.
And you could only hear these Mercury quakes if your head was pressed up against the rock [SFX] because there’s no atmosphere for traditional sound to travel through.
Next up, Venus.
Lori: In my mind, what sound would be like on the surface, because you have this really dense atmosphere, much denser than Earth’s, the sound would be more like or tend toward what things sound like when you’re underwater [SFX].
If you could imagine something in between air and water [SFX], that kind of density, you’re running your hand through that and you would feel that [SFX].
If you were to just materialize on the surface in that environment of 900 degrees Fahrenheit and a hundred times our atmospheric pressure, you would first be crushed [SFX] and then you would probably just burn up completely [SFX].
Keith: One thing we do know about Venus is that is has lightning, so you might hear thunder [SFX].
I wonder what other things, like my voice, might sound like. [SFX] I’m on Venus in this ethereal world that’s a mix between a gas-like atmosphere and water. I’m almost floating, but yet it’s not as restrictive as being submerged in water.
My voice… The thunder… [SFX]. It’s all slightly muffled and distorted as it travels through the thick atmosphere.
[SFX: Earth – forest sounds]
Now we’re home: Earth. We’re not going to stay here for long, but it’s worth mentioning the amazing diversity of sound on our planet. The sandy deserts [SFX]… lush forests [SFX]… the sound of the ocean [SFX], both on the surface [SFX]… and below [SFX]. It’s a rich soundscape, because our ears are perfectly in tune with it… More on that later.
Now Mars. And here’s where it gets interesting since Mars has been the subject of so much fascination for thousands of years. It’s one of the best places where life might have, or could exist.
Lori: Sound on Mars is going to be the opposite direction of Venus because the atmosphere on Mars is very, very thin compared to Earth’s so there’s just not very many molecules and sound requires molecules.
Countless movies have been made about Mars, including the Hollywood mega-hit The Martian, starring a stranded astronaut portrayed by Matt Damon.
Keith: Loved the movie. It was fun to watch, but it’s not the Mars we know, it’s a very different Mars.
[SFX: The Martian soundbite]
So the real Mars isn’t anything like that, but Mars does have an atmosphere, albeit a thin one.
So that storm scene wasn’t quite accurate.
Keith: You wouldn’t necessarily hear the wind itself… You would hear the dust that’s being picked up [SFX] and it would be banging against the faceplate of your spacesuit.
Scott: So I enjoyed that movie a lot, but the atmosphere as it was shown was not scientifically right.
That’s Scott Guzewich, a Research Astrophysicist at NASA.
Scott: Basically, the problem with what you saw in the movie there where the atmosphere is so thick that it’s picking up boulders [SFX] and knocking things over. It’s just not possible. I mean the wind speed can get very high, as high as hurricane force at the surface sometimes.
So imagine a hundred mile per hour wind on Earth, if you’re standing in a hurricane, obviously you’d be almost blown off your feet.
If you were standing on the surface there in Mars and you put your hand out [SFX] in that hundred mile per hour wind, you would feel it, but it would feel like a gentle breeze here on the surface of Earth.
That sounds pretty cool. Standing in a hurricane but it only feels like a soft wind. But without a spacesuit, you’d die pretty quickly right?
Scott: You wouldn’t die instantaneously but you’d want to be getting into shelter as fast as possible. First, the atmospheric pressure is dramatically lower than it is here on the surface of Earth. So, all the water in your body would attempt to boil, basically, instantaneously [SFX]. The water covering your eye, the water in your mouth, and even the water in your cells and your blood. That wouldn’t kill you right away but it would be very uncomfortable immediately. You could probably survive for a few tens of seconds, maybe a minute. You could potentially get a very rapid dose to frostbite on your entire body [SFX]. Again, you wouldn’t necessarily die right away, but it’d be quick.
And how about sound. What could we expect to hear?
Scott: Our ears aren’t really designed to work in that sort of very near vacuum sort of atmosphere. So we wouldn’t hear too much, maybe if you were scuffling along on the surface, you could maybe very faintly [SFX] hear that sound as you were clawing at the ground and gasping for air [SFX].
The temperature obviously is colder in general, so that drives a lower speed of sound, and it seems that a lower speed of sound would tend to lower the pitch [SFX], make your voice sound deeper… but then the atmospheric density would kind of go to raise your pitch, so it seems like the pitch probably balances out.
If voices won’t carry far, how about a piano?
Scott: The very high-pitched, high frequency noise at the far right end of the piano, you probably wouldn’t hear that at all, but maybe the deepest bass sounds that the piano makes [SFX], you might be able to just pick those up with a microphone if it was sensitive enough.
So we’ve explored the first four planets of our solar system, and learned some of the ways their unique atmospheres and conditions shape their soundscape, or lack thereof. We’ll continue our exploration of sound to the outer reaches of our solar system, after the break.
We now know what the planets of our inner solar system would sound like to our ears. Let’s move on to Jupiter.
What’s interesting is that Jupiter doesn’t have a solid surface. Hard to imagine but the whole planet is made up of gas. And that just keeps getting denser and denser—eventually becoming a liquid the closer you get to its core. The pressure and temperature variations are what cause those beautiful swirling bands.
Keith: So the interesting thing on Jupiter is that the pressure and the temperatures where the cloud decks are, are actually not so inhospitable.
So what are cloud decks?
Keith: So you’ve got these very distinct cloud layers in Jupiter’s atmosphere. So y’know, it’s just fun to imagine. What would it sound like? Would you get these echos?… because you have these super powerful lightning bolts, more powerful than anything on the Earth, so you’d have really, really loud thunder [SFX]. You’d hear echoes of echoes of echoes [SFX] just back and forth. It’s fun to think about.
So how about the rest of the outer planets?
Keith: Jupiter and Saturn, I think you could consider to be pretty similar. Uranus and Neptune are pretty similar to each other. So all four atmospheres are primarily hydrogen and helium.
So it sounds like if you tried to speak on any of them your voice would be higher?
Keith: I think so, cause the atmosphere is 75% hydrogen which is even less dense than helium and the rest is helium. I think we’d all be Mickey Mouse on Jupiter and Saturn.
And what about our old friend Pluto? Anything different?
Keith: It is probably the thinnest bound atmosphere that we know. But, it also looks really complex. It’s got layers. It’s pretty different. Mainly because the temperature is so low. Nitrogen there is an ice. Carbon monoxide is mostly an ice. That’s probably the weirdest, most different kind of place in terms of thinking about how composition, temperature, pressure would affect the sound.
We’ve covered the planets and acknowledged our old friend Pluto, and it’s becoming clear that detecting sounds throughout our solar system is pretty difficult. So why is it so easy for us here on Earth?
Keith: Our ears are good for a very specific environment. They’ve evolved. Once you take them out of that they’re probably not exactly the tool you would want. If you built an audio receiver and sent it to all these places… What could you hear that the human ear could hear, and more interestingly, what could you hear that the human ear would never be able to hear?
That’s what I want to know.
Surprisingly, we have never recorded another planet with a traditional microphone.
Scott: There is going to be a microphone on the next Mars Rover. The rover launched in 2020, it’s supposed to have a microphone on it. We expect that it’ll hear a few different things. The sound as the rover drives [SFX] across the surface for example, will be transmitted both through the atmosphere and through the body of the rover itself. You should be able to hear the wheels kind of crunch [SFX] along on the sand and on the rocks [SFX].
While the next Mars Rover will have a traditional microphone on it, NASA’s Insight Lander was recently able to pick up sound waves through the air using it’s seismometer. The seismometer, which is designed to measure marsquakes, was able to pick up these low vibrations up to 50Hz. Unless you have particularly bassy speakers, you may not be able to hear the low rumble, but here’s what those vibrations sounds like…
[Play unaltered clip]
And for those of you who couldn’t hear anything, here’s what that clips sounds like pitched up two octaves…
[Play pitched up clip]
We’re so accustomed on Earth to hearing sound associated with what we see. But in true outer space no one can hear a titanic supernova explosion, or a hurtling asteroid smash into the moon, or even… hear you scream.
Lori: How rare is sound in the known universe? It’s pretty rare. Even just in our known solar system, places like the moon and Mercury and these rocky bodies with no atmospheres would be similar to being in space. There would not be much sound, if any.
When we think of Earth as special in terms of being able to even support life, it goes much further than that. It’s one of the true places in the universe where sound is abundant and has impacted that life on an evolutionary level.
Scott: If you look at life on Earth, being able to hear something seems to be a very big advantage biologically right? From very simple animal species, there is a benefit to being able to hear sound. Because you can become aware of either predators, or prey, or food sources. So if I were to really get out my speculation hat, y’know alien life in the universe would probably have an advantage to hear things also… in whatever planet or ocean or atmosphere they lived in.
However, these aliens might perceive sound in a completely different way, a way that’s in tune with their own environment, and perhaps hear completely different frequencies.
When you think of space, it’s mostly… space. Where no medium exists to transport sound. Yet, it’s perfect for… light. Light fills the universe, but sound does not.
Keith: The whole universe is connected by light. Light anywhere in the universe can travel to anywhere else in the universe, but with sound you really are truly in different islands of sound and they’re all isolated because they’re all stuck in this space that doesn’t transmit sound. It transmits light perfectly well but not sound.
Sound as we perceive and understand it, is so unbelievably rare, but it’s abundant right here, where we are, within this thin blanket of atmosphere. But if we travel straight up, it goes away very quickly. It gets quieter, and quieter [sfx]… until it’s gone.
Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound, a sound design team dedicated to making television, film, and games sound insanely cool. Find out more at defactosound.com
This episode was produced and edited by Kevin Edds.
With help from Sam Schneble.
It was edited, sound designed, and mixed by Colin DeVarney.
We’d like to thank Dr. Lori Glaze, Dr. Keith Noll, and Dr. Scott Guzewich for speaking with us.
We’d also like to thank Elizabeth Zubritsky, Aries Keck, Nancy Jones, Richard Melnick, and Kevin Hartnett at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
Finally, you can chat with me and the rest of the 20k team through our website, Facebook, Twitter, or by writing hi @ 20k dot org. We love hearing from you, so don’t be shy. Thanks for listening.