Noises off – Sound winner: Noise Cancellation Technologies’ Noisebuster; innovator: David Claybaugh

Noises off – Sound winner: Noise Cancellation Technologies’ Noisebuster; innovator: David Claybaugh – 5th Annual Discover Awards for Technological Innovation

WHO HASN’T WANTED TO TUNE OUT the world? After all, traffic, bass-thumping stereos, fans, equipment motors, and other noises seem to rage ever louder, as if competing to leave you frazzled and fatigued.

Pilots, who work under the relentless drone of turbines, have been willing for years to pay upwards of $1,000 for noise-canceling headsets. Now the rest of us can have the same inner peace–at a much lower price. The $149 NoiseBuster, produced by Stamford, Connecticut-based Noise Cancellation Technologies, draws on electronics to eliminate sonic assaults.

The stereo headset features two microphones that continuously sample background noise. The data are fed into a highspeed processing chip, which signals the headset’s speakers to generate noise that’s the exact mirror image of the offending waveform. The two waveforms cancel each other out. “You’ll love what you don’t hear,” says David Claybaugh, director of engineering development at NCT.

The NoiseBuster doesn’t drown out everything, like some high-tech cone of silence. It’s designed to cancel the most irritating, monotonous drones, from lawn mowers and leaf blowers to airplane and truck engines or computers and fans. And because the NoiseBuster is tuned to erase only sounds in the range of 30 to 1,200 hertz, it won’t seal you off from higher-pitched telephone rings, voices, or alarms.

FINALISTS

CALLS OF THE WILD

Magnavox/Nav-Com’s MAGNAPhone

Despite a recent flurry of high-flying proposals, global telephone coverage is far from a reality. Great swaths of real estate lie beyond the pale of telephone wires and cellular phone relay stations. And any civil engineer, emergency relief worker, diplomat, or journalist knows that therein lies an irony: the deeper your travels take you into such territory, the more likely that you’ll need to stay in touch.

Magnavox/Nav-Com, based in Deer Park, New York, believes it has answered the call with the MX 3030 MAGNAPhone M. Although the device resembles an executive briefcase, it conceals a satellite telephone link to the rest of the world.

Weighing only 27 pounds, the MAGNAPhone works through the International Maritime Satellite Organization system of orbiting satellites. For years boats have been ricocheting ship-to-shore communications off these spacecraft using large-dish antennas. By contrast, the MAGNAPhone’s antenna is simply the briefcase’s lid. To permit satellite communication through such a compact antenna, an electronic device called a voice coder-decoder–or codec–translates speech into a digital signal.

What’s more, drawing a bead on the satellite isn’t tricky. To aim the antenna at the correct part of the sky, a series of indicator lights guides the user to tilt the lid at the correct angle. The antenna can even be disengaged and placed 328 feet away if jungle looms between the case and the sky. The phone itself slips out of the case on a 50-foot cord. According to Dennis Gallagher, director of advanced product development at Magnavox/Nav-Com, the $17,880 system is rugged as well, withstanding extremes of temperature, moisture, even dust and sand.

Once set up, the MAGNAPhone works like any phone, fax machine, or modem. That dial tone may be the friendliest sound you’ll hear when the nearest phone booth is a thousand miles away.

SOUNDS FISHY

Sonalysts’ Fish Startle System

Along America’s waterways, schools of migrating fish must run a gauntlet of manmade obstacles, from marine construction projects to hydroelectric turbines. A way of ensuring the fish’s safe passage now comes from an unlikely source–the cold-war cat-and-mouse game once played by American and Soviet submarines. The sonar systems used to track down subs have been tailored to warn fish away from danger zones, courtesy of the Waterford, Connecticut-based Sonalysts.

Sonar works by emitting acoustic waves–the pings familiar from The Hunt for Red October–that travel through the water to reflect off objects. Sonalysts’ Fish Startle system works in much the same way. Submerged speakers emit sound patterns developed specially to frighten away fish.

Fish Startle, which was developed in conjunction with the New York Power Authority, has already lived up to its name. In Boston Harbor the system cleared an area of herring to permit underwater blasting during construction of a road tunnel. Several East Coast nuclear and hydroelectric power plants have also deployed the system to keep fish from water intakes. John Menezes, engineering vice president at Sonalysts, says the system is being expanded for a wider range of sensitive water life, such as Pacific salmon and sea mammals.

RADIO PC

Internet Multicasting Service

That talk radio has flourished in an era of visual entertainment reflects the simple appeal of the spoken word. The human voice offers welcome relief from the barrage of digital sights and sounds that flood our senses. Perhaps that’s why talk radio has now spread from the airwaves into an unlikely new medium: the PC.

The brainchild of entrepreneur Carl Malamud, Internet Multicasting Service has been “broadcasting” for more than a year from Washington, D.C. But instead of radiating through a transmitter, radio programming reaches listeners via the Internet, the global web of networks that links millions of computer users.

Malamud and his cohorts produce shows the old-fashioned way–using microphones to record “Geek of the Week” interviews, literature readings, and speeches. Digital equipment converts the audio into master computer files, sampling and storing the sound in much the same way a compact disc is cut.

Versions of these files are then sent daily to remote computers on the Internet, from which interested listeners can retrieve them. Their own computers must carry sound-handling software to translate the files back into audio. Compressed to shorten transmittal time, these files won’t play back with the fidelity of a compact disc but rather with the sound quality of a radio station’s call-in telephone line.

Malamud calls his creation “radio you can stop, pause, and rewind.” That’s because the broadcasts are stored on your PC as computer files, and their data can be manipulated to suit your needs. Internet Multicasting Service has also experimented with live broadcasting over the Internet, further muddying the already muddied distinction between airwaves and data links.

SOUND BYTES

Yamaha’s VL1

From the sci-fi bleeps of hip-hop to the lush swells of New Age composition, the digital synthesizer has wormed its way into the contemporary musical lexicon. But to a purist’s ear, this electronic keyboard rings false when it tries to emulate, say, a saxophone. The main thing that’s lost is phrasing. While a typical synthesizer can mimic an instrument’s raw sound, it can’t duplicate the subtle work of a master’s lips and fingers.

But computer technology has inevitably caught up. A new synthesizer is bound to keep the purists guessing–the VL1, designed by Aoki Eiichiroh, engineering team leader at Yamaha in Hamamatsu, Japan.

Like any synthesizer, the VL1 translates the player’s actions on a keyboard, pedals, and other devices into electronic data. But instead of just triggering a preset sound, this input feeds into a complex computer model. Using a technique that Yamaha calls virtual acoustics, the VL1’s computer model generates a mathematical representation of the mechanics that set the air column inside a wind instrument in motion.

In this computer model, everything a player does to his instrument is reduced to mathematical equations–from blowing hard or soft, to tonguing and lipping the reed, to fingering the tone holes. The input from the VL1 keyboard feeds into these equations and determines the resulting vibrations and resonances that shape a real instrument’s sound.

Until recently this sort of number crunching would have taken too long for the keyboard to deliver sound instantly. But digital-processing computer chips are fast enough now. And work at Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley has streamlined the mathematical formulas. The result is a keyboard that can deliver real sound in real time. So, unlike other synthesizers that rely on digital “sampling” (the playing back of another musician’s performance), Yamaha’s VL1 enhances the input and expression of the particular user.

Yamaha takes pride in the fact that the $4,995 VL1 can mimic a bad sax player as well as a good one–it can even imitate Bill Clinton. If any feature will satisfy a music purist, surely that will.

JUDGES

LOUISE BOUNDAS–Vice president and editor in chief, Stereo Review magazine.

RAY CHARLES–Musician; composer; recipient of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Lifetime Achievement Award.

GARRISON KEILLOR–Radio personality and best-selling author; creator of A Prairie Home Companion and The American Radio Company.

EUGENE PITTS III–Vice president and editor in chief, Audio magazine.

TIMOTHY WHITE–Editor in chief, Billboard magazine; host of the nationally syndicated radio show The Timothy White Sessions; contributing editor of Spin and Musician.

COPYRIGHT 1994 Discover

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group