Em­brac­ing the sweet sounds of si­lence

How do white noise ma­chines help some peo­ple sleep soundly?

The Niagara Falls Review - - Arts & Life - PENE­LOPE GREEN The New York Times

On win­ter nights, the white noise app on my phone is tuned to Air Con­di­tioner: a raspy, metal­lic whir that sounds like the me­chan­i­cal noise that might echo deep in­side the duct­work of a huge com­mer­cial build­ing. (Among the app’s other of­fer­ings are Dish­washer Rins­ing, Crowded Room and Vac­uum Cleaner.)

It lulls me to sleep none­the­less, be­cause it blan­kets the din in my apart­ment (the ragged snore of a room­mate; the clank­ing of the steam ra­di­a­tor; the cat’s skid­ding pur­suit of some­thing only he can see).

It may also soothe be­cause it repli­cates an early sound en­vi­ron­ment, prob­a­bly that of a Man­hat­tan child­hood, though per­haps it sug­gests some­thing much, much older. Some sleep ex­perts note that ba­bies, their ears ac­cus­tomed to the whis­per of the ma­ter­nal cir­cu­la­tory sys­tem and the slosh of the womb, sleep bet­ter ac­com­pa­nied by a de­vice that mim­ics those fa­mil­iar whoosh­ings.

My app is but one note in the mighty cho­rus of white noise gen­er­a­tors, an ex­plod­ing in­dus­try of me­chan­i­cal and dig­i­tal de­vices; apps and web­sites, and Sonos and Spo­tify playlists that grow ever more re­fined, as if to block out the in­creased rate of speed­ing, the wrecks, on the in­for­ma­tion su­per­high­way.

Car In­te­rior? Oil Tanker? Laun­dro­mat? These bal­lads are in the vast sound­scape li­brary cre­ated by Stephane Pi­geon, a Bel­gian elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer, and ready to play on Mynoise.net, a sound gen­er­a­tor he put on­line in 2013 that now has 1 mil­lion page views each month. It’s a nearly phil­an­thropic en­ter­prise, as it runs on do­na­tions.

Red­dit, among other mes­sage boards, of­fers DIY white noise hacks for light sleep­ers, shift work­ers and tin­ni­tus suf­fer­ers. Rough up the blades of a box fan with a box cut­ter, sug­gested Christo­pher Suarez, a field ser­vice tech­ni­cian from River­side, Calif., whose wife is an in­som­niac, on one thread there.

The first do­mes­tic white noise ma­chine may have been built in 1962, by a trav­el­ling sales­man whose wife grew used to the air­con­di­tion­ers in the mo­tels they fre­quented and was un­able to sleep at home.

But white noise was iden­ti­fied by en­gi­neers as early as the 1920s, Pi­geon said, and used as a test sig­nal be­cause, as he put it, “it’s the sum of all the au­di­ble fre­quen­cies in equal pro­por­tion in a sin­gle sound. It’s so named be­cause of its anal­ogy to light, which turns white when all vis­i­ble fre­quen­cies are summed up into a sin­gle beam.”

Back home in his garage, Jim Buck­wal­ter, the sales­man, set a turntable and a fan blade into a dog bowl in­su­lated by some foam, and in­vented the Marpac Sleep­Mate, now called the Dohm, a gizmo whose pop­u­lar­ity grew by word of mouth and be­came a favourite not just of light sleep­ers but also of psy­chother­a­pists, the le­gal and med­i­cal com­mu­nity, and oth­ers seek­ing to mask con­fi­den­tial con­ver­sa­tions. (Noth­ing says 1980s-era Up­per West Side anal­y­sis like the whis­pery hiss of a mush­room-shaped Dohm.)

Sound purists adore it be­cause its whirring is closer to truly random and con­tains no loop, as many dig­i­tal ver­sions do.

Fred Ma­her is a vet­eran mu­sic pro­ducer and drum­mer who works as an au­dio en­gi­neer and au­dio-qual­ity tester. He has what are con­sid­ered golden ears, mean­ing he is an ex­pert lis­tener who can spot au­dio er­rors in mu­sic, film and tele­vi­sion con­tent. He also suf­fers from tin­ni­tus, a con­di­tion he soothed for years with ma­chines like the Dohm.

White noise, he wrote in an email, “is one of the first things we hear from our first mo­ment of ex­is­tence, in utero (not the Nir­vana al­bum). It’s what you hear in a seashell, kind of. The seashell is a me­chan­i­cal fil­ter that fo­cuses and am­pli­fies am­bi­ent noise.”

Sleep is in­her­ently dan­ger­ous, said Rafael Pe­layo, a clin­i­cal pro­fes­sor of psy­chi­a­try and be­havioural sciences at the Stan­ford Cen­ter for Sleep Sciences and Medicine. This is why we are wired to sort sounds as we sleep, he said, to dif­fer­en­ti­ate the threats, or a baby’s cry, from more be­nign noises.

“How can a mother feed her baby if the abil­ity to wake up is not wired into our brain?” Pe­layo said. “The idea of a noise gen­er­a­tor is to raise the back­ground noise so you don’t no­tice the sounds that aren’t worth your at­ten­tion: a snor­ing part­ner or the ho­tel el­e­va­tor.”


With so much noise sur­round­ing us to­day, there is a mighty cho­rus of white noise gen­er­a­tors and apps to help to block out sounds and dis­trac­tions from so­cial me­dia to a snor­ing part­ner.

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