Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Screamers' KK Barrett is Helping Make Roads Sing

From October 24th's Wall Street Journal, a pretty interesting and weird article involving K.K. Barret from the legendary synth punk band The Screamers and pavement cut so it plays music when you drive over it:

A California Road That Plays 'Rossini'
Drivers Heard the Music and Approved; Neighbors Grumbled About the Rumble

LANCASTER, Calif. -- In early August, this quiet desert community got an odd request from Honda Motor Co. The car maker wanted to cut a pattern of grooves into a stretch of road so people in passing cars would hear the theme from "The Lone Ranger." Footage of Honda Civics "playing" the famous tune would be used in an advertising campaign.

Eager to attract business to the Antelope Valley, Mayor R. Rex Parris gave the project the greenlight. "It was a way of singing the city's praises," said Mr. Parris, wearing black cowboy boots with his business suit on a recent sunny afternoon.

Instead, the novel "singing road" bitterly divided this city of 145,000 people. Residents living within earshot complained of constant noise from the song. "Why don't I come to your house at 3 a.m. and butcher the 'William Tell Overture' and see how you like it," grumbled Brian Robin, a 43-year-old public-relations consultant who lives in a two-story house with his wife, two kids and four cats a quarter-mile from the musical road.

Opponents like Mr. Robin pushed to fill in the grooves, posting homemade signs around nearby neighborhoods. Proponents, however, saw the stretch of asphalt as an American icon -- the country's first melodic sequence of rumble strips and thus a piece of history for their town and their children. They urged the mayor not to give in to the will of a small minority. In the past few weeks, both groups have had their way.

Singing roads first flourished in Asia. Built in three locations in northern and central Japan, they were the product of a team of researchers at Hokkaido Industrial Research Institute. After driving over the marks on a road left by a bulldozer, the Japanese scientists determined that cutting grooves at measured intervals onto a road's surface created vibrations producing notes up and down the scale.

A similar road in South Korea plays "Mary Had a Little Lamb," according to a video on More than a decade ago, in Denmark, another road used a technology that made use of buttons above the road's surface.

The idea that led to Lancaster's rendition of the cavalry charge in Gioacchino Rossini's "William Tell Overture" came from Honda's Santa Monica advertising agency, Rubin Postaer & Associates. Advertising executives there were inspired by a YouTube video of a man playing Mozart by attaching rods to his Rollerblades that hit water-filled bottles as he skated down a street.

RPA hired a production company that enlisted former punk drummer K.K. Barrett and his mathematician-musician friends to tune the pavement. Mr. Barrett, whose career began as the drummer for the Screamers, a Los Angeles techno-punk band, went to work on the Rossini piece.

By cutting ¾-inch deep grooves set 2 inches apart into asphalt, he was able to find a high F. With the same grooves 4 inches apart, he got a low F. From there, he measured his way to find all the 12 notes in between.

The width of the grooves determined the loudness of the sound. Half an inch was too soft, Mr. Barrett said, so he made it an inch. In retrospect, he says, that may have been too much. "We wanted to make sure it was loud and it was," he said. Nobody measured decibel levels, but city officials found the music could be heard half a mile away.
[Honda Civic musical road] American Honda Motor Co

The noise catapulted the Civic Music Road, as it was called, from civic attraction to civic dispute.

The road was completed in early September. And just days later, residents began posting videos of the 30-second drive online, attracting thousands of hits and hundreds of visitors to this quiet dusty city about 70 miles northeast of Los Angeles. The new popularity of the stretch on Avenue K soon created traffic problems and lots of illegal U-turns made by listeners who wanted to hear the masked Texas Ranger's theme over and over again.

For some of the hundred homes within half a mile of the road, that was a problem. Debra White Hayes couldn't sleep through the noise, which she described as incessant droning "like monsters." Thinking it was local teenagers partying, the retiree called the sheriff. But the noise didn't stop. With each interrupted night's sleep, her asthma got worse, she says. When she discovered the tune was to be a permanent fixture in her neighborhood, Ms. White Hayes says she wrote Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Mr. Parris says it wasn't the complaints of nearby residents that caused the city to decide to repave the road. "Quite frankly, I would have saved the road if it weren't for the safety concerns." After the mayor ordered the repaving, he said City Hall got 500 phone calls from residents demanding that the musical road be saved. Fans lined up for two miles on the desert highway to experience the final days of the melodic rumble strips. David Gilroy, whose house is about 500 feet from the road, painted a sign to get people to call City Hall and advocate to keep the road. "It's history for our kids," said Mr. Gilroy, downing a Bud Light behind his house. His daughter and a 12-year-old friend collected three-and-a-half pages of signatures at their school to save the attraction.

"Of all the things you think people will react to," mused Mr. Parris. "It was immediate." The campaign "was vitriolic and it even had a level of organization. Their complaint: How dare you cave in to a few complainers."

On the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 23, 18 days after the musical road was created, construction crews steamrolled fresh new asphalt over the music-making grooves. Honda footed the $20,000 bill. A day later, passing cars produced nothing but a gentle hiss.

Mr. Parris, however, didn't want to give up the tourist attraction and the marketing potential for his city. He marshaled city officials to find a new location -- a stretch of road out toward the airport with a median to make U-turns safer, and no nearby residents. He reached out to Honda to finance a repeat performance. But, this time, the car maker wasn't interested.

The city went ahead anyway and 24 days after the first road was paved into silence, a new one had been put in, with 1,270 feet of grooves tuned to Rossini's score. The city paid $30,000 for the job, and officials are confident they'll find a new sponsor, or even "a revenue-generating application," Mr. Parris says, "like a jingle."

In this video you can see and hear the road in action, pretty cool!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

How much for one to play "Angel Of Death" on I-5?

I've got $5 on it.