Turn Up the Volume My Foot's Asleep: Sonic Stimulation - Rolling Stone
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Turn Up the Volume My Foot’s Asleep: Sonic Stimulation

Engineer and innovator How Wachspress on Sonic Stimulation, absorbing sounds through other organs than the ear

Jules Antoine Lissajou, vibration of sound, ''Science for All''Jules Antoine Lissajou, vibration of sound, ''Science for All''

Jules Antoine Lissajou's original apparatus (1857-58) for studying optically the vibration of sound. Engraving from ''Science for All'', London c1880.

Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty

It sits there like an old Hoover vacuum cleaner. Only it doesn’t inhale dust, it exhales vibrations. And the hose isn’t coming out of a squat globe, but out of the top of a cube about 14 inches on a side, painted fire-engine red. How Wachspress talks about it as if it were a monolith from 2001.

How—that’s his whole first name—has luxuriant black hair, immense muttonchop sideburns and a gentle, inward expression as if he’s keeping quiet about a surprise party. His monolith is the “Auditac Sonic Stimulator”: It’s a sort of limited-access loudspeaker for every part of the body except the ears. “The Beatles on your back. Bartok on your belly,” croons an Auditac leaflet; “Beethoven between your legs.” It’s the first in a series of “tactile communication devices” How thinks are going to revolutionize our society as much as television has.

At the moment the papa of the revolutionary device is sitting tight. Not one Sonic Stimulator has been sold, for fear of interference on his patent applications. But on the morning after Richard Nixon’s resignation, he kindly consented to give Rolling Stone‘s unbiased test panel a demonstration of the device, plus unlimited glasses of apple juice.

The Sonic Stimulator idea is simple. The ear is a specialized organ for transmitting sound signals to the brain, but since sound is merely physical vibration, any pressure-sensitive organ can “hear.” The palm of the hand, for instance (very good, says How; good hi-fi reception because of its abundance of nerve endings). Or the groin (also good for the same reason and because of the various internal organs nearby, each with its own complement of sensors). The elbows and knees are good listeners too, because they readily transfer sound vibrations to the skeleton, thus sending messages from all over the body.

The experience is a little like being at a live concert on about 12 square inches of your body. The music is faintly audible to the ears, but the air in the probe is pummeling your flesh like a concert hall speaker. How can envision a setup that would cover the entire body with sound vibrations, but would make so little audible noise that the landlady would never know the Fillmore was going on upstairs.

And a better system would involve having the hose filled with liquid instead of air. “Oh yeah,” says How. “I’ve played with it in the bathtub.”

It’s a long and winding road that has led this 29-year-old from being an aeronautics major at Brooklyn Tech to an audio inventor in a tiny and incredibly compact San Francisco apartment stuffed with electronics paraphernalia—even in the kitchen. Fortunately, How Wachspress is equipped to understand it; he’s into Alan Watts, dynamical analogies, basic psycho-physical processes, the concept of unity—understanding things on the level where the essential difference disappears between, say, sound and electricity. As he recounts his life story, he regularly pauses to sum it up in terms of larger processes. Such as, “So my interest in audio went through these stages: reproduction, recording, synthesis, multimedia.”

While explaining things, he doodles arrows on a notepad. “I am a person,” he says, “who has survived all sorts of disasters and setbacks because I’ve known what I wanted to do.”

One of his early setbacks was dropping out of Cooper Union at the age of 19. He went to work at a plastics factory, which gave him an idea of what was involved in manufacturing. As a consequence, he says, he has a horror of becoming a manufacturer. When it comes time to manufacture the Sonic Stimulator he envisions non-exclusive licensing of everybody who wants to manufacture it, rather than setting up his own factory. (How promises this soon. The crucial claims of his Teletac patent application have been allowed—and he expects to set up some sort of public showcase within a year.)

During a trip to London in 1966 he was inspired to revive his childhood dream of being an inventor when he saw a museum exhibit of the prototypes of famous inventions. Back in New York, he scurried around in audio technology, something he’d returned to after Cooper Union; as a child he had messed around with early model tape-recorders and the like, because his father was an audio engineer. How worked as a news recorder for WBAI FM in New York and did odd jobs around recording studios, not counting a little research and development for a business machine company.

Then he fell into a situation that changed his life. It was 1969 on the Lower East Side and, as he says, “Hair was in the streets, not on the stage.” One of the unique institutions cast up by the wild ferment of those days was a sort of psychedelic playground called Cerebrum. Fifty-six customers at a time would spend a couple of hours wearing translucent white robes, being fed strawberries soaked in wine and playing with touchy-feely toys like giant balloons, lying under collapsed tents of parachute material and stroking each other with hand lotion. The addition of a low-keyed lightshow and music made it what it was dubbed, a sensorium. How was brought in to fix the sound system; he was also a Cerebrum “guide.”

Cerebrum eventually folded, a victim of cashflow problems and, in How’s opinion, an inability to interest customers in returning. “Somebody called those the Go-Go Years,” he recalls. “It was a wild time, people were trying anything. I got into all the senses. I was inventing atomizers—I still have a scent library. And it was at that time that I got the original acid flash of multimedia. The idea of two-way tactile communication over a distance. Carrying it to its most outrageous extension, a fuck-by-phone machine.”

It was just a flash at the time, though. He started experimenting and realized the essential problem was not how to send messages over a wire—Alexander Graham Bell had settled that—but how to transfer tactile sensations into electronic messages. He went around touching people with tuning forks, blowing into tubes touching their skin, groping for a key. Eventually this was to lead to the fire-engine-red vacuum cleaner on the floor of a San Francisco apartment.

But not right away. How got a job as sound man and truck driver for a rock band, and got canned in Fort Worth (“once the sound system was working right”). Flat broke and halfway between New York and the West Coast, he elected to go west.

In Los Angeles, he now sheepishly admits, he went to real estate school to organize himself a source of income. In February 1970 he moved to San Francisco and worked in real estate. By this time he’d decided he needed more audio engineering background. He got a first-class radio license and later went back to school for another year.

At school he used the lab to make his first Auditac prototypes in 1971, and by January 1972 one of the prototypes satisfied him. In July he became chief engineer at KSAN, the underground FM station. The next month he gave a public demonstration of Auditac at a seminar of a group called Sexual Attitude Restructuring, held in the basement of San Francisco’s avant-gardist Glide Memorial Church. The orgasmic response of some of the participants led to an article in London’s Evening Standard by Richard Neville, late of Oz magazine, and eventually an article stressing the sexual possibilities of How’s inventions in Oui.

“I’d rather not emphasize the sexual aspect as much as the Oui story did,” says How. “They just concentrated on one aspect. There are so many possibilities.” Not that he’s above making invidious comparison between his baby and a conventional vibrator, the kind advertised “for relieving tension.” “This is the competition,” he says condescendingly. “Only one note. And a distorted note. This is not hi-fi: By comparison with the Auditac it’s the Stone Age.”

But there are the other possibilities. Such as shaking hands with the folks back home when you’ve just landed on the moon. Such as translating visual information into sound, watching a TV program with your hand. Such as Hyper-reality, an abandonment of what How calls man’s “historical preoccupation with the need to maintain constant images of the physical world … a product of his extreme orientation toward physical survival in a hostile environment.” In other words, treating the sensory apparatus as a jungle gym, something to play with. How has described it as “like making adjustments on a television set, except you are what’s plugged in.” But outside of the slogan “Reality Is Obsolete,” much of this is hush-hush stuff. How smiles enigmatically and promises big surprises.

“I’ve been getting into experiencing sound as a constantly evolving multidimensional experience. Part is ear-based, the rest is the evolving body-based experience, part of it connected to the ears.” One of How’s favorite images is the shark: Certain sharks, he says, have tubes running the length of their bodies that relay sound information to the ears.

But How is less interested in ear-based hearing than in sensing sound through pressure sensors in the body: in the skin, the joints and the internal organs. He claims to have become so sensitized to sound that he can’t bear to listen to Santana with the Sonic Stimulator at full volume. “Some people have repressed touch awareness,” he says. “They ask why this machine doesn’t flash them out as much as they expect. But I had two women down here from The Bodycentre to try it, and they asked me to turn the volume down, it was too intense for them.”

Music isn’t all you can listen to with your skin, of course. “I could play you some sound effects,” says How. “I could set up one of these sensory probes to give the feeling of the ocean, all the sensations of the ocean—you’d feel water churning.” In fact, most music contains a lot of wasted effort from the touch audience’s point of view, because the range of the skin’s sensitivity is confined to lower frequencies than the ear’s. The range of hearing of the ear is from 20 cycles per second up to 15-20,000. The body can sense up to 10,000 cycles, though How admits it’s hard to distinguish one note from another above 1,000, and of course the power of a wave is dependent on its length. The higher the note, the more difficult it is to transmit.

How recognizes the problem. “You’ve got to realize,” he says surprisingly, “that the skin wasn’t meant for hearing.” Surprisingly, that is, if you think the senses should necessarily be used the way they were meant to be. Hyper-reality is a whole new game.

But while the skin has less sensitivity in the upper registers, it has vastly more in the lower. The ear doesn’t register below 20 cycles, but of course the skin can register no cycles—constant pressure. “The ears are more sensitive in a specialized way,” says How, “but the body is a broader-band receiver. The ears can’t detect seven cycles per second, but of course the chest cavity can—that’s the resonant frequency of the chest. Enough power at that frequency would make you explode.”

How puts the equivalent ratio between high and low notes between ear-based and body-based hearing at roughly ten to one. “If you had a mythological electronic device that could take all the information out of the hearing range and restore it in the body range by dividing by ten, you’d have it made. There are all sorts of frequency dividers but they won’t divide all the frequencies in a band, linearly. I’m working on a device that would transfer it, an auditory-audio tactile converter. You could take it on the street and convert any sounds into tactile information.

“We’re still at the monophonic stage of audiotactile experience. Once this thing is going, lots of new instruments will come out. New schools of music, new styles of composition will be developed. New scales, not based on the octave.

“We haven’t yet explored the possibilities of compositions specifically designed for sexual excitement. So it’s all brand new. We’ll probably develop multitrack systems—one guy playing for the elbow, one for the crotch, one for the face. And there won’t be any rules, because nobody will be in a position to say, ‘That’s wrong, because we’re in the Neoclassical Period of the Elbow.’ “

Report of the Unbiased Testing Panel

Our researcher, Dr. Feltbetter, experimented with the Auditac probe in four postures: standing, sitting, crouching and lying. Areas stimulated included the hand, belly, calf, elbow, knee, back and face, both with and without earphones to make the sounds more audible to the ears. How suggested, and Dr. Feltbetter agreed, that hearing the sound clearly while sensing it makes for a more satisfying experience.

General conclusions:

1. Low notes are far more successful than high notes.

2. Strongly marked rhythms come across best.

3. Variation in tone and rhythm adds considerably to the interest.

If these sound like the criteria of a good rock & roll instrumental, it’s not accidental. “Yes, it’s true,” says How. “Pop musicians are already in tune with the idea of playing with their equipment, they already understand body music and are into some degree of man-machine interface. I remember in the olden days lots of groupies used to snuggle up to the speakers at concerts.”

Dr. Feltbetter evidently found the experiment absorbing, especially when he had the earphones on while applying the Sonic Stimulator probe. How declared at one juncture, “He’s not paying any attention to us, he’s completely inside his body now.” At several points, the Doctor asked for “more volume.” The opening drum line of Santana’s “Hope You’re Feeling Better” elicited a sharp, high-pitched giggle.

In conclusion, the Doctor declared the effect of the Auditac “entertaining and relaxing. I look forward to the day of the sonic massage.” He also expects use of the principle for Feelzak in supermarkets and possibly in advanced weapons design.

“But there may be limits to our appreciation of hi-fi feels,” says Dr. Feltbetter. “Not every cycle’s gonna get you off.”

Your Stroke Parade

Dr. Feltbetter’s Top Ten:

1. “Superstition,” Stevie Wonder

2. “Sugar Magnolia,” the Grateful Dead

3. “California Man,” the Move

4. “That’s the Way God Planned It,” Billy Preston

5. “Keep On Growing,” Derek and the Dominoes

6. “Layla,” Derek and the Dominoes

7. “Se A Cabo,” Santana (“or any other cut from Abraxas“)

8. “Dark Side of the Moon,” Pink Floyd (“or any other cut from the album”)

9. “Let Me Sing Your Blues Away,” the Grateful Dead

10. “Johnny B. Goode,” Chuck Berry

Supplemental Listing of Folk and Classical Hits:

1. “U Kurshevo Ogin Gori,” unnamed village orchestra, Macedonian Folk Dances Vol. I, Folkraft 24

2. “Rukina (Seven Drums of the Mwami),” Music from Rwanda, Barenreiter BM 30 L2302

3. “Tampai Gyentsen (The Banner of the Faith),” Tibet I, Barenreiter BM 30 L2009

4. “Dueling Tubas,” Martin Mull

5. “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” J.S. Bach (or any other Bach organ music)

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