The Dead Shopping Mall Project

For various regions, shopping malls across America (and in other places) are dying. Many have only a few shops left in them. A few, somehow, manage to thrive.

Many Gen-Xers spend their formative years in shopping malls, walking endlessly in circles. The experience of these malls was not only a visual panorama of their shiny flat surfaces, but also very much their acoustics. The indoor stores separated themselves from the indoor mall by using piped in music, which informed shoppers that they were entering a different space. The music used was chosen to signal what demographic the store hoped to attract. Stores for teens played the top 40 that appealed to that age group.

Department stores and the mall itself played more neutral music, trying to signal a more broad appeal. All of this was set in space full of talking, foot traffic, and young people, set against very reflective surfaces. It was not just the music chosen, but the acoustic that differentiated spaces.

Smaller stores had nearby walls, dampened with hanging clothes or other wares, and thus their reflections were different than the more open mall.

As malls disappear, their unique sonic environment disappears also. It’s impossible to recapture what they were like when filled with people, unless you somehow entice people to come in. But the echoes of the sonic space and the dimensions of the architecture can be archived in a form that’s usable for people who would like to experience what being in such a place sounded like.

This usable archive can be made via a short audio file called an Impulse Response. It is a recording of the echoes of the space. Below, you can find instructions on one way to make such a recording.

These recordings should be made, as a form of acoustic ecology and of memory. So the sounds can still be used even as the spaces themselves vanish.

How to take an impulse response with two mobile phones.

  1. You will need software for your computer: audacity and fscape
  2. You will need to decide which of the phones has the better microphone. Put a good-quality audio recorder on it. This is your recorder-phone.
  3. Put this audio file on to the other phone. This is your player-phone.
  4. Before you head to the mall (or whenever you switch phones), take a calibration recording.
    1. Play the file from the player-phone while recording it with the recorder-phone. Hold the recorder-phone so it’s microphone is as close as possible to the player-phone’s speaker.
    2. Always record at the best possible settings. Try to use a non-compressed file format like WAV or AIFF.
    3. Make a note of which file is your calibration recording.
  5. Go to the mall and pick out what spaces you would like to take an IR in, then take them.
    1. Decide how far away you want the two phones to be from each other. If the phones are further apart, you get more of the sound of the space. If they’re closer together, the IR will be more intimate. If the spaces is noisy, it might be hard to record at further distances. (If you’re unsure or want options, you can do recordings at multiple distances.)
    2. Play the sound from the player-phone while you are recording with the recorder-phone. Always record at the best possible settings and try to use an uncompressed file format like WAV or AIFF.
    3. Make a note of what mall that you’re at (ie ‘Valley Fair, San Jose, California’), where in the mall you are (ie ‘food court’) and an estimate of the distance (ie ‘2 meters’). Make a note of which recording you’re referring to (either by writing it down or editing the file name).
  6. When you get home, transfer all the recordings to your computer. If you have not already given them descriptive names (ie: ‘ValleyFairFoodCourt2mRec.wav’), do so now.
  7. Open your calibration recording in Audacity, normalise it and reverse it. (These options can be found under the effects menu). Then export it as ‘callibration-rev.wav’. (Export is under the file menu)
  8. Repeat the following process with all of the mall recordings you made:
    1. Open the recording in Audacity, and normalise it. Export it with a descriptive name (ie ‘ValleyFairFoodCourt2mNrml.wav’)
    2. Open Fscape. Under the menu ‘New Module’, select ‘Spectral Domain’ > ‘Convolution’
    3. For the input file, select the mall recording
    4. For the ‘Impulse Response’, put the reversed calibration file, callibration-rev.wav.
    5. Give the output file a descriptive filename (‘ValleyFairFoodCourt2mConv.wav’)
    6. Select Render
    7. Open the output file in Audacity. In the middle of the file, there will be a loud part. Use your mouse to select just the loud part (zoom in to get it as tight as you can. If there’s a bit of lead in and a bit of fade-out, get that too).
    8. Hit the ‘z’ key to slightly adjust your selection
    9. Under the file menu, select ‘Export Selection’. This is the finished impulse response! Give it a descriptive file name (‘ValleyFairFoodCourt2mIR.wav’)
    10. You can erase your source files when you’re done if you want. Be sure not the erase the reversed calibration file until you’ve created all the finished IRs
  9. Now that you’ve got the IRs, please send them to me! Or, better, post them to archive.org and send me the links.
  10. You can use them on recorded audio to make it sound as if it took place in the mall! If you have reverb software, you can use the IR you just made as the IR, or you can use Fscape. Do a convolution with your source file, using the IR you made as the Impulse Response. The output will have the sonic characteristics of the mall!

Published by

Charles Céleste Hutchins

Supercolliding since 2003

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