Histories of Sound and Speed

Mara Mills
With Jonathan Sterne, I am co-writing a book titled Tuning Time: Histories of Sound and Speed. We explore how blind readers, physicists, engineers, artists, musicians, speech researchers and forensics experts all sought ways to separate the time and frequency, and therefore the perceived duration and pitch, of reproduced sound. The book is at once a cultural, technological, and media-theoretical history of time-stretching, from early experiments in the 1930s to software such as Auto-Tune, Audible, and Ableton Live. A preliminary article on the contributions of blind readers to this technology, “Aural Speed Reading: Some Historical Bookmarks,” can be found in the March 2020 issue of PMLA. We argue that, although blind readers of Talking Books created a social pull for time-stretching, the aspiration to separate playback rate from pitch in aural speedreading became a generalised technique underpinning (and in fact propelling) the controlled temporal and pitch-based manipulation of sound today.