Thiago Hersan’s Pittsburgh/São Paulo Computer-Generated Ringtones

Thiago Hersan is a former electrical engineer and [computer] chip maker. The tones Hersan sent in to Locally Toned, are crosss-Atlantic-production hybrids–partly made in Pittsburgh, and partly made in São Paulo, Brazil–the town to which he recently moved. Conceptually dazzling and stunningly original, the tones are generated from a computer program that Hersan wrote to enable a computer to “read” and “play back” the chip images below, as sound. Of the handful of tone samples he sent me, I chose to include Img05 Buzztone, Img05 Colortone, and Img11 Colorbuzztone in the project.

Although I usually produce a summary telling the story about ringtone submissions, I thought it would be worthwhile to share our recent Skype conversation in interview format. I wanted to capture Thiago’s way of describing his distinctly unordinary approach to making tones for the project, and I wanted to reveal the kinds of questions I ask Locally Toned community collaborators (when time and circumstance permits).

Interview with Thiago Hersan

May 26, 2010

T. FOLEY:  How did you make these ringtones?

THIAGO HERSAN:  I was in grad school and we were working on a project about computer chip making. We were really concerned about the shapes—making sure that the shapes printed in silicon were accurate, and, as opposed to the people who develop new computer programs, we were doing work at the fabrication level. There was always a lot of regularity to the shape, and I always wanted to try to translate or use the regular shapes of the computer, what you see inside the computer chips to generate beats or noise. So it started by me taking images of computer chips and turning them into sounds.

FOLEY:  Where did the chip images come from?

HERSAN:  Those are actually from a project we worked on in grad school [at Carnegie Mellon University] that were sent off to be manufactured. The drawings are made in a kind of dorky computer-designer Photoshop-like program; we used that program to design, draw and connect the parts of the computer chip. The program has tools like Photoshop—it’s the chip designer’s Photoshop.

FOLEY:  How did you make the sounds?

HERSAN:  I wrote a program in C++ that makes the computer read and then play back the picture as sound. Basically, I made the computer recognize, read and output the digital images as sound/audio files through a program that I wrote.

FOLEY:  The picture was the input; the sound was the output?

HERSAN:  Yes. I wanted to make tones in Pittsburgh, but when you invited me to submit work to the project, I was in the process of moving, and so I wanted to use content from Pittsburgh but write the program here, and then output the sound in São Paulo.

I’ve had dreams about these shapes—I’ve had dreams about connecting things; if you’re into his world, you’re living as a computer chip. I have just wondered, what sounds might you hear?

FOLEY:  Why did you want to make this work to share with others?

HERSAN:  I think it’s out of the whole idea of, “Oh, I want to see if I can make these images produce a sound.” I thought about this concept before I did it. What comes out [of the process], is something you might not like to listen to for a long period of time (like a song or symphony), but I think the sounds are good to experience as short bursts. It’s how I think the sounds are best experienced. Putting them on cell phones and spreading them around is one way to do it—people can experience them through a phone ringing, as a surprise. I think it would be interesting for someone else to play with the process–if I were able to create a little program or system where people could look at the images that I have, or draw on top of them [and change them and thereby change the sound(s)].

For now my concept works as a way for other people to hear them—to just play the sounds. The general length of a ringtone–that’s the length of time it takes for the sounds to play, and the attention it draws is perfect.

FOLEY:  Do you use ringtones?

HERSAN:  I have not bought nor made ringtones before. You might describe my cell phone use as—well, I don’t even answer it much; the phone is always on vibrate.

FOLEY:  Would you use these on your phone?

HERSAN:  The buzzing one—because it’s closer to vibrate mode.

FOLEY:  Tell me about your portrait.

HERSAN:  I like the portrait. It says a little bit about Brazilian urban art culture—that’s sort of an outdoor mural behind me. There’s some street graffiti artist culture here. But this isn’t an example of that—this is the work of someone who painted their garage door to look like a Modrian [painting]. There’s a little walk-in door on the image. I liked that background for my portrait in particular, because it has squares and colors and shapes-not exactly like the colors and shapes of the images I presented, but there’s some similarity between Modrian’s work and the computer chip images.

FOLEY:  Thanks for your awesome contribution, Thiago.

HERSAN: Thank you. This was fun.

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Filed under Locally Toned (all posts), Ringtones

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