Locally Toned in Mexico: Birdsong of Puerto Morelos, Quintana Roo

Should you find yourself, as we did, in Puerto Morelos–a fishing village 30 minutes south of Cancun–you’re certain to hear the birdsong. I noticed it most prominently in the early morning when the birds were up singing with the sunrise. A palapa crow’s nest was situated on the roof adjacent to our hotel room, and I hid, tucked away from the birds, sitting on steps to record audio for this Birdsong Ringtone (Puerto Morelos). It includes various bird calls–my favorite sounds like a kind of sonar reverb, and it ends with a call my boyfriend described as a the “Muppet News Desk Alert.” I also exported a Trilling Birdsong Message Alert and a Squawking Birdsong Message Alert.

Here are a few images from our respite at Puerto Morelos, including a picture of the bird-themed tile that decorates the bathrooms at Casa Caribe.

This ringtone recording session was made possible by a generous grant from The Fine Foundation.

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David Bernabo’s Unreliable Narrator Tones

David Bernabo is a musician, animator, writer, artist, and he holds a full time gig–to pay the bills. We met in his Bloomfield home-studio to discuss his contribution to Locally Toned–two highly original, and heavily edited audio tracks Unreliable Narrator and Another Unreliable Narrator.

“Each is made up of numerous recordings I’ve made or collected over the years, including one that my grandfather made. He was an accordion player and in 1941, as people could in those days, he drove down to Virginia or something and plopped down the money to have his own record made. But there are sounds from our weddings–my wife and I had four of them–specifically, there’s sound from a mirror installation that moved, built by the artist Joshua Space. Basically I raided my audio archive to reconfigure and change the context of these sounds. And there’s definitely a nod to a simple [interactive] computer [fiction] game called Zork–in the way the narrator takes us to places in both that game and my ringtones.

My stories are random–non linear–narration for the sake of narration, rather than having a particular origin–these stories are complete non sequiturs, but I use a calm, reassuring voice. I made these pieces as ringtones, but I might put out all these tracks as a 7 inch vinyl record.”

Bernabo’s studio is full of instruments–a toy piano, a harpsichord, a Wurlitzer, a stack of guitars. It’s where he records music and does editing and graphic design work. He began  playing piano in the 2nd grade; in the 5th grade, he took up the guitar. He also plays a little banjo.

“Right now I’ve got a project with Will Dyar in Santa Fe, New Mexico, called Host Skull. We do pop records, but stranger.” As Bernabo explained it, the collaborators record in Pittsburgh and Santa Fe, respectively, with Dave performing Host Skull music locally (working with musicians here) and Dyar performing their content with musicians out West. Over the years, Bernabo has worked with artists Ben Opie, Boxstep, Vale and Year and Boca Chica. Lately he’s also been working with dancers and doing installations, like “Inhabit Host Skull,” a participatory art work that invited the viewer to complete the work by helping to shape its constantly shifting sound environment.

Above: two images from the “Inhabit Host Skull” installation at 707 Penn Gallery. Left, a room view, and right, a close-up. Below: Bernabo pieces together the front and back cover art for “Happener Magicker,” a David Bernabo + Assembly recording.

Thanks to David Bernabo for composing and sharing his thoughtfully produced and *unreliable* stories with Locally Toned!

This ringtone recording session was made possible by a generous grant from The Fine Foundation.

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Homestead Train Whistle Ringtone

Here’s a long-awaited and oft requested tone–the sound of a Homestead Train Whistle.

Recorded at the Homestead Pennsylvania Railroad Station, built circa 1890 (or 1906–depending upon which source is referred to), on Amity Street, the building now houses the offices for the Allegheny County District Attorney. It sits between two sets of railroad tracks, and there are benches, for the office workers and/or occasional train spotters. Though I waited no longer than half an hour before the railroad crossing bells would ring out, I had no way to determine from which direction the next train would come. It took me two hours to get a good recording. I had a lot of solitary fun figuring out the final approach that allowed me to capture audio track above. In the end, I think I make a pretty good Foley artist.

This ringtone is dedicated to Susan Englert, a Pittsburgh-based architect and visual artist, and Dr. Gerry Santoro, an Assistant Professor of Information Sciences and Technology at Penn State University. They both requested the sound of a train whistle as a ringtone during earlier phases of the project. I quote their illustrative requests below, because at the heart of this project is a sense of curiosity about the sounds that are meaningful to people of this region. What does Pittsburgh (or another region) sound like? Which of these sounds should be turned into ringtones and shared with the public free of charge?

If you’re interested in learning more about the history and industrial heritage of Homestead, PA, visit the Rivers of Steel Web site or check out Ron Baraff’s Archival Tone Series.

Excerpted email from Susan Englert, July 2009

TRAINS! trains trains trains trains TRAINS ==> Piiiiiiiittsburgh!!

I ride my bike home through the Strip every day and usually catch the early evening run.

What makes an otherwise generic tone Pittsburgh-specific is the reverb off the surrounding hillside. Right there, on Smallman St. at around 28th, it’s especially loud, clear, and echo-y. Gives me goose bumps every time. For me, trains are THE sound defining Pittsburgh. (OK, that and spitting…) In every neighborhood, you hear ’em.

I’m sure someone’s suggested this, but just in case… Gotta have a train in the collection.

Excerpt from an email from Gerry Santoro, October 2010

I would love to have a train whistle as my ring tone. (I have Purple Haze right now – but the whistle would bring back so many memories.)

I grew up along Freeport Road on the Eastern end of Blawnox. My house (a brick duplex) was about 1000 feet from the Allegheny river, and we could see it from our front porch. Blawnox is on a bend in the river, and I would hear the train whistles from both sides as they approached road crossings. The echo of the whistle would carry down the river. On real quiet nights you could also hear a ‘clickety-clack’ as the trains ran over the old tracks. As a teen I would sometimes hang out along the river, within 20 feet of the trains. The doppler effect as the trains would pass by was VERY noticeable.

I really miss that sound. Now I live in the mountains with a state forest (Rothrock) in my back yard. The sound of the owls, cows, crickets and occasional coyotes are wonderful, but I miss the trains…

As you can see, the first request came in almost three years ago–better late than never?!

Dear Susan and Gerry, sincere thanks for your beautiful and nostalgic ringtone request!

This ringtone recording session was made possible by a generous grant from The Fine Foundation.

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Nermal the Kitty’s Meow Tone

Meet artist Casey Droege and her 13-year old blind kitty cat, Nermal, who live in Pittsburgh’s North Side Deutschtown neighborhood. Asked why she wanted to contribute the sound of Nermal’s meow to the project, Casey said, “It’s one of the most consistent sounds I hear all day long when I’m working in my studio. I like to work in a quiet environment, and Nermal will start doing these loud, long meows. I think it’s a form of echo-location–she uses to figure out if anyone’s near her.” Here’s Nermal’s Meow Tone. In it, you’ll also hear the kitty cat’s prominent purrs. I also exported one short and sweet meow as Nermal’s Meow – Message Alert.

We recorded Nermal in Casey’s impressively well-organized studio, where she’s working on several projects about language and relationships. Lately her work has taken the form of books, prints and recordings. An ongoing project, Tracks of My Tears, is an vinyl record featuring “40 minutes of stories about 8 songs that have induced crying.”

Thank you, Casey and Nermal for your contribution to Locally Toned!

This ringtone recording session was made possible by a generous grant from The Fine Foundation.

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Artist Vanessa German’s Blessings

Photo courtesy Heather Mull

“We put no margins on what can and can’t be a blessing,” says Vanessa German, a visual and performance artist living and working in Homewood, PA. She recently shared three powerful blessings, as ringtones, with Locally Toned.

When asked about her approach creating and contributing her sounds to the project, she said, “I thought we could all use more blessings in our lives.  Perhaps in a ringtone, a blessing can also come, and influence more than we think it can, on this device which plays everywhere. Maybe blessings can be everywhere. Any of these sounds are good for repelling depression, for repelling any negative force. They’re good poems to have for putting around yourself–a kind of an aura, a corona of positivity and incandescence.”

Photo courtesy Heather Mull

About her blessing, Stay On Your Grind, German says, “Within the tumult of hard times, I want people to just to recognize that you can stay on your grind. If all you can do is focus on one or two things that can bring you love joy and truth, than you will rise strengthened.”

Google Map image of corner in Homewood, PA

Her blessing When They Offer You (the Opportunity to Be Mediocre) was written for young people in her neighborhood. “Up on Frankstown Avenue, in Homewood, there’s all these places where you see people standing–on crates, under trees–they will set up a tarp and sell incense and CDs, or sometimes shiestier things. I would leave one of the schools I was teaching at, and realize how much pressure there is for young people to do things fast. I wasn’t sure that the young people were hearing enough that they could turn down [the opportunity to be mediocre]. I wanted to speak to them directly, to say, ‘It won’t be easy, but tell those people that you have dreams! Recognize the choices that are given to you. Realize your power to stand, your right to say, ‘I’VE GOT STUFF TO DO, and I’m going to do it.’

I also wrote this blessing because you see street lights around here wrapped with baloons and teddy bears, where people were shot and killed, and I think about the young or older black men, standing around, holding up those poles where those lives were lost.”

Image of “Power Figure to Keep Me Alive” (sculpture) by Vanessa German / photo courtesy the artist. The sculpture is inn the permanent collection of the Progressive Contemporary Art Collection, in Cleveland Ohio

Her third blessing, If My Hands, is a powerful poem written to cure cancer. “It’s as if I could make a medicinal non-toxic chemo through sound, to attack tumors and to push cancer out of body. I imagine that every time I read this poem–that it attacks cancer cells–and I imagine that the cells rise up, and push out of people’s bodies, through their tissue, and dissipate in the air. Like fog, you can see it in the morning, and then it goes away. ”

I wondered how German came to write and perform her blessings. “It’s important to note,” she said, “that I try as much as possible, to write ‘in blessings.’ It can be very difficult for me to fend off negativity–my own negativity–and the sorrow, grief, and short tempered meanness that just seeps in around me. I am not a blessing mastermind or anything, but I do Believe, I have Faith, and when I’m at my best, I can tap into it so thoroughly that it lifts me. I hope that in any way small or momentous, that these tones might move forth to do this also [for others].”

Thanks to Vanessa German for her soulful contribution to the project. Read more about the artist’s work in this article. See a sample of her performance work here.

Interested in other ringtones within this project that take the form of prayers? Read about contributor Heather Mull’s Buddhist Chant Ringtones here.

This ringtone recording session was made possible by a generous grant from The Fine Foundation.

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Assemble Tone Series Part II (Pittsburgh, PA)


Bobbi Williams is a regular at Pittsburgh’s maker space, Assemble, and a “performance artist supernova from the planet of Venus.” Williams, who lives in Forest Hills, is a Reiki Master and playwright. Here’s her beautiful a capella Morning Star Ringtone, which she described as a “transmission from the intergalactic planet of love.” The general vibe at Assemble is its positive energy. And that energy is clearly apparent in Part II of their tone series.



Garfield resident Ben Saks stopped by our Community Ringtone Recording Session with his guitar to offer this Out Of Tune Tone. Saks, a filmmaker, said that the idea being “out of tune can help us to think about things that are in tune.” Harmony as a goal is a good thing, right? See what I mean about the tendency towards positivity?



Jason Harlait showed up with a very clear goal in mind–to make something musical out of everyday items. Here’s his The Jar Has a Lid Tone. In it, Harlait makes the jar lid “pop” while he taps out a rhythm on the glass jar with a plastic spoon. A resident of Squirrel Hill, and a frequent maker of things at Assemble, Harlait told me he enjoys stopping by the space where he can get in touch with his creativity.



Near the end of our Saturday session, two little girls, Kennedi and Deziree popped in to contribute their Divas = Dance Tone. Nothing like the audio in the Diva Dance sequence from the movie The Fifth Element, this track includes sounds of the girls using their voices and stepping or cheerleading footwork. Deziree and Kennedi told me they wanted to surprise their families with the gift of this ringtone. Their sound reminds me of the kinds of cheers that the little girls used to learn from the older girls at grade school.



It’s so appropriate to have Kennedi’s spoken-word Peanut Butter Jelly Time Tone as the Assemble finale–after all, the recording session took place in an art and technology space. What sounded to me like a jump rope song turned out to be an Internet Meme (thanks for clueing me in, Nick Pozek!). As one of my favorite Web sites, Know Your Meme reports, “The first Peanut Butter Jelly Time flash animation was created by Ryan Gancenia Etrata and Kevin Flynn under the screen names RalphWiggum and Comrade Flynn, and posted onto the Offtopic.com forums in early 2002.”


You got it–during a Locally Toned community recording session a little girl came into an art and technology space to perform a spoken-word treatment of an Internet Meme as a ringtone (to be shared with others free of charge online). From the Internet, and back to the Internet, O, Peanut Butter Jelly Time, you have returned!



Thanks to Kennedi for winding down the series with her vocal exuberance and smart concept, and thanks to all the participants at Assemble’s Community Ringtone Recording Session!



The tone series created at Assemble was made possible by a generous grant from The Fine Foundation.







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Assemble Tone Series (Pittsburgh, PA)

Nina Marie Barbuto is a self-described instigator, maker and learner. She also runs Assemble, a friendly art and technology space in the Penn Avenue Arts District (in Pittsburgh’s Garfield neighborhood). While taking this photograph of Nina outside the space, several neighborhood folks passed by. “Hey,” she said, “how are you? Wanna come in and make something? It’s ringtones today!”

Lulan (left) and Sara (right) work on a sign inviting people into Assemble to make ringtones

During Locally Toned’s community ringtone recording session on a Saturday afternoon, the space became enlivened by children and adults who dropped in to write, draw, build things or make ringtones. And thanks to Assemble’s hospitality, eight new Pittsburghers have contributed tones to the project.

First up is Nina Marie Barbuto’s Assem-Bell Tone. You hear this sound as soon as you walk in the door at 5125 Penn Avenue. Left behind by a former tenant, Nina chose this welcoming sound as her ringtone.

Our next ringtone-maker was Sara, a 3rd grader who loves to draw, “and I’m good at it,” she offered. Her concept was simple–the sound of Shhh! “If you are in a movie when someone calls you but you can’t answer the phone, people around you won’t know your phone is ringing. They will just think someone is shushing someone.” Here’s her sneaky Shush! Tone.

Jaden is a very literate 1st grader who likes to play on computers (and with blocks, as the evidence below will show). Here’s his, Hey, Excuse Me! Ringtone. He thought it would be funny to make a ringtone that reminds you (over and over again) to answer your phone.

The community ringtone recording session and the tone series created at Assemble were made possible by a generous grant from The Fine Foundation.

Scroll down to see more pictures from our collaboration on 11/19/2011.

Jaden and Ben Saks work with blocks at Assemble

Sign by Lulan (with Sara's help): "Seeking Local Sounds for Public Art"

Awesome drawing of a cell phone by Lulan

Wanna make a ringtone? You've gotta fill out a form!

Sara and Jaden fill out their ringtone forms

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Turkey Gobble and Call Tones (Uniontown Poultry Association)

And now for the grand fanale to the Uniontown Poultry Association‘s Ringtone Series–Turkey Gobble and Turkey Call Tones–just in time for Thanksgiving!

Meet Hannah Cunnard–a friendly and knowledgable 11 year-old, a member of the Sunshine 4-H in Greensburg, PA, and a first-timer at the Fall Poultry Fair. Hannah introduced us to her poultry-contender, a Turken (Naked Neck) Chicken (above). When we invited her to make a ringtone, she escorted us to the turkey area in the poultry hall and showed us how to make a turkey gobble by clapping. Here’s Hannah’s Clap and Turkey Gobble Tone. The sound quality was so good that I couldn’t resist making this awesome Turkey Gobble Alert–a surprising sound to set on your phone for a text or picture message alert.

After visiting with Hannah, we met Ed Stanish, Jr., current President of the Uniontown Poultry Association, and a self-described “student of turkey calls.” We learned from Stanish that there are about 25 to 30 distinct turkey calls (or sounds), and that he can make just about all of  them. Raised on a farm, and having spent “every moment possible outdoors,” he learned the calls while observing and listening to turkeys over the years. Here’s his Turkey Call Alert.

Stanish explained that there are different “seasonal” turkey calls. The main gobble is produced by the female, or boss hen as she asserts her dominance. Male turkeys call during mating season to attract females. A”kee kee” call is something a momma hen uses when her flock gets scattered. “Kee kee” means “Come home, it’s safe.” One hunting technique, Stanish said, is to startle and scatter a flock, and then use the “kee kee” call to bring them back. If you’re interested in hearing more turkey calls, there’s a rich archive of wild turkey audio at the National Wild Turkey Federation’s Web site. For instance, you can hear the “Cutting of [an] Excited Hen,” which the NWTF describes as a “series of fast, loud, erratic single notes is referred to as cutting. It’s a modified cluck and is a distinct, abrupt call with a somewhat questioning nature. It can be heard at a great distance and is often used by a single turkey looking for companionship.

Sincere thanks to Hanna, her mother, and Ed Stanish, Jr. for contributing these holiday-timely and very special sounds to the project. And thanks to Scott Davidoff for assisting me on the journey to the Fayette County Fairgrounds to collect ringtones at the Uniontown Poultry Association’s Fall Show.

This ringtone recording session was made possible by a generous grant from The Fine Foundation.

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Come Record Ringtones Saturday 19 Nov

Saturday Nov 19, 2011 12-4pm 

Location:  Assemble, 5125 Penn Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15224-1636

Artist T. Foley brings her public art/original ringtone creation project Locally Toned to Assemble on Saturday November 19, 2011 for a Community Ringtone Recording Session.

Open to the public–come join us!

What does Pittsburgh sound like? You! Bring your robots, moo-cow toys, drums, rattles, harmonica or voice, and your super-bad self, and MAKE YOUR OWN TONE! Assemble will provide the space and minimal collaborative support for the session; the artist will provide the technical know-how and all recording equipment. Audio content must be copyright free (i.e., original compositions or sounds which exists in the natural world). Tone duration will be 30 seconds or less. Participants at this session will be photographed for possible inclusion in project exhibitions and archives. Tones will be made available to the public (as MP3s) by the end of November 2011 at www.locallytoned.org. Collaborative experiences are documented on the project Blog, and tones are pinpointed on a Google Map embedded on the tone distribution website. Funding for this Community Ringtone Recording Session has been provided by The Fine Foundation.

Assemble, a new venue in the Penn Ave Arts District, is a place where one can engage their intrigue through hands on activities about art and technology. Physical and nonphysical social and creative connections are fostered through film screenings, happenings, workshops, lectures, and community activities. assemble will activate the community with the contributions and presence of the audience and makers. With specific times for young and old makers alike, learning or making does not have to end when the work or school bell rings, it can become integrated into every aspect of life and time in the day. Founded on the concepts of sustainability, community, science, architecture, new media, and lowtech/hightech art, assemble will be a place for CREATION!


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Joseph Lewendowski’s Medieval Bird Call Ringtone (Uniontown Poultry Association)

Joseph Lewendowski, pictured here holding holding one of his prize-winning birds, was one of the younger participants at this year’s Uniontown Poultry Association‘s Fall Show. When asked if he’d like to contribute a sound to the ringtone project, his answer was an energetic yes. “Medieval bird calls,” he said, “the kind archers would use to help them ambush people when they were out fighting in the woods!”

Here’s Joseph’s striking Medieval Bird Call Tone, in which he performs two separate calls repeated throughout the 23-second track. Thanks to Joseph for his fine contribution, and his family who allowed him to participate in the project. This is the fourth in a series of six ringtones recorded live at the Uniontown Poultry Association’s Fall 2011 Show.


This ringtone recording session was made possible by a generous grant from The Fine Foundation.

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