Bicycle Ears


When I was working as a sound designer and composer, I hated the fact that I could never listen to podcasts or music while I worked. I was always listening to my work itself. Now that my ears have time to explore — on the subway, in a car on the way to a meeting — I’m doing all the listening I can. It’s a strange freedom to have discovered in the midst of this new career path.

One of my favorite podcasts is 99% Invisible with Roman Mars. Taken from their site: “99% Invisible is a tiny radio show about design, architecture & the 99% invisible activity that shapes our world.” Perhaps it’s because I am in the midst of creating a new technology that I am so fascinated by the ones that have faded away or have influenced the technologies we have today.

With Mars’ directive playing in my mind, I would argue that in the current technological atmosphere, human ears have become 99% invisible. With the evolution of sound recording equipment, we’ve strayed further and further away from fully utilizing our ears. We don’t capture sound the way we hear it and we don’t experience recorded sound the way we experienced it live. We’ve grown accustomed to experiencing cinema, television, theater, and music in a heightened, saturated state that our ears would never be able to process. We spoon-feed our audiences a bionic, sugary sound that requires no work on the listener’s part to experience.

99% Invisible’s latest episode, “Of Mice and Men,” presents the life and inventions of Doug Engelbart, a computer engineer from Berkeley, California who, in the 1960s, created the infamous computer mouse. Engelbart invented far more than the mouse, however. One of his other inventions was called the Keyset.

99% explains:

“The five-button Keyset could produce all 26 letters by memorizing combinations of these keys used together. Learning to type would take a lot of practice, but Engelbart believed that with lots of repetition, the muscle memory would take over.”

[Courtesy of SRI International and the Doug Engelbart Institute]

“Even Doug Engelbart realized that learning the keyset was difficult. But for Engelbart, ease of use wasn’t the top priority. He wanted the computer inputs to be as powerful as possible, and that required some complexity. He imagined that consumers would learn how to use the mouse and keyset slowly over time, like how one learns to operate a car.”

I’m with Engelbart on this. Certain users have higher keyboard proficiency than others because of practice. We have the ability to excel at certain computer tasks more efficiently than others because we have practice with them.

For some inventions, no amount of practice or muscle memory will improve proficiency. For example, any user from a 1 to 90 years old can pull an iPad out of the box and begin using it. This is and always has been Apple’s (rather anti-Englebartian) intention. When Engerlbart released the mouse, it had three buttons. Apple’s had only one.

Engelbart compared his practice-based credo to tricycles and bicycles: a tricycle requires zero learning to function, but it’s going to be difficult to ride through the mud. With a bicycle, you have to learn how to balance and how to operate the gears, but the work will pay off — mud will not be an issue.

I’m not sure where I stand with the bicycle/tricycle argument when applied to technology as a whole, but with the current state of sound technology, it is very clear to me:

We’ve developed tricycle ears.

We’ve stopped thinking about what we hear. We’ve strayed from practicing with our ears, from tuning them and truly listening to them, not just with them. Just like every other part of our body, we have to take care of our ears, which people seem to forget. They are one of the most important parts of the human body and they directly correlate with one of the most important senses. They need to be taken care of, just like our mind, the rest of our body, and our soul.

Hooke isn’t about heightening or sugar-coating sound, it’s about using our ears the way they were intended to be used. We aren’t playing tricks on our ears or straining them to hear something they can barely reached. We should be training and tuning our ears as they were meant to be.

We can and should be using our ears like bicycles. They have the ability to push us through the sonic mud we’re in and take us to previously unexplored places. We just have to take care of them like they deserve. Treat them like the prized possession that they are, and utilize them correctly. Just like bicycles, they have a special place in our homes and hearts, and are vital in growing up and seeing the world.

Plus tricycles are sort of ugly.

From One Ear To Another,
Anthony Mattana
Hooke Founder

  • Hey Anthony, as you know I’m fascinated by binaural audio and I’m trying to wrap my head around the analogy. Are you saying that people should listen harder? Listen differently? Does the analogy apply to binaural as bicycle vs. stereo/surround as tricycle? If so, I don’t really get it. I feel like binaural has less friction and is more intuitive because it’s closer to the natural function of our bodies. In my experience, people hear a track in regular stereo, and then if they hear the same track in binaural, they just know the second one is much more like real life. It seems more Apple-esque to me that they don’t have to put any extra thought into it. Do you disagree, or did I miss the point in your analogy?

  • Hey AJ!

    Great questions, thank you!

    There are ways in which we as listeners and artists can be practicing with our ears. Many of us rarely sit down and simply listen to the world around us. Contrary to venturing out and finding that perfect image to capture, many of us do not venture out in search of that perfect sound to capture. Because of moments like these I do not feel like we are using our ears to their fullest potential, ultimately turning them into tricycle ears. Tricycle ears are ears that function but can’t adapt like a bicycle with several gears can.

    You bring up a great point when it comes to stereo and binaural playback. I agree with you 100% that the "playback experience" of binaural audio is more Apple-esque than stereo. But that’s on the playback side. At Hooke we see ourselves as the GoPro of sound. We are interested in the recording of binaural or Mobile 3D audio. In THAT regard, I would argue that holding a mic in your hand and pressing a button is a lot more Apple-esque than trusting your ears, going out, finding sounds and adapting to them is.
    Hope this makes sense, I really appreciate the feedback!

    From One Ear To Another,

  • As a fellow sound designer I’ve been thinking similar thoughts lately. It’s no wonder we have tricycle ears as we’ve all grown up with the tricycle version of immersive audio that is blumlein stereo. We’re not too far from 100 years with that system and no significant advancement. Thankfully virtual reality is hot now and development of that is revealing the disparity between what our eyes have been adapting to compared to what our ears have been living with.

    All the best to Hooke in their endeavours!

    Daryl Pierce

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