Handbook for Acoustic Ecology: CD-ROM Edition (v1.1)

Barry Truax, ed.

As with the original 1978 (book) edition, this new (1999, CD-ROM, Mac OS / Windows 95) version brings together over 500 terms from the fields of:

  • Acoustics;
  • Psychoacoustics;
  • Environmental Acoustics and Noise Measurement;
  • Electroacoustics;
  • Music;
  • Linguistics;
  • Audiology; and
  • Soundscape Studies

with extensive cross-references (active links) and straightforward explanations suitable for the undergraduate or layperson interested in acoustic communication. Numerous diagrams, charts and tables provide additional reference information.

Included for the first time in this edition are 150 sound examples, many of which are drawn from the rich collection of environmental sounds of the World Soundscape Project (WSP). Also new to this edition is a thematic search engine that supplements the conventional alphabetical one. Related terms across various disciplines are brought together under the themes of:

  • Vibration and Magnitude;
  • Sound-Medium Interface;
  • Sound-Environment Interaction;
  • Sound-Sound Interaction

as well as the specific themes of:

  • Audiology and Hearing Loss;
  • Noise Measurement Systems;
  • Electroacoustic and Tape Studio;
  • Linguistics and Speech Acoustics; and
  • Communications Theory.


Out of print

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In the press


Laurie Radford, Computer Music Journal, no. 25:1, March 1, 2001

The World Soundscape Project (WSP) was initiated in 1971 under the guidance of composer R Murray Schafer. It brought together individuals such as Barry Truax and Hildegard Westerkamp to conduct sound and acoustic studies and to speculate on sociological and environmental implications of urban sound pollution and the intrusion of human sound into natural habitats. In 1993, The World Forum for Acoustic Ecology was established, “an international association of affiliated organizations, and individuals, who share a common concern with the state of the world soundscape as an ecologically balanced entity.”

This growing global community of concerned and active individuals and organizations has created a need for demonstrative materials for pedagogy, lobbying, and research. It is therefore only fitting that the work of the pioneers in this area of research and activism be reviewed and renewed for present and future generations. The re-release of Mr. Schafer’s seminal work, The Tuning of the World (reissued in 1994 as The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World, www.destinybooks.com), and a 1996 conference and CD entitled The Vancouver Soundscape Revisited (www.sfu.ca/~truax/vanscape.html) have revealed some of the rich activities of the original WSP.

The reissue of Barry Truax’s Handbook for Acoustic Ecology in an easily searchable, cross-platform CD-ROM (Mac/Windows) version makes available one of the fundamental theoretical works of the WSP. Mr. Truax is well known to the Computer Music Journal readership as a composer, programmer, teacher, and author. He is also the keeper of the Soundscape Project archives as well as a practitioner of what he preaches in his unique compositional output. Originally published as Volume 5 of The Music of the Environment Series in 1978, the second edition of the Handbook for Acoustic Ecology brings Mr. Truax’s classic lexicon of sound terminology in hypertext format to new generations of students and practitioners. As the back of the CD-ROM states, the Handbook contains “500 terms defined, with 125 graphics and 150 sound examples covering the areas of: Acoustics, Psychoacoustics, Environmental Studies, Noise Measurement, Electroacoustics, Music, Linguistics, Audiology, Communication.” If you want a definition of audiocentric, sociocusis, EPNLs, or thermal noise, they are now just a click away!

The Handbook consists of a collection of HTML and audio files. A copy of Netscape 3.4 is included on the CD-ROM for convenience, but for this review it was perused with more recent browsers from Netscape and Microsoft. There are numerous ways of searching this vast cross-referenced database of audio terms. Besides fixed alphabetical and keyword search facilities available from the main index page, one can also access an Interdisciplinary Thematic Search Engine based upon Mr. Truax’s years of cross-referencing these terms and definitions while using the text in his teaching at the School of Communication and School for the Contemporary Arts of Simon Fraser University. An interesting aspect of the thematic search engine is that the principle disciplines (as listed above) are indicated by a background color scheme (e.g., “Acoustics” terms are on gray pages, “Soundscape” terms are on orange pages, etc.). A search that leads from “electroacoustic” to “microphone” to “directivity” to “minimum audible angle” to “ambience” traverses the disciplines of Electroacoustics, Psychoacoustics, and Noise. Terms that belong to more than one discipline are indicated as such on the appropriate page. For example “transmission” is clearly labeled as belonging to the areas: Acoustics/Electroacoustics. The colorblind among us may have difficulty discerning the related discipline of a term that belongs to only one category since there is no indication of a term’s category on this type of page. A more flexible and updated alphabetical and keyword search mechanism would also be very welcome.

Graphs and illustrations of acoustic, psychoacoustic, and electroacoustic terms and phenomena are copious and for the most part clearly presented. Most of these illustrations are gleaned from the on-site measurements and studies made by members of the WSP in the early 1970s, as well as various scholarly journals and texts. Because they seem to have been scanned from the original printed version, some aspects of the more detailed graphs are difficult to discern clearly at a typical viewing resolution. This is a minor criticism and many of the tables from the original hard version have been updated in a more browser-friendly format.

The most noticeable and welcome addition to the Handbook is the collection of sound examples in AIFF format illustrating many of the entries in the database, easily auditioned from within the browser environment. “All of the environmental sound examples are drawn from the tape library of the World Soundscape Project and its catalogues of soundscapes from Vancouver, across Canada, and Europe, as recorded by Bruce Davis, Peter Huse, and Robert MacNevin. The synthesized sound examples were produced with [Barry Truax’s] PODX computer music software.” The access to this substantial, and in many ways historical, collection of audio examples alone is well worth acquiring the CD-ROM.

An extensive set of appendices is included which provide details on several fundamental tools of value while perusing the remainder of the text. These include: A List of Abbreviations and Symbols, Units of Measurement, Comparison of Tuning Systems, Conversion from Power or Voltage Ratios to Decibels, Examples of Critical Bandwidths, and Loudness Summation.

The Handbook will not necessarily serve as a primary dictionary for sound engineers or digital audio enthusiasts. Its origins in the days of analog synthesis, tape recorders, and the infancy of computer music is evident — for example, on the Synthesis page where FM, AM, and Magnetic Tape are prominent entries, while physical modeling and other more recent synthesis strategies are nowhere to be seen. One must take into account the title of the work and its original purpose, that of a resource for the study of disciplines relevant to sound ecology. Perhaps in a third edition, the addition of terms that have entered the vocabulary and working methods of individuals in sonic art, popular electronica, and the areas of digital audio, MIDI, and network applications to audio and music can be added in a manner that expands upon the product as a knowledge resource, while maintaining its important disciplinary focus.

Despite a few minor criticisms as noted, the Handbook for Acoustic Ecology is an invaluable resource for educators, sound designers, composers, students of electroacoustic music, and anyone baffled by the lingo of sound, acoustics, and sound ecology. It should also be noted that the second edition of another important work by Mr. Truax, Acoustic Communication, is forthcoming from Greenwood Press (www.greenwood.com) and will include a copy of the Handbook CD-ROM.