Monday June 4, 2018
is whispering weird?
I was recently on an episode of Patch In, a podcast by Ben Fuhrman and Nate Bliton. I always enjoy talking about how I think about writing, but I wanted to add a few more details about 👄👂🏻👁️ very close to me 👁️👂🏻👄, a piece I did with fellow UVA first-year Heather Mease. Mainly, I think I breezed through my thoughts on ASMR a little fast, and didn't speak to how much I find it fascinating as a medium and a community. Here's some thoughts!
0. Quick summary
ASMR, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, is the imprecise acronym to explain why certain types of sounds - crinkles, whispering, soft speaking, scratching, soft nature sounds, etc - give some people "head tingles." This is usually a pleasurable sensation, physiologically similar to the feeling of someone playing with your hair, and psychologically adjacent to the flow state, with some interesting connections to sound-based synesthesia. (see this 2015 study for more information).
ASMR creators make videos, mostly on YouTube, to try and induce this sensation for their listeners; these videos are sometimes just long-form sound compilations, sometimes pseudo-roleplays, sometimes a mix of both. Frequently these videos involve binaural audio, so that the experience of the individual in the video surrounding you feels similar to a real person near your head, but it at least demands stereo sound. ASMR is intended to be equal parts stimulation and relaxation; some people seek the goosebumps, some to try and fall asleep.
As I mentioned in Patch In, I experience ASMR, and have been a watcher and lurker in the community since around 2011. ASMR has a lot of uses for me - I do experience the sensation, but I also use the videos to fall asleep, as a means of relaxing (and sometimes reducing/removing headaches), and as white noise while getting other work done. I probably listen to it more than I do music.
1. Accidental (female) audio engineers
A vast majority of the creator base is female, and most often aren't the type that would have been encouraged towards a STEM career in school. They make videos about their favorite makeup, clothing hauls, how they do their hair, cooking, drawing, soft videos about tea or nature or cats. They're at-home moms, or massage therapists, or work in retail, or make art. Technology might not ever have been their first interest, but the means by which they've enmeshed themselves in technology has only supported their existing interests, rather than supplanting them. As long as the sounds are good and the execution is gentle, their medium of choice allows them to be fully themselves; loving "girly" hobbies is encouraged, rather than the unspoken (unpopular?) subject it might be in another field.
And in the process of trying to make the most dynamic and effective ASMR they can, many of them wind up with a fairly sizeable mic locker, plus solid hardware and software knowledge. Some start with a Blue Yeti or a similar consumer-level condenser, and eventually many popular creators get a 3Dio, which is a $500 binaural mic with silicone ears on the sides. I've also seen NT5s, Blue Bottle mics, SM7s, and in-ear microphones. One creator, WhispersRed, has done group sessions with audio distributed to an audience, and did a few videos in a recording studio in Exeter that had a Neumann binaural head (link).
Since most of their recordings are of very quiet sounds, making background noise reduction their next goal, many put a lot of money into acoustic treatment as well. Most notably, the creator Heather Feather used her Patreon funds to buy a house with a big enough basement to function as her ASMR A/V recording studio, which she had professionally treated to be as silent as possible.
2. Perpetual found sound seekers
An early aspect of most Electronic Music classes is the sound walk: taking students out into the world to make them think about the objects in their environment they could make sounds with, record, and transform. For ASMR creators, the sound walk never stops; they are constantly hunting down or shopping for new noises. Some examples: vinyl purses, mermaid pillows, hairbrushes, soaps, plastic toys, canvas bags, brushes, tea bags, specialty papers, ink paintings, TCG booster packs, bubble wrap. These can also mean the sounds of eating, or the sounds of pop rocks modulated by embouchure, or cutting up floral foam, or folding kinetic sand. They also experiment directly with microphones more than a typical music technologist would feel comfortable with, like spraying water or using spa steamers near non-hydrophones, or find aurally valid, like brushing the mic directly. As an example, ASMR Magic has a video where she covers her expensive binaural head (including the ears!) with glue and glitter, manipulates the glitter head for an hour, and then rips the glue-mask off in the end.
The constant quest has both an economic and physiological reason. Economically, the mechanics of getting and keeping an audience on YouTube usually means continuing to do new or different things. Somewhat-similarly, the head-tingle sensation of ASMR is something that gets less intense the more it's exercised, especially when the same sounds are used frequently. Repeating the same video will produce the same effect for a certain amount of time, but enough of the same sound will dull the goosebumps sensation until it is completely absent.
3. Functional, unprocessed, improvised tape music
Depending on the video, ASMR is tape music with a purpose. It has structure and instrumentation, performer and audience, but in this case the performer is a pre-recorded video, and the audience is a mass of individuals listening through headphones. Some videos are like long-form improv sessions that explore the sound(s) of a single object for 5-10 minutes before cycling to a new one, often going for an hour without any edits or processing at all apart from an invisible amount of EQ, and some video editing between sections. Others experiment more with layered sounds and create stories through the environment made through tape techniques, which typically aren't as long. The latter winds up feeling a lot like tape music, and tends to follow the "rules" of formal structure. As a related point, on more than one occasion I've seen classic tape pieces posted to the ASMR subreddit (Gesang der Jünglinge comes to mind), not for their aesthetic qualities, but because for someone they functionally induced the sensation that defines the community.
4. Sexuality and the body genres
The final point to mention about ASMR, which is perhaps its most controversial one, is whether or not the sensation or the pursuit of it is in some way sexual. Many of the content creators are attractive women, which has an impact on their viewership and the content of comments they receive. Most ASMR videos are also fairly intimate, in the sense of perceived closeness to the creator based on their nearness to your simulated ears, their proximity to the camera, and the soft sounds that comprise these videos. Yet, perhaps to defend their listening habits, many commenters are incredibly adamant about the non-relationship between ASMR and sexual arousal, almost to a point of concern.
There are certainly ASMR videos that are explicitly stated as being sexual, or at least are more than vaguely romantic. Ear-eating videos in particular, which involve the creator nibbling/kissing the silicone ears of their binaural head, get an outsize amount of sexual comments, whether or not they're intended as such. Most interesting to me is My Cherry Crush, an amateur porn actress, who started doing ASMR videos when a few of her YouTube subscribers started requesting it. The community's response was surprisingly divisive ("now everyone's going to think that thing I like is porn??"), though other ASMR creators were completely onboard and warmly welcomed her.
Regardless, the similarity isn't that far off. Pornography is one of the three "body genres" (the other two being horror and melodrama), a concept by film scholar Linda Williams. The body genres are "designed to elicit physical reactions on the part of viewers." We witness actors experiencing fear in horror, and we feel it ourselves; we watch actors cry in a melodrama, and it mirrors in us; pornography very directly attempts to stimulate arousal in the viewer by displaying it onscreen. Conversely, when we laugh at something in a comedy, usually the characters aren't; it's only our understanding that allows us to connect those dots, rather than empathizing with another human's physical reactions.
Though I haven't seen it discussed yet, I'd suggest ASMR videos as a fourth body genre. I can't think of a single ASMR creator that doesn't also experience ASMR itself, even if their individual videos may not trigger them during recording. Many videos, especially early on in the community's brief history, involve the creator giving a guest a massage, sometimes with a spoken/instructional element, and more recently focusing on the binaural sounds of the massage itself. Often, the relaxation of the recipient is obvious, and the comment sections of these videos are often full of people asking, "why does it feel good to watch someone else get a massage?" If not sexual, the videos are certainly physical in the very least; if they are not quite "film" enough to qualify as a body genre, they certainly fit as a subcategory.
These are just some thoughts! I may add more to this later. I've been listening to this style of sound(s) for awhile now, and it's given me plenty of time to think about it from an audio standpoint.