One never properly *hears* a snowplow, maaaaaan.
November 14, 2009 12:30 AM   Subscribe

I sleep with the window open during the summertime to hear the sounds of my small town. Now that fall is here and winter is coming, it would be awesome to be able to do this even with the window closed.

So it seems like I'd need a hardy (Minnesota winters) microphone on the outside ledge and a small speaker on the windowsill. Or [insert better idea here]? If you know of the right hardware to do this, please mention.

Also, you can probably assume that I'm a total microphone/speaker noob. I've got a budget of $500 for this project - I'd really like this to happen.
posted by unixrat to Grab Bag (13 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Bear in mind that if you connect a microphone to a loudspeaker you get....nothing! You'll need some sort of amplifier in between the two. But what you want is perfectly possible given the right equipment. I'm in the UK so I'll leave the details to someone else who can advise you about the right hardware to get locally. Good luck!
posted by JtJ at 12:45 AM on November 14, 2009

Baby monitor from craigslist ought to do the trick. Make sure it doesn't get rained on outside though (put it under an eve).
posted by No New Diamonds Please at 1:42 AM on November 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Those devices that bank tellers etc. have on their bulletproof windows wouldn't hack it, I suspect: designed for a sound source close to the mic and reproduction on the other side closely tailored to the frequency of human speech.

But maybe you could connect an outdoor mic through a pre-amp to one of the input slots on your hi-fi? I would imagine any salesperson in your local electronics store could advise you on a suitable pre-amp, and it shouldn't cost anywhere like as much as your budget. (I'm also in Europe, so I'll also leave the shopping suggestions to a US-based MeFite.)

The project sounds delightful - hope you make it!
posted by aqsakal at 1:43 AM on November 14, 2009

I would consider a pair of powered PC speakers - something like:

...since that is the amp and speakers all in one, and has the advantage of stereo (if you want that).

Then you just need to find a mic! That's a little trickier as PC speakers may or may not need a pre-amp depending on the mic, and the mic may or may not need power. A little mixer like this:

...will provide a lot of flexibility. Electret mics are good for outside... otherwise maybe camcorder mics (they're often stereo).

A simpler option might be small PA systems:

Or there's the DIY approach:
posted by gribbly at 2:11 AM on November 14, 2009

Excellent idea. OK this is how I would do it, based on my disparate but here surprisingly suitable knowledge of audio stuff:

- Microphone. $2 Panasonic electret capsule and Linkwitz Mod. Writeup here in an old comment of mine. This solves the mic and preamp issue. The mic is both sturdy and small and thus easy to protect outside. Or even replace if it gets soggy. This can be done for under $50.

- Speakers. You can use whatever you have. I'll suggest you place an emphasis on getting a high-quality midrange, and a good subwoofer that you can turn off. The midrange is important here to keep as much of the beauty of the outside sounds as possible - the ear is most sensitive to harshness in the midrange. For midrange goodness, use 3-4" single-driver fullrange satellites with speaker drivers from either Tang-Band (cheap) or Fostex (these are Japanese-made with superb, exquisite midrange - they're REALLY good at reproducing reverberation beautifully.) Try to aim for bass reproduction at least down to 80Hz in the satellites. Then add a subwoofer that you can control individually from the satellites. This should be possible for $100 and up.

- Amplifier. To further help the midrange, I'd advise a cheap and energy-efficient Tripath amplifier. These are excellent-sounding and 90% energy efficient amplifiers. (Conventional amplifiers are from 10-40% energy efficient, and sound worse.) I'd advise getting a 41Hz Amp4 kit built. The sound from this thing is absolutely to die for, especially in the midrange and in complex harmonics - such as the random sounds coming from outside. I was testing a new-built Amp4 at the office one day and 10 minutes of listening caused two of my workmates to buy soldering irons. This is around $150 and up I think.

Do you wish to build the system, have the components custom built, or buy readymade? DIY will take longest but teach you the most and sound next-best, custom built will cost less than you think and sound the best, and readymade is of course simplest but least optimal.
posted by krilli at 3:03 AM on November 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

Oops, here's the Linkwitz microphone link. And let me say that all this DIY and exotic hardware stuff seems more complex and hard to obtain than it actually is. If you're interested I'll map out exactly what you want and how to get it.
posted by krilli at 3:05 AM on November 14, 2009

A note of caution: prepare to be disappointed by the results. The pleasures of listening to Midwestern summer nights are varied - crickets, birds, people shuffling about (if you live in town or a well-trafficked neighborhood), a distant train, bug zappers. Will those be there in the winter? Have you been outside at 2 in the morning lately? Do you hear much? I can imagine that a snowfall might have really beautiful pitter patter hushed tones to it. But I'm not sure that day in, day out this project will ultimately give you the reward you hope. Just a thought. You can always get one of those systems with various "rain" or "beach" sounds embedded within it.
posted by billysumday at 6:14 AM on November 14, 2009

I'm gonna go outside the box and recommend a thicker blanket and just open the window a bit ;)

My bedroom is always freezing cold, and even in our Canadian winters I'll keep the window open a bit and just get a thicker blanket. YMMV.
posted by smitt at 6:19 AM on November 14, 2009 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: How loud of sounds are we talking about? Sirens, people outside talking, trains? Birds chirping?

I live in the center of downtown, right next to a public square. Usually at night I can hear trains in the distance, the occasional chatter from people walking by, a car or two driving by, and random small-town noise. There are some trees on the other side of the square, but I don't recall hearing many birds - probably too far away.
posted by unixrat at 7:11 AM on November 14, 2009

Does it have to be live sound ? If not, you could make some recordings.
posted by lobstah at 9:35 AM on November 14, 2009

Speakers will work as microphones, and it's easier to find outdoor speakers than outdoor microphones. A friend uses those metal PA horns as mics to monitor his dog kennels. Those are directional, so you could have four of them focused on different sources, and select the balance on a little home-studio mixer.

You'll have to get advice on line levels and impedances for whatever amp you use.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:22 PM on November 14, 2009

I wonder how successful this will be. I think a large part of the attraction of listening to ambient sound is a sort of acoustic quality that affects the sound made by your own body just as much as everything else, and that can't be reproduced through speakers or headphones.

On the other hand, if you just want to hear when a car goes by or a bird chirps, it could work just fine.
posted by alexei at 1:10 AM on December 3, 2009

Response by poster: Quick update: I cracked a tooth a couple of days after posting this and have seen $1700 evaporate into fixing it. I'll still do this project, I just have to back burner it for a while.
posted by unixrat at 2:01 PM on December 3, 2009

« Older How do I buy this parked domain?   |   Cost- and effort-effective way to end up with a... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.