What's this high-pitched whine I hear outdoors?
May 14, 2014 7:27 PM   Subscribe

Shortly after moving into a new area in Toronto, I noticed a high-pitched, electronic sounding noise outdoors. It's really putting a damper on my enjoyment of my otherwise lovely deck. Can you help identify it? (Recording and details inside)

Here's what I know:

- it was present in November when we moved in and continues until now. According to a neighbour, it has been present at least a year; it happens at any time of day or night.

- it comes and goes at random apparently, and duration is not fixed either. It lasts anywhere from about 3 to 10 seconds (roughly); there doesn't seem to be any connection to the wind or other environmental factor

- it varies in volume from barely audible to loud enough to hear indoors with the windows open, but there seems to be no pattern to it

- it usually comes as a two-tone noise (low-high), sort of like the bosun's whistle sound. But rarely it comes as a multi-pitch sound (three or four 'notes')

- it has an electronic feel to it; the tones are very pure but at the same time seem to fade in/out very smoothly and gradually

- it's hard to pinpoint the source, but it seems to be coming from one street over (i.e. the row of houses behind me), but a few houses south. I've walked over to look, but doesn't seem to be coming from the street or front of the homes. So maybe it's something in someone's backyard? Perhaps a pump or transformer malfunctioning? I live in the Swansea area of Toronto, for those who are familiar with the area.

This is really driving me nuts! Before I go knocking on random doors with vague rants about noises, can anyone suggest what I might be looking for?

I've recorded it, although it's a bit faint at the moment. You can hear it here: https://soundcloud.com/hgirlto/weird-noise. It starts at around the 4 second mark. Thanks!
posted by The Hyacinth Girl to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It's too faint for me to even make a wild ass guess. Any chance you can get a better recording?
posted by COD at 7:50 PM on May 14, 2014

Could be some sort of alarm or door buzzer noise? Maybe a generator? I doubt you'll ever find out definitively unless you physically locate it.
posted by wrok at 8:04 PM on May 14, 2014

It sounds like it could be a streetcar going around a corner a few blocks away.
posted by keeo at 8:11 PM on May 14, 2014

To me it sounds like a home security system alarm; something that starts whining when the door opens and stops when the code is entered. I would try to correlate the sound with your neighbors' arrivals and departures, but that might be tricky from a street away.
posted by ceribus peribus at 8:40 PM on May 14, 2014

Do you live near any trains/subways? Because that sounds kind of like the sound of a train - or train brakes - a ways off. And by near I mean a few miles, because train sounds can travel an amazing distance. Worth checking to see if it matches a train schedule.

(It might be a normal, every day noise that bothers you in particular and not everyone else, so they don't hear it as you do, because you could have better auditory capabilities - a certain % of the population, particularly women, have an above normal ability to hear high pitched noises. There's also hyperacusis, a condition where "normal", everyday sounds can be irritating....it took a similar situation for me to discover that.)
posted by barchan at 8:46 PM on May 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Your recording and your description of the different tones sounds exactly like what you hear on a light rail train, like the Metro in Los Angeles or the BART in San Francisco. Are you anywhere near any light rail lines?
posted by erst at 10:01 PM on May 14, 2014

Your description was very thorough. I didn't see where you said how frequent it is though. Once a day, once an hour? The noise itself would drive me batty, I don't understand how someone can have it coming from their backyard (like from a pump) without them going batty too. I can't think of anything else that would be used outdoors night or day, cold or warm weather. Except the annoyatron or an cat/raccoon sonic deterrent (ultrasonic labels can be debated and some devices of this type deliberately emit a tone humans can hear).

It does not sound to me like anything from a streetcar, subway, GO, VIA or freight train, especially with the short duration. If you could hear that noise you would also hear other distinctive train noises.

Were you home during the ice storm, did you hear the noise while your neighbourhoods power was off? Because my first thought was some transformer making that noise. Maybe call Toronto Hydro and 211 to see if there have been other complaints. Are you close to Lavinia or Bloor - maybe one of the rooftop HVAC units on a taller building so the sound travels further? Swansea can be hilly so sound can get distorted.

I'd make up a Facebook page "Strange Sound of Swansea" and post signs about it around your street to see if other people comment and can triangulate it. Or go into the Town Hall/Library and ask around.

Since you now live in Swansea, you know it is mandatory to read the Booky books, right?"
posted by saucysault at 10:23 PM on May 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Wow, fwiw, there's a very similar noise that occurs near my house (south SF Bay Area). Initially when I noticed it I thought it was a truck backing up or possibly a neighbor's alarm going off randomly. But it does drive me nuts and I will let you know if I figure out what it is!

Oh and for the record, someone above mentioned hyperacuasis. I have this, and one weird aspect of it is that I am acutely aware of and affected by stuff like this than by more "blatant" sounds. The sirens from the fire station one street over don't faze me, but the train whistles 5 miles away and whatever that faint beepy thing is will get right into my head in a bad way.
posted by aecorwin at 11:06 PM on May 14, 2014

Call your councillor and ask if anyone else has reported this.
posted by maudlin at 11:08 PM on May 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

That really sounds like a chop saw to me. Anyone in the neighbourhood running a carpentry shop out of their garage?
posted by fshgrl at 11:52 PM on May 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

I agree that the linked recording is too faint to really nail down what it is, but the suggestions of light rail/train/streetcar or door alarms don't seem un-possible. I've also heard similar high-pitched sound from bus brakes, although usually when they're relatively close to me, like 50 yards or less.

Just as a note, though, re: "there doesn't seem to be any connection to the wind or other environmental factor"; sound is basically the movement of air molecules, so wind, even light winds that you wouldn't really notice or air movement above human head height can definitely affect how loud the sound is where you are, or how long you perceive the sound to last, or the pitch, or your perception of distance from the sound. Temperature and humidity can also have an effect, and air molecules can do all sorts of crazy bounces off buildings. Plus, sounds are a mix of the fundamental frequency plus harmonics, and the mix of which harmonics are present and their volume relative to each other and to the fundamental is one of the things that allows us to identify the source of a sound. IOW, we hear one mix of fundamental plus harmonics, and we think, "saxophone", we hear a different mix, and we think, "bus brakes." The fundamental pitch is usually stronger than the harmonics, though, so that pitch will travel farther.

TL:DR - distance plus wind & environmental factors could very well mean that you (or your recording) won't hear "enough" of the sound to really identify the source, and you can't necessarily use duration, volume or periodicity as strong clues.

So actually I think asking your neighbors or councilperson or putting something out there on social media is not the worst way to get an answer, and I'd also suggest taking more and longer walks around your neighborhood to see if you can narrow down the location and get closer to the sound and therefore get more auditory information about what might be generating the noise.
posted by soundguy99 at 7:27 AM on May 15, 2014

Hi everyone. Just to answer a couple of your questions:

There is a subway station about 500 meters away, but the sound is not coming from there. There are also heavy surface trains farther away (in the Junction area), but again -- wrong direction. The sound is very clearly localized to an area of 3 or 4 houses, although I guess my ears could be playing tricks.

2. The sound happens every few minutes, again at random. But let's say between 5 - 10 minutes. Several times an hour.

3. Sorry about the poor recording quality -- there was a lot of ambient noise around when I took it. Plus it's hard to capture on an iPhone.

4. Not sure if it was present during the blackout.

Thanks for the suggestions - I think I will continue to ask around and see what my councillor says.
posted by The Hyacinth Girl at 7:48 AM on May 15, 2014

That frequently? Forget my idea then. I was assuming it happened randomly a dozen times a day at most.

The streetcars used to [before construction shut that route down] squeal loudly at the Bay street turn on the harbourfront, but that was only in hot weather. If the source was transit-track related I think at least the volume and quality would have changed a lot with the warm weather in the last few weeks.
posted by ceribus peribus at 8:49 AM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

My neighbor's anti-squirrel device made that sound. I could hear it, my neighbor couldn't.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:37 AM on May 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

I can hear those dog/ squirrel repelling devices too but I don't think you could record them like that.
posted by fshgrl at 10:34 AM on May 15, 2014

I would be surprised if the pest deterring noise thingys would be going off five times a day in the dead of winter, or not be noticeably quieter at night. What about calling the by-law officer to see if it falls under violating noise control bylaws? I'm leaning towards a hydro or telephone pole with a broken transformer.
posted by saucysault at 12:30 PM on May 15, 2014

it usually comes as a two-tone noise (low-high), sort of like the bosun's whistle sound. But rarely it comes as a multi-pitch sound (three or four 'notes')

Could it be the sound of accessible pedestrian signals (ie. audible crosswalk beeps/chirps) at a not-quite-distant intersection? The frequency/cadence is in the right ballpark for a traffic light that runs all the time, all year round.

The part that means time is almost up might be slightly louder and higher and heard a little further away. The rare multitones might only happen if someone has pushed the crossing button.
posted by ceribus peribus at 4:16 PM on May 15, 2014

Navigation Buoy on the lake? Those sounds carry for miles and it was the first thing I thought of when I heard it.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 4:41 PM on May 15, 2014

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