A Clockwork Gym

 

INTRODUCTION

The subject of this paper is the sonic community of the gym, particularly the weight room in the Activities and Recreation Center (ARC). While there are certainly variations in how other gyms sound, my attempt is to accurately pin down a general understanding of the gym as an appropriate soundscape. I believe that the ARC weight room acts as a valid sample representing a general “gym” as it contains many of the important equipment (dumbbells, barbells, racks, benches, etc.) staple to any gym, and it regularly experiences medium to high traffic of users. Unaccounted variations include material of objects (the ARC has rubber-reinforced weights rather than metal), demographic of membership (“types” of gym-goers), and general acoustic variation, all of which I will touch upon later. To supplement my analysis, I will be citing academic texts from class along with interviews of two peers who identify themselves as gym “regulars.” By framing aspects of the gym experience in an academic light and using empirical evidence as support, I hope to sufficiently argue that a typical weight room, despite its inherent tether to being a space for physical purposes, is in fact an aural soundscape.


 

METHODOLOGY

Attached with this write-up is a roughly four-minute audio clip of my field recording of the ARC weight room. I used a ZOOM H5 Handy Recorder with generic Apple earphones to listen to the audio capture. I captured three different areas in the gym, which I will denote as specific “zones” in the paper, each distinct in their soundscape makeup. Listeners will be able to discern when I transition into a zone by listening for a fade out, a moment of silence, then a fade in, which I achieved through some light editing in Adobe Premiere Pro software. Another edit I made was adding a highpass audio filter onto the first “zone,” as there was a lot of unavoidable wind noise disrupting the playback. This was due to the large fans that are always operating in the weight room, and understandably so, since the room needs to be well-ventilated for the amount of humidity that accumulates from everyone exercising. However, I did not set the highpass filter too high, cutting off signals only below 150 hertz. This results in only a slight change in the audio, with the wind still slightly noticeable, but enough to improve the playback to minimize distraction from the wind; any higher of a cutoff would result in loss of actual sound quality of the clip (typically in film editing, a high-pass is used to achieve a “sound from another source” effect).

The recording starts with no such fade in, beginning in the “busy zone,” or the area that I personally deem to be inhabited by the most noise or auditory traffic that fills the recording. In the context of the gym, this is near the dead center, where designated gym equipment are all roughly equidistant to where I was standing. This plays a crucial role in the field recording, as the only thing the recorder can discriminate here is the magnitude of the sound production rather than proximity; every potential noise has equal potential being heard here, but some may be heard more loudly than others if they are carried more easily across the gym, either by amplitude or wavelength.

After about 1:35 of the clip, it will transition to the “rack” zone, located in a corner of the room where the cardio machines and power racks are. In contrast to the “centroid” location of the first zone, this recording will not be as busy…yet similar patterns can still be picked up from before, with some minor variations. This section of the clip is important in addressing my previous mention of equidistance affecting range of sounds heard. Because this location is tucked away in a corner, those same stimuli are heard but not to the same degree as the first location. Furthermore, the humming of the cardio equipment nearby introduces a sort of “white noise” that populates the clip without masking the distinctive sound of weights.

At 3:20, the recording then transitions to the “calm” zone, where again we are tucked away into a corner of the gym, this time near the mats. Not surprisingly, this area sounds the least “busy” than the previous two, as it is further away from the free weights and the powerlifting sections. Similarly to the first area, I had to add a high-pass filter to reduce wind noise.

Along with this recording, I also conducted interviews with two friends who are gym “regulars.” One considers himself a more “casual” gym-goer, the other a rather serious “powerlifter.” I will thus dub each of these interviewees, both who wish to remain anonymous, as the casual and the powerlifter. Below are the questions I asked them:

  • Do you wear headphones when you lift? If so, why?
  • Are your headphones off between sets or do you leave them in? Why?
  • How would you describe the noise in the gym that makes it unique?
  • What sorts of noises do you think you contribute to the sound environment?
  • What sound patterns do you notice in the gym?
  • Do you think your workout would change if the sounds were different? Or if the gym were completely silent?
  • Would there be a difference to you if the gym played your playlist as opposed to you wearing headphones?

 

THE GYM-SCAPE

Listening to my field recording can be unpleasant to some. You are hit with a cacophony of “hard” and “soft” noises, along with the familiar sound of human voices, none of which are distinct, however. Despite this, the ARC weight room is very much so a “soundscape.” Emily Thompson defines a soundscape as an “auditory or aural landscape. Like a landscape, a soundscape is simultaneously a physical environment and a way of perceiving that environment; it is both a world and a culture constructed to make sense of that world” (Thompson 2002, 1). This can be clearly heard in the busy zone, where a combination of perhaps all possible (and plausible) noises in the room are captured. The producers of the noise are really physics at work, objects of varying material, weight, and dimensions striking either the ground or another object with its own independent attributes. Despite its unwanted presence, even wind noise plays a crucial role in composing the soundscape, representing the cool air that helps evaporate the sweat of hard work.

Thompson continues, “The physical aspects of a soundscape consist not only of the sounds themselves…but also the material objects that create, and sometimes destroy, those sounds. A soundscape’s cultural aspects incorporate scientific and aesthetic ways of listening, a listener’s relationship to their environment, and the social circumstances that dictate who gets to hear what” (Thompson 2002, 2).

This brings us to the importance of the third location, the “quietest” of the three. It is dominated by its seeming calmness relative to the other two locations, populated more by voices and the ever-present ceiling fan than the familiar weights clanging. Yet, the sound of weights is not completely masked, and can be distinctly heard, albeit more faintly.

IN THEIR OWN WORLD

            In my interview with the casual, he says that wearing headphones is important to his workout because it is a way to “indulge in both of those passions simultaneously,” the passions being working out and listening to music. He also notes that the only time he takes his earphones off is when he tries conversing with anyone, adding a universal “gym rule” that headphones in implies a disinterest in talking to anyone.

We can relate this to Laura Kunreuther’s discussion of “technological phatic,” which she writes, “draws attention to the voice as a mediating tool of social relations” (Kunreuther 2006, 341). So while the casual is largely preoccupied with his own workout and indulging in his own music, he makes a conscious and socially known decision to disconnect himself from his technology, be it MP3 or online streaming, to engage in a social interaction.

Similarly, the powerlifter believes that the headphones are a device for both locking himself in and blocking others out, so to speak: “If [the headphones] are off, that means I want to use my music sparingly at the moment, and save it for later. If they are on, that usually means I do not want to talk to mostly anyone.”

Perhaps the most important answer the two subjects gave is regarding the difference between the earphones and a hypothetical stereo speaker. Both subjects seem to have a fondness for listening to their music during their workouts, but also assert that their workouts would be different if the gym were to play their exact same playlists over the speaker. “To hear that secluded feeling when you’re in your own little world listening to your headphones,” the casual notes, “it’s my me time.”

 

CONCLUSION

The gym has been described by peers in ANT 191 as “construction”, “shipyard”, and “machinery”. I would like to add another, that of “clockwork.” Like clockwork, there are patterns and cycles occurring, but it would be dismissive to assume each working cog serve the exact same purpose as others. The gym forms a soundscape of various working components, each unique and contributing different forms of sound. Likewise, the people that use the gym inadvertently become such gears in the machine. “The noise of people breathing, talking, grunting, and the noise of the weights moving,” the powerlifter says, all contribute to the sound patterns of the gym. The casual personally says he contributes, too, with “an occasional weight dropping on the ground… I’ll periodically laugh if I’m conversing with someone, if it’s a humorous conversation. I like to have fun in there, I’m not too serious all the time.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Thompson, Emily. The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America. The MIT Press. September 2014. Text.

 

Kunreuther, Laura. Technologies of the Voice: FM Radio, Telephone, and the Nepali Diaspora in Kathmandu. Cultural Anthropology. August 2006. Text.

 

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