The first domestic white-noise machine may have been built by a traveling salesman whose wife grew used to the air-conditioners in the motels they frequented and was unable to sleep at home.
On winter nights, the white-noise app on my phone is tuned to Air Conditioner: a raspy, metallic whir that sounds like the mechanical noise that might echo deep inside the ductwork of a huge commercial building. (Among the app’s other offerings are Dishwasher Rinsing, Crowded Room and Vacuum Cleaner.)
It lulls me to sleep nonetheless, because it blankets the din in my apartment (the ragged snore of a roommate; the clanking of the steam radiator; the cat’s skidding pursuit of something only he can see).
It may also soothe because it replicates an early sound environment, probably that of a Manhattan childhood, though perhaps it suggests something much, much older. Some sleep experts note that babies, their ears accustomed to the whisper of the maternal circulatory system and the slosh of the womb, sleep better accompanied by a device that mimics those familiar whooshings.
My app is but one note in the mighty chorus of white-noise generators, an exploding industry of mechanical and digital devices, apps and websites, and Sonos and Spotify playlists that grows ever more refined, as if to block out the increased rate of speeding, the wrecks, on the information superhighway.
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Car Interior? Oil Tanker? Laundromat? These ballads are in the vast soundscape library created by Stephane Pigeon, a Belgian electrical engineer, and ready to play on Mynoise.net, a sound generator he put online in 2013 that now has 1 million page views each month. It’s a nearly philanthropic enterprise, as it runs on donations. “I have enough stress,” Pigeon said.
Reddit, among other message boards, offers DIY white-noise hacks for light sleepers, shift workers and tinnitus sufferers. Rough up the blades of a box fan with a box cutter, suggested Christopher Suarez, a field-service technician from Riverside, California, whose wife is an insomniac, on one captivating thread there.
The first domestic white-noise machine may have been built in 1962, by a traveling salesman whose wife grew used to the air conditioners in the motels they frequented and was unable to sleep at home.
But white noise was identified by engineers as early as the 1920s, Pigeon said, and used as a test signal because, as he put it, “it’s the sum of all the audible frequencies in equal proportion in a single sound. It’s so named because of its analogy to light, which turns white when all visible frequencies are summed up into a single beam.”
Back home in his garage, Jim Buckwalter, the salesman, set a turntable motor and a fan blade into a dog bowl insulated by some foam, and invented the Marpac Sleep-Mate, now called the Dohm ($40 on Amazon), a gizmo whose popularity grew by word-of-mouth and became a favorite not just of light sleepers but also of psychotherapists, the legal and medical community, and others seeking to mask confidential conversations. (Nothing says 1980s-era Upper West Side analysis like the whispery hiss of a mushroom-shaped Dohm.)
Sound purists adore it because its mechanical whirring is closer to truly random and contains no loop, as many digital versions do.
Blocking the bullfrogs
Fred Maher is a veteran music producer and drummer who works as an audio engineer and audio-quality tester. He has what are considered golden ears, meaning he is an expert listener who can spot audio errors in music, film and television content. He also suffers from tinnitus, a condition he soothed for years with machines like the Dohm. (That device is now in the bedroom of his 6-year-old daughter, Ruby.)
White noise, he wrote in an email, “is one of the first things we hear from our first moment of existence, in utero (not the Nirvana album). It’s what you hear in a seashell, kind of. The seashell is a mechanical filter that focuses and amplifies ambient noise.”
Sleep is inherently dangerous, said Rafael Pelayo, a clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine. This is why we are wired to sort sounds as we sleep, he said, to differentiate the threats, or a baby’s cry, from more benign noises.
There is no data that suggests a white-noise machine alters the frequencies of the brain, said Param Dedhia, the director of sleep medicine at the Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Arizona. “But we can show that if you make a loud sound, you can affect your response to that with a noise machine. It’s called auditory masking.”
Dedhia described its effects as a sound bubble, “a force field of sound such that a noise has to be much stronger to break through.” Dedhia has deployed Marpac Dohms in the bedrooms at Canyon Ranch, and also in his home because the pool there draws an army of bullfrogs after dark. Their nightly chorus drives him bananas.
“Oh, my friend,” he said, “it sounds like someone dying. I used to get my hose and spray them off the sides of the pool, but they soon were on to me, and after a while just hopped back on. So now I have my humidifier running, and the white noise right next to the bed. It’s my sound bubble. We don’t have to have a bug or pill for every ill if we can soothe ourselves. It’s a skill, it really is. If we could all self-soothe, it would make it easier to handle other chaos.”
What is noise, anyway? Dedhia likes this definition, from the authors of a sleep study: “Noise is defined as unwanted sounds that could have negative psychological and physiological effects.”
Noise is terribly subjective. There are those who love the croak of a bullfrog, and are soothed by the snores of their partner because it means they are close. Pigeon allowed that snoring was particularly tough to mask, given its locality (next to your head) and unpredictability (your ears crane for the next growl or explosive sigh).
“You must convince yourself the sound of snoring is beautiful,” he said. “I have some people who asked me to put snoring on the website because they are used to sleeping with a partner snoring, and when that partner is gone — traveling or divorced or dead — they miss that sound.”
“I have some snoring hidden in one of the generators,” he said. “It’s called Berber Tent. It’s an attempt to take you on a nice story. You are in the desert on vacation and it has been a very warm day and you are all snoozing in the tent together while food is prepared. You can hear the breeze, and the tent flapping and the sound of a man snoring. I didn’t set out to do that, but I always am waiting for opportunities and I was on a trek and I heard it and I taped it. I think if you imagine a beautiful young Berber sleeping next to you, it will change your mind.”
Worth a try.