Portland International Airport: A Soundscape

You grab your things from the conveyor belt and move towards a bench where you can get organized. All of your careful planning and packing has been thrown asunder by the chaos of the TSA screening: devices in various places, belts and shoes carried loose away from the security area. You shove your liquids (3 ounce or less) back into your bag as neatly as possible, return your laptop to its pocket inside your shoulder bag, and, careful your pants don’t drop in the process, put your belt back on. Finally, you take a moment to breathe and collect yourself.

You’re not far from the security screening area, so the chaotic noise still dominates your environment: the thunk of bins being stacked, the wail of a metal detector set off by the keys or loose change of a passenger who forgot to empty his pockets, the bustle of the restaurants opposite the scanners. The area is sonically wild and anxiety-inducing.

An electric guitar sounds in the distance, audible beneath the din—but barely. You turn and see the guitarist sitting about 100 feet down the concourse—a live musician! You walk towards him and and the chaos of the screening area fades away. For a few seconds, you are in the guitarist’s sphere, the other airport noises temporarily gone. A moment of calm washes over you as you leave the security process behind.

You move on towards your gate, overhearing a snippet of the boarding process from a different flight. A woman asks her companion if she remembers Jimmy Smith. The name means nothing to you, of course; the woman’s conversation barely even registers. She is just another anonymous person, like you, temporarily in this non-place, on her way to somewhere far away.

Almost at your gate, you see that you are early. You duck into the bar to have a pre-flight drink and…

Analysis

The soundscape here generates new insight into the experience of the airport and complements what we might see in photographs or through users’ commentaries on the experience.

For instance, it’s not especially surprising that the security area of the terminal is sonically overwhelming. Security screening is always a rather fraught experience, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that the TSA wants security to be a stressful process for passengers. Even in a relatively comfortable airport like PDX, passengers will wait in line, unpack their bags, and then have to collect their things, all under the watchful gaze of security personnel and other passengers trying to get through as efficiently as possible. The experience is definitively stressful.

But the soundscape reveals that this area of the terminal is also the most sonically overwhelming. Even a quick visual comparison of the waveforms of initial moments with a later passage demonstrate this:

The lines representing the sound waves are clearly thicker in the first diagram compared with the second. And indeed, when we listen to the soundscape, we can hear the sonic density decrease substantially as we move away from the security area and towards the gate area of the terminal.

While it may seem unremarkable to prove that security is noisier than other parts of the airport terminal, I contend that the soundscape provides invaluable insight that cannot be acquired in another way. The soundscape is fundamentally empathic. When you listen to it, you listen from the perspective of the recordist (in this case, me). You are necessarily placed into the sonic space and you experience it as if you were there.

But I, as the recordist, am not providing this soundscape as a neutral or transparent representation of the airport sound environment. I have a purpose. In this case, my purpose is to reveal how the sound environment of a place like an airport can be constructed to relax passengers, ease anxieties, and reduce the stress that comes with flying. This is not a “natural” property of the airport; it can be designed and manipulated. The recorded soundscape can reveal the design elements, and can expose problematic elements where they exist.

Moreover, as the recordist, I have imposed my perspective on the recording, just as a photographer would on a photograph. While I do not intend to deceive or manipulate listeners, my perspective is deliberate and considered, and it is inescapably shapes the insights of the soundscape. And, of course, I have edited the soundscape, as most photographers do with their images. The edits are relatively minimal, but they are important: in this case, I’ve merely cut out a couple of jarring moments where I jostled the recorder and created some loud noise, added a small amount of ambience, and slightly boosted the presence of the alarm early in the recording. These edits are very much in keeping with the soundscape as an applied research tool: they reveal elements of the sound environment that are definitive, that I wish to draw attention to, and that might present design opportunities.

From a design perspective, this soundscape might raise a number of questions. Is there any way we can redesign the security area to cut down on the sonic stress? For instance, are the alarms a necessary feature of the scanners, or is there another way to achieve the same result for the security personnel? Are the materials of the bins optimal for both their function and their sonic properties (since they can create quite a clatter when stacked and dropped)? Are there ways to move passengers through the security area more efficiently, so that they spend less time in that sonic space?

These questions only scratch the surface of the insights a soundscape can generate. But these insights are sonic ones. They can work hand-in-hand with other research methods, of course: we could present the soundscape with photos of the terminal, interview data with passengers, or other ethnographic evidence. Or we could allow the soundscape to stand alone, let its empathic value to provoke listeners and place them in the sound world of the airport. In short, we can and should add it to our ethnographic tool kit.