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Tech by VICE

What the 'Claustrophobic Atmosphere' at the Heart of a Data Center Sounds Like

Creeping and cyclical, pricked here and there with machine chatter, the din registers its own kind of mysterious silence.

by Brian Anderson
Sep 11 2014, 5:35pm

DC3 - Turbulence in the Chamber. Video: earthkeptwarm.

Data centers are  really freaking loud. But burrow straight to the heart of one, right into the guts of the cloud, and you'll be bathed in a discomfiting calm. Creeping and cyclical, pricked here and there with machine chatter, the din registers its own kind of mysterious silence.

Take the modest data center facility at Birmingham City University, where UK-based sound designer and audiovisual composer Matt Parker recently stalked the server banks, field recording gear in hand, in search of the sonic profile of what he calls the "claustrophobic atmosphere" at the core of a data center. 

It's all part of a broader goal to amass a collection of 'clouds,' and is the latest installment in The Cloud Is More than Air and Water, Parker's ongoing investigation both of the "acoustic ecology" of cloud computing and what cloud computing even means for those who use it (so, everyone), the physical spaces the cupboards occupy, and the technicians who tend to the machines. Previous CMTAW entries include meditations on the sound of air moving in and out of the data center and the use of high volumes of LEDs in data centers. 

But it's "Turbulence in the Chamber," heard and seen above, that strikes at something altogether more sublime, perhaps owing to a run-and-gun quality.  

"I walked around the space with a shotgun microphone in one hand, pointing it in and around the rack space until I found an interesting sound object that jumped out at me," Parker told me.

But then, his capture was nothing if not calculated here. For the BCU field recordings, which draw to a close today, Parker said he set up mic arrays over a row of server racks, "specifically using a combination of matched pair stereo cardioid microphones in an X-Y configuration and more localized shotgun microphones to pick up specific isolated sounds."

"I set up stereo pairs in the entrances to server rack corridors to pick up general ambient sounds," he went on, "and at one point I lined up six shotgun microphones facing six individual racks in a line and captured the individual racks sounds."

I have found that each space has its own personality.

Parker then took everything into the studio, developing all the ambience and sound objects mined from the center's core into a suite of six-channel audio pieces. Those were then folded into  a site-specific installation

As for the accompanying visuals to "Turbulence," Parker used a hodgepodge of original footage shot both during his residency at BCU and a separate data center (he declined to say which, citing security concerns), and also a few data center promo videos available on YouTube.

"I have found that each space has its own personality, and by processing the audio, I believe I can find unique 'signature sounds' in each space," Parker explained. "Effectively I would like to be able to make a collection of clouds that would be titled 'The sound of XXX', so as an installation or archive piece, people can find out what Facebook data sounds like, what Google data sounds like, what CERN data sounds like." 

Or what your data center, big or small, sounds like—Parker said he'd be willing to record just about anywhere. And so on go the transmissions of our stifling, digital nerve centers, cyclical and creeping.