Environments on Vinyl: Irv Teibel’s Syntonic Research

Yearning for the peaceful sounds of a country pasture or a deserted beach? They may be as near as your stereo.

It is dawn on a warm summer morning in the country. You lie back and listen as a bee buzzes nearby, and somewhere down a dirt road a dog barks. A tree’s shadow shortens; off in the distance, you can almost see the final puff of cloud from last night’s rainstorm disappear over the horizon.


Well, you’re only listening to a record. But if your actual window on the world reveals a mass of chilling icicles or admits a surfeit of city noises, you might well prefer Dawn at New Hope, Pennsylvania, and Irv Teibel‘s other Environments records to the realities of your season or location.

Teibel is president of Syntonic Research, Inc., a rather unusual kind of record company. In seven years it has released nine LPs, most of them billed as “psychoacoustic experiences” and given titles like Ultimate Thunderstorm, Optimum Aviary, and The Ultimate Heartbeat (Lovemaking Sound).

“Putting these albums together allows me to combine a lot of different interests,” says Teibel, whose skills include recording technology, acoustics, packaging, and merchandising. “I’m basically a very restless person, and I get bored with any one field after a while. That’s why I’m no longer a phototechnologist. It was very limiting.”

He left that vocation about a decade ago and in 1968 founded Syntonic Research; since then, he has considerably broadened the range of his activities. For example, he recently launched a Syntonic subsidiary, Simulacrum Press, which specializes in publishing facsimiles of rare old books. At the New School for Social Research, where he is a faculty member, he lectures on potential uses for psychologically based sound. He also writes music and has performed his own synthesizer compositions at such places as New York’s Museum of Contemporary Crafts.

But Teibel’s main concern remains the Environments albums, which evolved from psychoacoustic research he conducted in association with several psychologists and computer programmers. Containing both natural and synthetically created sounds, the LPs are designed to make one’s surroundings more pleasant; they can heighten active dispositions or induce more relaxed ones, in both cases by disguising unappreciated noise.

Teibel uses several methods to achieve this purpose. In some of the recordings, sounds such as those of rain, wind, and surf—which simultaneously emit all audible frequencies—soften the contrast between objectionable noise and the ambient sounds of a room. Others mask it in a dense but agreeable random pattern of modulatio. Surprisingly, all of the albums are most efficacious when heard at very low volumes.

To develop their Environments, the Syntonic Research people go to no small amount of trouble. Before producing The Psychologically Ultimate Seashore, for instance, they made more than a hundred seashore tapes at locations ranging from Malibu, California, to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, to Dover England. When all of them were found to be less than 100 percent effective, Syntonic used computers to isolate and then combine the best portions of two selected recordings, thereby yielding the desired result.

“You can’t really tell how succesful the sounds will be till you bring them bac and try them in an interior environment,” explains Teibel. “We finally realized the only way we were going to get a psychologically perfect ocean sound was to make our own ocean—feed the tapes into a computer and create what we wanted.”

After Teibel and his staff are satisfied with their work on a particular sound source, they seek to determine “whether weve gotten ourselves into a corner, convinced ourselves that something is good when someone listening to it cold might not think so. You know, sometimes you depend too heavily on your own judgment.”

For this reason, psychology majors at a New York City college listen to each proposed album and offer their reactions. Then test pressings are sent to several hundred “listening respondents,” who are asked to describe how and where they’ve used the record, what effects they’ve experienced, and what they might like to see improved.

Syntonic Research continues to solicit feedback after release; from response to questionnaires enclopsed with the LPs, the firm is able to determine with some accuracy who buys them and why.

“When the seashore record first came out,” says Teibel, “it seemd like everybody who lived by the ocean wanted a copy…You can’t leave your windows open all the time; the sea spray comes in, and the salt rots everything. So, people build air-tight, soundproof enclosures. They leave their windows open maybe four hours on a sunny day. And down in Florida, you hear nothing—even rigyht alongside the beach—because almost everything is air-conditioned.”

Assuming one could leave windows open continually, he contends, the “ultimate seashore” would still prove superior to the untampered-with sounds of Mother Nature. “The ocean is so varied,” he explains. “At two places on the beach, 10 feet apart, the effects could be totally different. In one place, you might hear just the crashing of waves, which can be rather disquieting.”

The effects promised for those who listen to The Psychologically Ultimate Seashore and the other Environments records are far from disquieting, however. According to the album jackets: “If used while reading, comprehension and reading speed improve noticeably. If used at mealtime, appetites improve. Insomniacs fall asleep without the aid of drugs. Hypertension vanishes. Students’ marks improve. Its effect on the aesthetics of lovemaking s truly remarkable. In noisy or very quiet surroundings, improvement in working conditions is often little short of miraculous.”

Asked about these seemingly grandiose claims, Teibel stands by his product. “We spend years,” he insists, “working on a very few sounds and refine them to the point wyhere they actually do everything we say they do.”

This may be smewhat of an exaggeration. Playing the records at mealtime, for example, this listener doesn’t feel any hungrier than usual; nor do the LPs help bring him slumber on nights when he’s wondering who’s going to turn his stereo off if he does fall asleep. Nevertheless, the Environments are relaxing and mot pleasant; and at times when Mother Nature herself is not, they can be particularly nice to have around.

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