Calgary Herald: Researchers develop app to record Ranchlands hum

If you’ve ever pressed one of the low keys on a piano softly and felt the note hang in the air, then you know what it’s like to hear the Ranchlands hum.

The approximately 40 hertz hum has been plaguing residents of the northwest Calgary community since 2008, and nobody can figure out where it’s coming from.

Some people have described it more as a physical vibration than a humming noise. Not everyone can hear the sound, and some Ranchlands residents have assumed they have hearing damage or that it’s all in their heads.

But the hum is real, and really mysterious.

Prof. Mike Smith and his students have spent years trying to help the good people of Ranchlands crack the case.

Smith is a professor in the electrical and computer engineering department at the University of Calgary.

The research has been on and off, and Smith picks up the project again when an interested student comes along. He started working on the hum, which he has heard in the field, because one of his graduate students, Emily Marasco, had been working in the community already to find the source of the noise.

Right now he’s working with Orchisama Das, an international engineering student from India. She’s participating in a Mitacs Globalink internship program that accepted her to study in Canada, along with 750 other students. From there, she chose the project she wanted to work on and chose the Ranchlands hum because she’s interested in music and engineering.

“There’s not many opportunities to combine those two careers,” said Smith.

Smith and some of his previous students had started development on a cellphone application that would allow people to record the sound.

“What they want to do is be able to convince people, and convince themselves, that it really, physically, is there,” Smith said.

“So what we’ve done is develop the simple app that will record the sound for them so that they can then play it back to prove to other people, who may not necessarily hear it easily, that it really exists. And they find that a little bit reassuring.”

Smith hopes that he and Das can publish instructions to develop the app in Circuit Cellar magazine so they can get feedback on how to improve it.

They already gave a copy to one Ranchlands resident who was happy that other people could finally hear the sound.

Das arrived in Canada at the end of May and knew nothing about developing phone apps.

“I specifically wanted to work with audio signal processing, and this is exactly what this project is about,” Das said.

“What I didn’t know was that it would also involve Android app development. It’s something that I completely learned from scratch after I came here.”

She taught herself by reading articles that the previous intern, from France, had written about developing the Ranchlands hum recording app, and she’s now working to expand the app’s capabilities.

“His application just captured sound and did a little bit of analysis of what signals were in there, and (Das has) been looking at how do you capture many sounds and compare them across a network,” Smith said.

One of the questions they’re hoping to answer is if there is only one source.

“Is there one Ranchlands hum or are there many Ranchlands hums? We just don’t know,” Smith said.

The goal is to have many people record the noise and send in their findings so Smith and his students can analyze the data.

“We can compare the sounds to see if there’s more than one of them, capturing many, many sounds at the same time,” he said.

Smith said he used to have a hum at his house near the reservoir, which turned out to be water pumps turning on late at night. Last May, a similar mysterious hum in Windsor, Ont. was traced to a Michigan steel production facility on Zug Island.

The hum has been difficult to pinpoint because it’s so low, Smith estimates about two octaves below middle C, and there hasn’t been much money put toward the problem — some researchers tackling the hum have been volunteers.

“Low frequency sounds they just don’t seem to have any direction to them, it’s very difficult to find where they’re coming from,” Smith said.

Theories on where the Ranchlands hum comes from range from gas pipes to natural vibrations of the Earth shaking concrete pads in some basements.

Once they figure out where the sound is coming from, the Ranchlands neighbourhood can work to address the irritating sound.

“I’ve got recordings. There’s some really weird stuff in people’s homes,” Smith said.

“And it keeps them awake at night … if you’re very, very sleepy, it really affects the whole of your health. So it’s sort of an important health issue.”

By: Erin Sylvester