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Acouscapes: A software for ecoacoustic education and soundscape composition in primary and secondary education

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 November 2023

Jesús Tejada*
Affiliation:
Institut de Creativitat i Innovacions Educatives – Universitat de València, Spain
Adolf Murillo*
Affiliation:
Institut de Creativitat i Innovacions Educatives – Universitat de València, Spain
José Manuel Berenguer*
Affiliation:
Sound Art Master – Universitat de Barcelona, Spain
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Abstract

Acouscapes is a software designed as a simple educational solution for the creation of soundscapes and their use in the composition of soundscape music in primary and secondary education. The software has slots in which the user must place the sounds that will make up the desired soundscape, allowing them to make different soundwalks by interacting with the graphic interface. Acouscapes allows the content of these soundscapes to be modified by means of sound and structural processing, and includes a recording function. This article aims to present the conceptual and educational foundations of Acouscapes, to describe the software technically and functionally, and to offer some applications of this software as a mediation artefact in educational processes.

Type
Article
Creative Commons
Creative Common License - CCCreative Common License - BY
This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution and reproduction, provided the original article is properly cited.
Copyright
© The Author(s), 2023. Published by Cambridge University Press

1. INTRODUCTION

The concept of a soundscape has often been used ambiguously, pointing to both objectivity and subjectivity. A plethora of definitions of soundscape have arisen in the writings of authors from different disciplines. For example, Southworth (Reference Southworth1967: 2) defines a soundscape as ‘the quality and type of sounds and their arrangements in space and time’. Pijanowski, Farina, Gage, Dumyahn and Krause (Reference Pijanowski, Farina, Gage, Dumyahn and Krause2011: 1214) give another definition as ‘the collection of biological, geophysical and anthropogenic sounds that emanate from a landscape and which vary over space and time reflecting important ecosystem processes and human activities’. Farina (Reference Farina and Farina2014: 3) defines it as ‘an acoustical composition that results from the voluntary or involuntary overlap of different sounds of physical or biological origin’ alluding the acoustic context produced. Finally, the International Standardization Organization (2014) defines it as ‘the understanding of an acoustic environment as perceived or experienced and/or understood by a person or people, in context’. By extension, the term also addresses the representation, analysis and creation of the soundscapes themselves.

The study of soundscapes encompasses ecoacoustics, a main vein of scientific and artistic production. Ecoacoustics or acoustic ecology (Schafer Reference Schafer1969) emerged from cultural anthropology and is concerned with the development of auditory awareness and the meanings that the sounds of a given environment have for the people who live in it. The main idea for the creation of this software stems from an educational objective. In initial musical training, students enter with little awareness of the sound environment around them. It is enough to ask a random sample of people to make a list of the sounds they hear to verify this phenomenon. It is not a physiological problem; it is a characteristic of today’s culture where visual stimuli prevail (Wrightson Reference Wrightson2000). Hence the need for the learner to focus on the sound environment, to think about the meanings it has for him/her and to develop sensitivity towards acoustic hygiene. These elements were considered when designing Acouscapes,Footnote 1 an artefact designed to facilitate a closer approach to the soundscape.

To summarize, the point of this study is to develop a solution software to create soundscapes by capturing sounds from the environment, manipulating them, and finally creating electroacoustic compositions called soundscape compositions (Truax Reference Truax2002) in primary schools. Acouscapes is an original, free and simply designed piece of software. The program provides an excellent opportunity for sound creation and improving acoustic awareness in both students and teachers. Thanks to its ease of use and the ability to incorporate sounds from the user’s surrounding environment, sound creation, exploration and experimentation in soundscapes come naturally. So, Acouscapes could facilitate a twofold objective: approaching collaborative-musical creative processes in primary and secondary education and encouraging the students to be more concerned about the sounds around them.

1.1. Sound worlds around us: the soundscapes

Listening to our sound environments is one of the first experiences in our lives. It favours a development of sensitivity and curiosity towards the sound world that surrounds us and allows us to interpret the world and appropriate it, building our own reality. The composer and educator Murray Schafer (Reference Schafer1969) referred to the term soundscape as the set of sounds that surrounds human beings at any given moment. His research was directed towards awareness-raising through listening. He denounced the excessive increase of noise in the industrialised world and clearly pointed out the negative repercussions for the human being, such as depression, fatigue, stress and irritability.

Schafer (Reference Schafer1969, Reference Schafer1977) suggested the concept of soundscape as the ‘universal‘ composition of which everyone can be a composer. This bold concept was not intended as an alternative to music, but to the problems of noise. The concept of soundscape composition is linked to the emergence of the World Soundscapes Project (WSP) at Simon Fraser University in the early 1970s (Truax Reference Truax2002). The aim of WSP was to enhance aural awareness of our soundscapes by inspiring and establishing a discourse that explores a sense of place through sound (Martin Reference Martin2017).

Soundscape composition has evolved into a multitude of approaches, from representing acoustic environments with ‘found sounds’, to incorporating highly abstract sound transformations. The typology is often diverse but compositions ranging from sounds analogous to real-world experience can usually be found; listening from a fixed spatial perspective or moving through a series of connected acoustic spaces. Within compositions that make use of soundscapes one can find other structures that reflect the non-linear mental experiences of memory, dreams and free association, as well as the artificial sound constructions that are familiar and made possible by modern audio techniques of sound layering and embedding (Truax Reference Truax2002).

Soundscape compositions are as different from each other as any other subgenre of electroacoustic music. Clearly, compositions created under the concept of soundscapes often stand on a continuum between found sounds and sounds captured in soundscapes, from which they draw inspiration, and abstract sounds with little or no reference to the real world (Martin Reference Martin2017). Although sounds within soundscapes may contain processed sounds, these creations maintain certain links to sonic reality that serve as anchors for the listener, points of support for listening. In this sense, many composers like to create an imaginary world by processing sounds of diverse origins. As Westerkamp (Reference Westerkamp2002: 54) mentions: ‘The aesthetic musical language of the artist and the language of recorded sounds and soundscapes meet in the compositional process. And it is the meeting of the two “languages” and the way they balance each other that constitutes the creative challenge of soundscape composition.’

As Labelle (Reference Labelle2010) states, sound follows a seemingly innocent trajectory that moves from the source to the listener, not forgetting all the surfaces, bodies or sounds it caresses. It is a story that agglutinates a lot of information and is fully charged with geographical, social, psychological and emotional energy. According to this author, a whole history and culture can be found within a sound; from its origin to its destination, sound can be the generator of a diverse range of experiences, as well as remaining specifically linked to a context, as an expressive, profound and prolonged figure of culture that, in addition, incorporates the dynamics of interference, noise and transgression.

If we combine Schafer’s (Reference Schafer1969) extreme sensitivity to the sonosphere or soundscape on the one hand, and Labelle’s (Reference Labelle2010) cultural concept on the other, we generate a homogeneous theoretical–empirical basis that allows us to specify artistic projects that raise awareness of sound transformation and its impact on our environment, as well as rediscovering the stories, life experiences and emotions that lie in the sounds that inhabit our sonic environments. All this amalgamation of sound and narrative will help to generate a more accurate idea of the self and the community, allowing us to understand where we come from, who we are, and what future we want to build.

However, there are two other factors that will allow us to understand the authors’ intentions in designing the software presented in this article. On the one hand, there is the collaborative work in the collection of sounds to elaborate the soundscapes, which could facilitate a shared vision of the individual realities of groups of students and enhance their zone of potential cognitive growth. On the other hand, there is the use of software as a tool that could facilitate collaborative composition by modifying the soundscapes elaborated. These factors are presented in the following subsections.

1.2. Music learning and technology

People relate to other people through verbal interaction and through artefacts, and in so doing they construct meanings. The concept of mediation is key in the construction of each person’s reality (Vygotsky Reference Vygotsky1978). Mediation relates to the ways in which artefacts act as links between people in this negotiated construction of reality. Technologies are artefacts that have no power in themselves, but rather their mediating capacity comes from the people who devise them (Bower Reference Bower2019). They are unintentional intermediary objects used to collaborate in the construction of meaning between participants (Blumer Reference Blumer1986). Thus, meanings are the product of social interaction, primarily conscious communication, which becomes essential, both in the constitution of the individual and in the social production of meaning. People select, organise, reproduce and transform meanings in interpretative processes according to their expectations and purposes (ibid.). Thus, technology-mediated learning is a web made up of the role of the teacher, the pre-concepts, knowledge, expectations and practices of the learners, and the characteristics of the artefacts used. Elliott and Silverman (Reference Elliott and Silverman2015: 229) describe musical understanding as an intricate web of ‘practical, situated, experiential, intuitive and embodied’ knowledge, developed through embodied, enactive and interactive musical learning.

According to the preceding points, Acouscapes can act as an artefact that directly mediates the negotiation of meanings of the phenomena that different people are discussing, in this case, the elaboration of a soundscape or musical composition, and is intentionally applied by the teacher to favour such a negotiated construction of reality shared for all members of the group. From this perspective, when interacting with music technologies and media, one moves away from being a mere consumer of technology and becomes an agent for the generation of social and individual meaning, as well as the creation of new cultural artefacts (Savage Reference Savage, McPherson and Welch2012). This reinforces the critical vision in the use of technology and assumes other possibilities of constructing knowledge, generally in a collaborative way (Liu-Rosenbaum and Creech Reference Liu-Rosenbaum, Creech, Creech, Hodges and Hallam2021).

Learning processes and outcomes, from this view, are progressive, but not linear. Learners, whether in formal music education or community music contexts, develop their musical understanding through participation in musical ideas and actions with increasing depth and breadth. To some extent, this leads to question how the creativity is approached in music education at schools.

1.3. Creativity in music education

Music creativity processes in primary and secondary educational contexts have been extensively researched (Lewis Reference Lewis2012; Glover Reference Glover2000). The use of digital technologies has helped to generate new visions and strategies that facilitate composing music in classrooms (Himonides and Purves Reference Himonides, Purves, Hallam and Creech2010; Randles Reference Randles2012; Ruthman et al. Reference Ruthman, Tobias, Randles, Thibeault and Randles2015; King Reference King, McPherson and Welch2018) and suggestive sound-based approaches (Holland Reference Holland2015, Reference Holland2021; Landy Reference Landy2019). Despite the this, there is still resistance that prevents progress on the negative and positive effects they can bring to students’ musical learning. In this sense, some authors criticise a lack of relationship between classroom practices and practices that emerge from informal contexts (O’Neill Reference O’Neill and McPherson2016; Kastner Reference Kastner2020), or the lack of teacher training (Cain and Walden Reference Cain and Walden2019). In relation to the approach to creation in music classrooms, it should be said that the approaches that music teachers in primary and secondary education have been taking have generally been an analytical exercise that has focused more on the object (work) than on the creative processes that involve the students (Regelski Reference Regelski2017).

These trends have conditioned creative work in the classroom. One of them considers composition as an activity of little value compared to the main task of the musician, that is, the performance of music. The other tendency paradoxically conceives composition as a practice reserved for a small talented elite that others can hardly reach. This lack of knowledge, experience and confidence greatly complicates the creative work in music classrooms. In this critical vein, it is argued that the traditional model of music teaching in schools currently has many problems in that it does not consider the musical interests and abilities of the students (O’Neill Reference O’Neill and McPherson2016). Many of the strategies employed are teacher-centred and favour a type of reproductive learning that relegates students to a passive position in the musical learning process through a curriculum that is markedly historical and unmusical (Drummond Reference Drummond2010; Schippers Reference Schippers2010). A formalist-aestheticist paradigm has been privileged over a praxialist-enactivist paradigm (Tejada Reference Tejada2004). An education that focuses on the activity of students as managers of their learning may have the potential to encourage greater motivation and self-regulation of learning through music-making.

In Spain, initiatives around sound-based music-making (SBM) (Murillo et al. Reference Murillo, Riaño and Tejada2021) in school settings have been rather scarce. In contrast to countries such as England where pedagogues and researchers such as Dennis (Reference Denis1970), Paynter and Aston (Reference Paynter and Aston1970) and Savage and Challis (Reference Savage and Challis2002) helped to create a rich context linked to musical composition and the development of creativity in school environments. This context, and the need to provide solutions for access to experimental and electroacoustic music, inspired initiatives such as EARS2 (ElectroAcoustic Resource Site 2), a pedagogical environment that has enabled children aged 11–14 to become familiar with the concepts and practice of electroacoustic music (Landy, Hall and Uwins Reference Landy, Hall and Uwins2013). The Compose with Sounds software (Pearse et al. Reference Pearse, Landy, Chapman, Holland and Eniu2018) was developed specifically for this initiative and has provided a robust framework for intervention in electroacoustic creation processes in school settings. Compose with Sounds is an intuitive DAW for sound-based music creation and recording (Landy Reference Landy2007). The software has ‘sound cards’ that contain both oscillators and effects processors. Students use these cards as if they were sound objects, arranging them along the timeline of the program’s multitrack interface.

Because of its similarity to the objectives of Soundscapes, the innovative educational project Sonic Postcards (Sonic Arts Network 2007) is worth mentioning. The aim is for students to gain knowledge of their environment and the environment of others, develop musical skills through technology, as well as personal communication skills with others. A sound postcard is a digital audio file. Students must make a sound postcard that represents the sound environment. The postcards are made using general software and allow students’ sound environments to be listened to and compared and are shared via the internet. The educational focus with these sound documents is on listening and the creative use of technology. Like an ordinary postcard, it offers the opportunity to exchange information about each student’s sound habitat, expanding knowledge of a variety of places, lives and cultures, from urban to rural.

Acouscapes was developed as a response to a twofold question within an educational context: is it possible to make students aware of the soundscape that surrounds them through collaborative composition activities of soundscapes using software in the middle and upper cycles (8–12 years) of primary education in Spain? In this line of intentional contact and experimentation with the sonic environment in educational contexts, a project was carried out in a primary school in the city of Valencia, Spain called Entorno e Identidad Sonora (Environment and Sound Identity). With it, the teaching team tried to raise awareness and sensitise students to the sound transformations affecting the neighbourhood where the school was located. They also composed soundscape music using sounds recorded and processed by students. To do this, sound walks were carried out to collect sounds from different areas and collaboratively build a soundscape of the neighbourhood in small groups. This allowed the students to contrast the soundscape obtained with the neighbourhood’s old soundscape by means of videoconferences and direct interviews with relatives and neighbours aged +65 years. The students were then able to verify the sound transformations that had taken place in the neighbourhood over a period of 50 years. In addition, using the current soundscape of the neighbourhood, each group of students was able to modify the captured sounds and edit the final mix using a series of dynamic, frequency and texture manipulators, forming a composition that was then transferred to an audio file.

2. DESCRIPTION OF THE SOFTWARE

The reader should consider the definition of soundscape as the perception of a sound environment (Sayer, Manvell, Takai and Bazzucchi Reference Sayer, Manvell, Takai and Bazzucchi2014) from a specific listening point and for a specific set of listeners (Berenguer Reference Berenguer2021) in order to understand the technical description of Acouscapes. It is characterised by a unique mixture of sound sources whose intensities are determined, among other variables, by the listening point. This multiplicity of sound perspectives depending on the situation of the listeners is precisely what inspires the programming decisions of Acouscapes (Figure 1). The engine that implements the functions of this software is entirely programmed in the Max language (Cycling’74 and IRCAM 2020).

Figure 1. Programming decisions of the Acouscapes software in the MAX programming language.

The right half of the Figure 2 shows the graphical element that allows the choice of the user’s various perspectives in a sound environment composed of a multiplicity of sources. The nature of this environment is configurable by means of a single gesture consisting of dragging and dropping the audio file of each source chosen on each of the 20 coloured circles that make up this element. Once the sound sources have been loaded, the user can place the cursor where he/she wants and will obtain a sound mix composed of the sounds that are part of the intersections of the screen circles.

Figure 2. Main interface for Acouscape.

3. SOME EDUCATIONAL APPLICATIONS OF ACOUSCAPES

As mentioned in the introduction, Acouscapes is a software intended to help the achievement of two objectives: to reinforce the awareness of the surrounding soundscape and simultaneously to help in the organisation of sound creations from that soundscape by Spanish middle and upper primary (8–12 years) and secondary (12-16 years) students.

To provide the software with an adequate balance between technological functions and the expected educational objectives, the researchers reviewed the creativity-related objectives specified on the music curriculum under the Spanish national law for primary education, as determined at the Valencian Community (DOGV 2022). This law mentions two objectives related to creative processes. The first is defined in terms of competences and declares that students can use ‘different artistic representations and expressions and initiate themselves in the construction of visual and audiovisual products, developing aesthetic sensibility and promoting artistic creation’ (ibid.: 41170–1). The second one mentions that ‘In each project, students should follow a process that includes research, creativity, decision-making, the use of strategies and communication in different formats. It is necessary to encourage the integration of learning in a cross-sectional, meaningful, and relevant way, and foster collaborative problem solving, to reinforce students’ self-esteem, autonomy, reflection, and responsibility’ (ibid.: 41172).

Acouscapes was designed and implemented with these objectives in mind, although its real-context empirical validation is still in progress. In the following subsections, some learning activities using Acouscapes are suggested.

3.1. Sound walking

Is it possible to travel through sound? Sound has the capacity to favour access to the deepest memories of our childhood, but it also has the capacity to remind us of the changes and transformations that our contexts undergo due to human action. Thus, it is possible to speak of soundscape as a macro discourse that gives a greater insight into the ways of life of a community (Woodside Reference Woodside2008).

This activity aims to deepen our own landscapes, thus enhancing the environments or sound contexts that make up our personal space. Along these lines, it would be interesting for each student to propose a particular soundscape that defines his or her personal experience, based on his or her environment. In the case that the students are from another country, it would be interesting to look for typical sounds of their environment and to make a sonorous reconstruction of their landscape to share it in the classroom. For this purpose, sounds could be searched for in different online repositories.

By being able to use sounds from different sound contexts linked to the students’ origins, it is possible to generate descriptive narratives linked to their personal experiences that allow them to share cultural elements with all the students. In this way, feelings of community can be reinforced, favouring more inclusive environments. Sound walking itself would be another task linked to this proposal. This would be a collective experience of exploration and reflection on our surroundings. Sharing a walk with our students and provoking deeper and more attentive listening is a healthy exercise that undoubtedly helps to raise awareness among students and, thus, to improve our sound environments.

3.2. Imaginary landscape

The imaginative capacity allows us to invent everything from new territories to places that move between the real and the unreal: there is no limit. Thus, this activity explores the possibilities of transformation offered by the Acouscapes tool and in this way connects the creative potential of users through exploration and sound experimentation. For this purpose, the left side of the control panel where the manipulation controls are located will be used.

This simple activity can be used to collect ideas for a new project or simply to show the creative potential and imagination of the students. Also, this type of proposal unites music with other areas of knowledge in an interdisciplinary way. In this case the linguistic areas.

For this activity, we propose working with creative compositions drawn from a soundscape selected by the student, later applying the effects controls to the piece until an imaginary soundscape emerges. Upon applying the effects and transforming the soundscape, the initial reference points of the individual sounds are lost, and, therefore, new meanings can be assigned to them. Listening back to the imaginary sound proposals created by the student can contribute to the creation of fantastical stories that can later be share as podcasts.

3.3. Camouflaged sound

Sound designers play with the possibilities offered by the hidden sonorities of objects until they find sounds that are interesting to them. These sounds are then manipulated through digital techniques to use them in film or advertising. By breaking the relationship between the sound and the object that produces it, the mind loses the reference, and a new meaning is generated. In this sense, Chion (Reference Chion2016) mentions ‘acousmatic sound’ as a term for a sound whose source of origin is unknown.

For the activity of camouflaged sound, we start from the selection of some interesting sound objects and explore their possibilities. We look for different ways to make them sound, combining short and long sounds, to find curious and inspiring results. For this sound exploration to be successful, it is important to look for an unusual sound production mode. For this purpose, different modes of excitation can be used: for example, rubbing, tapping, or clacking the selected object. Thus, you can combine ways of making it produce sound by using different materials, and even try to modify its sound properties; for example, by immersing it in water. There are no limits, only the certainty of not hurting yourself. In this way, the catalogue of sounds that can be found will be much larger.

Then, and after being recorded, these sounds can be subjected to a transformation process using the controls on the left side of the Acouscapes panel, looking for interesting combinations. Once the sound is found, the result is recorded and shared. Of course, the teacher should ask other members of the class to which original sound this new sound belongs.

3.4. Sound cartography

Sound cartography is a resource that allows us to think about the way sounds interact with habitable spaces and map this relationship based on the interpretations of individual listeners. As such, the teaching objective is not merely to quantify sounds, but also to allow students to experience the presence and extension of sound in material things, and to understand these sounds’ architectural importance in the neighbourhoods they live in. As part of a class trip, students were able to collect sounds from different places with a digital recorder. They also used sound meters to measure sound pollution and mapped this out using the SonicMaps app.Footnote 2 This helped to generate significant reflection regarding the way spaces are transformed by sound. The activity was conducted using several appsFootnote 3 and websitesFootnote 4 that were used as references and amplifiers for the students’ work.

3.5. Sound postcards

Finally, we propose making a sound postcard. A first idea is to choose a favourite soundscape and take a photo. This can be a domestic, urban, natural, industrial space. Once the type of landscape you want to use is decided, 20 characteristic sounds of that environment are recorded and uploaded to Acouscapes. It is interesting to make different sound paths. When you have one that you particularly like, you record it. You can also play with imaginary landscapes manipulating those same sounds with Acouscapes’ effects. When you have the sound results, you can upload that sound creation to an online platform for sharing music (e.g., Soundcloud). Once uploaded, copy the URL and search for a free page to generate a QR code of the recording. Then, the design of the postcard is started. The photo or photomontage is placed on the front, and on the back, space is left to write about the sound experience, along with space for the image of the postage stamp and the QR code. Once the postcard has been made, it could be shared with someone and they can be invited to share their own proposal as well.

4. CONCLUSIONS

Acouscapes has been designed to be used in the process of creation and experimentation of soundscapes. It has a simple interface that facilitates the user an immediate experience with sound. In terms of educational theory, it has been conceived as an open learning tool based on social constructivism (Vygotsky Reference Vygotsky1978). In other words, as an artefact that mediates the construction of meanings between people, meanings that are the product of social interaction (Blumer Reference Blumer1986).

Working with soundscapes in educational contexts provides an enormous potential for the development of creativity and is the reason for its incorporation in the classroom. Sound has an enormous capacity to evoke past experiences that are part of our connection to a place, a community and its culture. Beyond a concept where it is reduced to natural environments, the soundscape is multidisciplinary in that it brings together disciplines and compositional styles that take references in a wide variety of sound contexts. People are surrounded by sounds, and we create music shaped by our experience of the world. Sound is mediated physically, socially and culturally. It is a way of knowing the world: through sound, we experience accumulations and turn them into phenomena, appropriating them and interpreting them in context through the attribution of meanings that are constantly negotiated with others.

Acouscapes fills a gap in music classrooms in terms of specific digital tools for the didactic approach to soundscapes. Its design could facilitate creative work by enhancing new sound-based approaches (Landy Reference Landy2007; Holland Reference Holland2015) that start from and reinforce the imaginative action of the students.

Within some of the possible activities that can be carried out with Acouscapes, it is interesting to address the exploration and collection of sounds from the environment and personal spaces. This would allow a deeper understanding and knowledge of the diversity of ecosystems and would enhance better listening. In relation to the recording, editing and experimentation processes, the software will allow users to know particularities of sound and its available options by exploring manipulative possibilities through the control panel. This type of activities allows the generation of imaginary soundscapes. Other curricular areas such as art or literature could facilitate the integration of these landscapes in the creation of new products linked to sound stories, such as podcasts about sound experiences. Likewise, immersion in composition processes can bring new student-centred strategies and reinforce the creation of authentic learning communities based on a type of collaborative, situated and peer-to- peer learning.

Finally, it is important to highlight that acoustic awareness through soundscapes would be aligned with the sustainable development goals of the 2030 agenda: life of terrestrial ecosystems, climate action, sustainable cities and communities, and health and well-being (United Nations 2015a, 2015b).

Thus, all these elements can bring multidisciplinary value to education in general in addition to reinforcing the importance of artistic areas as tools for transformation and social reflection through a creative approach to soundscapes.

Acknowledgements

This study is part of the project ‘Design, construction and validation of a new experimental musical instrument for the 20th century: Towards participatory and creative citizenship practices’ (GV/ 2021/136) funded by Conselleria de Innovación, Universidades, Ciencia y Sociedad Digital, Generalitat Valenciana, Spain.

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Figure 1. Programming decisions of the Acouscapes software in the MAX programming language.

Figure 1

Figure 2. Main interface for Acouscape.