Fighting Chatter with Chatter

Just heard about a little piece of software called ChatterBlocker that offers an assortment of background noise to help you tune out distracting sounds. While the advertised use is for shutting out annoying office-mates, there’s obvious applications for those of us who work out of even less controlled environments like cafes.

Chatterblocker, which is Windows-only, doesn’t seem to do anything terribly high-tech — for instance, cancel noise like those expensive headphones, or respond automatically to increases in volume around you — it simply plays sounds determined to be non-distracting. After getting panned by Slashdot readers last weekend, the company reduced its price from $40 to $20. That’s still an awful lot for some generic sound files, but hear me out.

What caught my interest was the headline of this CNET Crave post on the ChatterBlocker from earlier this week: “Make your co-workers sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher.” You see, in addition to new-agey nature sounds and ambient music loops, ChatterBlocker also offers an “anti-chatter” category made up of indistinguishable voices designed to cover up the distinguishable ones piercing through your concentration. It’s called “walla,” similar to the “WAH WAH” generic adult talking noise of Charlie Brown’s teacher.

From the FAQ:

The anti-chatter voices are helpful at masking speech, especially louder conversations. These tracks consist of many people talking at once to create a background “walla” or chatter sound. This sound is effective at covering up unwanted speech, but it is less distracting because you can not understand the individual words.

Select one or more tracks (low-pitched male voices, medium-pitched female voices, etc.) that seem to do the best job of masking the unwanted conversation. The anti-chatter voices can also be used in conjunction with the Music and Sound Effects of your choice.

By themselves, the anti-chatter tracks can be somewhat annoying. You may want to reserve them for masking louder conversations. You may also want to play them at a lower level than the music or nature sound tracks.

If nothing else, I’ve learned a new word — walla — defined as “a sound effect imitating the murmur of a crowd in the background.” And I also found out that Charlie Brown teacher voice was created by “a trombone, with the use of a plunger as a mute.” Wait…I thought this was supposed to be about minimizing distractions!

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