Today I want to offer my thanks to a nameless collection of audio nerds. Armed only with DAT recorders and patience, and maybe some Mojo bars and sports drinks, and, I don't know, tents and blankets, I guess, these are the dedicated hobbyists who have provided a company named Urban Apps with the raw materials for a great product called Ambiance, newly arrived for the desktop. (It's also available for iOS, Android and Blackberry.)
Ambiance is, more or less, a slick front end for an audio archive called The Freesound Project, but it adds tons of value. It gives you the capability to download (for free) a large number of high-quality ambient audio clips, arrange them in playlists, and play them back in any order you choose. You can set them to shuffle and loop, and set a timer so the sounds fade away after a given period. The variety of clips on offer is staggering, and goes way beyond the usual waves and showers. As I write this I'm listening to a clip called "Sonoran Desert," which features the dry whisper of wind over sand, bird sounds and -- alarmingly -- what sounds like the rattle of a rattlesnake really freakin' close. This has the vestigial effect on my ancient fight-or-flight response of making me want very badly to choose flight, which is probably the exact opposite of the restful effect the developers were seeking, but never mind. If that isn't your cup of noise you can choose from rural sounds or urban sounds (I love "NYC Rooftop," which perfectly captures the attenuated whoosh of a city street overheard from a high roof). You can pick from sounds of static, sci-fi sounds, the sounds of various kinds of machines, sports, environments and a bunch of more arcane choices, including a clock shop, somebody endlessly clicking a pen, and -- this one I really don't get, because it's the exact sound that almost prompted me to murder my neighbors when I lived in New York -- the sound of a TV playing through a wall. Whatever floats your sonic boat, I guess. The app is beautiful, works great on multiple platforms (it runs on Adobe AIR) and is a dead steal at $9.99. It's a supermarket of sound, right on your desktop.