THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

19 posts categorized "Technology"

16 December 2017

Christmas carols from Turing's computer

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Following the viral response on the internet to Jack Copeland and Jason Long's 2016 blog concerning their restoration of the world's earliest surviving computer music recording, the pair's follow up is in two parts: (1) they explain how they resurrected the authentic sound of Turing's long since dismantled Manchester computer, by reconstructing two Christmas carols that the computer played in a BBC Radio broadcast in December 1951, and (2) they examine and clarify the competing international claims to the title of World's First Computer Music.

Jack Copeland FRS NZ and Jason Long write:

Listeners to BBC radio heard an utterly new sound in 1951 — a computer playing music. Among its Christmas fare the BBC broadcast two melodies that, although instantly recognizable, sounded like nothing else on earth. They were Jingle Bells and Good King Wenceslas, played by the mammoth Ferranti Mark I computer that stood in Alan Turing's Computing Machine Laboratory, in Manchester.

According to Ferranti’s marketing supremo, Vivian Bowden, it was "the most expensive and most elaborate method of playing a tune that has ever been devised". Bowden may have kicked himself for predicting, at this seminal moment, that computer-generated music had no future.  

Turing (standing) at the Ferranti Mark I console (Courtesy of the University of Manchester School of Computer Science)
Alan Turing (right) at the console of the Ferranti Mark I. Photo courtesy of the University of Manchester School of Computer Science

Seemingly nothing remained of the computer's short Christmas concert, apart from Bowden's brief description in his 1953 book Faster Than Thought. We realized, though, that we had everything needed to recreate the computer's historic performance of these carols, thanks to our recent research into other music played by the Ferranti computer.

Previously we restored a 1951 BBC recording of the Ferranti playing three pieces of music. One of the engineers present at that long-ago recording session, Frank Cooper, had squirrelled away a BBC disc, and this is believed to be the earliest surviving recording of computer-generated music. The three pieces on the disc were God Save the King, Baa Baa Black Sheep, and In the Mood.

The performances on Cooper's disc contained between them a total of 152 individual computer-generated notes. By manually chopping up the audio, we created a palette of notes of various pitches and durations. These could then be rearranged to form new melodies. It was musical Lego: endless new structures could be produced from these basic building blocks. The process of recreating the carols was not always straightforward, however. Sometimes the notes we needed were missing from the palette, since they did not appear in the three reference pieces. Missing notes had to be manufactured, first by calculating the closest frequency that the Ferranti computer could generate — it wasn't always able to hit a note exactly — and then shifting the frequency of one of the specimens in the palette to achieve a match (while trying, moreover, to keep the specimen's spectral signature the same, so as to maintain a natural sound). Another problem was duration: sometimes a note needed to be shorter or longer than the specimen in the palette, so we either pared the specimen down, or pieced together copies of it by hand.

We had to re-score each carol to fit the computer's needs, especially in terms of key and complexity; and our scores mirrored the three reference pieces in length and tempo. Then we selected notes from the palette and pieced them together to fit the scores. Some handcrafting was required to create a realistic performance. For instance, a fake-sounding "machine gun effect" was liable to set in if the score required the same note to be repeated several times, so we achieved a natural sound by piecing together different specimens of the same note, taken from different places in the restored recording. Every time we stitched a new note into the melody, we cross-faded manually: fading out one element while fading in the next gave the optimum sound quality when piecing the notes together.

Slowly, the computer's gutsy renditions of the carols reappeared. Play them and enjoy! But beware of occasional dud notes. Because the computer chugged along at a sedate 4 kilohertz or so, hitting the right frequency was not always possible. It's a charming feature of this early music — even if it does in places make your ears cringe.

At about this time, other primeval mammoth computers were also starting to find their voices. Bowden mentions that the Whirlwind computer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology played Bach fugues at Christmas time — 'much more highbrow' than the Ferranti's carols, he said.  

The pilot model of Turing's ACE in London, 1952
The pilot model of Turing's ACE in London in 1952. © Crown Copyright and reproduced with permission of the National Physical Laboratory

In London, too, the pilot model of Turing's Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) played Bach, possibly earlier than Whirlwind, using a loudspeaker set into its control panel. The pilot model ACE first came to life in May 1950, and by about February 1952 it was also "composing" — in a sense — its own music, using some special equipment designed by engineer David Clayden. The rising arpeggios of ACE's atonal music "gradually became more complex and faster, like a developing  

David Clayden
David Clayden. Photo courtesy of The Turing Archive for the History of Computing

fugue", until they "dissolved into coloured noise as the complexity went beyond human understanding", explained Donald Davies.[1] (Davies, originally Turing's assistant, was a driving force in the ACE project after Turing went to Manchester.)

For a long time, the history of early computer music was muddled. Reference works such as The Oxford Handbook of Computer Music stated that “the first computer to play music” was the Australian CSIRAC (pronounced "sigh-rack"). However, recent research has shown that this was most definitely not so.[2] We discovered that a predecessor of the Ferranti computer also played musical notes in Turing's Manchester Computing Machine Laboratory. This was the university-built prototype on which the Ferranti Mark I was based (and it was itself an enhanced version of Manchester's primordial "Baby" computer). Turing called it the "pilot machine", not to be confused with the pilot model of his ACE in London. The Manchester pilot machine was operational in April 1949, well ahead of the Sydney CSIRAC, which was partially operational in late 1950 — several months after Manchester's note-playing pilot machine had been switched off for the last time, in fact. 

CSIRAC: A CSIRO image
CSIRAC and its creator Trevor Pearcey in Sydney in about 1952. A CSIRO image

Unlike CSIRAC, though, the Manchester pilot machine seems never to have played a conventional melody. Turing used the synthetic musical notes as aural indicators of what was going on with the machine, like the beeps and bongs of today's mobile devices — whereas CSIRAC played honest-to-goodness tunes. It turns out, though, that CSIRAC can't even claim the distinction of being the first computer to play conventional music.

Our research has shown that an American computer called BINAC was making music before CSIRAC ran so much as a test program. BINAC, built by the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation in Philadelphia, was the forerunner of the famous Eckert-Mauchly UNIVAC — the Ferranti Mark I and the UNIVAC were the first electronic computers to hit the market, both in 1951. 

BINAC. Photo courtesy of the Computer History Museum
BINAC played music in Philadelphia in the summer of 1949. Photo courtesy of the Computer History Museum

When BINAC was completed, in August 1949, Pres Eckert and John Mauchly threw a party for the programmers and engineers. This featured a musical offering from BINAC itself. One eyewitness — a partying engineer named Herman Lukoff — described the event: “Someone had discovered that, by programming the right number of cycles, a predictable tone could be produced. So BINAC was outfitted with a loudspeaker … and tunes were played for the first time by program control.” 

The programmer responsible for creating BINAC's music-playing program — the first in the world, so far as we know — was Betty Snyder, later Betty Holberton. Recalling her intensive work programming BINAC, Holberton said: “I was on the machine 16 hours [with] 8 hours off and I slept in the ladies' room.” 

Betty Snyder. U.S. Army photo
Betty Snyder. U. S. Army photo 

And the title of the first music played by a computer? "Everybody was going to come to the party at the end of creating the BINAC", Holberton remembered; "Well, I thought I'd do something special for them ... an interpretive routine that would play music. All I could get out of that machine was an octave, so I played For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow."[3]

Our timeline for the origins of computer music places BINAC in the limelight, in mid 1949. The Sydney CSIRAC played its first tune a year or two later, and the Bach-playing ACE in London may have preceded it. In Manchester, the Ferranti computer performed its first melody in 1951, when Christopher Strachey wrote a program that blared out God Save the King (see our blog 'Restoring the first recording of computer music'). But as to the starting point of it all, the very first experimental computer-generated musical note was probably heard in Turing's Manchester laboratory.

References

[1] Davies, D. "Very Early Computer Music", Resurrection: The Bulletin of the Computer Conservation Society, vol. 10 (1994), pp. 19-21: http://www.computerconservationsociety.org/resurrection/pdfs/res10.pdf

[2] See Copeland, B. J., and Long, J. "Turing and the History of Computer Music", in Floyd, J., Bokulich, A. eds Philosophical Explorations of the Legacy of Alan Turing, Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science, 2017.

[3] Frances Elizabeth "Betty" Holberton in interview with Kathy Kleiman, part of "Oral Histories of the ENIAC Programmers", ©1997, by Kathryn Kleiman and the ENIAC Programmers Project, www.eniacprogrammers.org. Quoted by permission.

The authors

Jack Copeland

Jack Copeland is Distinguished Professor in Arts at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. His recent book The Turing Guide is a comprehensive and easy-to-understand guide to Turing and his work, and it contains further information about the Manchester computer and its music (Oxford University Press, 2017, pbk).


Jason LongJason Long is a New Zealand composer and performer, focusing on musical robotics and electro-acoustic music. He has carried out musical research at the University of Canterbury, the Victoria University of Wellington, Tokyo University of the Arts, and the Utrecht Higher School of the Arts.

 

04 December 2017

Recording of the week: Britain's first supercomputer

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This week's selection comes from Tom Lean, Project Interviewer for An Oral History of British Science.

It has been 55 years since the commissioning of Atlas at the University of Manchester in 1962, one of the world's very first supercomputers. Developed largely by the University of Manchester and Ferranti, the enormous machine was probably the second most powerful computer at the time and pioneered a number of innovations in hardware and software. Capable of processing about a million instructions a second and with over 670 kilobytes of memory, Atlas had as much computing power as several smaller machines, albeit far less than the simplest desktop machine today. It was said that when Atlas went offline, Britain lost half its computing power. Yet despite this awesome potential, only three Atlas computers were ever built. As Atlas's lead hardware designer Professor David Edwards recalled for An Oral History Of British Science, it was rather difficult convincing the sceptics that Britain even needed a machine that was so powerful:

We only need one computer for the country_Dai Edwards (C1379/11)

University_of_Manchester_Atlas _January_1963

The Atlas computer at the University of Manchester, 1963 (Iain MacCallum)

Visit the library's Voices of Science web resource to explore 100 life stories about environmental science, British technology and engineering from 1940 to the present.

Follow @BL_OralHistory and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

24 November 2017

“And we saw the thing had done a computation” - Geoff Tootill, 1922 – 2017

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Tom Lean, project interviewer for the National Life Stories collection An Oral History of British Science, remembers interviewing Geoff Tootill, electrical engineer and computer designer, who died last month.

  GCTca1950-will-be-M0002 croppedGeoff Tootill, c. 1950

Geoff Tootill was the very last survivor of the team which designed and built the world's first modern computer - the 1948 “Manchester Baby.” In 2009 he was also my very first interviewee for an Oral History of British Science, and over 18 hours of answering my novice questions with patience and dry humour, he influenced the way I've approached interviewing scientists ever since.

I'd never really thought before about just how far back into the past we can reach with oral history interviews. Yet there I was in 2009, talking to somebody about their experiences back in the 1940s. Decades years before I was born, Geoff was an electronics engineer doing secret wartime work on airborne radar at the secret Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) at Malvern.

I was impressed at Geoff's ability to recall the technical details of his work and the sophistication of the radar systems he and his colleagues developed with the primitive electronics of the day. Yet it wasn't all high pressure secret work - as a member of the TRE's Flying Rockets Concert Party, Geoff also built the electric systems for stage shows, and I realised that scientist's social lives often have an element of the technical about them.

Geoff Tootill - TRE's Flying Rockets concert party (C1379-02)

With the war over, Geoff went to the University of Manchester to help former TRE colleagues Tom Kilburn and Freddy Williams build the world's first stored program computer. The Manchester Small Scale Experimental Machine, better known today as the “Manchester Baby,” weighed a ton and was far from small. However, its fundamental architecture is still at work in the computer, tablet or smartphone you're reading this on.

021I-C1379X0002XX-0001M1Geoff Tootill, 2005 (reproduced by permission of the Manchester Evening News and Oldham Advertiser)

I spent hours talking to Geoff about building Baby, and the thing that has stuck with me most is how modestly understated he was about his involvement with this world changing development. It helped me realise that historic moments often only look that way with the benefit of hindsight. In the 1940s Geoff and his colleagues had little idea that computers would change the world, anticipating their major uses would be for weather forecasting and atomic energy calculations. The process of actually building the machine was a long process of iterative technical work before one day in early summer 1948 they, “saw the thing had done a computation.”

Geoff Tootill - building the Manchester Baby (C1379-02)

An Oral History of British Science is a national collection of interviews with over 100 leading UK scientists and engineers, telling the stories of some of the most remarkable scientific and engineering discoveries of the past century as well as the personal stories of each individual. You can find out about interviewees and listen to extracts at Voices of Science and you can listen to full-length interviews at British Library Sounds.

National Life Stories is the UK's leading oral history fieldwork charity, based at the British library.

09 October 2017

Recording of the week: computer programming and motherhood in the 1960s

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This week's selection comes from Tom Lean, Project Interviewer for An Oral History of British Science.

Like many women in the 1960s, Stephanie Shirley left her job in the computer industry after becoming a mother. At the time, women were expected to cut short their professional careers and stay at home to raise the family, but this was not quite what Stephanie Shirley had in mind. In 1963 she started a company named Freelance Programmers, to allow women who had left the computer industry when they had children to continue working as programmers from home. In time, Stephanie Shirley's company grew to a major business employing thousands of people. However, at the start, with sexism rife, Stephanie Shirley had to go to rather unusual lengths to create a professional image, not least calling herself "Steve", as she recalls in this interview from An Oral History of British Science.

Stephanie Shirley_Programming at home (BL ref C1379/28)

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This clip is part of Voices of Science, an online resource which uses oral history interviews with prominent British scientists and engineers to tell the stories of some of the most remarkable scientific and engineering discoveries of the past century.

Follow @BL_OralHistory and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

Tom Lean will speak about the related An Oral History of Electricity Supply Industry project at ‘The Life Electric’, a British Library event on Thursday 19 October. Book your tickets here https://www.bl.uk/events/the-life-electric-oral-histories-from-the-uk-electricity-supply-industry

23 June 2017

Women in the Electricity Supply Industry

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23rd June is International Women in Engineering Day. To mark this we look at the role of women in the electricity supply industry, recently documented by National Life Stories in the project An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry in the UK.

In the 1920s and 1930s  the electricity supply industry was thought to offer opportunities for women engineers that were absent in other sectors and some of Britain’s pioneering women engineers including Caroline Haslett, Margaret Partridge and Beatrice Shilling worked in the sector. 

Despite this optimism the electricity supply industry documented in An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry in the UK was one that employed few women engineers, even after the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975.  Mike Kay, who started his apprenticeship at NORWEB, the regional electricity supplier to north west England in 1978, observed:

Mike Kay on the lack of women engineers in 1970s Britain

Being the first to appoint a woman engineer was something senior managers remembered with pride.  Glyn England recalled doing so during his time at SWEB, the regional supplier for the south west:

Glyn England on the appointment of a woman engineer as a chief officer

So what was it like for these women engineers entering a largely male working environment?  Alison Simpson studied electrical engineering at Queen’s University Belfast, secured work experience in a power station and participated in the Scottish Engineering Training Scheme before joining the South of Scotland Electricity Board in 1979 as a trainee in commercial engineering, which involved working with domestic and commercial customers to design and install electrical systems. The lack of women’s toilets at the company’s engineering training facility was an early sign of the discrimination she later faced.

Alison Simpson on sexual discrimination in the workplace

Eventually Alison managed to secure the job as a distribution engineer that she had sought at the outset. This involved working on the high-voltage distribution network and gave her access to a wide range of training courses. These including training in climbing poles and transmission towers that allowed her to appreciate the work of the line staff who kept the system running.

Alison Simpson on climbing electricity poles

Changes to the industry from the later 1980s, especially privatisation and the development of renewable energy sources, challenged its structures, leading to new opportunities for women with a range of expertise.  Lawyer Fiona Woolf developed an understanding of how power systems operated as a legal advisor to the Northern Ireland Electricity Service. This led to an appointment working for National Grid. She and her team wrote hundreds of agreements designed to ensure that a privatised industry really would keep the lights on, learning how to combine market rules with the laws of physics. (Listen to Fiona Woolf's interview on BL Sounds).

Fiona_Woolf_(cropped)Fiona Woolf (2014). Courtesy of  the Foreign and Commonwealth Office

More recently renewable energy companies have provided new opportunities for women, including in leadership positions. Juliet Davenport studied physics and environmental economics before working on energy policy. She worked as commercial director of the UK subsidiary of German energy company Unit(e) and was part of a management buy-out of the firm that later became Good Energy, of which she is currently chief executive. In her interview she suggests that her background in physics was important in establishing her credibility in an industry where some of the existing operators were struggling to adjust to the new ways of doing things that renewable energy represents.

Juliet Davenport on establishing her credibility in the renewable energy industry

Dr Sally Horrocks, Lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Leicester, and Senior Academic Advisor to the National Life Stories's project, An Oral History of British Science.

31 October 2016

Why do people sound funny in old recordings?

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One of the pleasures of listening to old sound recordings is the ability they give us to peek through the glass at another time. Re-experiencing another moment in time, in real time, is immersive and gives us an intimate sense of what life on the other side of the glass was like. Can we take this at face value though? Does our modern perspective affect what we perceive on the other side? I had the opportunity to test this recently, in a wonderfully maintained 1947 Voice-o-graph disc recording booth, located in the Songbyrd Café in Washington DC.

 

The voice-o-graph recording booth


Before magnetic tape recording technology came of age in the mid-1940s, very few people had the means to make a sound recording of their own, and nothing more than a gramophone to play one on. Disc recording booths appeared in the 1930s, and were commonly found wherever people might have free time & spare money, such as fairgrounds, piers and railway stations. During World War II they were often used to send audio letters to and from armed forces personnel, providing an innovative morale boost to separated families and friends.

The British Library has several such discs, some of which appeared in the recent BBC Radio 4 programme Keepsake For My Lover. Listening to them, there’s often a stiffness or formality which we frequently attribute to the times they were made in. Is that a fair reflection though? While I was fascinated by the technology, I was just as keen to understand the experience of the person making the recording, to peek through from the other side of the glass.

I decided to make a recording for my daughter, who hates being praised, and also has no particular interest in discs or recording (or this blog post, probably). By the time she’s old enough to be curious about the disc, I reckoned, she might also be willing to hear a kind word from her dad, especially if he’s not in the same room at the time. I turned up at the booth with a couple of friends who were as curious as I was about the process, but I was reluctant to let them in the booth with me, and a bit nervous about telling them so. One suggested filming me from outside the booth, which didn’t altogether calm me down, plus I hadn’t actually prepared anything, other than a lullaby I used to sing to her when she was a baby (and, incidentally, was itself learned from an old British Library sound recording, here, from 30 seconds in).  

  How to make a recording

The booth itself was very warm, the machine noisy as it readies itself to record you, and a giant black cloud of my own expectation hung over me. I had three minutes to fill, with no pause button, and no second chance if I mucked it up. I sang & then mumbled, with no clear idea if I was too loud or too quiet, too near or too far away from the microphone, desperately hoping that no-one could hear me while I poured my heart out. At the end I was literally shaking.

I could have prepared better I suppose, but didn’t want simply to read something out, and the rhythm of the preceding morning hadn’t allowed a moment of quiet contemplation before piling into the booth. All of which, I suspect, would be typical of anyone making this kind of recording back in the day. What I ended up with then, is a recording sounding just like it was made in the 1940s: reticent, a bit shy, sincere. As the radio programme and my experience made clear, it’s not that the people being recorded have changed, so much as the context and technology of sound recording. Life on the other side of the glass isn’t so different after all, it’s just the glass that makes it look that way.

29 September 2016

The future of radio: no. 2 - Matt Deegan

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The British Library is working with the UK radio industry to develop a national radio archive and has invited experts from across the radio and music industry to consider what the future of radio might look like.

Matt Deegan, September 2016 (Photo by Paul Wilson)
Matt Deegan

Matt is the Creative Director of the new media and radio consultancy firm Folder Media. Prior to this Matt worked in the Strategy and Development department for the GWR Group and GCap Media (now Global Radio). In 2011, with James Cridland, he created the annual Next Radio conference.

The future of radio from an audience development perspective

The media sector has seen a huge amount of change as the world has become constantly connected with high performance devices in everyone's pockets. This change has meant that some new media has replaced old media, but devices and connectivity have also extended the amount of time that people have to consume all sorts of content, new and old. Some forms of media have been better at coping with this behavioural change than others.

The big transition the most successful media companies have made is in better understanding consumer behaviour and making sure the content they produce is what people want to consume, delivered in a way they want to consume it.

Many legacy media operators confused the historic barriers to entry in their sector with a belief that they were making the perfect product for their consumers. If there's only one TV channel, it'll likely have 90% reach. That doesn't mean that everyone likes it.

Radio's history has been littered with pronouncements that the medium will be replaced – by television, CDs, the iPod, the Internet, mobile devices – the list goes on. In the UK though, radio has stayed remarkably stable with around 90% of the country consuming some radio each week, around a billion hours of radio each week in total. If anything radio's consumption has seen increases over the past few years, not declines.

My personal take on this success is that radio has always been quick to evolve. From cat’s-whisker receivers to transistors under the bed, from in-car sets to radio being available on a Walkman, from being part of digital television to being on a Nokia mobile (next to Snake!), and of course in streamed form on desktop and mobile apps.

Radio has used this technological progression to consistently launch more content to better serve listeners. The few AM frequencies were supplemented by FM and now DAB, taking people's station choice from 5 to 20 to 70. Alongside this there’s been an explosion in specialist jukeboxes online and through mobile apps.

On form, radio has also changed, from only broadcasting live to most stations now providing seven-day catch-up alongside downloadable material in the form of podcasts. As a platform, radio is also an aggressive user of social media with stations running strong Facebook, Twitter and now Instagram and Snapchat accounts. Radio’s liveness means it's been quick to adopt Facebook Live and Periscope. The fact radio is based on sound without pictures has always meant that it can be fleet of foot, something that positions it well as it adopts and occupies any new platforms.

The internet has often been seen as the destroyer of legacy media, though I think this is often inaccurate. The internet has heavily affected newspapers by decimating their key income drivers: classifieds and job ads. Newspapers were the best way to deliver this content until websites did a much better job. US print revenues declined from $44.9 billion in 2003 to just $16.4 billion in 2014 – a devastating structural change to that industry. TV and Radio have fared much better through a more solid control of platforms and distribution. For television, their content has become more highly valued with the explosion of new platforms like Amazon Video and Netflix. For radio, the internet is still a small part of distribution with most listening still happening on broadcast radio receivers.

Perhaps the greatest risk to the future of radio is complacency. Radio stations are so used to being listened to on radio receivers that they are ignoring the fact that they are badly consumed on some other platforms, particularly mobile. This is where radio's co-option of platforms has started to look a little shaky.

Radio stations have essentially taken the approach of transferring their existing linear product: expanding it to cover more formats and shoving it on new things. Mobile, though, seems to be a little more resistant to the Today programme and Chris Moyles' charms.

While linear radio is certainly available on mobile devices, data collected from radio operators around the world has shown linear mobile listening has plateaued. Where audiences are increasing it is for the more interactive services – services like Pandora (the internet radio streaming service currently available in the US, Australia and New Zealand with plans to launch in the UK soon).

The mobile is a complex device that can do lots of things. You have a much wider choice of content types to allow a more specific, tailored experience. The games that you choose, the videos that you choose, are not the same as everyone else. A mobile does not have the limits on content choice that a broadcast device has, so the types of media and types of content are split a number of ways. For radio broadcasters – who tend to be in the mass, non-personalised business – this makes mobile less easily conquerable.

For broadcasters, on-demand and mobile are still a very small part of listeners' consumption, and broadcast has remained reliably resilient. There is still little sign of this particularly changing. It would be quite easy for broadcasters to ignore mobile/on-demand and still be very successful and I'm sure we'll see many operators do just that.

The question for the future is can radio remain aligned with consumers as differentiated format and programming demands continue to increase. Netflix, YouTube and iPlayer are training consumers to pick and choose, self-scheduling content that appeals to them. Radio needs to continue its journey by allowing listeners to pick and mix its product to continue to satisfy these needs.

Products like Capital Xtra's app have already started to do this, allowing listeners to skip tracks from its broadcast streams and replace them with songs and content consumers better like. To achieve this requires shifts in how content is created, stored and distributed. It also means that stations have to re-think the priority that they give to live and the primacy that the linear product has.

For radio, unlike other media, it's not about thinking mobile first – potentially that would be disastrous – as for the foreseeable future that would still represent a small part of its audience. The best approach will be to think about audiences and content first, and then the means of distribution second. What is the piece of content, who is it for, what job does it do, and then how is it distributed and marketed to listeners to encourage consumption? Considering audiences and content first allows any broadcaster to support multiple products for different audiences. This is what’s needed to ensure radio's future multi-platform success.


The views and opinions in these blog posts are those of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the British Library.


Other blogs in this series:

The future of radio: no. 1 - Charlie Phillips

The future of radio: no. 3 - Paul Bennun

The future of radio: no. 4 - Nicky Birch

Listen to a special British Library podcast discussion of The Future of Radio

 

11 July 2016

Embedded Live

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Since autumn 2015, the British Library Sound Archive has hosted Aleks Kolkowski and Larry Achiampong as composers in residence through Sound & Music's Embedded Residency scheme. Larry and Aleks will be performing live on Tuesday 12 July at 18:30 as a way of showcasing their progress in the first half of the residency. You can book your free tickets here but space is limited!

Embedded is a Sound and Music creative development programme funded by The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and the PRS for Music Foundation which places composers from a range of disciplines into extended relationships with leading national organisations.

The 12 month residency is an ideal duration for the British Library Sound Archive to host artists, allowing them to engage with the rhythm of the archive, far from the immediacy with which the digital domain has accustomed us to consuming music. In an archive, the journey a listener takes with a sound recording – often on an analogue carrier – can be as long and circuitous as the initial route taken to make the recording.

In their collaborative live performance, Larry and Aleks will draw upon their respective explorations of the sound collections whilst also demonstrating historic sound recording formats, such as wax cylinders, 78rpm, acetate and vinyl records on phonographs and gramophones in combination with contemporary beat making machines and electro-acoustic manipulations.

 

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The artists have seen what takes place 'behind the scenes' during their residency at the sound archive

 

During the residency, Aleks Kolkowski has been focussing on early cylinder recordings and the Bishop Collection, which gathers the sound effects made for theatre by the Bishop Sound and Electrical Company which operated in Soho during the the 1940s and ‘50s. Kolkowski’s work engages with Save our Sounds, the Library's programme to preserve the nation's sound heritage by playfully employing analogue technology and obsolete formats in a contemporary setting. His impressions about creating work within the sound archive give us some insight into what sorts of sounds and artefacts he has been exposed to:

I was prepared for the vastness of the sound collections and familiar with some of the categories but there are always plenty of surprises, many brought to light by the curators. The quantity of home recordings, for instance, dating back to the early 1900s on cylinders is very impressive and are a delight to listen too, as are the domestic open reel magnetic tapes and acetate discs from the 1950s such as the A.W.E. Perkins Collection. To listen to these voices and sounds from the past is to experience social history brought alive. I am also very taken with the large collection of broken records that brings out both the audio archaeologist and the hands-on experimenter in me. I would love to spend time piecing these rare recordings back together and rescuing their sounds, or playfully rearranging them in the style of Milan Knízák’s Broken Music.

Larry Achiampong, an artist with a background in visual arts, has been developing a new body of work stemming from two previous projects, which explore his Ghanaian heritage. ‘Meh Mogya’, which means 'my blood' in Twi, a Ghanaian language, and ‘More Mogya’, meaning ‘more blood’, are the origin for his current exploration of field recordings from wider West Africa. He was particularly inspired by the selection of music present in the recent British Library exhibition West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song and will be re-mixing excerpts in his performance. As part of his residency, Larry participated in Ghana Beats, one of the ‘Late at the British Library’ events alongside artists such as Yaaba Funk and Volta 45.

 

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The Swiss-made "Mikiphone", patented in 1924, is the smallest talking machine ever placed on the market and is part of the sound archive's artefact collection

 

Beyond Embedded, the sound archive is committed to supporting the creation of new work by artists, composers, academics, record labels, and curators. Through annual opportunities such as the Edison Fellowship or one-off commissions, we guide listeners through our collections and enable new research and creative practices, such as with Hidden Traces. This installation functions as an audio map of the Kings Cross area, layering interviews with local residents and archival recordings from King’s Cross Voices interviews to create a narrated journey that reveals how the area has changed. Realised by choreographer and urbanist Gabriele Reuter and sound designer Mattef Kuhlmey, it was commissioned by The Place and supported by the British Library.

The British Library Sound Archive has been pivotal to various artistic productions since its origins in 1955 as the British Institute of Recorded Sound, including Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. In 1983, Martin Scorsese discussed ideas for the musical soundtrack of his film with musician Peter Gabriel, who recently described how the National Sound Archive was crucial to the creation of this soundtrack –

In my research for Passion, many people mentioned the wonderful resources in the NSA (National Sound Archive) and in particular introduced me to Lucy Duran, who both understood what I was hoping to achieve and made lots of great suggestions. Scorsese had asked for a new type of score that was neither ancient nor modern, that was not a pastiche but had clear references to the region, traditions and atmospheres, but was in itself a living thing. 

The soundtrack, which was further developed and released as the album Passion on his record label Real World Records in 1989, brought together Middle Eastern and North African traditions and included appearances by musicians like Baaba Maal, Jon Hassell, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Bill Cobham who were just becoming big names in the world music genre.

Peter Gabriel’s creative process for the soundtrack and album is captured in a compilation record entitled Passion – Sources, which was released shortly after Passion, also by Real World Records. This album includes the “sources of inspiration” – some of the recordings of traditional music he listened to at the National Sound Archive alongside location recordings made during the filming process. For Gabriel, the archive is still a relevant source of inspiration: “There is so much great stuff there, most of which you can’t reach by googling.”

The inexhaustibility of the archive makes it an ideal setting for creation, limited only by the time and patience it can take to search and listen through the sound recordings available. Through the Embedded residency the Sound Archive is able to support the creative process of contemporary artists, acknowledging the ways in which past works can be explicitly influential. The mobile process of creating original work is given new possibilities within the archive, a unique opportunity to work amongst one’s sources, and engage with them in greater depth. As the sound recordings in the archive are re-contextualised into new events and compositions, their meaning is extended and their historicity brought into the present.