THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

14 posts categorized "Technology"

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.

11 December 2015

Audio-Visual Resources and The Academic Book of the Future

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In early 2015 I was fortunate enough to catch Bex Lyons giving a presentation on The Academic Book of the Future. This is a research project sponsored by the British Library and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and delivered by a research team led by Dr Samantha Rayner at UCL. The project seeks to explore the future of academic books in the context of open access publishing and digital change.

ABF

Aside from the fascinating debates about what constitutes ‘academic’, what constitutes a ‘book’, and what an ‘academic book’ might be in the current research landscape – I was struck by the potential applications of the project to the collection I am vested in at The British Library: sound.

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The British Library sound archive is an extraordinary collection of over 6.5 million recordings dating back to the birth of recorded sound in the early 19th century. If you were to listen to our entire collection back to back, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with no holidays or breaks, it would take you over 140 years – plus the collection is growing daily! It is a unique research resource, comparable only to the Library of Congress sound collections in the USA. Find out more about our collection here 

Sound recordings are the closest thing to time travel that we have as a research tool. Take for instance this audio clip of JRR Tolkien visiting a tobacco shop. We are instantly transported to 1929 when the recording was made, and it is easy to feel that you are being addressed directly. The time that has passed between then and now seems to vanish. (image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/brizzlebornandbred/12255828365)

The Save Our Sounds project

Professional reel-to-reel player being maintainedMany of the British Library’s recordings are under threat of disappearing as technologies change and some formats begin to naturally decay, and in response to this challenge the Library has launched a major campaign to digitise our historic sound collections.

As well as enabling us to future-proof our collections, the Save Our Sounds campaign is a unique opportunity for us to take stock of our role as audio heritage archivists, cataloguers, librarians, and collectors. Part of this includes considering access and the ways in which our collections are used by researchers. It is here, at the crossroads of research and engagement, that linking up with The Academic Book of the Future project becomes very exciting.

At the moment, if an ‘academic text’ includes audio or visual resources these tend to be included as DVDs, CDs, and perhaps even CD-ROMs (yes, they are still floating around out there!). As the technological landscape of the world changes, the ability to access and play CDs, DVDs and most definitely CD-ROMs will become increasingly limited. From the initial survey work that has been done for the Save Our Sounds project, the main preservation concern is not that the recordings themselves are at risk of disappearing, but the obsolescence of the playback equipment.

So, how will audio-visual resources be included in academic books of the future?

In current and emerging contexts in which content is increasingly digitised and media-rich, how will the ability to incorporate audio-visual research directly into research outputs change the way in which these outputs are created, accessed, and referenced?

We hope that working with The Academic Book of the Future project to address some of these questions will offer important insights into how researchers are using sound and moving image resources, and highlight common issues and concerns across disciplines.

If you are or have used sound and/or audio-visual materials for research do please complete our short survey. The closing date is Friday 1st April.

A symposium has been arranged to discuss the findings of the survey & hear presentations by publishing houses, app developers, and researchers. The symposium will address and encourage discussing ways of working together to fully explore the potential of audio-visual components in the academic book of the future. Save the date – 23rd May 2016 at The British Library, London.

Find out more about Save our Sounds at www.bl.uk/saveoursounds, follow @SoundHeritage for live updates from our digitisation studio, @SoundArchive for tweets from the sound team, and use #SaveOurSounds to join the conversation on Twitter.

Steven Dryden - Sound & Vision Reference Specialist 

18 August 2015

Sounds of Steaming ‘Doon the Watter’

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Steve Evanson is a Co-Creator of Coast, the hit BBC TV show that celebrates our love affair with the UK shore.  Coast has run for 10 years, becoming a global brand with Coast Australia and other spin off series.  As we pass the midway point of the Sounds of our Shores project, Steve shares a day trip down the Clyde in classic Victorian style, and reveals his favourite coastal sounds.

I was a student in Glasgow in the 1980’s, but only recently did I realise a long cherished ambition - a voyage down the Clyde on the world’s last sea going paddle steamer, the PS Waverley.   

The tradition of a trip ‘Doon the Watter’ began in 19th century when Clyde-built steamships first started to ferry Glaswegians on excursions out to the Western Isles. Stopping off at the charming resort towns like Largs and Dunoon, the Clyde then widens out to open sea as the Isle of Bute comes into view.

The majestic scenery speaks for itself, but what makes this a truly magical experience for me is the rhythmic sound of the steam driven powerplant. 

Built by Rankin & Blackmore Engineers, at their Eagle Foundry on the Clyde, the prime mover of the Waverley is a 2100 horsepower, triple expansion steam engine, gloriously open to full public view.  Crowds gather to savour the sound and smell of this wheezing beast as it effortlessly drives the massive 18-foot diameter feathering paddle wheels.  

Muscular pistons propel the ship at a surprisingly brisk top speed of around 20 mph, but that still leaves plenty of time to indulge in a ‘wee swally’ in the bars below deck. Booze has always played a part in these cruises along the Clyde. In 1853 the Forbes MacKenzie Act outlawed the opening of Scottish pubs on a Sunday. However, pleasure craft were exempt, so thirsty workers flooded onto the cruisers on their day off, and the floating bars have been busy ever since.  Heavy drinking on the steamships is said to be the origin of the phrase 'Steaming Drunk', shortened in Glasgow simply to ‘Steamin’.

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After a couple of hours in the bar, Victorian drinkers disembarking on the Isle of Bute were relieved to find, right on the quayside, probably the most magnificent toilets on our coast. The majestic Public Conveniences on Rothesay seafront have been restored to their full porcelain glory. The Gents are a sight to behold - women and children are welcome to explore too for the price of ticket.  The thundering roar of ‘The Deluge’ chain flush loo now echoes around empty ornate urinals. But once the mighty whoosh of The Deluge drowned out the sighs from generations of grateful Glaswegian shipyard workers standing in stalls. 

The sounds of the working coast aren’t the beautiful calls of nature you’ll find on windswept cliff-tops or secluded beaches, but that’s why I take those noises of humanity to my heart.  They speak to me of our relationship to the sea, how we’ve made it our home and it’s nurtured us in return.

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Now we’ve been given the chance to vote for our favourite sound of the coast, so please listen to the wonderful Top Ten contenders put together here.

Much as I love the melancholy call of the seals or the clattering chatter of the Kittiwakes, my vote goes to ferries on the Mersey…

The bells and horn sounding in the fog are both a warning and a comfort, a reassurance and a call to adventure.

Please vote for your own favourite from the Top Ten before 27 August 2015 … make your vote count!

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/soundsofourshores

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Sounds of our Shores is a three month collaborative project between the British Library, the National Trust, the National Trust for Scotland and audioBoom Ltd, running from 21st June to 21st September 2015. 

26 May 2015

The Imitation Archive Part 2: making music from the sounds of the world's first computers

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Between January and March 2015, Matt Parker was artist in residence at The National Museum of Computing, Bletchley Park. The residency, which was supported by the Arts Council England’s Grants for the Arts Scheme, was an audio archiving project that resulted in the production of 116 unique audio recordings of some of the world’s most historically significant computer technologies. Within the collection are sounds of the world’s oldest original functioning digital computer, the Harwell Dekatron (also known as WITCH), a faithful replica model of the world’s first digital computer, Colossus and a replica model of the electromechanical decryption device the ‘Bombe’, designed by Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman. In the first of two posts, Matt wrote about developing The Imitation Archive and his experiences during the residency period. His final post looks at producing a catalogue to accompany the archive and using the raw recordings of historic machines to create musical compositions.

Producing the Archive

Having recorded for many days, fighting against the elements of heavy rain, snow and school trip groups, I set upon the task of cataloguing the material. During the recording period, I was careful to speak into each microphone before recording a particular device, announcing what I was recording. I kept the file names constantly updated with time and date so I would be able to follow what happened, when and where, and I tried to record everything as a 96 kHz 24 bit .wav. I took photos with my smartphone for reference of each item and tried to take higher quality pictures with a camera where possible. A thorough reference of microphone placement and signal path was important to the accuracy of the recordings.

I went through each recording, cropping out the noise of setting up and spending as much attention as possible on listening to the main activity or process that the recording was set up for. I tried to record as cleanly as possible, but in some cases it was necessary to clean up the recordings with a bit of EQ and multiband compression; nothing that would alter the core character of the recording at this stage, just faithful archival replication.

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Atvidaberg Facit-Model No. C1-19 Mechanical Calculator (photo courtesy of Matt Parker)

In some cases, I recorded with a few options, for example a stereo, mono, and transducer setup all in one multitrack recording. I was wary in the recording process to be careful with phase alignment so I was effectively able to fade between different microphones. I think there is an interesting question to be asked with the notion of subjectivity with the recording process here. How important is it to capture the object as one hears it? How clinical should a recording be? Is there any point in capturing recordings of things that can’t really be heard naturally by the human ear? Do we want to shut out the architecture or environment that an object exists within?

In the case of The Imitation Archive, I felt that it was important to capture ambient recordings of the objects within the space they occupy in order to demonstrate their presence within a particular environment. It seemed like a pertinent decision, and one worth making, given that I was to record Colossus which is set up in a room where the machine was actually used during the Second World War. In the studio, it felt like perhaps I could play with these sounds to find the most interesting combinations sonically. 

Heath Robinson

Heath Robinson codebreaking machine (photo courtesy of Matt Parker)

Composing the Archive

As a composer, I wanted to find an interesting way to work with this new ‘sample library’ of material. More than just working with the archive in this way, I wanted to draw on the themes and experiences of the recording process; the museum, the objects, the themes around the very concept of producing The Imitation Archive.

One of the key things that struck me was the constant durational aspect of these machines. Many of them were designed to run 24/7 without fault or interruption, performing repetitive cycles. I felt that this would be an interesting idea to explore so I chose to focus on the machines in operation as much as possible; the work cycle, the operational cycle. I also decided to make the composition seamlessly flow between sections, a never ending cycle of computing.

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I was also very much drawn into the historical narratives of machines at Bletchley and found myself wanting to reflect the architectural relationship with the sounds as much as possible by playing with impulse responses of the rooms (made using a balloon pop so not an exact science!) and convolving the sounds of the recordings with the space impulse response itself. I used impulse response as a filtering method, locating fundamental frequencies that peaked within the recordings. I would push and emphasise these frequencies to turn the machines into instruments playing their own unique keys. I thought it was an interesting discovery to find how some of the fundamental frequencies tended to harmonise with themselves. Some of the machines such as WITCH, Bombe and Colossus have very distinctive mechanical rhythms, and it seemed to make sense to play with this as much as possible. Their repetitive rhythms would occasionally break from the cycle and create a surprise extra half beat or other micro-beat. Overall, I hope I have given a sense of what it might be like to work with these machines day in day out, in different environments, as well as draw on their relationships with the space in the museum as it is today. Similarities and differences all punctuated through a musical composition. 

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Conclusions and Future Plans

My experience of producing The Imitation Archive has given me a sense that there is much more to explore in the world of computer and technological sounds. I have been working on a further project that is specifically looking at the relationship between modern IT infrastructure, the latest, cutting edge technologies in computing and their architectural habitats.

As I begin to explore the sites of our contemporary internet landscape from a technological infrastructure perspective, new questions are beginning to emerge; how do we reflect the shift from desktop PCs being the locations of our digital content to placing everything in a mobile networked ‘cloud’ system? What are the environmental relationships between these new palaces of a digital world and their local habitat? As computers become increasingly prevalent in our day to day activities, smart devices, the internet of things, connectivity to remote machines, have all changed our relationship with digital technology. Can sound illuminate for us anything about this somewhat abstract and increasingly estranged relationship? My work in this area can be seen on my project website www.thepeoplescloud.org. As I continue to develop this research, I will be starting to produce a PhD at The London College of Communication in September within the Creative Research into Sonic Arts Practice department (CRiSAP).

Working on The Imitation Archive has been a fascinating opportunity for me to consider the historical impact of computing on culture and society. In the future I hope to find out more about the impact of computing on culture and society within the contemporary moment.

The Imitation Archive was supported by Arts Council England’s Grants for the Arts scheme and is available at the British Library (collection C1679)

 

15 May 2015

The Imitation Archive Part 1: recording the sounds of the world's first computers

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Between January and March 2015, Matt Parker was artist in residence at The National Museum of Computing, Bletchley Park. The residency, which was supported by the Arts Council England’s Grants for the Arts Scheme, was an audio archiving project that resulted in the production of 116 unique audio recordings of some of the world’s most historically significant computer technologies. Within the collection are sounds of the world’s oldest original functioning digital computer, the Harwell Dekatron (also known as WITCH), a faithful replica model of the world’s first digital computer, Colossus and a replica model of the electromechanical decryption device the ‘Bombe’, designed by Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman. In the first of two posts, Matt talks about developing The Imitation Archive and his experiences during the residency period.

Project foundation

In August 2014 I produced an audiovisual installation titled The Cloud is more than Air and Water. The installation was concerned with the claustrophobic sound of the IT Data Centre. Through original footage and field recordings, the piece was composed to demonstrate some of the key issues related to the dislocation between user and machine in the ‘Cloud’ age of computing. Having focused my work on the modern environments of computing for almost a year, I began to think increasingly about the historical narrative behind computing; how the environments and relationships between users and computers have shifted over what is a relatively short period of time. This led me to the discovery that there isn’t a comprehensive archive of sounds of computers in existence (at least not in the UK).

It has been argued that perhaps computer sounds are not really that distinct from any other electromechanical machine. There is whirring, clicking, buzzing. Much of the noise is really made by the cooling units rather than the processors themselves. I had begun to wonder myself whether the sounds I was looking for might not really be all that distinct, however when I arrived at Bletchley, the sounds of computing turned out to be wide ranging and unique in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

Harwell Dekatron Computer (WITCH)

Harwell Dekatron Computer aka WITCH, manufactured in 1951 (photo courtesy of Matt Parker)

Harwell Dekatron Computer (WITCH) performing a regular addition sequence

Planning the recordings

After having some initial discussions with Stephen Fleming, the PR Manager for the National Museum of Computing and a couple of the museums volunteers, I prepared a list and rough plan for a full week’s worth of recording at the museum, creating slots for each of the major devices and grouped slots for some of the smaller featured devices.

One of the best things about the museum is that there isn’t anything in the public collection that’s there just to be looked at from behind a Perspex screen. It’s one of the really important aspects of the museum’s value as all items are either fully restored or in the process of restoration. Functionality is critically important to the museum; after all why would you just look at a computer (some of the early machines do look phenomenal though)? The very purpose of a computer is that it performs a task, which they all do with accuracy and reliability that makes the reliability of my middle of the road smartphone look pretty embarrassing.

The volunteer pool is large and made up of hardware and software computing engineers, many of which are retired. They are all enthusiasts. They speak in a language that understands computing; they refer to Boolean logic as if it’s common vernacular and discuss the virtues of machine code over software defined interfaces. It’s a fascinating environment where each volunteer contributes their expertise towards the restoration of unique machines. Some are fascinated by the wartime codebreaking machines, the pioneering devices that are said to have reduced the length of the Second World War by six years. Others are absorbed by the mechanics of early era networked systems, giant tape reels and hard drive disks the size of a tractor’s back tyre. Others meanwhile find themselves fascinated by the early PC era, when the initial boom of Silicon Valley hit, when the UK was a powerhouse of the computing industry, battled out between Sinclair, Amstrad, Acorn and their US competitors at Apple and IBM.

Colossus-The Imitation Archive

Working replica model of Colossus, the world's first electronic computer (photo courtesy of The National Museum of Computing) 

Colossus performing series of calculation sequences

The residency recording period

From the first day of arrival, it was clear that my initial schedule was not going to run fully to plan. A challenge with programming this kind of activity is disseminating this information to a broad volunteer group and to gain their understanding about what I would be trying to achieve.

On my first day of recording, I setup extensively within the Tunny Gallery, home to a replica Tunny Machine, a series of analogue radio receivers, teletype machines and the restoration project for a Heath Robinson machine (a precursor to the Colossus). The volunteers were very happy to assist with my recordings, patiently waiting for me to setup various microphone configurations and placements. I’m very happy with what I captured. When a microphone is in a room it picks up sound from all corners. As is often the case with recording in spaces with people in them, it doesn’t occur to mind that perhaps any sound you make, any movement, heavy breath, *whispering*! will be picked up by the microphone! Achieving silence in the space for more than two minutes would be an almost impossible task!

Creed 7B Teleprinter typing out the poem 'The Owl and the Pussycat'

I started to schedule sessions at night, after the museum had closed, which was the only way to have guaranteed quiet! One of the unique intricacies of the museum is the synchronised clock system throughout the building. There are two original Bletchley Park mechanical clocks in the entrance hallway which sound incredible. Their recording makes it into the archive as it is a critical feature of the building. Every 30 seconds, throughout the entire block, a clicking thud occurs, synchronising the clocks around the museum together. Every 30 seconds… a recording is interrupted by synchronising clocks! It became a highly significant aspect to the experience of recording, inescapable and sometimes, when you forget that it happens, late at night in a dark corridor, it was shocking!

I decided to work with recording key features of as many objects as possible. This turned out largely to be demonstrating the boot sequences or the turning on of a device, carrying out a basic task with the device and switching the device off. As was the case with the clocks in the museum, other devices that were not digital computers were also making interesting sounds and so, as it was there, I recorded these as well. This saw a lot of time working with mechanical comptometers and other analogue programmed mechanical calculators.

Grimme, Natalis and Company mechanical calculator

Matt’s next post will discuss cataloguing the Imitation Archive and residency outputs including musical works composed using the raw recordings of Bletchley Park’s historic machines.

The Imitation Archive was supported by Arts Council England’s Grants for the Arts scheme and is available at the British Library (collection C1679)

19 February 2015

Creating a Directory of UK Sound Collections: An Update

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Digital technologies have transformed the ways in which we create and store recorded sound.  Until recently, sound recording and reproduction has relied on media like tapes, discs and cassettes, and the technologies to access those media in appropriate ways.  Today, these media have been replaced with digital storage systems, allowing us to create recordings in greater numbers, to store them more efficiently, and to provide access to them more effectively.

But this transition from physical to digital highlights one of the key issues facing custodians of recorded sound collections: as older media disappear and industry support for replaying them evaporates, how can we ensure that sounds remain accessible to future generations?

A degrading cellulose nitrate lacquer disc in the collections of the British Library

A degrading cellulose nitrate lacquer disc in the collections of the British Library

Professional consensus internationally is that we have approximately 15 years in which to save our sound collections by digitising them before they become unreadable and are effectively lost. These risks face all recorded sound collections, across the country; from home recordings to professional archives.

 

Just this month, internet pioneer Vint Cerf was widely reported as warning that digital information can too easily be lost because accessing it may require specialised software unavailable in the future.  This is something which presents a challenge to the digital preservation of many media. Fortunately, for audio, this problem is - to a degree - solved: digitising a sound recording to an internationally recognised, standard file format (in this case, WAV) aids longevity, because the file structure is well documented and simple to understand.

Save our Sounds

On 12th January, the British Library launched a new initiative titled Save our Sounds: a vital programme recognising the risks facing the nation’s sound collections, and the urgent need to preserve our recorded heritage.

One of the major aims of this programme is to digitally preserve as much as possible of the UK’s rare and unique sound recordings; not just those in our collections but also key items from partner collections.

But digitisation takes time, and preservation planning on such a scale requires a clear understanding of the extent of collections; their subjects, uniqueness, and – importantly - what formats they are held on.

Surveying the UK’s Sound Collections

To help us understand the risks faced by the UK’s recorded heritage, the British Library is running a project to create a Directory of UK Sound Collections.  Through a nationwide survey which continues until 31st March 2015, we have set out to reach and encourage as many collection owners as possible – from individuals with personal collections to large institutions – to send us information about the recordings they hold.

Graph showing numbers of items identified, per format
Graph showing number of items identified, per format

The responses received since the launch of our project have provided a fascinating insight into the types of collection holders in the UK, the breadth of the subjects that their collections cover, and the formats they are held on. With this information, we can build a clearer picture of the state of the nation’s recorded sound collections, the risks they face and the scale of the task ahead, if they are to be saved.

To date, we have received information on more than 320,000 items, from wax cylinders and lacquer discs to CD-Rs and MiniDiscs.

The recordings on these items cover a range of subjects, indicative of the diversity of the UK’s collections, including:

  • Vast collections of oral histories, including interviews with nurses, veterans, evacuees, women potters, Jewish refugees, London dock workers, taxi drivers and policemen, travellers, immigrant communities, Yorkshire dalesfolk, and theatre workers.
  • Home recordings made on wires and wax cylinders in the early part of the 20th century
  • More than 15,000 UK shellac discs of British dance bands and early jazz recordings
  • Recordings of English and Scottish folk musicians, from the mid-20th century
  • Sound art and experimental music from the 1960s to the present day
  • Representative collections of classical music performances on shellac disc
  • Speech and dialect recordings, calendar customs and traditions from across the UK
  • BBC and Radio Luxembourg transmissions, including light music programmes from the 1950s and 60s, and personal collections from radio broadcasters and producers working in the UK
  • Street noises and environmental sounds
  • British bird song recorded in the field
  • Interviews with and performances by composers, musicians, authors and politicians, including Winston Churchill, J.B. Priestley and J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Recordings of speeches, conferences, ceremonies, lectures and events from throughout the 20th century
Graph showing collection subjects, by type
Graph showing collection subjects, by type

Of course, there are many more collections out there, and we’d love to hear about them. We'll be publishing a summary report later in the year, and advice on caring for your collections.

So, if you have a sound collection – or even a single item – that you would like to add to our directory, please get in touch.  And promotion really is vital to the success of our project, so if you know someone who might be interested, do pass the message on.

You can follow the British Library Sound Archive on Twitter via @soundarchive and tag with #SaveOurSounds

The British Library’s Directory of UK Sound Collections is one of the first steps in our Save our Sounds programme; one of the key strands of Living Knowledge, the British Library’s new vision and purpose for its future.