THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Digital scholarship blog

15 August 2019

Creating Geo-located Digital Sound Walks

A few months ago, here at the British Library we held an interesting Exploring with Sound Walks event, that discussed digital projects that connect literature, sound recordings, place, technology and walking. Several digital tools were mentioned by the presenters at this event, so this post, by Marcin Barski, is a practical guide for creating geo-located sound walks.

We hope you are inspired to create your own walks, listen to sound walks, vote for your favourite (you need to be logged in to vote), and maybe attend one of the Sound Walk Sunday events taking place on the 1st and throughout the month of September 2019. If you can easily travel to London, you may also be interested in attending a Sound Walk Sunday walkshop in and around the British Library, taking place 10:00-13:00 on Saturday 31st August.

Man standing next to a tree, wearing headphones and listening to a sound walk experience
Image copyright Stefaan van Biesen

Over to Marcin for his advice on creating sound walks:

Let's start with some basic definitions. A sound walk is any activity that involves both walking and some form of listening. Listening is a much broader term than most of us would ever suspect. It can basically relate to the very act of giving attention to sound, but if we focus on details we soon realise that, as much as it happens mostly involuntarily, in certain circumstances and contexts we can direct it at the topics or phenomena that otherwise would have been lost in the very rich audiosphere that incessantly surrounds us.

It's rather important to understand that those topics and phenomena do not necessarily need to be of audial nature. Using pre-recorded sets of narratives, spoken word or studio-engineered music, we can make our audience aware of stories normally hidden from sight.

In recent years several tools have been developed that help sound walk artists, educators and creators place sounds in exact locations. Once placed, we need to tell our audience how to find and experience them. This can be achieved by voice instructions, QR codes or most commonly (and conveniently) by using mobile apps that determine the user's position via GPS and trigger sounds in the exact locations where we would like them to be heard.

Below you will find a quick guide on how to start creating your own geo-located sound walk, along with descriptions of some of the tools that can make the process smooth and stress free.

  1. Know your subject

The very first thing you will need to do is to decide what story you want to tell. Do you know it well enough already, or is there a need to do some research? Is the story self-explanatory, or will you need to explain some or all details to your audience? And - actually, maybe the first question to ask - is it a story at all? Some sound walks can be based on natural recordings and music only, meaning the whole covered area changes its character without a single word.

Once your story is ready, decide how it should be conveyed to your audience. Do you prefer to tell the story yourself, or maybe it will be better to find and interview other people with significant knowledge of the topic? Creating a sound walk can sometimes be similar to working on a radio piece, in which important elements are delivered by experts or insiders. Will you need to record everything yourself or is it possible to find archival sounds that would add something valuable to your content?

  1. Choose the area

In the next step you will need to decide what area should be covered with your sounds and narratives. Would you like the sounds to be located only in the described and meaningful locations, or would you prefer to have the whole area covered with some more or less abstract background recordings? In the latter case, you need to take into consideration that the larger the area, the more sounds will be needed to fill all the silent spaces.

Bear in mind that your audience will most likely experience your piece by foot, hence the distances between the particular spots should not be too large. The best results are achieved when distances between the sounds allow for smooth and undistracted strolling.

Remember to consider safety! Don't force your audience to walk in hazardous or restricted areas. They will be using headphones, so choose a route away from busy roads.

  1. Choose your tools

Each app you are going to use will come with specific requirements for the format or duration of your recordings. In most cases these requirements will be easy to meet, but make sure you are doing it correctly right from the beginning to avoid the hassle of file conversion or additional editing in later stages. You will find helpful descriptions of some of the available apps below.

Creating a geo-located sound walk can be fun not only for you, but also for others. Consider working in a group in which all of you have assigned tasks or subjects to cover. You will be surprised how much a socially creative activity it can become. Some people create sound walks with children, or with their local community groups.

  1. Recording and editing

We don't all carry high quality microphones in our pockets. Of course, if you want to create an audiophile experience, you will need to secure professional audio recorders and microphones, however technology is not a barrier anymore. You can even use your smartphone to make your recordings - their quality will definitely be good enough to record speech.

If you'd like to use background sounds, and you have no means of making the recordings yourself, there are repositories of sounds available on the Internet. Impressive collection of sounds can be found, for example, on the British Library's SoundCloud channel. You can also search at http://archive.org and http://freesound.org - which are available for you to use free of charge.

There's quite a number of open-source and free sound editing software on the Internet. If you're not a professional sound designer, most likely Audacity will be enough for you. It's easy to use and has all the features you may need. It's also quite popular so you will find many helpful tutorials online.

  1. Placing sounds

This is probably the most pleasant and at the same time the most challenging part of the work. Be prepared to spend hours in your chosen area and to have your patience tested. Although most of the apps allow for fairly accurate placing of sounds, you will need to test each single location yourself. Sometimes you will need to move a sound by a few metres, other times you will want to change the way in which two sounds interact with each other. Wear comfortable shoes and submit to the trial and error process. Despite the challenges, trust us, it's fun!

  1. Go public and advertise

Once you are sure that all of your recordings are out there and in the exact places you want them to be, you can make your walk public. In most of the available apps you can publish with just one click. And when it's public, don't forget to tell everyone to try it. It's very rewarding to hear back from your audience - you will realise how much your work has re-shaped their perception of the chosen space.

Person standing in front of a church building, they are wearing headphones and listening to a sound walk
Image copyright Stefaan van Biesen

Here is a list of digital tools and platforms available for making sound walks:

Echoes

Echoes gives you the freedom to explore breath-taking GPS-triggered audio tours wherever you are. With the Echoes Creator, you can quickly and easily upload audio, images, and text, geolocate them on the map, and publish them for the world to see. Just add shapes to the map, which create geofenced areas. These will trigger content when your listeners physically walk inside them.

Echoes is free to use and available at http://echoes.xyz

PlaceCloud

Placecloud's mission is to reveal the cultural significance of everyday places. To achieve this, they have invented something called 'placecasts', or place-specific podcasts: short audio recordings with GPS coordinates attached to them. Users can listen to them while being physically present in the places they refer to.

Placecloud keeps the process simple: many of the steps described above won't be necessary when working with this tool. By adding your recordings you become part of a wider community of 'placecasters'.

http://www.placecloud.io

VoiceMap

VoiceMap is a tool for digital storytelling in public spaces. It's designed for storytellers and passionate locals all over the world who can - in an easy way - share their thoughts and narratives about the places they live in. As a creator you can guide your audience around your city - and get paid for this.

http://voicemap.me

Locosonic

Similar to Echoes, Locosonic is designed for creating "movies for your ears" - as they call it. Locosonic Soundscapes link sounds, music and stories to a location. While exploring an area, you will hear the Soundscape that matches your location. Like an additional sense, Locosonic allows you to experience places through their stories and music.

http://www.locosonic.com

CGeomap

CGeomap  is a collaborative tool which allows people to work together on the same project. Very easy to use, it creates simultaneously an online map and a browser-based web app, geolocating audio, text and visual content, without the need to install on your device.

It is more limited in terms of sound than Echoes or Locosonic, but adds media to your walk, and generates simultaneously an online media map, accessible for all on desktop. An extra feature allows the user to shift, while walking, from one map to the other, activating up to three layers of content in one place.

Info: http://bit.ly/300hpMS

Aporee

radio aporee ::: miniatures for mobiles is a platform for (creating) sound walks. These are created and organised by a web-based editing tool and listened to with a mobile phone app, while walking outside, at the site where the piece is created for. In addition to the phone apps, a (prototype) browser-based web app is also available, without the need to install the app on your device.

https://aporee.org/mfm/


We hope you have fun making and listening to sound walks! Sound Walk Sunday events are taking place on the 1st and throughout the month of September 2019. One of them "Ecumenopolis – the whole world is one city", by Geert Vermeire, is being made for walkers around the British Library London, the State Library of Moscow, the National Library of Greece and the City Library of Sao Paulo, so we can't wait to listen to this work.

This post is introduced by Digital Curator Stella Wisdom (@miss_wisdom) and Andrew Stuck from the Museum of Walking.  Many thanks to Marcin Barski, curator, music publisher, sound and installation artist, co-founder of the Instytut Pejzażu DźwiÄ™kowego (Polish Soundscape Institute) for writing this practical guide to creating sound walks.