24 June 2011
Listening to Britain
THE UK SOUNDMAP has now reached the end of its intended one-year gathering period. This post describes some of the patterns of time, place and subject which have emerged from among all the recordings we've received.
Everyday sounds from around the country
The UK Soundmap was launched in July 2010, asking people to record the sounds of their environment, be it at home, work or play. Since then, over 2,000 recordings have been uploaded by some 350 contributors.
The map above shows a good distribution of coverage from the Shetlands to the Channel Isles. Changes in recording density generally reflect differences in population density, which are also correlated with mobile phone signal coverage.
Around 80% of the UK Soundmap's recordings have been made using mobile phones. The other 20% involve a range of devices with handheld digital audio recorders being the most popular. Some others consist of very realistic-sounding binaural stereo recordings made with tiny microphones that fit inside the ears, a few have used industry-standard equipment, and there's one recording made with the help of an ultrasonic bat detector.
The number of successful uploads for each month, as shown in the graph above, suggests a possible cycle of seasonal variation. Fewer recordings were received when the weather was poor and the days short. Around 90% of the UK Soundmap's recordings were made during daylight hours.
If there are such things as successful uploads, then it's reasonable to wonder about the unsuccessful ones and how they came to be so. Around 7% of all uploads failed to make it onto the UK Soundmap. The most common reason was because a recording location hadn't been set by the contributor. Instances of deliberate exclusion on my part as editor included recordings which may have raised copyright issues, for example by having lengthy excerpts from pop songs in the recording's foreground.
Others were ruled out because of very poor audio quality, with excessive wind noise being the most common problem. A handful had strong swearing on them. This might seem fussy and decorous, since swearing is part of everyday speech, but we had no way of forewarning listeners of any particular recording that contained strong language.
But, overall, the low rejection rate underlines the great effort and goodwill shown by the contributors towards the project.
Where you recorded
An important part of the job of UK Soundmap editor has involved listening to every recording from start to finish and keeping detailed records for where and when each recording was made, the recording device used, and what the recording is of. Doing so has made it possible to compile descriptive statistics summarising the contents of the UK Soundmap.
The pie chart above shows how built-up urban areas have been the most common geographical setting, followed by a category combining residential suburbs and villages. Recordings came from seaside towns and more remote parts of the coastline nearly as often as they did from inland rural areas.This partly reflects how much coast Britain has relative to its area. More significantly, it shows how many of our contributors simply like the sounds of the sea or have wanted to share the sounds they've enjoyed hearing while on holiday.
This pie chart shows a more detailed summary of the kinds of settings our contributors were recording in. The category of 'street' conceals some interesting variation within it, with a disproportionate number of urban recordings made in pedestrianised streets, plazas and squares. That is, places where road vehicles can't go and traffic noise doesn't overwhelm every other sound. Here buskers can be heard playing their instruments with varying degrees of skill, proselytisers hold forth for religious or political causes, charity tins are rattled, and snippets of conservation pass by to dissolve within the universal hubbub of voices.
The popularity of the 'transport hub' category, which mostly consists of train stations, and that of 'libraries, museums and colleges' (this also includes art galleries), may partly reflect an attraction towards the particular sound qualities of echoes and reverberation. When there's been nothing happening to evoke them, some recordists have, fortunately, given in to the urge to call out or knock something to hear the resulting echo.
Slightly surprising was the comparative rarity of recordings made in the workplace. Most of these feature office environments. Few recordings were made in industrial workplaces and, partly due to limits on mobile phone coverage, few also came from moorland, forests or mountainous areas.
What you recorded
The human voice is the most common sound type, appearing in around half of all recordings. It does so in forms ranging from normal conservation, through cheering and singing, to amplified announcements over PA systems, and in radio and TV broadcasts heard in the background. Traffic noise appears in a fifth of the recordings. Birdsong is heard in 16%, footsteps in 15%, sirens, beeps and bells in 11%, and live music in 8%.
Of the four elements, water exerted the greatest fascination for contributors, and is represented on the UK Soundmap in all its common states. On the map you can hear the sounds of ice cracking on frozen ponds and people trudging through snow. Water can be heard sloshing about in sinks, rushing in fountains, canal locks and streams, falling as rain onto canopies and pavements, and crashing onto sand and shingle beaches. As steam it shrieks from coffee machines, sounds the whistle on singing kettles and pushes steam engines into motion. Fire meets water when a barbecue sputters beneath a bank holiday downpour, and the sounds of bonfires and fireplaces were added in the autumn and winter months.
Investigating all possible pair-wise correlations might sound intriguing, but for the most part it only yields some rather obvious findings, such as birdsong being heard in rural locations or how the cries of children and zoo animals usually go together. However, there is a slight increase in the likelihood that the recordist will speak whilst in what many might consider a pleasant or tranquil setting, and it is nearly always to express pleasure at what he or she can hear. The racket of machinery is also quite often recorded from people's gardens. Sometimes this seems to be a veiled complaint against a neighbour wielding a power-tool on what ought to be a peaceful afternoon.
Stored for the future
As I write, the process of storing all the recordings for posterity in the British Library is well underway. Soon they will form a permanent and accessible collection giving an idea not just of how Britain sounded in 2010 and 2011, but also of how its contributors wanted it to sound.
It has been a great pleasure working on the UK Soundmap. Many thanks to all of you who have added to the Soundmap and so made it possible.