Sound and vision blog

4 posts from June 2014

30 June 2014

An Oral History of Wildlife Sound Recording

Over the past few months we've been working on a very special project that sets out to record and document the fascinating experiences of British wildlife sound recordists, from the scientist to the hobbyist, and everyone in between. Interviews with Wildlife Sound Recordists explores all aspects of wildlife sound recording, from childhood memories and early encounters with nature to changes in recording technology, recording expeditions and the role natural sounds have played in the lives of our interviewees.

Inspired by the British Library's Oral History department and following on from the wonderful Interviews with ethnomusicologists collection, launched last year by colleagues in World and Traditional Music, this initial foray into the world of oral history has cemented a new-found appreciation in the wildlife section for the importance of collecting personal accounts. Already evolving into an important and unique resource for both present and future generations of researchers, this collection will provide great insight into areas such as the history of sound recording, natural history broadcasting, the scientific field of bioacoustics and how lifelong relationships with nature can be formed through the medium of sound.

Despite having only 7 interviews under our belt so far, connections are already beginning to emerge, whether that be in the form of similar experiences, shared friendships and colleagues or a likeminded approach to the subject.  In equal measure, the interviews also demonstrate the various ways in which our interviewees have found themselves involved with wildlife sound recording.

David Tombs pic
Former BBC sound recordist David Tombs with a homemade microphone

Two of the interviews shed light on the academic life of a wildlife sound recordist, with primatologist Dr David Chivers and anthropolgist Professor Simon Bearder lending their stories to the collection. The field of bioacoustics, or the study of acoustic communication in animals, has been an important strain of zoological research for decades. From the early experiments of Professor William Thorpe, who demonstrated through the analysis of sound recordings that birdsong is learnt rather than inherent, to the discovery of new species and even improving our understanding of the evolution of human language, this area of science has significantly increased our understanding of the natural world.

Recording the experiences of scientists working in this field is one of the key aims of this project. In the following extract, Professor Simon Bearder describes his early involvement in the study of Bushbaby vocalisations at the University of Johannesburg.

Simon Bearder_early research into Bushbaby vocalisations

One of the most important interviews in the collection is with the co-founder of the British Library's wildlife collection, Patrick Sellar. A lifelong fascination with sound coupled with a deep love of nature and a good level of dogged determination saw him become a key figure in the wildlife sound recording community, both in the UK and beyond. Here Patrick speaks about the formation of the British Library's collection of wildlife sound recordings with BBC radio producer Jeffery Boswall.

Patrick Sellar_formation of the British Library's wildlife collection

Patrick also speaks about what he has learnt from a lifetime of wildlife sound recording.

Patrick Sellar_lessons from wildlife sound recording

Two of the interviews cover the experiences of former BBC sound recordists. Here Nigel Tucker recalls a BBC expedition to the USA to record the voice of the north American songbird Phainopepla with fellow recordist David Tombs.

Nigel Tucker_recording expedition to the USA

Field recordist Mark Peter Wright, our interviewer for the project, describes how an oral history training course at the British Library sparked an idea that has proven to be an incredibly effective tool in encouraging recordists to recount specific recording experiences:

Following a classic oral history method of having the participant talk around a physical photograph, I decided to try something similar through sound. I asked each recordist to prepare sound files from their archive that were in some way memorable to them. During the interview we would playback these recordings and talk through the audible and non-audible contexts behind the record.

For me, this process was one of the most insightful and fascinating experiences of the project. Playing back sounds from a personal archive whilst the recordist recalls memories from the experience felt, to me, like a very active use of archival material. It brought past and present into one space as recordists literally spoke with and through their recordings and memories.  

In the following clip, former BBC sound engineer David Tombs plays a recording of Red-throated Divers in Shetland while discussing his memory of the experience.

David Tombs_Red-throated Divers

The 7 interviews presented today represent just the beginning of what we hope will be an ongoing oral history project. Over time, Interviews with Wildlife Sound Recordists will develop into a comprehensive collection offering unique and diverse accounts of a genre of sound recording that has contributed so much to scientific research, education and a greater appreciation of the natural world.

23 June 2014

They seek him here, they seek him there: citizen science and the hunt for the New Forest Cicada

If you happen to be in the New Forest over the next couple of months, why not take part in an ambitious citizen science project that seeks to track down the last remaining individuals of a species of insect that is on the verge of extinction in the UK. The New Forest Cicada Project, developed by researchers at the University of Southampton, embraces the citizen science philosophy with its smartphone app that uses the internal microphone of your phone to scan the surrounding environment for the high-pitched calls of this most elusive of insects, the New Forest Cicada. The British Library provided recordings for the project and I spoke to Lead Developer, Dr Davide Zilli to find out more about this entomological call to arms.

What is the New Forest Cicada project and why was it launched?

We started the New Forest Cicada Project back in 2012 at the University of Southampton. We are trying to involve people in rediscovering the very endangered New Forest Cicada, an insect native to the UK that has only ever been observed in the New Forest, Hampshire (hence the name). It's actually the only species of cicadidae we have in the UK, but if you have been abroad to a warm country, cicadas will have kept you awake during the summer with their loud call. Our British cicada, however, emits a very high-pitched sound, at the upper edge of our hearing range, and for this reason it's almost impossible for adults above the age of 40 to hear it. It's also very elusive, so the best way to spot it is actually to listen to its call, if you can hear it. And that's where we come in. Modern smartphones have a very sensitive microphone that can pick up this high frequency call, so we developed an app that can help the millions of visitors to the New Forest to detect the presence of the cicada, and hopefully one day to rediscover its presence in the forest.

How does the app work?

For the user it's really easy. When you tap the centre of the screen, the app starts a 30 second "survey", recording the sound coming through the microphone. After that time, it analyses the recording and tells you immediately whether there is a cicada around or not. An algorithm on the phone looks for a specific frequency in the recording, around 14 kHz, that's characteristic of the cicada call and few other sounds. There are only a couple of other insects that the call of the cicada can be confused for, and we take those into account in the algorithm we have developed. Once the phone is connected to the internet, it will also send us a report so that we can send an entomologist for a detailed survey, should a cicada be found. We are also interested in the negative reports, as it's almost just as important to know where the cicada is certainly not present.


Recordings of New Forest Cicada from the British Library were used in the development of the app. Were these important and how were they used?

Absolutely. In fact one of the recordings from the British Library, which was taken in 1971 by an entomologist called Jim Grant, is still the only recording of the cicada we have from the New
Forest. We have plenty more sounds of the same species from elsewhere in Europe (some of which we recorded ourselves), but this is the only one of the actual New Forest Cicada. The sounds were used to study the features that we could exploit for our automated detection, and eventually to calibrate our algorithm to detect the cicada.

Cikáda chlumní - Cicadetta montana
The New Forest Cicada, Cicadetta montana, the only species of cicada to occur in the UK (photo courtesy Jaroslav Maly)

How important is citizen science to the project?

The New Forest covers an area of over 600 km2 so it would be impossible for the few entomologists that are still searching for the cicada to survey it all. That's why we developed the app. The large number of visitors (13 million day-visits, according to the New Forest National Park's website) can be much more effective in surveying new sites where the cicada could have moved. This involvement of the general public in scientific research is often referred to as 'citizen science', and it's a practise that has delivered great results in a plethora of different projects. For people to get involved, however, the project must be fun and engaging, and it's great if there is a learning experience (in this case discovering about endangered species), which is what excited us in the first place.

Have you had any success so far?

Yes and no. The app was downloaded over 2000 times worldwide last year, and more than 6000 reports were submitted by users. Unfortunately none of these reports were positive, and the cicada has not yet been rediscovered. It's a great success that so many people contributed enthusiastically, but we need to continue our efforts until the cicada is found.

What improvements might you make to the app to improve results?

We are confident that the app works because we tested it in Slovenia, where the same species of cicada is still present. Entomologists are using it there for their own professional surveys too. However, we think we can do more to encourage people to participate, and to explain why it is important that we protect the environment. The cicada is evidence that citizen science is a powerful tool that can be used to tackle these sorts of problems.

Are you confident that the New Forest Cicada is still out there?

There is no real reason why it would have vanished. There have been periods in the past (for example, between the 40s and the 60s) when no one observed the insect and it was thought
to have been extinct, but was then found in different areas. Some people think that a recent change in grazing policies could have changed its environment. Enclosures around the historic sites where the cicada used to be found have prevented ponies from grazing freely, and the low vegetation where female cicadas lay their eggs has now overgrown. However, it seems more likely that the
cicada would have just moved to a different site, and it's therefore now more difficult to find. So we think that it's still around, but as the years pass it becomes more difficult to keep our hopes up.

If you would like to join the hunt for the New Forest Cicada, visit the project's website as well as your app store to get yourself ready for action. Who knows, perhaps you'll be the one to rediscover this magnificant insect?

11 June 2014

Inspired by Flickr: Jez riley French

Geology is at the heart of our latest Inspired by Flickr contribution. Out of more than 1 million images, field recordist and artist Jez riley French was drawn to a simple line drawing of a piece of chalk, found amongst the pages of the 1883 publication 'The History of a Lump of Chalk, etc' by Alexander Watt F.R.S.A.

I’ve long been fascinated by the musicality of non conventionally ‘musical’ forms: photographic images, the sound of places, objects and species, architecture and, of course, language. I often read, for example, certain poetry for the internal music the words create, often slipping adrift from their literal meaning. So, how could I ignore ‘The History of a Lump of Chalk’ by Alexander Watt - coming across its illustrations whilst browsing the British Library’s Flickr pages, especially as i’ve recently been gathering material, new and from my archives, for a series of pieces entitled ‘dissolves’ and including several recordings of chalk and various minerals in flux.

For me focusing on what is at first an overlooked detail of a locale can always offer up a rich and vast supply of information, inspiration and experience (visual and sonorous). The illustration i’ve selected from the book also appears simple - an academic, technical rendering of a mineral, yet the clear use of line and space offers other possibilities. For me there is a strong analogy here with ‘field recording’ - it is possible to approach it from only a technical outlook / technique, and yet to do so is a kind of poverty - a lack of connection and an intuitive, emotive response. Put simply, listening is more that that, as also a lump of chalk is more than its human chemical categorisation, and a drawing of it can be the line, the ink, the texture and age of the paper - or in the case of a digital archive, the viewing of it is in the context of the time spent exploring and all that it brings.

The small lump of (coombe) chalk used on the accompanying recording was dissolved in east yorkshire. The entire recording is several hours in duration, with the sound eventually becoming thinner and thinner. The section here is from the first 10 minutes of the process.

After you’ve read this and listened to the recording I strongly advise you to download the pdf of Watt’s book - the layout of the cover is worth it alone: though be advised that reading through the pages (or just the glossary for that matter) one can be easily diverted

asparagus stone  |  babbingtonite  |  iceland spar  |  fluor spar  |  calc-tuff  |  puzzolene  |  chaonite  |  corn brash  |  oolite  |  greensand  |  marl  |  foraminifera

Words that seem as clear and at the same time as elusive as the materials they refer to. 


(coombe) chalk dissolve

A strong advocate of the importance of listening, French encourages an active participation with the recording. To do so reveals a wealth of subtle acoustic effects, otherwise hidden within the seemingly homogeneous sound of the chemical reaction.

As many readers will know, chalk dissolves when placed in certain solutions - for some of us this was first observed during science lessons at school. If only we’d been able to listen to the results as well as see them! At first what appears to be uniform - a chemical reaction, certain and measurable, is in fact an incredible chorus of variables. A slight shift in ones openness to the act of listening and one is transfixed, listening more closely, becoming more and more aware of the different sonic events - some returning and some barely audible just once.


Using intuitive composition, field recording, improvisation and photography, Jez riley French has been exploring his enjoyment of detail, simplicity and his emotive response to places and situations for the past 3 decades. Alongside solo performances and exhibitions he collaborates with other artists, runs the ‘in place’ project on field recording – a subject on which he also lectures, organizes the ‘seeds & bridges’ event series and runs the ‘engraved glass’ label.
In recent years Jez has been working extensively on recordings of surfaces and architectural spaces, some results of which make up the ‘ silence’ project and has also been developing the concept of photographic scores.
His work has been performed, exhibited & published widely, including in France, Austria, Japan, Korea, the Czech Republic, UK and Belgium.

03 June 2014

Gothic Adventures in Sound

Thunder. Crashing waves. Eerie screams and cries. These are just a few of the natural sounds that have been provided to students participating in this year's Off the Map competition. The competition, organised by the British Library, GameCity and Crytek, challenges videogame design students to create 3D explorable environments, using Crytek's CRYENGINE software, inspired by digital content from across the Library's collections.

Rolling thunder - recorded by Eric & May Nobles

A gothic theme was specifically chosen for this year's challenge to tie in with the Library's upcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: the gothic imagination. Maps, images, texts, architectural plans and, for the first time, sound recordings  were selected by curators across the library in response to the following subthemes: the gothic splendour of Fonthill Abbey, the coastal town of Whitby with its links to Bram Stoker and Edgar Allan Poe's short story The Masque of the Red Death.

A view of the coast by Whitby. By Francis Jukes, 1811 (c) British Library Board

A view of the coast by Whitby. By Francis Jukes, 1811 (c) British Library Board

Waves - recorded by Paul Duck

A show and tell event, held at the Library earlier in the year, gave students the opportunity to explore additional collection items, learn about issues surrounding audio copyright, ask questions and meet the teams behind the competition.


Students viewing collection items at the Off the Map Gothic show & tell event

A few months later, our student teams are beginning to show the fruits of their labours, with a series of blogs, renders and flythroughs that are absolutely fascinating to follow. The sheer amount of effort that is being expended in their entries is fantastic and, for curators such as myself, who scoured the Library's collections for suitable content, to see the material being used is incredibly exciting.

The Flying Buttress is just one of our teams, comprising second year game design students from De Monfort University. The team have made good use of the assets provided, incorporating several British Library sounds into the soundtrack of their Whitby inspired level. One such sound was a woodland atmosphere, recorded in the dead of winter, by British wildlife sound recordist Richard Margoschis. A blustery wind, gusting through trees, accompanied by the harsh cries of Carrion Crows, produced a suitably bleak ambience. Team member Ben Mowson describes how he combined this raw recording with other assets to create the level's outdoor atmosphere:

In the first area, what you can hear is an excerpt from Mozart's String Quartet in C Major, Mvt 1. It's in the public domain, and I really like the discordant, mournful start the piece has. I took the first 20 or so seconds, slowed it down by around 120% and lowered the pitch, to give it a more ambient and subtle effect. This was then mixed into various sound effects from, and a few tracks from The British Library website. The overall effect was to have the classical piece be blown to the player by the wind.

Woodland in winter - recorded by Richard Margoschis

Whitby Abbey outside ambience - Ben Mowson

The level flythrough, combining both visuals and sound, demonstrates just how effective a carefully thought out soundtrack can be when trying to evoke a certain mood.


Whitby Abbey flythrough - The Flying Buttress

Other student teams working on the challenge include the aptly-named The Poefessionals who have built a level based around a manor house full of references to gothic literature, and Owls in Towels who have created a rainswept, clifftop environment.




Renders from The Poefessionals gothic-themed manor house


On the Rocks flythrough - Owls in Towels

Getting the sound right is crucial when trying to create a specific atmosphere. Remove the soundtrack and, though the visuals clearly help set the scene, the overall impact would undoubtedly lessen. The immersive nature of sound facilitates the generation of a tension necessary to acquire the full attention of the user and from what I've seen so far, our student teams have embraced this philosophy wholeheartedly.


The winning entry will be announced at the GameCity9 festival in October