THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

89 posts categorized "Soundscapes"

22 June 2020

Recording of the week: Underwater sounds from Cromer Pier

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This week's recording of the week comes from Emma Burman, Learning and Engagement Coordinator.

Having spent many a childhood holiday on Cromer Pier in Norfolk, you’d think I would know the sounds of the area well. However, having never been adventurous enough to fully submerge myself in the freezing East Coast waters, I was unaware of the beauty of its underwater sounds until now.

Cromer Pier
Courtesy of BurlyBullet via Pixabay

This Underwater recording from Cromer Pier captures the entrancing rhythm of the waves as they flow between the pillars of the pier. The sound of the swirling water moving weathered stones is almost orchestral, like a delicate percussion section, with tinkling xylophones.

Underwater recording from Cromer Pier

The ability to capture these underwater sounds is possible thanks to a device called a hydrophone. The modern hydrophone’s development can be traced back to the First World War, as scientists were developing methods to sense and reveal the bearing of enemy submarines. By the end of the war, Britain had thirty eight hydrophone officers and 200 qualified listeners. The hydrophone continued to be the sole method for submarines to detect targets while submerged until the introduction of the active sonar in the early 1920s.

Modern day recordists still use hydrophones to document and learn more about the underwater world. Sadly, through this research, they have identified that recordings are often ‘polluted’ by the sounds of human noise, which has now become a recognised global problem. Shipping noise has been shown to cause chronic stress in certain species of whales, construction noise has forced porpoises to leave feeding grounds and naval sonar can cause mass stranding of beaked whales.

One of the parts that stands out so much about this recording is the clash between the calm swirl of the natural waters and the metallic creaking of the Cromer Pier. To my ears, the pier didn’t seem like a ‘polluting’ sound in this musical underwater rendition. Nonetheless, this recording does highlight the question of how much our human lives impact upon the watery world below.

This recording was made by Peter Toll in 2012 and forms part of the British Library's wildlife and environmental sounds collection.

Discover more sounds from beneath the waves on the British Library’s Coast website.

UOSH

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

04 June 2020

Sea sounds

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Many of us find comfort in the sounds of the sea, particularly when we're feeling anxious, stressed or overwhelmed. Though it's not as easy as it was to just pack up and head to the coast, there are still always in which you can bring the sea to you.

The British Library has almost 400 recordings of waves in its sound archive. More if you count those recordings where they are just one element of a larger soundscape. Recorded on beaches and along coastal areas all over the world, these recordings demonstrate the sheer variety of sounds that the sea can produce. So many factors come into play here; the weather, type of coast, time of day, season etc. No two recordings of the sea will ever sound the same.

Below is a selection of some of our favourite recordings. So put on your sunglasses, grab an ice cream and let us transport you to the coast.

Gentle waves, Isles of Scilly, September 2009, Richard Beard (BL ref  163300)

Waves breaking on sand

Waves bubbling through rocks, Australia, November 2007, Richard Beard (BL ref 148677) 

Rocky coast

Waves flowing over seaweed, Republic of Ireland, August 1996, Nigel Tucker (BL ref 124878)

Seaweed

Lapping waves on Pak Bia Island, Thailand, March 2009, Richard Beard (BL ref 149165)

Small waves on a sandy beach

Waves breaking on rocks and shingle, New Zealand, February 2005, Richard Beard (BL ref 148299)

Waves breaking on a sandy beach with rocks

Some of these recordings were digitised as part of the Library's Unlocking our Sound Heritage project. The project has also created a new web space dedicated to the sounds and stories of Britain's shores. Visit Coast to discover more.

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

15 April 2020

Sounds of your world

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During this time where we’re cooped up at home, we’ll all be missing something. The big things go without saying. Family, friends, loved ones.

But what are the small comforts that you’re finding yourself longing for? Your commute. The bustling school gates. The triumphant thumbs-up when you find a free table in a busy pub.

While our buildings have gone quiet for now, our sound archive is still open, sharing with you recordings and stories from across our audio collections. And we’ve compiled a few sounds you might be missing, to give you a taste of what our archive has for you to explore.

Beautiful birdsong

Singing wren perched on a branch.
bearacreative/iStock/Getty Images

The merry tunes of our feathered friends follow us through all seasons. Wrens are a staple of British countryside, parks and gardens, particularly in spring. Listen to the beautiful song of a wren recorded in Culver, Devon – one of thousands of birdsongs in our collection.

Relaxing waves

Sandy beach with rocks and gentle waves.
naumoid/iStock/Getty Images

For thousands of years, humans have believed in the healing, calming powers of water. Check out this recording of rolling waves on the Isle of Mull, Scotland. You can listen to more vibrant and soothing sounds of Britain’s coastline at Sounds of our shores, the first ever coastal sound map of the UK.

Sound staycation

Hammock tied between two trees near a beach on a tropical island.
Marco Ramerini/iStock/Getty Images

Cancelled trip? Our World and Traditional Music recordings bring your holiday to your home. First up, be whisked away to an island paradise by a school choir in Suva, Fiji. Where will you go next?

It’s coming home

Raised hands in a football crowd.
ALFSnaiper/iStock/Getty Images

While the Premier League, Olympics and Wimbledon are on hold, you can still experience the atmosphere of supporting your favourite players. Feel the tension rise in the crowd with this recording of a football match in 1994 – will it be a goal?

20 January 2020

Recording of the week: Night in a várzea forest by boat

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This week’s selection comes from Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds.

Rainforests are noisy places, even after dark. This recording was made in one of the Amazon’s many várzea or floodplain forests, in the dead of night, by wildlife sound recordist Ian Christopher Todd. Based in a boat in the middle of the Amazon River, our recordist found himself surrounded by a cacophony of sound.

Night in a várzea forest recorded by Ian Christopher Todd (BL shelfmark 201326)

Giant Marine Toad

The rattling calls of Giant Marine Toads (Bufo marinus) can be heard alongside the calls of other amphibians. In the distance, unknown sounds emerge from the darkness beyond, creating a multi-layered soundscape. And, as with many recordings of this type, the more you listen the more you’ll hear.

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

13 September 2018

Listening to mammals with the Batek

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Coleridge Research Fellow Dr Alice Rudge writes:

The Batek are hunting and gathering people who dwell in the lowland rainforests of Peninsular Malaysia. During my fieldwork with them, I played  some recordings of mammal sounds which are held at the Library. Batek people have extremely detailed ecological knowledge of the rainforest, and this is reflected in their in-depth understanding of its soundscape. I therefore played them these recordings with the idea that hearing these sounds might inspire people to give additional vocabulary or information about these sounds, based on their extensive knowledge.

You can listen to the recordings below:

Siamang duet recorded on Sumatra by Ashley Banwell (BL ref 62323)

White-handed Gibbon calls recorded in Malaysia by Reg Kersley (BL ref 06512)

Clouded Leopard calls recorded in Thailand by John Moore (BL ref 128288)

Binturong calls recorded in Thailand by John Moore (BL ref 61103)

Not only were people aware of what the animals were doing in the recordings I played, but they also accompanied this with cultural information, as well as talking about the emotions that hearing the sounds evoked.

For example, people said that the siamang and white-handed gibbon in the recordings are all running away from predators. In addition, they pointed out that in the siamang recording, the low sounds are the males, but the higher sounds are the females. 

In response to the siamang and white-handed gibbon in particular, people also exclaimed that they felt haʔip ­- an intense feeling of longing, yearning, love, or desire, which is often felt in response to things that are considered beautiful.

Photo credit: cuatrok77 on Visual hunt /  CC BY-SA
Siamang; Symphalangus syndactylus


The beauty of these mammal sounds is reflected in people’s musical instrument playing. The siamang is a favourite sound to recreate on the mouth harp, and the white-handed gibbon is a favourite sound to recreate on the flute. 

However, as well as feeling haʔip,  the white-handed gibbon recording also prompted people to tell the story of the gibbon, including the gruesome part at the end where evil cannibals cook and eat their mother-in-law, which resulted in everyone falling about laughing.

manfredrichter at Pixabay
White-handed gibbon; Hylobates lar

People recognised the sound of the clouded leopard as the yah bintaŋ - yah means ‘tiger’ in Batek, and bintaŋ (or bintang) is the Malay word for ‘stars’, referring to the pattern of its fur.

Photo credit: bobdole369 on Visualhunt /  CC BY-NC-SA
Clouded leopard; Neofelis nebulosa

In the binturong recording, they said that the female binturong is ‘trying to attract male binturongs to mate with’ (ʔoʔ ʔajak tmkal ʔom cycəy).

Photo credit: <a href="https://visualhunt.com/author/e39fc3">jinterwas</a> on <a href="https://visualhunt.com/re/f48d28">Visualhunt</a> / <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/"> CC BY</a>
Binturong; Arctictis binturong

As is also the case for recordings of birds, using wildlife recordings of mammals in the field can therefore be useful for anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, or others who may be interested to find out more about how these sounds are experienced!

The Alice Rudge Collection of Batek recordings is currently being deposited and catalogued, and will be held under the shelfmark C1773.

09 July 2018

Recording of the week: exploding seed pods

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This week's selection comes from Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife and Environmental Sounds.

The soaring temperatures of summer can have explosive results, especially if you happen to be standing near a gorse bush. This thorny, evergreen shrub produces an unmistakable sea of bright, yellow flowers from January to June. As the flowers begin to fade, a mass of black seed pods emerge to take their place. Slowly but surely, the heat of the summer sun dries out these downy carriers until the structures burst open, expelling the tiny seeds enclosed within. The force of this explosion produces a sharp, popping sound, as can be heard in the following example recorded on the Isle of Wight by Richard Beard.

Exploding seed pods (BL ref 212269)

24921214482_051c505a74_bGorse seed pods (Photo credit: Starr Environmental on VisualHunt / CC BY)

This recording was chosen in memory of the field recordist Richard Beard (1953-2018) whose work in the wildlife section helped process hundreds of unpublished collections for more than a decade. Richard also contributed many thousands of his own recordings to the British Library, some of which can be heard in the Weather and Water collections on British Library Sounds. An oral history interview with Richard, conducted in 2013, can be found here.

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

03 May 2018

The value of mixed media collections

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The sound archive is home to over 250,000 wildlife and environmental sound recordings. Over 100,000 of these document the vocalisations of birds, while the sounds of other animal groups, such as mammals and fish, along with a growing collection of soundscapes, make up the rest. The collection covers both terrestrial and aquatic life and represents biodiversity from all over the world. It’s an internationally important resource that is constantly evolving as new recordings are archived for posterity. In a way it can be seen as a living memory bank of the sounds of our planet. The collection doesn’t end there though. Alongside these recordings can sometimes be found other treasures that complement their sonic siblings.

Recording equipment can form an important addition to a sound collection, especially when linked to significant technological breakthroughs in sound recording history. The John Hooper collection  (WA 2009/018), for example, includes a number of early bat detectors and associated equipment, including the first commercially available portable detector, the Holgate Mk 4, which was used to create the first comprehensive collection of British bat recordings.

Cropped HolgateThe Holgate Mk 4 bat detector

Common Pipistrelles hunting at dusk along the river Thames, recorded by John Hooper (BL ref 00305)

Though his name is not as widely known as it should be, Hooper was a key figure in the early days of using sound to study bat biology and ecology in the UK. Through the painstaking analysis of his recordings, conducted using a homemade oscilloscope, Hooper revealed differences in ultrasonic calls that were species specific. These variations in frequency and structure meant that bats could finally be identified by sound alone, which is pretty handy when you're trying to monitor animals that prefer to fly around in the dark.

Hooper documented his analysis by taking photographs of the sound traces produced on his oscilloscope. These images were then annotated and kept in photo albums usually associated with holiday snaps or family memories. With a focus on London bats, his work also helped rebuild post-war distribution records across the capital, rediscovering at least 4 species which were previously thought to have died out. Hooper’s efforts are all the more incredible when you consider that he was only an “amateur”.  His work as an industrial chemist for British Petroleum paid the bills, yet it was an unwavering fascination with bats that became his life's passion.

IMG_0076John Hooper analysing bat recordings in his studio

Cropped photo albumCommon Pipistrelle ultrasonic calls visualised on Hooper's homemade oscilloscope 

John Hooper’s collection of recordings, bat detecting equipment, photographs and documentation was donated to the library in 2009. As well as its own intrinsic value as an historical and scientific resource, the collection also serves as a testament to the rich British tradition of the amateur naturalist and their priceless contributions to our understanding of the natural world. 

Another notable collection is that of EDH "Johnnie" Johnson (WA 2006/03), an ornithologist and sound recordist who spent over 30 years making recordings across Europe, north Africa and the Indian subcontinent. During his lifetime he formed part of several international expeditions to remote regions of the world, helping document the flora and fauna of these largely unexplored areas. Alongside Johnson's recordings can be found daily logs, slides, observational diagrams and hand drawn maps. The following illustration is just one example of Johnson's meticulous recording keeping.
IMG_0072Hand drawn map of Morocco's Jbel Grouz mountain indicating topography & species encountered during an excursion on 22nd January 1968

Johnson's field notes, amassed over the course of his many expeditions,  are both scientifically valuable and pleasingly anecdotal, as can be seen in this excerpt from a log describing a ringing expedition to Algeria in February 1968.

'Great Grey Shrikes (L. excubitor) were found to be common and noisy wherever there were palms. Numerous territorial disputes were constantly in progress and we often saw three birds together in such squabbles. We began to notice numbers of partly-eaten dates impaled on the spines of the lower parts of the palm fronds. At first we thought that they were the result of chance spiking when dates had fallen from above, but this was soon ruled out by the fact that the spikes were, in any case, mainly horizontal, or nearly so, and the dates were spiked very thoroughly, after the manner of a cocktail sausage. At one time we saw a single shrike carrying a date. The positions of the 'larders' coincided with the favourite perching sites of the birds, in the lower parts of the crown of palm trees.'

Items such as those accompanying Johnson's recordings can help contexualise a collection, providing clues which allow us to retrace the footsteps, and thereby the experiences, of recordists who are no longer here to tell their stories.

Wildlife sound recordists are almost always absent from their recordings. No words of encouragement or praise for their recording subjects are required in order to achieve the best results. Silence and stealth is the name of the game here.  The flip side of this is that, unless the recordings contain spoken announcements, we know very little about the recordists themselves, other than their names. That's where photographs come in. A number of photographs of EDH Johnson were found in his collection, including the fabulous example below. Being able to put a face to a name isn't a necessity, but it certainly helps bring a collection to life. 

EDHJohnson_WA0603_imageEDH Johnson recording in the field 

There can be no doubt that sound collections are just as valuable as any other collection type. Though so much can be learnt from the audio alone, other ephemera such as equipment, field notes, photographs and letters bring with them stories that can help curators, and subsequently researchers, gain greater insight into not just the history and methodology associated with field recording, but also the people who made these recordings in the first place. 

Follow @CherylTipp  for all the latest news on wildlife and environmental sounds at the British Library.

16 April 2018

Recording of the week: a windy delivery

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This week's selection comes from Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife and Environmental Sounds.

It's not only letters, local newspapers and pizza flyers that pop through our letterboxes. Sometimes the wind can get through too. This can be heard to great effect in the following recording, made on a blustery January day in 2007 at the home of sound recordist Richard Beard.

Letterbox-1926493_1920

If you fancy listening to the gentle patter of rain or a spot of rumbling thunder, why not pay a visit to the Weather collection on British Library Sounds. Best bring a brolly though.

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