Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

16 posts categorized "UK SoundMap"

11 December 2015

Audio-Visual Resources and The Academic Book of the Future

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.


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.

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:

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, 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 

27 February 2014

London Calling

The sounds of London will soon be playing a key role in the second year of the EU funded project, Europeana Creative. The project itself seeks to encourage people working in the creative industries to re-use digitised content from some of Europe's most revered cultural institutions. The online discovery platform Europeana is at the heart of the project and features millions of items, from paintings and manuscripts to sounds and sheet music.

Panorama of the River Thames, 1730, The Wellcome Library (via Europeana)

One of the main aims of Europeana Creative is to create 5 prototypes, from educational games to teaching apps, which will demonstrate ways in which Europeana content can be transformed. The British Library and the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision have delved into their respective archives and pulled out thousands of recordings for the project's Social Networks enrichment prototype. In the coming months members of the public will be invited to enhance these sounds by adding images, text and links from Europeana and beyond. One of the themes, Cityscapes, will present a selection of recordings from two crowdsourcing projects; The UK Soundmap and Sound of the Netherlands.  The cities of London and Amsterdam are the focus of the theme, partly because they received the most contributions but also because the potential for enrichment is greater - a few of the British examples include:

Spinning Wheel in Yarn Shop, Bethnal Green

Speakers Corner, Hyde Park

The Wallace Collection, Manchester Square

Tate Modern Turbine Hall, Bankside

The enrichment process will not only give added depth to the sounds but will allow the formation of mini "exhibitions", each one dedicated to a particular recording and sculpted into shape by the public.

Original sound recordings, like those featured in the prototype can offer creative minds unlimited inspiration. Field recordist and sound artist, Yiorgis Sakellariou recently created an audio montage from recordings he made across London. This piece, complete with photographs and text, demonstrates just one way in which sounds can form the basis of a creative piece of work.


Since late 2012 I am residing in London. The city is loud and almost every day my ears are exposed to high decibel levels and a cacophony of incoming sonic information. However, the more I listen to these common sounds, the more I discover the extraordinary within the ordinary, the exquisite in the everyday.

The piece consists of recordings that took place throughout 2013 on several locations in London. The urban soundscape can provide a great variety of textures, sometimes hollow, others powerful. The calm atmosphere at Tottenham Marshes, the poly-rhythmic patterns of the escalators at London Bridge tube station, ventilation drones at Chinatown, bird songs mixed with distant traffic hiss at Dulwich Park...

Listening to the city's soundscape can become a submerging experience which helps me rejoice my daily routines and discover a new and profound sonic world.

Yiorgis Sakellariou January 2014

London - Yiorgis Sakellariou (5'06")




It will be interesting to see how Europeana Creative is able to inspire new ideas, new products and new ways of approaching and re-using Europe's collective cultural heritage. Stay tuned for more news on the enrichment prototype and how you can help us build this exciting new product.


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.

Final_mapRecording locations on the UK Soundmap

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.

Yearlong Number of UK Soundmap recordings added each month

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.

Pie_general UK Soundmap recordings categorised by geographical setting

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.

Pie_detailed UK Soundmap recordings categorised by location type

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.

Ian Rawes

 hashtag: uksm

10 May 2011

Binaural stereo on the UK Soundmap

Internet users reputedly love lists of the ten coolest or ten worst kind. A regular favourite is ten most amazing optical illusions, featuring diverse arrays of motion aftereffects, waterfall illusions, impossible staircases, and Kanizsa triangles.

Less familiar are auditory illusions. The University of California psychologist Diana Deutsch is responsible for discovering many of the more recent ones, and she's given them intriguing names like the titles of Robert Ludlum thrillers, including the Tritone Paradox and the Cambiata Illusion.

One auditory illusion which is now so familiar that it's taken for granted is stereo sound reproduction. Slight differences in the sound played by two speakers spaced apart conjure up what's appropriately called the phantom image, giving the listener the impression they're hearing a continuous soundfield curving in from the sides.

The stereo experience was once considered exciting enough for Count Basie to perform the piece Stereophonic, and for Cole Porter to write the song Stereophonic Sound for Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in the 1957 film Silk Stockings:

If Ava Gardner played Godiva riding on a mare
the people wouldn't pay a cent to see her in the bare
unless she had glorious Technicolor, Cinecolor
or Warnercolor or Pathecolor or Eastmancolor
or Kodacolor or any color
and stereophonic sound
and stereophonic as an extra tonic
stereophonic sound

Stereo uses differences between its channels to create the illusion of spatial sound. These can include timing, frequency and loudness, although not necessarily together. One technique which combines all three to produce vivid and realistic stereo images is binaural stereo, and some UK Soundmap contributors have been using it.

The phantom image of a good binaural recording is like the glass in Philip Larkin's poem Water in which 'any-angled light would congregate endlessly'. It envelops the listener to create a strong sense of being present at the recording itself. Individual sounds seem to come from precise locations all around.

To record in binaural stereo, a tiny microphone is placed either inside or at the entrance to each canal. In this way they're well positioned to capture the differences which off-centre sounds will present to each ear.

Sound waves from a dog barking to your left will be slightly less intense when they reach your right ear compared to your left ear. They'll also arrive at your right ear up to half a millisecond later. How the brain is able to detect such a small time lag is impressive, especially since even the fastest nerve impulses are propagated at less than a third of the speed of sound.

Lastly, the mass and shape of the shoulders and of the head itself, and the convolutions of the ear lobes, will all produce subtle changes in the frequencies reaching each ear. Our hearing of the world is never disembodied.

Drawbacks inherent to the technique have prevented binaural recording from being widely used. The apparent realism of the stereo image is degraded when played back over loudspeakers. Binaural recordings are best listened to using headphones. With that last caveat in mind, here are some binaural sounds from the UK Soundmap.

One early contribution featured Sheffield's tram system:

Sheffield tram

The county of Suffolk has yielded some good recordings, including these two by contributor ermine. First, the sounds of a game auction at Campsea Ash:


Next, the twittering of zebra finches at Stonham Barns:

Zebra finches

Binaural microphones are relatively cheap, with some pairs priced at well below £100. Although one giant electronics corporation registered several binaural patents in the 1970s, the needs of hobbyists are met by a cottage industry mainly based in the United States.

However convincing it might sound, it is a mistake to assume that a binaural recording must be an accurate reproduction of the original soundscape. It is an illusion, but with enough of the right cues for the brain to construct a familiar-seeming perception of another time and place.

Ian Rawes
Editor, UK Soundmap

hashtag: uksm

02 February 2011

Sound recording beyond the smartphone

The UK Soundmap currently displays over 1,300 recordings from all over the country. Of these, some 80% have been made with smartphones. The rest have been produced using a wide range of purpose-built sound recording equipment.

This post outlines some ways in which you can make the transition from mono smartphone sound to high-quality stereo, with reference to what UK Soundmap contributors themselves have been doing.

Between smartphones and pocket-sized digital sound recorders lies the half-way house of the stereo mic which can be attached directly to an iPhone or iPod. They range in price from around £30 to £70 depending on their make and model. It's worth checking first to see if they're compatible with your phone. A small number of recordings on the UK Soundmap have been made this way, and they sound pretty good.

A digital sound recorder, however, offers greater versatility and quality. With one you'll be able to make recordings and then transfer them to your computer for editing. Intense competition among manufacturers in recent years has produced a slew of reasonably-priced and capable machines starting from as low as £120. The majority of the UK Soundmap's non-smartphone recordings have been made with such machines.

As the prices rise, so too does the quality of the machine's construction, on-board microphones, and internal electronics. More expensive recorders produce less hissy and more full-sounding results, and this becomes noticeable with recordings made in quiet settings.

The recorder's specifications should include the ability to record in WAV and MP3 formats, and an external mic socket which can supply plug-in power of 5-9 volts for driving small external condenser microphones, should you wish to follow that route.

Many digital recorders are also supplied with open-cell foam windshields to fit over the on-board mics. These are fine for dealing with indoor draughts or preventing ugly wind noise that may arise from you waving the recorder around, but they aren't much use outdoors except on fairly still days. A windjammer can be fashioned from fake fur if you're a dab hand with the sewing machine, or you can buy ready-made ones to fit your particular make of recorder at around £25. Either way, it's worth having one.

Sound-editing programs, also known as 'wave editors', begin with freeware that offers basic feature sets. These are worth trying out since all wave editors work in fundamentally similar ways. What you learn with the freeware can be transferred to a £50 program offering more functions and a slick user interface.

Making good-quality stereo recordings is an easy hobby to begin, and it can start at a cost comparable to that of a digital compact camera.

Ian Rawes
Editor, UK Soundmap
British Library

hashtag: uksm

10 December 2010

Social media award win for the UK Soundmap

Last night in Manchester the UK Soundmap won the some comms award for best public sector use of social media. There was some tough competition, including Sussex Safer Roads' superb public information film Embrace Life.

Several people at the British Library have been involved with the UK Soundmap in various ways, either laying the groundwork long before it went online, or else beavering away behind the scenes to keep the website functioning.

Above all, many thanks to all of you who have taken the trouble to record the sounds around you and add them to the UK Soundmap.

Ian Rawes
Editor, UK Soundmap

hashtag: UKSM

03 December 2010

Seasons on the UK Soundmap

The UK Soundmap has now entered its six month and is heading towards 1,200 contributions. Those early recordings from Sheffield in July seem to come from long ago as trains are cancelled and the pavements are packed with snow.

Here are a few recordings from the UK Soundmap which mark the passing of the seasons. The rules can be bent slightly by allowing in one made before the project began, and which was later shared with us by the contributor Wild_Soundscape. It's of a dawn chorus with the intensity typical of late Spring:

High summer brought many seaside recordings, ranging from the blowsy pleasures of piers and amusement arcades to footsteps on shingle beaches and, of course, the sound of the surf. This example was sent in by ermine from Minsmere in Suffolk. The binaural method of recording used makes it particularly rewarding to listen to over headphones.

But the good weather wasn't to last. A couple of contributors provided mute and rueful commentaries on the great British August bank holiday as garden barbecues sputtered out under the inevitable downpours. The autumn winds struck up a bleak song as they roiled through a metal gate in the Shetlands, courtesy of rockscottage:

Fireworks rasped and popped in November, and several people have recorded footsteps stirring piles of fallen leaves. More footsteps have recently begun creaking through snowdrifts, a sound that seems to be felt as much as it is heard. Long-standing contributor sc_r shared this recording of a garden bonfire, the thought of which is now welcome.


Ian Rawes
Editor, UK Soundmap

Hashtag: uksm

15 October 2010

CD prizes for the UK SoundMap's 1000th recording

The 1000th recording on the UK SoundMap is fast approaching, and to show our appreciation we'll be giving away three different British Library wildlife CDs to whoever provides that magic millenary upload.

The first CD is Dawn Chorus: A Sound Portrait of a British Woodland at Sunrise. It's a beautiful hour-long ambient recording without any commentary to interrupt it.

Dawn chorus 

The second CD is Vanishing Wildlife: A Sound Guide to Britain's Endangered Species. This features over thirty different animals, including adders, capercaillies, and recordings of bat sonar.


Finally, a copy of Secret Songs of Birds: The hidden beauty of birdsong. This innovative CD has the songs of 24 different species, with original recordings being played alongside digitally mastered versions where the natural speed has been altered to reveal the subtle intricacy of each song.


The winner will be announced here, on Twitter, and by comment on the winning entry's AudioBoo page. Good luck!

Update: the winner of the 1000th upload prize is long-standing SoundMap contributor sc_r, with his recording of the bells of Hull City Hall.

Ian Rawes

Editor, UK SoundMap

hashtag: uksm

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