Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

16 posts categorized "UK SoundMap"

13 October 2010

The decline of whistling

In Dennis Potter's drama series Pennies from Heaven, Bob Hoskins played a hard-up sheet music seller. While on his rounds he tries to enthuse a sceptical music shop owner:

It’s a great tune, everyone’s gonna be whistling it!

When you did last hear anyone whistle a tune? Out of around 900 recordings on the UK SoundMap so far, whistling is heard on just one or two. As Lauren Bacall said, all you have to do is put your lips together and blow. Yet tuneful whistling appears to be on the way out.

Once, workplace whistling was common enough for high-class establishments to put up signs forbidding tradesmen and staff from whistling. One can still be seen round the back of the Savoy hotel. The only people allowed or expected to whistle were the doormen, who had the knack of putting two fingers in their mouths and blowing a very loud whistle to hail taxis.

Despite the disapproval of hotels and their guests, whistling had a popular image, symbolising cheerfulness and, sometimes, calculated nonchalance. The English singer-songwriter Roger Whittaker launched his career with songs such as Mexican Whistler, Irish Whistler, and Whistling Swagman.

The entertainer and bird impersonator Percy Edwards, who died in 1996, could imitate by whistling the songs of hundreds of different bird species. His example spawned imitators. Sounds from Smithfield meat market were recorded in 1993 and added to the British Library's Archival Sound Recordings collections. The recordist noted that it was "initially spoilt by silly whistling from a porter". But on listening, it's clear that the porter was an accomplished whistler in the Percy Edwards mould, evoking the spirit of at least a 'dickybird', if not any particular species.

Whistling and birdsong have much older associations, and perhaps whistling first arose in deliberate imitation of birdsong while hunting wildfowl. The discovery of another rich historical link was described by the retired Thames lighterman Dick Fagan, in his book of memoirs Men of the Tideway. The lighterman's job was to steer cargo-laden barges or 'lighters' to their destinations using only the current and huge wooden paddles. After Fagan completed his apprenticeship, he was given charge of his own lighter:

One of the things I learnt to do, this may surprise you, was how to whistle. I ought to explain that every lighterage firm had its own kind of whistle – the sound, I mean, because all the whistling was done with the mouth and not with any instrument. Whistling was a way of identifying yourself across distances, especially at night, with other men working for the same company. Very useful. Getting it right was a work of art though.

On a day-trip to the countryside with his girlfriend, Fagan learns the origins of the firms' various whistles:

Finally we were sitting on a fallen tree trunk just dreaming. Then it happened. A loud shrill whistle, very close. My firm’s whistle [. . .] It had just come to me that the whistle I’d been using for many years was part of a bird’s song.

After a bit I spotted the bird as large as life up on a nearby tree with its beak open and the familiar notes pouring out of it as though it had been a lighternan all its life. In Bermondsey we only had sparrows. Who’s ever heard of a whistling sparrow? Then another bird started up with a different tune, after that another, and another.

I listened to them in amazement because I could connect each one’s song with the lighterage firm that had converted it into its own whistle. Soft green grass, graceful trees, peace, love – yet because of the birds’ song it was all connected with the hustle and struggle of river and dock life.

The whistles of watermen must have been invented long, long ago, when London’s river was still close to open country, when all these birds were singing in Shoreditch and Wapping, in Bermondsey and Rotherhithe, when the largest ship wasn’t much bigger than the barges I now rowed every day.

The modern decline of whistling is probably because most pop songs no longer have whistlable melodies. There's also a general trend away from public voices relying on unaided mouths, vocal cords and lungs, towards loudspeakers, recorded announcements, and voice synthesisers.

Teabreak teaser: How many pop songs can you think of which have whistling in them? Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay is too easy, and Ennio Morricone film scores don’t count.

Ian Rawes

Editor, UK SoundMap

hashtag: uksm

17 September 2010

Some early statistics from the UK SoundMap

With Autumn officially beginning next week, now seems a good time to take stock of the UK SoundMap's progress so far.

As of September the 17th, we've received and cleared nearly 650 recordings from around 220 contributors. The median or mid-way number of recordings per contributor is two. The mean value is higher at just over three, because some contributors have uploaded two or three dozen recordings each.

Under duress, one could draw a weakly predictive stereotype of the typical UK SoundMap recording. It would most likely be made during the daytime, in a built-up urban area, in the street, with one or more voices present, and the sound of traffic in the background.

But this would do no justice to the great variety of sounds which have been captured. More than 90% of all recordings have indeed been made during the day, and half of them were in cities and large towns. 27% were also made in villages, small towns and suburbs; 12% in the countryside; and 11% by the sea and in seaside resorts.

Within these broad geographical categories are more precise settings. The street accounts for 21% of recordings; fields, footpaths and towpaths 13%; homes and gardens 12%; railway stations, airports and other transport hubs 8%; 8% were also made inside road and rail vehicles; pubs, cafes, restaurants, and shops 7%; parks, playgrounds and playing fields 6%; 5% were made on or by a beach; and 5% in museums, libraries and art galleries. Smaller numbers have come from settings as diverse as boats, offices, hospitals, places of worship, shopping centres, street markets, outdoor festivals, fens and woodland.

The voice in some form is the most common sound, appearing in over half of all recordings. In 40% it consists of a single voice (other than that of the recordist) or several voices, and in 10% a hubbub of many voices. 9% include the sound of an electrically amplified voice, including loudhailers, PA or tannoy systems, radios and televisions. A disproportionate number of street recordings are made in pedestrianised areas too, where the speech of passersby can rise above the background growl of traffic.

In another 9% of recordings the recordist's own voice is heard, often describing the scene for the benefit of the listener. But this rarely occurs in built-up areas. More often the recordist speaks at home or when in the countryside, sometimes with humour, sometimes to express pleasure at what they're hearing.

The sounds of water occur in nearly 15% of recordings, including rain, dripping taps, fountains, the guttural noises of drains, and the sound of the sea. Water in its gassy state is represented with nearly a dozen recordings of steam-driven vehicles, and the sounds of coffee machines and whistling kettles. Perhaps this winter we'll hear the sounds of cracking ice and snowball fights, too.

As more contributions come in, so the data set will grow richer, and more in-depth statistical explorations will become possible.

Ian Rawes
Editor, UK SoundMap

hashtag: uksm

25 August 2010

Women's voices call the shots in recorded announcements

In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, controlling unrest is very different to the ‘With a loud voice command’ of the 1714 Riot Act:

Suddenly, from out of the Synthetic Music Box a Voice began to speak. The Voice of Reason, the Voice of Good Feeling. The sound-track roll was unwinding itself in Synthetic Anti-Riot Speech Number Two (Medium Strength). Straight from the depths of a non-existent heart, “My friends, my friends!” said the Voice so pathetically, with a note of such infinitely tender reproach that, behind their gas masks, even the policemen’s eyes were momentarily dimmed with tears, “what is the meaning of this? Why aren’t you all being happy and good together? Happy and good,” the Voice repeated. “At peace, at peace.”

The Voice is a sexless ‘it’, but in the 1930s when Brave New World was published, nearly all voices ordering or informing adults were those of men. As described in Anne Karpf’s book The Human Voice: The Story of a Remarkable Talent, women’s voices were judged to be too ‘shrill’ and lacking in gravitas for public announcement.

By the 1970s, however, women announcers had become common in supermarkets and department stores. Actress Stephanie Gathercole provided the efficient-sounding lift voice for the opening credits of the BBC sitcom Are You Being Served?:

Ground floor perfumery, stationery and leather goods, wigs and haberdashery, kitchenware and food. Going up. First floor telephones, gents’ ready-made suits, shirts, socks, ties, hats, underwear and shoes. Going up. Second floor carpets, travel goods and bedding, material, soft furnishings, restaurant and teas.

Lift voices informing you of what's on each floor are one of those features which no longer seem to exist in department stores, although one survives at the British Library.

Going by recordings on the UK SoundMap, women’s voices are now the preferred option for recorded announcements. They outnumber male voices 5 to 1 in settings as diverse as buses, train stations and supermarkets. It’s a significant change in the public sound environment compared to just a few decades ago.

Ian Rawes

Editor, UK SoundMap

hashtag: uksm

04 August 2010

Sound categories and finding subjects to record

The British Library's UK SoundMap offers some suggestions to help contributors get started, and these are couched in general terms because the choices people make will be informative.

Even so, someone setting out for the first time to record environmental sounds faces problems of choice more daunting than those confronting the novice photographer.

The photographer can look for ideas from the vast and unavoidable body of work compiled by other photographers, and in which popular themes can easily be detected. The most common tags on Flickr include staples such as 'sunset', 'winter', 'cat', 'flowers' and 'beach'.

In urban environments especially, visual means are used to broadcast information much more commonly than auditory ones. This discrepancy has likely increased over time as literacy has become more widespread and the background noise level of traffic has risen. Photographers have architecture, industrial design, fashion and advertising to draw upon.

Fortunately, a good stock of mental categories for sounds can make the recordist's life easier. Jean-Francois Augoyard's 2006 book Sonic Experience: A Guide to Everyday Sounds provides descriptions of over eighty everyday acoustic phenomena, including echo, vibrato and anticipation.

R. Murray Schafer's influential 1977 book The Tuning of the World contains a classification of 'sound objects' which is worth reproducing:

Natural sounds: creation; destruction; water; air; earth; fire; birds; mammals; insects; and the seasons.

Human sounds:
the voice; the body; and clothing.

Sounds and Society: rural soundscapes; town soundscapes; city soundscapes; maritime soundscapes; domestic soundscapes; sounds of trades; professions and livelihoods; sounds of factories and offices; sounds of entertainment; music; ceremonies and festivals; parks and gardens; and religious festivals.

Mechanical sounds: industrial and factory equipment; vehicles; aircraft; construction and demolition equipment; mechanical tools; ventilation and air-conditioning; and farm machinery.

Quiet and Silence

Sounds as Indicators:
bells and gongs; horns and whistles; sounds of time; telephones; warning systems; signals of pleasure; and indicators of future occurrences.

These categories are worth considering as a catalyst for the recordist's local knowledge and experience of sound, for which there is no substitute.


Ian Rawes

Editor, UK SoundMap


hashtag: #uksm

16 July 2010

Why collect recordings of everyday sounds?

You are packed into paltry shells of brick-houses; every door that slams to in the street is audible in your most secret chamber . . . and when you issue from your door, you are assailed by vast shoals of quacks, and showmen, and street sweepers, and pick-pockets, and mendicants of every degree and shape, all plying in noise or silent craft their several vocations.

So Thomas Carlyle complained about London's hubbub in 1824. Later he settled in Chelsea, where he could escape the distractions of city noise in his cork-lined study.

Official attempts to control noise in urban settings had long predated Carlyle's complaints, but were parochial in scope. They addressed grievances over incessantly barking dogs, spurriers and other metalworkers plying their trade into the night, and the occasional firing of guns into the air by excited citizens.

Anti-noise action on the national stage had to wait until 1959, when John Connell wrote to the Times about the increase of noise pollution. Among the examples he cited were the growing use of portable transistor radios and the clattering of dustbin lids. In response he received some 4,000 letters of support and the following year the Noise Abatement Act was passed.

Until very recently, many investigations into urban sounds have tended to use the polarising filter of noise-is-bad versus silence-is-golden, and these assumptions were sometimes built into the experimental designs used.

The Dutch psychologist Charles Korte compared people's behaviour in quiet areas of cities with little traffic against busy, noisy districts, and found that an apparently lost person was helped by passersby more often when in tranquil surroundings. In a lab-based study in the US, participants were less likely to pick up books dropped by an experimental stooge, complete with one arm in a plaster cast, when ambient noise levels were high.

In contrast, there's a large body of theory and empirical data on which visual aspects of the environment people respond favourably to. These include architectural approaches such as prospect-refuge theory, investigations into patient recovery times in hospital wards which provide views over parkland or built-up areas, and the finding of reduced physiological stress when people look at pictures of the countryside.

One important strand of research into the environmental sounds people might favour began in 2006 with Positive Soundscapes, a project launched with backing from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Among other results, factor analysis of listeners' responses to soundscape recordings identified the two dimensions of calmness and vibrancy as prominent in forming preferences.

The UK SoundMap aims to gather recordings from as many people as possible through the use of mobile phones. A large collection of such recordings could comprise a rich dataset of people's environmental sound preferences from all over the country, to be made available to our partners in the Noise Futures Network for further analysis and research, and which one day might help inform policy decisions on environmental planning.

Many of us already have our own private environmental sound policies. We try to replace the monotonous sounds of traffic with music from mp3 players, or liven up bus and train journeys with lengthy mobile phone conversations, sometimes with an element of public performance thrown in. We even invest in earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones, the auditory equivalent of holding your nose when passing a rubbish dump.

Collecting and analysing today's environmental sounds could help make better soundscapes tomorrow, to be shared and enjoyed by all.

Ian Rawes
Editor, UK SoundMap

hashtag: uksm

14 July 2010

How to reduce wind noise on your smartphone recordings

Just over 200 years ago Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort developed the Wind Force Scale for the Royal Navy. It was the first system for standardising observations of wind speed, and it did so in simple and clear language:

Leaves and small twigs in constant motion;
wind extends light flag.
Raises dust and loose paper;
small branches are moved.
Small trees in leaf begin to sway;
crested wavelets form on inland waters.

Anyone who's been out and about recording with their smartphone has probably found that wind noise starts to intrude by 3 on the Beaufort Scale: leaves and small twigs in constant motion. The dull, rasping sound of the wind moving chaotically over the microphone is distracting at best, and at worst will overwhelm every other sound present.

Smartphone manufacturers face a double problem with wind noise. Not only is turbulence present in the airflow at large, but the rectangular shape of a smartphone produces miniscule eddies around itself. The effects are least strong when the mic is positioned off-centre on the bottom edge of the phone.

With care, wind noise can be reduced further. Here are some tips on how to go about it.

First, don't rely on the sound of the breeze in your ears as a guide to how much wind noise your smartphone is picking up. It's better to attend to visual cues, like those described in the Beaufort Scale, or to how strong the wind feels against your face.

Second, trying to shield your smartphone by turning your back on the wind will help, but only a little. Walls, solid fences, and bus shelters all make much more effective windbreaks.

Third, you can use a woolly smartphone 'sock' as an improvised windshield. One with a fairly open weave will produce less muffled results than a sock with a microfibre lining. Pulling the sock about half way down the phone lets you get at the touchscreen and also creates a small but necessary air space around the microphone.

Here are a couple of short before-and-after examples. First, a smartphone recording made in St Pancras train station with some wind noise introduced by blowing on the phone:

Next, a recording made in the same spot using the smartphone sock as a windshield:

The sock produces some muffling but otherwise makes a noticeable improvement to what is probably equivalent to a slight or gentle breeze, and for not much money at all.

Hashtag: uksm

Ian Rawes
Editor, UK SoundMap

06 July 2010

Easy does it: adding to the UK SoundMap

The UK SoundMap has begun to collect sound recordings in the Sheffield pilot area, marked by a growing cluster of blue markers. When clicked, each marker creates a 'window' through which we can hear the varied sounds of Sheffield, from voices in the city centre's Castle Market:

. . . to the grinding of a metalworks:

Some of these recordings have been purpose-made to help seed the collection, while others have been kindly added to the cause by users of Audioboo, the application chosen by many as the contributors' gateway to the UK SoundMap.

Last week, I got the chance to try out Audioboo in Sheffield while using an Apple iPhone. I'm familiar with making field recordings involving digital recorders, external microphones, and time spent at home editing and tweaking the results on a computer.

This ease of access is central to the UK SoundMap as a collaborative project. We need as many people as possible to help build a recognisable sound portrait of Britain, drawing on their knowledge of the sounds around them. I'm looking forward to hearing recordings from all over the country in the months ahead.

Hashtag: uksm

Ian Rawes

Editor, UK SoundMap

24 June 2010

Sheffield mapped by sound

Today sees the beta release of our new interactive sound mapping project, showing Sheffield soundscape recordings contributed by members of the public: The project arose from collaboration between the British Library, led by my colleague Isobel Clouter, and the Noise Futures Network, an interdisciplinary network of UK academic researchers interested in our acoustic landscape. Coupled with the opportunities that improvements in mobile phone and web technologies now offer, the survey will aggregate useful research data in a cost effective and innovative way.


Another key component in this crowdsourcing venture is the use of the free Audioboo application for smartphones.  With a large online user community, Audioboo provides a simple tool to capture and publish raw research data of sufficient quality for later analysis by acoustic ecologists and urban planners.

The beta version of UK SoundMap is focused on Sheffield, where some of the Noise Futures Network participants are based; the survey will be extended nationwide later in 2010.  Sheffield-based Audioboo users are now being encouraged to tag their ambient recordings with ‘uksm’ and add supporting comments.  Recordings will then appear on the interactive map, which anyone can listen to. 

Sound Archive staff Chris Clark and Ian Rawes will be working with me over the coming months to help make this a truly participatory project. To find out more and see the map developing as sounds are contributed, visit:

Hashtag: uksm

Richard Ranft
Head of Sound Archive

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