I remember as a kid taking enormous pleasure out of prodding a sleeping body and discovering what kinds of noises I could provoke, like the odd groan or whistle, then getting up close for an earful of a rumbling tummy or restless fingers. Imagine if you could do that with a whole country, I thought, prowling round it like Gulliver in Lilliput, bending down to listen to its secrets.
Well now you can. I have just been idly plucking feathers from a Google Map and listening to the sound escape. I started off drinking coffee at Heathrow,Terminal Three. Then I caught the sound of dogs in suffolk and arctic terns in Shetland, overheard bikers outside a cafe on the A4074 and someone opening a garage door on the Black Isle. I went on a ghost train in Blackpool and a boat cruise in Cardiff Bay. I waited for Prince Charles in Todmorden before baling hay in Gloucestershire.
This is the UK Sound Map, a fascinating new project run by the British Library, which invites people to contribute short field recordings that together will form ‘a permanent public record of everyday sounds.’ Launched in July 2010 as a pilot study in the Sheffield area, it now welcomes submissions across the United Kingdom. Boosted by some favourable publicity (notably a plug on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in August), it has received nearly a thousand contributions so far, including some from me. I’ve particularly enjoyed those of oly, ermine, felixbadanimal, edirol, rockscottage and the ubiquitous, eavesdropping mythalatte.
Contributors must sign up to Audioboo. Of the several sites that host user-submitted sound recordings (such as freesound, MySpace, Bandcamp, SoundCloud or the Internet Archive), Audioboo is one of the easiest to use and the only one, to my knowledge, that allows you to submit material direct from a mobile device. With the growing popularity of smartphones that offer not just the ability to record sounds but also a wi-fi or 3G internet connection that allows you to upload the recordings you have made, this seems an obvious choice.
Audioboo has been designed for the spoken word, and this means it has a number of limitations as a repository of field recordings. The first is sound-quality. While you can also upload sound recordings made on any number of sophisticated devices if you transfer them to a computer and use the standard web interface, most submissions to Audioboo seem to be made on smartphones. Although it does seem possible to connect a good-quality stereo microphone to, say, an iPhone (I’ve never tried but the Blue Mikey and the Alesis ProTrack both claim to solve the problem), in general most use the built-in mono microphone that was designed for phone calls and voice memos. Not only is it low quality it is also quite hard to protect from the sound recordist’s enemy number one, wind noise (but, as a post on the Sound Map’s blog helpfully points out, you can reduce this with the judicious use of a sock).
The second major limitation is the way Audioboo does not provide the means for users to describe their files. You can give them a title, provide tags, link them to images, and locate the place of recording on a map. But anyone used to submitting images or audio to, say, YouTube or Flickr or SoundCloud, will be frustrated that you can’t write a little something about, for example, when you made the recording (it only records the date and time you uploaded it), the circumstances, the equipment you used, the sounds themselves and what they might be if not immediately recognizable. There are two ways round this problem. You can comment on your ‘boo’ in your own voice in the recording itself (for a good example listen to auralexplorer‘s reflections on a field behind her old house). Or you can use the commenting facility on the website. But either way this information doesn’t form part of the data record itself, and therefore does not appear (not even in abridged form) when you come across the boo on the map or when it is embedded in a third-party website, when it might look like this:
You would need to click on the (invisible) link on the Audioboo logo to be transferred to the boo’s original page to get any contextual information about this recording
The tagging feature is useful. Anyone wanting their audioboo considered for inclusion on the UK soundmap should simply include the ‘uksm’ tag. This means anyone can browse the list of submissions. But many users also add other tags – as the soundmap blog has recommended – that help people find recordings with a specific theme or context (such as football or horses or seaside or night). To search by location, the best place to start is the map itself, although you have to drag and zoom in and out to get somewhere in particular. (The search facility has not worked the times I have tried, so I can’t tell how it handles queries by placename or postcode).
But what of the recordings themselves? The British Library seem to have taken the decision to be as unprescriptive as possible. Beyond an injunction to ‘record your everyday surroundings’, it says very little. It does tell us that the recordings will form the raw material for a research project (in association with the Noise Futures Network) that will engage with ‘artists, industry, educational bodies and policy makers’. But that is all.
This lack of prescription only increases the weight of expectation carried by the name of the project itself. Even though the project relies, exclusively it would seem, on unsolicited contributions, one might expect it to strive for a certain level of comprehensiveness and consistency. If I bought an OS map that left blank all the ground above 500m I would have good reason to ask for my money back. What would be an equivalent omission on a sound map? A map in which most of the contributions came from North London or one which featured only barking dogs or market traders would not, I assume, be considered a success. A sound map of the ‘United Kingdom’ – and one, moreover, co-ordinated by a publicly-funded body such as the British Library – cannot avoid being judged in terms of its ‘representativeness’, even though no such claim is being made, and even though there could be no way of objectively measuring it.
So how ‘representative’ of Britain are the sounds submitted so far? Are there too many recordings of some and not enough of others? Whose ‘everyday surroundings’ are being documented here? Some tentative – and necessarily subjective – observations follow.
Firstly, and perhaps unavoidably, some ‘found’ sounds are much harder to record than others. In some cases, to make a recording – even discreetly – would be considered rude or impractical. This no doubt explains why recordings made in relatively anonymous public places (stations, shops, streets, parks and so on) predominate over those made in more personal, private arenas (such as birthday parties, weddings, funerals, meetings, changing rooms, nurseries) or in circumstances in which the would-be sound recordist may be otherwise engaged (jogging, cycling, driving or operating heavy machinery). And there may be places where any kind of recording is pretty much ruled out – prisons, courtrooms, detention centres come to mind – though I’m sure it won’t stop some people trying.
Secondly, one has to consider the demographic of a smartphone user; perhaps more specifically a smartphone user who is sufficiently geeky (and sociologically-inclined) to make field recordings, upload them and tag them. It would probably be safe to say that such a group is not as diverse as the population as a whole. And no doubt this is one reason why the soundmap so far has many more recordings of trains, restaurants, festivals and supermarkets than it has of buses, betting shops, benefit offices and hospital wards.
But there is a third factor that might be said to reduce the chances of the sound map capturing the rich variety of British soundscapes, and this is harder to pin down.
Even when the first two factors are taken into account, there is something extra that inclines contributors to select particular sounds over others as worthy or appropriate to record and submit to a ‘UK Sound Map’. One thing that makes it harder for the map to be representative of the UK is, paradoxically, the influence of powerful common sense notions what is ‘typically British’.
Now, we all know that these notions are vigorously contested. They are tossed around in every debate on citizenship and immigration. Certainly they are quite varied and subject to change. Take George Orwell’s attempt in ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ (1941) to capture ‘the English scene’, which here, not unusually, stands in for a somewhat larger entity (his population count would suggest that the ‘we’ embraces the Scots and Welsh too):
Are there really such things as nations? Are we not 46 million individuals, all different? And the diversity of it, the chaos! The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn mornings – all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene.
Notice how easily this list could be translated into recordable sounds. Most of them, however, are not readily available to the roving smartphone user of today, which shows how dated these attempts to nail Britishness often are. You only have to place it alongside this one from Hanif Kureishi (responding to a similar list offered by T S Eliot) in a report on Bradford written for Granta magazine in 1986.
If one were compiling such a list today there would have to be numerous additions to the characteristic activities of the British people. They would include: yoga exercises, going to Indian restaurants, the music of Bob Marley, the novels of Salman Rushdie, Zen Buddhism, the Hare Krishna Temple, as well as the films of Sylvester Stallone, therapy, hamburgers, visits to gay bars, the dole office and the taking of drugs.
This vision is old enough to feel dated in its turn. But if nostalgia is an essential part of Britishness then it’s not surprising that Orwell’s list seems to have greater resonance. At least with certain conservative politicians, like John Major who quoted from it in a speech in 1993 – though he had the women ‘cycling’ rather than ‘biking’, presumably in case we imagined them in leather jackets and crash helmets.
Could we say that the same preference prevails among the contributors to the UK Sound Map? Apart from the preponderance of a wide variety of nature sounds (birdsong, the sea, wind, and rain), in terms of culture it does seem that the British soundscape is closer to 1941 than 1986. A little more up-market and hi-tech perhaps but just as monocultural. Of the many clips that feature people’s voices, there are almost none in a language other than English.
But perhaps more decisive is what the two lists have in common. Despite their glaring differences, they both imagine Britain from the point of view of a consumer or passer-by. Even Orwell’s clogs and lorries are heard by a bystander rather than the people wearing or driving them. Similarly, the sounds of the map are overwhelmingly those associated with leisure outside the home.
The sounds of the workplace – especially those off-limits to the public (factories, call centres, farms, offices, warehouses) – are almost entirely absent, as are those of the family home (another kind of workplace for some). It’s why the occasional samples of, say, typing, cavity wall-filling, teeth-brushing and ironing stand out so much.
It would seem that a call for contributions to a national map inclines people to think of sounds associated with public spaces – with public transport easily the most popular category. This is not just a question of convenience. It’s as if only these sounds could qualify as being nationally significant. Perhaps most people only feel ‘British’ (if they do at all) when rubbing shoulders with strangers when out shopping, commuting or attending large-scale cultural events.
The map’s basic guidelines encourage contributors to think of ‘what your home, leisure and work environments sound like’. Can it be that this inclusive category of the ‘everyday’ (in which all three have their place) is trumped by the rather more discriminatory filter of ‘Britishness’ (dominated by just one of them)?
All these exclusions are perhaps unfortunate, but they are not inevitable. Consider them as a challenge. But the only way you’re going to really break the habits that are beginning to surface in the map is to hand out recording devices to a lot of people who would never dream of contributing to such a project. I wonder if their sounds might be the most interesting of all.