Thursday, 2 February 2012

Places and Sounds

I have been immersed in listening to the wallpaper samples, and thinking about where I might record relevant sounds, and where the wallpaper samples might be displayed. The whole experience is making me think in more depth about the extreme specificity of sound.

For instance I mentioned in an earlier post, my need to identify the right kind of clock to accompany a particular wallpaper. So many ideas which were discussed re: the wallpaper - the idea of repetition and delicacy in the pattern - could be sonically evoked, I felt, by finding exactly the right kind of clock tick-tocking. I defined that this exact sound would need to be small and unobtrusive, yet detailed, and also warm and comforting, as these were exactly the characteristics attributed to the wallpaper design in question. I cited The Clockmaker's Museum as a potential location for exhibiting this wallpaper sample, and sourcing the distinctive clock-ticking sound which I now seek.

It may seem that I am over-fussing the issue of what kind of clock to record, but to illustrate the massive differences between one kind of clock and another, I want to share some of the wonderful samples of clock sounds which I came across on We shall begin with this example, which was recorded by Reinsamba.

I love the musical quality of this clock sound and the bouncing quality of its mechanism. It is identified as being a 1960s clock; I couldn't be that specific just from listening, but it definitely sounds different from a contemporary clock. The recording has a certain intensity about it, owing to how close the microphone seems to be to the clock; it is as though we are scrutinising the sound, and the volume is much louder than it would be if we were sat some distance away, say on an armchair a couple of metres away from the mantelpiece where I presume this clock sits. Because the microphone is so close to the clock, it is hard to picture the space around it, but the lovely detail of the sound is still very distinctive and I imagine immediately evocative for anyone who ever owned a clock which sounded precisely like this.

Contrastingly, this recording - recorded by daveincamas - is much more readily identifiable as being the sound of a much older clock. We hear mechanisms, delicate springs, a balance of components inside the object not normally heard today. In a sound piece, it would instantly bring in an atmosphere of early 1900s or perhaps an even earlier time, and it has a slightly arcane quality about it.

Suffice to say, it is insufficient for my purposes to say "I need to record the sound of a clock" when considering the way I want to develop the wallpaper interviews with sound-recordings. Where is the clock? Of what era is its mechanism? Where is the clock situated? How far should my microphone be with it? What else will we be able to hear? What purpose will the sound serve in the piece? Each layer of a sound is an extra subtext of information about place, time, and history, so that when we hear a clock we also hear the timbre of the room in which it was ticking; the kinds of materials of which it is comprised; and - to a certain extent - the era in which it was made.

Yet in spite of this specificity of sounds, for some reason - (at least this is something which I have observed)- the notion that sound-recordings are all interchangeable still pervades. I wonder if this is because of the prevalence of sound effect libraries? I have no problem with sound effects libraries at all; I understand that there are complications around using recordings made in public spaces for things like film-scores, and that the ungovernable nature of many environments mean that if you want a particular sound, the best way to ensure that you capture it, is in a controlled studio setting. There is a practical problem, too, from the point of view of creating sound effects or sound tracks for films, which is background noise. Precisely because of all the information which is contained in background noise, it can complicate screenplay, and "cleaner" sounds are necessary. How confusing would it be to watch a period drama, for instance, and to suddenly be aware of the sounds of 21st century traffic in the background? And where can one record anywhere in the world today without that pervasive sound of traffic, unless it is in a studio?

I love reading the stories behind projects such as Tim Prebble's incredible Hiss and & Roar sound libraries, and I learn a lot from reading Prebble's blog - especially about the craft of capturing specific sounds. But there is are massive conceptual and material differences between sounds captured or created for use in film scores, and sounds recorded to document particular times, places, circumstances and materials. To the field-recordist, the "background noise" which muddies and complicates a sound effect for use in radio, theatre or drama, is instead the soundscape, or the distinctive voice of a particular place.

To illustrate this difference between a field-recording and a sound-effect, consider the differences between these two sound clips (found on also); one of which is a "bar sound effect" emulating the specific soundscape of a busy bar, and the other of which is a recording made in the particular environment of a bar in Primrose Hill, London:

This clip - recorded by Richard Frohlich of the "Texas Radio Theatre Company" - is a brilliant simulation of the sounds of many people talking at once in a bar. However, in the way that I am interested in using sounds, I find it rather empty of contextual information, and it is especially difficult to place the sound or to picture the environment where this soundscape exists.

Conversely, this recording - also featuring the soundscape of a bar - was recorded by Ian Rawes of the London Sound Survey - and has a much less artificial atmosphere. Cutlery clattering and the scrape of a chair somewhere infer that the space is not carpeted, and I get the sense that the bar we can hear has at least some bare floorboards and what sounds like a tall ceiling. It feels like a late lunchtime recording, because of the sounds of eating, and because of the general sense of energy in the recording; folk sound genuinely animated to my ears.

The comparison is not meant to be unfair, but it is interesting to note the difference between a skillfully fabricated sound effect, and a field-recording made in a particular place, and perhaps the striking difference is the result of the respective backgrounds of the two recordists? Rawes is incredibly dedicated to linking sounds with sites; indeed the London Sound Survey deals precisely with this idea, detailing the sonic life of the Capital in breathtaking detail, through hundreds of carefully organised recordings. The whole point of the project is that the sounds come from London; Rawes's recordings act as sonic documents - sonic photographs if you will - of specific moments and places in the Capital. In contrast, there is something somewhat neutral about Frohlich's bar sounds, and the somewhat generic quality of what he has created means it is suitable for use in other productions or projects. Rawes's recording - with its specific connections to a place - is much harder to imagine using as a sound effect, yet it seems to be a more complete document of place. Frohlich's recording on the other hand is a little harder to connect to a specific geography, and - for that reason - might be used in a more interchangeable way. I would also day that Frohlich's recording is "cleaner", by which I mean that what you hear is isolated from other sounds. Rawes's recording, on the other hand, does not contain one discrete sound, but the ambience that is the consequence of many sounds happening simultaneously; the collective din of a real-world place.

I believe that both these approaches to recording sounds are related to different kinds of sonic creativity. Frohlich's speaks of bricolage, of cut-n-paste, of radio documentary, fiction, and the illusionistic art of Foley and sounds for theatre, radio, or film; Rawes's recording speaks instead of the specificity of places and sounds, and of how sounds converge in corners of the world in singularly distinctive ways.

What I propose to do in developing the Sonic Wallpaper pieces, is something between these two creative approaches; on the one hand, I want to create sound recordings which have specific links to places, and which are very rich in the way they describe distinct locations, surfaces and objects. On the other hand, I will be collaging the recordings so that their documentary power is worked into something like a fiction... or a collage.


  1. Hello and many thanks for citing the recording I made at the pub in Primrose Hill. For the indulgence of sound geeks, it was made with two Sennheiser MKE-2 omnidirectional mics mounted on a pair of spectacles.

    Your observations on the nature of the space are spot on. It was a high-ceilinged pub with wooden floorboards.

    It's interesting to see how such sounds reflect the differing expectations people have for a pub's atmosphere. Gastropubs and other city pubs serving wealthier clientele tend to replicate both the furnishings and sound ambience of the domestic dining room. This is the pub as a venue for an occasion, even if an informal one.

    In contrast, pubs with a more working-class clientele tend to replicate the feel of a living room, with wall-to-wall carpets, curtains and upholstered seating. They sound different - usually 'warmer' - and even the presence of sounds from a big screen TV reinforces the sense of the pub as a home from home.

    This is a social inversion of the old public bar-saloon bar distinction. The public bar was the cheaper option for men in working clothes, with an easily-cleaned lino floor and wooden seats. This was a place of loud footsteps and voices, and other reverberant percussive sounds, perhaps accentuated by the presence of a pool table.

    The higher prices in the saloon bar went with more comfortable seating, carpets, and less colourful language.

  2. Hello Ian and thanks for your comments. Glad to hear that my ears are working and I did not delude myself into imagining the pub to be far different than it was!

    I love your observations on the differences between public bar-saloon bar vs gastropub-working man's pub. I have noticed that gastropubs all seem to be going in for a farrow & ball grey painted walls (perhaps with the odd "feature" wallpapered wall) whereas more relaxed pubs tend to have ancient and many-times painted textured wallpapers on them. I love how you have linked these aesthetics to distinctive soundscapes.

    My favourite bar is very much as you describe in its "home-from-home" atmosphere, featuring thick carpets and curtains; low-level music; the occasional patter of darts or pool; and a warmth to the acoustic which is intimate, friendly and homely.