Thursday, 22 March 2012

Ticks and tocks at the Clockmaker's Museum

One of the wallpaper designs in the MoDA collection inspired many comments about time and about rhythm. I wrote about the design and the associated sounds which I need to record to create in its sonic equivalent here, and about the quest to find precisely the right ticking sound here. I then contacted Sir George White - who is the keeper of the Clockmaker's Museum at Guildhall - to see if they might have some suitable clocks for me to record in their treasure trove of horological devices.

I could not hear this clock through its thick glass case, but doesn't it look amazing?

I've wanted to visit the Clockmaker's Museum at Guildhall ever since listening to Ian Rawes's recording of the clocks striking noon there on the London Sound Survey website, and since they house the oldest (and many consider the finest) collection of watches and clocks in the world, it seemed an obvious starting point for the quest to find just the right ticking sound.

Sir George explained to me, however, that the Museum's tiny size, lack of quiet study rooms, and the fact that it does not have loads of staff to keep it going might make it difficult for me to record the clock sounds that I am hoping to acquire there.

Nonetheless I decided there would be no harm at all in my making some preliminary investigations into the practicalities of recording clocks, and so I made an excursion to the Museum last week during my Sonic Wallpaper recording adventures.

There is an air-conditioning system at the Clockmaker's Museum - presumably to protect and conserve the priceless clocks - and so underpinning the delicate sonorities of all the clocks and their internal mechanisms in this recording, you can hear a droning sound. Hopefully, this recording nonetheless gives you some idea of what it's like to be in a room which is filled floor to ceiling with watches and clocks!

This recording was made with binaural microphones, the capsules of which have an omni-directional pick-up pattern. Without getting into too much technical detail, this means that they "hear" everything around them, which means it is impossible to single the ticking of one clock out from the throng using them. However by attaching an AKG C411 contact mic to the surfaces of the Grandfather clocks over in the corner of the Museum, I was able to get some insights into the different sonic qualities of different clock mechanisms! This is because the contact microphone picks up vibrations running through the wood and glass of the individual clock to which it is attached.

I may have mixed up which clocks were which in my notes, but these are some of the ticks and tocks that I heard with my AKG C411 microphone in the Clockmaker's Museum.

I think this is the oldest clock I recorded; it was made in 1705 by George Stratford, in London.

This next clock was made in 1720 by Christopher Pinchbeck.

Next up are two clocks from 1750; the first was made by George Graham, and the next one by Justin Vulliamy.

However my favourite recording of the day is this one, and it's the only one I have no idea about! I wonder if anyone at the Museum could tell from the sound which one it is?

Sir George has suggested that I contact the British Museum to discuss the possibility of recording some of the clocks in their collection, which I intend to do, as I am not overly happy with the amount of hiss in these recordings, and I'm still not sure I've found just the right tick tock sound.

But I urge anyone who has the opportunity to stop by to go through the Clockmaker's Museum so that you may hear for yourself the lovely array of sounds there as my recordings really don't do justice to them.


  1. I had a great time playing all the sound clips in one go, to recreate my own Horological sound mix.

  2. That's exactly what I did once the post was up; I do like that the players let you play all the sounds at once for a giant clock-ticking megamix. Makes you realise how distinctive each clock sounds, too.

  3. I spent a lovely afternoon a while back a the museum and expected all the clocks to chime at once on the hour. They didn't, but that was good too.

  4. Listening to your recording of the room full of clocks provoked a surprisingly strong emotional reaction for me. It took me back to childhood, and the spare room of my grandparents'house. My much-loved Grandad mended clocks and watches as a hobby, and going into that room was a special treat. You had to be on your best behaviour and be careful not to knock anything over. I was always fascinated by Grandad's selection of tiny cogs, springs and sprockets - and by the different-sounding ticks and tocks.