Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

07 July 2018

BBC sound effects plotted on a map

IN APRIL this year the BBC put online around 16,000 of its sound effects recordings, making them available for non-commercial use at no cost. The BBC presents the recordings in a plain-looking list here: Expressions like ‘no cost’ or ‘free’ have a certain resonance, so I examined the collection to see what could be done with it.

A large majority of the recordings are from unknown places or else are studio creations. Around 400 are from named locations in the United Kingdom, and of these I judged just over 300 to be worth presenting and reproducing here. The results range in time from 1940 to 1986 and access to them is through a simple sound map on this page:

The map took me a while to draw, but the way the red link spots are made and positioned is easy: each spot is a DIV element that acts as a link, made round-shaped with the CSS radius property.

27 June 2018

In memory of Richard Beard, wildlife recordist

I AM very sorry to report that the wildlife recordist Richard Beard died a few days ago. We first met in 2010 at the British Library Sound Archive after we’d been introduced to each other by Cheryl Tipp, the Archive’s curator of wildlife sound recordings. He was then working as a part-time volunteer to help Cheryl compile the metadata of who-what-and-where for digital sound files.

For hours at a time he’d sit in one of the Archive’s small recording studios and patiently work his way through batches of nature recordings, listening and noting. Many were ones he’d made himself, for Richard was a very knowledgeable and skilful recordist, although he wore his expertise lightly. After we got to know each other a bit better, he kindly offered to share some of his London wildlife recordings with my website. The first batch appeared here in 2012 under the title of Richard Beard’s Hackney wildlife.

These were good recordings and Richard clearly knew a great deal about birdsong, so I was keen for him to contribute more. He mentioned something he called the ‘Breakfast Project’, which seemed to involve him recording birdsong quite early in the morning, and which at the time was a work in progress. Eventually he completed it, and offered me details of around 360 recordings, each made at 6 a.m. in his back garden and representing nearly every day of the year. I was both taken aback and excited at the scale of the task he’d accomplished.

After some head-scratching I suggested having a single webpage linking to and presenting around a hundred of his morning recordings, and the result was titled The Hackney year.

I was never entirely sure what Richard felt about this treatment of his work, and suspect it may have seemed austere compared to the experience of birdsong among hedges and garden fences, trees and bramble patches – all the living, untidy intricacies of Darwin’s ‘tangled bank’. If so, Richard was too polite and good-natured to tell me. His recordings made a very significant contribution to the London Sound Survey, and I will always be grateful for them.

What is lacking from this appreciation is a photo of Richard, and I can’t find one online. He cut a good figure of a man, looking as if he’d been keen on playing sports when he was younger, and with a broad, friendly face. He spoke with a gentle Cockney accent. I would guess Richard to have been in his late fifties when we first met, but he seemed younger because of his openness and lack of cynicism.

Richard didn’t only record in and around London, but he felt a strong connection to the green spaces of east London, in particular the Hackney and Walthamstow Marshes running alongside the river Lea. Much of this arose from his family having lived there a very long time, going back to at least the beginning of the 19th century when an ancestor had owned a farm near the Marshes, most likely keeping a herd of cattle grazing among the riverside meadows.

In later years, Richard and his wife Fern spent a lot of their time on the Isle of Wight, where Richard continued to make recordings. His death is a sad loss to wildlife sound recording in Britain and to all who knew him.

25 April 2018

New section on historical street cries

A NEW site section on historical street cries has been set up and you can see what’s been gathered so far by going to this page. The eventual aim will be to integrate this material with other kinds of site entries, such as recordings. The historical part of the site now has the page-top banner of ‘Sound and History’ so it doesn’t look so odd when adding stuff about places beyond London’s confines.

24 June 2017

Long in the tooth

THE FIRST proper field recording I made was in April 2008 and it featured the sounds of Petticoat Lane market on a Sunday morning. Since then I’ve tried to come up with a variety of ways both to guide the making of recordings and present them on webpages. I hope my efforts have given at least some pleasure to site visitors over the years.

The website is becoming a bit long in the tooth now, and needs to have its content management system upgraded if it’s to keep working. This will mean it going offline for around a week sometime soon while all the templates are rejigged. The audio players too will need a lot of attention to make them compatible with the ever-growing variety of tablets and smartphones.

Another long-hoped-for change will be a move from field recording to oral history interviewing. Seeking out and presenting the city’s sounds can be very enjoyable but subject to the law of diminishing returns, so that the site ends up like an obsessively detailed theatre set onto which no actors ever emerge. Time for a change of approach.

Interviews for the first oral history project begin in July this year so hopefully it shouldn’t be too long before you can start to see and hear the results.

16 January 2017

Against the wind: Rycote Cyclone windshields and a new baffle

A CONDENSER MICROPHONE has a diaphragm that’s open to the air, a backplate hidden out of view behind it, and a voltage across them. Sound waves impact on the diaphragm and make it move nearer to and further from the backplate, causing fluctuations in electrical capacitance.

In an ideal world sound waves alone would make the diaphragm move, but that’s not how it works out in real life. Sudden jolts, tapping the mic’s casing, and vibrations propagated along the cable can all produce unwelcome noises. So too can the wind and, more specifically, the turbulence in the air stream which batters away at the diaphragm. The solution is to absorb as much of that energy as possible before it can be transferred to the diaphragm, like the way a harbour breakwater is there to absorb the energy of the sea’s waves.

Any mic used outdoors needs some kind of protection from the wind. Furry windcovers are made for the mic pairs at the business ends of pocket-sized recorders. A larger mic can be mounted inside a mesh windshield equipped with a handle or stuck on the end of a boom pole: a standard arrangement for many professional field recordists.

I’m more of a hobbyist who’s become wedded to using omnidirectional mics in pairs. These can produce an appealing stereo image when used with some sort of acoustic baffle between them: this old blog post goes into more detail about that. One of the problems of this approach is that it’s not easy to protect the mics against wind because one side of them is up against your head or some head-substitute, like a wooden or closed-cell foam block.

A way around this presented itself when Rycote introduced their new Cyclone windshields. I noticed that they split lengthways into two and thought you could make an acoustic baffle out of a wooden block with one half of a windshield shell attached to each side, covering and protecting the mics under them. However, the Cyclone halves are asymmetric: the port side (relative to the mic facing forward) has the whole rear end-cap, and the starboard side has the larger front end-cap.

Rycote kindly agreed to supply me with two starboard sides, thus saving me the expense of buying a pair of complete windshields. I then set about making the baffle, starting with a wooden chopping board as the core, with most of the baffle’s volume comprised of balsa wood, given about six coats of varnish to toughen it up. This is what it looks like from the front.

The back shows (a) no great prizes for woodwork skills and (b) how the cables are carried beneath removable side blocks to exit at the rear. At its widest point the baffle is about one foot or 30cm across.

With the windshield covers removed, you can see how the mics are held in place with tool clips, and the covers are positioned with the help of metal pegs (cheap drill bits embedded and glued into the wood). Black sticky-backed foam makes for a more draught-tight surface for the edges of the Cyclone halve to come into contact with.

Tony at the Wire magazine asked if I wore it on my head, perhaps hoping for an amusing photo opportunity. No, it goes on top of a tripod. I mean, like, obviously! Here it is with some camo scrim wrapped round it at an RSPB nature reserve in Suffolk. Without the camo it looks maybe a bit alarming to birds, and several people have pointed out that it also resembles a big pair of stupendous breasts and, even though form strictly follows function, this is true. It’s not a bad thing in my view and, in fact, I’m proud to be doing my part to help redress the balance against countless consumer products which have a distinctly phallic appearance. But maybe sometimes modesty’s the better policy.

The tool clips allow a small degree of latitude in sliding the mics backwards and forwards. If they’re too far back, then the recording might suggest an acoustic hole-in-the-middle, with plenty of sound at each side but not much sense of anything happening directly in front. This seems to be happening with the first trial recordings I made in Suffolk.

The mics used on the baffle are Sennheiser MKH 8020s which have low self-noise, making them suitable for very quiet environments. Here’s a later attempt along the Thames estuary, with the mics moved forwards perhaps half an inch.

Neither of those recordings address the issue of wind, as the Suffolk one was made on quite a still day, and the Shornemead Fort one was made during blustery weather, but where the fort’s structure made an effective windbreak. The other day I saw that the weather forecast was predicting gusts of up to 37 miles per hour along the Thames estuary, so I went to Rainham to see how things would work out. It really was windy that day and only the baffle’s weight prevented the tripod from toppling over.

There is wind noise in that recording, but it’s produced more by the wind’s action on and around the baffle than on the mic diaphragms themselves. The Rycote Cyclone windshield halves seem to work well. Later, I moved the baffle to beside the long concrete wall bordering the Tilda rice factory nearby, and here the wind speed increases, perhaps by being funnelled along the wall. Close up I could see that the baffle was starting to shake and vibrate, and on that recording it began to produce brief audio drop-out where the diaphragms had likely hit their backplates. So 40mph gusts probably mark the maximum limit beyond which the baffle’s no good.

All sorts of improvements suggest themselves: carrying the rear-exiting cables beneath the surface of the wood, various ways to cut down on the baffle’s nearly six pounds (2.6kg) of weight, using Rycote lyre suspensions to deal with vibration, and making a fake fur cover to fit over the whole thing.

But, in the meantime, it is quite satisfying to have made something myself, and that does go against the grain of many hobby activities, which increasingly seem to be about simply buying the right components to fit together.