SOME YEARS AGO I met a blind man at a meeting of the Lewisham Talking Newspaper. Most people lose their sight through age-related conditions, but he’d been blind from birth and led an active life, travelling abroad and volunteering on archaeological digs.
How did he use sound to find his way around town? “Reverberation off buildings, mostly.” He turned his head away slightly at what I realised might have been a tiresomely familiar question. “It’s probably a subconscious thing a lot of the time.”
Sighted people too sometimes pay attention to the reverberance of their surroundings. The long underpass which stretches from South Kensington tube station eastwards towards Brompton Road is a good example.
Children like to test the sound properties of such environments by whooping and yelling, or kicking a tin can about. Football fans raise chants in tube and train stations. This kind of singing is usually done in a minor key for some reason – maybe it’s easier. Part of the pleasure is in hearing the self or the group become more potent, and it’s probably an old habit. Cave paintings by paleolithic Europeans hint at a relationship between their number, subject matter and the acoustic properties of the caves they decorate.
Reverberation is sound being reflected from surfaces, and so it’s affected by the shapes and sizes of those surfaces, their distance from and alignment to each other, and what they’re made of. It can be abstracted from the original sound source like the way an accent can be considered independently of the content of speech. Sound engineers do exactly this when they record impulse responses by popping balloons inside buildings and tunnels. These can be then be processed, saved and applied as sound effects to other recordings.
The Department of the Bleeding Obvious says that the built environment varies greatly across a big city like London and so you’ll hear different reverberant accents depending on where you are. To a very rough approximation it goes something like this:
Low: typical of outer suburbs like Hillingdon. Residential streets tend to be wide with the houses set well back behind front gardens, which in turn may have sound-absorbing features like hedges. The rows of houses, whether detached or semi-detached, are punctuated by gaps.
Moderate: typical of the railway suburbs which begin around the further edges of Zone 2 and the peripheral town centres like Croydon, Romford, Kingston and Enfield. Residential areas have a greater mix of housing type, including streets of terraced and semi-detached houses with only small front gardens, low-rise new-build flats, maisonettes and deck-access council estates.
High: common throughout Zones 1 and 2 where the streets are often narrow relative to the heights of the buildings flanking them. Reverberation is particularly noticeable among the Edwardian-era mansion flats and the Guinness Trust, Peabody and LCC estates with their enclosed central courtyards. It’s also the accent of much of the West End and the high-rise canyons of the City.
For an example of city centre reverb, here’s a mundane recording I made a few days ago while sitting on a bench in Red Lion Square in Holborn:
Itinerant saxophone players like the one in that recording are a lucky find, but the reverberant qualities of the streets are more often made plain by vehicle horns and the diesel engines of taxi cabs. Much of central London’s built environment west of Ludgate Circus hasn’t changed hugely over the past century and so there’s a tinge of familiarity in this recording of Leicester Square made in 1928:
I spent my earliest years in central London before my family moved out to the surburbs when I was about eight. Most of my earliest sound memories are of TV advert jingles and the theme tunes for children’s programs like The Magic Roundabout and The Banana Splits but I also recall a few reverberant sounds like the cry of the rag-and-bone man as he did his rounds, and the shouts of the market traders in Berwick Street.
Perhaps, like the blind man said, there is a subconscious effect at work. Just as our own accents are most strongly shaped at a young age, it may be that the reverberant properties of where we grow up establish preferences which persist into later years.
As a teenager, the music I liked best typically had a lot of delay: stuff like Killing Joke, Public Image, Joy Division, and Siouxsie and the Banshees:
It seems stretching it a bit to claim that this had much to do with time spent in narrow streets as a small child. More likely is how such music, with its wide sound-stages and suggestions of dark spaces between the instruments, appealed as a metaphor for my own wishes to become independent of my parents, like the band photos of the time which showed the musicians posing as if they had nothing to do with one another.
What is left is a sense of close familiarity, like that evoked by smell, when I listen to central London. It is not a comforting feeling, but neither is it quite as unsettling as that heard by George Bone, the protagonist of Patrick Hamilton’s novel Hangover Square, written in 1939:
The wheels and track clicked out the familiar and unmistakable rhythm – the sly, gentle suggestive rhythm, unlike any of its others, of a train entering a major London terminus, and he was filled with unease and foreboding as he always was by this sound. Thought and warmth must give place to action in cold streets.
Earlier this year, London’s population was reckoned to have exceeded 8.6 million, a level last reached in the late 1930s. Despite regular horror stories of people paying good money to rent sheds or converted cupboards there is no obvious sign of demand falling. Since there seems to be little to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy that more people is necessarily a good thing in every way – are you some kind of a misanthrope? – local councils anticipate a need for more private housing, which means building upwards.
The revival of mansion-flat building is obvious along the Thames at Vauxhall but new high-density housing is being thrown up across the city, eastwards at least as far as Barking:
The reverberant accent of central London is becoming more widespread, made obvious by the noise of car doors and front doors slamming in the street, and so too the sense of lives lived in private – the sound of home.
FOR THE PAST four years I’ve been adding historical radio recordings of London life to this website. It now amounts to around 90 sound files with a total listening time of over four hours. If you haven’t done so already, please check out that section and immerse yourself in the sounds of a world now moving beyond living memory.
Unfortunately this particular well has now almost run dry. There are only a few more recordings to come and then that’s your lot. However, there have been three additions in the last week to which I’d like to draw your attention.
The first is a proclamation by the Common Crier from 1939, the day after Chamberlain declared war. The Crier lists all the goods which are to be considered contraband of war.
Next, from 1936, there’s a recording of the announcement at St James’s Palace on the accession of Edward VIII. A massed gun salute from St James’s Park booms out in the background.
Finally, and in my opinion the best of the three, there’s what the BBC judged to be a ‘very good atmosphere’ recorded at night during the 1946 victory celebrations by the Thames at Westminster.
Hope you enjoy listening.
COMMENTS ON blog posts are back up and running now I’ve installed the Disqus system. LiveFyre comments went haywire for some reason when I redesigned all the site’s pages a few months ago.
You can also now add comments to entries in the old radio recordings section.
LAS VEGAS was the original gangsters’ paradise during its heyday between about 1950 and 1980. Not only were the hotels and casinos Mob concerns, but even gift shops were by run by the likes of Tony ‘The Ant’ Spilotro, the Chicago Outfit’s enforcer during the 1970s.
Imagine the possible life history of a single US dollar note of those times, the kind of goods and services it bought, and the hungry, grabbing hands it passed through. Seemingly inocuous souvenir EPs, like the ones featured here, would likely have provided a percentage to someone best known by their nickname.
The disc inside the sleeve pictured immediately below was made of red vinyl, with the sleeve doubling up as a mailing envelope so you could post it to your friends and family back home. It’s a great idea for a souvenir.
The second EP, which dates from around the same times, lists more venues on the cover than seems possible to cram onto the disc itself. The back cover blurb promises that you’ll hear the Keno lottery numbers being called and ‘the sound of the jackpots crashing and spilling out, and the bets being called at the various tables’.
Sound, of course, is integral to the immersive, euphoric and disorienting experience which casinos create. As long as you can hear the clatter of a jackpot being paid out somewhere then there’s hope – or so you’re supposed to believe. Not featured on either disc are the kind of top-rank entertainers you’d have got to see and hear for just the price of a two-drink minimum charge: Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, or Elvis Presley performing at the New Frontier when he was just 21.
Perhaps our own fleshpots of Blackpool and Margate produced their own more homely equivalents of these intriguing pieces of vinyl ephemera.
DIFFERENCES IN THE practice of sound recording are usually thought of in terms of technique and subject matter. Studio recording is contrasted with field recording. Interviews occupy a realm separate from wildlife sounds. A recordist expands their repertoire by getting a contact mic to make audible the vibrations racing through solid objects.
Ways to change your recording approach include things like investing in new kit, travelling more widely or thinking of different subjects to record. Such decisions don’t happen in a vacuum. They’re influenced by established traditions in recording, the demands of work, and one’s own personality and preferred ways of dealing with people and the environment.
A while ago I tried a rough summary of these influences and their role as parameters, like switch settings, from which more precise decisions cascade:
The fundamental issue in recording is the relationship between the recordist and their subject.
The relationship which actually emerges in real life might not be the one which you set out to achieve. Things don’t always go according to plan. But at the level of intentions at least there exist what I’ll call stances, which are relatively stable and enduring ways of working and thinking about recording.
Here I’ll describe five possible kinds of stance: observational, self-reflexive, collaborative, transformative, and data gathering.
The observational stance is involved in most of what’s described as field recording. Its goal is to record sounds which would occur anyway if they weren’t being recorded. It then processes and presents them so that there is an explicit correspondence between the finished recording and the original sound source.
The logic of the observational stance demands efforts to ensure that the flow of information is one-way, from the subject to the recordist. It also tends to push recordists towards obtaining the highest fidelity or sound quality they can manage.
Almost unique to the stance is an interest in auditory arrays where there is no single focus of interest and which are comprised of many independent sound sources, as with the recording of urban and rural soundscapes.
The self-reflexive stance is taken when the recordist is the subject. Obvious examples include audio diaries, many podcasts, aides memoire made on voice recorders and mobile phones, and solo musicianship.
The flow of information is that of a feedback system, as the recordist monitors their own sounds and speech. There is a single focus of interest in the auditory array.
To a first approximation, most recorded and broadcast sound is made in the collaborative stance. The subject is aware of the recordist’s presence and the act of recording involves some form of consent, either tacit or explicit. Examples include studio recording, oral history interviews, and news gathering.
Information flows between the recordist and the subject in a two-way interaction. Typically there’s a single focus of interest whether the subject is a lone individual or a collective entity like a band.
Recordings can be made without the intention to represent their original context, meaning or nature. They may be changed beyond recognition by processing or else be given new meanings, not easily predictable from their origins, by contributing to larger creative works. The transformative stance is commonly adopted by foley artists, sound artists, and experimental musicians.
Information flow most closely resembles a feedback system when the creative goal is precisely defined in advance.
The data gathering stance is taken in scientific and engineering research where the reproduction of sounds is not the primary goal, but rather the identification, sorting, or quantification of elements within a sound signal. Examples of such work include speech analysis, machine learning, and research into animal communication and biodiversity.
The flow of information is made explicit in experimental designs, with sounds often representing a dependent variable and attempts made to control for confounding factors.
This simple scheme isn’t exhaustive: the post isn’t titled the five fundamental stances in recording. They surely don’t comprise mutually-exclusive domains. But I think it might be a useful way of thinking about recording, because it requires taking a step back from the immediate details of our habits to consider how we intend acting in the world.