Walls of Sound: the Sound Conservation Centre

Walls of Sound is a BBC Radio 4 documentary exploring the work of the Sound Conservation Centre at the British Library.

The idea for the programme, produced by Julian May and presented by radio historian Sean Street, was to explain and illustrate the importance of the British Library’s work in rescuing and preserving the sounds of the world around us.

The British Library has one of the world’s richest recourses of sound at its sound archive (including music, spoken word, soundscapes and sound effects both representing national life in the UK but also key recordings from oversees). In 2007 a new Sound Conservation Centre was opened by the British Librabry taking up 3 floors, 10 audio studios, a lab for rescuing sounds in all formats (some on the verge of extinction) and every kind of playback facility known today.

This investment recognizes the fact that audio-artefacts are becoming understood to be as important as any other kind of document from history, reflecting a fundamental change in attitude to sound itself more generally.

As the head curator of the centre states “a sound recording really takes you back to an event and a place and time. It can capture a lot more information than the written word so here at the Biritsh library we see the sound recordings as complementing the other materials, whether they are maps, manuscripts or journals, books.”

We have had sound recordings for over a century now and people are starting to look back at the 20th century and recognize a lot of information about the 20th century is held in sound recordings and moving image. Scholars also increasingly recognize sound recordings as a valuable form of documentary evidence.

Original dictabelt recordings of Nelson Mandela's trial © British Library

When Nelson Mandela was tried 1964 he famously said, “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunity. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve, but, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Without the British Library’s sound conservation work we would never have heard this. The trial was recorded using a Dictabelt system. The recordings soon became unplayable. The Dictabelts were brought to the British Library where digital transfers were made, allowing us to hear what Mandela said, and how. The Sound Conservation Lab works to bring recordings, which are otherwise considered to be unrecoverable or “beyond re-call”, back from the dead.

While you may have read articles or a book about a specific historical event, it is often when hearing the testimony of someone who was there that touches you as another human being listening. Which leads radio historian Sean Street to argue in the programme that thanks to new mobile and affordable recording devices there is a democratization happening, that the history of the present and the immediate past is in the hands of the people that made it rather than the historians who wrote about it.

A couple of projects the Sound Conservation Centre have instigated involve getting the public to make recordings using their mobile phones and free applications that automatically plots these sounds on a map. For example UK Soundscapes is a project which asks the public to capture the sounds of UK locations, mapping them to create “soundscapes” that can be visited by users on the project’s site. Participants are asked to record 5 – 10 second intervals of sound using their mobile phones, describing where and why they took the recording. The sound samples are then uploaded to a site where they are mapped (they have had 1400 contributions so far).

As the curator of the centre states “these days anyone can be a sound recordist or sound producer… half a billion mobile phones were sold world wide last year with cameras and sound recording devices so almost anyone can be a sound recordist. Its a wonderful way to get the public to engage in these projects at the centre and also generate interest in sound as a document.”

… these devices also take us into places where the professionals can’t go. We’ve seen this recently in Libya for example… we also saw this at the G20 riots last year where people used their mobile phones and free applications for sound recording to witness events as they unfolded… they became “citizen journalists” capturing events as they happened on the spot”.

Walls of Sound itself presents a travelogue of sounds from across time and place:

  • Underwater in a marine laboratory aquarium, Aberdeen (2000)
  • The roof of New York’s St Regis Hotel (1938)
  • Florence Nightingale’s study (1890)
  • In the ‘uppermost branch of a fir tree’, Northants (1974)
  • Somewhere in Himalayan Bhutan (early 1970s)
  • A bookstore in Paris (1924)
  • Inside a coin operated recording booth, Egypt (1943)
  • A podium in Wembley Stadium (1924)
  • Lubiri palace, Kampala, Uganda (ca. 1949)
  • A swamp in Kauai, Hawaii (1983)
  • A supermarket checkout, Glasgow (2011)

Will Prentice, head of technical services at the Sound Conservation Centre, has the job of bringing these sounds back to the world, up through the layers of time and technology, a practice that is described in the programme as a form of “rescue archaeology”. Even items that are currently ‘unplayable’ are retained as the curators wait for technology to catch up. They were able to recover a previously thought unrecoverable tin-foil recording using a light-scanning technique for example.

As the programme makes clear sound recordings are vitally important as they are often the only way some traditions (particularly oral and musical traditions) can preserve themselves. Oral and music traditions are often not written down and even if they are it is often difficult to tell how something should have sounded – as sound so often doesn’t translate in that way. The recordings therefore need to be made, archived and preserved and given the same status as written historical documents. They must also importantly be made accessible.

But the most touching recording for me is the final voice in the programme,  that of a now extinct species: the last surviving Kauai O’o A’a bird calling to a mate killed in a hurricane the previous year, unaware, as presenter Sean Street notes, “that he is now completely alone in the world.”

O\’o A\’a (Moho braccatus) A recording of a lone male singing, the last individual before the species became extinct in 1987, recorded by John Sincock, 25 May 1983, Alakai swamp, Kauai, Hawaii:

An appropriate reminder of the vital importance of the sound Conservation Centre’s work (and our own!) in recording and preserving the sounds of the world around us.

This entry was posted in Cultural Cartography, Experimental Historiography, Mapping Sound and Sounding Maps, Sound Art and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Walls of Sound: the Sound Conservation Centre

  1. roddyskeaping says:

    I caught the end of this excellent programme (keep ’em coming!) and, like you, was deeply moved by the recording of the last male O\’o A\’a (Moho braccatus). I want to compose a music piece as a tribute to this bird, using this sound archive. I hope the recording in your programme was just a snippet from a longer recording. I would really like to obtain a copy of this recording and am prepared to pay/make a donation should this be possible. Could you possibly direct me to a link. I wasn’t able to find it anywhere? Anyway – topping stuff. Yours, Roddy Skeaping

    • Merle says:

      Dear Roddy,

      thanks for getting in touch. I wasn’t involved in this making of this programme but rather have an interest in the use of sound recordings as archival documents.

      The snippet recording of the last ever O\’o A\’a (Moho braccatus) is played through a link to the British Library site http://www.bl.uk/listentonature/soundstax/birdhoneyeaters.html

      I would get in touch with the wildlife curator to ask if there is a longer recording for your purposes.

      I really like your idea of composing a music piece in tribute to this bird – if you do so I would love to hear it so do let me know.

      Best of luck with it!


      • Many thanks Merle,

        I’ll check this out right away. I will let you know if my group decides to take it into our repertoire (we are a free-impro music group)

        Best wishes,


  2. I just caught the end of this excellent programme on Monday last and, like you, was deeply moved by the recording of the last male O\’o A\’a (Moho braccatus). I am a composer and want to write a piece in honour of this bird. I’m hoping that the snippet played in the programme is an excerpt from a longer recording and that you might be able to give me a link/address to which to apply to get hold of a copy, for which I would be happy to pay/make a donation. I do hope you can help and having now enjoyed the whole programme on computer playback, rate this an absolutely first class piece of radio. Thank you. Yours, Roddy Skeaping

  3. Pam Sykes says:

    I’ve just listened to the podcast of this remarkable and inspiring programme. As a South African I was particularly moved by the recordings from the Rivonia trial, which I had never heard before. Is there any way the full sound files could be made publicly available to all? I have not been able to find them online.

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