London Sound Survey; bird sound archive; drone gig

A few things that might be of interest:

  • An interview with Ian Rawes, who runs the excellent London Sound Survey, an archive of field recordings made in and around London. Read the full interview here. There are some recordings from the London Sound Survey embeded in the interview. My favourite was this recording of echoing oil refinery sirens from Essex:


  • One for the ornithologists and twitchers: in the interview, Ian mentions Xeno Canto, an international archive of bird sound recordings. There are currently 7339 species represented in the archive. According to the site, that’s an impressive 69% of all known species.
  • 4 hours of drone: my repetitive/experimental band Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo are taking part in a gig entitled ‘4 hours of drone’ at the CCA in Glasgow on Saturday 4th June. We’ll be inviting the audience to join us in using lots of small cassette recorders to make a drone. More details here.


Wish You Were Here

In January this year whilst visiting London, I found myself inside the Westfield shopping centre in Shepherd’s Bush on a Saturday lunchtime. It’s one of those flagship biggest-shopping-centre-in-the-UK developments, a 1.6 billion-pound retail cathedral stuffed full of gleaming glass and just about every chain store that has ever existed. It’s so big that they have computerised touch screen information points, mounted in futuristic white pods, which you can use to search for the shop you want and get directions to help you find it.

My reaction to the place was an odd mixture of awe, excitement and dismay that I often feel when experiencing the excesses of capitalism. I have to admit that the awe and excitement outweighed the dismay on this occasion: despite the ludicrous, hyperbolic architecture, the comic timing (it opened in late 2008 at the height of the credit crunch) and the fact that I couldn’t find a pair of jeans that would fit me, I was overwhlemed by the light, the scale, the space and the massive wall of tesselated angled mirrors outside the toilets.

As I was taking in the scene in the main atrium (pictured above, photo by WiNG), I noticed that the PA system was piping in a Pink Floyd song, Wish You Were Here. It’s a rather maudlin song about longing and loss, with references to Syd Barrett, who had previously left the band in tragic circumstances. As far as I could tell, no-one but me was paying any attention to this unexpected soundtrack. I had a digital recorder with me, so I quickly got it out and managed to catch the end of the song, which then segued into a much more upbeat piece of bland pop music. It was as if DJ Westfield had accidentally tuned into a prog rock station, then realised his mistake and switched swiftly back to Shopaholic FM. I have no idea what the legal implications are of uploading a recording of a soundscape in which copyrighted music can be heard. Anyway, here it is:


I have very ambivalent feelings about Pink Floyd. I confess that I was a fan in my teenage years, whereas nowdays I find most of their music overblown and difficult to listen to. But as a group they hold a certain fascination for me. They seem to represent the epitome of the dysfunctional stadium rock band, and a model of music making that may be dying out, if it isn’t dead already. As far as I can make out, a combination of personal emotional troubles and massive commercial success seems to have led the band’s members into a catalogue of bitter acrimonies, drug and mental health problems, broken relationships and legal battles. The band’s Wikipedia page makes for grim reading at points. If any further proof were needed that money and celebrity don’t necessarily lead to happiness, then Pink Floyd’s story surely supplies it in bucketloads. Thankfully, the surviving members seem to have finally made peace with one another, but only after decades of conflict.

What I find even more compelling is that they seem to have had sufficient awareness of what was happening to them to sing about it in their music, but not to actually do anything about it. In terms of their public trajectory at least, that’s how it appears. The most obvious example is Money, a song about the hypocrisy and vacuity of wealth. That song appears on Dark Side of the Moon, an album whose sales brought to the band exactly the kind of immense riches that the song ridicules. The last lines point out that, whilst people may agree that money is the root of all evil, ‘if you ask for any rise, it’s no surprise that they’re giving none away’. Roll on to 1987, and in an interview with Roger Waters, when asked about what problems were brought on by that album’s overwhelming success, he replied: ‘Mainly the one of what to do with all the money! You think of all the good you could do with it by giving it away. But in the end you decide to keep it!’ The lyrics also sneer at people who buy new cars; yet the drummer Nick Mason subsequently started collecting racing cars, and now has so many that they have to be kept in hangars.

Against that background, hearing Pink Floyd’s music in Westfield felt both incongruous and strangely fitting. There was something quite resonant about standing in a shrine to capitalism, surrounded by bustling shoppers, dazzled by plate glass and consumer outlets, listening to a millionaire singing about his sense of alienation from the world. Perhaps the last laugh goes to the band, who will, I imagine, have received a royalty payment for the public airing of their work..

Dawn chorus

During Chris Watson’s recent visit, he took a group of sound design students out to make recordings of the dawn chorus. Inspired by this, Jonathan Prior and I decided to do our own early morning excursion a few days ago, on May 11th. The dawn chorus is at its peak around this time of year. We chose to record in Holyrood Park between the Salisbury crags and Arthur’s Seat. Chris said that the best time is from half an hour before sunrise to half an hour after, so we set things rolling just before 4:30am and let the recording run for an hour, right across the daybreak.

Each of us used a Rode NT4 to make a stereo recording. As you can see in the photo, the mics were pointed in opposite directions and spaced apart, so we’ll be able to use the two stereo recordings to create a four channel piece at some point.

Here’s a 15 minute clip from my hour:

[audio:|titles=Dawn chorus, Holyrood Park, 11.5.2011]

Jonathan has uploaded his entire hour here.

The Google map below shows the location of the recording. This should make it clear why we chose it – plenty of habitats for birds, and the topography blocks out the noise of the city really well. It’s pretty amazing to live in a major world city that has this kind of environment right in the middle of it. Holyrood Park is owned by the Queen, which perhaps explains why it hasn’t been over-run by the developments of ‘luxury’ flats that seem to be taking over most of the city.


As time wore on during the recording, the birdsong was punctuated by a few other sounds: outbursts of croaking and flapping from what I think was a pheasant; a passing aeroplane; a cheeky honk from a train echoing off Arthur’s Seat; and a couple of noisy motor vehicles.

The biggest surprise of the morning came at the very end when we were packing up. It must have been about 5:45am, and a man came walking by, the first person we’d seen out there. He was quite well dressed, wearing a smart duffle coat. He said good morning, walked past, then came back and asked if we were professional film-makers. He said he was looking for someone to make a music video for a gospel group – could we do it, or did we know anyone who could? Part of me really wanted to say yes, just because of the unexpectedness of the offer. I didn’t though.

This sort of thing seems to happen quite often when I’m out doing field recordings. I think it’s the result of standing still for a while in a public place with some extremely conspicuous and strange-looking equipment. It seems to invite encounters.

One drawback of the location was the wind. It was a fairly still day by Edinburgh standards, but up in the park there was a stiff breeze. If you look at the map it’s easy to see how the wind gets funnelled from south to north directly into our chosen spot. Despite using a Rycote windshield (the big furry thing), I ended up with a bit of wind noise on my recording. Wind blowing on a mic creates low frequency rumble. I really hate it. To my ears, field recordings with wind noise on them sound really amateurish.

When we set up, it all sounded fine in the headphones. We then retreated maybe 200 meters away, to avoid the mics picking up any rustles or other noises from us. After a while, there were a few gusts that must have been too strong for the Rycote fur. I actually have an extra high wind cover – a sort of fleece jacket that goes under the furry stuff – so I’m going to start using that more often from now on.

In the clip above, I’ve reduced the wind noise by applying some low shelf EQ in my audio editing software using a plugin. I cut about 12dB at 240Hz, with the Q set to minimum for a gentle slope. Luckily, the birdsong is in a much higher frequency range, so cutting the low end like this hasn’t messed up the recording too much. If you listen carefully (e.g. at about 5:17) you’ll still hear a bit of wind rumble, but much less than on the original..

Chris Watson visit

This week, I’m organising a visit to Edinburgh from sound recordist and Cabaret Voltaire founder member Chris Watson. Amongst other things, he’s giving a seminar in human geography and performing a concert at the end of the week. These are public events – details below. Jonathan Prior and I are also hoping to interview him and produce a journal paper reflecting on Chris’s ways of working, what they can tell us about sound recording and its possible place in geographical research.

For those who aren’t familiar with his work, Chris is a world renowned sound recordist who specialises in recording the wildlife sounds of animals, habitats and atmospheres. His work regularly appears on BBC television and radio. He works with people like David Attenborough and Bill Oddie, but also releases his work on experimental music label Touch. Last week he had a programme on Radio 4 entitled ‘Jules Verne’s Volcano’ which is still available on the iplayer:

Seminar: ‘Capturing acoustic landscapes’.

Time: 4pm Thursday 21st April

Place: Old Library, Geography, University of Edinburgh, Drummond Street EH9 8XP

Performance: as part of Dialogues festival,

Time: 8pm Friday 22nd April

Place: Inspace, 1 Crichton Street, Edinburgh, EH8 9AB.

Sound, space and power in a primary school

I’ve just had a paper published in Social and Cultural Geography based on my PhD research in a primary school. It’s all about how sound is used in the exercise of power in schools. It’s part of a special issue on spaces of education. If you have access to the journal, you can download it here.

I had another paper in Surveillance and Society last year that is a bit broader but also has some stuff about sonic surveillance. That journal is free to access, and you can get my paper here.

This is all pretty cool as these are my first academic publications touching on questions of sound. The research was just conventional ethnography – no audio recordings sadly. However, I did go on to make a short film called Seven Primary School Spaces in 2008 where the sound was a major focus. Check it out:

I’ll be showing this film at the Royal Geographical Society annual conference this year in a session on ‘Moving Geographies: Film and Video as Research Method’ which is being organised by Katherine Brickell, Bradley L. Garrett and Jessica Jacobs from Royal Holloway..