Could It Be Magic? The Remarkable Disappearing Act Of The CD-R

Valentines Day, sometime in the mid 1990s. You and Jemimah have been going steady for a whole year already and you feel this anniversary must be celebrated appropriately. Besides it being the most romantic day on the calendar, you’re both clearly ready to take the relationship to the next level and now some kind of amorous gesture is required to solidify and strengthen this union. But what will it be? You’ve come up with an offering that you’re absolutely convinced will blow her socks off! Throwing on your loudest shirt, you grab the keys to the convertible and head out into the night. Parking up together in your favourite spot of absolute pitch darkness, you chivalrously lean in to present her with…. a diamond ring? A bunch of red roses? A promise to take off that shirt and set fire to it? No! Every one of these options pales in comparison to that ultimate token of undying devotion: a CD-R in a plastic presentation case, lovingly adorned with a tracklist scribbled in proficient blue biro. Cupid – take the night off!

Against all conceivable odds, this plan proves a blistering success. Jemimah is completely enraptured and demands to know if you’re a magician. Even the disc’s opening song – a sort of limpid guitar instrumental so inconsequential it seems to be both playing and erasing any memory of itself at the same time – is greeted as one might a vision of the divine. Your date really is going very well indeed and this whole romance thing is an absolute doddle! Thank you, recordable CD technology and especially that particular ‘cool electronics company’ that made it all possible. What could possibly spoil this happy scene? It’s NEVER going to stop being the 90s!

With the benefit of 21st Century hindsight, while this video may throw up its fair share of questions (Where exactly are they? What is going on with his wardrobe?), one thing we can be pretty sure of is that this freshly-burned copy of Entirely Forgettable Love Songs will have long since ceased to function. A terrible blow for languid guitar enthusiasts everywhere – and for great swathes of our nation’s sound heritage, by extension.

A quick history lesson: Launched in 1982 and developed in tandem by Philips and Sony, the original compact disc was a revolution, boasting a potential 75 minutes of crystal clear digital audio on a surface just 120mm across and only 1.2mm thick. Audio data is recorded as a series of binary digits embedded on a spiral 5km long and over 60 times thinner than the groove of an LP; a series of pits and spaces that is converted into analogue sound when read by a laser. With the digital audio content being protected from scratches and fingerprints by a layer of plastic, CDs were initially touted as being indestructible, with some TV presenters at the time feeling confident enough to demonstrate by attacking them with stones or spreading honey all over them (we would strongly advise against trying either of these at home). In spite of such childish stunts and the initial high cost of the technology, the CD was quickly adopted and became the dominant format for commercial music right up to the present day, only really superseded by the rise of digital streaming and download services in the 21st Century. It’s easy to see why – the CD boasts far better sound quality than a cassette and greater portability than a vinyl LP. They’re certainly not indestructible and are prone to scratches, smudges and other marks on the playing surface causing the disc to play incorrectly – or in severe cases refuse entirely. But if a conventional CD has clearly been well looked after, is in visibly good condition and has been kept safely in its box; there’s a pretty good chance that it should provide reliable playback for decades to come. Sadly, the same can absolutely not be said for what came next…

Another remarkable display of shirt-wearing!

Despite their comparatively recent development in 1988 and a fairly close resemblance to their compact disc cousins, the recordable CD or CD-R is a far more unpredictable specimen and undoubtedly the most troublesome of all the formats we’ve covered here as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Project. The simple fact is that they degrade extremely rapidly – even in ideal storage conditions a lifespan of ten years for a CD-R is considered optimistic, and with so many brands of varying quality on the market, many discs will be lucky to last even that long. Unlike a conventional CD, the digital data on the disc is suspended within a dye that breaks down over time, while the addition of sticky labels and marker pen to the top surface can cause further problems. Even if the disc appears in good condition and your CD player is willing to play it (which is never guaranteed, by the way), audio distortion, skipping and other issues caused by ‘disc rot’ or errors in the manufacturing process are surprisingly common. On the very rare occasions when we’ve come across an item that has completely refused to give up its contents, 95% of the time the pesky little troublemaker is a CD-R. It’s a shiny little nightmare.

So, for those of you organising your home collection or personal archive, one of the most important first steps is to be able to differentiate between the regular CDs and CD-Rs in your possession, as they are basically at opposite ends of the preservation scale. Thankfully, the differences aren’t usually too hard to spot, especially when placing the upturned discs next to one another and comparing the colouring of the playing surface. Regular CDs will be predominantly silver, while CD-Rs will more often have a blue or greenish tinge. We’ve found ‘the bluer the disc, the greater the risk’ to be a pretty helpful and accurate mnemonic. It’s a good idea to perform this colour test on everything, even the more ‘professional’ or ‘formal’ looking CDs in your collection, as many independent or ‘bedroom’ labels continue to release albums on CD-R even today – the lower manufacturing costs and the ability to make very short runs clearly proving too much of a temptation! If any doubt remains as to what kind of disc you’re working with, simply play safe and treat it as a CD-R, then make plans to digitise the contents at your earliest convenience. Better to be safe than sorry!

As part our commitment on the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project to not only preserve our nation’s audio treasures for future generations, but also to empower the Great British Public to do the same, we’d like to hereby invite you to our inaugural Sonic Surgery, a free event which takes place online, 1-2pm on Wednesday 24th February, where our Audio Engineer Robin Warren will be discussing the pros and cons of various analogue formats and highlighting some of the issues that one might face during preservation and digitisation. Tickets are free but limited and all are warmly encouraged to bring along some old records and tapes for a show and tell. It should make for a fun and informative hour. We promise Robin won’t spend the entire sixty minutes just complaining about recordable CDs, but you have to admit it’s a strange situation we find ourselves in when an original 1950s acetate tape reel of President Tito addressing the LCC has aged better than a walking tour of Southwark created almost half a century later. And yet here we are: The former still works without too much trouble, but the only way to hear the latter would be to try and track down the original participants and ask them if they’d mind having another go!

Southwark – pay it a visit and give your ears a treat!

At the close of our opening video time-capsule, the final shot pans slowly up to the night sky while our hero addresses the camera directly and expresses his confidence that they will be enjoying their new CD recorder ‘for many, many years to come’. We can only hope that their bright young love has endured longer than the average CD-R. And that he threw away that shirt…

Goodnight, drive safely…

An extraordinary generation: Woodberry Down Memories

During lockdown, UOSH volunteer Tim Hughes finished cataloguing Woodberry Down Memories, a collection of oral histories recorded on the Woodberry Down estate in 1986 and 1987. In this post, he explores the context of the collection and shares some of his favourite clips…

Home to over 6,000 people, Woodberry Down Estate is situated in the London Borough of Hackney. In a picturesque setting, next to two reservoirs and alongside the New River, the four acres of large houses and gardens that preceded it were compulsorily purchased from the Church of England in 1935 by the newly elected Labour London County Council. The estate was planned with relatively low densities and large open spaces for working class Londoners, although war intervened and the first residents did not move in until 1948. By the time the project was completed in 1962, 57 blocks of flats had been erected on 64 acres of land. The health centre – a model for the new NHS – opened in 1952 and Woodberry Down School – the first purpose-built comprehensive in the country –opened in 1955.

Map of the Woodberry Down estate, showing the main roads, housing blocks and two reservoirs.
Map of Woodberry Down Estate, 1949 (London Picture Archive 278158)

In the 1980s the oral historian Joanna Bornat led an oral history project on the estate, working with a group of older residents as part of the Over 60s club. The project culminated in the community publication ‘Woodberry Down Memories -The history of an LCC Housing Estate’.

Bornat’s experience was captured in an interview and discussion published in Oral History Magazine Volume 39 Past and Present 2011:

You said in ‘Woodberry Down Memories’ that it was a very diverse community. Is that diversity reflected in the oral history cohort that you managed to record?

JB. Yes it is. I mean, it wasn’t so much in the group who actually formed and met every week. There was one woman who came, an Afro Caribbean woman who would come but who would never speak, even when Grace (her fellow worker) was there. Grace went out and interviewed a couple of people who are in the book – Mr and Mrs Kalra.  And Mr Shah, he was very much part of the group and very keen and he and his wife were stalwart members of the Over 60’s Club as well.  And of course the group themselves, their histories were very ethnically diverse, you know, Sid Linder’s Jewish, Olga Adams Italian …”

Photograph of the Over 60s group.
Some members of the group at London Weekend Television’s award ceremony, June 1987, from the booklet published after the project. Left to right: Grace Harris, Sid Linder, Fred Townsend, Olga Adams, Les Tucker, Edythe Daly, Mr Kalra, Mrs Kalra, Jack Cox, Joanna Bornat, Dora Marks, Doris Hampton.

Joanna describes the estate: “This was an exceptional piece of housing, social housing, it was well researched, well designed, [the LCC] spent a lot of money on it, people liked living there and you had everything you needed you know. It had a school, two schools, a doctor’s surgery, it had an old people’s home.”

As the Star newspaper headline put it in on 7 November 1953: ‘Woodberry Down Estate: London County Council’s Great Experiment’.

Three photographs of Woodberry Down School, including one of a classroom, one of a tuck shop booth, and one of a workshop.
Photographs of Woodberry Down School.
Left to right: classroom, 1954; tuck-shop, 1959; workshop, 1955 (London Picture Archive 192000, 199256, 199285)
Model of Woodberry Down Health Centre, 1949 (London Picture Archive 229423)

The tapes, held at Hackney Archives, have recently been digitised and catalogued at LMA as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project – resurfacing the voices of this resilient generation, one shaped by poverty, war, discrimination, prejudice and disadvantage. Listen below to discover a wonderful range of rich stories of working class people, brought together through the common experience of being allocated a flat by the authorities and together forming a new community.

Yet the interviews also reveal common experiences with current generations – preoccupation with family and relationships, the local area, schooling, dealing with people in authority and the rules we have to live by, and concern about the affordability of housing for their own children, who are priced out beyond their locality and roots.

There are so many personal stories to listen to, value, learn from, and enjoy. Here are a few brief excerpts:

Sid Linder talks about gangs in Clerkenwell and Aldgate (ULMA031/1)
Olga Adams talks about training as an oxy-acetylene welder during the Second World War (ULMA031/3)
Interviewees talk about the issue of rats when the workmen moved out (ULMA031/4)
Olga Adams talks about hosting visitors from Belgium and Scotland at her flat on the estate (ULMA031/6)
Olga Adams talks about her father being classified as an ‘enemy alien’ during the Second World War (ULMA031/1)
An interviewee describes fitting out his flat on the estate – and how he secured one (ULMA031/7)
Dora Marks talks about the lack of amenities on the estate when she first moved in (ULMA031/8)

Explore more photographs of Woodberry Down on the London Picture Archive, and read about Hannah’s experience of cataloguing the collection on placement here.

Audio Anthology – London Voices and Sound

Since 2018, the Unlocking our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project at London Metropolitan Archives has been digitising a selection of sound archives from across the capital. These include oral history, world music and the performing arts. To date we have preserved over 6,000 recordings, making the job of creating this 30 minute compilation … a challenge.

How did we do it? Well, we asked members of the project team and our wonderful volunteers to select and introduce their favourite.

We had a fantastic time pulling it together, below you will find the tracklist:

Track 1 – Wheelchair Ballroom Dancers, The Ealing Saints | Brent in Sound
Track 2 – Poetry by Merle Collins | Bogle-L’Ouverture
Track 3 – Memories of WWII rationing with Christa Gulliver | Southern Housing Group
Track 4 – Creating Music in Class | Inner London Education Authority
Track 5 – Interview with Charles Esche | Audio Arts
Track 6 – Memories of Petticoat Lane Market with Hyam Gilbert | Interviews with Hackney Residents Track 7 – Community life with Joan Foster | Five Women
Track 8 – The childhood memories of Muhammed Asif | Muslim Communities Project

Thank you in particular to our volunteers for their contributions – Sophia, Richard, Tim and Gosia.

Learn more about our work via the website – https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/history-and-heritage/london-metropolitan-archives/about-lma/unlocking-our-sound-heritage

Sound Sunday: Clapton Youth Centre in Grenada

Radio Free Grenada QSL card, including address and logo.

As we’re coming into the final year of Unlocking Our Sound Heritage at LMA, over the next few months we’ll be sharing highlights from the collections we’ve digitised and catalogued (so far!) on #SoundSundays

Photograph of cassette tape with card insert, containing handwritten information about the contents of the tape.
Cassette tape LMA/4550/03/02/05/001 (Unlocking Our Sound Heritage reference ULMA009/1)

The UOSH team are the London hub for the project, but not everything we digitise was recorded here in the big smoke. This week our #SundaySound is a recording of Radio Free Grenada from August 1980. But how did it end up in our studio?

The recording was made by Jean Tate, tutor warden of Clapton Youth Centre, an Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) funded youth centre based in Hackney. Under the leadership of Tate and Anslem Samuels, the Centre was strongly committed to anti-racist action and education.

Poster for the Clapton Youth Centre 'Open Evening', including address and featured artists and activities.
Clapton Youth Centre ‘Open Evening’ poster (LMA/4550/03/01/002)

In 1980 Clapton Youth Centre became the first of three youth groups from London to visit Grenada, which had been taken over by the People’s Revolutionary Government the previous year. Other recordings from the trip include a conversation with Leon Cornwall, chair of the National Youth Organisation (NYO), and an ‘Ah Caramba!’ dance show.

Radio Grenada was one of the first institutions taken over during the ‘People’s Revolution’, and the renamed Radio Free Grenada became a vital channel of communication across the islands. In between music, broadcasters discussed the political situation and put out announcements about what was going on in the community – as heard in the clip below.

While touring around the island, the group from Clapton Youth Centre stayed in a cottage in Morne Rouge, near the Radio Free Grenada studios. In a scrapbook compiled during the trip, Tate noted that she visited the ‘heavily guarded studios’ – and that the most played record on the station was Bob Marley’s ‘Uprising’.

Cropped photograph of Jean Tate's scrapbook from the 1980 trip to Grenada. Features handwritten notes about meeting members of the militia and pressed hibiscus flower.
Jean Tate’s scrapbook from the trip (LMA/4550/03/02/04/009)

The Radio Free Grenada studios – and their tapes – were destroyed by American forces in October 1983. In this cassette, then, we have a slice of history – thanks to Jean Tate and Clapton Youth Centre (who you can just about hear in the background, if you listen carefully…)

Find out more about the collection on LMA’s catalogue (ref LMA/4550) and the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image catalogue.

If you went on the trip, we’d love to hear from you!

Sounds From Home: The Space Journey

‘Wow! This is incredible… Like the soundtrack to ‘Alien’ or something!

It’s safe to say that the presenters of BBC London’s regular ‘Making A Difference’ feature were intrigued when an extract from the inaugural edition of ‘Sounds From Home’ was chosen to open their weekend bulletin back in May. It was the first in a planned series of short video tutorials suggesting creative or practical projects to undertake during lockdown, using material from London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) as sources of inspiration.

On this occasion we were galvanised into action by the discovery of some experimental graphic scores found in a 1976 educational boxset from the Inner London Education Authority (more commonly known as ‘ILEA’), which managed educational provision in inner London between 1965 and 1990. Inside the box we found five reel to reel tapes, a teacher’s manual and various posters of graphic scores, each an exercise in composition that swapped the conventional crotchets and semi-quavers for shapes, colours and symbols. It was effectively all you needed to start making your own experimental music, so we thought ‘why not?’

‘The Space Journey’ by Hamish Preston

By combining the original progressive spirit of the graphic score with a few basic instructions for newcomers, we aimed to help people create their own journey into the far reaches of outer space – all without needing to go outside. It was our hope to bring the ideals of this ILEA boxset into the twenty first century and to inspire a whole new generation of youthful sonic explorers to set out on their own voyage of discovery – each armed with only a few household items and a sense of adventure. Here’s what we came up with:

But where exactly did this boxset come from in the first place? Now that we’ve travelled through the cosmos, let’s take a trip back in time. To offer a sense of the broader educational environment of the late 1960s and 1970s, we highly recommend watching ‘Music in School: A New Sound’, a television programme produced for BBC Schools in 1969 by John Hosier – who also produced the long-running BBC series Music Time. It features pupils from Shoreditch School and Ivydale Primary School engaged in numerous exercises in experimental composition and performance, before using these sounds to tell the story of a journey into space, to a far-flung celestial body known only as ‘the planet Galaxy’. We’d recommend making yourself a hot beverage and just settling down to watch the whole charming, wondrous affair in one sitting. Can you remember your music classes at school being anything like this? We certainly can’t!

Watching it over half a century later, what makes this programme especially fascinating is the emphasis on several themes – an understanding of sound, an imaginative interpretation of instructions and a sense of co-creation, or collaborative creativity. Obviously, something quite fresh and exciting was going on at this time – and this was still a full seven years before our boxset came into being.

In those years between 1969 and 1976, this more experimental approach to listening and making music moved into the mainstream of music education in London’s schools. This was due to the rise of electronic music in the popular consciousness and also to a few remarkable people who worked in ILEA’s music department and various organisations in its wider orbit (no pun intended).

We were particularly excited to spot the name John Baker in the boxset’s credits as ‘Audio Producer / Editor’. There could be little doubt that it was the same pioneering composer who worked for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop from 1963 to 1974, best remembered for his astonishing work mixing jazz with the latest developments in electronic music.

John Baker at the Radiophonic Workshop studios at Maida Vale – unknown photographer

For the uninitiated, this short video provides a brief history of the Radiophonic Workshop and attempts to place it in context, demonstrating the influence that its output had on generations of music makers, many of whom would have been schoolchildren in the 1970s. Mention the name of this hugely influential BBC department to your average electronic music enthusiast and just watch their eyes light up as they enthuse about its seismically important role providing music and sound effects to the TV series Dr. Who, particularly the iconic theme tune. Originally composed by Ron Grainer, it transformed into an eerie, otherworldly voyage through the ministrations of the late electronic pioneer Delia Derbyshire and the ever-affable engineer Dick Mills – in fact Grainer’s first response to hearing their treatment of his work was rumoured to be simply ‘Did I write that?’. Note the frequent use of visual language in this fascinating video describing how the theme was put together:  

In a time before synthesisers and computers made electronic music a more simplified process, members of the workshop would use household objects, rudimentary electronic equipment and the experimental cutting and splicing techniques of musique concrète to create the sounds of other worlds and conjure up nightmarish creatures – bringing modernist avant-garde sounds into the nation’s living rooms every Saturday teatime as it did so. But while the Radiophonic Workshop is perhaps better known for soundtracking the nefarious misdeeds of Daleks and Cybermen, they were also instrumental in bringing the sounds of the future into our schoolsstarting with the gymnasium.

This is the BBC Schools LP Movement, Mime and Music from 1969, created to accompany the long-running radio series of the same name. It features a number of compositions under the title ‘Radiophonic Music – Useful For Movement’, including John Baker’s ‘Structures’, one of the most remarkable works on an already remarkable album. Composed by Baker a year earlier, the sleeve-notes describe it as ‘An abstract ‘space’ sounding composition which, after hearing several times, could be built into a dance structure, with individual movers working separately and then towards group sculptures at certain points of the music, which then melt and reform as a different sculpture’. Watch the video below and you’ll notice it makes a rather fitting soundtrack for modernist architecture as well!

We’re so used to hearing electronic music in every facet of our lives now that it’s easy to forget what a seismic impact these sounds would have had in the 1960s. Compositions like ‘Structures’ were not created by computer and synthesiser which at the time would have been prohibitively expensive. They were quite literally created by hand, using whatever implements were available and painstakingly cut and spliced into a final arrangement on a reel to reel tape recorder, using razor blades, sticky tape and a steady hand. Writing in 2008 for the release of archive collection The John Baker Tapes on Trunk Records, John’s brother Richard Anthony Baker offers us a tantalising glimpse into his work:

John invented many techniques. He recorded onto reel-to-reel tape the sound of everyday objects, such as the twanging of a ruler on a desk or a cork being pulled from a bottle. By changing the speed of the tape, he could alter the sounds’ pitch and was then able to compose a melody from these sounds by, for instance, making a minim fill four inches of tape, a crotchet, two, a quaver, one, and so on. More cleverly, if he wanted to introduce a jazz feeling to the tune, he cut a note slightly short so that it anticipated the beat. The work was painstaking and demanded a steady nerve. But it was the job for John. He loved it and was never happier.

John himself describes the compositional process in this archive clip discussing an eight second jingle he created for the long-running BBC series Woman’s Hour. Listen to the intricate complexity of this recording and marvel at the fact that the whole thing was put together by cutting and splicing innumerable tiny snippets of tape!

While John appears to have taken a less creative, more editorial role in the production of ‘Creating Music In Class’, his years at the Radiophonic workshop and the creation of so much remarkable sound would have made him the perfect candidate to help bring the sounds of the future into the classroom. And it’s important to remember that despite the avant-garde ideas in play throughout the Creating Music in Class teaching programme, it is still very much the classroom it was intended for. Indeed, the intended age group is specified as 10-13 years, which is all the more astounding when you consider that the handful of compositions on the accompanying reel to reel tapes don’t sound that far off from the experiments being simultaneously conducted across Europe by grownups!

By encouraging the use of household items in our own video, we hoped to encourage viewers to think creatively about sound making, in particular those without access to more conventional instruments. It was also intended as something of a tribute to John’s work extracting intriguing sonic textures from cider bottles, popping corks and twanging rulers. Furthermore, the decision to concentrate on making our sounds using a single glass was also, in its own way, a small nod of appreciation to Shoreditch School’s Brian Dennis, his class of ‘69 and their experiments together conjuring up ‘heat, radiation, relentlessness, intensity, stillness’. All words that could easily be applied to our current year of 2020! 

So, what are you waiting for? There are far worse ways to observe social distancing than travelling through the cosmos with a wineglass! We’re hoping this video will inspire a whole new generation, old and young to get creative and come up with their own soundtracks to the score, or better still, make their own graphic score and create music for that. And if you come up with something interesting, be sure to share it with us, either by getting in touch or by posting it online with the hashtag #SaveOurSounds. We can only speculate as to what the music team at ILEA would say if they knew that something they’d created in 1976 was still inspiring new generations of sonic explorers today. But we’re pretty certain they’d roll up their sleeves and jump right in themselves…

Graphic score by Jess, aged 5

Copyright and Sound – A year with the UOSH project

Copyright is everywhere. Each time you listen to a piece of music, watch a television programme, or open a magazine, you will come across ideas, images and products protected by copyright law. Copyright exists to serve the interests of creators. It ensures their work is not exploited or misappropriated. Yet for most people, it’s the last thing they think of when looking at a painting or listening to a piece of music.

I’ve spent a year with the Unlocking our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project working as a rights officer. I’ve cleared copyright for a variety of sound recordings, including oral histories, educational resources and commercial radio broadcasts. I have come to appreciate how vital copyright is, and how complex and multi-layered copyright in sound recordings can be. Here are some of the most important things I have learnt over the past year. 

Unlocking our Sound Heritage will help save the UK’s sounds and open them up to everyone.

1) Always Do your Research

Copyright holders need to be traced before you can publish any material. For a UK wide sound heritage project like ours, it’s vital to get clearance from rights holders before recordings are put online. There are often multiple rights holders to contact for sound recordings. The three main categories of rights holder are:

– The sound recordist or producer (whoever physically recorded the material)

– The performer(s) – this is anyone who speaks, or otherwise creates a sound on a  recording

– The owners of the embedded rights included in the recording i.e. authors of literary works included in sound recordings or composers/lyricists of pieces of music included in the recording.

In an ideal world, sound recordings come to you with a fully documented provenance, consent forms, and a full list of credits for everyone involved. However, in reality this rarely happens. You need to use all the information you have and be diligent with your research to fill in blanks and identify contributors. I’ve found social media very useful for identifying performers. Never be afraid to approach people via these platforms – they can yield really positive results.


Cassette and photographs from the Samuel Lewis Trust oral history project – Sound recordings often contain multiple rights and require contact with a number of rights holders © Southern Housing Group

2) Log everything

All research must be thoroughly documented to ensure you have met due diligence standards. Set up detailed logs to document your  research and make sure they’re updated regularly. Keep on top of the paperwork from the offset, and you’ll have a clear paper trail proving you have made your best efforts to trace copyright holders.


3) Know when to cut your losses

I decided I would contact people three times before assuming they wished to decline permission if there was no reply. It’s important to have a cut-off point to avoid the feeling that you’re fruitlessly chasing, and to be efficient with your time.


4) Have a friendly and straightforward cover letter

The documentation that accompanies rights clearance is, by its nature, full of legal language and can be off-putting for rights holders. It’s a really good idea to have a cover letter that sets things out in plain and simple terms. This signals to rights holders that you want the process of clearance to be as transparent and easy as possible.


5) Detail is everything

Make sure you have everything listed correctly in your official documentation. You need to ensure all recordings are named correctly and nothing is left off. This saves time and means you don’t have to keep going back to rights holders for additional clearance.


And finally….


6) Prepare to speak to some amazing people

Talking to rights holders has been the highlight of this past year. I have spoken to such a diverse range of people, all with fascinating stories to tell. Playing a small part in reuniting people with memories of times gone by has been an honour. Sometimes relatives are hearing the voices of loved ones for the first time in years, and are thrilled to know these memories will be preserved. It goes to the heart of what makes the UOSH project so special – preserving moments in time for future generations to hear, and allowing voices from the past to be enjoyed well into the future.

Resources from the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA). The UOSH project is working on a number of ILEA recordings, featuring a diverse range of speakers. ©ILEA

You can read more about the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project at London Metropolitan Archives here: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/london-metropolitan-archives/about/Pages/uosh.aspx

‘That’s what you do as you get older; you look back’

This year the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project at London Metropolitan Archives teamed up with University College London (UCL) to offer a 10-week placement for two students from its Archives and Records Management MA course.

Here, UCL student Josie shares her experience …

I’ve been lucky enough to gain valuable insight into four processes undertaken by the UOSH team: cataloguing, digitisation, rights & sensitivities and learning & engagement.

UCL Students Paul and Josie In the UOSH Digitisation Studio 

Throughout the placement, I worked with Help Make History, a collection of oral history interviews held at Southwark Local History Library and Archive. The collection is made up of 16 compact cassette tapes featuring interviews recorded in 1986 by The Dulwich Society’s History Group at Dulwich Library. The Group interviewed residents on their memories of Dulwich and Peckham during and before the Second World War, as well as changes to local transport and shops in the area.

Many interviewees in the ‘Help Make History’ collection describe the shops in Dulwich and Peckham, and often mention deliveries of bread and milk made by horse drawn carts.

P. Baker Dairy in Peckham Rye, c1903 (COLLAGE 341112)
P. Baker Dairy in Peckham Rye, c1903 (COLLAGE 341112). Image courtesy of London Metropolitan Archives.

Before the placement, I hadn’t any experience of working with sound archives, so wasn’t sure what to expect or how practice might differ to archiving other media. It turns out they’re horses of very different colours! In principle it’s the same: there are things in an archive (often paper documents) that you need to document, you need to preserve things, you need to review how sensitive they are to determine access to them, and you need to provide and promote that access. In every stage of the placement, the main difference for me was that in practice each process feels so much more involved with sound.

We began at the very start, by condition checking the collection for any obvious issues with the physical tapes, listing visible characteristics and any liner notes which indicated content (which, peskilly, can often differ from the audio content of recordings!). These activities are known as ‘Stage 1 Cat’, or the first stage of cataloguing.

We then submitted the tapes for digitisation. Robin, the UOSH sound engineer gave us a brilliant introduction to the sound studio at LMA as well as a brief history of analogue formats, all of which are at different places on the vulnerability/obsolescence scale. Sadly, there is a chance that the physical process of playing some tapes for digitisation could render the original unplayable. This sad fact is weighed out by the threat that if you don’t digitise, there’s a chance they’ll be unplayable anyway, so it’s seen as a risk worth taking. The physical interaction and intervention with sound formats, including the associated risks, brings you so much closer into the digitisation process than photographing or scanning items. Working so closely with the tapes also makes the reality of losing sounds much more recognisable, underscoring the importance of the work the team are doing.

Many Southwark residents remember the tram service fondly in the ‘Help Make History’ recordings.

“For The City Via Southwark Bridge, also Embankment Services to Blackfriars” An London County Council Tramways poster showing a tram heading south on Southwark Bridge with St Paul’s Cathedral in the background, 1928 (COLLAGE 36917). Image courtesy of London Metropolitan Archives.

After digitisation, the next step was ‘Stage 2 Cat’, or second stage cataloguing, with UOSH Cataloguer, Kate. For this stage, we moved away from the physical items (the tapes) and recorded information about the (now) digital recordings themselves: this means summaries. On the face of it, it’s simple: you have 16 recordings of interviews, you just need to summarise what the interviewee speaks about. But, like the obsolescence of certain formats, this is where the experience of working with sound becomes much more involved and intimate, as you’re capturing information about (in this case) someone’s own words when describing their own life, which needs to be concisely summarised without losing or altering their sentiment. At the same time, you’re trying to capture anything that could be a way-in for a user, whether that’s mentioning a particular road or characteristic or event. When a user is faced with a summary in a catalogue (potentially without the recording available to listen to there and then), you want to try and make sure you can cover all interest bases. Without the recording, sound is a totally hidden entity; without adequate indicators its contents may never be sought out and listened to. I can’t quite articulate it, but with sound the potential is vast, and the experience of listening to one interview is totally different to reading a summary of it, and to listening to a ‘similar’ interview.

Despite the challenge of creating good summaries, this part of the process was brilliant. I really looked forward to getting to LMA to listen to oral histories each day and even found myself becoming attached to some of the speakers. Every interview had amazing anecdotes: about seeing the Crystal Palace on fire in 1936; about schoolgirls having snowball fights with Prisoners of War on Peckham Rye during World War Two; or the rivalry between egg-boys and the delicatessen owner in Lordship Lane.

We also gained an insight into UOSH rights and sensitivities review activities with Rights Officer, Victoria. One ‘Help Make History’ interviewee recounted political meetings at The Plough in Dulwich in the 1930s, commenting on the rise of Oswald Moseley’s Blackshirts (I highly recommend this recording!). Although the content had every potential to be sensitive or contentious, the interviewee spoke objectively about what happened, and so there was no real issue to be flagged. This was an interesting for me because throughout my studies, context has been paramount, but in this case, content took precedence over context.

The final element of the placement was gaining insight into learning and engagement with Project Manager, David. For us, this meant picking out interesting clips for an exhibition (to be confirmed – watch this space!) and writing short interpretation texts for the clips. This was a great opportunity to revisit my own highlights from the collection and introduce them to others. My favourite clip is below: the anecdote is brilliant, but I love that it contains the voice of the interviewee and, if you listen carefully, her husband who is simultaneously being recorded in a separate interview as part of ‘Help Make History’. As a cataloguer it was great to hear both of their perspectives separately, but I find that the sound of both voices in this recording builds a vivid sense of place and time for the day of the interviews at Dulwich Library in 1986.

Marjorie and George Payne were evacuated from their homes due to the fear of the nearby water tower at Crystal Palace collapsing.

I loved my time on placement with the UOSH team. I learned a lot, met some amazing people and worked with fascinating content. I thoroughly recommend getting involved with the UOSH Project if you have chance. If you haven’t, keep your eyes peeled for the British Library’s Universal Player to be launched, which is due to provide online listening access to many of the recordings catalogued as part of the UOSH Project.

Title quote taken from Help Make History interview. To learn more about the collection, contact Southwark Local History Library and Archive.

‘They were hard times, but I enjoyed it…’

The words of Ted Harrison, a resident of Hackney interviewed in 1983, capture the mood of his and others’ childhoods in London’s East End in the early twentieth century. His account of his childhood is part of a fascinating series of oral histories from Hackney Archives, being digitised at London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. For the past few months I’ve been delving into many of these oral histories, recorded in the 1980s with residents of Hackney born in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Hackney audio collection edited
A few tapes from the Hackney Archives audio collection

One consistent theme in the recordings is that life in Hackney at these times was tough for many people. Day-to-day life was often about ‘getting by’; taking what work was available, working long hours, and living hand-to-mouth. There were no unemployment benefits, so a period without work could mean relying on the goodwill of extended family and neighbours, being fed by local missions and soup kitchens, being placed in a workhouse, or sent away for longer periods of labour on a government farm. Families were often very large – one interviewee had ten siblings! – and crammed into just one or two rented rooms in a house.

Hackney - Charles Booth's Poverty Map
Ted Harrison was born on Pitfield Street, shown here in the middle of Charles Booth’s colour-coded map of Hoxton showing levels of poverty in the area

Despite these conditions, the kids of Hackney found creative, ingenious ways of making the most of their free time. The recollections of Ted Harrison and others in the archives demonstrate that the streets and squares of London were their play spaces; whatever bits and pieces they could scavenge and scrounge were their toys.

Street games were many and varied, but very often rough (at least the ones that boys played were – we’re hoping to hear female perspectives on street games as we continue exploring the collection). One that crops up in many of the oral histories is Jimmy Jimmy Knacko (or Knacker), also known as ‘weak horses’. This involved a team of boys with one kid standing with their back to a wall, another making a ‘back’ by bending at the waist and putting their head against the first, with others lining up and doing the same behind them. Members of an opposing team would then take running leaps onto the backs of those bent over, resulting in a pile of boys on the ‘back’. One interviewee – Mr Ashton – explains that the knack (pun intended) was for the strongest jumper to go first, aiming to get as close as possible to the person at the wall, and leaving space for others to leap up behind. Ted Harrison recalls that most times the person at the wall (known as the ‘pillar’) would end up getting knocked quite hard against the wall as a result. Once all were ‘mounted’ the team would then chant “Jimmy Jimmy Knacko one two three, I bobbaree, I bobbaree, I bobbaree and away!”

Clip of Ted Harrison talking about Jimmy Jimmy Knacko – skip to 1 min. 23 sec. for the chant!

If they managed to do this without any part of them touching the ground then they would repeat the process. If not, the teams would swap around. Result: hours of fun, likely getting a sore back and a few scrapes and bruises along the way.

This film held at the British Film Institute shows the same game being played in Yorkshire in 1900 – skip to 22 sec.

Gentler street games did exist, involving toys such as hoops and skimmers, marbles, and diabolos. There was also a game called tippy-cat or tip-cat which sounds like as much fun as you can possibly get out of two sticks. One stick – the ‘cat’ – was short with tapered ends, so that it could be ‘tipped up’ into the air when hit on the end with a larger stick, then batted away while in the air. The batter would then get points based upon the distance away the cat has landed, as measured in jumps. Again, potentially hours of fun, likely with less chance of pain.

Other activities such as making ‘grottoes’ were seemingly creative, but actually were thinly veiled attempts to wheedle a few pence out of adults. This pastime involved collecting discarded oyster shells to build – no-doubt in a very artistic manner – a small ‘grotto’ or castle in the street. Passing adults would be invited (or harangued) to view the splendour of the grotto in return for a small coin – in Ted Harrison’s words: “ah go on Guvnor, only a farthing!”. Grottoes were invariably set up near pubs in the hope of captivating adults in a more generous mood. However, you had to beware rival grotto-crafting children who might come and knock down your creation to eliminate competition.*

For many of the interviewees, their childhood memories were strongly shaped by the experience of London during a time of war. Ted Harrison describes how when the First World War broke out, children in the East End formed ‘tin bands’ using tea chests, saucepans, comb and paper and the like as instruments, and marched around local streets. In an outburst of patriotism – coupled with canny entrepreneurial spirit – Ted actually marched his ramshackle band all the way from Shoreditch to Trafalgar Square and the Embankment, singing a song about the German General von Kluck along the way, and happily gathering up coins that crowds threw at them. However, his band’s glory was short-lived; a rival tin band from another street picked a fight with them and stole their ‘instruments’.

Fights and scrapes were evidently a common part of East End childhood, though they were more staged or ritualised, rather than truly violent, according to an interview with Hackney author Alexander Baron. He also tells of street rivalry being played out via an informal Sunday football league. Teams of players would be formed street by street, and fixtures somehow organised by word of mouth. The result was that come Sunday, a street team from, say, London Fields would end up playing a street team from Hackney Marshes.

Alexander Baron describes street football matches in Hackney

Uncovering these personal memories of childhoods in the East End has been absolutely fascinating for me, and especially so hearing about them directly via sound recordings of oral histories. It’s made me realise just how important sound archives are to preserving aspects of our lives that maybe otherwise we don’t give much thought to. It’s also inspired me to be more creative: I’m off to find some oyster shells and try my hand at making a grotto…

This blog post was written by Richard Crappsley, an Unlocking Our Sound Heritage volunteer at LMA. 

*For more information about grottoes see A. Roy Vickery and Monica E. Vickery’s ‘Memories of Grottoes, 1905-1935’, published in Folklore in 1977.

A week in sound: volunteering with UOSH

Blog post by Hannah Tame

After attending the Archives for London talk ‘London Unspooled: Sounds from the Strongrooms’ at London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) back in May, I really wanted to learn more about sound archives and get involved in the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project. I particularly wanted to get some hands-on experience with both digitising and cataloguing audio material. I got in touch with Kate at LMA and was thrilled when they agreed to have me for a week’s placement.

My hope for the placement was to come away with an understanding of the process of cataloguing and digitising audio material, as well as a more general understanding of what working with audio collections involved. Although I was going into the placement with no experience of working with audio archive collections, I had heard a lot about the UOSH project and have always been really interested in the digitisation of archive material.

My time at LMA was split between working with two very different collections: the Audio Arts collection and a small group of oral histories taken in a reminiscence group at the Woodberry Down Estate in Hackney.

Tape reel in tape box with 'Topsound' on the cover. From the Audio Arts collection.
Tape reel from the Audio Arts collection, held by Tate Library and Archive (TGA 200414/7/4/4)

I spent the first day working on the Audio Arts collection from the Tate Archive, which – being something of a Tate fan – I was really excited about. Audio Arts was a cassette-based magazine established in 1973 by William Furlong and Barry Barker. Over the next 35 years the magazine featured contributions from over nine hundred artists, including Tracey Emin, Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys. For this collection, I catalogued some of the unedited tape reels and cassettes – including unpublished recordings – which involved recording any information on the tapes and their carriers. I also spent some time in the studio with Robin, the audio digitisation engineer.

Hannah and Robin in the sound studio, with masks on
Hannah and Robin in the UOSH studio

My remaining time was spent cataloguing the Woodberry Down Estate oral history collection, newly arrived from Hackney Archives. This was post-digitisation cataloguing, which involved listening to the interviews, writing summaries of the recordings, checking the transcripts and recording timecodes at key points. One thing I underestimated about this task was how time consuming it would be to compile each interview summary. Thankfully the interviews were a pleasure to listen to, as the interviewees described their experiences of growing up in the East End around the time of the Second World War. I only managed to catalogue the first few sessions, which mainly covered the interviewees’ childhoods. Nevertheless, I was surprised at how quickly I became immersed in their stories and was fascinated by the first-hand accounts of family and home life in east London in the 1930s. The interviewees described their experiences of poverty, class discrimination, school and home life, war, rationing, first jobs and first dates in frank and honest detail.

Architectural plan of Health Centre and Day Nursery for the Woodberry Down Estate
Woodberry Down Health Centre and Day Nursery plan (GLC/AR/G/09)

Photograph of blocks of flats on the Woodberry Down Estate, taken from Seven Sisters Road in 1955. People walk along the pavement next to the flats and buses and cars can be seen on the road.
Woodberry Down Estate from Seven Sisters Road, 1955 (SC/PHL/01/408/55/2939)

Something that really resonated with me during my time at LMA was learning about the time pressure of digitising sound material compared to documentary archive material. I learnt that there are only around 15 years to save sound collections through digitisation, before many of them become unreadable. It would be an incredible shame if sound collections such as the ones I had the opportunity to work with became lost without ever being digitised.

What I enjoyed the most about listening to the audio material was that with the oral history accounts, you get a sense of immersion that you don’t necessarily get with manuscript archive material. I certainly felt privileged to be able to hear such personal memories about East London and think it’s amazing that thanks to the UOSH project these recordings will be digitised and easily accessible for all. The biggest thing that I have taken away from my time on placement is that it has given me a confidence in being able to work with sound archives in the future.

A man passes a front door key to a smartly-dressed young girl, flanked by her parents. A man in mayor's chains is in the background. The family were the first to move into this block on the Woodberry Down Estate.
The first family in the block receiving their keys, Woodberry Down Estate, 1949 (SC/PHL/02/0898/76/10498)

‘Greetings, Future Listener’: The London Sound Survey

We were very excited recently to incorporate a large donation of field recordings from the London Sound Survey at London Metropolitan Archives. Founder Ian Rawes has been documenting the everyday sounds of the capital for over a decade and the resulting collection is an astonishing body of work capturing contemporary London in all of its colourful, chaotic glory – from street preachers to beggars, from marathon to carnival, all life is here. To commemorate the arrival of the collection, Paul Skinner, one of our team of volunteers (and a sound recordist himself) sat down with Ian to find out more about this remarkable project. Their conversation covers all manner of topics, including the genesis of the London Sound Survey, the ever-changing nature of the city’s soundscape, tips for aspiring field recordists and of course the recent release of Thames;  the vinyl LP of Ian’s recordings made at various locations along the great river. 

Tip of the iceberg – the London Sound Survey front page

PS: Can you tell us about the London Sound Survey and give us a brief history of the project?

IR: The London Sound Survey is a predominantly website-based project in which I collect and present recordings that me and other people make in and around London, and it also presents quite a lot of historical materials which are related to the history of sound in London and increasingly further afield. Many years ago I wanted to do a website about London, about the aspects of London that appealed to me most, which tended to be the more humble down-to-earth things traditionally associated with the city, such as street markets, junk shops, old man’s pubs, canals, odd places and so on. A kind of ‘worm’s eye view’ of the city. I started working at the British Library Sound Archive in about 2004 or 2005. That was a storemans job, officially called the Vault Keeper at their old depot off City Road in Micawber Street. I became curious about much of the material that I was handling – what was on these tapes? You could read the tape box covers and there were some surprising things. There was somebody who recorded the sounds of foghorns around Britain. There was a very strange character from Bradford who had recorded the sound of all the bus journeys it seemed you could take in Yorkshire, and he would write very meticulous notes on the back of each tape box. And I began to think that I too could make recordings of London…

Some particular chance discoveries – from handling crates of CDs and other things – encouraged me towards field recording. One was a series of recordings called ‘The Time of Bells’, made by an American anthropologist called Steven Feld. And this man had a brilliant job, by the sounds of it. He was paid to go around the world recording bells in different geographical and social contexts. Nothing very dramatic happened in any of the recordings, but they were done well and had a very realistic stereo image, so when you listened to them over headphones it gave the strong sense of actually being in these places that Steven Feld had visited. He wore a very small pair of microphones on his head and each was encapsulated in what was called a “headband windshield”. This particular method of recording had been patented by an American sound engineer called Lenny Lombardo. I was very impressed, so I saved up and bought a pair of these mics from Lenny. And the first proper recording I made – well, the first recording outside the house – was to put them on and wear them to the cornershop, where I then bought, a newspaper, a pint of milk… And there were all, you know, voices and so on in the shop, the rattle of this aging refrigerator and so on. I went back home, listened to it and thought ‘Wow! That’s pretty good!’

The next more adventurous recording was to go to Petticoat Lane market on a Sunday morning, this was April 2008. It was really lively there, all the traders had different cries. There was an old man who had a tray supported by a strap round his neck, like a cinema usherette, and he was selling what were claimed to be Duracell batteries. And he had a very interesting cry, which you couldn’t really make out, but he had a wonderfully weathered voice. There was a group of Christian evangelists at the north end of Petticoat Lane, who were singing while one of them banged a bongo drum. So, there were all sorts of things happening. That really got me hooked, and I began to make recordings in these sorts of noisy, lively public places. The London Sound Survey came into being a year later – when it went online, it had two or three hundred recordings of street markets, street preachers, political demonstrations, chanting football crowds – anything that was noisy and public. It was mostly about voices, and later the remit expanded to include things called ‘sound maps’. Instead of just recording rather precise verbal signals, I also started recording the atmospheres of places. And I think those two approaches, specific focus and atmospheres, were what dominated the site for a long time. 

PS: You’ve recently donated a large portion of the archive to the London Metropolitan Archives. What inspired that decision?

IR: Well, I had thought that some of the material might be of interest to people in the future. Even mundane recordings, with the passage of time, can become more informative and interesting. I mean, just imagine if you could go back to the 18th century and listen to just any old street scene in London, however mundane – it would surely be interesting. So, perhaps people in the future would feel the same way. There’s only so much a private individual can do to preserve their recordings. Perhaps when I’m older I might give up the website, or I might have no money, or I might fall ill or be hit by a bus. Even if it were fully paid up for ten or fifteen years, changing web standards may eventually make parts of the site unusable for visitors. So for long term preservation, it’s best to give your recordings to people who specialise in that kind of thing, such as London Metropolitan Archives. I found also that the approach adopted here was a very friendly one, giving the idea that the people here would be pleased to get the recordings, rather than that the archive was doing me a big favour by taking them off me! I thought ‘that’s the way forward for archives’!

PS: Yeah, friendliness counts.

IR: It sure does. It certainly did for me. But it’s very hard, I think, for archivists or anybody else interested in historical preservation, to predict what people will be interested in in a hundred years’ time. If you look, for example, at the BBC archives, the kind of stuff that they put aside for safe keeping in the 1940s and 1950s, there is an overwhelming emphasis then on the voices and activities of the great and the good of the age and there’s very little interest in what might be called social history. Nowadays I think tastes have changed somewhat. We are not so interested in hearing about Lord Lugard or Lord Curzon talking about the situation in Abyssinia (although I do think that’s important and should be preserved), but we’d like to know about, I don’t know, what life was like in the docks in London, or what it was like to work in the laundry, or something like that. 

PS: As you say, digital formats are so difficult to preserve in the long term. Even physical formats aren’t forever so an ongoing archive that can maintain this is essential.

IS: It is. Digital formats – particularly highly compressed ones – do seem very vulnerable to obsolescence. There used to be a digital format called RealPlayer. That was not just the format, that was also the actual audio player. And that was commonly used on websites. People would use RealPlayer or RealAudio files to present pretty compressed, easily streamable audio files online. And not just hobbyists, big concerns like the BBC used, I think, RealAudio. Now they just don’t work and I don’t know if anyone can really be bothered much to try and translate RealAudio files into something we can listen to today. So you just don’t know. A lot of people have been predicting the end of mp3s. I think they’ll be around for a while yet because of their convenience, but eventually they will surely go as well. 

PS: Can you tell us about the new LP Thames – what made you choose the locations and the recordings that make up the LP, and the fact that it doesn’t follow a conventional sound map from the centre outwards, it goes back and forth. What was the thinking behind that concept?

IR: There are eight recordings and I think six or seven of those were made long before any idea of an album came up. The idea for the album wasn’t my own – it was suggested to me by [the composer and sound artist] Iain Chambers, who offered to release an album of my recordings. I cannot remember if it was him or me who suggested that the theme of the Thames be used, but I did have some good recordings that I’d made inside Tower Bridge and also in some places along the Thames estuary, and it seemed logical that these should all belong together on a record. Now, there is one limitation on this and listeners will note that there is nothing further west of Tower Bridge on it and that’s not inverted snobbery of any kind. The river is posher as you go further west, it’s true, but it’s also blighted by aircraft noise. The flight paths as you approach Heathrow get very noisy as you go towards what used to be called the Arcadian Thames – the old Thames of Syon Park and Palladian mansions and Richmond Hill and so on. It should really be a very attractive part of the city, but it is really under the thumb of really oppressive aircraft noise. So I haven’t gone there to record. Also the range of activities you encounter is not as great as along the estuary, which seems to be on a bigger, grander scale altogether. The estuary had until fairly recently an oil refinery. It has big gravel and sandstone quarries. All kinds of activities happen along it. And there are also natural habitats as well where you get things like marsh frogs and wading birds and so on. You don’t really get that in London or to the west of it so much.

PS: And in terms of the sequencing, how did you approach that?

IR: Well that was more just for what sounded good together, rather than following a geographic course, say from the centre out to the sea for example, which would surely be a more logical and obvious choice to adopt. But when you put things in that order it didn’t sound like such a good sequence. The two sides are meant to be complementary to one another, for example, the first track on side A is inside the Bascule Chamber which is a kind of brick-lined void [beneath] Tower Bridge. So side A track one is the North Bascule Chamber and side B track one is the South Bascule Chamber. So the tracks are complementary across the two sides as well as being complementary in sequence. I hope that when listened together it makes for a pleasing combination.

One of the Tower Bridge Bascule Chambers. Photo by Jez B of Flickr

PS: How do you prepare for making a recording, and what decisions go into choosing what sounds you capture? I read in the past that you started off editing recordings and now you just choose to record in locations that are interesting, so you don’t have to edit?

IR: Yes. It’s pretty hard, I think, to find interesting sounds. Initially you pick all the low hanging fruit as it were – the football crowd, the street market, churches, all those sorts of things. After a while you start to run out of them or they become more difficult to find. So I think a big part of the preparation is just trying to think what to record, and on the website some of that is dictated by the need to construct web pages rather than discs of recordings or just an array of recordings. The website has quite a strong graphic element to it so I like to somehow feel constrained to thinking of series or themes of recordings which can be represented visually as well as audibly. So they have to make an attractive looking web page that people will want to explore and click on different bits and compare. That’s what I hope people will do. Whether they actually do that I’m still not sure. But some of the graphic schemes have worked quite well. Sometimes the ideas come very quickly and sometimes slowly or they’re second best to some other idea which seemed really good but proved to be impractical.

PS: So was there any further preparation? Did you know what to expect when you got there or did you think about what time of day to record?

IR: Oh, yes. Well I mean there’s all kinds of quite dull things you have to prepare for, like transport and how far you have to walk and so on. Is the spot that you want to go on reachable? I think the big issue for urban and near-urban recordists is what will be noticed and what won’t be noticed. If you are recording in busy situations it is useless to go along with a mic in a big windshield looking like you’re from a film crew or something. Amazingly I’ve seen people offering urban sound recording workshops in which they illustrate the course with precisely that – someone looking very serious with a pair of huge headphones on and a big windshield blimp. It is much better in busy situations to use very discreet microphones so you don’t look like you’re recording. Even given that some people out there are very good at reading people’s behaviour and if you act and move in a very slow deliberate way when you’re making recordings there are people out there who will spot that. They won’t know what you’re up to, but they’ll know that you’re up to something.

PS: You talked about moving around earlier in the first recordings. Do you tend to walk and record or stay static?

IR: It depends really on the environment. Some places and some situations are much better to walk around. Let’s give a familiar example – the Lord Mayor’s Parade. Now you could stay in a static spot to record the Lord Mayor’s Parade go by, but here are the problems with that. First off, you’re then at the mercy of the people around you and it would be your luck that there’s someone with a really loud voice close by or someone with a braying irritating laugh or something like that. The solution is to walk, not with the parade but against its direction of movement. That way you pack in more variety within a given space of time and you’re not at the mercy of particular individuals in the crowd. So that’s an obvious case, but there are some environments where the changes of timbre and activity are rewarding to record I think. Let’s consider some of the narrower streets in the City or the little alleyways you get in the West End. You’ve probably been down Gerrard Street in Chinatown. You could walk along there and there are some strange little alleys with little shops in them. There’s all sorts of variety that would occur during the course of such a walk. So it makes sense to make a walking recording. I also think you have to be able to walk quietly. You should wear clothes that don’t make any noise. There is a kind of strange sound recordist walk – I’m sure it looks a bit odd. But it does look very deliberate and I think for that reason people tend to get out of your way when you do it without them having to ask them, which is really useful! 

PS: So you’re not present in the recording itself, although with that type of recording the listener is still conscious that you’re present because you’re guiding the movement – as opposed to a static recording.

IR: Yes. I’ve read some debate about whether you should include traces of yourself in your recording or not. And I’m not really sure which way to fall on it. Some people criticise the idea of the disembodied recordist that doesn’t make any sound. I don’t think those criticisms have any substance whatsoever. To me it just demands more skill not to get yourself in your recordings. To control your breathing, to move quietly, and so on. It’s a bit like taking photographs and making sure your thumb is not over the lens or that you’re not constantly getting glimpses of yourself in reflections in windows. Anyway, it’s supposed to be about the environment and the city, not about me, you know. I would rather that you listen and made up your own mind. Use your own imagination, triggered by sounds, to picture this place in time.

Paul Skinner and Ian Rawes at the London Metropolitan Archive’s Sound Studio

PS: Can you tell us a bit about the sonic nature of the recordings you choose and their potential geographic or historical importance? For example, the refinery sirens are amazing, but also have a historical angle as well.

IR: Well that was double bubble. I didn’t know the refinery was due to be closed when I made the recording. I didn’t even know the refinery made the particular noises that are in the recording, which is an eerie, almost whale-like, wailing sound made by the sirens. I thought I was just going to record the kind of deep powerful rushing sound made by the gas flares as they are burnt off. But it was the World Cup that day, the 2010 World Cup, England v Germany match. And I think the siren was being sounded really to cheer on the England team. Didn’t do them a lot of good – people will know that Germany won in a very decisive way. So I guess that’s of a particular time. I didn’t know then that the Coryton Refinery was due to be shut down, but it was, and many of its workers have now scattered throughout the oil producing countries of the world. Some have gone as far afield as the Gulf states and so on. So inadvertently that became quite quickly a recording perhaps of some small historical significance. I would guess most of the time I would hope that the sonic quality comes first because that’s immediately rewarding. I’m not being paid for doing this, so I guess I’m entitled to give my own pleasure foremost consideration, and the satisfaction of my own curiosity about the city. I have to be honest and say I think that comes first but I hope that as a byproduct that things of some social or historical significance are captured. 

Now, sometimes I do try and think of [historical significance] foremost but there is always the worry that you thought of a very worthy subject, but when you actually go there it’s just going to sound really boring. A case in point – yesterday when I had to come in to London I went down to the Borough and I was early for my meeting, so I went a bit further and got off the train at Elephant and Castle, because I know the area has been redeveloped and I used to live near there – I lived in a bedsit in the 90s for about a year. I used to go to the shopping centre a lot and I quite like the kind of scruffy market that extends around the outside. [Now] there’s an enormous new development of housing, virtually all private, which is springing up behind the railway station and extending right along the New Kent Road. And it’s all very new and clean looking, and much of it is still under construction, but it made me think that this is not the only really big area-based development that is going on in London. There are others; the south bank of the Thames between Waterloo or Vauxhall down to Wandsworth is being transformed very quickly. There are enormous private flat developments there. And very startling some of them look as well. Sort of silvery spaceships that have plonked themselves down – quite mysterious looking. This is the new London. This is not the world of the neighbourhood and people chatting over the garden fence. This is the world of people being polite to one another in the lift or on the stairs but then going back behind doors and getting on with their own very private lives. And this I think is becoming a more and more common way of living and a more common general form of architecture. London’s population is estimated to rise to as much as maybe ten million by 2035, that’s the most recent figure I’ve come across. And that’s a big change. The London I grew up in as a kid had a population of only about six and a half million. In those days, the 1970s, it was falling. People were moving out. Now hordes of people are moving in and most of it’s probably going to have to happen within the Green Belt and that means building upwards and more flat living. Here and there you see little plazas set aside, supposedly for the recreation of the inhabitants. It seems perhaps a bit early to say whether they will be used and whether a new sense of community will arise in these places. Perhaps it will, perhaps it won’t. But it seems a significant new environment perhaps to go along and make recordings in.

PS: It sounds like even though the population is rising, conversely human voices are being taken out the soundscape. 

IR: Yes. It’s a private world. Why would you talk in the street? I think more and more people direct their voices only towards those they already know. Think, if you go to a shop you don’t have to talk to anybody. You can go and use an automated machine which sort of talks to you. I went to one in Marks and Spencers and it said ‘Hi, I’m Eleisha”. So real human interaction is going to be replaced with a simulation. If you wanted to live like a hermit it would be really easy now in the heart of London to live like that. You could have all your food and other things delivered to you, pay all your bills in an automatic way. You might even be able to work from home. If you wanted you could interact with no one at all for weeks on end. It doesn’t sound like a very cheery prospect, but it may be that more and more people head, not towards that end, but certainly towards greater privacy and greater anonymity. Things which of course are not new in London at all but I think perhaps an acceleration of that trend.

Thanks to both Ian and Paul for such a fascinating conversation. The London Sound Survey website can be found here and you can listen to extracts from Thames here. Both are highly recommended resources for the whiling away of a pleasant afternoon… 

Photo by Benjamin McMahon