Tag Archives: audio

A journey into sound

When I was very young, my parents owned a reel-to-reel tape recorder. It had multiple speed playback and twin tracks. My sister and I played with this thing for hours, making funny noises, over-dubbing sounds, and generally having a high old time.

I was hooked. As they often say, “the colours are better on radio”. Theatre of the mind, where your imagination fills in the images from the sounds alone. I have a particular fondness for sound effects records, and ambient sounds of real places in particular. It’s just another of those myriad creative pastimes I’ve developed through my life.

Have a search around the interweb and you’ll find numerous projects which aim to capture for posterity sounds of the every day mundanities of life. Things like birdsong in an urban environment, the sound of a stream trickling through a culvert, the 8.15 to Harpenden… that kind of thing. A favourite is the London Sound Survey. Sound, for many, is something we don’t often think about, and with most of us plugged into headphones or earbuds, blocking out the world around us, it’s easy to lose that audible connection with our surroundings.

Anyway, last year, Best Beloved and I invested in a modern digital audio recorder. We’ve owned various analogue and digital recorders over the years, but most were strictly linear in form. You recorded the sound, you played the recording back, and if you wanted to get the sound into another format you had to transfer it real time. No accessing a digital file in those days. Now, with the new toy, we could make a recording, and get it into the computer for editing with a few clicks of a mouse.

Long story short, we are steadily building a library of some commonplace sounds of our modern world—and some of our not-so-modern world. To that end, I’ve set up a SoundCloud account where we can share the edited recordings with the world. The first playlist I’ve created is of recordings made on the Severn Valley Railway, Shropshire, last year. For best results, play back through good speakers, or a good set of headphones.

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/playlists/259485122″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /]

 

The London Sound Survey

I’ve always loved sound, from a very early age. I loved to record ambient sound—still do, in fact—and I acquired an extensive collection of sound effects records over the years. I find sound can evoke something in me that pictures with sound doesn’t. I can’t explain why that might be.

Anyway, following a link posted on Facebook by Say No To Estuary Airport, I discovered the London Sound Survey.

The home page intro says:

Welcome to the London Sound Survey, a growing collection of Creative Commons-licensed sound recordings of places, events and wildlife in the capital. Historical references too are gathered to find out how London’s sounds have changed.

If you have good speakers on your computer, turn the volume up and explore the sounds of London. If I wasn’t busy at the workbench, I fear I would be able to waste the entire day just soaking up the audio landscape of our capital city and surroundings.

Sixty years, eh?

Today, 7 September 2013, is apparently Cassette Store Day. Six decades ago, Philips revealed the Compact Cassette to the world at the Berlin Radio Show. Folk who really ought to know better (and some weren’t even born when I was playing with compact cassettes in the 1970s and 1980s!) think we should be celebrating this fact, and have persuaded numerous musicians and bands to release their music on this supposedly defunct medium.

It took a while for the format to become mainstream. Early cassette tapes were of mediocre quality, but as the technology improved so did the sound quality. As a youngster, I fell in love with recording tape—my parents owned an ancient reel-to-reel recorder that I played with for hours, even learning to edit tape with sharp things and sticky tape. My sister and I would make rude noises, create silly sound effects and play about with the speed controls. It was a hoot, and I still fondly remember such antics. As I began to earn a disposable income, I began to buy records, and eventually I acquired a reasonable quality cassette recorder so I could still listen to them in my car.

Amazing stuff.

I always wanted to be a radio DJ when I was younger. I’d still jump at the chance if it came my way today, if I’m honest. While I waited, as a callow and spotty teen, for my big break into wireless, I created my own radio show which I lent out to friends. I bought a second-hand Akai 4000DS MkII reel-to-reel recorder (YouTube link to a young fan demonstrating his 40-year-old machine), and a second stereo cassette recorder. I learned to  multitrack using the “bounce” technique, where you played back one tape and recorded it on a second machine with a second soundtrack. It was all very basic and limited, but I had a ton of fun. Eventually it spawned the Ticky Radio Show.

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The Ticky Radio Show was a three-hour über mix tape, consisting of home-made jingles, favourite tracks from my collection, interspersed with snatches of comedy recordings. It was very much a shallow copy of my hero, the sadly missed Kenny Everett. The show was lovingly crafted, with musical selections to educate and entertain—many tracks were “flip sides” of hit singles, if I recall—and presented in two 90-minute cassettes with custom inserts designed by yours truly. Also included was a comprehensive track listing, carefully outlining the artistes, record label, recording number and so on.

Originally, the TRS was in mono only, a legacy of the technology available to me. Then came a breakthrough: I could produce everything and record the show throughout in stereo! Sadly, this high-tech marvel was the last show I ever made, dating from 1985. I do still have those final recorded tapes (and one of the much-chopped-about seven-inch reels somewhere) of the last two shows I made. Having recovered them from their dusty storage to take their photo for Cassette Store Day, they will be rewound to the start of side A, returned carefully tape side down to the plastic case, and put back in the drawer once more. I do not wish to listen to them, as my rose-tinted memories of the hours spent in my home-made studio making the things will be much better than the real thing.

Oddly, I didn’t buy much music on cassette. I preferred the LP until quite late in the 1980s. Eventually I bought a CD player, and began to buy new copies of my existing record collection, as well as add new material. I still made copies on cassette, simply because my car had a cassette player. I was one of those people who invested in the MiniDisc, too, and it was quite a while before I was persuaded that an MP3 player was a worthy replacement. Making mix-discs from CD to MD was a fun exercise, especially with a proper stereo mixer and a pair of CD players, but I digress.

I still buy the occasional CD, but most purchases nowadays are a click away on the internet. The pleasure of selecting music, carefully timing everything to fit into the 46 minutes available, and then painstakingly writing out the playlist on the insert, is something I will fondly remember for many years. The utterly linear process would be completely alien to many today. Having to sit through a track as it’s recorded, and repeating that process to fill a whole tape, must seem such a strange thing to do. Everything is so instant these days, the concept of having to wait while something is recorded in real time seems so very old-fashioned.

I wouldn’t want to go back there, though. I’ve been there, still got my record collection, and some mix tapes to prove it. I just wish I could have had the technology I have today back when I was a teenager lovingly making those “radio shows” in my bedroom.

My love of audio recording is still there. I am currently considering acquiring a digital audio recorder to match with the DSLR for location sound. While I could use my MiniDisc recorder for such a purpose, I have grown to dislike having to replay the sound back in real time to get it into another digital form. If my 17-year-old self could hear me now!

Remember when…?

A friend pointed me earlier to a site dedicated to analogue audio tape cassette nostalgia, tapedeck.org. It’s a simple kind of site, just rows and rows of cassette tapes of all ages.

A happy half-hour or so was spent, remembering the various designs of tape cassette I used to buy. I also spent a while remembering when it was the thing to do to make your own mix-tapes by carefully selecting your favourite album tracks from vinyl LPs, arranging and timing them nicely to fit into a complete side of a C90 without leaving a massive gap at the end. 

(If you don’t know what LP, vinyl or C90 means, ask your grandparents!)

My preferred tape supplier was TDK. Indeed, I still have two AR-X90 cassettes in their unopened shrink wrap. Why, then, are the photos I’ve provided of Sony tapes? Well, before computers became fast enough, affordable enough and reliable enough to be audio/video recording devices, I used to mix and edit audio on reel-to-reel tape. Eventually, I moved to a multitrack cassette recorder—the kind of thing innumerable amateur groups used to record their demo tapes on in back bedrooms the country over, before sending them off to John Peel in the hope they would get a brief airing on his late night show on Radio 1. 

I wasn’t into making my own music, though. I preferred mucking about with sound effects and noises of various kinds. The epitome of audio cassette-dom, then, were the Sony Metal Master jobbies. Eschewing the rather common plastic shell, the Metal Masters used a ceramic composite for the shell and tape guide, in order to “provide the best possible sound quality”. The extra weight stopped the shell from vibrating in the recorder mechanism, and theoretically lowered the consequent tape flutter and so on.

We only owned one such tape, probably because the darned things were really expensive compared to the bog standard TDKs I used. We used this one tape for some audio track mixing for some video work, if I remember correctly. I couldn’t tell you whether it was successful or not, because it wasn’t long before we went digital—I bought a portable MiniDisc Walkman recorder shortly after, and we never really looked back.

So, this evening, I dug the old tapes out, dusted them down and took their portraits. I sent them over to tapedeck.org, and perhaps they’ll appear in the archives soon.