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How to sound map a city: part one

How to sound map a city: part one
5th October 2014 Cities and Memory

Abendstimmung an den Landungsbruecken / evening ambiance at the LandungsbrueckenAs mentioned in a previous post, I’m off to Hamburg next week for a few days to record the sounds of the city for the upcoming ‘day in the sonic life of Hamburg’ project – the aim is to record as many of the unique and interesting sounds that define Hamburg’s sonic character, in order to create a comprehensive sound map of the city (which will be remixed by people from around the world, but more on that later).

As the trip progresses, I’ll write a few blog posts about my time in the city and my experiences of its sounds, but I thought it’d be interesting to ask the question ‘how do you map the sounds of a city’, to set up a few assumptions before I go, and to see which of those assumptions hold true, which are shown to be false, and what I didn’t consider before I left on the trip.

So this post sets out a few assumptions of things I think should be borne in mind when sound mapping a city – I’ll report back on how true this all is in a few days!

1. No one tells you how a city sounds

If you think of any iconic city in the world, images will flood into your mind – the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building and all the rest. If you think of how a city sounds, it’s much harder – and what’s more, there are very few guides, records or recommendations out there, so you’re flying solo. Guides tell you what you must see, what you must taste and what you need to experience, but sound continues to be a poor relation and rarely do you hear someone (outside the ‘sound community’) saying ‘you’re going to XX? You’ve GOT to hear the sound made by XX!’. So forget about googling for tips – the only ways to find out how a city sounds are by asking people who know it well, or by going yourself. Hopefully this project will change that for at least one city!

2. The sonic character of a city is more mundane than the sights

If I ask ‘what does XXXX city look like?’ or ‘what can I see in XXXX city?’, most people will answer with one of those iconic or characteristic images as above. But if i ask the same question about sound, the sonic character tends to be more closely woven into daily life an will usually be more mundane, focusing on the differences between the usual daily sounds where you live and in the place you’re visiting. How is the metro different from the one in your city? What do the local markets sound like? How are the tannoy announcements in the station? The sonic character of a new city jumps out at you just as fiercely as the new sights and smells you experience, but typically it’s rooted in the quotidian. Hence the highlights of sound mapping a city don’t come from visiting all the major tourist attractions you might go to on holiday, but in how daily life unfurls itself and makes itself felt through sound.

3. Many cities sound exactly the same – you might have to work hard

To a large extent, many cities (especially large ones) sound the same – particularly with a large city, it can be hard to find those little pockets of character and uniqueness, and not to end up with, for instance, loads of traffic sounds, crowd noises, shops and industry. While there’s something to be said for the COMBINATION of all those sounds being unique to a city, there’s work to be done to find sounds which in and of themselves speak to the character of that place. It may be that for Cities and Memory, the remix aspect, the recomposition element may allow more freedom to inject something of the character of the city through manipulation, addition or editing.

There’s also a truism that the more advanced and urbanised our major cities become, the more homogenised their soundscapes become (just as cities start to look the same, so they begin to sound the same too), and it becomes harder to find those edges of uniqueness, the larger and more ‘modernised’ a city is.

4. Take advantage of chance, but don’t rely on it

Some of the best field recordings happen by chance – the right place at the right time, something amazing happens and you’re there to capture it. It’s important not to over-plan to allow for these moments to happen, but by the same token if you don’t plan in some destinations where you know you’re going to hit sonic gold, you could find yourself tramping for miles through streets of concrete office blocks with nothing of interest to hear.

5. It’s tiring

Having played in bands for years and mixed a lot of recordings, I know that focusing on sound constantly is mentally exhausting and your ears need a break – so doing too much will lead to aural fatigue and the inability to appreciate or hear a good sound any more. So time needs to be built in for looking, not listening, and for resting, not actively focusing on the environment. The results will be better for it.

6. It’s about the people

Ultimately, when you’re talking about urban sound mapping, it’s about the people probably more than it’s about the place. If you can find the places where interesting people are out doing the interesting things that make up the social, commercial, industrial or cultural fabric of a city, then you’ll be capturing its essence – the social and human dimension of sound mapping is sometimes overlooked, but is absolutely critical.