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Seven things I learned while sound mapping a city

Field recording at Pulteney weir.
Field recording at Pulteney weir.

Our Quiet Street installation launches tomorrow – a simultaneous online and ‘real world’ installation mapping the sounds of the city of Bath, and creating their reimagined counterparts.

To gather the source material for the project, a crack team of Cities and Memory field recordists descended on Bath on a Sunday for a one-day recording session, aiming to cover as much of the central part of the city as possible, find and record something of the city’s sonic character, and gather enough interesting material to produce a workable sound map.

Here are a few of the things I learned in the process of trying to sound map a city in one day.

1. A beautiful city doesn’t always sound beautiful

Bath is, by any standards, a stunning city to look at – distinctive golden-coloured Bath stone everywhere, ornate Georgian buildings and incredible architectural feats like the Royal Crescent and Bath Abbey.

However, that by no means translates into a sonic treat, and in fact can even cause problems. Bath actually sounds quite homogeneous, its visual distinctiveness not matched by a sonic character or key sound mark features that define it.

And in fact, that very Bath stone, coupled with high walls and quite a hilly city centre, causes problems for field recording too – the sound bounces fiercely off the stone walls, meaning traffic noise especially seems amplified and bounces around the city centre, drowning out more characterful sounds.

And the same features cause some parts of Bath to become like miniature wind tunnels, wind ripping over the microphone on what was not a particularly unsettled day.

2. Familiarity can cause problems

Having just returned from a field recording trip to Seville in Spain shortly after the Bath recording session, there’s a clear difference in how you perceive sonic environments you already know (e.g. the city or even the country you live in) and those you don’t (e.g. foreign cities).

In a new sonic environment, sounds that seem ordinary to residents, like a particular type of pedestrian crossing, the clack of horses’ hooves or the sound of church bells in Seville, become must-hear, must-record soundmarks to the visiting field recordist.

Whereas recording a place in a sonic environment with which you’re largely familiar means you have to listen harder and with a kind of ‘enforced distance’ to spot more of those interesting recordings poking out from the everyday soundscape.

3. You need more than a day

Bath – UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Yes, I know – not the best thing to discover when you’ve only got one day available.

Sound mapping any location in a single day can be a massive challenge – it could be a quiet day with little going on, you could find the elements conspiring against you, and it’s tough to get a feel for a place and its defining sounds and also capture those sounds all in a single day. It is, therefore, even more important to try to research in advance when time is limited than it is when you have the luxury of several days in a location. It’s also important not to overreach yourself and try to do too much in one day – what are your goals and ambitions for the recording session and are they realistic?

You need to allow for the fact that – on a good day – half the recordings you take probably won’t be usable, and allow yourself time to ease into the sounds of the location and get a feel for what’s going to work, and what sums up that place. To assess the character of a place and then to capture some of its essence can be difficult tasks requiring time and a keen ear. Neither can happen immediately.

4. Water/roads/caution

Ah, the tranquil sight of a gushing weir or a flowing river – so enticing for the field recordist, and yet sometimes so tricky to capture well, since divorced from its visual context, the sound of rushing water so often sounds like white noise or traffic noise.

One piece for Quiet Street was intended to be from one of Bath’s key tourist attractions, Pulteney weir, a huge flowing mass of water under Pulteney Bridge. Upon listening back to the recording properly, it really sounded so much like an unpleasant sheet of white noise I actually had to drop it from the project. Caution is advised when recording heavy flows of water(!).

Quiet Street
Quiet Street, Bath. Anything but Quiet.

5. Sonic gold dust

It’s easy, once you find an area of the location that seem to contain rich pickings for field recording, to stay there and gather as much as possible, as happened to me around the Bath Abbey area. It’s extremely touristy, so there are lots of musical buskers, street entertainers, voices from all over the world – and in the centre the abbey itself with its booming organ sounds.

Now of course it depends on your aims – if you’re looking to map the whole location’s sounds and cover a certain geographical area, it’s important to resist the temptation to stick around for too long. But then if you’re just looking at collecting some characterful sounds from that location to use somehow, then perhaps you’ve hit gold.

Certainly in my experience of Bath, there was a great concentration of interesting sounds in quite a small area in the centre, and not very much to be found outside that – at least, not without substantially more time to explore.

6. You need people

If you’re in a city, it’s likely that many – if not most – of your interesting sounds will come from people. The people are what gives any (at least semi-urban) place its character – what they do, how they act, what they sound like. For me, field recording in a city on a Sunday wasn’t the best day I could have chosen. The city was fairly quiet, the city centre seemed to ‘close down’ quite early, making it trickier to collect a decent volume of quality recordings.

Recording the organ in Bath Abbey.
Recording the organ in Bath Abbey.

7. Consult the locals

Whether you know someone from that place or can track one down via friends, contacts or social media, some of your best leads come from people who actually live there and know the place. After all, as we know, tourist guides are full to the brim of tips on what looks amazing, but rarely on what sounds good – which is often off the beaten track anyway. We managed to get some decent tips from Bath residents before we came down, which proved extremely helpful on the day.

With all this in mind, it remains to be said that with a recording plan, a keen ear and just a little bit of good fortune, it’s perfectly possible to get some lovely recordings of a city that will make it feel like a day very well spent.