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By a happy accident the two things I did on Tuesday stretched across the worlds of modern and old sound recordings.

On Tuesday afternoon I took part in a research experiment which is looking at musical perception (is a song happy, calm, tense etc?) to see if there’s a correlation between that and your experience of how good you think the recording quality is. I sat in a nice modern recording studio with banks of cool machinery (knobs and dials on the mixing desk) and listened to clips of music, then scored them.


On my way home  I got a text from pal Sarah inviting me to an event she thought would be right up my street. Amazingly, despite following @LondonSounds on Twitter and plenty of the other sound / audio fans that had retweeted the info, I’d managed to miss that this was happening! A quick bag drop-off and I was heading back into town.

After a delicious meal in a confusing restaurant we headed to The Social and for £3 Ian Rawes weaved a magical spell, taking us back in time with early audio recordings of London. It was perfect. It was also possibly one of the me-est events I’ve ever been to.

If you’ve ever been on a dark ride* you’ve probably had that lovely and slightly eerie sense of being immersed in a time-capsule. Ian achieved a similar effect partly just by playing his recordings, partly by telling us stories about them but also with a neat trick of telling us the changing proportion of people alive today who can remember that point in history first-hand. Plenty of people alive now can give a first-person account of the 1960s but hardly anyone alive today can tell us anything about life before the first world war, other than a tiny handful of super centenarians.

As we went back further in time (starting at 1 in 4 people now alive being able to remember first hand a particular point in time, to 1 in several thousand, and then an ‘event horizon’ where no-one alive now could have been alive then) we were treated to clips from the 1950s, 40s, 30s – all the way back to an Edison wax cylinder recording from 1888. That was one of the spookier recordings I’ve heard – a clip from a 4,000-strong choir singing Handel’s Messiah in London.

Image from page 857 of "The new international encyclopaedia" (1905)

An Edison wax-cylinder phonograph. The horn acts as both a recording device and playback.

We heard how changes in portability of recording technology made it easier for people to get out and record stuff. I had no idea that records were made directly in some earlier recordings (ie not a transfer of magnetic tape to vinyl, or shellac, but directly onto a record).

There were clips from people singing their street cries or at markets. We still get market callers in London but I don’t often hear newspaper sellers these days – since so many papers are given away free perhaps there’s less incentive. I used to hear “E’enin’ Stan’d” sellers touting the Evening Standard, but hardly ever now and nothing for Metro, Time Out or Stylist either, though I can imagine what they might sound like.

A strong contender for my “mind-blown factoid of the evening” is probably that the tune for the old Thames Television ident (bah bah bah bah, ba-ba-ba baaaah) is in fact a flower-seller’s song “Will you buy my sweet violets?” arranged by composer Johnny Hawkesworth (we heard a clip of another flower seller calling attention to her blooms). Gosh!

As my friend Sarah observed there was a bit of a class, or at least RP, gulf between the interviewers & subjects. Men (mostly, though there was a fun clip of a woman interviewing children as they explained their “Do you know the muffin man?” song) in clipped tones talked about a topic or spoke to working men going about their business. Sarah wondered about any recordings made by working class voices themselves and gave an example of recordings she’s found of submariners merrily singing a ribald song, without mediation from the BBC. These types of recordings appear to be in short supply though and it also seems that Lord Reith (then head of the BBC) wasn’t too keen to hear the voices of the ordinary man (or woman) as he thought they were poorly qualified to speak on anything. Fortunately many of his colleagues disagreed.

As we all chatted later we wondered if / hoped that Ian might take his talk on a bit of a tour. He pointed out that it’s London-centric (a consequence of the BBC I suppose) so wondered if it would have as wide appeal in other cities. I hope that it would as the recordings and voices, and the narrative context Ian gives them, are a lovely thing to hear, wherever you’re from.

*Dark rides have been much-used in historical museums. The Jorvik Viking Centre’s one is still going strong though a number of them have fallen by the wayside including the Oxford Story which closed in 2007 and London’s Tower Hill Pageant. They are more often found in amusement parks.

Further reading
The origins of actuality sound on BBC radio (date unknown) London Sound Survey – which includes this great description of one of the recording devices, the Blattnerphone.

“The Blattnerphone was an intimidating device which recorded sound onto sharp-edged steel tape either 3mm or 6mm wide. The tape moved briskly at 1.5 meters a second between reels which could weigh around 20 kg when fully wound. Errant reels which fell off the Blattnerphone’s heavy iron frame and rolled away were reputedly capable of smashing through partition walls.

The hazards posed to the operator by a flailing, broken tape meant that the Blattnerphone had to be worked by remote control. Editing was done by means of soldering or spot-welding. The sound quality was sufficiently good for broadcast speech. A familiar example of a Blattnerphone speech recording is Neville Chamberlain’s broadcast at the outbreak of the Second World War.”

The Edison phonograph – sound recording with no wires, no batteries (8 January 2010) Sarah Angliss’ blog (it was Sarah that told me about this event in the first place). There’s a short video showing the Edison phonograph in action.

Sound ‘recording’ before the Edison phonograph? (23 June 2011) Sarah Angliss’ blog – you can listen again to the programme that Sarah made for BBC Radio 4.