Our first April sound is that familiar gentle hiss and rattle, that warm analogue sound of…audio tape? First there was the vinyl revival, now, on a much smaller scale audio tape is making a quiet comeback. A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled upon a news video about the last audio tape company in the US (possibly the last one anywhere). They originally made blank tapes, but as their competitors started transitioning to making CDs, they bought out their equipment and have slowly cornered the market in tape duplication. Now that nostalgia has given cassette tapes a certain level of cool, they have the skills and the technology to take advantage of the small but steadily growing market of indie bands and movie soundtracks that want to tap into that nostalgia.
(You can watch it here, as the embed doesn’t work on WordPress.
I must admit, that while I do have a certain fond nostalgia for audio tapes, as the audio media of my childhood – particularly the blank tapes with their versatility and ability to be overlaid and re-recorded to your heart’s content – I can’t see myself rebuilding my music collection in audio tapes. But it does please me to think that somewhere out there some fourteen year old is gently fishing a tape out of a tape deck, half its tape spooled out in awkward heaps around itself and being handed a pencil – a nice hexagonal pencil, none of your cylindrical nonsense – and having the vital relationship between the two explained to them. And perhaps more importantly, an apprentice somewhere else is by now learning how to repair magnetic tape and microprocessors at the same time.
Next up is the Sunday Feature from Radio 3 back at the start of the month called Taking it all Back Home. Which is about reuniting the sound recordings that lurk in the archives of various museums and universities with the descendants of the people they came from. Like any kind of cultural repatriation this is a complex and fraught process, but listening to the stories on the important role that these recordings can have in connecting these communities with their own past – especially people from minority cultures whose culture or language may have been actively damaged or destroyed by outside forces – was both deeply sad and rather uplifting. They cannot get back what was lost, but they can use these recordings to inspire and to build upon to create something new that is grounded in what came before it.
I spent a while last winter poking about in the sound archives of the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh, paging through old file cards and even older ledgers and listening to ancient recordings. I felt then, as now, the importance of the work done to record a changing culture on the cusp of modernity. And also of the ongoing work, to keep those recordings in circulation. The artists in residence that the School of Scottish Studies has, musicians making new works inspired and shaped by the recordings, by their own history. Listening to some of the contributors speak, I felt as though someone had finally articulated for me, just why I have such a visceral emotional response to the Niteworks tracks that use archival samples.
In the obligatory podcast corner of this monthly update, due to iTunes having a wee hiccup, I accidentally downloaded the entire archive of Gastropod. And spent April listening to the entirety of said backlog. I’ve written about that in more detail over at my food blog, but the relevant part for this blog is that it meant that I unexpectedly discovered a double bill of episodes from Gastropod, exploring the relationship between sound and food. The first episode – ‘Field Recordings’ – looks at how sounds effect crops and agriculture. From the use of highly sensitive microphones to detect weevil infestations in grain stores and using the sounds of caterpillars eating them to stimulate crops to secrete their own insect repellent to ward off other predators, to the rather more esoteric art of playing different kinds of music to plants to make them grow faster. (Plants ‘feel’ rather than ‘hear’ sound much like the way we feel a really good bass line reverberating in our chest cavity.) I rather hoped that there might be more acousmetrics in the research, it would be interesting to see whether industrial noise – such as being under a noisy flight-path – has an impact on crop growth and animal well-being. However there was an interesting section on documenting the range of sounds and calls that barn and factory chickens make and the use of that information to track animal welfare and wellness in their populations. The second episode – ‘Crunch, Crackle, and Pop’ – looks at how sound affects taste. Anyone who has ever had a heavy cold knows that smell affects taste – the way everything tastes bland when your nose is blocked and how much worse cough medicine tastes when you’re on the mend – and the impact of sight on taste is also commonly accepted. (There was an entertaining experiment recently where a bunch of wine critics were fooled into thinking that white wine was red wine by the simple application of food colouring…) It appears to be a largely psychosomatic effect, but nonetheless one with a very definite effect, marine sounds will make seafood taste more fishy and playing carefully synced crisp crunches to someone as they eat stale crisps will fool them into thinking they’re fresher. An equally fascinating topic but one with less practical implications than the first episode – unless of course you’re a budding restaurateur looking to build the correct ambience for your new eatery.
Special hat-tip this month to @CherylTipp who is the Curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds at the British Library and is a great source of interesting sound projects, articles and other sound ephemera. Lots of the interesting things I post about in this series were either brought to my attention by her twitter feed or discovered down some rabbit hole that started with me following a link from her. You can hear her being interviewed for Source Magazine here.