Preserving and Listening to Soundscapes

Closeup of a sound board

The BBC recently ran a podcast series called Forest 404. The podcast is set in a futuristic 24th Century, in a time after a massive data crash and in a era in which forests and much of the natural world no longer exist.

I initially started listening to Forest 404 because the protagonist is voiced by Pearl Mackie, who I loved in Doctor Who. The entire podcast is framed around archived soundscapes from the 21st century (know affectionately as the ‘Old World’ in the podcast).

The main character Pan is essentially a digital archivist who makes decisions about what sounds are worth keeping and which sounds get destroyed from the archive and the world’s memory.

The fact that this entire podcast intersects with climate, archiving, and science fiction make it worth listening to. For me, this podcast also made me think about broader archival efforts to document sounds and soundscapes.

What are Soundscapes?

The term soundscape was first used in the 1960s and refers to the sound environment that can be heard by humans. It is a phrase that has been used by computer scientists, composers, environmentalists, the healthcare field, artists, and others. Basically, soundscapes encompass the sonic world around us. Both the natural world and the industrial world have distinct sounds and soundscapes. Sounds heard in a particular location, at a particular time are unique parts of the environment and history.

Soundscape Archives

There are a range of organizations dedicated to archiving and preserving soundscapes. Some of the ones I’ve come across recently include:

  • The Western Soundscape Archive is dedicated to collecting audio recordings of animals and environments in the western United States. The holdings include sounds from birds, animals, reptiles, and ambient environmental soundscapes.
  • The British Library has a collection of 690 soundscapes that are part of its larger collection of sounds. These soundscapes document birds, wildlife, nature, water, weather, and other environmental conditions.
  • The World Soundscape Project (WSP)was established at Simon Fraser University in the 1960s and the 1970s. This project produced a huge number of research publications focused on soundscapes and the tape library of the soundscapes captured by the WSP is available on the Sonic Research Studio Website.

Soundscapes for the Future

Forest 404 and my subsequent exploration into soundscapes has me thinking about how we preserve ambient sound and seemingly mundane audio records. How are the sound bytes of today being preserved from tomorrow? Is the sound of Lake Superior crashing against the shore being recorded and kept? Audio preservation is complex, it can require handling unstable media carriers, preserving the mediums which play audio, and making decisions around digitization quality. I’d love to learn more about folks who are doing soundscape archival work.

Photo credit: Denisse Leon on Unsplash

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