How to start a sound archive?


How to start a sound archive?

1. Walk about

One sunny midmorning, some day in 2013 or 14, Nairobi. Waiting to cross the road at one of the newly remade intersections with the fancy traffic lights (Chinese! Chinese!) is more distressing than usual. It’s the new lights. More accurately, it’s how the new lights sound. They beep loud and jarring, with a shrill, digital tone, adding to the impatient hootings and revvings. Nobody driving or walking seems sure what the signals mean or who they are for. Ten minutes down the road and walking steady, the racket is still in your ears and thoughts.

One twilit evening, 2013, Berlin. Waiting to cross a busy road not far from the famous TV Tower. Seems like rush hour, but does not feel like it. That’s when you notice it. The absence. If you closed your eyes, you would hear only the purr and whoosh of passing vehicles. You remark to your friend about it.

Another sunny midmorning about a year later, Nairobi. You are walking with a friend down a neighbourhood street that used to be lined with old houses from the 70s or 80s. Today it is clattering with jackhammers and chisels and all the familiar staccato of rapid construction. Passing by a rising residential block hidden behind gunny cladding, you wonder what used to be here. Hardly a year.

Nairobi, visiting a friend who lives in another new apartment block (reminds you of a great grey termite mound or nest of wasps) you notice the cacophony at the main entrance on the ground floor. The incessant beepings of the new KPLC pre-paid digital meters, like a noisy classroom when the teacher is out. A sound you are hearing more and more where there was only discreet neighbours before. You talk about these new sounds and a changing world.


2. Talk and procrastinate

You talk about sounds you no longer hear. The long-travelling low frequency rumble of an old-school KBS around the corner. The thump-thump of the sub-woofers in a number 23 several blocks away heading into the CBD from Westlands (out of sight but we all know where it is). You remember hearing the first ringtones in a matatu or on the streets. The fascinating novelty of an SMS notification. Nokia people. Kenyans and nostalgia. But what about history?

You start recording sounds around you. Some people use Zooms, some use their phones and even an expensive studio mic dangling out of a studio window, capturing the street below. You talk about possibilities. We could make something with these sounds. Nobody has any experience with sound art but it’s now a frequent topic. The conversation grows from what we can do with these sounds to what we can learn from them.

You sketch and doodle on your notebook(s). Share ideas by email. Plan to meet but when? Some people go to school others back to work and career and two or three years later we have all more or less disappeared. You add more notebooks to the heap, a decade’s worth of sketches and doodles. Your own archive – more like a personal landfill – of never ideas.


3. Seek help

Your friend who went back to school is back. Two years spent studying and practicing some of the things you used to talk about. In that meantime you have been dabbling in DIY sound and art. You revisit your conversations, digging in the notebooks. The idea of an aural record of Nairobi still makes sense. The idea of resourcing a nascent sound art scene feels timely. You have a friend who’s great with data tech. He is game and knows a guy who’s good with UI/UX. Work begins.

It is not a legit archive of the city if all it explores is the tiny street corner of your personal experience. The streets are many. Plus, the whole exercise is more fun when more people are involved. All this needs more people, time and money than you have on your own. So, reach out.

Approach friends and organizations willing and able to support. In addition to material and logistical support, you’ll get a huge boost of energy and goodwill. And you will make new friends along the way.


4. Launch and then party

Organize a sound exhibition and invite the world. Hand everyone a set of good headphones. They will love the immersiveness of the first recordings, because you used binaural microphones – realer than dolby. “Immersiveness” is a real word BTW.

Make a good party on the final day. Play music made from the archive.


5. After the party 

-> “How To Maintain Your Sound Archive For Like A Century” – coming soon.

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How to write about sound?


How to write about sound?

How do you write about something when often even talking about it is a challenge?

I often find my self struggling when I want to talk or write about sound. I speak German and English mainly and with both I am struggling likewise with that excercise. Because the only way to talk about sound seems to describe the action or object that causes the sound: Like the sound of a revving engine or the sound of a Matatu horn.

But what about the sound itself? I can think of just a few words that have made it into my English vocabulary: “beeping”, “banging” for example which describe the sound itself. “Swooshing” is another one, if that is a commonly known word and not made up. Because then that is what come up with: should I just invent new words? Maybe with the methods of ornithologists who transcribe the sounds of birds. These strings of letters seem so weird but actually when you take them in your mouth something great comes out.

flight call of Black Kite (Milvus migrans) a quavering, loud, slow whistle (1)

Courting call of Marabou Stork (Leptoptilus crumeniferus), a repeated hoarse whinnying (2)

It is a strange relationship, sound and language, I find.

An important part of language is sound. Without sound meaning can’t be transported and therefore communication can’t happen. As it seems, the meaning that sound itself transports is not manifested in the languages I speak, mostly, German and English. Maybe that is exactly the problem. Sometimes I can’t quite get my head around this, it is too complex. And this is just one of my conundrums with writing/speaking about sound for me.

SOUND OF NAIROBI has asked three writers, poets, great people to contribute texts as part of an ever on going investigation in how to write about sound:

Kamwangi Njue is an artist and an investigator. He is pushing boundaries in textual and sonic ways through his writings and music. I feel they are always informed by his experience of the urban spaces and configurations of Nairobi and Kenya. We are lucky that he has been accompanying SOUND OF NAIROBI from the beginning and contributed many field recordings. On his recording tours he covers long distances, strolling through downtown Nairobi and Eastleigh. Here are his experiences in words: liner notes: towards a possibility and eastleigh usilie.

Lutivini Majanja has also been with SOUND OF NAIROBI from the beginning. She is a well published fiction writer but also feels at home in other styles of writing. From the very first beginning she has been interested in sonically researching the Kenya Railways footbridge. For many of her recording sessions she has been going back there and recorded the changing soundscape. Read her reflections here: Landi Mawe.

Bethuel Muthee is a poet, writer and editor. Nairobi is his base and that is where his words emerge from. In this text with the title The Sound of Memory redraws a connection between sound, place and memory.

Enjoy the texts and if you have good sound(ing) words, leave them for us in the comments section.

(1) Zimmerman, Dale A., Donald A. Turner, David J. Pearson, Birds of Kenya & Northern Tanzania, Christopher Helm (Publisher) Ltd, London, 1999, p. 295
(2) Zimmerman, Dale A., Donald A. Turner, David J. Pearson, Birds of Kenya & Northern Tanzania, Christopher Helm (Publisher) Ltd, London, 1999, p. 284

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For the record

Alacoque Ntome wearing the binaural microphone.

For the record

Today’s episode is on recording techniques. This is a very complex and wide field and there are thousands of blogs and tutorials online about how to record which sound and what equipment is best, what the best tricks are etc. So the best advise is: Have a look online about specifically what you want to know. The end.

Just kidding! Needless to say, there are specialists out there who know much more, but none the less I would like to speak today about the recording technique and equipment applied when SON recordists go out on recording sessions through the city, like for the City Walks workshop or the Sounds Like A Pandemic? project.
I will also propose an app for your phone which has some awesome features for recording and sharing great audio.

Most of the recordings on the archive are sourced from sound walks which have been organized by the SOUND OF NAIROBI team. For these exercises we use a special kind of microphone: the binaural microphone.

In our case we use the Soundman OKM II Microphone.
It looks like this:

And you use it like this (per instruction manual):

The microphone consists of two small mono microphones which you wear in your ear facing outwards. This is great as they are fairly invisible, they really just look like common earphones. And that is important in an environment like Nairobi, where you do not necessarily want to stick out by wearing gear.

The uniqueness about this recording technique is that because you wear the mics in your ears it captures sounds in a similar way as to how ears perceive sound waves. The recordings thus give a very realistic feel of what the person heard when they did the recording. It specifically registers the direction of where sounds happen and come from in a very accurate way. I find it is best understandable if we have a simple look at the physicality’s of how we hear direction:

Position of the Ears
Humans ears are designed to be omnidirectional but because the ears are located on opposite sides of the head, the sounds heard by either ear will vary in timing, volume, and frequency balance. These differences are the clues the brain uses to decode a sound’s location.

If a sound comes from the right it hits our right ear first before it hits the left.
Coming directly from the front both ears are hit at the same time.

Sound gets quieter as it moves further away. Sound also gets quieter when there are objects blocking it. If the sound is coming from the left, it will sound a tiny bit quieter to your right ear since it’s further away, and also because your head is blocking it.

When a sounds comes from the left, for example, your head blocks a portion of it from reaching your right ear. But it doesn’t block all frequencies equally. High frequencies have less energy, are more easily absorbed by obstructions than low frequencies. So with the sound, your right ear will get MORE of the low end, and LESS of the high end.

So by wearing the microphones in your ear the recording reflect exactly this situation. Another thing about it is that it also reflects the individual doing the recording. You hear as much of the person in the recording as of the surrounding. If the person has a small head it sounds different from one with a big head. A tall person’s recording sounds different compared to a shorter person’s. Because you wear the microphone so close to your body it registers the bodily sounds of every recordist: The footsteps, the movement of arms while walking etc.

Hear here, an unidentified person doing a field recording while having a cup of tea 😉

This leads us to some interesting philosophical ideas about SOUND OF NAIROBI as an archive. The archive is a collection of subjective and individual sound experiences. This subjective ear is an integral part of the archive. The archive does not want to create the illusion of an objective collection of sound, which then become history. It rather reflects and validates the many different people with their uniquenesses that contribute to this archive. Because actually that is, what I think history is about. It is not one universally fixed story; it is many, many different threads sometimes woven together but also knotted and tangled… what do you think?

With this recordings there is one thing which is not to be confused, though. The microphone only records sound waves. The way each person perceives them is a very unique experience, you have your own memories, your own ideas. Some sounds for you stick out because you know them, some draw back because you find them not important.
I sometimes find myself listening back to a recording and thinking this is not what I experienced. I think, where is the sound of that bird I heard. In the end I can detect it in the very background of all the other sounds in the recording. The ability to select certain sounds and blend out others is is commonly described as the cocktail party effect. I guess this keeps us sane to some extent 😉

That much about binaural techniques: If you are in Nairobi and want to try the mics, get in touch ([email protected]) and we arrange an introduction session.

We would like to loudly remind you that the archive is also open to other recording techniques. You can for example use your phone and then upload the recording directly to the website. Most phones have a native recording app (mostly called Voice Recorder or Voice Memos) which will work. For those of you who want more control and are up for experimenting a bit, Voice Record Pro is an app which gives you control over the recording format and attributes such as gain (volume of signal entering the phone) and much more. I found it very useful and fun to play around with. It is free to download for IOS and Android. Check it out! And then upload your sounds here 🙂

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