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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Sound to write about

Screenshot from A Sonic City... by Wanjeri Gakuru in People's Stories Project

Sound to write about

In the last year a few journalists and writers reached out to us to speak about the project. I will highlight passages from the interviews but it is definitely worth it to read them in full.

Here you’ll find the article and interview by Wanjeri Gakuru in the People’s Stories Project, speaking with team SON and Lutivini Majanja, a participant in the City Walks workshop. The excerpt below is a question and an answer (by Lutivini) that I find very nice:

WG: Why is it important that this sound archive exists and continues to expand?
LM: I think this archive is as vital as photographs and written text. There will always be something to learn from them. There is memory and story embedded in these recordings. It’s interesting to note how the sounds of places change over time and how this changes our emotional connection with these places. I think about how generations of Kenyan children have grown up singing versions of  By shot I love you baby  and  Public van public van number 28. How sound travels. Now here is a story. I wonder what songs we are composing based on the sounds of our now. 

This is an interview on hyperlinkhex, a blog by music writer S. David which he did with Raphael Kariuki from SON-team. Here’s an interesting out-take:

SD: What do you feel the role of noise/sound in African urban life is?
RK: This is something we are learning about as we build the archive, so can’t really give a simple answer. It’s a complex, fascinating question to consider. Sound of Nairobi exists on the premise that there is knowledge in sound that enriches societies and individuals. It promotes an alternative to traditional written archives which hold the universally recognized power of knowledge production. What this sonic knowledge exactly is and how we make use of it is there to find out. Let’s talk about this in about a year’s time!

With Nicklas Hallén I did an interview for his African Street Literature Blog. It was about SON in general but also about the Sounds Like A Pandemic? project specifically. This is an excerpt I find very relevant for the archive:

NH: How do you select the particular spots where you make your recordings? Do you typically decide on a place beforehand or do you switch on your equipment when something interesting happens?
SB: First, we work with teams of about a dozen people who volunteer for sound walks. Before the sound walks, we have workshops where we share basic concepts of acoustic ecology investigation and practice. We do not direct the people to record specific places. Everyone is free to decide on the sounds of places and situations that they judge to be worthwhile, a useful representation of the city at that moment in time and contribute them to the archive.
The beautiful idea about Sound of Nairobi is that everyone can contribute their very subjective perspective and make it part of history. This subjective ear is an integral part of the archive. We do not want to create the illusion of an objective collection of sound. It rather reflects and validates the many different people with their uniquenesses that contribute to this archive.

And just recently Lutivini Majanja published an article on, a KEF project. In this passage she speaks about the changing sounds she realized during the recording sessions for Sounds Like A Pandemic?:

As one of the writers participating in these recording sessions, my first observation of what stands out between 2019’s recording experience and this year’s recordings is that street vendors who chant their wares, now include masks and sanitisers in the list of items on offer. “Masks hamsini” masks for fifty shillings, is for now a fixture wherever there are hawkers. I wonder when and if this phrase will peter out. In April there was a sudden absence of loud music from busy shops and stalls at the start of the pandemic while at residential areas there was a surge of early returns from work because of the 7:00 p.m. curfew.

All the interviews/articles are worth a full read. Here’s the list:
A Sonic City – Wanjeri Gakuru on People’s Stories Project
A conversation with Sound of Nairobi’s Raphael Kariuki – S. David on hyperlinkhex
Interview with Sophia from Sound Of Nairobi – African Street Literature
Rediscovering the sounds of Nairobi during a global Pandemic – Lutivini Majanja on


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