Sounds Want To Be Free: Freesound
by Thomas Brett
Freesound (www.freesound.org) is a collaborative database of Creative Commons Sampling Plus-licensed sounds. At freesound, anyone can upload or download sounds. What kinds of sounds are here? You name it: environmental sound field recordings (wind, rain, ice cracking), industrial and mechanical sounds, human voices, sound effects, digitally processed sounds, drones . . . All of the sounds on the website can be copied, sampled and transformed, and even used in new works, as long as authors of the original sounds are credited in the derivative work. Users can even upload sounds into “sample packs” or collections of related sounds. Thus, you can find a collection that features the sounds of someone walking over ice and use this sample pack as the basis for a new kind of drum kit. The range of sonic material here is staggering: browsing freesound is a little like getting a glimpse of the human DNA code. To continue the genetic analogy, if you are an electronic musician interested in tweaking sounds, this is a great place to find sounds (besides recording your own of course).
I have two thoughts on freesound. First, it reminds me of something John Perry Barlow talked about his 1993 Wired article “The Economy Of Ideas.” One of Barlow’s main points is that information “wants to be free”–free, that is, of the “containers” in which it has been packaged for so long. Barlow could have been talking about sound too, as what has happened to music over the past 15 years nicely illustrates his point. During this time, it has become very easy to free sounds–remixing them, mashing them up, re-sampling and transforming them. In this regard, f seems to me to be just an inevitable kind of collective freeing sound project. Interestingly, there are no songs on the freesound website. But this doesn’t mean that there still aren’t sounds that perhaps shouldn’t be there. For instance, type in “overtone singing” and you’ll find 60 sound samples, including Tibetan chanting, Tuvan khoomei, and all kinds of processed variants of these. After a few seconds of hearing the first sample (chant from Tibet), the ethnomusicologist wants to know: Where was this recorded? Who is chanting? And was the recordist given permission to record? After a little digging around, we learn that a freesound member named djgriffin is not only the recordist, but also the singer on many, but not all, of his samples. There are field recordings buried in there as well. One of djgriffin’s samples features gelug nuns chanting at a 2010 world peace festival in India. This recording is now part of djgriffin’s “tibetan buddhism” sample pack that contains fifteen sounds.
The second point to note about freesound is how freely its sounds have travelled to other sound outlets. Case in point: I was recently enjoying listening to an iPhone app called Ambiance. Made by the company Urban Apps., Ambience is described as a sonic “environment enhancer” that lets users download from a collection of 1000 free sounds and mix them together to make custom soundscapes for listening. (I have put together quite a nice mix of low-pitched wind chimes and ocean waves . . . ) Interestingly, all of the sounds that I have so far auditioned are attributed to the freesound website. This is yet another example of what the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer calls schizophonia, or the splitting of a sound from its origin through electroacoustic reproduction.