How Many Words Is A Sound Recording Worth?

“Seeing is believing, but hearing is hearsay” — Julian Henriques, Sonic Bodies (2011)

Like a lot of people, I’m a fan of Instamatic, a smartphone photo app, because it makes me feel like a skilled photographer. The app is essentially photo editing software that allows you to quickly–really quickly, with the tap of a virtual button, actually–apply a range of filters to your photo to make it look sharper and just plain cooler. Cooler because the filters make your photo look old, moody, vintage, over-saturated, analog old-school, or as Leonard Koren might describe the worn aesthetic–wabi-sabi (you can read more about this Japanese concept here). Instamatic is also a social app, allowing you to share pics with other Instamatic users. So I imagine there are billions of Instamatic photos floating out in the ether, capturing and constructing cool wherever we users happen to point our camera-phones. It feels that easy to use: point, shoot, add filter. Here is one of my pics:

You get the idea.

Thinking about it, it strikes me that Instamatic encourages people to think photographically–to be on their toes, ready for cool sights to capture and render. This is a good thing in that the app pushes us to be visual ethnographers, documenting the passing, strange, and wonderful of our everyday lives. When we take pictures, we see the world differently for a few moments. We think about how we can “frame” what we observe around us, and how we can compress the seen into a visual document for posterity or for our friends. A lot is captured in a photo too. Consider the adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” which refers to the idea that a complex idea can be conveyed through a single image. If this isn’t literally true, then pictures at least provide the illusion of capturing ideas because in pictures we notice so many details, contrasts, and relationships.

But here are my questions: How many words is a sound worth? And if there were an Instagram-like app for capturing, filtering, and sharing sound (calling all app developers out there!), would have it have the same emotional resonance as Instagram?


I decided to experiment with taking a field recording I made on my iPhone and running it through some effects processing to try to create some different aural moods. The recording is of a man playing the accordian on a subway platform at Grand Central Station in New York City. After listening to him for a while, I donated some money and he turned to face me so I could take a photo. I liked the music he was playing, and liked it even more as I fiddled around with adding effects to it.

Here is my original field recording:

Here is the clip with delay added so that it sounds like the instrument is bouncing off walls, all dubby and mysterious:

Here is the clip with static added so that it sounds somewhat like an old recording:

Here is the clip with chorusing and flanging added:

Here is the clip with distortion added:

Here is the clip with reverb added so that it sounds like it’s in a cave or large cathedral:

Here is the clip with a glitch-y effect added:

You get the idea. (My favorite, by the way, is the clip with delay added.)

Now one question is whether or not the application of these audio effects affects the mood of the original recording. The answer, I think, is yes, but exactly how the effects alter the mood is somewhat hard to describe. A second and even more fundamental question: Do the audio clips convey as much as the photo of the accordian player conveys? I think so, though the things they tell us are of a different order. Given that I have included a photo of the musician above, we can directly compare the different kinds of information the visual and aural media bring to our awareness. Looking at his photo, you might notice how he’s dressed (casually in jeans, and with a baseball cap), the expression on his face as he plays (pretty neutral, though he was smiling for my picture), or even the heft of his instrument–it almost looks like it’s a struggle just to get those accordian bellows to wheeze into life. My photo captures these bits of information, but it leaves other things out. By contrast, the audio recording isn’t static like the photo is. Instead, it captures the accordian player’s performance over time (about a minute and half of time, in fact). This allows us to experience the non-musical ambient sounds of the subway too–for example, the sounds of other people, and the sounds of spare change landing in the musician’s open instrument case. Without anything to see, we can only focus on the audible information, but we’re granted the luxury of letting that information reveal itself over a duration. Finally, what’s most striking to me when comparing the photograph of the accordian player with a recording of his music is that the music seems more melancholy and expressive than its maker actually looks. The music seems to tell a story that we might miss if we were only looking.

On Damon Albarn’s DRC Music Collaboration

It wasn’t all that long ago that indigenous, folk, popular, and art musics from Africa, Asia, South America, the South Pacific, the Caribbean–heck from most anywhere outside of North America and Western Europe–were hard to come by, relegated to the “international” or “world music” bins at your local record store.  Then, in the late 1980s, we saw Western pop stars such as Peter Gabriel and David Byrne become curators of non western music.  Both Gabriel and Byrne started their own (successful) record labels (Gabriel founding Real World Records, Byrne Luaka Bop) to release music by artists from all corners of the world.  In general, this kind of curating been a good thing: many of the recordings are excellent and they’ve brought new sounds to the ears of many North American music fans formerly unaware of musics from outside their beloved western pop and classical canons.  The curators themselves have too, I imagine, also been deeply influenced by the musics they’ve released.

Damon Albarn follows in this tradition of rock star as curator but his intent is more about having a shared musical experience with his collaborators to create new, hybrid work.  His first such collaboration was Mali Music (2002), where Albarn packed his melodica and some recording gear and traveled to Mali to work with Malian musicians including Afel Bocoum, Toumani Diabate, and others.  Some of this music sounded quite traditional and some of it quite un-Malian–like this final track, “Les Escrocs”, which sounds like it’s built around a sample of a field recording Alburn made during his visit.  But from there, it moves into very different musical territory:

This year, Albarn formed DRC Music to release Kinshasa One Two (2011).  Like Mali Music, DRC Music is an Oxfam-sponsored initiative (with proceeds going to Oxfam’s work in Africa), this time bringing together Albarn and some other electronic musicians and producers who travelled to the Democratic Republic Of Congo to collaborate with local musicians there.  In addition to Albarn, the visiting musicians include Darren Cunningham (aka Actress), Richard Russell, Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, Dan The Automator, Jneiro Jarel, Marc Antoine, Alwest, Remi Kabaka, Rodaidh McDonald, and Kwes.  The Congolese musicians include Tout Puissant Mukao, Nelly Liyemge, Bokatola System, Evala Litongo, Yende Bongongo of Okwess International, Magakala Virginia Yollande, Jupiter Bokondji, Bebson, Washiba, and others.

Describing his solution to the question of how to structure his cross-cultural collaboration which has been characterized as “African pop futurism” (SPIN) and “thrillingly immediate & disorientatingly strange” (The Telegraph), Abarn says:

“I thought, well, an easy way to get around would be to invite a group of producers … give them five days, give them maximum access to the musicians in Kinshasa, and try to interpret what they were playing to us […] The basic premise was that they would play and we would record, and then go off to our computers and sort of manipulate the sounds. There was one rule, which was that every sound we used had to come from the experiences we were having in Congo.”

Here is the promotional trailer for the recording, featuring its first track, “Hallo”:


So then, what is this music?  Is it a real collaboration or are the local Congolese musicians just Albarn’s latest musical muse?  It’s hard to say for sure.  Some songs like “Hallo” (which is based on a sample Albarn made while in Kinshasa) seem to be mostly-Albarn affairs, with guest vocals of Nelly Liyemge adding local flavor. Other songs like “Love” sound like straight up, unadorned field recordings.  The second half of the album especially gets into far-out sonic territory; you can hear snippets and samples of Congolese musicians but they’re melted into a dense electronic soundscape.

It’s interesting to me that Albarn says “they would play and we would record, and then go off to our computers and sort of manipulate the sounds.” Let’s clarify this: not sort of manipulate, but really manipulate: making field recordings, sampling instrument sounds and voices, and then cutting them up and re-organizing them on laptops.  While this creative process can and does lead to fascinating results, it isn’t exactly an even collaboration, is it? Indeed, it feels as if the local musicians are working for the visitors. It’s also significant that Albarn says that “every sound we used had to come from the experiences we were having in Congo.”  From this we get a sense of the Albarn’s sense of compositional rigor being as strict as a 12-tone composer using only this or that particular note set.  Maybe this self-imposed set of rules is to ensure that the project embodies some kind of “authenticity”?  You can hear this rigor on tracks like track 10, “Three Piece Sweet” which features the sounds of an ingenious homemade drum kit (like that shown in the pic above).

Sonically, there’s much here that is fascinating and rewarding of multiple listenings. One of my favorite tracks is track 10, “Virginia” that somehow combines a tuned percussive sound with field recordings of children and adults talking, and some computer processing.  It’s three minutes of almost unclassifiable sonics that don’t try to represent anything or be authentic in any way, yet still manage to be moving:

There might be good reasons to try to further dissect cross-cultural musical projects like DRC Music because of how they might shed light on (asymmetrical) power relations between what has been labelled “the west and the rest.”  Musical practice is as good a forum as any other for exploring the politics of power and who gets a “voice.”  Indeed, what kind of voice do the African musicians on this recording really have and is it the one that they wanted or imagined they’d have when they agreed to participate?  Also, when they played for those microphones were they compensated in any way or did they just get a free copy of the finished recording?  Or will there maybe be tour at some point?  I have no idea.  But listening to the recorded sounds on Kinshasa One Two makes me wonder about all the sounds that never made it onto the record, sitting on a hard drive somewhere, waiting to be used on some other project.

To learn more about one UK musician’s experience participating in the DRC project, go here.

On Making Music Tangible

“How physical is music?” asks Clive Bell at the outset of a recent article in Wire magazine on the English musician Richard Skelton.  Part of what makes Skelton unique is his approach to trying to make music making a more physical thing than its evanescent sounds might suggest.  Thus, the composer-musician embraces a unique recording process: he brings his instruments (violin, guitar, mandolin) out to the remote countryside of Northern England and records instrumental sounds in situ, capturing both instrumental sonics as well the grain of the natural environment (wind, water, goats, etc.).  On the production end, Skelton self-publishes his music on the Sustain-Release label in the form of one-of-a- kind artifacts–CDs housed in hand-wrapped slip covers, or polished wood boxes with 100-page booklets (personalized with the purchaser’s name on them), sometimes even including a twig or vial of water from the landscape in which the music was recorded.

Sounds quirky and over the top you say?  Perhaps.  But Skelton is looking for a high level of integration between music and our physical lives.  Here he is on his rationale for recording outside in the field:

“I’d take my instruments answer myself up there.  I’d make a recording in one of the [bridge] arches and then play it back in the other one.  Record it, so you get the reverberation.  But the important thing for me was coming and playing here, and the recordings themselves weren’t the objective.  It was a document.  I was trying to get the idea of the music becoming part of the landscape” (Wire, April 2011, p.46).

Skelton also weighs in on the importance of music as a recorded object (CD, LP, tape):

“There will be a whole generation of people who consume music as a series of noughts and ones.  But for me, part of the process of consuming music was about the physical object” (48).

So, back to Clive Bell’s question about the physicality of music. Yes, music is a most immaterial thing–in both live performance and recorded playback.  But many of us listeners like stuff we can put our hands on and touch, and so we can understand where Skelton is coming from.

On Music From Saharan Cellphones

I recently came across some interesting field recordings assembled by Christopher Kirkley, a music blogger who writes at  Kirkley’s blog is about sound and music and his research interests include making recordings in the Sahel region of Mali, Mauritania, and Senegal.  The recordings in question are compiled on two releases, Music From Saharan Cellphones, Vol. 1 and 2.  What makes the releases (downloads) interesting is that Kirkley acquired the music from the MP3 memory cards of cellphones in the Kidal region of northern Mali through a casual process of trading music files with folks he met on the street. According to Kirkley, “the cellphone is such a fixture of west Africa. Everyone has a phone even in villages lacking reception.  They’re not just phones, they’re all-purpose media devices. In the west we maintain a repository of data on hard drives, in Sahel, the cellphone does the same thing.”  Contrary to some of the stories circulating around this project that describe it as derived from a collection of discarded cell phone memory cards (see for instance, a story in the Guardian here), Kirkley in fact copied tracks from other people’s phones, offering some country music in return: “In the effort of cultural exchange, I traded for a few Townes Van Zandt albums; we’ll see if they’ve survived next time I’m back in Kidal.”  Once Kirkley had a number of tracks, he put them onto cassette, which was then dubbed back into MP3, making for a low-fi chain of copying.  Observes Kirkley, “It’s a weird chain of analogue to digital to analogue to digital.”

You can download Volume 2 here.

If you do download these tracks, notice on Track 1, “Mdou – Niger” the heavy use of Auto-Tune on the voice.  Yes, you guessed right, Auto-Tune has made its way to the African Sahel.  (More about this in a later post.)

For some observers, the Music From Saharan Cellphones releases fill a “niche” in music releases from the African Sahel region.  Consider, for instance, this comment from Other Music (a wonderful record store in NYC) on another Kirkley-compiled release, Ishilan n-Tenere: Guitar music from the Western Sahel (Mississippi Records):

“Despite the ever-increasingly visibility and popularity of the guitar music of the African Sahel, its local context remains obscure.  Records by groups like Tinariwen, Tartit, and Etran Finatawa are prepared for export in well-appointed studios, and presented through the tourist-friendly Festival in the Desert and on the circuit of any number of Western “world music” showcases, but there’s been precious little presented of what’s listened and danced to in the poor neighborhoods, remote villages, and encampments of the Sahel.  Don’t get me wrong, the music made by the likes of Tinariwen is sublime but Ishilan N-Tenere is an exceedingly welcome addition to the catalog.”

Likewise, over at, Mark Richardson writes about Music From Saharan Cellphones in terms of “musical scarcity.”  For Richardson, Kikley has unearthed not simply some obscure tracks, but also a new way to ascribe value to what we listen to.  Simply put, if the compilations are unique and out there enough, they seem scarce and thus have value:

“In my world, this music is unheard and thus in its own way rare.  I don’t know what it is, or who made it, or when it was recorded.  I only have words like “Niger” and “AutoTune”, and otherwise I’m left with just sound.  No one else that I know has any idea what it is, not surprising considering how it was assembled and disseminated, so it seems more valuable.  Projects like Music From Saharan Cellphones Vol. 1 are satisfying at this moment because they create the illusion of scarcity.  Yes, I downloaded the tape from Megaupload, and you and a million other people could go there right now and do the same thing.  But the process of the tape, the lack of information, and the unusual origins of the music make it feel special…”

Digging4Gold: Record Collecting or Pilfered Music?

Imagine for a moment that you are an explorer traveling to West Africa in search of new soundworlds to capture and bring with you back home.  You’ve come equipped with a recording device and a mind open to cultural difference; in fact, you’re open to being changed by your encounters abroad “in the field”, as an anthropologist would call that space where they carry out ethnographic research.  In some ways, your trip does have the contours of field research, albeit in condensed form. For instance, your search for new soundworlds leads on you on local adventures and your life suddenly becomes entwined with people who actually live here. Even the spirit world is aroused by your presence (especially since you ran over an old woman by accident and she just may have put some kind curse on your research efforts), necessitating the pouring of libations and even the sacrifice of a small animal before good fortune bestows upon you permission to go ahead and pursue your sound collecting with a clear conscience.  This is sounding like one of those anthropological narratives where the author renders a social milieu in rich detail, in part to bring the reader into a lived world, and perhaps also to demonstrate the high stakes of the research and how difficult this cultural exploring can be.  Sounds fun though, right?

The scene I just described was in fact a synopsis of a short article I came upon called “Gold Mining In Ghana” at the tumblr site  The “explorer” is a guy called Juan who has travelled to Ghana (Kumasi in particular) in search of old vinyl recordings of African popular music–Afro-funk, disco, High Life, etc.–from decades past.  He carries with him one of those portable turntables that plugs into the USB port on your computer, allowing the transfer of analog record grooves into digital files.  Juan is assisted by his local friend Lion, whose father is the one who suggested the libation pouring and animal sacrifice to clear the way to the pair’s successful hunt for rare vinyl.  And yes, Juan and Lion do indeed find some really cool, really obscure records that contain sounds that people back home have probably never heard of.  So far so good.

But at the end of the tumblr post, Juan says:

“Here’s a choice selection of some of the records we’ve acquired over the past few weeks.”

And then there’s a link to, and yes, dear reader, you can freely download (as I did) a dozen MP3 tracks collected by Juan in the field.  Vintage and obscure West African popular music for free.  Juan also includes a disclaimer:

“*Please note: All songs will be recorded by a portable turntable, converted into a lower bit rate (due to the slow connection while I’m on the road) and designed strictly for previewing purposes only.  In other words, All Sertato aficionados might be out of luck.”

I think this disclaimer is a little weak considering that the average music is listener is not an audiophile and probably can’t tell the difference between a lower bit rate recording and a higher one.  Also, the notion that listeners will download tracks just for “previewing” and later buy the real thing is unlikely.  (Further, in BMG vGonzalez, the defendant was charged with illegally downloading music from a peer-to-peer website.  The defendant tried to claim fair use claiming that they were merely sampling or previewing tracks in order to determine whether to legitimately purchase the tracks at a later date.  The court struck down this fair use defense claiming that one could not illegally download music even for previewing purposes even if it led to the bona fide purchase of the song.  In the age of iTunes, there are plenty of avenues to legitimately sample parts of songs without taking them wholesale.)  To put it plainly, most people just want free music for their iPods.  It doesn’t have to be top quality, just new stuff they can listen to.  Finally, downloaded music these days is often viewed as a virtually disposable commodity anyways, and for better or worse, Juan’s free offering of African rarities fills a niche in our listening habits.

I’m torn about this “release.” On the one hand, this is a great example of using the Internet to effortlessly spread the sounds of musics we might not otherwise have heard about.  On the other hand, many of the artists “discovered” by Juan have had their music released on record labels and you can still easily find their tracks and albums from recognized sources.  Spend a few minutes on iTunes, for instance, and you’ll find that the Senegalese Orchestre Baobab has releases on Stern’s Music, World Circuit and Nonesuch (and is currently touring and has a MySpace site!); Bunzu Sounds has releases on Luaka Bop; Dr. K Gyasi has music on Soundway Records (specifically, on the compilation Ghana Special – Modern Highlife, Afro Sounds & Ghanaian Blues 1968-81); Franklin Boukaka’s song (with Le Bucheron Africa) “Ata Ozali” is on a self-titled record (compiled in 2010 by Tamasha Corp. Ltd.); Ghanaian-Canadian musician Pat Thomas has an album called Mo Mme Menye (2008 Owusek Productions); Bunny Mack has an album called Let Me Love You (2008 Defected Records); Rwandan musician Matata’s song “Gimme Some Lovin'” is available on his album Feelin’ Funky (1994 President Records Ltd. London); and Ebo Taylor recently released a record called Love and Death (2010 Strut Records).

So what is the big deal here?  Why should we care about Juan’s vinyl finds when a lot of this music is already available to us from legit sources that may actually pay some of the artists? (Yes, most of the artists are still around!)  So: Go out there and buy some of this music (if you like it) and try to support the artists who make it and the labels that bring it to you.

But the story doesn’t quite end here.  I originally heard about Juan the vinyl collector via an enthusiastic Twitter post from actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  (No, I don’t follow him on Twitter; the post was just brought to my attention!)  Here’s his pitch:

“My good friend from way back, Juan, has been adventuring around West Africa these days, looking for records.  Stupendous badass.  This guy’s been turning me on to good music since we were in high school.  At the bottom of this post, there’s a link to download fourteen beautiful, rocking, soulful songs he’s digitized from the vinyl he’s been collecting over there recently.”

Gordon-Levitt runs, an online collaborative production company that allows filmmakers, actors, artists and musicians to work together on projects.  A lot of  hitRECord projects consist of artists remixing and juxtaposing one another’s work, and now I’m wondering why Gordon-Levitt would endorse his friend’s vinyl pilfering while he is so careful to remind hitRECord members that any content they upload for sharing/remixing must be their own?  Do you think Juan could get away with uploading to some obscure vintage tracks of West African popular music?  (They might make a good soundtrack to someone’s short film.)
You can read the Gold Mining In Ghana post here.

Sounds Want To Be Free: Freesound

Freesound ( 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.