The Quest to Find the First Soundscape


The practice of recording the ambient sound of cities has exploded over the last few years. Every one with a smartphone is carrying around a fairly high-quality audio recorder that can upload instantly to the internet. Combined with mapping tools, people have built unprecedented archives of how our cities sound.

Seoul, Barcelona, New York, Madrid, Vancouver, Toronto, Berlin, New Orleans. All these places have active soundscape mapping projects. All over the world, people are walking outside and recording whatever is happening. Then, a different set of people is putting on their headphones and plunging into the aural world of a jamon shop in Spain, glasses clinking all around.

Tools like Audioboo, a simple service that lets you geolocate and upload recordings from a smartphone, are enabling whole nations to be enlisted as distributed recorders. Earlier this year, Scion partnered with The Smalls to launch a US soundmapping initiative called Street Sounds. The British Library teamed with Audioboo to create a nationwide sound archive of the United Kingdom this year, too.When people look back at 2010, they will have a pretty good idea about the noises dense agglomerations of people make in our time.

Touring the sound of these cities across the globe, I began to wonder if I could do the same thing in time. Could I go back a hundred years and listen to New York or Paris?

When it comes to film, you can see all kinds of old places. Sometimes even in high resolution, thanks to the work of archivists like Rick and Megan Prelinger. These films are incredibly important records for historians and citizens alike. They give us eyes in the past.

There's an amazing film sequence of San Francisco in 1905. A camera was placed on a streetcar and driven down Market Street, the diagonal that cuts through the city's core. Pedestrians, cars, carts, horses, the whole dizzying array of urban life before electricity and the automobile turned our cities inside-out. We recognize our buildings, but not our city. Similar recordings exist of most major cities.

I figured that there had to be similar documentation of the metropolitan soundscape, or any soundscape really.

But there isn't.


You could easily be fooled into thinking that a very early recording of a city exists. At the University of California Santa Barbara, the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project holds a brown wax recording labeled, "Urban scene- newsboys yelling "Extra, extra"; car horns; and other sounds of the city, sometimes in non-English language." It was made between 1890 and 1902.

Listen to it.

It's scratchy and difficult to discern independent sounds, but maybe we hear a bell ringing, some horns and some vrooms, the clop-clop of horse hooves, a couple of people singing. When Suzanne Fischer, an archivist at the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit sent me this link, I thought I had found my city soundscape! And it was just like I thought it would be. Horse hooves and horns, people singin' in the streets.

But this earliest recording of a city is actually fake. Or perhaps that's too harsh a term. What we hear is a performance of an urban soundscape. A banal radio play.

Actually recording the sturm-und-drang of a city would have been next to impossible impossible. "It would have been very difficult to do an on-the-spot actuality recording," explained Matt Barton, the curator of recorded sound at the Library of Congress. "It was very difficult to do the kind of documentary recording that would be analogous to filming."

We have to go back to the actual physical recording technologies used to understand why we couldn't record cities.


Sound was evanescent until 1877 when Thomas Edison brought out the phonograph. People went nuts for it. Phonograph parlors began to dot large cities. You'd go in, record your voice, and then get to hear it played back. There was something almost mystical about the experience.

His invention was followed quickly by two others, the graphophone and the gramophone. While each differed in its details -- the gramophone's ability to record to discs instead of cylinders would prove decisive -- they required the same recording setup.

To make the fake city recording, the unnamed creators would have had to gather these sound effect actors around a giant horn. To "mix" the sound, people would have actually been distributed and moved through the room.

As they made noise, the acoustic horn would funnel the vibrations down to a diaphragm, which would move a stylus up and down, creating grooves of different depths. The sound was being physically etched into the wax -- carved like letters into a tree -- for later playback.

And that's the problem: the range of sound that could be picked up by the acoustic horn and then etched was narrow. The devices were also finicky and heavy and awkward.

Even recording musicians, who were trained to direct their noises into an acoustic horn, was incredibly difficult. Here's Mark Katz describing the recording booth in his 2004 book Capturing Sound: how technology has changed music:

"The room was usually small, windowless, overheated, and empty, save for a large megaphone-shaped horn and a small red light or perhaps a buzzer attached to one wall. During the performance, musicians had to be careful not to make extraneous, recordable noises, not to gesture unduly (lest they knock the equipment over), and not to sing or play too loudly or softly."

Only certain types of musical instruments recorded well. Horns were great; violins not so much. Certain singers recorded well; the best learned to move their heads and bodies around the horn to create the right kinds of effects. Women's voices, particularly on the higher end, were hard to pick up, too, as pointed out by historian Lisa Gitelman, into the late 1890s.

"The Boswell Company of Chicago offered its 'high grade original' records in 1898 with the assurance that 'At last we have succeeded in making a true Record of a Lady's voice. No squeak, no blast; but natural, clear, and human,'" she wrote. "The Bettini Phonograph Laboratory in New York similarly claimed "The only diaphragms that successfully record and reproduce female voices."

Obviously, these recording setups were not made for fieldwork. You couldn't just take them outside and flip a switch. It wasn't until the 1920s, Barton said, that microphones were developed. They could electronically amplify sounds and enabled the recording of soundscapes. From the very first, film could be used as a documentary device, easily recording ambient scenes. Sound recording, on the other hand, required performance for its first 50 years.

This timeline, when you match it up with other technological changes, has some very important consequences.

There will always be a large gap between our visual and audio historical records. Decades when we can see our places, but not hear them. We will never know what New York, Los Angeles, or any other city sounded like before the automobile hit the streets and electricity was commonplace.

Some things, like what it sounded like for a million Americans to live together without internal combustion engines on wheels, can be lost forever.

Images: 1. 2. Library of Congress. 3. New York Public Library.