Old technical sounds preserved as part of a huge audio project

Play the sound of a typewriter to a child and they will have no idea what they are listening to. Play it to an older adult and they may smile at some of the memories it instantly brings up. Ditto the sound of an old cassette recorder, dial telephone or Super 8 camera.

Looking to preserve these and other sounds for future generations, Stuart Fowkes has built the Cities and Memory archive, featuring old tech sounds that are part of the growing database of recordings.

“We are now at a stage where the lifespan of sounds, as they come and go, is so much shorter than ever before,” Fowkes told BBC Radio this week. “When you think about the ringtone, that was four or five years ago, that seems really archaic now.”

The British sound artist and field recordist notes how people who were in the early days of the Internet in the 1990s will have a certain reaction when they hear a recording of a strange screeching sound, known as a dial-up modem.

“There are certain sounds that evoke a certain memory and are very personal, and I think it’s important to collect the sounds together and be able to present them back, because I think everyone who listens to the collection has their own specific reaction will have on,” Fowkes told the BBC.

“Whether it’s the sound of a video game or the sound of a camera shutter that particularly appeals to them, maybe it takes them back to their childhood or to a certain experience they had,” he added.

If you have a moment, be sure to check out the project’s archive of sounds and sound projects, which don’t just focus on obsolete or disappearing technology. For example, it also includes recordings that delve into cultures around the world, such as a performance by a geisha in Japan or traditional Khmer music from Cambodia.

Sounds from nature are also included, some of which, such as a recording of a glacier breaking up, touch on issues such as climate change.

Fowkes also highlights how the ongoing project has become an inspiration to artists, with some creators using the source recordings to create musical compositions. You can check out some of them on the project’s web page for legacy sounds, including audio from typewriters, telephones, cameras, slide projectors, and VCRs.

You can listen to Fowkes’ interview on the BBC’s website. The segment begins at 40 minutes.

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