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Sounds you don't hear anymore

As Radio 3 launches its new Slow Radio podcast - an enchanting, ambient excursion into sound - we explore how, in our busy modern world, many of the sounds around us are slowly vanishing...

Sounds that have disappeared

The whirring of old computers, the sound of TV white noise (before 24-hour TV), rotary dial telephones, old video game sounds, cash registers, dial-up modems, are all sounds that have virtually disappeared - yet only a few years ago they provided us with the sonic backdrop to our lives.

As technology evolves and we lose certain buzzes, beeps and whirrs, other noises are born which take their place.

We're highly unlikely to hear the staccato click of a typewriter these days, for instance. That sound has been replaced by the more gentle tap of fingers on a laptop keyboard.

How long will it be before the sound of keys, petrol and diesel engines, books and numerous other everyday noises are also gone forever?

Nature’s sounds

As we lose forests and other natural habitats, many species in the animal, bird, and insect kingdoms are becoming extinct, along with the unique sounds they emit.

Sadly, many of these are irreplaceable, but the good news is that there are several institutions dedicated to recording as many of them as possible before they become extinct.

The Slow Radio podcast has become a home to some of the sounds from the natural world: and producers are working hard to create extensive sound catalogues.

For example, Bernie Krause, a sound archivist and musician, has created a similar collection of data from the world’s varying landscapes and ecosystems in what he calls “a unique bio-acoustics resource” as part of his Wild Sanctuary project.

Painstakingly recording over 4,500 hours of material encompassing an array of sounds from over 15,000 species, as well as natural ambient recordings of both the marine and terrestrial worlds, his work is a diverse and unique history of our planet’s environment.

Tragically, many of the habitats he recorded in his work since the late sixties are now gone. Similarly, the catalogue of sounds he created was lost in a wildfire in October 2017. Luckily everything was backed up offline but it shows how easy it is to lose such important information.

The Slow Radio Podcast

The podcast that goes slow... very slow. Be it the sounds of bells ringing, monks enjoying silence, or a birdsong in the countryside. Take a break with Slow Radio.

Sound Saviours

Audio-visual artist Matt Parker has catalogued a vast array of obsolete computer sounds from machines exhibited at The National Museum Of Computing - The Imitation Archive. He later went on to recycle them to create musical compositions.

The British Library houses a massive collection of sound recordings from across the world encompassing not just musical recordings, but dialects, ambient environmental sounds, and much more.

But maintaining these collections of recordings has also been problematic due to changes in the technology used to record and play back sound.

Formats such as tape, DAT, vinyl, CD, and floppy disk - traditionally used to archive our precious historical recordings - are as obsolete as the sounds they once attempted to preserve.

The only way to safeguard these now is by transferring them into digital files, something that is absolutely necessary if we are to have them in formats we can file and play back for future generations to hear.

The British Library (BL) has addressed this issue in its Save Our Sounds programme, which aims to conserve the nation’s sound heritage.

An obsolete computer

By digitising its own Sound Archive collection - which has an incredible 6.5 million recordings of speech, music, wildlife and environmental sounds dating back to the 1880s - and similar collections from across the UK, the BL is hoping to maintain this highly important record of our recent history before it is too late.

According to the BL website, “Global archival consensus is that we have approximately 15 years in which to save our sound collections by digitising them before they become unreadable and are effectively lost.” So it is very much a race against time.

It seems that the wonders of our world in sound are as fragile as the planet itself, and just as in danger of extinction as the life contained within it. As our world moves forward ever faster, take a moment to listen - the sounds you take for granted may not be there in the not-too-distant future.

To embrace a world of sound where things go slow, download and enjoy the Slow Radio podcast.