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Old tech sounds preserved as part of huge audio project

Play the sound of a typewriter to a child and they’ll have little idea what it is they’re listening to. Play it to an older adult and they might break into a smile at some of the memories that it instantly evokes. Ditto the sound of an old cassette recorder, rotary telephone, or Super 8 camera.

Keen to preserve these and other sounds for generations to come, Stuart Fowkes has been building the Cities and Memory archive, with old tech sounds forming part of its growing database of recordings.

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

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

“There are particular 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 that anyone that listens to the collection will have their own particular response to it,” Fowkes told the BBC.

“Whether it’s a video game sound or whether it’s the sound of a camera shutter that particularly resonates with them, maybe it takes them back to their childhood or to a particular 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 only focus on obsolete or disappearing technology. For example, it also includes recordings that dip into cultures around the world, like a geisha performance in Japan or traditional Khmer music from Cambodia.

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

Fowkes also highlights how the ongoing project has become an inspiration for 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 obsolete sounds, which features audio of typewriters, telephones, cameras, slide projectors, and VCRs, among other gear.

You can listen to Fowkes’ interview via the BBC’s website. The segment starts at the 40-minute mark.

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Trevor Mogg
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