The Wire

The world's greatest print and online music magazine. Independent since 1982

In Writing

David Novak’s online sound archives Portal

June 2013

The author of Japanoise: Music At The Edge Of Circulation and lecturer in the upcoming Music, Digitisation, Mediation conference in Oxford (11–13 July) shares his favourite online sound archives. David Novak is also the writer of the latest Epiphany in The Wire 353.

I spend a lot of time here, digging through this treasure trove of documentary films and videos about North American folk music and culture. A quick browse leads to a huge collection of classic films by ethnographic filmmakers, including Pete Seeger, Les Blank and Jeff Titon among others. In addition to pieces that document regional folkways like Cajun handfishing, the collection also includes films about less recognized urban folk traditions, such as tattooing, street cleaning and hanging out in parking lots.

Noise Cassette Archive
A crucial archive of Noise cassette tapes, most collected in the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, by radio host Myke Dyer at CKLN-FM in Toronto, which provides a representative slice of the vibrant cassette culture of this period. No background information or commentary, just MP3 files of very, very hard to get recordings from artists like If Bwana and Viscera, along with a few filed simply under ?. This site is hosted by the underground website branch of the NIX100 archiving project – about which there is no further information provided either.

Insect Singers
Sure, the page design is a little wonky and old school (perhaps reflecting the nitty-gritty aesthetic functionalism of bug nerds). But this collection of recordings documenting the songs of North American cicadas and other acoustically signaling insects contains some of the most startling and intense sounds ever recorded, with feedback-like sounds worthy of the harshest Noise compilation. Check out the clips for Tibicen auriferus, Quesada gigas or either of these species from the Philippines. This link is dedicated to the 17 year cicada hatch cycle (aka Brood II), coming to the eastern US in summer 2013.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology
The Macaulay Library website hosts the shiny new online portal to the wildlife recording archive of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, featuring an enormous collection of audio and video clips of different species from around the world. There are recordings of other animals to discover here – armadillos, bats and many whales – but the birds are what it's really about. Check out the Staff Picks page, featuring the amazingly synthy Montezuma Oropendola, for starters.

Sounds of Voyager’s Golden Record
Sounds from the famous Golden Record, a 12" uranium and gold plated LP encoded with images and grooves containing recordings meant to represent the sounds of earth to any “advanced spacefaring civilizations” that might encounter this cosmic message in a bottle. On the NASA Voyager pages, the intrepid Earth-bound listener can audition the recordings inscribed on the disc, including “Kiss, Mother And Child” and mixes like “Birds, Hyena, Elephant” and “Footsteps, Heartbeat, Laughter”. Other pages present individual files representing “Greetings To The Universe In 55 Different Languages”, while a separate Flash feature describes the goals for its archival future, which outstrip those of earthly preservation projects by a considerable margin: “Billions of years from now, our sun will have reduced Earth to a charred cinder. The Golden Record, however, will be largely intact”. In 2010, alien remixes of the Voyager sounds were reportedly received by the SETI-X research group and published -- revealingly, on Negativland’s Seeland label – on the CD Scrambles Of Earth.

The Museum of Endangered Sounds
A creative and fun way to play back the iconic noises of now-obsolete or obsolescent recent technologies, from rotary phones to dial-up modems to dot-matrix printers and Brian Eno's startup sound for Windows 95. At present, the site features only 30 sounds, but the materials for further development are certainly there. I would love to see a widget for one of the techno-sonic keynote sounds of my own childhood, the digital loading sounds from the cassette tapes used to load programs onto the Commodore 64 computer.

UCSB Cylinder Project
Party like it’s 1899 with the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project. Browsing through the 10,000 digitized recordings available on the site – all transferred and restored from original wax and celluloid cylinders produced between 1877 and 1929 – gets you to gone grooves like Billy Murray’s “Nix On The Glo-Worm, Lena!” and the World War One classic “Bing! Bang! Bing ‘Em On The Rhine!”. The site also hosts a brief primer on the history of cylinder recordings and Cylinder Radio, featuring expertly curated podcasts including Recorded Incunabula 1891-1898, Audio Theater (curated by First Sounds’ Patrick Feaster and Cakewalks and Rags (curated by project director David Seubert). Better yet, the sound files can be used freely for non-commercial purposes under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license.