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Sound and moving images from the British Library


Discover more about the British Library's 6 million sound recordings and the access we provide to thousands of moving images. Comments and feedback are welcomed. Read more

26 May 2015

The Imitation Archive Part 2: making music from the sounds of the world's first computers

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Between January and March 2015, Matt Parker was artist in residence at The National Museum of Computing, Bletchley Park. The residency, which was supported by the Arts Council England’s Grants for the Arts Scheme, was an audio archiving project that resulted in the production of 116 unique audio recordings of some of the world’s most historically significant computer technologies. Within the collection are sounds of the world’s oldest original functioning digital computer, the Harwell Dekatron (also known as WITCH), a faithful replica model of the world’s first digital computer, Colossus and a replica model of the electromechanical decryption device the ‘Bombe’, designed by Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman. In the first of two posts, Matt wrote about developing The Imitation Archive and his experiences during the residency period. His final post looks at producing a catalogue to accompany the archive and using the raw recordings of historic machines to create musical compositions.

Producing the Archive

Having recorded for many days, fighting against the elements of heavy rain, snow and school trip groups, I set upon the task of cataloguing the material. During the recording period, I was careful to speak into each microphone before recording a particular device, announcing what I was recording. I kept the file names constantly updated with time and date so I would be able to follow what happened, when and where, and I tried to record everything as a 96 kHz 24 bit .wav. I took photos with my smartphone for reference of each item and tried to take higher quality pictures with a camera where possible. A thorough reference of microphone placement and signal path was important to the accuracy of the recordings.

I went through each recording, cropping out the noise of setting up and spending as much attention as possible on listening to the main activity or process that the recording was set up for. I tried to record as cleanly as possible, but in some cases it was necessary to clean up the recordings with a bit of EQ and multiband compression; nothing that would alter the core character of the recording at this stage, just faithful archival replication.

Atvidaberg Facit-Model No. C1-19-Sweden-TNMOC-The Imitation Archive

Atvidaberg Facit-Model No. C1-19 Mechanical Calculator (photo courtesy of Matt Parker)

In some cases, I recorded with a few options, for example a stereo, mono, and transducer setup all in one multitrack recording. I was wary in the recording process to be careful with phase alignment so I was effectively able to fade between different microphones. I think there is an interesting question to be asked with the notion of subjectivity with the recording process here. How important is it to capture the object as one hears it? How clinical should a recording be? Is there any point in capturing recordings of things that can’t really be heard naturally by the human ear? Do we want to shut out the architecture or environment that an object exists within?

In the case of The Imitation Archive, I felt that it was important to capture ambient recordings of the objects within the space they occupy in order to demonstrate their presence within a particular environment. It seemed like a pertinent decision, and one worth making, given that I was to record Colossus which is set up in a room where the machine was actually used during the Second World War. In the studio, it felt like perhaps I could play with these sounds to find the most interesting combinations sonically. 

Heath Robinson

Heath Robinson codebreaking machine (photo courtesy of Matt Parker)

Composing the Archive

As a composer, I wanted to find an interesting way to work with this new ‘sample library’ of material. More than just working with the archive in this way, I wanted to draw on the themes and experiences of the recording process; the museum, the objects, the themes around the very concept of producing The Imitation Archive.

One of the key things that struck me was the constant durational aspect of these machines. Many of them were designed to run 24/7 without fault or interruption, performing repetitive cycles. I felt that this would be an interesting idea to explore so I chose to focus on the machines in operation as much as possible; the work cycle, the operational cycle. I also decided to make the composition seamlessly flow between sections, a never ending cycle of computing.


I was also very much drawn into the historical narratives of machines at Bletchley and found myself wanting to reflect the architectural relationship with the sounds as much as possible by playing with impulse responses of the rooms (made using a balloon pop so not an exact science!) and convolving the sounds of the recordings with the space impulse response itself. I used impulse response as a filtering method, locating fundamental frequencies that peaked within the recordings. I would push and emphasise these frequencies to turn the machines into instruments playing their own unique keys. I thought it was an interesting discovery to find how some of the fundamental frequencies tended to harmonise with themselves. Some of the machines such as WITCH, Bombe and Colossus have very distinctive mechanical rhythms, and it seemed to make sense to play with this as much as possible. Their repetitive rhythms would occasionally break from the cycle and create a surprise extra half beat or other micro-beat. Overall, I hope I have given a sense of what it might be like to work with these machines day in day out, in different environments, as well as draw on their relationships with the space in the museum as it is today. Similarities and differences all punctuated through a musical composition. 



Conclusions and Future Plans

My experience of producing The Imitation Archive has given me a sense that there is much more to explore in the world of computer and technological sounds. I have been working on a further project that is specifically looking at the relationship between modern IT infrastructure, the latest, cutting edge technologies in computing and their architectural habitats.

As I begin to explore the sites of our contemporary internet landscape from a technological infrastructure perspective, new questions are beginning to emerge; how do we reflect the shift from desktop PCs being the locations of our digital content to placing everything in a mobile networked ‘cloud’ system? What are the environmental relationships between these new palaces of a digital world and their local habitat? As computers become increasingly prevalent in our day to day activities, smart devices, the internet of things, connectivity to remote machines, have all changed our relationship with digital technology. Can sound illuminate for us anything about this somewhat abstract and increasingly estranged relationship? My work in this area can be seen on my project website As I continue to develop this research, I will be starting to produce a PhD at The London College of Communication in September within the Creative Research into Sonic Arts Practice department (CRiSAP).

Working on The Imitation Archive has been a fascinating opportunity for me to consider the historical impact of computing on culture and society. In the future I hope to find out more about the impact of computing on culture and society within the contemporary moment.

The Imitation Archive was supported by Arts Council England’s Grants for the Arts scheme and is available at the British Library (collection C1679)


20 May 2015

£9.5m boost from Heritage Lottery Fund for our Save our Sounds campaign

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We are delighted to announce that the British Library has been earmarked funding of over £9.5m from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to help save the nation’s sound recordings and open them up online for everyone to hear.

For those of you familiar with our Save our Sounds project, this is very welcome news. According to the predictions of sound archivists the world over, we have fifteen years in which to digitise historic sound recordings before the equipment required to play some formats can no longer be used, and some formats such as wax cylinders and acetate discs start to naturally decay.

Examination of a damaged lacquer disc in our sound labs
Examination of a damaged lacquer disc in our sound labs

This problem doesn’t just apply to the national sound archive of over 6.5m recordings held at the British Library; it applies to collections around the country.

As part of our ongoing UK Sound Directory project, we have identified over 1m sound collections on dozens of different formats across the UK which also risk disappearing, which range from recordings of killer whales made off the coast of Shetland (held by the Centre for Wildlife Conservation, University of Cumbria), to a collection of sounds held in the Canterbury Cathedral archives spanning 50 years of services, choral and opera performances and other recordings, many of which are thought to be unique.

Thanks to the £9.5m funding from the HLF, we will be able to digitise and publish online up to 500,000 rare and unique sounds from the Library’s own collections and those around the UK which are most at risk, including local dialects and accents, oral histories, previously unheard musical performances and plays, and vanishing wildlife sounds.

Some of the many rare recordings in the British Library's sound archive
Some of the many rare recordings in the British Library's sound archive

From 2017-2022, we will work with partner institutions across the UK to develop a national preservation network via ten regional centres. Together we will digitise, preserve and share our unique audio heritage. We will also run a major outreach programme to schools and local communities to celebrate and raise awareness of UK sounds.

Our challenge, as outlined in our Living Knowledge vision published earlier this year, is to preserve as many as possible of the nation’s rare and unique sound recordings, and also to protect the future of our audio heritage, by improving the way in which we collect sounds digitally.

We are extremely grateful to the Heritage Lottery Fund for answering that urgent need, and enabling us to take this first major step in our plans.

Find out more about our HLF funding on our Press site and join in the conversation on Twitter using #SaveOurSounds

18 May 2015

Finding ways to take Crafts Lives out of the archive

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Crafts Lives records in-depth life stories of Britain’s craftspeople for the British Library’s oral history collections, exploring both their personal and their working lives.

Last year Crafts Lives was fortunate enough to receive funding to digitise and put online many of the life story interviews that have been recorded since the project started in 1999. There are now over 80 in-depth interviews with British craftspeople, along with searchable summaries, available to users worldwide on British Library Sounds.

Our next step was to think of ways that we can make them more available to listeners now that they are online. We’ve been following the growing use of QR codes and other smart phone technology in oral history in site-specific audio trails such as the Montgomery Canal trail and in recording memories to form a social history of objects as in the research project Tales of Things.  

Crafts Lives has a wonderful collection of detailed descriptions by makers of making specific pieces and we have long wanted to experiment with marrying these with the objects themselves.  This would allow people to look at a craft object and listen to the maker describe in detail how it was made.

Our opportunity came at this year’s Collect, the International Art Fair for Contemporary Objects put on every year in London by the Crafts Council. Among the makers exhibiting were several of whom we had existing recordings, and they and their galleries kindly agreed to have signs with QR codes and NFC chips next to the maker’s work so that people could access audio clips via their smart phones. We chose short extracts from the interviews, figuring that people wouldn’t want to listen to anything too lengthy in the middle of a busy art fair.

We had an extract from ceramicist Walter Keeler about combining the sculptural and the functional in his work beside some of his fantastical teapots.

Walter Keeler QR code and teapots

Beside sail forms from Peter Layton’s Burano glass series, we had part of his description of the glass blowing and trailing process involved in making them

Peter Layton QR code card and Burano glass series

Kate Malone’s flamboyant pots were accompanied by an extract of Kate talking about the peace of the empty space inside a pot

Kate Malone QR code card and pots

While Rod Kelly's beautifully chased silver charger could be examined whilst listening to Rod explaining the many revisions and stages of preparing to decorate silver

Rod Kelly and QR code card and silver plate

Images courtesy of Elizabeth Wright

We haven’t had feedback yet as to how many people used the QR and NFC codes to access the recordings. When we tried them out ourselves, while looking round the exhibition, we took note of several things that we might improve. For instance, accessing the recording via QR and NFC codes means that the audio clip plays through the phone’s speaker and therefore may be obtrusive. However we hope this is the start of exploring how we can use the recordings outside the archive, in exhibitions and installations, to add an extra dimension to the experience of art and craft.

Frances Cornford and Elizabeth Wright, Project Interviewers for Crafts Lives.