Old tech sounds preserved as part of a huge audio project

Play the sound of a typewriter to a child and they will hardly know what it is, what they hear. Play it for an older adult and they might crack a smile at some of the memories it immediately evokes. Likewise the sound of an old cassette recorder, rotary telephone or a Super 8 camera.

To preserve these and other sounds for generations to come, Stuart Fowkes built the Cities and Memory archive, with old tech sounds forming part of his growing database of recordings.

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

The British sound artist and field recordist notes that people who were around in the early days of the internet in the 1990s have a particular reaction when they hear a recording of a strange screeching, also 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 be able to collect the sounds together and be able to present them again because I think everyone who listens to the collection has their own will have its own particular reaction to it,” Fowkes told the BBC.

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

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

Sounds of nature are also included, with some, like the recording of a glacier rupture, addressing 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 You can search some of them on the project’s website for outdated sounds, which include audio from typewriters, telephones, cameras, slide projectors, and VCRs, among others.

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

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