The National Sound Library of Mexico: An Institution Beyond the Preservation of Sound Archives

Editors note: This was originally presented by Dr. Lidia Camacho at the 2006 IASA Conference in Mexico City. It was printed in the July 2007 IASA Journal (no. 29) and is reprinted here with permission. Ten years later, the Fonoteca Nacional has achieved many of these goals and remains at the cutting edge of audio scholarship and public education through an active calendar of concerts and lectures, daily and weekly podcasts, galleries and exhibitions, recording and preservation studios, online collections, regional listening centers and more. Visit their site at fonotecanacional.gob.mx

Born out of substance and raised by senses and desire, memory is the most complete and perfect of human symbolic constructs. Though generated by individuals, its essence merges with the social being and, through an efficient path of communication it manages to become part of that common heritage that lives on through generations: tradition. Without memory there is no tradition, culture, roots, or product we can call our own, since memory is for each of the five senses, and for each human being the ground on which they sit and the beginning of their reason for living.

Memory, in individual and social terms, gets deposited in innumerable external niches, and gets shaped almost without sensing the different patrimonies which, over the years, become the extremely rich heritages of peoples, nations and the world. Unfortunately, the full value of those heritage is not appreciated, and this has led to the ruin, disappearance, and oblivion of more than a few of the riches we possessed until fairly recently.

That lack of attention and care of cultural heritage has reached very high levels in Latin America, especially with regard to sound and audiovisual archives. In that respect, it should be said that in Mexico there is an urgent need for a site dedicated to preserving our national heritage of sound. It runs a very serious risk of disappearing, not just because of the fragility of the analogue media on which it is held, the technological obsolescence of the instruments capable of reproducing it, and the imminent disappearance of this analogue equipment, but above all because this country lacks the tradition of conserving this intangible patrimony.

This lack of awareness has hindered appreciation of the enormous wealth contained in a sound archive and its virtually unlimited possibilities for the most diverse uses. These range from social, political and entertainment uses, to educational and cultural ones, where its value rises, since the sounds that characterise our daily life shape our identity, differentiating us from other cultures. Clearly, if we lose this heritage, part of our deepest being will disappear forever.

In Mexico, there are public educational and cultural institutions that have begun the task of archiving sound collections resulting from radiophonic production, research and the rescue of sound and musical manifestations. This labour has been carried on more with imagination than with sufficient economic and technological resources. This is why we believe it is particularly important for the public sector to implement a decisive policy to systematise the conservation, dissemination, and physical and intellectual control of sound resources.

It is therefore vital to have the guidance of adequate State policies that base its actions on the awareness of the fragility of the sound materials, and of the impending technological obsolescence of traditional sound media and equipment. Such a State policy would encourage the creation of appropriate strategies for conserving the sound heritage of Mexico to ensure access to that part of our identity by all the Mexicans. Moreover, it should foment awareness in the educational sphere of the value of sound documents, and promote the preservation of sound archives. Mexico’s audiovisual stocks are indeed still young: the oldest – UNAM’s Film Library – was created in 1964. For their part, video libraries like those of the Directorate General of Educational Television. Channel 11, Channel 22. TV UNAM, and the National Video Library itself, are still younger authorities that have grown rapidly for reasons particular to the mission of the institution to which they belong. Strictly speaking, however, they still do not have a long-term guarantee for their conditions of preservation.

This situation places us at a clear disadvantage compared with other audio libraries around the world. However, this has begun to change as a result of fact that the Secretariat of Public Education and the National Culture Council, through Radio Educación, have formed a culture of preservation of the country’s sound patrimony and taken the first steps towards implementing that State policy I mentioned earlier.

Accordingly, almost six years ago, Radio Educación embarked on a battle in Mexico against the laxity and ignorance that was allowing one of our most valuable legacies to disappear. I believe that we have managed to plant a seed of awareness of the importance of the country’s sound and audiovisual patrimony in Mexico. The battle has been fought on various fronts: on one hand, from our studios and broadcasting cabins, with radio programmes broadcasting samples of the world’s principal resources, or promoting the culture of preservation of humanity’s patrimony of sound; on the other, with the creation of the Mexican Standard of Phonographic Documents, an indispensable tool for the work of cataloguing sound materials from Mexican institutions. Finally, with the organisation of various national and international forums, such as seminars on sound and audiovisual archives.

These actions are joined today by another, which is about to become a tangible reality: the National Sound Library, an institution that will guide the particular policies of the educational and cultural sector aimed at safeguarding the country’s sound legacy, and which is an essential part of the National Culture Plan 2001-2006 implemented by the Mexican State to govern its actions in the vast and complex field of national culture. This newly formed institution already has a building to house it: the Casa de Alvarado (so called because it was where Pedro de Alvarado, the famous captain of Hernán Cortés, lived). With a space of over seven thousand square metres, the National Sound Library will be a centre truly dedicated to sound.

The mission of the National Sound Library will be to acquire, preserve and disseminate the nation’s sound heritage, so that present and future generations will have access to Mexico’s legacy of sound, through the processes of documentation, preservation and conservation. Consequently, the resources of the National Sound Library will comprise voice, music, radio and soundscape collections, as well as the legal depositing of sound recordings published in Mexico. This institution will therefore support a great many activities beyond that of preservation of the patrimony of sound. These will turn it into a living institution, a ceaseless promoter of the culture of sound, through a wide range of activities controlled by a well-planned strategy. The National Sound Library of Mexico will organise various cultural activities in and outside its facilities. One of these will be the exhibition of artistic manifestations related to sound. This area will include the presentation of sound sculptures. as well as performances and installations using sound as the raw material of their work. The National Sound library will also organise seasons of music, and sound art concerts, for didactic purposes as much as for pure recreation. No less important will be the auditions of various artistic expressions based on sound.

Similarly, the National Sound Library of Mexico will organise rounds of conferences with educational and recreational objectives, with the aim of strengthening the culture of preservation of the sound in a pleasurable and sustained manner.

Together with these activities, research into sound and its different manifestations, and fields of study, will occupy a privileged position in the new institution. That will broaden this area of knowledge so little explored in Mexico until now.

Such research will have two main guides: science and art. The scientific research will explore not only acoustics but also the history of mentalities, socio-biology, and other related fields. Investigation in this field will be done, using firm, clear foundations, into the value of the nation’s sound heritage, and into the scope of sound ecology. At the same time, strategies will be established to enable Mexico’s soundscape to be recognised, recovered and disseminated. With regard to the aesthetic directive, the research will be aimed at inquiring into the history, prospects and scope of sound art, an aesthetic expression that has opened up the possibility of treating sound (per se, and not just musical sound) artistically, and that now has more than a century of history, with representative works now forming part of the history of universal art.

Additionally, the National Sound Library of Mexico will have an extensive and concrete programme of printed and electronic publications to enable it to disseminate both the ideas generated within our institution and those coming from outside, so as to breathe new life into our works.

Training, without doubt, occupies a special place because we feel the formation of human resources is one of the tasks vital to preserving sound archives. A national and international programme of courses, workshops, diplomas and seminars on the different fields of conservation, documentation, and preservation of sound will therefore be designed, with the consequent benefit to the people who are interested. This will help us achieve the very necessary formation of professionals in the area of documentation, conservation, restoration and digitisation. IASA will have a leading role in this programme, since its support will be essential to bringing our academic objectives to fruition. However, the National Sound Library will also have other fields enabling it to influence the national stage in Mexico. One of the most important is that of promoting artistic sound experimentation, no longer from the perspective of research, but from that of creation, to produce works of sound art with the involvement of the most distinguished representatives of this manifestation and, in turn, to disseminate much of what has been made in this field of contemporary art. In this sense, the tasks of the Artistic Sound Experimentation Laboratory (LEAS – Spanish acronym), conceived as a space for researching and investigating the possibilities of sound art, will take on particular importance. Moreover, the National Sound Library of Mexico will base part of its actions on the educational and cultural possibilities of sound collections. To do this, it will create a sound stimulation programme with educational and artistic aims directed at children. Furthermore, the educational use of the National Sound Library’s sound documents will be promoted in the classroom, with a view to encouraging an appreciation for records of musical and oral memory, and micro-history, among children and young people. In the same way, teachers will be involved in the handling of the sound, acoustic and musical medium in the classroom. Public presentations of sound collections from the National Sound Library will also be promoted.

Additionally, in order to promote the knowledge and use of its resources, the National Sound Library will have a range of access and dissemination services. These will be in various formats, making our institution an informal space for meeting, research and education based on sound.

Among the most important of these are the audio library, both on site and online; the supply of online programming designed according to demand from the various educational centres; sound experimentation workshops, and electro-acoustic and acoustic music workshops, applied to creative and communicational processes; courses on musical appreciation and radiophonic appreciation; and the exchange of resources.

No less important will be the guided tours, where visitors can have a new experience given the great wealth of sound, and where they can enjoy a marvellous sound garden of over 600 square metres.

It has taken six years of intense work on behalf of Mexico’s sound heritage. Every idea, every action, every step has been guided by passion and patience, by imagination and intelligence, but above all by a profound conviction that the conservation of sound memory is our prime commitment to future generations – those who, with other ears, will have to ask us what we did with what has always belonged to them, and what our time sounded like as well as that of bygone ages. Today, more than ever, I feel enormous satisfaction to be part of the birth of a new institution that will strengthen our national identity and at the same time enrich the world’s cultural resources.

The Fonoteca hosts sound-walks and sound-tracks (by bicycle) to encourage visitors to listen closely to their surroundings. Photo from Caminata Sonora Por el Zócalo de la Ciudad de México. Not included in original article.

IASA Phonographic Bulletin and Journal Online

Post written by Mason Vander Lugt – ARSC Blog Editor / Library of Congress

In August 1969 Patrick Saul, founder of the BIRS previously discussed, Don Leavitt, chief of the Library of Congress Music Division (and author of “The Librarian as Activist”), and several other members of the Record Libraries Commission of the International Association of Music Libraries agreed to separate from IAML and defy the withering Fédération Internationale des Phonothèques to establish the International Association of Sound Archives (now Sound and Audiovisual Archives), IASA [i].

In summer 1971, still fresh enough for Leavitt (at this point the organization’s president) to write “Some Tasks for the International Association of Sound Archives”, IASA began publishing the “Phonographic Bulletin”. For decades the bulletin provided a venue for archives around the world to introduce their institutions and collections, to discuss standards, policies and strategies, and to evaluate new technologies. In 1993 the publication shifted into the IASA Journal, now in its 47th issue.

In 2015 IASA announced that archives of the Phonographic Bulletin and Journal [ii] had been posted on their website for public access after scanning by George Boston and indexing by Magdelena Cséve and Helen Harrison. I’m sure some ARSC members are aware of this resource already, but as I try to convince you all to help me develop this blog, I want to ask you to consider this as a potential source of inspiration.

The IASA publications differ from our own Journal in several ways. Most obviously is the overtly international scope. ARSC welcomes international members, but 85-90% of our members are based in the United States [iii]. IASA membership is incredible in its diversity. One of my biggest surprises and joys in browsing this archive was learning about institutions I knew little or nothing about – from national libraries to focused oral history, radio or ethnomusicology collections, from China to Oman, Madagascar to Finland.

The next biggest difference, I think, is that IASA really caters to professional archivists, engineers and preservationists. At the cost of recording histories, this brings a high level of scientific rigor to many of the articles. Studies of tape decomposition, digital storage and digital signal processing benefit from the funding and expertise of the national agencies sponsoring them. The softer sciences of cataloging, selection, and training benefit from the practical skill of experienced professionals.

An incidental benefit of the international approach is the tendency for authors to talk in terms of goals and ideals rather than the limitations of particular laws not shared. Copyright becomes a balancing act between intellectual property and access rather than a frustrating exercise in history and semantics (ok, maybe both…) Considerations of technology balance costs and benefits based on performance.

I don’t write this here to compare, though, but to help raise awareness of a resource that I think our members will find interesting and useful. Understanding the archive represents the diversity of disciplines and interests of our own community it’s hard to make general recommendations, but here are a few articles I enjoyed:

In Construction and Rationale of Building the Belfer Audio Laboratory and Archive at Syracuse University (Bulletin no. 39, pp. 9-18), William D. Storm outlines the complex process of transforming Walter Welch’s historical archive and laboratory into the modern Belfer facility, where I began my professional career. Bill tells the story of his rare opportunity to design the facility to spec, balancing factors of preservation and access, and his high-tech ambitions with the funding limitations of the university setting.

In Mass Storage Based Solutions for Digital Media Archives (Journal no. 4 pp. 66-68) Joachim Stark of IBM writes about the prospect of digital storage at scale. He doesn’t go into much detail but presents the concepts of scalability, modularity, validation, redundancy… in 1994. I find sometimes even archivists fall back on a deterministic narrative of technology and it’s refreshing to be reminded that every system we take for granted was once a “what if”.

Bulletin no. 32 features a trio of articles collectively titled Bartók’s Legacy to Sound Archives describing the song collecting, ethnographic recording and advocacy work of Hungary’s golden child who too many of us know mostly as a composer.

In the coming weeks I hope to reprint a few articles from this very special archive, but I encourage you to check it out for yourself. Thanks to IASA for making these available.

Chez Hodge, from “Construction and Rationale…”. It still looks like this, though there’s a computer now.

  • [i] http://www.iasa-web.org/sites/default/files/40years/iasa/intro_cont.html
  • [ii] Journal issues through no. 34 (Dec. 2009) are available to anyone while issues since are available to members only.
  • [iii] Estimated from 2015 ARSC membership directory

Recording the Voices of the Wild

Recording the Voices of the Wild – Eric Simms, D.F.C, M.A., F.Z.S., M.B.O.U.

Reprinted from British Institute of Recorded Sound Bulletin no. 2, (Autumn 1956) by permission of the British Library Sound Archive. The illustration was not included in the original article.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo (detail), via NYPL Digital Collections

Today it is generally recognized that the preservation of bird and other animal recordings in a permanent form is of importance. Not only are such recordings available to help in identification but they can be subjected to the most exact and systematic analysis. Now until comparatively recent times bird recording in Britain was carried out with the aid of disk-type recording equipment, and prior to 1939 the British Broadcasting Corporation designed and had built portable disk-recording apparatus which was entirely self-contained and powered by 12-volt batteries. These pieces of apparatus were used extensively by the B.B.C’s Mobile Recording Units, both in this country and overseas, for recording most out-door sounds, including those of birds and other animals.

However, in 1951, recording engineer Bob Wade and I began to examine the disk-type recording gear more closely in the field and to analyse the inherent disadvantages when natural history recording work was undertaken in the open air. Temperature, for example, has a direct influence on the manner in which a recording is made on a blank disk; if conditions are near freezing the emulsion that coats the disk becomes both hard and brittle and then the material, known as ‘swarf’ which is removed by the cutter as it makes the groove does not come away cleanly from the disk. This makes the walls of the grooves rather ragged and when the disk is played a certain amount of surface noise, or ‘needle-scratch’ is produced. Further, the high-pitched hiss made by contact between the playing needle and the disk is unfortunately increased by the process of taking a finished gramophone record or pressing from the original. It is, of course, necessary to make a permanent record and to ensure a long wearing quality for it; the material from which the permanent record is made must be considerably harder than the emulsion of the original direct recording.

The final records are made of a vinylite material which produces less surface noise than the normal shellac, and, after all, the permanent record is both the aim of the recording work and the determining factor as to final quality. Because of this the minimum intensity of the sound to be recorded = for example, the buzz of an insect’s wings or the call of an unborn chick in an unbroken egg-shell – must be greater than any inherent noise in the pressing. It must be remembered, too, that it is not possible to amplify a very low-level sound beyond a certain limit, since the amplifier itself contributes some noise which may be very low at the start but which increases with greater amplification. Very subdued sounds might be indistinguishable from, or unrecognized in, the general background noise coming from the apparatus itself.

For natural history recording work weight is also very important. It may be necessary to take the apparatus to comparatively inaccessible regions and to manhandle equipment across very difficult terrains. In addition to two 6-volt batteries, a motor-generator, turn-table and turn-table unit, a recording amplifier and microphones, a mixer unit to combine the outputs of several microphones, there are also the essential but nevertheless weighty blank recording disks.

Although many very good recordings of birds had been made with the disk-type recorders, the disadvantages which I have described encouraged us to examine another and newer type of recording medium which was becoming available – magnetic tape. In general, the surface-noise of a magnetic tape recording is lower than that of a gramophone record and it thus becomes possible to record and then to reproduce many sounds of extremely low intensity which are no longer masked by surface-noise . A great deal of the vocabulary of the Badger is in this category but it became possible to record all of it on tape, so obtaining low conversational calls that very few observers could ever hope to hear at a badger’s sett. The Little Ringer Plover and the Stone-Curlew were both recorded on tape and it was found that both species made calls so subdued that they could not have been audible many feet away. We have also succeeded in making recordings of the footfalls of foxes, badgers, even birds.

Early in 1951 direct comparison were made in Kensington Gardens between the two types of apparatus so far described. Simultaneous recordings were made on both disk-recorder and tape machine of the dawn and dusk bird choruses. The output of the same microphone was used so that direct comparisons could be made of the two recordings. It was found that more birds could be heard in song on the tape than on the disk, although the level of the nearest and dominant singer, a Song Thrush, was the same in both cases. The almost complete absence of noise on the former recording made it possible to reproduce more faithfully the distant songs and calls which were of lower intensity. This advantage added a natural depth and perspective to the tape recording. Of course, had these field recordings been made under ideal conditions indoors and on a high-fidelity studio disk equipment there should have been little or no apparent difference in the respective quality of the two recordings, but it is not practicable to use this type of studio apparatus in the field.

Another great advantage of tape recording is the increased duration of continuous recording that is possible with a single machine. With the single turn-table of a mobile disk-recorder it is possible to record for a period of only 4 ½ minutes before changing the disk. This would not be true of slow-speed recording at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute but this type of recording is, for various reasons, normally confined to indoor operation. There is always the chance too that the song or call might be missed during the period used for changing disks. With a tape recorder a half-hour recording can be made without changing the tape and should there be any unwanted material on the tape the operator can run this back from a second spool and by means of a third head, known as the wiping head, erase it. This allows the same tape to be used over and over again. In this way two single bird calls of some 7 seconds’ total duration were recorded over a period of 8 ½ hours; to have made certain of recording these two brief sounds it would have been necessary to cut and waste at least 125 disks. So far we have spent more than 800 hours at night making recordings of the Badger on only 25 half-hour tapes. Twelve separate calls, nine of which had not previously been described, were thus acquired but the number of disks that would have been needed for this operation would have run into many thousands.

Our present tape equipment is much less than the weight of the old disk apparatus and is far more easily moved from place to place. One type of recorded is so small that it weighs less than 20 pounds, including the spools of tape. With this machine I have been able to record massed wading birds on a remote island, the Dotterel at nearly 4,000 feet in the Grampians and the Flamingos in the middle of a lagoon in the Camargue. Tape recorders are not so susceptible to damage through vibration and their simple operation enables recording to be started at once. With the larger tape equipment it is easy to keep a continuous check on the quality of the actual recording; this is obtained by pressing a key which allows the operator to listen either to the direct sound from the microphone or to the output of the reproducing head over which the tape passes on its way to the take-up spool after recording.

In our recording work we have used the dynamic or mobbing coil microphone, and the introduction of a device known as a parabolic reflector has greatly enhanced the ability of a microphone to pick up sounds coming from the direction in which it is sighted. The moving coil microphone, without a reflector, is almost entirely omni-directional with a slightly increased pick-up of sounds coming from sources immediately in front of it. The addition of a reflector increases the effective pick-up and range for sounds coming from the exact direction in which the reflector is pointed.  Sound waves strike the surface of the reflector and are then reflected to a focal point in front. The microphone is placed at the focal point with its face directly towards the centre of the bowl-shaped reflector and its back to the source of sound. This increases both the range at which sounds may be picked up and also the amount of sound to be fed into the recorded. The reflecting surface is made of metal and the back is damped with a thick layer of sponge rubber to deaden any sounds occurring behind the reflector.

We have used two sizes of reflector for the field recording of birds and other animals; these have diameters of 18 inches and 36 inches respectively and the principles of construction and use are the same. Our increased use of these devices has opened up many new possibilities but at all times their limitations must be understood for full benefit to be derived from them. Recordings have been made at such a range that no disturbance of the birds or their areas of activity has been necessary. With the large reflector a Cuckoo in Kent with an unusual trisyllabic call was recorded at a range of 420 yards and many song-birds have been recorded at ranges of from 30 to 100 yards. Many flight recordings of birds such as Rooks, Jackdaws, and Swifts have been made at ranges of from 120 to 200 yards, and of Pink-footed Geese at a distance of nearly 1,000 yards. In addition, birds in inaccessible places such as the centres of lakes, mudflats and cliff-faces have been brought well within recording range. This extension of range has allowed us to record many birds in flight by following them with the reflector microphone; these sounds were beyond the range of the old recording apparatus.

The smaller reflector can be more easily moved that the larger and this is of great advantage when wide, uneven surfaces and cliff-faces have to be negotiated, and this portability proved invaluable when we tackled such species as the Peregrine Falcon and Dotterel in Scotland, the Flamingos in Provence and the Griffon Vulture in Spain. Snap recordings of birds can also be made without too elaborate precautions, as and when opportunity offers.

In all our work with reflectors a magnetic tape recorder has been used and this has meant the most careful co-operation between the operator of the reflector and the recording engineer. Although these new devices are improving the methods of bird-recording the original essentials of patience and determination remain. Careful field-work and study of the birds to be recorded usually means that by anticipating the actions of the birds success can often be achieved. The element of chance must always remain for it will never be possible to control the weather, the birds or the extraneous noises such as those of aircraft and trains which are the bane of the bird-recorder. Should conditions be satisfactory and the birds co-operative, the equipment is rapidly assuring the probability of success, both in obtaining a recording of the bird’s voice and in the faithful reproduction of what an observer in the field would hear.

Another piece of apparatus which has recently become available, in association with portable recording gear where the use of cables is impracticable, is a lightweight pack-set transmitter and receiver with a combined weight of only 27 pounds. This has been used with great success for the capture of certain difficult sounds, and recordings have been made of white-fronted geese feeding as much as 900 yards from the tape-recorder and of snow-buntings a mile away; it is used in conjunction with a parabolic reflector and gives the operator greater mobility, for he is no longer encumbered by the many yards of cable necessary when recording directly from a fixed microphone point.

The final recordings are, of course, obtained primarily for their broadcasting value but they are also available for detailed and systematic analysis. Today the technique of analyzing bird-songs and calls has advanced considerable. The Bell Laboratories during the war designed instruments capable by means of filters of analyzing sounds into their chief constituent frequencies; these instruments are known as sound spectrographs. Images of the sounds are reproduced on cathode ray tubes, so giving a wonderfully visual representation of the song or call. In this way simple and objective comparisons can be made between the utterances of a single individual, between those of different individuals and those of different species. Many incidental and interesting facts have emerged from such a study; a spectrogram of the song of the American Wood-Thrush showed that the performer was able to produce at the same moment of time a high-frequency trill and a low, steady tone which indicated the simultaneous action of two separate vocal mechanisms.

I have also played all the bird-recordings at very slow speed and in this way I have been able to work out the number of notes in rapid trilling deliveries during a certain unit of time. One point of interest has been the confirmation of the unreliability of the human ear in determining the number of notes given in a short period. For example, general estimates of the number of notes in the song-phrase of the cirl-bunting, which lasts for only a second to a second and a half, have been in the region of from ten to twelve. My researches reveal that eighteen to twenty three is much nearer the mark. I also discovered that the high trilling song of the grasshopper-warbler is made up of double notes of different pitch; there are approximately 1,400 of these double notes to the minute. Similarly, the river-warbler which has a song of the same type as that of the grasshopper-warbler has approximately 620 double notes to the minute. The nightjar’s song, however, is made up of single notes but of these there are something like 1,900 to the minute.

The many fields of research and experiment that lie ahead made the task of recording full of excitement, and it is a great privilege to be associated with a project of this kind.