Audio Archaeology: Telephones, Typewriters, and Trucks
Here we are—entering the second part of my three-part (possibly four part) blog trilogy. We’ve been talking about sounds in the world that have been lost and sounds that have changed. Sounds that may seem meaningless and sounds that may not be used in the real world too often anymore, but still tell us something about where we are and, more importantly when we are—what era the story is in.
When I asked my audio producer and sound designer friends and colleagues which sounds have changed many of them pointed out three large overall categories: Telephones, typewriters, and transportation.
These are all sounds that have changed over the years, but have, by no means, disappeared. You have to look and listen for them. You have to dig for the sounds. You have to pay attention to the context. We have to become audio archaeologists, because like any archaeologist, when you find something, an artifact, you hope it will tell you something about its times and maybe even something about yourself.
Like geologic specimens, sounds are layered in time. There’s an assumed march of progress to bells and whistles, buzzers and horns. Culturally, we seem to always assume that the march is for the better. Whatever—sounds have changed over the years.
Let’s start with a loose audio archaeology of telephones: Telephones create important and very complex sounds, because they take human interaction to create the sounds. Humans put the machines in motion or if the phone rings, the machines put people into action.
The dial: Tapping the cradle to get a connection, rotary dial, touchtone, touch screen.
The ring: Wooden wall phone with metal bell and clapper, 1930s double ring, 1960s ring (still uses mechanics), warbling 1980s office ring, ring tones.
The message/interaction: “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.”
“Sarah, get me the drugstore.” “Can you hear me now?”
The Sound quality: Sounds like you’re in a box at the bottom of a well, sounds like you’re holding your nose at the bottom of a well, don’t know what a well is but you’re at the bottom of one.
On to typewriters, printers and presses. Once again these sounds are full of communication, actions and human interactions:
Ink to Paper: Scratch of quill pen, typewriter keys hitting paper, electric typewriter keys hitting paper, tabs of various computer keys.
Paper continued: The snap of a single sheet of parchment, the bell return and roll of a typewriter carriage, the same for an electric typewriter.
Computer printers and copiers: Dot matrix, ink jet, scanners.
Various presses: Old wooden movable type, newspaper linotype, offset press, addressograph, mimeograph.
Transportation. The context, the surface of the road, has so much to do with where and what era your ears put your mind in when you hear a horse or a diesel truck.
Talking steps: A person walking, a horse, a horse and buggy, a Ford Model T, a 1952 Pontiac, a Dodge Daytona muscle car, a Toyota Prius Hybrid.
Surfaces: Sand, gravel, cobblestone, asphalt, rails, air.
Warnings: Horsewhip, Buggy horn, Model T horn, mid-sixties horn, diesel air horn.
Trains: Early Tom Thumb engine, big 1880s steam locomotive, Diesel engine, high-speed electric rail.
Planes: Single engine bi-plane, WWII Spitfire, Fighter jet, 747.
What keeps coming around about all these sounds are that not only do they tell the listener what they are (a plane or a phone), but they are pretty specific about when they are. Some sounds aren’t heard much in real life, but a sound like the typewriter is so representative of action and communication in newsrooms, for instance, that one often hears typewriters in the background sound design of modern films. I don’t think there’s an old style typewriter in a newsroom today, but nothing says newsroom like a typewriter. They go together.
With today’s digital recordings things get more complicated. I was in a store the other day and I heard a dead ringer (get it, ringer) for an old MaBell phone just like we used to have at home when I was kid, but it turned out to be somebody’s cell phone ring tone. It fooled me. I thought my mother was calling.
In the end what I heard unanimously from every audio producer and sound designer was that they are all hopeless and inveterate sound collectors. Some collect recordings. Some collect the things that make the sounds. Many do both. But you’ll never hear of a sound effects geek ever willingly give up a princess phone if he’s got one. You never know when you might need one.
NEXT: What Sound Doesn't Let You Hear
920 Creekside Lane
Plainfield, IN 46168
check out: http://www.greatnorthernaudio.com