Hunting sound

I was researching technology and international exchange the other day and came across two stories in the history of technology which were new for me. The first concerned World Tape Pals [1].  This was an organisation set up in 1950 to encourage the sharing of news and perspectives from people around the world. A kind of discussion forum before its time. The technology used was recorded tapes and members not only stayed in touch with family living overseas but linked up with people they had not previous met to share culture and languages – they were ‘sound pals’ rather than ‘pen pals’. In the mid-1960s the World Tape Pals was reported to have about 25,000 members worldwide though of course many more people would have used tape recorded exchanges in informal ways.

The story of Word Tape Pals led me on to a couple of articles on sound hunters by Karin Bijsterveld [2] [3].  Simply put sound hunting was about capturing everyday life and was popular, although always a very niche activity, in the 1950’s and 1960’s. At the time people were asking what they could do with the new technology of the tape recorder. Suggestions from the early manufacturers included recording the gurgling of a new born baby; capturing conversations with family members; recording concerts; dictating letters and so on. Bijsterveld shows some of this in the publicity photographs which put out – a couple of them are reproduced below [4].

Ambitiously it was suggested that with these recorders you could produce  your own radio plays, complete with special effects, or record yourself singing or practising a foreign language. But one further unexpected use of the technology was to ‘hunt sounds’. Sound hunters took out their devices – quite large and heavy reel to reel machines  – and tried to record ‘how everyday life sounded’: the noise made by an aeroplane engine; thow laughter in the street; the song of garden birds; the ringing of church bells; in fact anything and everything. Clubs of sound hunters grew up and competitions, including a kind of sound hunter Olympics, took place in which international teams were given limited time to produce a fully documented sound collage around a common theme.  These competitions were judged by level of difficulty and Bijsterveld (2004: 624) explains how one contestant, a salesman in wristwatches, set out to record the sound of wristwatches, for his five-minute production ‘Insomnia’:

During the recording each separate sound had to be isolated and subsequently much amplified, in order for it to be audible as a separate phenomenon on the magnetic tape… We did not succeed in fully suppressing the breathing and background noises …We tried for months and probably needed over 100 hours of work to realize these recordings.

My interest in sound hunters came about as I was simply amazed that this went on, on reflection I should not have been but it just appeared so whacky. Sound hunting is also interesting as it was a precursor and became entwined with more mainstream use of sound collage. For exmaple, in UK radio and television history you can sense the influence of sound hunting in the early radio series Radio Ballads [5] which aimed to collect songs, conversations and sound effects in a story of everyday life, and in the seminal use of sound mixing in the first Dr Who theme tune, 1963 [6].

Another reason why I found sound hunting so interesting was that it exemplified two of the ways we still respond to technology. First, the desire to capture everything (something today we see in our preoccupation with taking photos and monitoring how many steps we take). Second, the belief, pushed by manufacturers, that technology use will be creative even if this comes up against the reality that what is simpler or more instantly appealing takes over. In the case of sound hunting there was not enough to hold the attention, and in any case cassette recorders replaced reel to reel tapes and these were so much more difficult to access and edit. A further parallel between sound hunting and our attitudes to digital devices today is our belief that technology will break down international barriers only to find that they can also be used for control and surveillance. Bijsterveld (2013) provides a timely account of the first international sound hunter competition in 1972 in what was then a Warsaw Pact country, Czechoslovakia. Here the enthusiasts came up against eavesdropping by the security services and covert participation. This was capturing sound but with malice. Imagine such a thing!


[1] Scribner, C. (2017) American teenagers, educational exchange, and cold war politics. History of Education Quarterly 57(4) 542-569.

[2] Bijsterveld, K. (2004) ‘What do I do with my tape recorder …?’: Sound hunting and the sounds of everyday Dutch life in the 1950s and 1960s, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 24:4, 613-634.

[3] Bijsterveld, K. (2013) ‘Eavesdropping on Europe: The tape recorder and East-West relations among European recording amateurs in the Cold War era’. In (Eds) A. Badenoch  and A. Fickers Airy Curtains in the European Ether, pp. 99-122. Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft mbH & Co. KG.

[4] The source for the first is given by Bijsterveld as Grundig Radio Handelmaatschappij J.N.J. Sieverding N.V., Amsterdam 1962. The source for the second is the Photo Archives NVG, Wassenaar Courtesy Grundig Benelux. I believe I can reproduce these photos but apoligise for any inadvertent breach of copyright. The first is an early advertisement, the second shows a sound hunter in an air field.

soundhunting1                               soundhunting2.

[5] A brief description of Radio Ballads can be accessed at the BBC site but to be honest the Wikipedia entry is fuller . It is not difficult to track down programmes on You Tube.

[6] The story of the theme tune is again covered by both the BBC but quite fully in  Wikipedia