Sound Mapping: A Primer

Hearing is believing: how new media technologies and initiatives are breaking the sound barrier. Greg J. Smith investigates.


Ear of Dionysius. Photo Credit: Flickr/Matt NorthamOVER the last decade, mapping tools and applications have permeated many facets of everyday life. GPS devices have become tightly integrated with driving, smartphones keep us tethered to online mapping tools, and web 2.0 mashups and location-based services have ushered in a new era of pervasive, populist engagement with geographic information. 

Cartographic designer Mark Harrower has described this shift as a “democratization of mapping,” whereby motivated individuals can start to engage in the definition and demarcation of place – an activity that was once exclusive to the “Rand McNallys and National Geographics of the world.” Above and beyond assisting with basic navigation, the cultural resonance of mapping has increased tremendously. Consumers and citizens now have a host of free and accessible tools at their disposal for creating representations of the spaces they occupy. Platforms like OpenStreetMap provide a novice-friendly framework for crowdsourcing open source geographic data, but perhaps the greatest boon of citizen-powered cartography is the creative energy that challenges not only how, but what we map. 

Enter "sound mapping", a burgeoning field within DIY cartography. Sound mapping leverages web mapping protocols and late 20th century acoustic ecology research to create archives of geo-referenced field recordings. My interest in this field has grown out of my involvement with Urban Sound Ecologya project, produced in collaboration with geographer Max Ritts, dedicated to archiving  “soundwalks” recorded in various Canadian cities., a collaborative web platform for field recording, was launched by artists Derek Holzer, Sarah Kolster and Marc Boon in 2005. Extending out of two exhibitions in Germany - Garage Festival (2004) and Transmediale (2005) - SoundTransit evolved into a navigable archive that allowed users to plan international “sonic journeys” - routes of audio files strung together as a series of waypoints on a map. Users of the site could browse the field recordings stored on it, using it as either a geospatial composition machine or a community platform for phonographers (individuals interested in collecting recordings outside a studio). 

In late 2010, after a five year run, Holzer announced that the site would be shut down, mainly due to rising costs of online hosting. While SoundTransit's still pending fade-to-black signals the end of one project, there is no shortage of sound mapping initiatives on the web right now – and it seems like related ventures are sprouting up every month. What is it about mobile technology and contemporary web publishing that has engendered a widespread interest in sound mapping? The answers can be found in World Soundscape Project (WSP), a research project that began approximately 40 years ago.

Canadian composer R. Murray Shafer launched WSP at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University in the late 1960s. Extending out of a course on noise pollution and Shafer's convictions that urbanization was radically altering the aural quality of the city, an initiative was launched to document this metamorphosis. 1973 saw the release of The Vancouver Soundscape, in which Howard Broomfield, Bruce Davis, Peter Huse and Colin Miles conducted a series of field recordings subsequently edited into a single, cohesive listening experience of nine interludes. In addition to several publications, WSP would inspire a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) radio documentary series (1974), a European soundscape initiative (1975) and a 1996 electro-acoustic composition project that revisited the sites and sounds from the original Vancouver undertaking. WSP represented an earnest attempt to capture intangible, urban and rural soundscapes. The project popularized acoustic ecology as a discipline that has since branched into numerous related practices.    

On 5 February 1996, a cartographic services company named GeoSystems Global Corporation - MapQuest - launched a website that allowed users to browse street maps and obtain directions online. It was a runaway success. It revolutionized consumer expectations about the accessibility and customizability of digital maps, mainly by providing "maps on demand" for a variety of purposes. The company and service were purchased by AOL in 2000 and continues to flourish despite the popularity of Google Maps, launched in 2005. Over the course of the last decade, web and mobile platforms displaced physical maps as the dominant means of distributing geographic information. This popularity, coupled with the DIY ethos of seminal mashups such as Paul Rademacher’s 2005 HousingMaps (which plots Craigslist real-estate opportunities on Google Maps), set the stage for citizen cartography. 

Many of the platforms and data that are freely available on the web lack the precision required for GIS (geographic information systems) applications, but these tools are accurate enough to allow motivated individuals to construct and share maps for whatever purpose they see fit: community outreach, neighbourhood mapping, geocaching, GPS route diaries for runners, photo-blogging – the potential is only limited by the imagination (and technical skill) of the would-be cartographer. Given the ubiquity of APIs and user-friendly interfaces, and the established practice of acoustic ecology, sound mapping on the web was inevitable. It started with SoundTransit; there are now at least two dozen projects that perhaps merit their own profiles. In my opinion, there are three worth mentioning: The Freesound Project, Sound-Seeker and the UK Sound Map.

  • The Freesound Project is a collaborative database of Creative Commons-licensed sounds. The site was launched in 2005 and now features more than 100,000 high-quality audio samples and field recordings freely available for use by musicians and sound designers. When uploading new content, users can choose to geotag their audio files. The site also features a rudimentary Google Maps interface that they can use to sift through the archive of approximately 7,000 geotagged files. The Freesound Project isn't specifically an acoustic ecology project, but the geotagging option underpins how web mapping can highlight the spatial aspects of sound. 

  • Sound-Seeker is a sound mapping venture launched under the umbrella NYSoundmap project, organized by The New York Society for Acoustic Ecology (NYSAE) in 2006. One of the first web mapping projects to take advantage of the Google Maps tools, Sound-Seeker allowed contributors to geotag field recordings by noting the address at which the audio file was recorded. In scanning the liner notes for the project, one can’t help but smile at the request that audio files under 10MB be submitted electronically, accompanied by a mailing address to which minidisks and CDs could be sent. In an email conversation about the project earlier this year, Media artist Andrea Polli - one of the leads on Sound-Seeker - described the inspiration for the project as emerging from a “curiosity about the Google Maps API” and the desire to “open up the process of soundmapping to the community at large.”

  • This past summer saw the launch of UK Sound Map, a joint-venture by the British Library and Noise Future Network to provide a national platform for archiving sound throughout the United Kingdom. The site is described as a “community-led survey” aimed at determining “what the UK sounds like today” and helping to explore “what impact these sounds have on our lives.” The site makes use of the Google Maps API and has amassed an archive of 1,200 sounds since its inception in July 2010. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of UK Sound Map is the manner in which it leverages smartphone capabilities. When recorded with the Android and iOS app AudioBoo, files can be posted directly to the site under the tag "uksm", seamlessly integrating field recording with everyday functions. Smartphones aren't equipped with particularly sophisticated microphones, but the approach essentially democratizes sound sampling, making it an accessible, simple task - as easy as sending an SMS message. 

These new breed acoustic ecology initiatives honour the active exploration of soundscapes first undertaken by WSP. They harness database technology, locative media and user-generated content to expand our understanding of aural environments. 

Many sound mapping projects exist to promote attentive listening, or to informally delineate the soundscape of a particular city or country. As general interest spreads, there may soon be more robust platforms for archiving and exploring geotagged audio (think flickr or Photosynth for field recordings). Last fall The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal lamented the “large gap” in media history that allows us “to see our places, but not hear them.” Well, now we can hear them too, and situate that aural and spatial experience with pinpoint accuracy. 


Greg J. Smith writes Some Assembly Required, his monthly column at Current Intelligence. He is a Toronto-based designer with interests in media theory and digital culture. He is a managing editor of the digital arts publication Vague Terrain and blogs at Serial Consign.