Friday, 7 July 2017

Carsluith: Sound and Content

We're delighted that our audio-visual technician, Colin Gateley, agreed to write a blog post for us.  The result is a posting which gives us a flavour, both of his work and his current project, the digitisation of a recent, and very welcome, donation on fieldwork recordings from Carsluith made in between 1972 and 2006.

I have been working for the EERC as an audio-visual technician, digitising and editing photographic and audio materials for a couple of years now. My background is in audio and digital imaging so the EERC work is something I enjoy from a technical perspective.  My job generally involves working on individual projects over a period of weeks or months. I particularly enjoy the problem solving and also the interesting content of the materials I get to work with.

Recently I’ve been digitising a collection of forty-five cassette tapes. These recordings are of interviews made between 1972 and 2006 by Dr David Hannay who interviewed residents of Carsluith about their memories of growing up, living and working in Casluith and the surrounding area. The tapes are conversational, and with a fairly consistent set of questions - Who lived where? What the interviewee did for a living? Who they knew? What they remembered? Some participants were also asked questions related to Dr Hannay’s family’s history, and these explored the connections between the Hannays and the local residents.

Dr Hannay’s 45 cassette tapes.

The aim of this project was to create high resolution WAV files of the cassettes (for archiving) and also MP3 files of edited versions of the originals.  While the archival WAV files are an exact copy of the original fieldwork recordings, the MP3 files were edited to remove extraneous noises which filtered out (where possible) to improve the listening experience and to make the speech clearer for the benefit of the person who would then be transcribing the recordings.

The cassettes themselves varied in quality, and there is evidence of expediency in the selection of tapes Dr Hannay used to record the interviews. Many seem to have been new while others were being re-used and had tell-tale signs, such as sticky-tape covering the protection tab hole.

Judging by the nature of the handling noise, it seems probable that the cassettes were recorded on a portable recorder with a plastic external electret condenser microphone. The quality of the recordings varied quite a lot.  Sometimes it seems the microphone has been placed too far from a quietly spoken interviewee, resulting in some very quiet recordings.  That’s the technician speaking, of course, and unless you are recording within a studio environment, there is always going to be some aspect of the recording sound which could have been better.  This remains the case today, even though the technology is so much more sophisticated and easier to use than would have been the case when Dr Hannay made his recordings, its usually possible to see how the recording quality could have been improved by making some adjustment.

Some recordings required very little editing while others stretched the ability of the software (and my ears) to bring the voices out from amongst tape hiss and noise introduced by the recorder itself, (either from a dirty or worn record head or other component deterioration), or environmental noises.  Sometimes these environmental noises can be identified, such as the sound of a Tilley lamp or oil burner.

On the left of this illustration the noise floor is relatively high in relation to the speech, masking some of the quieter parts. The right side shows a more intelligible balance between speech and noise.

Although I’m primarily concentrating on the sound, rather than the interview itself, when I’m working on a project of this kind I am also drawn into the recording content.  While working with this collection I’ve heard people talk about their experiences, some dating back as far as 1908.  Fragments that come to mind relate to all aspects of life: family members who went to war; the brother who had emigrated to Australia then returned from his new life to join his kin on the battlefield; the newlywed who died in a bombed hospital in France.
One interviewee recalled the first time they heard an automobile, at a time when most travel was done on foot or by horse and cart. In the days before widespread car ownership we find that the people of Creetown and Newton Stuart, like so many within rural or semi-rural communities, worked close to where they lived.  For many this was the local quarry, which produced crushed and monumental stone. Others were at the fishing on the Cree estuary with nets and baits specially adapted for those waters.

Other recollections included happy memories of the annual garden party at Kirkdale where locals were welcomed to picnic in the grounds of the estate. Health and medical needs, from childbirth to death are here too.  Remedies for common ailments are discussed and also the role of the local howdie, or midwife.  Humorous anecdotes are here too, such as one contributor remembering a time, as a child, when he saw a pig on top of the ruined Barholm Castle.

Taken together, this collection, through the clarity of the memories of those who were recorded by Dr Hannay, allowed me to know a time and a place that I had hitherto no experience of.  Thereby, I think, showing the value of oral history. 

Colin Gateley
July 2017

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