Real World at the British Library Sound Archive

The British Library Archive have been recording artists at the WOMAD Festival for over 30 years —their first was Mersea Island in 1985— but the idea of capturing the artists performing at the festival goes right back to the very first festival in 1982.

Andy Linehan, Curator of Popular Music at the British Library, attended that first festival in 1982 along with ethnomusicologist Lucy Duran (who later collaborated with Peter Gabriel on the album Passion) and the idea of capturing the performances for the Sound Archive began to form almost immediately. “At that time we thought it was possibly going to be a one-off, and we had no idea that bands like that would ever come back to the UK, because they hadn’t invented World Music then.”

This long-standing relationship, and the British Library’s Save Our Sounds campaign, led to Real World Records spending a couple of fascinating hours in Linehan’s genial company late last year. A rare and privileged chance to immerse ourselves in the work of the archive, marvel at the British Library’s four floors of subterranean storage on the Euston Road, and wonder for how long one might get lost amongst the musical treasures hidden within.

In reality, even though it’s 30-odd years of recordings, the WOMAD collection makes up only a tiny part of the British Library’s more than 6.5million sounds and it is indeed the ‘sounds’ that first strike us as we began our tour. Ironically, it’s actually the lack of noise you first notice. The silence in the Sound Archive office seems incongruous for such a place dedicated to sound, but the many curators and cataloguers are cocooned in their head-phoned worlds, intent on their tasks at hand. A cacophony of different music and sound all being experienced at once, but hidden to us fleeting passers-by. Then, as we take the lift down into the bowels of the archive, it’s the industrial-like noise that hits you as a complex miniature track system, all spaghetti-ed metalwork, ferries boxes (think airport security trays) above our heads. “It can be noisy down here as there’s this little railway system” says Andy. “There are eight reading rooms in this building— and so there are around 1,200 people using and ordering books [at any one time]. They go onto the catalogue and order the book they want and a printer down here prints out a barcode saying what’s been requested. Someone goes and gets it off the shelf and they put it in one of these red crates and once it’s got a barcode on, which relates to the print out of the request, it tells them which reading room to send it to. It goes all along here automatically, up four floors and then pops out the book for the staff to give to the readers. It looks rather Heath Robinson or Wallace and Gromit, but for 10 hours a day, six days a week it delivers.”

The British Library Archive - Section C: WOMAD. Photo credit: Andy Linehan

Through locked doors and metal gates we go before our first look at the music collection, which comes in the shape of the unpublished section. “In terms of what we collect it’s easiest to look at what we do as half collecting commercial releases and the other half unpublished recordings that we generate ourselves or that people have recorded and sent to us.”

This is the home of all the British Library’s live recordings of the WOMAD Festival. C203, the reference number given to the WOMAD collection all those years ago is still used, and covers an abundance of material recorded across the years, on a variety of formats. “The 1985 festival was recorded on half inch tape and I remember going back down to Bristol for a few days and sitting in the studio with Thomas [Brooman] mixing it down to stereo… I’ve got a vague memory of that, but I think you’ve still got the multi-tracks and we just got the stereo mix downs.” We did indeed have the multi-tracks and it was from this recording that the Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Live at WOMAD 1985 release is culled.

“When I first started recording at WOMAD,” muses Andy, who’s only ever missed one festival since the very first, “I was lugging boxes and boxes of tapes across fields and then we started recording digitally onto VHS just using the audio channels on the VHS machines in the mid to late 80s, and Betamax and then DAT. DAT was our saviour in many ways as it was so portable for a digital recording medium. We would then bring the recording back and write it to another format because DAT was not considered a long-term storage medium [even then].”

The British Library is home to the national sound archive, an extraordinary collection of over 6.5 million recordings of speech, music, wildlife and the environment, from the 1880s to the present day.

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A timely reminder of the importance of the Save Our Sounds campaign, which is using Heritage Lottery money to help fund the digitisation of previously unpublished material, as well as transferring material held on the less stable or increasing obsolete formats, “if you’ve got DATs, Betamaxes, VHS you need to be digitising those now. Those things are particularly vulnerable now because the machinery to play them is disappearing.” Fortunately, the WOMAD recordings are themselves all being preserved as part of the Save Our Sounds campaign, “all of this has been or will be digitised as part of this project and it’s all been catalogued,” says Andy, to our collective sigh of relief.

We move on, through row after row of floor to ceiling shelves, packed with storage and tape boxes, covering a vast array of sounds “All of these are collections picked up by curators or donated by people. In terms of music,” explains Andy, “we have three curatorial departments, there’s classical music, world and traditional music and popular music. As Popular Music curator I do everything that is not world and traditional or classical. But we also have curators of oral history, wildlife and environmental sounds and of radio and language and dialect, so we have all sorts of collections…” And it is radio where we find ourselves next, passing a section on Capital Radio (the London-based radio station) —some 6,000 tapes saved from the dumper when they moved buildings that includes live recordings from the likes of BB King, Beach Boys and The Cure, as well as many of Charlie Gillet’s early world music shows for the station— a huge, work-in-progress job to catalogue it all, but it’s all been made safe. Then there’s LBC News Radio tapes from the 80s and 90s, capturing many of the key news stories of the day and here, also, the BBC. Though the BBC have their own archive, the British Library Sound Archive has recordings that the BBC don’t; “We used to record off air as well, so there are a lot of BBC recordings that we’ve got that [they don’t]. That’s an interesting interaction between us, like John Peel Sessions we used to record John Peel programmes for the sessions and we would keep the whole programme, whereas the BBC only kept the session [itself]. We had a couple of bands come to us and say ‘we did a John Peel Session and we didn’t hear it and didn’t hear what he said before and after’ and we had the entirety of the show and were able to provide them with that.”

The British Library Archive - Capital Radio Tapes. Photo credit: Andy Linehan

Through some more heavy double doors and we’re into the beginning of the commercial releases, and straight into some oddities; mini-discs and DATs, “not that many people did it… Factory did a few and 4AD…” —there’s a Peter Gabriel Secret World Live release we note proudly.  And then right back to the very beginning of commercial audio releases, “these are wax cylinders… so this is the first thing you could go out and buy and bring home and put on and listen to music. It’s one single groove around the cylinder to rotate and the needle runs across the top.” The late 18th, early 19th century Edison cylinder, for a song titled ‘Oh Shining Light’, has a note on it —this record should run at 160 revolutions per minute, no faster— it states. ”Of course, the problem with these is that they were recorded on a hand-cranked machine so you are relying on the machine being constant and steady and people recorded at various speeds, so notes like that are very useful.” And, old as they may be new ones are still turning up; “I had a delivery of 80 more wax cylinders that came in last week from a collection that I got from somebody who died recently, based in Kent, who was a musical hall fanatic, so getting new 100-year-old recordings in is a great thing to do.”

Edison Concert Cylinder. Photo credit: British Library

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Just along from the wax cylinders we find metal masters of British Museum Gramophone Records featuring speeches by Winston Churchill, Stanley Baldwin and Alfred Lord Tennyson —though no-one seems to think the one of Queen Victoria is actually her, a “30% chance” apparently.

Ten years after Edison patented the cylinder in 1877, Emile Berliner figured that flat discs would work better, with the groove being concentric, if for no other reason than you can flip it over and play the other side to get six minutes on a disc rather than 3 minutes on a cylinder. Berliner patented the disc (in 1887) and effectively started the first format war. However, it wasn’t until just after World War 1 that discs started to creep ahead of the cylinder in people’s imaginations and became the preferred format. By the late 1920s cylinders had been discontinued and the disc had become the medium of choice for the discerning music buyer.

We move on again, through the hundreds of thousands of shellac 78s, all in the British Library archive sleeves, past the special edition releases —donated by record companies— all things that don’t fit on the conventional shelving (we all have some of those in our collections; lovely and annoying in equal measure) and into a section with collections still to be processed. The day we’re there, this includes more Charlie Gillet recordings, his Honky Tonk programme for Radio London, and a fabulous reggae collection from “a guy who worked in the Head shop on Portobello Road and was also big mates with Lee Scratch Perry.” It’s all waiting to be digitised, a process generally led by conservation and preservation needs but also by demand. If it’s already been digitised you can listen to it straight away, but if it hasn’t then it usually takes the team just a couple of weeks to get a digital version for people to hear.

The British Library Archive - the 78s collection. Photo credit: Andy Linehan

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Out into a new section, past the printed manuscript books and card index files and we’re suddenly at a vinyl LP collection that literally stops you in your tracks. Serried ranks of floor to over head-height shelves that can be electronically shuffled left to right to gain access to different sections. “This is a just part of our vinyl collection. Just a couple of week ago we hit number 250,000, so there’s a quarter of a million vinyl LPs and that’s single copies, no duplication in that quarter of a million. You can get lost down here.” He’s not wrong! “If I come down here to look for something in particular you just find yourself distracted by something else on the shelf and suddenly 20 minutes have gone past.” A dream scenario in any music-lovers book. We do indeed, lose ourselves for a while, not sure where to start looking, wide-eyed like kids.

“This is a collection that came to us a few years ago, which is quite neat,” says Andy, “it’s a collection of 5,000 bootleg LPs. They were donated to us by the BPI Anti-Piracy Unit… when they raided booleggers and pirates, they confiscated their stock and destroyed it but they would always keep one to use in the court case as evidence and then they built up this kind of library of about 5,000 of them. The BPI were moving from Saville Row to the South Bank and they said ‘what do we need this for’? and they said actually this is a really good collection and so they gave it to us, which is brilliant, as we never used to collect bootlegs.”

The British Library Archive - LP collection. Photo credit: Andy Linehan

We’re too awestruck to ask what order the LPs are kept in, but Andy explains later:

“They used to be kept by label in alphabetical order so that meant you’d be able to just go to the shelf and see all the Real World releases in the same place. The trouble with that is that you would have A&M up there and ZTT down there, but if A&M suddenly put out a load of records you’ve got to move everything along and when CBS do the same, you know… we then worked out what we needed to do was to have our own barcoding system so that when every release comes in its got its own unique identifier and that tells us where it is on the shelf, and that we can just go and find it and it doesn’t matter what label it is, whatever comes in next goes next to each to each other, so that’s why you now see old stuff and new stuff together.”

Reluctantly, we’re dragged away… but find ourselves in the equally fascinating conservation and preservation centre. There are newly acquired pieces of old equipment —tape machines, dansette record players and boom-boxes— in the corridor waiting to pressed into service and rooms where we see vinyl records getting ultrasonic baths before they face the brushes, tubes and jam jars of the Keith Monks vinyl cleaning machine, a quirky, industry stalwart since the 1960s. And, finally, we pass the studios where engineers are working on digitising a wide variety of source material, from interviews for the Frank Sinatra fanclub newsletter to recordings of chimpanzees. What they’ll be doing the next day, who knows? Could be anything…

Photo credit: British Library

As we near the end of our tour Andy explains how the conservation and restoration work of the Sound Archive strives to be free of any subjective decision making that might suit the perceived wisdom of any given point in time. How one person’s preference on how scratchy or bass-y a recording might be doesn’t ultimately affect the master source; “As soon as we’ve got something in as good a condition as possible we will digitise it, as it is, with all the pops and scratches and everything and that will be the master copy and we’ll then clone that and we’ll work on the clone copy to see what we can do in terms of noise reduction and that sort of stuff, but we will always have the original master to go back to and re-clone if we need to, to do other things and experiment with.”

There’s an incredible collection of music, oral history, news reportage, dialect examples and environmental sounds in the British Library Sound Archive, free of judgemental decision making about what has ‘value’ and what doesn’t, just a reflection of who we are and the world we live in, and always open to what might next be added to the collection; “With every curator our job is, or one of our jobs is, going out and talking to people and saying ‘what have you got’ and people ringing me up me and saying ‘there’s a mate of mine at Glastonbury and they’ve got all this stuff, would be interested?’ and saying ‘yes!’. So, we’ve always got little project going, bubbling under that we hope will one day come to fruition and when they do, they come in here and there are thousands of collections here…”

Anyone can access the amazing collections of the British Library and the digitised content of the National Sound Archive. Fill out a couple of forms and to get a British Library Readers Pass and you can happily while-away your time in one of the eight reading rooms Andy Linehan told us about earlier or you can go online to access a proportion of the archive.

The British Library Sound Archive

Many thanks to Andy Linehan for taking the time to show us around the British Library Sound Archive, it was a fascinating, illuminating experience, that left us rather envious of his access to all those amazing recordings.

Featured release

  • Live at WOMAD 1985

    Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

    Released 23 July 2019

    A remarkable record of a magical event that changed the perception of Sufi music to a wider audience and set Nusrat on a path to international recognition of his genius. The power and beauty of Nusrat’s voice comes rushing back through the years and lifts us up to the ecstatic heights of Sufi expression.

By Matt Osborne

Published on Sun, 04 August 19

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