Sound Studies in the Digital Age

This week’s readings help us dive deep into the world of digital Audio. First, Doug Boyd gives us a run down on everything we should consider when designing an Oral History project. Then, Michael Frisch pushes us to reconsider how we use and organize the audio and video we collect. Finally, Wendy F. Hsu challenges us to think about sound differently to conceptualize a new methodological framework of augmented empiricism through Digital Ethnography.

 As Boyd points out, conducting Oral History is a great privilege and the work required to prepare, conduct, transcribe, disseminate, and relate the oral histories we collect to larger historical narratives is no small feat. But as they say, with great privilege comes great responsibility. The choices made in the design of a project influence the its overall success and development. Boyd thus encourages us to consider the following:

Why are you doing this project and what’s the desired outcome?

Think of a project mission statement and write it down (consulting and communicating with project partners where applicable.) This helps oral history project designers stay focused and on task. A mission statement works as a reminder of why the project was initiated in the first place. Along with that, will these interviews be used for broadcast or production? Will they be hosted online or adapted into another format? Figuring out the answers to these questions will influence choice made on the equipment purchased and used for the project.

What recording equipment works best for you and what are your budgetary needs?

What microphone, audio, or video equipment is best for your project? How familiar are you with these technologies and software? Do you have access to the necessary trainings? Another way of thinking about this question is to ask who the intended audience of this project is? Thinking about these questions will point oral historians to the direction of their most suited technology.

If the project will later be used for production, professional quality equipment will be necessary and this can add up quickly. Consumer equipment can work just as well, but this hinges on the project’s needs. You also have to consider how and where audio or video files will be stored. External drives and servers are also costly and if a transcription service is hired out to work on these files that’s another cost to consider as well. You also have to think about project dissemination, web space, and software

Next, you’ll need to consider your level of expertise.

If you’re unfamiliar with current audio, video, or computer technologies, you’re going to want to learn, attend workshops, read manuals, and practice. You’ll want to know how to use your equipment properly before the interview takes place. There’s nothing worse than completing an interview and realizing the recorder was off the whole time.

Your digital storage and archival strategy should also be thought out.

Digital records create massive files and you’ll want to be prepared and have pre-planned strategy for storage. Consulting your archive partner can help with this. They should have the means necessary to undertake the expensive and complex digital preservation and curation of audio and video materials. You’ll also want to ask them about the work flows, protocols, and release  policies they follow.

One of the biggest questions you’ll want to consider as a part of your project design are the legal and ethical issues you might encounter over the course of your project and how you plan to confront them. As Boyd points out, oral history can be incredibly intimate and the life stories that interviewees share can have wider implications after project disseminations. This is something that should be thoroughly contemplated by the project staff before making interviews publicly accessible with informed consent.

Boyd’s point about the end product of an oral history project is something Michael Frisch has many thoughts on. Frisch encourages users to think about the life of an oral history interview once the recorder is turned off. In many cases, interviews are transcribed, and its meaning and interpretation is derived from the transcript. The layers of meaning found within the context and setting of an interview and the interviewees gesture, tone, body language, expression, pauses, and movements that enrich and fully contextualize an interview are lost. Text has become the go to mode for the life of an oral history due to ease of use and sharing, but Frisch shows that with the digital revolution, we can put the oral back in oral history.

In the digital age, all data is relatively the same and can be expressed as digital information that can be organized, searched, extracted, and equally integrated and instantly and non-linearly accessible Because of this Frisch calls for a “post-documentary sensibility” for oral history, where digital audio and video are annotated, cross-reference, and organized by other types of descriptive or analytic meta-data linked to specific passages of interview content. In doing so the audio or video itself is the source that is searched, studied, and referenced by researchers and users, returning the actual voice and embodied meanings to oral history.

While these projects have been approached differently due to scale, Boyd provides several examples of what this can look like. You can look at the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation and work done by the Randforce Associates to compare.  These projects, and those Frisch hopes to see in the future, can provide accessible, meaningful, fluid, and non-privileged access to the content of oral history.

Wendy F. Hsu steps out of the oral history framework and thinks about sound a little differently than our friends Boyd and Hirsh. Hsu is an ethnographer who wants to further develop the methodologies of digital ethnography and expand the term’s definition. She looks at digital technology as a platform for collecting, exploring, and expressing ethnographic materials. Her project on Asian American Musicians and independent rock music shows how digital technology can provide new empirical perspectives on space and place to develop new methods of inquiry and visualization.

Hsu found that the Asian American musicians she studied spent much of their time on Myspace networking and promoting their music, rather than performing. She then built a webscraper bot to extract information on the location of users engaged with these bands. The bot was able to crawl through the information of more than 2,500 “friends” of the band which enabled her to physically map their location and thus the digital environment that these users exist in. This visualization allowed Hsu to uncover patterns of social behavior and cultural meaning that would otherwise be inaccessible. Her quantitative findings answered how and what questions while her ethnographic training helped her figure out the why.

Hsu was also able to look to the music of these bands directly to uncover new insights as well. Hsu used digital audio software DAW and Audacity to learn more about a group of nakashi musicians entitled The Wandering Blind Singers.[1] Hsu was able to identify that the recordings she had access to were recorded in mono, a form that was typical to the Taiwan music scene in the 1970s. She realized that these recordings likely took place in a tv studio which shed light on the fringe position of these musicians in the music industry and their lower-class status in society in general.

These are but some of the conclusions and observations that Hsu was able to make using close and distant listening, digital visualization, and other digital technologies. Her work shows that new methodological frameworks are necessary to expand the breadth of digital ethnography and its changing landscapes.

Boyd, Frisch, and Hsu gave us a lot of unpack. There are so many ways to think about and work with sound in the digital age. Share your thoughts about these readings on sound and the digital world below.


[1] Nakashi is a postcolonial itinerant music-culture in Taiwan.

3 Replies to “Sound Studies in the Digital Age”

  1. Thank you for this comprehensive, yet concise post on the readings, Alex! I particularly enjoyed Michael Frisch’s “Oral History and the Digital Revolution: Toward a Post-Documentary Sensibility.” He does point out just how two-dimensional academia usually tries to be. Frisch shows us that there are worlds of words that lie beyond words, he writes, “the transcript is not a better representation of reality than the voice itself. There is meaning in context and setting, in gesture, in tone, in body language, in expression, in pauses, in performed skills and movements.” (p. 2) I think I myself came across this challenge when I started looking at the video testimonies, and I realized that as a historian, I was not particularly well-trained to analyze the nuances and complexities of the audio-visual material. A few years ago, I have witnessed the USC Holocaust hologram testimonies in person, and it raised a series of serious questions for scholars. Some raised concerns in regards to what is being lost, the issue being that: you could ask a survivor about their childhood and about their release, this way you would skip to the end of their story in seconds. You also noticed how much changed in hours of recording it, they become tired or upset or excited throughout the interview. Boyd raises some of the ethical concerns, what did you have to consider when you were doing your oral history project?

  2. Thanks for the post, Alex! I found these particular readings to be extremely interesting. I have always been a little intimidated by the idea of conducting oral histories, mostly because as the interviewer, you are entrusted with something extremely important and you owe it to your interviewee to do the job well. Boyd’s article convinced me that I was right to be intimidated, because a lot needs to go into it before you even begin. But he also provides an excellent guide for someone who wants to explore this form, but has no idea where to start.

    Laura, I love your comment about how two-dimensional the academy tends to be in regard to audio/visual documentations. I particularly liked Frisch’s point at the end of his piece: “With
    accessible, meaningful, fluid, and non-privileged access to the content of oral history, the authority of the mediating intelligence or documentary authorship is displaced by a sharable, dialogic capacity to explore, select, order, and interpret” (17). A non-linear approach to indexing and accessing audio/visual material has the potential to make oral histories a larger part of historical study and make those materials more accessible to people interested in learning from them.

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