On microphones and water

As rain spills into destruction during the summer 2021 London floods, the violence and disruption of the climate crisis is getting louder.

Water shoots from the tops of fossil fuel power station pipes in an allegory for the causes and effects of the 2021 London floods.

Jay Richardson
27 January 2022

Rain sounds good. Just as the crackling of a log fire—another staple of the sleep-sounds industrial complex—subconsciously reminds you of warmth, rain sounds speak of shelter. The summer 2021 London floods may have changed that a little, but generally speaking, if you’re hearing the gentle patter of rain on glass, then (a) you can afford a home with windows and (b) you’re probably dry.

It’s even and predictable enough to be relaxing, but just variable enough to be interesting. It’s many-layered: a background bass hum on the ground, a quick rapping on roof tiles, windows and walls, and a delicate tinkle as it joins into streams, runs along gutters, and trickles down pipes. In fact, it’s even more varied than traffic.

The sound varies infinitely and subtly, but each minute is almost indistinguishable from the next. This sort of rain sounds like it could go on for hours without causing any real disruption. You can’t hear any puddles filling up or rain barrels overflowing, nobody is running around or shouting or calling the fire brigade, and what little thunder there is sounds distant and unthreatening. It’s not even windy. I took these recordings outside, during a heavy summer rainstorm in southeast England. They sound just as intricate and tranquil as the rain you’d find on an ASMR channel.

As with all field recordings, this emotional meaning is all just a matter of interpretation. The meanings that I’ve breezily ascribed to these sounds could be radically different for farmers, people experiencing homelessness, or those living with single-paned windows or rising damp, meteorologists, couriers, builders, or guests at the Prime Minister’s illegal garden party. And the same storm would sound much more threatening if you were recording it from a tube station near Hackney Wick during the London floods, on July 25th, 2021.

This water is rushing through bollards and pouring down from the train tracks, making sounds that rain obviously wouldn’t. But that’s the point. This is what water sounds like when it goes where it’s not supposed to go. Instead of trickling and tapping, you get rushing; instead of rapping and pattering, you get splashing and shouting as people try to figure out the quickest way to safety.

Water doesn’t play nicely with microphones, so you also get glitching. And flooding can set in very quickly, so the recordings we have are not from stereo field recording rigs with wind and water shields and anti-interference wiring. They’re from pinhole mics in people’s phones. And the people who are able to actually take recordings of the floods will not be parents trying to keep their children out of infectious floodwater, nor ground-floor residents trying to turn the electrical sockets off and rescue their possessions, so most water-related recordings are from public spaces where people have been caught out while travelling and happen to have their phone out.

Spectrogram from Pudding Mill Lane DLR footage
Spectrogram from a thunderstorm

Taking spectrograms of both kinds of recording—the impromptu phone footage and the deliberate field recording—shows these differences visually. The field recording captures a much wider frequency range in far higher resolution. It’s smooth and even, with clear layers, and you can see where the thunder occurs in the bright spots around 40-80 Hz. In the footage from the London floods, there are distinct blocks where the phone has changed mic settings to fit the different camera zoom levels. The lowest frequency it can record is 40 Hz, but there’s some random-looking noise below that.

If you want to know what the climate crisis sounds like, this is part of the answer. We might think of gentle rain and flooding as the extremes of a spectrum—after all, one does physically cause the other—but our senses tell a different story. Where rain is predictable, flooding is alarming and irregular. Where rain is inevitable, most flooding risk comes down to political opposition to greenhouse emissions curbs. And where rain permeates the soundscape, flooding disrupts and overwhelms it. º


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