Museum of Endangered Sounds enshrines audio from bygone era


(Allie Ghaman/The Washington Post)
June 29, 2012

The crackle of a dial-up modem. The metallic clack of a 3.5-inch floppy slotting into a Macintosh disk drive. The squeal of the newborn Tamagotchi. They are vintage sounds that no oldies station is ever going to touch.

During the ’80s and ’90s the world bleeped and buzzed with the noise of consumer electronics — stuff like digital watch alarms and dot matrix printers — all so banal that you barely registered their existence.

And then they fell silent, victims of technology’s unceasing march toward a smaller, sleeker and less annoying ideal. Dial-up modems were supplanted by WiFi. Floppy disks begat CD-ROMs, which begat USB flash drives. Tamagotchi, the digital pet, wore out his welcome and was stashed in the back of a dresser drawer, never to hatch again.

Now these random bleeps and bloops have found a long-term home at the Museum of Endangered Sounds, a Web site dedicated to archiving and preserving the noises emitted by yesterday’s gadgetry.

The front page hosts more than a dozen thumbnail images — the exhibits, if you will — which, when clicked, trigger a familiar noise. So by tapping on the picture of a portable CD player, a visitor can re-experience the whir of the CD player’s optical lens sliding back into its starting position. So far, the collection is fairly meager, just 18 items, which range from the commonplace (television static) to the arcane (background music from the CD-ROM encyclopedia “Encarta 97").

The site’s founder, Brendan Chilcutt, promises that there’s more to come. In a photograph, he is seen wearing oversize glasses and glancing over his shoulder while typing code into a desktop computer. The museum’s mission statement, which he penned, is rife with purple prose pertaining to VCRs, cathode ray tube televisions and the Windows 95 startup chime. “Where will we turn for the sound of fingers striking QWERTY keypads? Tell me that,” he writes. “And tell me: Who will play my Game Boy when I’m gone?”

As it turns out, he was never even here. Brendan Chilcutt is a fabrication, a nerd mascot dreamed up by the site’s flesh-and-blood creators, Marybeth Ledesma, Phil Hadad and Greg Elwood, all advertising students in their mid-20s who met while they were attending Virginia Commonwealth University’s Brandcenter (they have all since graduated).

The museum began as a spoof, a just-for-fun extracurricular project born out of a late-night snack run. “We were all in a car going out to eat, and Marybeth was on her BlackBerry texting and our other friend was texting on his iPhone,” explains Hadad, 28. “You couldn’t hear him, because iPhones are silent, but we heard the clicking on her BlackBerry. And we started thinking, ‘Are gadgets getting quieter?’ ”

Together, the trio brainstormed a handful of their most beloved beeps and squeals and designed a Flash-driven Web site that paired the sounds with quirky animations. They recruited a friend to pose as Chilcutt, lifting his oversized glasses and dopey facial expression from artist Chuck Close’s photo-realist painting “Mark,” the closest thing there is to an iconic nerd portrait.

“It just felt natural that there should be somebody curating it,” says Ledesma, who recently relocated to Portland. “I don’t know why him. Maybe because it’s a collection of old technologies, I thought of a nerdy guy.”

Ledesma, Elwood and Hadad launched the Museum of Endangered Sounds in April with no real promotion, hoping that visitors would randomly stumble over it during Google searches. And they did. Soon, the site began popping up on tech blogs (Wired, Gizmodo, etc.) and drawing serious enough traffic that the trio had to pony up for extra bandwidth.

The Museum of Endangered Sounds may have started as a gag, but its central conceit — that the sounds of doomed electronics are worthy of nostalgia — has resonated, at least among Web surfers. The sounds it documents were incidental and forgettable at the time of their use, but just as much as any pop song they define an era. To be more specific, they serve as a great time capsule for the '80s and ’90s. “That wasn’t intentional,” says Ledesma, explaining the site’s penchant for Reagan- and Clinton-era electronics. “We just kind of drew on the technology we had growing up.”

But looking back, those decades appear to be a charmed moment for ambient noise. It was a time when portable electronic knickknacks were more useful, affordable and popular than ever before but were still, technologically speaking, primitive. A ring tone was an icy, computerized jingle, not just any song dialed in from your digitized record collection.

“It does seem to me that earlier periods of digital technologies had distinctive sounds,”Jonathan Sterene writes in an e-mail. A professor of art history and communication studies at McGill University, Sterene specializes in sound studies. “They were built around the limits of the technology. The same for early console games like the Atari 2600. We could even extend it further back to the noises mainframe computers made, and if we push it back a couple more decades, we get into the singing sounds emitted by vacuum-tube computers.”

Not all obsolete sounds are created equal, though. Since the site launched, fans have written in with suggestions and, sometimes, pre-recorded sounds that they hope to hear enshrined in the site’s archive. Frequent among those: The clacking of typewriter keys and the pop of a needle dropping on a vinyl record. However, Ledesma is reluctant to add these to the mix. “I don’t think they’re endangered,” she says.

From her perspective, record players and typewriters have largely passed from use, but they retain an avid cult following. On the other hand, if there’s anybody left in the world who still favors dial-up connections over WiFi, finding a service provider might prove difficult. The technology is no longer useful and, in some cases, no longer usable, because the services and companies that developed it no longer exist. Unlike record players and typewriters, the sounds are truly lost to the world.

Indeed, one problem in expanding the archive is that some of the sounds are hard to come by. Especially when you’re a broke recent graduate. Lots of the museum’s sonic research was done gratis, using YouTube. “None of us even own a VCR,” Elwood says. “I mean, my parents had a VCR when I was growing up, but not anymore.”

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