This month, it is ShortCuts Live! We’ll still take a deep dive into the SpokenWeb archives through a short ‘cut’ of audio, but, in these ShortCuts Live! episodes, ShortCuts host and producer Katherine McLeod takes ShortCuts out of the archives and into the world. This month’s episode was recorded on-site at the SpokenWeb Symposium and Sound Institute in May 2022 at Concordia University. It is a conversation with UBCO doctoral candidate Sarah Cipes.
At the time of recording this conversation, Sarah had just presented a paper called “Finding Due Balance: Sound Editing as a Feminist Practice in Literary Archives.” In fact, this paper was already in conversation – that is, part of a collaborative article in development with Dr. Deanna Fong and Dr. Karis Shearer who have developed feminist listening methodologies in their introduction to Wanting Everything: The Collected Works of Gladys Hindmarch and to their article, “Gender, Affective Labour, and Community-Building Through Literary Audio Recordings.” Listen to ShortCuts Live! to hear Sarah talk with Katherine about feminist redaction when working with sensitive materials in audio archives, and where this collaborative research will take her next.
A fresh take on sounds from the past, ShortCuts is a monthly feature on The SpokenWeb Podcast feed and an extension of the ShortCuts blog posts on SPOKENWEBLOG. Stay tuned for monthly episodes of ShortCuts on alternate fortnights (that’s every second week) following the monthly SpokenWeb podcast episode. If you are a SpokenWeb RA with an archival clip to feature on ShortCuts, do write to us at email@example.com with your pitch.
Host and Series Producer: Katherine McLeod
Supervising Producer: Kate Moffatt
Audio Engineer / Sound Designer: Miranda Eastwood
Production Manager and Transcriber: Kelly Cubbon
Archival audio in this recording is from The SoundBox Collection, housed at UBCO’s Amp Lab. Find out more about The SoundBox Collection here.
Cipes, Sarah. “It’s more of a feeling… Digitizing Reel-to-Reel for the SpokenWeb SoundBox Collection.” AmpLab, online.
Fong, Deanna and Shearer, Karis. “Gender, Affective Labour, and Community-Building Through Literary Audio Recordings.” SPOKENWEBLOG, 21 April, 2022.
Held, Virginia. The Ethics of Care. Oxford University Press, 2005.
Hobbs, Catherine. “Personal Ethics: Being an Archivist of Writers.” Basements and Attics, Closets and Cyberspace: Explorations in Canadian Women’s Archives. Eds. Linda M. Morra and Jessica Schagerl, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2012, pp. 181–92.
Wanting Everything: The Collected Works of Gladys Hindmarch. Eds. Deanna Fong and Karis Shearer. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2020.
*Draft transcript below; official transcript coming soon!*
ShortCuts, Live! Talking with Sarah Cipes about Feminist Audio Editing
Katherine McLeod [host intro]: Welcome to ShortCuts. This month, it is ShortCuts Live! We’ll still take a deep dive into the SpokenWeb archives through a short ‘cut’ of audio, but, in these ShortCuts Live! episodes, ShortCuts host and producer Katherine McLeod takes ShortCuts out into the world and records them as conversations, live. This month’s episode was recorded on-site at the SpokenWeb Symposium and Sound Institute in May 2022 at Concordia University in Montreal.
[Theme music ends]
Amid the bustle of a packed week of talks and workshops, it was such a treat to sit down with some of the presenters and have a conversation about their archival audio. It was especially meaningful considering how ShortCuts started in 2020 and so nearly all of its episodes have been recorded during the pandemic, and mostly in my closet. It felt great to be sitting down with folks at our microphones in the same space, and to embrace the background noise around us – after all, it was all happening live! In this ShortCuts Live, you’ll hear my conversation with UBCO doctoral candidate Sarah Cipes. At the time of the recording, Sarah had just presented a paper called “Finding Due Balance: Sound Editing as a Feminist Practice in Literary Archives.” We sat down together at microphones set up in Concordia’s 4th Space, and you can hear the buzz of the symposium behind us – reminding us that this is being recorded live…
Katherine: Welcome to ShortCuts. We’re recording this ShortCuts, live, in 4th Space at Concordia University during the SpokenWeb Sound Institute. I’m here with Sarah Cipes. Thanks so much for joining me, Sarah!
Sarah: Thanks so much for having me. This is very exciting.
Katherine: Well, the reason that I asked Sarah to join me is that, during the SpokenWeb Symposium she delivered a paper that was really based on an audio clip. It was really all about one audio clip, which seemed perfect for ShortCuts because we love diving into the complexity of a single audio clip. So I thought that one way of starting would be for Sarah and I to listen to the clip together…
Archival audio,Warren Tallman:
Now one thing I’m curious about [inaudible – distortion]….
Archival audio, Gladys Hindmarch:
That the young recognize, the elders two years older.
Archival audio, Warren Tallman:
And they’re both, they’re both and, but now…
Katherine: So rather than starting with a question of “What are we listening to?” I’m going to ask you, Sarah, what it’s like to listen to that clip – here and now in this moment…
Sarah: That was a really lovely refresher and a nice moment – and, I don’t know if you noticed I was smiling while I was listening to it. I am really pleased with what we were able to sort of tease out of the sound that was left when the voices are gone. And I – I actually said something in my talk on Tuesday that I hadn’t planned to say – and that I hadn’t thought of previously – but I was being sparked by all of these amazing questions and thoughtful comments from the audience – and that is that I wanted people to feel, when they’re listening to it, uncomfortable, as if they’re trying to listen in onto a conversation that they shouldn’t be listening to, like trying to listen through a door. I think that even though this is a preliminary version of the idea of the feminist edit, I think that I was able to bring home that feeling of discomfort and of tonal variance… And, yeah, tonal discomfort for the listener that you should feel when you’re trying to hear other people’s gossip <laugh>.
Katherine: You refer to this as a feminist edit, and what do you mean by that, generally?
Sarah: So when I initially started working with the idea of feminist edits, it was really, it’s really a large idea. It can, it can really incorporate anything that comes within the idea of feminist ethics of care. So, I looked at Virginia Held’s Ethics of Care, as a big proponent of my understanding of what to do with feminist edits. And I also looked at Catherine Hobbs’s discussions and scholarship about literary archives and what it means to be respectful when you’re archiving.
Katherine: Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>
Sarah: And so bringing that into audio was a really interesting idea for me because redaction restriction and censorship and all of these things that have a lot of negative feelings around them for researchers can actually be turned into positive things, I think, particularly within audio that actually allow users to listen to tapes that they might otherwise be totally barred from.
Katherine: Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>.
Sarah: And so my desire was to create sound edits that allow the listener to hear the vast majority of the tape while also protecting the privacy of those on the tape, or even in this case, someone who’s mentioned who’s not there. But really a feminist edit could also be about amplifying voices that are not usually central to the microphone.
Katherine: Yeah, I can imagine – it makes me think of in the 1963 Poetry Conference that was recorded by Fred Wah’s tape recorder. That now is at UBCO <laugh> I think you have that recorder. When listening to those recordings it’s so interesting to hear a question asked, and you can tell that it’s a voice from very far back in the room, and often those voices are women because – you know, you really hear it – the men are up front, closest to the mic. And, you know, hearing say a question asked by a voice that is, say, quite soft in terms of the recording and the placement in the room, and just like literally amplifying that voice, let alone all of the other ways that voices could be amplified. That just just makes me think of the, the potential there for centering voices through audio edits – making them clearer, making them louder – on a very technical level.
Sarah: There really is so much that that could be done. And that’s why I love the idea of the feminist edit within archives because archiving itself is such an intuitive practice and sound editing. These kinds of sound edits have all been very intuitive and very personal. And I think that every single person who encountered and tried to edit this tape would’ve ended up with a different edit, which is really, it’s really cool. It allows you to think about how people’s brains work in terms of what: Do you want the listener to feel when they can’t hear specific kinds of audio?
Katherine Yes, and you’ve been working with Dr. Karis Shearer and, I believe, [Dr.] Deanna Fong as well, and could you speak to a little bit about that collaboration?
Sarah: It’s been really wonderful. I am lucky enough to have Dr. Karis Shearer as my supervisor. She has just been such an amazing, inspiring person leading me through this. I tend to focus more on the practical, and in those ways I sometimes leave the theoretical behind and I forget to ground my work in theory. And so working with Karis and Deanna has been really amazing and really important for me because it has pushed me to step back and say: Okay, I’m trying to create this practical edit, but what am I grounding my work in? Where is this coming from? Instead of just assuming that everyone understands my desire to do a feminist edit. You have to express, you know, why that’s necessary. Where does this work already exist? Where did it begin? Where am I? Where am I pulling from?
Katherine: Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>.
Sarah: So in terms of understanding how to ground my work within feminist ethics of care, Deanna and Karis have been there sort of showing me the light <laugh> – and giving me readings!
Katherine: Yes <laugh> I can imagine that augmenting and building upon your training in library sciences and just really bringing that theoretical richness to the technical skills that you have already. It makes me think too that the way that like redaction works in the archives and say in the print archives or maybe something is redacted. Here you are redacting through audio editing, but the important thing is that you’re keeping that audio somewhere else. Could you explain how that works? How does the audio remain while also being redacted?
Sarah: Yes. This is something that’s really important to me based on my work in archives, I think I may have overly expressed this actually in my talk because it’s so necessary, but transparency is key in every archive. And I now realize it’s not just necessary for the practical reasons that you would – that I generally – think of, but also for ethical reasons.
Katherine: Mm-hmm. <Affirmative>.
Sarah: And so I have been working with digitizing audio digitizing the sound box collection, specifically the reel-to-reels at UBCO at the AMP Lab. And that has been – that is my joy. I love, love working with reel-to-reel. It’s actually been really interesting because a lot of people at this conference have been talking about sound as ephemeral. And to me it’s, it’s very physical.
Sarah: It’s attached to this whole, to working with this machine to being so careful with these amazing tapes. And so the way that we are maintaining them is obviously we are keeping the original magnetic tape recordings, very carefully. And they’ve been archived and gently babied because they are – I call them my babies <laugh> – and then also, upon digitizing them, you have to work to a specific. There’s audio specifications – within, that’s just understood – that’s necessary within archival maintenance of digitized recordings. And so you digitize the tape, which means that you play the tape on its original on a playback machine that’s able to do that; put it through a secondary, a mix-preamp or some other secondary source, and then directly into your computer; and you digitize it at a high enough rate and specificity that it sounds almost exactly the same. And in fact, if it’s done to the highest standards, sounds exactly the same. So you can’t differentiate. And then you maintain that. That’s your master access copy, and you do not edit that copy. You save that, and it’s for no one, it <laugh> it exists solely in case of emergency. Really, and then you can make copies of that, and edit them. So what I’m playing with is not the original.
Katherine: Right, okay.
Sarah: For its own safety. <Laughter> And then you can also save those. Your copied files as lower quality so that you can make them more accessible. Because not everyone has the ability to play wav files.
Katherine: That makes sense. You have original or the preservation copy and then you’re making the edits on the digital files. I also love what you said about sound as being very, very physical, tangible and just, you know, the way that you described working with these recordings. I think as a last question or reflection. We’ve talked… We’ve moved closer and closer to the sound through our conversation, and I’m wondering if you could speak to the difference between for you, for the difference between editing and leaving silence versus editing and leaving some suggestion of sound, whether that’s visual – looking at the sound waves – or audible in what we’re listening to.
Sarah: I love having both available. I love being able to look at the wave forms and listen to the audio at the same time. They’re visually beautiful and that’s a big part of it, but also it’s sort of, it’s sort of lets you know what to expect, like what’s coming up when you’re looking at the waveform and playing the sound. At the same time. I personally prefer to have ambient sound occurring during the silences, during the redactions, if you want to call them that. I think that it is more implicative of like, the world is still continuing, we’re holding space for this to happen, and just because you can’t hear the words doesn’t mean that the conversation has stopped.
Katherine: Mm-hmm. <Affirmative>.
Sarah: So I think that’s really important. I also showed a clip in which I just had the, I had the sound removed, all of the vocals removed. And because the tape that I used didn’t have a lot of ambient noise, it was actually really beautifully recorded. It ended up being essentially silent, in the, in the background of that. But for a lot of archives, if you are listening to tapes that were recorded in loud areas or there’s a lot of background noise, if you do remove the vocals, you’re still going to have all of this delicious background sound. So it’s really as with everything each, each object is, is so unique.
Katherine: So how do you remove the vocals? What tool do you use?
Sarah: It’s so easy. It’s actually, it’s so – Audacity’s most recent version, which is 3.1.3, and I use Audacity because it’s free and it’s open source software, so it’s always improving. And it’s also available to archives even that have a lot of financial constraints and staffing constraints. There’s literally a tool called Vocal Isolation and Removal, and you just high highlight, that’s it. You just highlights the part that you want. So that’s how it leaves, it leaves the background noise. That’s, Yeah. That, So what, what, what we were listening to in that that middle portion that was background or was that, That was distortion. <Laugh>. That was distortion. So in the, in the final edit that I liked the most, the way that I was able to maintain the sound of the conversation because there was so little background noise was to use a distortion element called the VO coder. And so while I still had the vocals in there, I added the VO coder, which added distortion around the vocals, kind of fuzzed them up a little, and then you remove the vocals, and so the, the sound is still there. It didn’t, I think I expressed this. I need to, I would like to do further work because what I really wanted was sort of a smoother conversation tone where you can hear it you can hear it sounds more like speech. I think I did this in my, in my discussion, but sort of like the Charlie Brown teacher.
Sarah: That’s what I was going for…
Katherine: Hearing that intonation of speech up the, the fluctuations up and down it, well, we could hear it a bit there, but it, it’s, Yeah, I can imagine then you’re even more, you’re aware that you’re not hearing something, but you’re also hearing something and you can, you’re – you’re hearing the fluctuations in the conversation, but not the conversation itself, not the content. It’s so important to know that there’s audio there – there are things to listen to – but also that you know, it’s we don’t have to have access to everything. And in fact, ethically it, it’s not right to have access to everything. And so how to be able to make audio accessible, while still respecting that, respecting the communities that the recordings are from, respecting the individuals and the voices on them, on those recordings because it, it so easily the recordings could just get shelved away and they’re then never listened to. So trying to balance that it’s really exciting that you’re, you’re doing this work. When we know that something’s there, it’s also, it’s tempting to want to hear it. And so it, I think what you talked about about uncomfortableness too, it’s also this sense of even catching oneself, being like: Oh, I want to hear it! And then thinking: Well, wait – am I, am I the listener for this? And realizing that actually you’re, you’re maybe not the person. You’re not in that room, you’re not listening, you’re not privy to that conversation. But that, that sort of checking our impulse of wanting to know everything as researchers and recognizing that that is actually that can actually be problematic too.
Sarah: What you’re speaking to is actually a larger archival issue in terms of wanting to have everything.
Katherine: Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>.
Sarah: And the idea of leaving space was actually something that came out of archival theory surrounding the archive, the capital ‘A’ – Archive – you know, the institution as not necessarily being a place that should have everything. And that, as opposed to maintaining collections that really belong elsewhere, what they should do is hold space and tell researchers: we don’t have that because it doesn’t belong to us. That’s not ours. And so I’ve tried to take that idea of sort of thoughtfulness and space and bring that down to the level of the personal – to the individual – and, and now to audio.
Katherine: Yes, I think what you’ve, what you’re working on, it is holding space in sound. And thank you for sharing this with me today here live and shortcuts live and with our listeners. So thank you so much, Sarah.
Sarah: Thank you, Katherine. This has been great.
Katherine McLeod [Outro]: You’ve been listening to ShortCuts. A special thanks to this month’s guest, Sarah Cipes. Thanks to supervising producer Kate Moffatt, sound designer Miranda Eastwood, and transcriber Kelly Cubbon. ShortCuts is written and produced by me, Katherine McLeod. Thanks for listening.