Sounds of Paris

Apr 13, 2018

My Parisian soundbank is featured in an exhibition at the Maison des Ensembles.


  • I created a website to host long, atmospheric recordings of my favourite sounds in the French capital;
  • Together with Jérémy Dussaussoy, and old time friend, we turned it into an installation at a local art exhibition;
  • You can visit Sounds of Paris here.


I like to read on my commute, but am quite easily distracted by human noise. Back then my fantastic pair of Here Active Listening earbuds had died, and the company had gone bankrupt (the story of their downfall is quite interesting , and i.m.h.o. emblematic of that famous Silicon Valley “too much too fast” approach). That was a life saver gadget, allowing me to block out only conversations, but keeping the soft engine hum of the coaches and metro.

I started using an app called Atmosphere, which allows you to play and mix loops of “relaxing” or “neutral” sound. Still, it was a bit of a waste, because I ended up using only the “People” option, which gives you an endless loop of a 5 minute recording of a busy street/mall. Nothing better than conversations to block other conversations.

At the time I was also starting to miss Paris quite a lot, so I came up with the idea of recording long soundtracks of my favourite busy places, to play them back on my commute. So I bought a Zoom H4N Pro (another great device, by the way), a large SD card, and went on recording.

Trademark audio

The location of my encounter with security personnel.
The location of my encounter with security personnel.

I spent about two weeks sitting down in random places of the city recording soundscapes. Incidentally, that made me discover some curious things. I was told off by a security person while recording in Les Halles, a large mall located within Europe’s largest suburban train station. It’s been recently renovated and bought from the municipality by a private company, and has been the subject of many controversies and several books (they’re not great). The guard directed me to an office, which turned out to be the mall’s marketing division. They were quite rude, and tried to explain to me that the sound recorded on the grounds was their property. I tried having a philosophical debate about intellectual property in open spaces, but they weren’t inclined, and reiterated the fact that I wasn’t allowed to record. Needless to say, I did it anyway. Personally I think that recording a crowd in a space is an extension of recording a person talking: you would ask their permission, not the that of the space’s owner. And since I was careful to only record background noise, you can’t really distinguish any individual conversation. From a privacy standpoint, I would argue this falls in the domain of public property.

Endangered sounds

I also spent some time recording in the Bird Market and in the metro, until at some point it struck me: the sounds I was recording wouldn’t be around for much longer.

The Bird Market is an institution for an older generation of Parisians, together with the Flower Market adjacent to it. I’m a bird owner myself, and bought my first parakeet there when I was about 16 or so. I’m also a plant person, and I’d already watch the Flower Market dwindle as the flower shops on the nearby riverbanks close to Pont-Neuf turned into nondescript furniture stores. Now the Bird Market is living its last moments. It is under threat by a municipal decree, something about hygiene regulations if I remember correctly. There were several disputes and appeals, but at the time I spoke to some of the shopkeepers there, they were set to lose, and it’s very likely the Bird Market won’t be around for much longer.

An MP59 at Place des Fêtes (image credit: Wikipedia)
An MP59 at Place des Fêtes (image credit: Wikipedia)

Something similar happened with my metro recordings. I recorded my favourite metro lines 6 (Nation - Étoile) and 10 (Austerlitz-Auteuil). Paris attracts many people, so keeping public transport up to date is one of the city’s main objectives. For years, the system has been running at overcapacity (130% at peak times if I remember correctly). The cíty’s (in my opinion questionable) answer is to replace as many as possible of the old MP59 and MP73 trains by modern, sometimes automatic ones, with increased standing capacity and larger seats. The results is trains that are easier to maintain, but are more uncomfortable for passengers, the objective being to be able to cram as many standing people into them as (in)humanely possible. But the new trains also have very different engines and flood their passengers’ ears with superfluous automated messages. This means that the old screeching and pneumatic hisses of the MP59 and 73 are about to disappear from Paris’ collective unconscious. So I thought I’d try and immortalise them for posterity.

Livestreaming audio landscapes

flyer for the Espaces Publics exhibition, where this work was presented.
flyer for the Espaces Publics exhibition, where this work was presented.

But that was only the beginning. Jérémy Dussaussoy, an old friend of mine and engineering school dropout-turned-artist got wind of an exhibition on urban landscapes. Since it’s a subject that I particularly enjoy (see here, link in French), we decided to put something together.

I connected the Zoom microphone to a Raspberry Pi, installed the device on Jérémyś balcony and set it to live stream audio through ffmpeg over a fixed IP. Then, in the exhibition hall, we set-up an old computer to connect to the stream and output through loudspeakers. Visitors passing through would hear background noise from a street several miles afar.

Future work

The original plan for the exhibition was to have a kind of insulated sound labyrinth, through which people would walk, an immersive experience that would involve sensory deprivation (i.e. darkness) to reinforce the power of sound. We had to water it down a bit for practical reasons, but I still haven’t given up on that. The issue is that this would be a larger installation that would require me to spend some time in Paris and well…build it.

The website itself would benefit from some optimisation, since for now it pre-loads all the audio upon opening the page, which is quite inefficient. Finally, the other thing is that I would really like to put together an Android app, because currently the sounds I have are just audio files. That would allow me to fully replace the Atmosphere app and ride the Paris metro for my commute, even if I happen to be in Munich, London or Singapore.