Meet the Man Who Wants to Create a Google Maps for the World's Sounds


"You know when you have the feeling that everything you do all day is very functional and that there's no in-between and you just jump from one spot to the other?"

Udo Noll, a programmer, cartographer and Internet artist, began his map of all the world's sounds, in the midst of the Internet's great mapping craze, to combat that feeling. "I thought it could be very interesting to have a recorder, where you can focus on these in-between spaces, where things tend disappear in the rush of things that you have to do," he told PolicyMic.

In 2005, his  Radio Aporee mapping project was a dark horse among better-publicized and monumental digital efforts to map the world in recent years (such as the Google Maps Street View project or the 3-D scanning projects to preserve digital records of landmarks like Mount Rushmore), but Noll's effort is one of the first ever to map sonic spaces — to build a digital archive the fleeting sounds of our daily lives. To his mind, this is the only kind of map that truly gives us any sort of spiritual orientation — something generally called an affective geography. "[The term] describes something wider than the natural or the concrete landscape you see," Noll said. "It is a landscape of conscious[ness], connected to your whole perception and your memories. It's the landscape where you actually are."

He began the project by overlaying recordings from his travels on an open-source Google map, and opened it up to the public to contribute. The project is now a completely crowd-sourced, ever-expanding virtual reproduction of what the entire world sounds like. It has almost 25,000 sounds, each ranging from a minute to an hour in length, totalling almost 60 days of recordings.

The project seeks to capture the organic ambiance of spaces around the world most people never hear. Sounds like the tranquility of mornings on a dead-end street in rural Arizona:

Or the nocturnal activity of creatures that sing in the mangroves of Cape Tribulation, Australia:

Or the vibrant conversations that take place over chess games in Union Square, NYC:

The sounds range from the hilarious (a man near a wildlife reserve in South Africa, somberly reciting a poem) to the mundane (an elevator in an apartment building in the Dominican Republic). Noll records many himself. The project truly began half a century before Google Maps even launched, in the 1960s, when Noll was a boy in Germany. He'd sit up with his radio set, imagining himself traveling through the world via radio.

"On the old radio sets, you could find the big scales and names of cities and stations from all over the world," he told Sounds of Europe. "When you turned the wheel, you traveled through a big sound map." That experience inspired him to mark down his own travels on the map.

But the project's real value isn't in its geography. It's in showing us how the sounds of the world have changed. We live in a totally different sonic environment than our parents did. A regular Aporee contributor in Berlin has taken 300 recordings in the same spot over a seven-year period. He's seen how the space has changed over time, as car and foot traffic increased while the area flourished. Change like that is irreversible. Until now, it was impossible to capture.

That's why Noll's map matters, and why it's becoming an Internet phenomenon. Sounds go extinct all the time — just check the Library of Vanished Sounds. As we continue revolutionizing our technologies and environments at breakneck paces, they will vanish at a faster and faster rate.

Environmentalist author Anne Matthews says recording sounds will become more important as time goes by; as we lose more and more of them. All the things we usually map will outlive us — the buildings, roadways, landmarks and landscapes. But the sounds we live in won't. Not until we've put them on the map.