Guillotines, orgies and bombs: BBC releases massive sound effects collection

The BBC has uploaded more than audio 16,000 files to an online archive for anyone to access.

More than 16,000 files now available to use for personal, educational and research purposes

This 1946 images shows the control room of the BBC television station at Alexandra Palace, London, where sound effects, recorded scenes and music soundtrack were added to programs. (George Konig/Keystone Features/Getty Images)
Listen6:46

​Whether you're looking for some gentle birdsong, the ominous sounds of bombs dropping, or the squeals and shrieks of a "standard orgy," the BBC has you covered.

The British public broadcaster has released more than 16,000 audio clips from its sound effects archives for public use.

The massive catalogue includes a mix of sounds created in studio and real recordings from out in the field — all recorded for use in BBC programs. 

"Those programs, whether they're serious dramas or comedy shows or even current affairs, might need a bit of extra sound to support it," Simon Rooks, the broadcaster's head of archives, told As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner.

"You can literally be asked for anything at any time, so we're never short on variety."

A man at work in the BBC Radio Sound Effects Department on Oct. 28., 1955. (BIPS/Getty Images)

One clip is called "Guillotine being used at an execution —1971."

"Obviously that's when the effect was recorded. It's not supposed to be an execution from 1971," Rooks said.

Rather, it's what's known as foley — the reproduction of real-world sounds created by sound artists in studio.

"I think they used cabbages for heads, which gave sort of a good crunchy sound," Rooks said. 

This sound effect from the BBC archives now available for public use. "I think they used cabbages for heads, which gave sort of a good crunchy sound," says BBC archivist Simon Rooks. 0:02

Another clip of 1970s foley is is dubbed "standard orgy."

"I can remember older colleagues of mine telling me how that was recorded," Rooks said

"Essentially some studio managers one afternoon just brought a few of their colleagues into a studio and probably grabbed a few passing BBC employees and just gathered them and said, 'Right, we're going to recreate an orgy. Crack a whip and make some screams.'"

This BBC sound effect was created in the 1970s by BBC employees recreating what they thought a "standard orgy" might sound like. Asked if there's a recording of a "non-standard orgy," BBC archivist Simon Rooks said, "That's probably classified information." 0:25

The resulting cacophony of squealing, thumping and shrieking is "dreadfully lame," Rooks said.

"I couldn't possibly tell you whether it's been used in any program. I've never heard of it being used," he said.

"I think it might have been a bit of an aspirational recording that never saw its day."

A BBC employee creates loud noises in the BBC Radio Sound Effects Department on Oct. 28, 1955. (BIPS/Getty Images)

But it's not all hijinks in the new online archives.

Some of the sounds effects are of real-world events, recorded and preserved for posterity and public record.

"Right from, say, World War II, we have some examples of people going out during air raids to record the sounds of bombs falling," Rooks said.

"That's kind of very sobering really because people were putting their lives at stake to go and do that."

This is an actual BBC recording of German bombs dropping on London during the Second World War. BBC archivist Simon Rooks says producers would have used sound equipment in their cars to record the sound. 2:59

The clips have all been made public under the BBC's RemArc licence, originally created for the Reminiscence Archive, a project launched in 2016 that uses audio recordings to help trigger memories in people living with dementia.

"They found that they spark memories and spark conversation and more sort of improved social interaction between dementia sufferers and their carers," Rooks said. 

He said he appreciates that the BBC's lovingly preserved archives are being used in such innovative ways.

"One of the fascinating things is that sometimes archives are collected for one reason, but they find another use later on for a completely different reason," he said.

"This would be a really good example of that — that these things collected for a program resource have suddenly found another outlet."

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