Sounds of the Modern Hospital

Sonograph Sound Effects Series Vol.1 LP
meagre resource / mere025 (2014)

‘Sounds of the Modern Hospital’ is a long-playing sound effects record in a limited edition of 250 copies. The record was produced by Mark Vernon during a two year period as digital artist in residence at Forth Valley Royal Hospital in Larbert, Scotland.

The sounds featured on the LP were recorded in several different hospital departments including: Anaesthesiology, the Clinical Simulation Centre, Health Records, Outpatients reception, the Laboratories, Ophthalmology, Oral and Maxillofacial, Radiology, Nuclear Medicine, the Mail Room, the Neonatal Unit, Pharmacy and the Renal Unit. In addition to Forth Valley Royal, recordings were also made in Stirling and Falkirk Community Hospitals. Thanks to all staff and patients in NHS Forth Valley Hospitals for their help and co-operation.

The record is in part an homage to classic ranges of sound effects albums such as the BBC Sound Effects Library. Generic collections of sounds selected to fulfil the needs of professional and amateur broadcasters, filmmakers and theatre producers. They were also unintentional time capsules of everyday sounds at a specific moment in history. Nowadays commercial sound effects libraries exist in the digital realm and sound effects on vinyl are regarded as an anachronism, a faded audio Polaroid of a less sophisticated past.

Packaged in a retro-styled, obsolete format but featuring the sounds of a state of the art contemporary hospital seems to be a contradictory move but can be interpreted as a comment on the transitory and ever-changing nature of technology and the sonic environment. Particularly in a hospital environment that relies both on technological advances and public funding, it is difficult to predict how alien, quaint or even reassuringly nostalgic these sounds will appear to the listener in the next decade.

All recordings by Mark Vernon 2011 – 2013.

Sleeve design by Marc Baines. Label artwork by Keppie Design.

This project was supported by Creative Scotland and NHS Forth Valley.



“…each brief sonic episode has been laid down, showcased and positioned with a degree of calibration and precision that is just perfect.”
Ed Pinsent, Sound Projector.

“…it becomes impossible not to embed these noises into an imagined whole, an alien sort of environment which, nonetheless, we’ve come to rely on. Those cool, detached beeps need to be warmed up to one of these days.”
Brian Olewnick.

“…an excellent listening experience. Topped with a great sound effects cover, this is a great record. Another time machine.”
Frans de Waard, Vital Weekly.

Reviews in Full

“The ingenious and talented Mark Vernon sent in a copy of Sounds Of The Modern Hospital (MEAGRE RESOURCE RECORDS mere025) over a year ago now, so I hope the limited pressing of 250 vinyl copies hasn’t sold out. It’s field recordings, captured in various NHS hospital departments in Scotland during a two-year artist residency. But (as with most of his work) Vernon has worked very hard on presenting the work in a very particular context. To begin with, he is paying explicit homage to Sound Effects LPs of the 1970s and 1980s, especially those released by the BBC; this 2011 blog post by Simon Robinson may give you a clue, or jog your memory. Accordingly, each recording is very short (some are less than one minute in duration) and the LP is very carefully banded, with judicious gaps between the tracks. The overall intention is bolstered to some degree by Marc Baines’ knowing sleeve art, which is described to us as a “retro-styled” package; without pastiching anything specific, it successfully conveys the feel of a secondary school textbook published any time between 1950 and 1969. Indeed one possible reading of the LP is as a didactic, “educational” or instruction record, an impression that’s also reinforced by the near-clinical descriptions of the track titles on the back cover, which appear to be describing medical procedures and equipment for the benefit of a trainee surgeon rather than from any musical standpoint.

The three-and-thirty separate recordings have been arranged very carefully into a compositional sequence, and indeed we are invited to view the work as a start-to- finish statement, rather than a random collection of aural jottings. What comes over on today’s spin is how neatly-separated from its neighbour every recording is; the banding of the record assists in this, but each brief sonic episode has been laid down, showcased and positioned with a degree of calibration and precision that is just perfect. None of your amorphous sound-scaping and random cross-fades here; Vernon works like an old-fashioned engraver in the print shop, and if he could find a way to cut his own vinyl masters using a Lazy Susan and a dressmaker’s needle, I bet he would do it.

It remains to mention the “radiophonic” vibe of the record, by which I mean it almost presents a narrative or linked narratives through sound effects alone, provided the listener is prepared to bring a lot of imagination to the picnic. Vernon excels at this skill, and there are numerous published examples of his radiophonic art; 2012’s Static Cinema is one such, restrained though it be. I can discern at least two narrative strains in Sounds Of The Modern Hospital; the principal strand is almost purely technical, and it follows the actions and outputs of various machines, which produce rhythmic sounds, electronic beeps, or something resembling an abstracted “Industrial” noise, and all emerge as a form of programmed background music. The second strand is more buried, but it’s a human narrative; voices of nurses, doctors and patients, either performing particular routines or undergoing examinations. Some of them, taken so deliberately out of context, are ever so slightly absurd, even a little hilarious. If you listen to the record at one angle, it’s like a minimalist version of Carry On Doctor rescripted by Samuel Beckett. Some of these Vernon snippets would be perfect for a collaboration with People Like Us; the two of them should meet up some time.”

(Ed Pinsent, Sound Projector, March 7, 2015)

“I worked in a large hospital in NYC (Mount Sinai) from 1977 to early 2013. For a decent portion of that time, about 1988 to 2007 and sporadically thereafter, I found myself in patient areas that included a ton of technology: ICUs, X-Ray and MRI centers, ORs, ERs and dozens of kinds of laboratories, most of which contained items capable of generating sound. On the one occasion where I actually underwent an MRI, the neurologist, in my pre-exam consultation, warned me about the noises that would occur and described them, advising me that many patients found them scary or uncomfortable. “That’s ok,” I said, “it sounds like a lot of the music I listen to.” “You scare me,” he replied.

Mark Vernon has assembled, in a wonderfully designed retro package (I love the faded purple), 33 slices of sound from hospitals in Scotland, sound of both mechanical and human derivation. They’re presented blankly, “as is”, no specific commentary or narrative in effect, though, over the course of the recording, the listener may inevitably construct such. Many of the technological sounds are iterative, various analyzers, pumps, printers, scanners and other medical devices and they, clearly, have a decided “musical” content. But here are also the voices of staff conducting therapy sessions here, chatting there. A particularly eerie sequence occurs when we hear coughs and wheezing played through a mannequin, a simulation device used in nurse training. The extracts are short, running about a minute or two each, delineating this as a “sound effects” recording (though some, like “METI Human Patient Simulator” have a quasi-musical aspect that sounds intriguingly close to, say, an extract from a Keith Rowe performance). But it becomes impossible not to embed these noises into an imagined whole, an alien sort of environment which, nonetheless, we’ve come to rely on. Those cool, detached beeps need to be warmed up to one of these days. Oddly absorbing, do check it out”.

(Brian Olewnick, 27th February 2014)

“Sound effects records? Do they still exist? Or is everyone these days turning to freesound websites to find that plane taking off to mount below the amateur film of the latest holidays? I remember sound effects records from the ‘old’ days as something you could use to lift some sounds off and incorporate in your own music; I guess that was before you had to rush out with a mini disc and record these sounds yourself, which of course always adds a fine cachet of its own.

Here we have a classic sound effects LP, yet it’s also ‘fake’ perhaps. It’s rather a LP of field recordings than a sound effects LP. Mark Vernon, once of Vernon & Burns, is someone whose work is always on the fringe of radio art, radio, installation, soundtrack and performance. There are thirty-three pieces of sounds from various sections of the hospital on this record, recorded over a two year period at such departments as anaesthesiology, clinical simulation centre, health records, laboratories, ophthalmology, oral and maxillofacial, radiology, nuclear medicine, neonatal unit, pharmacy and the mail room. Everything is listed on the record.

“Is it music”, someone recently asked me when I played something that was very soft and very ambient. You could wonder the same thing about this, I guess. Everything time based and selected by the composer, I would think, is music. I thought this was a great record, even if I don’t like hospitals very much, but then, who does (other than the doctor making his money I guess)? Even when I didn’t visit all those departments, and hopefully never will, it was a great listening experience. The mechanical sounds of apparatus, computerized voices saying what you should do, the obscure rattling of sounds, the drones of machines – all of this to make you better. How odd. It’s probably something you don’t realize when you are in a hospital, but maybe you don’t think about that anyway when you are in a hospital. Adventurous DJs can work with this record to great effect (but where are the adventurous DJs anyway these days?), but also from a point of field recording lover, I can imagine this is something you can dig. It’s something else than your usual bird/insect/rain forest/big city hum. Like I said: an excellent listening experience. Topped with a great sound effects cover, this is a great record. Another time machine.”

(Frans de Waard, Vital Weekly)