Sounds of the Projection Box | Michael Lightborne


Sounds of the Projection Box | Michael Lightborne
Gruen 177 | Vinyl (+ Digital) | Digital > [order]


These recordings, made in 2016 and 2017, document the shifting sonic texture of the cinema projection box, as it changes from 35mm to digital projection. By 2014, the majority of UK cinemas had already converted to digital, making many projectionists redundant, and quietly altering the way that cinema works, as both an industry and an experience. Very few cinemas maintain the ability to project 35mm film alongside digital, and it was in some of the remaining, tenacious boxes that I sought the persistent sounds of analogue projection.


The unique space that this album investigates is simultaneously a workshop, an engine room, and an artist’s studio. The projection box is a small room at the back of the cinema auditorium that conceals both the apparatus of the moving image, and the labour of the projectionist, ensuring that both remain invisible, and inaudible, to the cinema-goer.


This album was developed as part of The Projection Project, a research project based in the Film and Television Studies Department at the University of Warwick, which seeks to record and investigate the history of cinema projection in Britain. A special issue of the Journal of British Cinema And Television Studies (Vol 15, No 1, 2018), edited by members of The Projection Project, features a number of articles about the history of British cinema projection and the work of the projectionist in Britain, through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It includes an article entitled ‚Sounds of the Projection Box: Liner Notes for a Phonographic Method‘, which augments this album, and elaborates upon the theoretical and methodological rationale for the use of sonic field recording as a mode of enquiry.


All of the images that accompany this record were made by Richard Nicholson. Some of them form part of a series of portraits entitled The Projectionists.


Side A


1. The thing
2. Making up the thing
3. Breaking down the thing
4. Lacing and Rolling Rear Window (error correction)


Side B


1. Hyde Park electromagnetic
2. The noise
3. Manual rewind
4. The Electric
5. The tower (death rattle)
6. Digital light


10 Tracks (43′30″)
Vinyl (500 copies)



Field Recording Series by Gruenrekorder
Germany / 2018 / Gruen 177 / LC 09488 / EAN 4050486119020





Brian Olewnick | Just outside
A sonic documentation of the history of the film projector (movie house version), from spool to digital. The recordings seem to be presented as is, with little or no obvious enhancement. The sounds, unsurprisingly, are cyclic near the beginning, less so as time moves on but also include the actions (and noises) made by the projectionist moving about, manipulating parts of the machine, etc., which sounds are perhaps even more intriguing than the mechanical ones. Sometimes you hear what’s being shown in the theater, also fun. The last two tracks (this is a vinyl release, btw) form a small drama: ‚Tower (death rattle)‘ (like the title implies) and ‚Digital Light‘, spinning off into the hums and drones of the new age. Enjoyable work, especially for those interested in localized field recordings.


Richard Allen | a closer listen
What a great record. And thank God it’s vinyl, because this is the only way to hear Sounds of the Projection Box, which is at once an homage to antiquated technology, a requiem for days gone by and a reflection of supposed progress. We’ve gained something in the switch to the digital format ~ clarity, seamlessness, an ability to show a film without any humans being present. But we’ve lost something as well ~ a tactile nature, a feeling of community, the contract between projectionist and audience. Earlier this year, I was at a film that “broke.” The older attendees kept turning back, looking up and yelling, “fix the screen!” But there was no one there; they were screaming into a void.


Michael Lightborne captures sounds that might soon become extinct, in the same manner as certain physical environments ~ rain forests, barrier reefs ~ might disappear as well. As aural habitats become extinct, so does a way of life. The charm of the moviegoing experience, perfectly captured in Cinema Paradiso, is now muted. No longer can a child stumble up to a projectionist’s booth and see the magic in motion; no longer can a snippet of celluloid be given as a gift to a wide-eyed attendee. The art of switching between reels has all but disappeared. The spooling, the whirring, the flickering into life, all gone.


In preparing this work, Lightborne traveled across the U.K., visiting the few remaining theaters that still use 35mm. The above photo portrays Peter Howden at the Rio, where two tracks were recorded. In his articulate, heartfelt essay, Lightborne calls the projection box “a workshop, an engine room and an artist’s studio.” The album is part of the larger Projection Project, which is sponsored by the Film and Television Studies Department of the University of Warwick.


As the album unfolds, Lightborne tells a beautiful story in chapter order. First there are the audible sounds of the projectionist at work (screening Carpenter’s The Thing). At times, one can hear the foreboding music, a fine score brought to life. In the second track, one hears what sounds like duct tape ~ someone had to MacGyver the movie. The sounds are incredibly crisp, taking full advantage of the stereo field. Eventually they discover their own sort of rhythm.


The next track features the amplification of contact and coil mics ~ sounds the projectionist might not otherwise hear. Then words about the craft, paired with the work, a segment that is particularly welcome as it highlights the human element. A transition piece introduces the Electric Cinema’s “tower,” a device that did away with the two-reel switchover system before it was itself surpassed by newer technology. The closing track showcases the sound of the modern digital box, which Lightborne notes “reveals myriad polyphonic tones, textures and rhythms.” The marvelous thing about Lightborne’s description is that he treats these sounds not as concession but as wonder; below the audible surface, there is still life.


For some, Sounds of the Projection Box will be a trip to the past, a nostalgic keepsake. For others the album will be a curiosity, a historical artifact. DJs may find the record an invaluable tool for adding texture to mixes. Fans of the unusual will find its grooves unpredictable and enthralling. The release has the potential to build bridges across generations by starting conversations that begin with “Tell me how it was,” and continue with “Is it better now?” Lightborne seems to conclude that the new era is neither better nor worse; it simply contains its own type of beauty. (Richard Allen)


Reviewer’s note: A Richard Allen is thanked in the liner notes, but it’s not me. I’d love to think that it was me, and that the sound artist was thanking me in advance for a nice review. But it’s not! Shout-out to the other Richard Allen for representing our name so well.


Rigobert Dittmann | Bad Alchemy Magazin (100)
Die Vorführkabine des Planet war so primitiv, daß Edison sie abgeschrieben hätte: zwei Ross-Projektionsmaschinen und ein Diaprojektor nahmen den größeren Teil des vorhandenen Raumes ein… Neben der Kabine war ein klaustrophober Umspulraum, der so eng war, daß man da drin vom Filmkleber high werden konnte. In so einer Kabine (was davon museal an der University of Warwick oder sonst noch erhalten ist), wo Jeff Torringtons Swing Hammer Swing!-Held Tam Clay Saufkumpane trifft, stellte MICHAEL LIGHTBORNE seine Mikrofone auf. Um für Sounds of the Projection Box (Gruen 177, LP) das ganze Drumherum einzufangen, das dazu gehört, einen 35 mm-Film (zufällig John Carpenters „The Thing“) vorzuführen. Die B-Seite erweitert die cineastische Zeitreise mit Sounds aus dem Electric Kino in Birmingham, dem Rio in Dalston und dem Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds, endend mit dem Eindringen ins Innere eines Digital-Projektors, wobei ein dynamisches Mikrofon selbst dort ein summendes und atmendes Innenleben offenbart. Als ‚Tonfilm‘, der den Apparat und das Handwerk hinter den Kulissen des auf die Leinwand Geworfenen würdigt und hörbar macht, fast ein wenig als Trauerarbeit für eine obsolete Technik und einen ausgestorbenen Beruf. Da surren und sirren dann die Spulen und einmal woosht sogar die Tonspur zu unerwartet musikalischen Drones, Beats und Vibrationen, die mich vermuten lassen, dass Lightborne die auch kontaktmikrofonierten Klänge nicht nur ‚unter die Lupe‘ nimmt, er kann auch ihre der Rotation geschuldete klackende und tickende Grooviness hervorkehren oder ein erstaunlich reiches digitales Innenleben. […]


Beach Sloth
Great dollops of noise create tense, anxious track with Michael Lightborne’s “Sounds of the Projection Box”. For this work, Michael Lightborne relies heavily upon the natural rhythms that the machine creates. Layer upon layer of sound comes into the fray with such majesty and grace. Even within these noises Michael Lightborne occasionally lets something more come in, the way that little melodies flicker about in mere moments. By letting these pieces gain a level of prominence within the album the whole of the work feels so visceral.
“The Thing” introduces the album with disorienting screams across the sky. Weird tempos roll through on “Making Up The Thing”. With “Breaking Down The Thing” Michael Lightborne engages in a decomposition sort of technique, letting the piece explore tactile moments within the disassembly. Near silence opens “Lacing and Rolling Rear Window” before it bursts in a flourish of color towards the end. Easily the highlight of the album is the rolling drone and neon-hued bliss of “Hyde Park Electromagnetic”. Such intensity dominates the brutal creaks of “The Noise”. Ghostly auras rumble through the entirety of “Manual Rewind”. Various snippets of samples pierce “The Electric”. A tragic quality concludes the album with the spacious, sprawling and ambitious “Digital Light”. Heavily layered “Digital Light” presents an entire journey that embarks upon disorienting sonic details that loom ever larger.
“Sounds of the Projection Box” shows off Michael Lightborne’s ability to craft an entire narrative with a single event.


Frans de Waard | VITAL WEEKLY
[…] More mechanics of some kind can be found on the LP by Michael Lightborne. I don’t think I heard of him before and he describes himself thusly: „Michael Lightborne is an artist based in Birmingham and Cork. He works with video, sound and print, and has exhibited around the UK and internationally, in exhibitions and film festivals. His work engages with questions of landscape, popular culture, memory, and technology. He is currently exploring the viability of ‘psychetecture’, a concept used in the 1980s comic Mister X to describe the psychological effects of architecture and urban forms.“ In 2016 and 2017 he did recordings in a cinema projection box, documenting the changing from 35mm to digital projection. Very few cinemas still use 35mm, and Lightborne found one, which is what he calls „a workshop, an engine room, and an artist’s studio“, with a great picture on the cover. That one is on the first side of the record, while the other side contains a bunch of others. It ends with a digital projection recording. This is all very filmic, excuse the pun, of film flapping around and cans being opened, the motorizing of projectors and such like. It is indeed, one could say, the sound of an art slowly disappearing. It is very possible that our grandchildren will not be able to recognize any of these sounds. Lightborne records in-situ, and it is very much a documenting of the action. Getting the films on, starting the projectors and such. It is not like Büttner’s work a collage of various sounds together and presented as a composition, yet it is all most enjoyable to hear. Any sound that sounds great is a composition, perhaps (to avoid the more well-known ‚you don’t have to call it music if the term shocks you‘). Following the very lively first side, the second side gradually spirals down to the use of ‚modern‘ equipment and we hear how the world of projection changes. Ending with an electrical drone piece that is the world of digital projection. Another excellent journey, albeit of an entirely different nature. Great record!