Listening to a dead rabbit

As I mentioned in my previous post, last week sound recordist Chris Watson came up to the University of Edinburgh for a visit which I’d organised. It was fantastic. An amazing man. As expected, I learned lots about field recording, but he also turned out to be a great storyteller, full of tales about his many travels, including recent visits to both poles, and stories of Factory Records, David Attenborough and so on.

As part of his visit, Jonathan Prior and I ran an audio recording training day for researchers and PhD students from the university. About ten of us travelled by train to the nearby seaside town of North Berwick, chosen to give us a range of environments to experiment in. Journalist Neil Cooper also joined us to write a piece for the Herald newspaper, which you can read here.

By the beach, with a thick haar (the local word for sea mist) rolling in, Chris showed us some of his equipment, including a parabolic reflector mic for very focussed work, such as isolating particular bird calls, and a pair of miniature omnidirectional mics he uses for more ambient recordings. As the name suggests, omnidirectional mics pick up sound from all around the mic capsule. Compared to cardiod mics – which pick up sound in front of the capsule – omnis are less sensitive to wind and handling noise and also tend to have a flatter, wider frequency response, particularly in the low end.

One technique Chris uses with the omnis is to attach them to a wire coat hanger. This gives a nice spacing for stereo, is super-lightweight, and very versatile: the hanger can be hung from vegetation or spiked into the ground.

Like all non-coincident stereo techniques, the coat hanger setup compromises mono compatibility, but if you can live with that the resulting recordings are superb. As I’ve said here before, my main mic for field recording is the Rode NT4 which has a fixed 90 degree XY pair of cardioid capsules. This could be seen as the opposite of the omnis, in that it is directional and coincident. I find the directionality useful, especially in urban environments where I often want to block out the traffic noise coming from behind me. However, compared with the omnis, the NT4 sounded quite ‘closed’, almost slightly stifled, whereas the omnis were incredibly open and natural sounding. Obviously this is all subjective, but I was taken aback by the difference. For ambient soundscape recording, the omnis were definitely better in my opinion. Plus there is the versatility of having two tiny, lightweight mics to position as you wish. The only advantages of the NT4 would be mono compatibility and directionality. Better get saving for some of those omnis…

I experimented with both the NT4 and the omnis recording the waves rolling in and the general ambience of the beach. Chris’s tip was to make several recordings from different perspectives and then layer these – he said in his experience this would give a more recognisable impression of the sea than just using one recording. Listening to the results I’m inclined to agree. The following mix was made from six different recordings, including some made very close to the breaking waves and others made further back up the beach:

[audio:http://www.michaelgallagher.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/N-Berwick-Beach-Sea-mix-1.mp3|titles=North Berwick sea mix]

During a break for lunch, Chris spoke about his experiments attaching mics to animal carcasses to record birds feeding. The most well-known example of this is on the track Cracking Viscera from the album Outside the Circle of Fire. He produced that track by attaching mics to a zebra carcass, enabling him to record feeding vultures. However, it seems that Chris has used this technique on a number of occasions, starting one Christmas with a mic’ed up turkey carcass, pinned down in his garden using tent pegs, and starlings descending to peck at it, to the delight of his children. Deadpan, he explained that even though his daughter had left home by that point, their turkey was still big enough to fit four mics inside for a surround sound recording. Another story involved a roadkill rabbit and some ravens on the Isle of Mull. I quickly got the gear rolling to record this:

[audio:http://www.michaelgallagher.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Dead-rabbit-clip.mp3|titles=Listening to a dead rabbit]

A few notes of thanks, first to Chris for sharing his incredible expertise with us. For help with funding and organising his visit, thanks to: the Institute for Academic Development; Martin Parker and Jules Rawlinson from music; Dan Swanton and Jonathan Prior from geography; and my admin team in CRFR (all at the University of Edinburgh)..

More incidental drones

I’ve been accruing more recordings of incidental drones so it’s about time I posted some clips. Here are a few of my favourite buzzes and hums from the last 6 months or so.

First up is the hum from a substation near to my office on Buccleuch Place, Edinburgh. There are actually two drones going on here – there is a coffee booth nearby that has a petrol generator, so you can hear that chugging away too.

[audio:http://www.michaelgallagher.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/BuccPl-substation.mp3|titles=Buccleuch Place substation]

I recorded a lawnmower through my window back in summer. It kept stopping and starting, which I found annoying. But when I listened back, this makes it even more interesting, because when the main mower stops you can hear lots of quieter drones around the neighbourhood – possibly from other lawnmowers or power tools.

[audio:http://www.michaelgallagher.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/LochendLawnmowerClip.mp3|titles=Summer lawnmowers]

The next two recordings were made near the premises of a firm of joiners, shopfitters and builders in an old industrial area of Dundee. In the first one, the machine making the droning and sqeaking sounds was an odd contraption – it had a large metal hopper, elevated about 6 feet, with wide duct pipes leading into it. My guess is that this machine was sucking dust and swarf away from the workbenches inside, like a massive vacuum cleaner. Every now and again you could hear things rattling inside the pipes, a bit like when a piece of lego goes up the hoover.

[audio:http://www.michaelgallagher.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/joiners-drone.mp3|titles=Joiner’s machine drone]

Around the side of the building was a metal shuttered door, through which could be heard more droning and various sounds of metalworking:

[audio:http://www.michaelgallagher.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/DundeeJoinersDoor.mp3|titles=Joiner’s door drone]

The next recording is from near a hotel, Ten Hill Place, in the centre of Edinburgh. There is a basement with air vents from which various drones emanate. They change in pitch periodically, as though the machines are stepping up and down in speed or something.

[audio:http://www.michaelgallagher.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/HillPlaceVentFan2.mp3|titles=Hill Place vent]

Next up is another vent recording made at the rear of the university main library. There is a loading bay with a massive air vent at the side. I suspect from its size that it’s related to the heating system for the entire building. It’s pretty loud when you get up close.

[audio:http://www.michaelgallagher.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/MainlibRearVent.mp3|titles=UoE library vent]

Finally, a kind of semi-drone recording I made on Infirmary Street in the centre of Edinburgh. I was just walking home one day after work when I heard all these sounds coming from a grill close to street level. At first I actually thought it was some kind of band, fans of Einsturzende Neubauten or Faust perhaps, practising in a subterranean rehearsal room. I was quite into it. Listening closer, what I thought were primitive drums turned out to be hammering, punctuated by power tool drones.

[audio:http://www.michaelgallagher.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/InfStConstruction.mp3|titles=Tearing down old buildings]

One of the things that both annoys and amuses me about Edinburgh – and most cities come to think of it – is how you can never get a  moment to yourself. Infirmary Street isn’t a main road so I was hoping I’d be able to record relatively undisturbed. But just as I was hauling all my gear out of my rucksac to get set up, a group of about 30 European men came walking by trundling suitcases behind them. It was a slightly surreal moment, standing there in the street with a big furry mic and fat headphones, with these proto-industrial sounds coming from who-knows-where underground, and a whole delegation of Dutchmen traipsing past..

Some unanswerably large but nonetheless pressing questions

I’ve had an abstract accepted to a workshop on ‘Geography and the New Empirics’. My title is “Some unanswerably large but nonetheless pressing questions about ‘audio-visual’ methodologies.” At the moment I like deliberately pedantic titles. Here’s the abstract:

Empirics – audio-visual methods

And a link to the workshop website:

http://www.scgrg.org/geography-and-the-new-empirics/

It takes place at UCL and the RGS in London on 20th-21st January 2011. It’s being organised by Harriet Hawkins and some other geographers.

I’ll be using my presentation as an opportunity to open up some debate around questions like: what is the status of audio-visual media in research? How can audio-visual media function in a research context? How are audio-visual media, such as digital video and audio, different to written text – given that text is clearly visual and, arguably, also aural (since reading requires a voice of some kind)? These concerns have been nagging me more and more as I’ve been working with audio media over the last couple of years. I’m becoming convinced that, if people like me want to use audio-visual media and have this recognised as a legitimate way of ‘doing’ academic research, we’re going to need to address these kinds of questions much more thoroughly than has been the case thus far.

I’m particularly interested in thinking reflexively about the process of making and playing back audio and video recordings, in the same way that ethnographers have spent a lot of time thinking about what it is to produce texts for research purposes. It strikes me that there is nothing straightforward about this. When I take a mic and a recorder out into the city, record sounds, then edit the recordings, compress the files, upload them to a website or play them back in presentations…it’s all too easy to slip into believing that what I’m doing here is in some way ‘capturing’ sound so that the original experience can be ‘re-lived’ later.

I’m inclined instead to think about audio recording as a form of performance in which a whole host of elements are orchestrated together – sound vibrations, air, mics, headphones, ears, fingers, level controls, meters, eyes, silicon chips, electrons, and so on. The result is by no means a ‘captured’ sound – as though the sound had been caught like a bird and put in a cage, to be let out later. Instead what you walk away with is a trace left in some particles, be that magnetic or electrical or whatever, on tape, hard disk or flash memory. That trace can then be used later as a kind of script or score for another performance, again involving lots of different elements all working together – e.g. hard disk, computer, amplifier, speakers, air, ears. The behaviour of every element in the system affects these performances, and if one part misbehaves or breaks down the whole thing can fall apart, sometimes very beautifully.

The magical feat of technology is to hide this whole process inside a black box, and to accomplish the hiding ever more effectively. Think of the shift from wax cylinder to vinyl, tape, CD and now MP3s. At each stage the process becomes more invisible, and the technology arguably less prone to failures. This makes sense if you want to sell stuff to consumers. The illusion is part of the allure. Failures – vinyl crackles, chewed up tapes, CDs skipping digital glitches – expose the process, killing the magic. So they have to minimised as far as possible.

But in research, I want to be reflexive about what it is I’m doing – I see that as an important part of the process – so I want to open up the black box(es) and think more critically about exactly what is going on. Just as electronic and experimental musicians have come to value and even fetishise glitches, hisses, crackles and other hardware malfunctions (cf. Pole, Basic Channel, Position Normal, Oval, Matmos, Phillip Jeck, William Basinsky, Autechre, Alva Noto, Ryoji Ikeda etc etc) maybe researchers could use such failures as openings, chinks to be prised apart to expose the workings..