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..

Vent and drain, High School Yards

Here’s a clip of a composition I’ve produced from some field recordings. Just before Christmas last year, I was recording an air vent drone in the High School Yards, to the rear of the Institute of Geography in Edinburgh. After a few minutes I noticed a regular dripping sound coming from snow melting into a nearby drain, so I decided to relocate the mic to bring both sounds into the mix.

Vent and drain clip

I think this could be a piece of experimental music; the full 6 minute version may well get released as a Buffalo buffalo track some time in the future. But it’s also a document of a hybrid micro-geography, a record of an insitu, impromptu, more-than-human performance. We could hear this as an unintended duet between the weather and the built environment, with systems for air and water management intertwining.

Many thanks to Jonathan for the photo of the air vent.

Tech details: the recordings were made with a Rode NT4 in full Rycote windshield, and a Tascam DR100 recording at 24 bit, 44.1 kHz. Recordings were edited and EQ’d in Logic..

Can you come again next week?

A great big thanks to everyone who came to Edinburgh to the international training and networking event I organised at the start of May. For those who weren’t there, this was a week-long workshop exploring experimental audio, visual and site-specific research methods. It was funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), and hosted by the Institute of Geography at the University of Edinburgh, with support from the Department of Geographical and Earth Sciences at the University of Glasgow.

'Experimenting with Geography' participants and presenters

I think it’s fair to say that overall it was a big success. There was a really positive vibe about the whole thing. Eric Laurier summed up the mood in an email sent to all the attendees the following week:

“Can you come again next week? This one has lacked crackly birdsong, vibrating balloons, soldering irons, city symphonies, anechoic chambers, autumn salmon roe, centrifuges, quarry hammers, avian corpses, men on scaffolding (well it hasn’t, but has in that storyboard way), violin-voices in the foyer, cycle rides to the Wild West and most importantly, the music of your enthusiasm.”

Louise K Wilson giving a contact mic DIY session

To flesh out to Eric’s list, some highlights included:

  • A trigger-happy Matt Rogalsky wandering about shooting a starting pistol, to record the acoustics of various spaces.
  • Louise K Wilson showing people how to build their own contact mics and hydrophones (picture above)
  • Victoria Clare Bernie exploring how storyboarding might work in the context of creative research.
  • Sans Facon inviting people to compose their own sound walks.
  • Nigel Thrift giving us a big dollop of theory in the middle of the week.
  • Perdita Phillips installing mics on the roof of the geography building to record the seagulls.
  • Tansy Spinks conducting an impromptu participatory performance on the main stairs.
  • David Paton and friends presenting audio-visual work about a disused quarry which once supplied much of the stone used in Edinburgh’s grand buildings.
  • Hilary Ramsden triangulating Ennio Morricone, a side street in Morningside, and dogs barking on the meadows.
  • Hayden Lorimer describing the early history of wildlife recording, before the invention of magnetic tape. This included such things as cables running for two miles from mics in the woods to a van full of machines which would cut sound waves into discs of heated-up wax.
  • Murray Campbell from physics showing us round the acoustics labs, and answering questions such as ‘can you make a kettle boil by shouting?’ (answer: in theory perhaps, but not in practice).
  • An evening of experimental films curated by Edinburgh-based film-maker Matt Lloyd, and an evening of experimental music courtesy of Martin Parker’s Dialogues festival.

The result was a week which one participant described on his evaluation form as “by far the most interesting and fun event I had attended in the past few years”.

Eric Laurier, Tansy Spinks and a rather severe-looking gentleman
Sound absorbers in the anechoic chamber we visited

Jonathan Prior has made an audio-visual slideshow which I think nicely captures the flow of the event:

http://12gatestothecity.com/2010/05/17/experimenting-with-geography/

More documentation is available via the project discussion board:

http://michaelgallagher.co.uk/experimental-methods-network/

Special thanks to Eric, Hayden, Jonathan and Andy Wilbur for their help and support with this project, and to the ESRC for funding it.

Can you come again next week? This one has lacked crackly birdsong, vibrating balloons, soldering irons, city symphonies, anechoic chambers, autumn salmon roe, centrifuges, quarry hammers, avian corpses, men on scaffolding (well it hasn't, but has in that storyboard way), violin-voices in the foyer, cycle rides to the Wild West and most importantly, the music of your enthusiasm.

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Incidental drones

I’ve coined the term ‘incidental drones’ to describe a type of sound with which I have become fascinated over the last few years.

The definition is pretty loose. An incidental drone is just any more or less continuous droney noise, usually with a discernible pitched element, that emanates from some electrical or mechanical source which hasn’t been designed primarily to produce sound. It’s sound which is a by-product of some other function, and hence is incidental.

Incidental drones include the sounds made by:

  • Refrigerators and freezers
  • Fan ovens
  • Cooker hoods
  • Extractor fans and air conditioning systems (sound artist Eric La Casa has an album called air.ratio which is based entirely on recordings of air vents in Paris)
  • Computer fans (my own one is whirring away right now as I type)
  • Heating systems
  • Substations
  • Power tools (lawnmowers, drills, circular saws)
  • Lighting (e.g. hum from flourescent lights and dimmer switches)
  • Power lines in the mist (as described by Bill Drummond in his book 17)
  • Telephone exchange boxes
  • Generators
  • Wind turbines

In urban areas, once you start listening, you find that these sounds are everywhere. But I’ve also come across lots of incidental drones in rural areas, from grain silos, wind turbines, boat engines, fish farms and so on.

Two of the most remote places I’ve ever been in the UK had incidental drones. One was an electrical installation of some kind by the station in Corrour in the middle of Rannoch Moor in the highlands. If you’ve ever seen the film Trainspotting, this is the station they get off at to go for a walk (leading to the memorable ‘it’s sh*te to be Scottish’ speech). There are no roads anywhere near there, just a landrover track and a single rail line disappearing off across the moor.

The other was a generator in a building next to Barrisdale bothy in Knoydart, which chugged away all day. The latter is one of the most remote places in the UK. Again, no road goes near it (apparently the locals have refused offers to have one built). You can only access Barrisdale by private boat directly, by a ferry then a big walk over the Mam Barrisdale pass, or by a day’s walk over rough terrain from Kinloch Hourn, itself in the middle of nowhere at the end of a 22-mile cul-de-sac.

So I think it’s fair to say that in present-day post-industrial UK at least, these sounds seem to appear in most places where there is human habitation..