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:

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..

Sonic Methods in Human Geography

Back in September, Jonathan Prior and I co-organised a session of papers on Sonic Methods in Human Geography at the Royal Geographical Society annual conference (RGS-IBG). The presenters included a variety of sound artists, researchers and PhD students.

A few people suggested that we should record all the sessions – and we realised it would be a bit daft not to given the topic. I’ve now finished editing the recordings, and you can hear them and download them all from here:

Thanks to everyone who came along on the day, and especially to those who presented. Both Jonathan and I thought the range and quality of the presentations was outstanding, so I’m glad we managed to get an audible record of them. I also like how you can hear stuff like the projector fan, the room acoustics and the clinking of glasses.

We’re also planning a special issue of a journal based on the session. I’ll post more news on that here as it develops..

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..

William Robertson Building vent drones

Here are some recordings of drones from the vents in the side of one of the buildings in the central area of the University of Edinburgh. All were made using a Sound Devices 702 and a Rode NT4 in a Rycote windshield. These were the first recordings I’ve made using the 702. I had the low cut filter engaged but there’s still a bit of sub bass rumble going on so I might try raising the cutoff frequency next time. The files are normalised but otherwise unedited.

WRB vent 1

WRB vent 2

WRB vent 3

WRB vent 4

WRB vent 5

WRB vent 6

WRB vent 7.

Audio methods training

Towards the end of February, Jonathan Prior and I organised a day of training in audio methodologies for researchers and research students at the University of Edinburgh. This was the second, advanced level day of a two day programme we’ve been piloting. We invited sound artist John Wynne to come and lead the day, and were totally delighted with his contribution. He has a history of making fascinating work investigating sonic phenomena such as alarms, endangered click languages, a heart and lung transplant hospital and lots of old hifi speakers (see his website for details).

The highlight came at 11am when – moments after John had been presenting his work on auditory warnings – the fire alarm went off. I’d temporarily forgotten that it is tested every Friday morning. It took me a few moments to work out whether this was (a) part of John’s work, (b) a test fire alarm, (c) a real fire alarm or (d) all of the above.

We had people from all over the University attending. The photos below show a musician, a sociologist, a biologist and a guy who I think does neuroscience in a place called the Centre for Integrative Physiology.



I used the day to work on a piece of music/sound art I’m developing using lots of portable tape recorders. I also had a chance to take my newly acquired Sound Devices 702 field recorder for its first outing to record some droning air vents around the University.

The 702 is an awesome piece of kit. It’s built like a tank, the preamps are superb and the LEDs are bright enough to burn your retina, as you can see from the photo below. They make them like that so you can still see what’s going on even in bright sunlight.


I’ll be uploading some recordings I’ve made with this very soon.

The training seemed to go down well. There were lots of positive comments in the evaluations, so we intend to organise more of this sort of thing in the future..