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..

Mysterious night-time pulsing sound

Over the last few months, I’ve occasionally heard a strange sound coming in through my open window at night. It’s a distant electronic pulsing sound which comes and goes on the wind. It seems to be coming from the north of Edinburgh around Leith. It’s quiet, but distinct. I decided to record it. The resulting recording is a bit shoddy, but it does the job.

Leith Night Pulse

I’ve no real idea what could be making this sound. Any suggestions would be welcome. It sounds to me like an alarm or an alert, like it has been designed to sound as it does. I tend to hear it around 1-3 am. Given the direction it’s coming from, it could be something happening on Leith docks or something going on at the nearby sewage works. It might even be something happening on the large cargo ships and oil tankers which often sit out in the Firth of Forth. I live maybe a mile from the coast; the way it drifts on the wind suggests that the sound source is quite far off.

Some technical details about the recording

This was a bit of a hard one because the pulsing sound was very quiet and I wanted to document it to make it clearly audible. So the approach I took was to focus on and magnify the pulsing sound at the expense of an accurate recording of the general ambience.

As it was so late at night, the ambient sound level was pretty low anyway. To get a decent level, I had to turn up the gain on my Sound Devices 702 to maximum. To reduce the effect of noise from my flat and the building, I stuck the mic (my Rode NT4 in a Rycote full modular windshield) out of the kitchen window on a fully-extended mic stand. A boom pole would have been better but I didn’t have one. I turned off the freezer in the kitchen as with the gain so high the mic was picking up a lot of the hum from that. The hum was probably louder than the pulsing sound itself. I tried to stay completely still – with the gain so high, even the tiniest sounds could be picked up. Even though I was careful, there are lots of extraneous noises in there. Little floorboard creaks, doors closing elsewhere in the building.

Annoyingly, after a few minutes the battery on my 702 died and I had neither my spare battery nor the power supply to hand. I switched to a Tascam DR100 recorder, but the preamps on that aren’t as good.

Afterwards, working with the SD702 recording, it was very quiet so I normalised it. This made the pulse louder but of course also brought up the level of all the stuff I didn’t want as well, like bass rumble and hiss. So I then did some pretty strong EQ work to remove noise at the low and high ends of the frequency spectrum. I also slightly boosted the main frequency of the pulse to bring it out of the mix a bit more. The process was very rough and ready and not at all audiophile really, but it got the result I wanted: the pulse is now clearly audible, whereas insitu it was very quiet, only just detectable over the background noise.

If this sound keeps happening, I might try a few more recordings on still nights, hopefully with a bit more care and preparation..

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..

Sonic methods in human geography: RGS-IBG 2010

Jonathan Prior and I are organising a session at next year’s Royal Geographical Society annual conference, which takes place 1st-3rd Sept 2010 in London. If you’d like to submit an abstract, please get in touch. The call for papers is below, more general information can be found at


RGS-IBG 2010 Session Proposal

Sonic methods in human geography

The proposed session seeks to bring together researchers who are actively using sound to explore geographical issues. The session aims to provide a platform for methodological development to complement the growing interest in the geographies of sound and music (e.g. Anderson et al, 2005; Cameron and Rogalsky, 2006; Wood et al, 2007). We particularly encourage proposals which will involve novel or experimental uses of sound in their presentation at the conference. We would also welcome contributions from researchers and practitioners in other disciplines whose work has geographical relevance (e.g. sound artists, experimental musicians, anthropologists, musicologists, sociologists, architects, etc).

We are looking for papers that address, though aren’t limited to:

  • Sonic research methods: soundwalking; deep listening; multi-sensory ethnography; acoustic mapping; sound design and architecture; acoustic ecology; field recording; sound art and experimentalism.
  • The interface between academic research and creative practice in the sonic arts.
  • Cartographies of sound and other forms of representing sound.
  • Experimentation with different forms of sonic dissemination: blogs, podcasts, performances, radio broadcasts, electronic journal articles with embedded sound.

Session organisers

Dr Michael Gallagher, Research Fellow, Institute of Geography, University of Edinburgh, michael [dot] gallagher [at] ed [dot] ac [dot] uk

Jonathan Prior, Human Geography PhD Candidate, Institute of Geography, University of Edinburgh, s0674977 [at] sms [dot] ed [dot] ac [dot] uk

Submission deadline: 22nd Feb 2010


Anderson, B., Morton, F. and Revill, G. (2005) Editorial: Practices of Music and Sound, Social and Cultural Geography, 6(5), 639-644

Cameron, L. and Rogalsky, M. (2006) Conserving Rainforest 4: aural geographies and ephemerality, Social and Cultural Geography, 7(6), 909-926

Wood, N., Duffy, M. and Smith, S.J. (2007) The art of doing (geographies of) music, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 25, 867-889.