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:|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:|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:|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:|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:|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:|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:|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:

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..

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..