The Recording Kit

Last weekend, Mark and I attempted the third of several walks I am plotting along the A4074, in order to map out the best routes for 1. a Sound Walk planned for World Listening Day (18th July) and 2. the A4074 radio show/podcast production I am currently developing, as my final PhD project.

After seeking advice from the amazing yahoo phonography group, some technical people that I know, and my supervisor, I decided to borrow some fancy kit from the department at Brookes, in order to capture some sounds from the A4074 in crystalline detail. Bill Fontana’s exhibition, River Sounding, and Chris Watson’s Journey South radio piece have compelled me into thinking that for environmental recordings maybe it is worth going beyond the limits of my trusty Edirol R-09 and into the world of broadcast-quality recording equipment. And thus it was that last Sunday I found myself traipsing along the Icknield way with a rucksack full of kit, a huge coil of XLR cable hung over my arm, and a giant boom pole with a microphone on the top of it.

So far my major discovery has been that the fancy equipment is not light!

I also discovered – during the moment pictured here – how much bass there is in the sound of wind. I have been really interested in posts lately by Michael Raphael that feature amazingly detailed wind recordings; I have a way to go yet, before I understand exactly how to capture wind sounds in great detail. I think right here what I could hear were some Red Kite calls and some booming wind bass, but none of that sweeping wooshing noise that rustles through leaves and flowers and which I was so hoping to capture.

I have very mixed feelings about the fancy equipment. One of the things I love about the Edirol is its portability, and its size (it fits in my pocket!) and the fact that I can hop over stiles with it on, and walk whilst recording, with relative ease. I use the Edirol like an inexpensive camera, to produce an endless sonic snapshot of the world around me. I love its ease of use and comparitive cheapness, but most of all I love the listening state that it induces when I am exploring the world with it and the way that it functions like a sonic magnifying glass. The Edirol is no hindrance to walking and listening; with binaural microphones, it can sit happily in my pocket capturing the sounds while I walk, paying special attention to the sound events that occur along the way. I do think about what I am recording, but the equipment itself is mostly an accessory to active listening, if that makes sense, and recording sounds with it is not necessarily the main focus for being out walking in the first place.

Recording at Loch Lomond with the Edirol R-09 last Summer.

In contrast, as soon as I had set up the FOSTEX FR-2LE field memory recorder and the Beyerdynamic MC 86 II, I found myself tangled up in wires and all focussed on the final recording. The equipment made me begin to obsess over the recording as an object in and of itself, rather than a product of the process of listening. I also realised that my set-up wasn’t quite right; I would need 2 microphones (one for the left channel, one for the right) to get a stereo image of the soundscape, and so that would mean having 2 XLR cables and 2 boom poles… and I found myself wondering: how can I listen to anything properly with all that equipment in the way? I think the lesson learned is that for exploring the A4074, a notepad for writing the sounds down in and the trusty Edirol are impossible to beat. If I want to get extremely high-fidelity recordings of things, then I need to organise specific recording trips designed to capture specific sounds. It’s a different way of working, but when I load up all the sounds I captured on Sunday, maybe it will be easier to hear whether or not I ultimately think it’s 1. relevant to my practise and 2. worth it.

I have no doubts that high-quality recordings such as those made by Chris Watson or Bill Fontana on unimaginably expensive kit go a long way towards enhancing, collectively, our appreciation of sounds. Walking around the Bill Fontana exhibition a few weeks ago, I found myself absolutely loving that so many sounds I ordinarily wouldn’t be able to hear were rendered visible through the recordings made by the artist. I will never hear or see the Thames in the same way again, after experiencing its various soundscapes at so many levels in the wonderful installation at Somerset House. Likewise, the hydrophones that Chris Watson lowered into the water under the ice in the South Pole to capture the cries of seals in the water made it possible for me to hear many things that I would normally never be able to experience in such exquisite detail. Watson and Fontana are clearly keen listeners, and maybe the skills lie in knowing your kit inside out and having strategies for carrying it around with you, so that it isn’t an impediment to walking, exploring and listening?

I have yet to download all of the sounds recorded on the fancy equipment, as there is nowhere on my laptop for a compact media flash card and I do not own the correct USB cable, but I’m interested in hearing the results and in comparing them to the equivalent recordings I made on the Edirol. Most of all, I’m interested in seeing how/if this experimentation with microphones and recording equipment does anything to change how I hear the world.

All the photos in this post were taken by Mark. I really love his photos.

3 Responses to The Recording Kit

  1. Pingback: What is a good digital recording for a musician on a budget? | Condenser Microphone Recording

  2. tinebeest says:

    This resonates (pun intended?) with what I read in Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman. New tools take up bandwith, and require unlearning/relearning/lots of practice, until they have almost become extensions of yourself. Then you can use them to do exactly what you want. You have built up that level of craftsmanship with your trusty tiny recording device, but the new stuff is still too big for it to disappear in your mental bandwith to a mere murmur. It requires time and practice, and I don’t know if you have time for that in the PhD project now. If not- keep it’s possibilities in mind for when you start exploring new horizons in post PhD life 🙂

  3. Mark says:

    Lovely post gorgeous – lets download your recordings this weekend – we haz the right KaPOWers in the media pc thingy

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