Soundwalk 3: The Kit

As you know I’ve been experimenting with the Walking/Recording kit lately. I have tried a FOSTEX FR-2LE field recorder, (bulky but apparently amazing) my trusty Edirol, (I have been using this for so many years it’s like an extension of my own ears, but unfortunately it doesn’t have the power to deal with THE WIND) plus a range of different microphones, (namely a pair of hydrophones which record under water, a condenser mic, and a set of soundman binaural mocrophones.) I have also explored a more traditional range of recording tools, such as the time-tested method of paper and pen, and more honed versions of such tools, like the SOUNDBANK.

Last weekend I went to Whitstable to participate in a Soundwalk that was organised as part of Audiolab, a conference that was in turn part of The Whitstable Biennale. Everything about the Audiolab programme spoke to me – the names of the events, (The Language of Place, Listen to Whitstable) the artists mentioned amongst the speakers, (Jennie Savage and Peter Cusack in particular) and the organisers, (PVA Media, who seem to fund many artists whose work I know and enjoy, like Joe Stevens and James Wyness.) I wasn’t able to stay for the talks unfortunately as I had to get back to Bracknell for the afternoon. However I was able to attend the planned Soundwalk in the morning in Whitstable, and this was a very informative experience. I had some fantastic chats with other sound recordists about kit, and I met Ivon Oates, who very kindly let me try out the FOSTEX recorder plus extremely good microphone and wind-shield, and Helen and Andrew, who are in the process of setting up Soundfjord.

Ivon recording the sound of the tides crossing

Ivon’s fuzzy windshield was a lot more adept at coping with the gusty Whitstable seafront than the foam + felt windshield I tried (in vain) to use around my EDIROL. And just as Ivon described, her kit produced an amazing, high-resolution ‘sonic photograph’ of the soundscape – a description I particularly enjoyed. In the photo above, Ivon is recording a point where the tides seem to cross each other. A sandy spit is apparently revealed beneath this point at low-tide, but when the tide is in, you can see that the water appears to roll in from two different directions, and you can in fact hear this if you stand with your back to the wind and listen carefully. Marcus Leadley explained this to us from behind his similarly epic sound-recording kit.

One thing I found especially interesting in what Ivon said about her kit, was that she enjoys the way it instantly identifies her to people as a Sound Person, unambiguously acting as a strong visual cue to people that she is recording. I often feel compelled to point out the EDIROL when I am using it, as it is a very stealthy device, and – particularly when it is combined with binaural microphones, which look at a glance just like headphones – could easily pass as a bulky mp3 player. Although I love the unselfconscious quality that goes with people’s voices when they do not realise they are being recorded, I also know it is unethical to gather sounds in this fashion and so I generally will identify myself as a sound-recordist if I am specifically recording what someone is saying. I enjoyed the spectacle of our little band of soundy types heading out around Whitstable Harbour, clearly engaged in some sort of mass-listening experiment.

However I also found that the presence of kit often dominated and determined the walk, so that it became at times more of a feature of listening than the soundscape itself, with recorded sounds seeming at times to be more ‘real’ – or certainly more vivid – than the natural sounds occurring in Whitstable when we were passing through it.

It is true that amplifying sounds massively enhances our ability to hear them in close detail, and that this detail in sound – once heard – fundamentally changes the way that we hear and listen. Above are Ivon and Marcus capturing the specific qualities of soundwaves moving about inside that sculpted metal head, and I do enjoy how recording a sound like this can isolate it from the soundscape and bring into clear focus many of the details that are missed in the normal experience of everyday hearing.

However in order to be able to hear specific sounds like this, amplified by electricity and separated from the surrounding wavelengths by the range of a microphone, one needs access to a range of expensive things that are beyond the reach of most ordinary people. At times as a participant on the walk without shiny kit or a large fluffy boom to wave about I felt slightly on the fringes and as though I was only hearing a small fraction of what was audible in that environment. In short, I felt a definite sense of lack, which – while I am sure it was not at all the intention of the organisers – related largely to the focus on equipment as the main means by which to hear the world.

HEAR HERE sign outside Specsavers in Whitstable

But for those of us lucky to have good natural hearing, the kit we have been born with is an incredible set of equipment, and in public events like this Soundwalk – or indeed the one that I am intending to lead on July 18th – perhaps there should be some focus on celebrating our natural hearing, as well as the enhanced and focussed kind of listening that microphones and amplification can induce.

I don’t want to denounce the intrigue or power of microphones; indeed the new binaural microphones that Mark got me for my birthday are a thing of joy, and I love that I can wear them whilst leaping over stiles and trekking up hills, and my quest to organise the perfect recordist’s kit is an ever unfolding quest, as I work to understand how I can share what I hear with the rest of the world. However, I do want to emphasise the point that microphones and digital recorders are only some of the tools available to us in our imaginative contemplation of the wide world’s manifold soundscapes.

With SOUNDBANK I find that focussing on physically depicting a sound from memory means I have to turn the sound over in my mind in a way that I do not when I am digitally recording that sound. My pictures of sounds in SOUNDBANK are often very rudimentary, resembling in many ways the maps that people make when they are trying to explain to someone else how to get to their house, or where a poorly signposted landmark can be found. They are working drawings which attempt to depict or explain, and they are the kind of drawings that anyone with some piece of knowledge to impart, can do. Sometimes when I can’t think of a way to draw a sound, I will write words… the process of which in part informed the entirely textual presence of the current Sonic Tuck Shop window in Reading.

Crunch, sound word printed in toast, part of The Sonic Tuck Shop installation currently on show in Reading as part of the Open for Art project

After mulling over these ideas, I have decided to extend my ongoing work with SOUNDBANK to the soundwalk I am planning for July 18th. The plan is to produce a series of envelopes and cards with which attendees on the walk can complete their own I HEAR guide to the circular walk around Warborough, Overy, Dorchester and Shillingford, documenting and recording the things that are heard just by making the decision to listen. The term I HEAR is something I have been working on for a while in relation to the old I SPY booklets. It always interested me that this vintage series of booklets encouraged our active exploration of the world through focussing entirely on what is seen, and I have been trying to address that sensory imbalance ever since I first considered it, by extending our contemplation of the world to what is heard. The soundwalk booklets will be the first of many (I hope!) I HEAR experiments, designed to celebrate the incredible power of our imaginations and our natural hearing.

Naturally, in the style of the old I SPY books, there will be certificates awarded for successful completion of the listening task, but I will attempt to avoid the strange, pseudo Native-American-Indian branding that the old I SPY books contained and there will be no BIG CHIEF ‘I HEAR’ in my revision of the I SPY idea. It is certainly tempting to create such a figure – perhaps with a boom pole totem and big earphone cans – but I don’t want the playfulness of the idea to collapse into all-out ridicule.

I won’t discourage anyone coming on the soundwalk from making recordings, but I think it would be good to provide some alternative means of sonic capture! So to my list of recording kit for the A4074 project, I am adding some screenprinted SOUNDBANK envelopes colour-coded to match the various landscapes included in my route map. This is how the map for the soundwalk is looking so far. Now all I have to do is screenprint 50 editions, with explanatory route notes and a pouch on the back containing SOUNDBANK envelopes and tags…

…at which point I start thinking that perhaps in fact microphones are an easier option! But seriously, joking aside, I think it pays sometimes to extend the idea of what ‘kit’ is. Certainly during my amazing nocturnal trek, I gained a greater appreciation for my ears and my brain, and I think it is as worthwhile to use an art project to focus on that as it is to explore the amazing possibilities of technology.

2 Responses to Soundwalk 3: The Kit

  1. Pingback: JOE Stevens news » Blog Archive » sound kit

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