Chris Watson workshop at Kew Gardens

On Monday I went to a most instructive workshop led by Chris Watson.

The workshop was organised by Sound and Music and was held at Kew Gardens where an extraordinary work by Watson entitled ‘Whispering in the Leaves‘ can currently be heard in the Palm House. The work was made through making recordings in various rainforests and then collating these into a layered composition to be played back through 90 waterproof loudspeakers concealed throughout the Palm House. As with the experience of listening in a real rainforest, sounds rustle out from within the lacy mesh of entwined leaves, and the supporting pillars of the Palm House behave acoustically like the trunks of trees, so that sounds resonate within the corridor-like space rather as they may in a real rainforest. The speakers also disperse the sounds at different levels so that when you walk up the stairs you begin to hear the kinds of sounds that could be heard at higher levels within leafy canopies, and the humid, soupy air is – according to Watson – an excellent substitute for the atmospheric conditions within actual rainforests, so that sound travels through this medium as they do in their original locations.

There are in fact two compositions by Watson which play in the Palm House like this; one is based around the dawn chorus, and one is based around the sunset. In each of these compositions, several hours’ worth of sonic activity have been condensed into compositions of around 15 minutes. And rather like the collection of plants housed in the Palm House, this representation has been collected from many different rainforest locations, rather than from one rainforest in particular.

Here is Chris, pointing out the arrangement of the speakers and answering all our questions about the work. I was interested to learn about how he had rationalised or organised the compositions, and the role that listening itself had played in informing his decisions. Sounds occur sequentially, though in a compressed time-frame. Apparently there are many hours at both dawn and dusk where all one hears is the sustained waiting pulse of the trees, and so some moments in Watson’s arrangements remain briefly static, before loud sonic interest re-enters the soundscape.

It is a beautiful piece of work; a true homage to a place through listening, thinking, recording and making, and I was especially excited to be able to learn about how something like this is made.

Watson explained very well how our ears differ from microphones, and how – as a sound recordist – one must compensate for this and learn how to recreate natural listening through various recording approaches. He talked about our ears’ inherent ability to pick out distinctive sounds from the soundscape, and reflected on the comparitively unselective powers of microphones. To illustrate this, it’s interesting to think about how – even in the most incredibly noisy nightclub environment you can imagine – it is still possible to home in on the specific voice of a dancing/drinking companion with one’s own ears, yet there are very few microphones with the capabilities to do the same job of focussing. Watson described in very helpful and accessible terms, how we are always aware of the sounds around us, and possess an uncanny ability to listen selectively and pluck from the soundscape the distinctive elements in which we are particularly interested. As a sound-recordist who wants to recreate an approximation of this natural listening experience, it seems necessary then to record in layers which roughly represent 1. background ambience, (ATMOSPHERE) 2. specific, identifiable locations (HABITAT) and 3. highly specific, distinctive sounds of sonic interest (FEATURED SOUNDS.)

Here is my very rough representation of that idea.

In order to specifically create such an effect, Watson uses a wonderful array of KIT and it was THE MOST ENLIGHTENING THING EVER IN THE UNIVERSE to have someone EXPLAIN the differences between OMNI-DIRECTIONAL, MONO, STEREO and SHOTGUN microphones, in the context of being a sound-recordist and being interested in capturing the specific essence of PLACES, in sound. Did I mention how helpful it was to have someone explain this? I will therefore do my best to now explain those things here, in the simple and helpful terms which I remember from Watson’s workshop, so that if you desire to use this information, you will not be utterly dazzled and confused (as I have been for several years) by the array of equipment available on the market.

1. Omni-Directional microphones. These are – as the name suggests – microphones which pick up sounds from all around, and which are amazing for gathering broad sonic atmospheres. Desirable examples include this fine pair of SHOEPS, but the budget recordist such as myself can apparently buy an amazing pair from for the princely sum of $84.99. Watson uses an expensive pair of omni-directional microphones strapped onto a coathanger for collecting ambient, atmospheric sonic textures. They have many advantages, including that they do not suffer from wind sound as much as directional mics do, since there is no solid back to the microphone, for the wind to hit.

I was especially taken with the coathanger set-up which allows for moving the microphones through space, collecting a lovely stereo impression, and bending your tiny microphones into corners or places where a larger implement would not fit.

2. Watson uses mono microphones to collect single or individual sounds. He figures that any stereo microphone will collect ambient sonic texture, so for specific individual voices (such as birds or creatures) he likes to get a single beam of sound with a mono microphone.

3. Stereo microphones are a single unit which contains essentially a L and R pick-up point so that sounds are collected from a rounder, wider radius than is covered by a mono mic. There are 2 channels in a stereo recording; one in a mono recording. You probably knew that, but from a recordist’s point of view I had not appreciated the advantages/disadvantages of recording with either and had always assumed stereo was better than mono! A stereo mic can have a wide pick-up pattern or a narrow pick-up pattern.

4. A shotgun microphone (like my delicious Audio Technica BP4029) is a microphone (either stereo or mono) which can be pointed (like a shotgun) at the source of a sound. Advantages include the ability to ‘focus’ in on a specific subject (such as a single bird in the midst of the dawn chorus) and disadvantages include WIND and handling noise (there has been much griping about these in recent weeks.) The directionality of the microphone means that wind hits the back of the mic, causing much noise. This is why costly wind-baffling such as blimps, zeppelins and dead-cats is required with such devices; to attenuate the wind and prevent it from hitting the back of the microphone and making a sound which the clever natural hearing of our ears, would never hear during the normal experience of listening since our ears are far better equipped to attenuate wind than the solid metal back of a shotgun microphone.

The only thing that is more directional than a shotgun microphone is a Parabolic Reflector, such as this one made by Amberwood. A parabolic reflector dish catches sounds in a very specific way, reflecting them back into the microphone that is held inside the dish and therefore naturally amplifying individual voices in the soundscape like birds or bees. Watson uses a costly model by Telinga, but the Amberwood Reflector is now at the top of my list of ITEMS I HIGHLY DESIRE, since it would be very helpful for recording birdsong around the A4074!

I learnt so much about how to use one’s natural hearing to inform one’s recording process and about how the ears can cleverly determine when a sound has been unnaturally amplified. This has been immensely informative in terms of how I am thinking about weaving together my radio show, how I am thinking about mixing the recording that I made in Warborough during World Listening Day, and how I am thinking about The Domestic Soundscape.

I really enjoyed the workshop and Watson’s no-nonsense breakdown of KIT. I also enjoyed playing with the parabolic reflector (although most of what I caught in it was roaring jet engines from the flight-path over Kew Gardens) and roaming about with other sound-recordists, exploring the difference between different approachs to recording. I was also happy to meet Alun Ward – whose blog I have mentioned here before, and who combines marathon-training and sound-recording in amazing ways. I guess the marathon training means Alun is regularly out and about at 4am, when the dawn chorus and deer action is at its highest point!

The workshop showed me much about how to interpret KIT, but it also showed me that there is no substitute for listening if you want to work with sound… and that very useful things can be achieved using lofi solutions like coathangers. It was also very useful to learn more about the relationship between recorded sound and natural hearing, and to meet with so many other people interested in sound.

I thoroughly recommend going; the workshop was a total steal, being basically FREE, with entrance to Kew Gardens being the only actual expense.

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