Four Years of Sound Diaries

Long-term readers of this blog will know that I have been working on Sound Diaries with Paul Whitty since 2008. Over the years we have collected many field-recordings together in a shared exploration of what it means to “record everyday life in sound”. We launched the site in 2008 with a Sonic Advent Calendar, advertised online by means of ‘Glitterphones’ – an image I created to communicate both ‘Advent’ and ‘Listening’.


We went on from there to do loads of different projects – usually each lasting for a month – exploring various frameworks or themes for the creation of field recordings. My favourite projects from the site are probably Paul Whitty’s “Unspectacular February” recordings which were nearly all recorded in his kitchen, and “SOUND BANK” – a handmade paper archive of sound recordings in text, drawings or notation, which I began (and still haven’t completed) in 2009.


We moved the site in 2011 after our hosting company went bust, and I am still backdating the archive (which is why Unspectacular February is sadly not currently available to hear) but what is wonderful about a project that runs for several years like this is being able to look back at what you have done, and to review it and see how it is growing in new directions. In four years the Sound Diaries brief has expanded to include ambitious, thematic field-recording projects; teaching and workshop activities; and collaborative projects and relationships with other practitioners who are also exploring field recording in their practice.

For me the most elaborate recording projects I’ve worked on for Sound Diaries include the Walk 2012 Sound Diary, documenting some of the sounds along the 187 mile long walk that I did with Mark during the London 2012 Olympic Games – and the HÛRD Sound Diary, which compares field recordings from the world of sheep farming and handicrafts in Cumbria, UK, in the winter, with sounds of sheep farming and handicrafts heard in Estonia, in the summer. Locational and seasonal differences, different types of landscape, different weather, the physical challenges involved in walking everywhere (Walk 2012) and getting around the countryside in a foreign country (HÛRD) all added to the complexity of these projects, but they were a joy to do and I am really happy to have documented the textures and specificities of those experiences of walking 187 miles through the British Countryside; tramping around Cumbria in the middle of Winter to record sheep; and exploring The Wool Industry in Estonia.

The outreach side of Sound Diaries is also really exciting; I have enjoyed working with primary school children and developing strategies for imparting some of the wonder I experience while hearing the world through microphones, and finding ways to highlight and explore the sounds which surround us in daily life.


This is a Sonic Breakfast drawing from the Sonic Kitchen workshop devised and piloted at Fir Tree Primary School in Wallingford. (I love the made up words for breakfast cereal sounds.)

As time has passed and we have organised symposia and conferences under the Sound Diaries banner, we have also found other composers and sound artists working with field recordings. Most recently, working with Stavroula Kounadea to make field recordings for James Saunders’s Make Sound Here project has been a fantastic new way of discovering and exploring Oxford, while learning how to map sounds on aporee – a global sound map created by Udo Noll (who is some sort of genius) – has allowed me to begin mapping many of our sounds and to share them with other field-recordists all over the world. I think there is a lot to be gained by sharing our field recordings in these ways… by joining in with each other’s projects and sharing our resources… and this kind of sharing and participation in an online world of field recording is exactly the sort of thing I think we hoped to contribute to when we set up Sound Diaries. It’s really great to find we are making more partnerships and that our recordings are being used by other people, and that in turn, we can use and showcase the work that other people are doing in this field.

One other exciting aspect of making Sound Diaries for over four years now is that I am a much more skilled recordist now than when we initially set up Sound Diaries; I can tell you all about wind-baffling, (which I knew nothing about in 2008) different microphone pick-up-patterns, pre-amps and bitrates etc.

However although I appreciate the development of my craft as a phonographer, (and of course only want to get better at this side of what I do) none of the technical knowledge about kit alters that simple sense of delight which attended all my early recording experiences and which I still feel even now when I switch on the record button and hear the world in high definition;

And when I think of Sound Diaries I am still thrilled by the memory of the first diary we made together – the Sonic Advent Calendar of 2008 – and all those early Sound Diaries recordings of crows in Sussex, tinsel in the poundshop in Reading, bells in Ditchling and all the other stuff we recorded for the site back then. It was so new and exciting to begin developing the habits of being an everyday sound recordist that all of the recordings for me hold both the memory of what was sonically happening in those seconds, and also a whole sense of developing practices and habits upon which to base an art practice.

Over time those habits have become ingrained, and many recordings I’ve made haven’t featured on Sound Diaries or anywhere else; they sit on my hard-drive, waiting to be listened to again, waiting to revive a memory of being somewhere, such as being beside Loch Lomond halfway through a long day of walking along the West Highland Way, and listening to the gentle lapping of the water against the stones.


Photo © Mark Stanley

Or hunkering over a steamy rift in the volcanic mud at Solfatara, listening to the hiss, and being bathed in the sulfurous fumes near Naples.


Photo © Mark Stanley

Being a field recordist and being in the habit of regularly recording things changes how you remember events; The act of recording itself becomes part of the memory of being in places, so much so that I now remember environments I was in not only through their light and their sounds, but also through recollections of standing still and concentrating quietly in them; of resting against stones or walls so as to be motionless and therefore leave my sound-recordings empty of the sounds of me shifting about.

The EDIROL R-09 is part of my physical memories of recording at this point, too. I only have to think “field recording” to think of the heft of it in my hand; of its smooth plastic shape and the precise weight of it in my pocket. The EDIROL is so little that it doesn’t intrude on situations in the way that my bigger kit does; and one can easily form everyday field-recording habits with such an unobtrusive device. Microphone aficionados will scoff at my appreciation for something with such modest microphone capsules – it’s no DPA or Schoeps when it comes to sound quality – yet the fact that it can be a constant and practical sonic companion makes it in many ways much more useful than the Sound Devices 702 (which I nonetheless covet) and the pair of Shure WL183 Lavalier Microphones (which I also very much want to own). It’s all about compromise, and about what you want the kit for; what I love best about the EDIROL R-09, is that I can live my life and record it at the same time.

Bigger kit sounds better, but it’s harder to get your packed lunch and your knitting and the book you’re reading into the same bag as a Fostex, a wind blimp, an Audio Technica microphone and a boom pole; plus every person who sees you covered in kit wants to chat with you about what you’re doing.


Photo © Tonia Clarke

With the EDIROL you can just get on with it, because the chances are that nobody will even notice what you are up to. For many purposes, you can get perfectly usable sound on the EDIROL. I really love this post by Tim Prebble which very practically discusses field-recording kit, and in which he points out very pragmatically that “any sound is better than no sound, even if it’s only useful as a reference”. For so many things that I am doing, a reference is all that is necessary. If I need more than a reference, it is often possible to return with big kit on a day when I don’t plan to do any knitting, reading or eating.

What you miss with the massive kit is the nice happenstance recordings that a handheld device makes possible. Waiting for the bus and listening to the sounds. Recording the supermarket bleeps at the checkout. Recording the toaster and the kettle and the bird that you hear on the way home from town. Recording the zipper on the tent when you wake up in a field. Recording the sound of filling your car with petrol. Recording the creation of a salad or a casserole or a cake.


In terms of process and continuity. I can – and do – bring the EDIROL with me everywhere, and I think its design, size and usability have contributed vastly to the development of my field-recording practice in general. When I think of Sound Diaries, I think of those wintry months in 2008 of getting to grips with this new device, and of developing little habits like always having it in my pocket, finding non-windy places to stand and record in, learning to hold it in such a
way that it doesn’t creak, and listening to the world, all amplified through its distinctive, clear microphones.

Over time it is these early recordings which become increasingly useful and informative; which draw my mind back to what lies at the heart of Sound Diaries; and which I find myself wanting to return to more and more: the simplicity of just documenting the everyday in sound.

People write to me all the time to ask what microphones I use or what kit I would recommend. I really think the EDIROL is just the thing I happened to have access to at a time when I really wanted to begin doing a lot more field recording than I had been doing beforehand; (I used a mini disc recorder for years before the EDIROL) and I have a perculiar fondness for it simply because we have at this point shared so many adventures together. But I reckon any small, portable device for which you can buy a decent wind-shield is a great starting point. However even the fanciest kit in the world can’t compensate for what it means to build dedicated listening and recording activities into your life, and your recordings will always be limited by the time and attention that you lend to the act of field-recording; without the desire to listen or a rationale for what you’re doing, even the Sound Devices 702 and desirable Shures won’t necessarily give you amazing results.

What Sound Diaries has provided and continues to provide is a framework for sharing and publishing sounds; a place to collect and inventory all those moments that we capture in sound; and an online sketchpad for documenting listening and recording activities. Each Sound Diaries project has a different rationale or methodology behind it, and as the site grows and we get older and refine what we are doing, so the project will mature and develop.

To celebrate all this and to reflect a little on some of the ideas we are collecting as Sound Diaries develops, we made a Newspaper to coincide with Audiograft 2013. It is a very incomplete overview of the project so far, but hints at some of the directions we’ve taken the project in, featuring interviews with other artists; some of the drawings from children who’ve attended our workshops; field-recordings by other people that we love; and – from me, perhaps unsurprisingly – an essay exploring my ongoing love affair with the Edirol R-09.

Do download a copy if you feel so inclined, and if you know anything about kit, please leave comments on how I can continue to have a very tiny kit but improve the spec on what I’m able to record!

Thank you.

Sound Diaries Newspaper #1 by Felicity Ford

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