Harvard Square Soundscapes

Some recent field recordings in Harvard Square near downtown Boston.


Madison, CT

Yesterday my travels took me to Madison, Connecticut. This beach is about 150 miles from where I live in New Hampshire. I watched the weather report carefully because the forecast called for rain throughout the day. On my way out to the recording site, it drizzled periodically. Once I got to Connecticut, I met a beautiful place with highly cooperative weather. I do not know much about Madison’s history, but it is a lovely venue, and the backdrop of the clouds hovering over the Long Island Sound is quite breathtaking. I took several pictures, which you can see, in the gallery.

Yesterday’s trip was very smooth overall. I recorded a mid-side configuration and an XY pattern. I experimented a bit with placing my recording unit in a couple of different positions. The waves were simply amazing. Such a lively and intense sound at times! In addition, for the most part, the wind was cooperative. One thing I noticed from the recordings yesterday is that the wind provided an impressive low-frequency accompaniment to the cracking waves. If you listen carefully, you can hear this in the recordings that I have posted along with this journal entry.

Now I do not have a favorite microphone capsule although I will say that the mid-side is highly sensitive and picks up many different conversations in the peripheral landscape. The XY pair focuses a little more on the sound source. They are both fine, but it depends on the type of recording I am going for and what is actually happening in the landscape that day. That is one of the exciting parts of going to a new site. You simply do not know what you will encounter when you get there.

I am very pleased with the reliability of the equipment that I am using. If you noticed from these recent journal entries, I am trying hard not to endorse a particular product one way or the other. I do have a lot of information about the technical specifications of the unit that I am using, although you can find that in other posts on this website. There are so many types of tools available for sound engineers to use out in the field. From my perspective, it is simply a matter of choosing the tools that you find the most beneficial for your creative work and then learning how to use those tools as confidently as possible.

One thing I have noticed is that using smaller recorders allows for easy transport in and out of various locations. As I was driving back, yesterday I was thinking about how I traveled up to the top of the Temple Mountain on Saturday. Thus, I brought with me a tiny recorder that fits in my pocket. It is exciting that we have so many opportunities to experiment with different types of tools on location.

I am very pleased with the first phase of summer recording. It is easy to get a bit anxious and even lapse into complacency at some of the accomplishments thus far. I do not mean to suggest that this project has received many accolades yet. I am referring to accomplishing personal goals with the first few phases of a major creative work. Getting back to it after several months away can be a little bit daunting at first. Nevertheless, it is nice to get back on track. So far, I have made it to four of the six New England states in my next focus is in Vermont and in Maine.

I will do some research on where to go and may ask some colleagues for suggestions on places that have simple accessibility. This is one thing I have noticed that I need to be aware of when I record out in the field. Some people are rugged in the outdoors. Being an inexperienced novice in this area, I have tried to balance finding interesting sites and locations that I can get to quickly. Although I must say hiking in the mountains was a challenge, it was a suitable first step towards getting outside of my comfort zone. I am excited to see where the next steps take me and look forward to getting out in the next month or so.

Temple Mountain and Cunningham Pond

Today I returned to the field for the first time in several months. My soundscape mission took me to south-central New Hampshire. I drove out on Route 101 about 45 minutes from where I live. I am still using most of the same equipment that I employed the last time. I feel a lot more comfortable about using the tools that are available to me to go out and record audio in the field. Today was a relatively warm and overcast day, a little balmy but thankfully, it did not rain. Most of my work up until now has been in flatter areas and today I hiked up about 2000 feet to Temple Mountain, which is nearby.

A lot has happened since I last went out to the field back in December 2015. Since then, I have started assembling, editing, and piecing together many audio files to create longer composite works. I have also been writing a lot about the project and exploring some options to collaborate with some of my musician and producer friends around the country. This spring I decided to take a little break from going out to the field, and I spent a lot of time actually reflecting on what lessons I’ve learned so far in trying to understand more about the craft of sound art, acoustic ecology, and sound studies in general. I have spent a lot of time reading, listening to different pieces, and just getting a sense for the rich history of this field and some of the research and creative implications of this type of work. In addition to that, I have spent some time just exploring different areas of research as it relates to audio and music technology.

Many different composers talk about deep listening and the merits of being acquainted with the environment where you record sound. This is an important concept and one that I am starting to respect more. One of the reasons why I decided to do this project was so that I would have an excuse to get outside of my comfort zone, go out into the region to New England, and learn more about the beautiful area. New England is rich with history and beauty. There are mountains, beaches, trails of all types, and of course, there are major metropolitan areas. Besides, I have learned a lot about how to set some reasonable goals and not try to bite off too much.

So far, I have decided just to enjoy the journey, and I have learned a lot about deep listening and how to hone in on a more introspective and reflective type of philosophy. I wrote about this in the last couple of months. You can find that update elsewhere on this website. One of the most important things that I’ve learned is that if we’re able to get out of the way of our own agenda when we go out to the field, the results can be very special. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that getting out into the field shouldn’t have much of an agenda other than a core set of goals for the day and perhaps setting a reasonable approximation of the area you wish to cover in the types of sound you are looking for.

Today, I went out with a fresh perspective and a positive sense of expectancy. I spent about four hours out in the field. I hiked up about 2000 feet to the top of Temple Mountain. That was the second place I stopped. The first location is a lovely body of water called Cunningham Pond. This is a little off the beaten path, and as you can see from the slideshow below, I pretty much had the place to myself. In fact, there were very few people around and after just a few minutes, I was the only one there. I used my H6 with the two microphone capsules that I typically take with me to capture audio. The mid-side capsule is robust and quite sensitive. The X-Y is faithful and very reliable.

A few of the recordings you here have some bird chirping sounds and a lovely peripheral wind in the background. Interestingly, you can also hear airplanes going by because the Manchester Regional Airport is not too far away and the other thing that I found about some of those sounds was that Highway 101 is a beautiful road for motorcycles to travel on. Therefore, you most certainly will hear vehicles going in the background along with some of the interesting airplane noises. Take a listen to the birds chirping. I encourage you to listen to those and explore the differences between the various sounds. I took several pictures with my iPhone, and I have uploaded those in the slideshow here on the website. In general, the wind was cooperative, and I was able to get some decent audio.

As always, I have employed very little processing to these recordings. I’ve found some decent excerpts, trimmed the beginning and the end, added some gentle fades, and used a little bit of compression to level out the overall volume of the tracks. I am also finding that when I use these audio files in new pieces, I explore different ways to process the sounds. Sometimes I feel like experimenting, so I use many different sound effects in my digital audio workstation. I also conduct tests with pitch shifting and changing the speed of each file. Other techniques I have explored include reversing the data, using delays and filters, and trying out various types of equalization settings to shape the sounds in different ways. However, most importantly I always go back to these original recordings because my goal is to make them available for people to listen to and to hear how they have evolved over time.

I have written extensively about what getting out to the field means to me. I would not describe myself as a scientist or even a traditional acoustic ecologist. I am not an acoustician either. What I am, as far as I can tell, is a musician and audio engineer and an educator with a sincere interest in learning more about the world. This is something that I have tried to take with me over the course of the past several months. Likewise, having this philosophy of curiosity is really helping me to open up and to renew my own interest in composing music and sound.

Temple Mountain is certainly not the highest peak in all of New England, but it is quite challenging and involved navigating some tricky terrain in the woods. You will see some pictures that I took on my journey up to the top. I am beginning to think that this type of trip would be much more fun in the fall with the foliage changing and would allow greater visibility to look over the landscape. I did find that I was able to get a few good pictures, and I made a short recording with my smaller portable unit atop the summit. Going up the mountain, I decided not to bring the more expensive recording equipment with me, rather settling for a smaller and more transportable item that I was able to use with some confidence up at the peak.

Today’s excursion was not only a new experience for me with the New England Soundscape Project; it was also an attractive opportunity to get some physical exertion incorporated into my scholarship. I have some more excursions planned throughout the summer and look forward to seeing where this project takes me over the course of months. Tomorrow, if the weather holds up, I intend to head to Madison Connecticut. It is good to be back and stay tuned for more updates shortly.

Otter Brook Sunrise

I’ve started working with some of the sounds I gathered last month. I consider this to be a test run to see how everything comes together. This comes from Otter Brook Dam in Keene, NH. After importing the edited files into Logic, I started playing with different edit points. I came to a reasonable compromise on the cross-fades and decided to add some underscore to the audio files. In total there are about 22 tracks in the session.

I chose a couple of simple shakers and an electronic drum loop. I applied a couple of interesting filters on the drums and used some timed delays elsewhere. I’m a big fan of simple delays. Granted, this a “pilot track” if you will, but it sets the stage for how I’d like to explore some of the other recordings.

All tracks are bussed to a basic 1/4 note delay and there is a modest amount of compression used to keep everything in the same dynamic range. The audio tracks have very little equalization other than a bit of low end cut. The strings and brass come from Logic’s orchestral library. All tracks are equalized and bussed to the same sound stage reverb in Space Designer. After getting a mix I could live with, I imported the stereo file into iMovie and started synchronizing the photos. I think this part will eventually get more detailed, but, for the first time it was fun to see how everything would lock in. I’m not sure if the entire project will follow this path, but I had fun starting the creative process regardless.

I’ve been submitting some abstracts to conferences around the northeast. Here’s hoping for some good results in the new year!

Editing and Revising

I took a short hiatus from field recording to focus on analysis and writing. I find one of the interesting aspects of academic work are that a researcher must often prepare abstracts and manuscripts as the project unfolds. My hope is to share some preliminary observations in the spring at various conferences along with a possible journal article. I plan to edit and start composing in the new year. Overall, I’m pleased with the progress made and am learning a great deal.

Alongside the creative research, I started a 30 day writing prompt. Fortunately, many of the entries thus far have focused on this project–giving me a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the journey. My attention has turned to critical listening, stillness, and building awareness as an emerging sound composer. I hope to write more about these concepts in a conference paper and/or journal manuscript. The difference is that the 30 day writing project is semi-formal and relaxed. I’m adopting a freer approach with my writing. The goal is to get away from a rigid, literature-review style. This is not to suggest that I am ignoring what other contemporary scholars say about sound composition. I feel that I can research those sources and citations in due course. In some respects, I’ve felt that my writing has been far too rooted in that process over the past year. It’s nice to get away from it and write in a slightly narrative-based, ethnographic style.

In the end, a crisp manuscript should have a balance of the following:

  • Well-researched ideas to support the project’s guiding questions;
  • Clear, articulate writing that flows logically from paragraph to paragraph;
  • A strong procedural manner that outlines how the research is conducted;
  • Some personalized narrative that expresses the composer/artist’s intent and reflections;

I feel that I have much to learn and much to offer in these areas. The 30 days writing project affords me the opportunity to experiment with some writing approaches and see what “sticks”. One goal is to improve by removing some long, clunky sentences in favor of a clearer style. It is a process and one I’m enjoying right now. More sound and pictures coming soon!

Keene, NH

Today I traveled on Route 101 to a couple of beautiful locations near Keene, New Hampshire. It was a mild fall afternoon and the wind cooperated nicely for the most part. Rather than taking my full recording rig, I decided to keep it simple and capture audio with my Tascam DR-05. It has a built-in XY microphone pair and I was pleasantly surprised with the overall quality of the recordings.

I’ve been reflecting a lot about leaving the confines of the classroom and/or studio to interact with nature. This entire process has caused me to think about being patient when recording and in the bigger picture of what this project will ultimately represent. Writing, composing, reflecting and designing all take time. It’s quite important to let ideas flow naturally without being forced. The logical part of me can respect and appreciate that. Yet, it seems people are always in such a hurry to produce.

I’ve been reading about productivity and how adopting good habits can improve my work in all areas. I think this is an important concept when considering the types of projects to get involved with and how much time they will take to complete. I’m fortunate to maintain a disciplined approach to most things in my life. I plan and rarely get caught off guard. It does happen from time to time though!

I share these thoughts because recording on location seems to be the opposite of a hurried pace. In a sense, it would be quite easy to say that pressing record and patiently waiting for the right sound is all about slow, steady awareness. That “zoning in” takes on a special feeling for me and I find myself in brief meditative states when I’m out in the field. There’s a certain calm that takes over when a pocket of audio is captured without difficulty.

In those brief serene moments, I pause and trust that this exploratory sound gathering process will yield artistic and scholarly “results”. And yet, as my conscious mind lets go I find myself hovering over each location a bit and taking in that special moment in time. I trust that there is a spiritual connection happening and that being in that location at that time is exactly the way the Universe designed it. And, if this project becomes about healing my own creative and compositional approaches…enough that I can be familiarized with New England and document its wonder…then I believe the whole process will have been worth it.

Each location features a park and picnic area that overlooks a stunning landscape. As you can hopefully see in the pictures, the weather was just delightful today. To be frank, I don’t think the pictures fully capture the beauty of the afternoon. As the project commences, I may invest in a proper camera. Thus far my iPhone has been a great companion! As for the technical specifics, I captured each recording at the top of the dam area at 44.1/24 with my DR-05. Since I wasn’t 100% where I’d end up today, I decided to keep the equipment very simple. It fulfilled the purpose nicely.

It seems people are starting to notice this blog. I’ve had some very nice questions from students, colleagues and friends alike via email and in person. The one overarching question I get is “what are you doing and what are you going to do with all of this sound?”.  I think that the simplest way to answer that is by saying I’m in the first phase of a sound gathering process that allows me to visit beautiful areas in New England and capture them on “tape” and with my camera. The second phase will involve some mixed media production in which I edit the recordings for clarity and blend, and then compose some music as an accompaniment part.

I’d also like to take many of these images and create some customized slide shows that I can export as QuickTime movies along with their respective sounds as the accompaniment. Depending on how things go, I may work on an installation or extended piece. My goal isn’t just to focus on nature. I plan to explore some cities throughout the process and try to incorporate a nice balance of urban and rural sounds. In addition to blogging, I hope to refine some of these entries and turn them into a formal essay and/or scholarly piece that is sufficient for peer review. I’m open to how that might come about and plan to explore it after taking a little break later this fall. That said, I greatly appreciate your interest in the project and thank you for visiting.

If you haven’t, please “like” the New England Soundscape Project page on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/newenglandsoundscapeproject/. Next week I plan to visit Vermont. Stay tuned for some new sounds in the coming days!