Learning in Scarborough State Beach – Newport, RI

Today I traveled about two hours (115 miles or so) to Scarborough State Beach in Newport, RI. As with many weekends these days, I’m finding that there is little tourism at this time of year. Aside from a few scattered walkers and families, I had the place to myself. That said, today proved to be quite the challenge. There is no better teacher than jumping in and going for it.

I’m realizing that capturing audio on location requires a great deal of patience. Today, a couple of dogs kept barking in the distance. They clearly didn’t like each other and no matter how far away I tried to get, my microphones kept picking them up. Ambiance doesn’t bother me in the least. In this case, the sounds were distracting and hard to contain. Combined with the rough winds, it made for a challenging session. I walked around different parts of the shoreline and the howls kept coming. Moreover, at one point the wind completely subsided and I was able to get some gorgeous sounds of the waves cracking. At that exact moment, both dogs decided to “converse” as their owners walked up and down the shore.

After recording for nearly an hour, I only got about two minutes worth of useable sound. I’m realizing there will be “hits” and “misses” depending on the conditions at each site. I’ve decided not to get too discouraged about it. My hope is that this blog captures my own creative intentions, challenges, and blocks as it does the images and sounds of the places I visit. As the third site in this journey, I did feel a strong connection with Rhode Island. Indeed, it features a lovely area and a beautiful coast.

Just as composers feel a little apprehensive posting sketches and works-in-progress, I also feel a bit skittish posting audio that isn’t stellar. But, I’m realizing that’s an important part of the “honesty” this project inspires. As I’m discovering what the purpose of recording location audio serves, I hope to learn a lot about my own creative approaches with production and composition. The blemishes sometimes turn out to be the most wonderful additions to a project. Time will tell. I got close to the water, which felt good to walk in. The tide was changing and the waves and undercurrent whipped up throughout the 90 minutes or so I was on the beach. I was pleased that my MS capsule captures the resonance of the salt water as it settles into the sand before each new set of waves crash. The XY microphone captured that as well.

Yesterday I referred to my roles in this project as “sonic observer” and “sound gatherer”. Driving home, I was a bit frustrated today. I wondered if I had failed to really capture the sounds I wanted to. It’s a lot of trouble to drive out there and I didn’t sense the conditions were going to improve that much. An observer is an interesting perspective to take on. That person must carry on their normal duties without being obtrusive to others.

I’m realizing that field recording involves patience, not only because of the conditions, but because of the unknown persons at each location. I cannot ask them to stop what they are doing so I can capture the perfect few seconds worth of audio. My job, just as it is for any researcher, is to ensure that my work is both fruitful, but also not distracting or harmful to any person or environment. Considering that, I have to say the first three jaunts have been fruitful. I’m starting to think of interesting musical ideas I’d like to incorporate as I start to edit the sounds together. What I’ve posted on Soundcloud has minimal “production” and is really just a sampling of each location. I look forward to more adventures in the next couple of weeks.

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Merrimack River in Lowell (MA) and Manchester (NH)

I started my journey near my apartment in Manchester. I recorded a very loud drain with my Tascam DR-05 that comes out of the Merrimack River. I live about a mile from the Manchester Airport and a plane flies over at the very end of this recording. A “test” run at 44.1/24 with my portable unit.

It’s wonderful when “happy accidents” occur. The airplane was unexpected and certainly adds a great deal of tension to the final moments of the recording. I have a feeling I’ll take the audio here and play with it later on. It has great potential for a sound design element.

I used my Zoom H6 for the rest of the time today. Like last weekend, the conditions today were quite windy, yet sunny at times. I decided to focus my energies along the Merrimack River as it connects the two cities. Field recording requires some patience. I’m more confident using my equipment. However, when the wind starts to blow, I find that I need to be patient in order to capture a few good minutes of sound. A few of the pictures are from a boat dock just inside the Lowell city limits. I took a few in Manchester and once I got closer to the UMass Lowell campus.

After I recorded the water close up, I decided to set up in a park near our campus. There, I recorded the Merrimack and surrounding park. By this point in the day, I was much more calm and felt as though I got into a groove. Reflecting on what I hope to do with this project, I’m content to be in a “sound gathering” stage right now. Beyond that, I’m focused on being a sonic observer of sorts. It’s nice to be quiet, meditative and zoned in on my surroundings.

I’m noticing it requires a bit of patience to go out into the elements with the goal of capturing clean signal. The wind blows, whether I like it or not! I use the term “sonic observer” and “sound gathering” to describe what I’m doing right now. I don’t know exactly what I’ll do with all of the audio I’ve captured thus far. I’m not sure if it will end up in an installation, or perhaps as the soundtrack element for some mixed media piece. Honestly, I’m not sure it matters. What I’m learning thus far is that it is quite alright to simply be present and mindful of the surroundings for each recording. It’s alright to keep the goals simple and enjoyable. I’m enjoying the beauty of the fall, and the joyful solitude of capturing sound without distractions or major expectations (yet). Tomorrow I’ll head to Rhode Island for some additional work.

Cape Cod National Seashore

Today I traveled to the Cape Cod National Seashore for the first of my field recording experiences. From where I live, it took me approximately three hours to drive there and after a little bit of searching, I found a lovely area to set up my towel and capture some audio.

The Cape Cod National Seashore has more than forty miles of beach area. Indeed, it’s much busier during the summer. Other than a few people walking, I had the area to myself. The weather was beautiful, albeit quite windy at times. I knew that would present some challenges when recording.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m using the Zoom H6 recorder to capture most of the sounds. I like it because I’m familiar with the product and appreciate that the new version comes with an MS (Mid-Side) configuration, an XY stereo pattern, and an additional hypercardioid shotgun microphone (purchased separately). I recorded everything at 44.1/24 and used the windscreen with all of the mounted capsules.

In total, I recorded about forty minutes of audio. I experimented with each of the capsules and walked around the shore to find an ideal spot for recording. Since the wind was brisk at times, I turned on the 20 dB pad on each of the recordings and made sure that the input gain was set to a modest level.

There are moments where the MS capsule sounds terrific in close proximity to the source. It’s a robust microphone and quite sensitive. I liked it and felt that it tended to keep the sound accurate and without too much added coloration. I recorded from about fifty yards away and about five feet from the water with this capsule. In both cases it performed beautifully. Both versions in the playlist are up close to the water–although one is taken from about 10 feet away. You should be able to hear the clarity in each and pick out the two versions.

The XY stereo capsule is very solid. It captures a nice picture of the landscape and has a slightly “warmer” or “duller” sound (depending on how you classify it).  For a composite sonic “picture” of the landscape, I might prefer this one as it’s balanced and easy to use. It doesn’t have quite the clarity of the MS capsule, but I found it quite pleasing nonetheless.  I also recorded from some distance back (50-60 yards I’d say) and up close. The recording in the playlist is back away from the water to provide some variety.

The shotgun microphone records a mono signal and seems to add just a bit of brightness or high end to the recorded signal. I didn’t find it distracting when recording. That microphone serves a particular purpose and I enjoyed walking with it close to the water. At some points I was just a couple of feet from the waves and it recorded them clearly. The sample in the playlist is up close.

I’ve been anxious to get out into the field for some time. After returning I imported some of the tracks (13 total) into my DAW and edited some short samples of a few of the more interesting recordings. They are uploaded to SoundCloud and embedded as a playlist below. The recordings are generally clean although you will hear some of the wind and peripheral landscape in the background.

To be frank, I’m not 100% sure how everything will evolve over the next year to 18 months. I have no doubt I’ll use many of these sounds in a creative way. At first, I wanted to get out there and work with the technology and get used to everything. I was both anxious and excited to get going and look forward to sharing more insights and perspectives in the next few weeks. This blog will document what I hope to be a new area of creative exploration. I have much to learn and a lot to improve on, both with the technical production and the scholarship applications (musical and traditional). I invite you to bookmark this page and “tune in” from time to time. I promise to be forthright and respectful in the presentation throughout.

As an aside, the audio has very little treatment other than fades and a bit of leveling to ensure consistency. No equalization or delay-based effects. It’s the real sound of the microphones and largely left alone. My hope is to start with that as a baseline approach for listening analysis. Thank you for visiting!

Technology

Slowly, things are moving along with technology purchases. I’ve pieced together a few items that I’ll take out with me in the field. I decided on the Zoom H6 as my digital recorder. It comes with a couple of different microphone capsules (XY, MS) and I also ordered the shotgun capsule too. In addition, I decided on the Rode NT4 stereo microphone.

I think each of these tools will serve me well in the early stages of the project. The goal is to record clean audio with portable, lightweight tools. Depending on each location, I may be able to scout ideal places to record. But, I’m not expecting that to always be the case. In some instances, I’ll drive out the day of (or the night before) and record. After some research, I decided to focus on tools that would give me the most “bang for the buck”.  I want to get out there and do it, rather than getting overly concerned about the most expensive equipment and elaborate microphone techniques. The thought of huge boom poles and massive amounts of gear (much like you’d see on a film set or sound effects gathering session) is a bit much for an exploratory study.

After researching many options, I wanted to pick some items that I could get comfortable with and not worry too much about. I’ve used other Zoom recorders and they are durable and very solid. I also feel that the additional capsules will serve a useful purpose. For preliminary data gathering, I think these items will work. As the project expands, I may purchase additional specialized microphones as the Zoom H6 has XLR inputs for separation. With a modest budget, I think this is a good starting point and as my confidence and experience grows, I can procure more sophisticated items and experiment with advanced microphone placement. Fortunately, digital tools are improving all the time. I may look for a camera and/or video camcorder too. Using my Macbook for audio transfer and editing will suffice.

Early research goals: 

  • Use portable tools to capture an aural “snapshot” of National Parks;
  • Transfer/archive audio and look for similarities and differences of each microphone capsule;
  • Investigate any practical research articles exploring sound art and field recording in the literature;
  • While on location, take some pictures and detailed notes of each location to include in research;
  • Continue reading and getting familiar with Sound Studies, Acoustic Ecology and related scholarly/creative disciplines;
  • Provide a written summary of each field recording exercise and look for ways to code/analyze sound data;

By using each capsule, I can record the environments from slightly different perspectives and microphone positions. In the beginning, my goal is to listen closely to how the small microphones pick up sound and interact with the environment. (I’ll bring a windscreen as well…) Ultimately, this is not a purely scientific exercise. I want to use some of the sounds in a creative way and document the sounds of each location.

The H6 package comes with a Gator case, a couple of small boom stands, and a pair of Sony MDR-7506 headphones. Hopefully these items come in the next couple of weeks and I’m looking forward to scheduling my first trip in September or October!

Good news…

I’m pleased to announce that the New England Soundscape Project received an Internal Seed Grant from the University of Massachusetts Lowell for the next couple of years. This funding provides a wonderful resource to carry out the project and I’m delighted to proceed in the next few months. As the plans and logistics come together, I’ll be sure to share the creative and research work in progress.

Ottawa Soundscape

 

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 Taken this evening outside my residence hall. 

This is a short ambient soundscape I recorded outside my window at the University of Ottawa. I recorded the traffic with my Tascam DR-05 at a modest level at 44.1/24. Then, I imported the track into a digital audio workstation and trimmed the beginning and the ending while adding short fades to each region. I also normalized the track very slightly to -6 dB to keep the level consistent throughout. This is the first of many future recordings to come. I plan to add the tracks themselves and hopefully create a database where the files can be accessed for others to use.