Making Things Work

In my post about hobbies I mentioned that one of the things I like to do is record sound. For me sound is as rewarding a pursuit as photography because at heart they really are the same thing. A good photograph requires the photographer to find the right scene, find just the right vantage point, compose the photograph to best portray their interpretation of the scene, and to wait for conditions to be perfect. A good sound recording requires all of those, too.

For a recordist with TS, that last part is the real kicker. For conditions to be right I need to be absolutely silent, which is something I can almost never actually do. The photographic equivalent of a recordist with TS would be a photographer who compulsively wraps bright flashy Christmas lights all over their body. Just by virtue of standing near their camera they will affect the scene in a negative way.

The first several times I went out with recording gear I came back with an entire card full of contaminated tracks. Every single one had at least one vocal tic embedded in it. I cleared the card, charged my batteries, and tried to find ways to make it work. My first real success was a combination of semi-directional microphones, a loud source, and a good book I could read while things were rolling. I still ticced, and some of my tracks were still contaminated, but it was progress. I couldn’t help wondering if there was some other way, though.

One of my favorite approaches to photography is to use a large format camera. They’re big, they’re clumsy, they’re glacially slow to operate, and they use (gasp!) film to record the image. But the act of using a large format camera is, in itself, a bizarre form of meditation. There’s an almost ritualistic approach to scouting the scene, setting up the tripod, pulling out the camera and assembling its parts, composing the scene, focusing on the ground glass… Heck, someone should serve wine and cheese and play classical music in the background. (Wait a second… I said “ritualistic”. Could my love of large format photography be an OCD thing?! Curiouser and curiouser, said Alice.)

I found myself wishing there was such a thing as large format sound. Not so much the bulkiness of the process as the meditative approach it dictates. Meanwhile I continued to try to work around the limitations TS placed on me, and kept improving my technique in the field. I was getting better tracks, but the whole process was still an exercise in frustration.

Then I was invited to work on a project that changed everything.

Most field recording results in relatively short tracks. Ambience recordings may run for several tens of minutes, but for most field recording five minutes is considered a little long. Three and a half minutes is more typical. Depending on the sound a track may be as short as a few tens of seconds or less. All of this means a lot of interaction with the recording gear: starting and stopping, recording file numbers and slate information, repositioning microphones between takes, etc. All of it means the recordist has to stay relatively close by, tics or no tics. I’d found ways to make it work… sort of… but none of it was ideal.

The project required tracks that last for at least an hour. During that hour absolutely nothing about the setup could change: not the mics, not their position or orientation, not the gain on the preamps, nothing. As much as possible the gear needed to be set up, started, and left alone. As I thought through the ramifications of the requirements I realized what it actually meant for the recordist. It was AWESOME!

A couple of weeks ago I made my first recordings for the project. I found just the right scene, scouted out a good vantage point for the microphones, aimed them at what I thought were the most interesting sounds in the soundscape, started recording and…

Then I just walked away.

I walked to the far side of a ridge so none of my tics would be picked up by the mics. This time I didn’t bring a book. I lay down, closed my eyes, and ticced to my heart’s content with a big smile on my face. I let my gear run unattended until it was time to stop the recording and move to the next location.

The recordings weren’t perfect. The other sound person on the project pointed out a number of issues I’d need to fix before heading out again. But for once none of the flaws had anything to do with my tics. They were all technique. That’s something I can work on!

Last weekend I headed out to record the next set of sounds on my list. After everything was set up, levels were dialed in, slate information was recorded and everything was rolling, I grabbed my book and walked away. That’s when it hit me: As unconventional as it was in its execution I’d found a way to do large format sound – sound that didn’t just work around my TS; it made it a non-issue.

In a way that’s what I’ve done with all of my hobbies. Photography? I work from a tripod most of the time. Kite aerial photography? Tie off to a waist belt so my arm tics don’t swing the camera. Machining? Go CNC! (Actually most of my machining is hand crank, but with rare exceptions I wind up with vocal tics while in the shop.) Writing? That’s the great thing about writing: tics don’t matter. And now sound.

The trick doesn’t lie in finding what you can and can’t do. The trick lies in making things work.

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2 thoughts on “Making Things Work

  1. The ‘Drop & Recover’ field recording technique is the best method for recording the true natural ambience, as there is no influence from the presence of the recordist, whether you have a disability or not. From experience it takes about 1/4hr. after departure of the recordist before the natural world fully recovers. An alternative would be to use remote microphone placement with long microphone extension cables or a wireless microphone system. Enjoy your recordings!

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    • Hey, thanks for sharing this! I don’t mind blazing new ground from time to time, but just starting out in sound I’d rather learn from wiser, more experienced recordists and use tried and true techniques. This is also quite timely since I was about to try my hand at recording the dawn chorus for the first time. I’ll plan to set up a little earlier so the birds have that quarter hour to forget I was there.

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