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from working notes for making field recordings

“The most interesting aspect of field recording is its potential to put us into contact with the “real”: with the infinite multiple of sounds in any situation. We are at best only dimly aware of this fact. The recording medium is stupid: it simply picks up everything that falls into its frequency range, without discerning or sifting. Our ears, being connected to very smart brains, are extremely good at selective hearing (as any parent knows).

A field recording can give us access (through the displacement of a mechanical copy). Whenever I make one, I’m excited for the moment of playback, away from the site. The question is always the same: What didn’t I hear? And, by extension: If I cut something out, do I run the risk of not really hearing a crucial fact of the environment? Is there an ethics of this situation? It may depend on whether one arrives with a preconceived notion of what should be recorded, or whether a part of the process is to learn what sounds.”

– From the excellent article by Michael Pisaro


burglarized tidbits

Over two weeks ago now, our house was burglarized.  It really wasn’t a big deal – no one was here, no doors broken down or windows smashed, no ransacking, and nothing of real importance was taken.  My wife and I took our kids over to their grandparents house one morning, leaving our house unlocked as we often did, and taking our dog with us, as we often did not, and stopped by a coffee shop on the the way home.  When we got back an hour and a half later we noticed our computer was missing, then later that my wife’s phone was missing.  Over the next couple of days we noticed a couple of other things – my backpack and one of our guitars – that were taken.  It seems to have been a crime of convenience – we were gone with the door unlocked, and our laptop was clearly visible from the front window.

I admit that at first I was quite proud of myself: I didn’t really miss any of those things – the computer (our only one) was an inconvenience, the phone wasn’t mine, the back pack was inexpensive and not my only one.  But then I realized that inside my pack was my handheld audio recorder, which I had finally gotten around to having a lot of fun with, and saved (and not backed up) on our computer were audio files that were irreplaceable works-in-progress.  That hurt a little.  That small thing made it a little harder to “pray for those who hurt you” and served to point out how little true detachment from material possessions I really had.

Though nothing has come of the police report we filed (and I never expected anything to come of it) and we have retrieved none of our possessions, we have been able to replace a few or our things.  We bought another laptop, and I was able to get an identical recorder off of eBay.  I will be back in the recording business soon.  In the meantime, I will share a couple of my favorite tracks from other composers/performers/sound artists out there.

First, Cedar, performed by Cody Yantis on electric guitar with one of Wilhelm Matthies‘ unique “short pick bows”.


This next track by Legumina Alea is the kind of this that I wish I had the talent to compose:


A Los Angeles street preacher called the Charlie Brown Preacher.  I love his rhythm and the way he paces back and forth.


And finally, a sonic experience for “prepared” piano, if you will, that knocked my socks off. Composed by Matt Barnard. Listen to this with headphones.

night walk

We only live a couple of miles away from where I work; sometimes I drive, other times I bike, or occasionally carpool.  The other day my wife dropped me off, and then I walked home when I got off 12 and a half hours later.  I took the opportunity to record some of my favorite night-time sounds that are just everywhere in the south.  The hot days in Arkansas give way to warm, breezy, nights full of cicadas, crickets, frogs, fireflies, and the rustling of oak trees.  These sounds are always unique, and to me, always enjoyable.  This is the result of that recording session:


This is a contact mic recording I made of a flagpole outside the courthouse in Searcy, AR.  I love how this picked up the bird sounds.

exercise in hearing

I just read an excellent article on acoustic ecology, which focused on the work of composer and educator R. Murray Schafer.  It focuses on the growing lack of sonic culture, the loss of unique sounds due to continued industrialization of our surroundings, and the difference between hi-fi (sounds evident in a pre-industrial setting, where sound overlap less frequents) and lo-fi sound environments (where sounds are “masked” and there is a predominance of anonymous sound).  The article describes a neat little exercise that Schafer frequently used at the beginning of lectures and workshops:

Schafer’s starting point was to note the incredible dominance of the visual modality in society–”eye culture”  [ . . . ] –and to reveal that children’s ability to listen was, in his experience, deteriorating. [ . . . ] Schafer both demonstrated and addressed the issue–which he termed “sonological competence” –through the practical exercises he developed in working with music students, such as: list any five environmental sounds (not music) that you remember hearing today; and list five sounds (not music) you like and five you do not. [ . . . ] many students do not recall “consciously” having heard any sounds during the day, and many do not complete the sound list even after fifteen minutes.

I gave his exercise a try, and it really didn’t take me very long (except for the sounds I don’t like).  This is what I came up with:

Sounds I heard today:

  • turtle dove
  • wind in trees
  • trip-trap of dog nails on pavement
  • baby fussing and cooing
  • quiet crackle of oil-lamp burning

Favorite sounds:

  • espresso grinder and machine
  • birds singing in the early morning
  • creaking of trees in the wind
  • the bells at St. Spiridon’s church in Seattle
  • rain falling on just about anything

Least favorite sounds:

  • squeak of the glove compartment door while driving
  • people eating
  • highway traffic (city and country traffic can sometimes be interesting)
  • guns
  • the breaking of glass

What are yours?


We have a new addition to the family, glory be to God.  Moses John was born on the 16th at 11:53pm.  He was born at home, in the water, with the assistance of two midwives and the very hard work of my wife, who made it look deceptively easy.  The boy and his mother are doing well, and are both sleeping at the moment.

“go stick your mic on something and call it art”

I just bought some supplies from Radio Shack (and I’m glad such a place still exists, just two blocks from where we live) to build a contact microphone.  A contact microphone is made from piezo disk, which translates vibration (or the compression of the piezo element) into sound. These disks, which are just flat, round pieces of metal with a ceramic patch in the center, are typically used as buzzers or as the speakers in those annoying greeting cards that play a song when you open them.  Attach a mic cable and jack to them and you have a microphone.

The sound you get from one of these is pretty unique, since it must actually be in contact with an object to pick up sound.  It relies on the sound waves traveling through solid objects, rather than through the air, as with a normal microphone.  If you tape it to a guitar body and use it as a pickup, you get a slightly muffled yet intimate guitar sound, complete with every little accidental tap on the sound board or scrape of guitar against jeans.  It is very similar to the sound you would get if you put your ear directly to the guitar itself.  You can tape it to your neck to pick up your voice, a table, or whatever.  I’ll try and post some recordings soon.

I built one of these a few years ago when I was living in Seattle at a “Furious Contact Mic Workship.” It was an almost life changing event, and I had a lot of fun with that microphone until it broke (piezo discs are very delicate).  So I’m finally building a new pair (two, so I can do stereo recordings).  If you want to know how to make make one, here’s the instructions.