A multi-disciplinary journey in music, sound, and field recording.

Hydrophonic Cocktail

Posted: February 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, found sound objects, gear, sound design

Hydrophone + Ice + Tonic. Sound and cocktail design in one easy step.

The latest addition to my microphone quiver is the Aquarian H2a-XLR hydrophone. For less than US$200, you get a really well-built unit with a high specific gravity (less sway in moving water) and a thin, flexible cable with an extremely supple “hand.”

I also got the rubber cup that enables it to be used as a contact microphone, and I must say that it also excels in this capacity: Super-low noise and very articulate, even recording human heartbeats with clarity (Hint: Aim for the sternum, the pecs have too much muscle and fat in the way). The H2a’s weight, however, prevents it from being easily taped upside-down or held in odd positions like my other contact mics I’ve used in previous posts.

I can’t hope to improve upon Darren Blondin’s excellent review of the Aquarian H2a, so in the short term, I’ll instead offer some quick and dirty recording results with it, with perhaps some more detailed results and analyses in the future. (Oh yes, some very strange recordings to come…)

When the H2a came in, I placed this device in all the usual places you’d expect for some quick tests: the sink, the bathtub, the cats’ water fountain. But having just discovered some very tasty tonic water for making cocktails, it struck me that I’d not recorded carbonation before. After hearing the clear, but not overly-bright, tones of the carbonation, I decided to mix up the room-temperature tonic water with some ice cubes.

The ice’s cracking, melting, and expansion was largely in the same frequency neighborhood as the carbonation bubbles and added an interesting dimension to the sound. Some initial sound processing makes me think that melting ice in still water might make for a cool creature sound pitched down -3 octaves or so, but for today, let’s listen to the original recording, unadorned and unprocessed.

[Aquarian H2a-XLR hydrophone into Sound Devices 702 recorder]

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Eerie Wind in the Wires

Posted: December 19th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, sound design
Antennae at Big Rock Ridge

This remote antenna array provided surprising sonic opportunities...as well as a hell of a workout getting to it...and an embarassment of forgetting some important pieces of gear...

There’s a small antenna array on a ridge near where I live (just above Skywalker Sound, oddly enough) that, like the ruined truck from a previous post, calls to me whenever I run or bike by it. It’s a 2.5, all-uphill, 1000′ climb to get there, but one foggy morning I decided to pack up some gear and run up there to see what sounds it might have to offer. Might the guy wires securing the short tower be taught and fun to strike? Might they sing in the wind? Maybe just a weird hum?

The infamous San Francisco Bay fog was thick that day, and I could barely find the faint side trail to the damn thing. Getting there, I realized that forgot my full-length audio cable (I was under-caffeinated and in a hurry to hit the trail). I’m there with a small-diaphragm cardioid condenser mic and a 12″ cable I usually use in my pistol grip shockmount, holding them with arms all bent and gimpy like a T-Rex. Quite a sight. The wind kicked up to about 15 mph, and I also forgot the fuzzy covering for my windscreen (a Rycote Baby Ball Gag). I wound up putting the windscreen right on the wires, mostly so that my body to shield the mic from the wind. This wound up transmitting both air and physical vibrations that radically broadened the frequency range of the recording, acting as a condenser and contact mic at the same time. Wound up being kind of a neat trick!

I got a lot of material in about 30 minutes of recording, some of which I’ll post later. But what was really neat was just holding the mic against the wires while the wind blew. Today’s sound is a drone taken from those wires humming in the wind.

I looped several pieces and ran it through a subtle spectral blurring plugin, which wound up augmenting some of the metallic, drony ringing tones in the original material. I just thought it was a bit creepy, otherworldly, and not at all what I expected to come away with!

GuywireAmbLoop by noisejockey
[OktavaMod MK-012 into Sound Devices 702 recorder]

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“Pew! Pew!” Part Deux: Gutter Lasers

Posted: October 31st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, found sound objects, sound design
Photonic, sonic goodness through rainwater diversion? Maybe!

Photonic, sonic goodness through rainwater diversion? Maybe!

Anyone who’s got an interest in sound has heard the story of Ben Burtt using the sound of struck guy wires to create the Star Wars blaster sound. This changed the sound of science fiction forever; before this, all energy weapons were basically analog synth patches. Part of what makes this sound so unique (and repeated – Burtt himself used struck springs for Wall•E) is how high-frequency sounds travel faster through a metallic medium than low-frequency sounds. This is what gives these sounds their “PEEEWWW!” sound effect. Heck, even I used these principles to synthesize some similar sounds.

Which brings us to my rain gutters on this Halloween.

My house has thin metal rain gutters, from which I ritually hang hard-plastic LED holiday lights, usually right before Halloween, my most important holiday (today!). So when hanging the lights one year, one of the bulbs struck the middle of a 30′ run of solid metal and made this muffled, “block” peewwww sound. Laser-like, but different, loads of low-mid frequency content. I live pretty close to a highway, which was line of sight from my roof, so the only way I could record this sound cleanly was by using a contact microphone. (Recording a length of rain gutter with a small condenser mic in an indoor space would sound less clacky and “square,” but I don’t have a 30′ long recording studio!)

After some EQ, compression, and limiting, the results are below.

LaserGutters by noisejockey
[Contact microphone, Sound Devices 702 recorder]

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Massive Buzz

Posted: September 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, sound design

Today, no photo. No description. Just a sound.

This sound is a field recording of a bee captured in a plastic food bin. It was recorded by placing a contact microphone on the side of the bin, which was tracked at 24 bit/192kHz onto my Sound Devices 702 recorder. The bee was hitting the sides of the bin with his body and wings, producing the warbling and percussive hits. I lowered the pitch of the sound by a full three octaves while keeping the duration the same, which still kept a fair amount of dynamics given the high sample and bit rate of the recording. This is dying to be used in conjunction with an actively-automated Doppler plug-in, but a gent has only so many spare cycles in a day.

No bees were harmed in this recording. The little feller had air holes and he was released after 6 minutes, after which he promptly went back to pollinating my backyard.

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Roomba in da Kitchen, What I’m-a Gonna Do

Posted: September 11th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: found sound objects, sound design
The humble Roomba: Only a mistake could make it sound cool.

The humble Roomba: Only a mistake could make it sound cool.

We own two Roombas. When they’re not battling to the death like robotic Mexican cocks, they clean our floors.

I recorded one and, well, it wasn’t that interesting. A bit whiny. Not at all what one would expect from a 21st century robot: A lot of wide-spectrum noise without a lot of character.

But then I taped a contact microphone on the top of the Roomba…taped rather poorly, in fact. I followed it around all hunched over with a too-short cable, causing the contact mic to occasionally lift up from the Roomba’s chassis. (I could have turned it off to rig it properly, but y’know. Guy thing.) This sloppiness caused a pretty weird warbling as the flat piezo element wobbled around and slightly lifted off the robot’s chassis as it changed directions and the cable to the recorder alternated between taut and slack.

It sounded weird enough to post here, completely unedited other than trimming and normalizing, in all it’s lazy-man’s happy-accident glory.

Warbly Roomba by noisejockey
[Piezo contact microphone into Sound Devices 702 recorder]

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Misusing the eBow

Posted: July 23rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, sound design
eBowing a tensioned cable on a fence gate. I mean, doesn't everyone spend their Sundays doing this?

eBowing a tensioned cable on a fence gate. I mean, doesn't everyone spend their Sundays doing this?

The eBow has been around for decades, and it does one thing only, albeit very well: It excites metal objects with a magnetic field. It’s meant to be used to get synth tones out of guitars, and used right, it can be beautiful.

“Used right” usually doesn’t apply when I get my hands on such things.

Having purchased an eBow this year, I didn’t sit and play my guitar with it. Instead, I switched it on and walked around the neighborhood looking for guitar-string-like objects that might make even more interesting noises.

I came upon a fence gate that had a tensioned cable secured with a turnbuckle (to keep the large door from warping). While I could barely hear the cable resonate, I could also hear the wood of the door vibrating. To my mind, that meant only one thing: contact microphones.

As you can see from the photo, I taped one contact mic to the turnbuckle, and another to the door. I didn’t want one on the cable to decrease its oscillation. I tracked each contact mic to a separate channel on my field recorder.

I recorded about 16 minutes of pretty interesting tones, but the audio levels were quite low. The hums and drones were nice, but I liked it even better when the cable would strike and vibrate against the eBow itself, adding a sound like metal being stretched and warped. It sounded like a much more aggressive Alan Lamb recording. Perhaps someday I can use it expressively as a layer in some transformative or warping sequence, and certainly chopping it up to microsample it will yield untold button sounds, clicks, wonks, vrrrmmms, and other sonic sweetness.

I layered some of the more dynamic, expressive parts into a short clip that you can check out below.

[Piezo contact microphones into Sound Devices 702]

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Preparing for a Field Workshop

Posted: June 24th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, gear, nature recording, news

This weekend, I’m attending the 26th Annual Nature Sounds Society Field Workshop. Held in the Sierra Nevada mountain range at an SFSU field research station, this year’s instructors will include Gordon “One Square Inch of Silence” Hempton and others, with naturalist and illustrator John Muir Laws as a guest lecturer.

I thought it might be interesting to share what I’m bringing with me to this interesting outing. (Well, OK, fine, I really needed to make a packing list and I just suckered you into reading it.) Later this summer, I’ll not only share some recordings and photos from the field workshop, but will recap the gear used and how it all performed.

So, what am I bringing?

Read the rest of this entry »



Posted: April 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: gear, theory

Use gear made by those who make gear they themselves use, and make gear for other users. That's prosumerism.

[Gigantic über-thanks to Tim Prebble and Richard Devine for their contributions to this article.]

The title of this article isn’t what you think it is.

You can’t shop for electronics or technology without hearing “prosumer.” People assume this portmanteau is a contraction of “professional-consumer.” Only marketing wonks have made it so.

That is neither its original meaning, nor the topic of this post.

The term was coined in Alvin Toffler’s seminal book Future Shock as a contraction of “producer” and “consumer,” predicting the merging of the roles of consumption and production into the life of one individual, primarily due to customization of mass-produced objects and the creation of highly specialized products. That is, person A makes widget X, who sells X to person B who makes widget Y, which person A, in turn, buys…it’s a massively networked set of cottage industries. This trend has exploded in the last decade. When Wired writes about micro-manufacturing and “no more factories,” we’ve probably arrived at a prosumer tipping point.

That, dear friends, is what this post is about. And yes, this is audio-related. Chances are, this article is probably about you, too.

Read the rest of this entry »

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