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

Omnious Pipes

Posted: October 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, found sound objects, sound design

Pipes along the side of the road. This is the kind of "a-ha!" or "ooh!" moment recordists wait for!

[Just had to post something orange and slightly eerie. Happy Halloween, all!]

It was a quiet night in a San Francisco warehouse district: Calm wind, not a lot of people on the streets, the sun was going down. A bunch of pipes – probably for redoing water lines beneath the street – were stacked on the sidewalk, perpendicular to the street.

This is precisely the reason that I carry a small, handheld field recorder with me at all times. I shoved it into a few pipes to check out what I could hear. I got some really nice drones with that added pipe/tube resonance and comb filtering, which will definitely go in my growing and rather extensive “unsettling drone” library. Some of the car passbys in the street had a resonant, screaming quality, which may make good spaceship pass-bys as well, or aggressive layers for expressive car ‘bys.

But, I quite liked some of the passages where this drone mixed with the activity of the street. Today’s sound is recorded within a 12″ diameter concrete pipe about six feet long. A lone man walks down the street singing, followed by a bicycle, he continues singing then crosses the street in front of me, a breath of wind really amps up the resonance for a moment, and then a few cars pass by, kicking up loose asphalt. Although it sounds like a mix of street noise with a synth drone underneath it, this is unedited except for some compression and normalization. The imaging is incredibly tight because there was about six feet of 12″ pipe in front of the mic capsules, narrowing the stereo field.


[Sony PCM-D50 recorder, 90° capsule spread]

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The Bear Locker

Posted: October 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, found sound objects

Beer, toiletries, ice chest, field recorders. Yep, that's a well-stocked camping trip!

The metal bearproof food locker is a common sight in the developed campgrounds of the Sierra Nevada mountains. They’re infamously noisy to open, close, and move things around in, and are usually the first sounds you hear in the morning. They do their job, though…provided you have them closed. I once had a close encounter with a bear whose head was stuck right into my slightly open bear locker (in my defense, it was in the midst of dinner preparation), but that’s another story for another blog.

I finally decided to record one on a trip this summer. It was a kayaking trip, so I had both my Zoom H2 [yeah, this is an older sound] and a hydrophone, so I decided to use both: The Zoom would get the stereo effects and the hydrophone would pick up the raw vibrations. I placed the H2 horizontally centered in the locker, and placed the hydrophone on the single shelf inside. Holy resonance, Batman!

Today’s sound is a collection of hits from this outdoors session, made with hands, metal objects, and a rubber mallet, first at normal pitch and then an octave lower. It wound up mixing rather well with my collection of shovel-in-wheelbarrow sounds from a while back. Get those subwoofers ready for the second half…


[Zoom H2 (120° capsule spread), Aquarian Audio H2a-XLR hydrophone into Sound Devices 702 recorder]

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Semi-Call of the Pseudo-Wild

Posted: October 25th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: found sound objects, sound design
Animal Calls

Trust me, those are animal calls, and this is a PG-13-rated show.

Not all of us have the long schedules or big budgets that support going out to exotic locations – or even the local zoo – to record unusual animals for sound design. There are an increasing number of excellent creature-specific effects collections out there, too.

But another fun alternative is to use animal calls. Mostly created to lure or flush birds for the benefits of hunters, some also mimic the sounds of squirrels and other small animals…they’re not exceedingly realistic, but they do sound pretty neat. These calls can be used as the instructions suggest for some level of realism, but using them in unusual ways can create great base sounds for more extreme uses. On their own, they’re OK, but they’re high-pitched enough that they hold up well to heavy processing. They come in many shapes and sizes, but those that feature bulbs that pass air over a reed can be played more expressively.

These calls have the added benefit of garnering very curious, or suspicious, looks from visitors if you display them in your studio.

Today’s sound is a cute little number called the Squirrel Buster. I  rattled it back and forth, cupping my hand over the horn to filter the sound just a little. The first portion is the call being shaken back and forth. It doesn’t really sound like any squirrel I’ve heard…in fact, it doesn’t sound unlike the tail end of a hornbill’s call (which many mistake for monkeys, thanks to Hollywood’s use of the hornbill call in jungle films). Perhaps it would be a nice background layer in an exotic ambience. The second portion is the first that’s been sped up to 200%, then pitched down 1.5 octaves; this sounds a bit more gutteral and almost simian. The third portion is the second, run through the GRM PitchAccum plug-in and sped up again by 200%, and it starts to sound like a layer of rapid-fire alien utterances, a la District 9.


[Røde NT1a microphone into Sound Devices 702 recorder]

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Mountaintop Insect Ambience

Posted: October 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, nature recording

Sierra Buttes, California: Less than 9,000' high, but the tallest thing around...with active insect soundscapes!

The thing that strikes me the most about recording at high altitude is the quiet. Sounds that get masked by wind, rustling leaves of trees, traffic, and other sources become extremely articulate. Unless there are birds nearby, this usually means that insects are what comes to the ears most clearly.

Atop a California mountain on a sunny summer day, I came upon a patch of blooming buckwheat that was being visited by bees and other insects. The trees were pretty far away, but cicadas were singing loudly, and the wind was pretty still. I set down my recorder and walked away for about 20 minutes to bag a nearby peak.

The killer moment in this otherwise quite ambient snippet is right near the end, when a huge, fat something buzzed right past the mics. I’m assuming it’s a type of bee, but with such a deep, rumbling sound, it sounds like a cartoon or a parody of an insect sound, like something out of A Bug’s Life, as opposed to a real creature. Since I walked away during the recording, I’ll never know!


[Sony PCM-D50 field recorder]

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Drones in Questionable Places

Posted: October 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, sound design

Yes, I recorded audio in a bathroom. Draw what conclusions you like, you twisted little Intarweb Monkeys!

Sometimes, you need to record in embarrassing places to get the good stuff. A recent example for me was in a bathroom of a local supermarket.

Longtime readers and listeners to Noise Jockey know my obsession with cool drones. This one was an ancient, badly-needing-to-be-cleaned ventilation fan. It was really not that large, but it made this intense, deep thrumming sound that just had to be recorded. Luckily, no one came in while my recorder was rolling, presenting at best a challenging set of questions I’d have to answer…

[Note: This will be the last post you’ll see on Noise Jockey using my battered and worn Zoom H2 Handy Recorder. It’s been replaced with the Sony PCM-D50, which you’ll be hearing more of this fall and winter! When the card and battery tray doors break off, and you’ve dented the mic grilles, and you’ve dropped it two dozen times, and its recording settings won’t stick between sessions, it’s time to just let go and upgrade…]


[Zoom H2 field recorder]

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Fatty Lumpkin

Posted: October 6th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: found sound objects, sound design

There is no photo to accompany today’s sound because it’d surely put you off your lunch.

We were cooking pork – making carnitas, maybe – and part of the food preparation process was to separate out gobs of fat from the meat. It took all of three seconds before I knew that I’d have to record the sound of this disgusting spectacle.

After dinner, I positioned a large condenser mic very close to a metal bowl, in which were the fatty leavings of our meal. I used my hands to get all sorts of slishy, squishy, disgustingness out of it until I had broken it into such small pieces that it didn’t sound so good. Or look so good. Or smell so good. But my skin was silky smooth for a week.

To my surprise, the tones were quite bright and rather subtle. But put against imagery of an alien ovipositor or similar disgustipating slimy thing, it’d be audio-layering magic. [Hint: Other good ways to get these kinds of effects is to scoop petroleum jelly into your hands, but that’s pretty messy. You can try massage oil instead, which smells better and is easier to clean up, and try manipulating a bar of soap or other oval object.]

So, today’s lesson: If at first you don’t succeed, try larder.


[Røde NT1a microphone into Sound Devices 702 recorder]

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San Francisco’s Quiet Surprise

Posted: October 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: field recording

On this day, the City was quieter at 1pm than it was at dawn.

I work in San Francisco. It’s one of the world’s great urban centers. Imagine my surprise when I took the subway to the financial district and walked for two full blocks and heard…well, not much.

It was 1pm just off the Financial District on a weekday, and I heard almost no talking, no horns, and very few “hard sounds.” All that came to my ears was the occasional footsteps of a non-talkative passerby, the sound of a water jug being put on a hand truck, and of course traffic. There was plenty of sound, sure, but it was a wash of hushed tones, very diffuse and distant voices, nothing jarring like you’d expect near one of the great cities of the American West. On lunch hour, no less.

Here’s an example. I’m walking this whole clip, but wearing my quietest shoes (my sweet camo Chuck Taylors, if you must know), so any footsteps you hear are passers-by. This kind of hushed background ambience would be a great layer to which more specific hard effects could be added to achieve a certain mood.


[Zoom H2 recorder]

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Ibises and Cows

Posted: August 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, nature recording

Somewhere in the murk there's quite a few noisy critters...

I originally considered this clip an outtake from the Nature Sounds Society Field Workshop this summer (which has been previously covered in older posts). I had never seen white-faced ibises before, and their ducklike honking and loud wing flaps were mixed in with local cows that were just waking up. It was about 7am.

But in listening to it again, I came to love the moment that was captured: Dense fog all around, the sun kissing vernal pools and long-grass marshland in the middle of the Sierra Nevada, and all the animals calling out to each other, re-establishing territory and familial bonds. I came to rather like the sound of the cows mixed in with the ibises, the swallows, and the blackbirds.

Field recordings don’t always have to be pristine to be interesting. Sometimes you must bend your mind to the material.

So, I’ll share it here today. Hang out until the very last bit, where an ibis takes off and flies overhead – great clarity in the call and the wing flaps.


[Sennheiser MKH 50 and MKH 30 recorded as mid-side pair into Sound Devices 702 recorder]

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Thrift Store Sounds: Toy Helicopter

Posted: July 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: found sound objects, sound design

Brrrrwwwwaaaawwwrrrrrwwwaaar!

This might be harder to find at a thrift store than at an electronics or hobby store, but there are a large number of ultra-small toy helicopters on the market that can be had for not a lot of dosh. They’re flimsy. They don’t fly well. But they do scare the hell out of family pets, which instantly makes them entertaining, and they do make pretty cool sounds.

So, imagine this: You’re only one person with no assistants nearby. These helicopters, well, they fly erratically. How do you keep a mic trained on it to get a good recording? I solved this problem before by putting wireless mics on moving objects, but they’re far to heavy for something like this. Well, let’s just take advantage of the toy’s weak flying ability: Why not just hold the stupid thing while the rotors rotate? The rotors, however, rotate really quickly, and move a surprising amount of air. The body of the helicopter is so teensy that I couldn’t find a good mic position that blocked the air being moved around, which of course creates a lot of distortion and rumble.

Rather than futz around with a bulky windscreen and furry windjammer, I decided to just attach a contact microphone to the helicopter with gaffer’s tape. This worked reasonably well, especially after a quick equalization adjustment to overcome the somewhat dull midrange response of the mic itself. The sound that was transmitted through the high-density foam body was actually more interesting and full than the rotor’s sound in the free air, anyway. Besides the aforementioned EQ pass, this recording is unaltered. Recorded at 192kHz, this could provide all manner of mechanical effects if pitched down or processed further!


[Contact microphone into Sound Devices 702 recorder]

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Thrift Store Sounds: The Zippi Fan

Posted: July 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: found sound objects, sound design

Meet Zippi: Suitable for propeller sounds of all kinds!

It’s been a long time since I’ve done a Thrift Store Sounds post, so let’s take a look at the nifty Vornado Zippi desktop fan!

It features soft cloth blades, a safety feature given the lack of a cage around the hub and its inevitable placement next to coffee mugs, iPads, and human fingers.

The motor’s not very powerful, and that’s really perfect for sound design. You can put your hand on the hub to slow it down. The soft blades let you stick all manner of wacky things in them without damaging the objects or the blades.

Today’s sound, then, is a short takes of sticking a ball-point pen into the fan blades. I think it’s great as a layering element for propeller sounds, be it a steampunk zeppelin or a toy/cartoon aircraft.

(If you want to hear more Thrift Store Sounds, be sure to check out recordings of a wicker basket and a shoe stretcher, or just use the Search too!)


[OktavaMod MK-012 with cardioid cap, inside Rycote Baby Ball Gag windshield, into Sound Devices 702 recorder]

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