Hunting the Wild Waveform

They’re out there, and they’re everywhere: Sounds. And they’re just waiting for you...all you need to do is find them, which is maybe why they’re called “found sounds.”
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You’ve probably heard more found sounds in recordings than you realize. Although capturing and warping sounds was a mainstay of classic electronic music, artists as diverse as Pink Floyd, John Cage, the Beatles, and a zillion techno producers have all used found sounds in musical — and not so musical — ways. Whether it’s the nature sounds behind a new age recording, sound effects in an audio-for-video production, “quotes” from old movies in a dance floor hit, or even swarms of bees providing a menacing backdrop to the TV show “Cold Case” (see the related article on page 54), having a collection of unique samples sitting around can come in very handy.

YOU WON’T GET THE SOUND IF YOU DON’T HAVE THE RECORDER

Capturing sounds requires a certain attitude that’s very much like a good photographer, who never leaves the house without a camera. If you’re serious about treating the world as your waveform, you need the audio equivalent of a camera: Something simple, small, and convenient enough to use that you actually use it. Here are some of the options:

• Solid-state recorder. Typical models are made by Edirol, Sony, M-Audio, Zoom, Marantz, Fostex, and others (Fig. 1). These have no moving parts, which means they’re dead quiet, and save audio to memory cartridges.

• Hard disk-based recorders. These move up a notch in terms of storage, but go through batteries faster and make some noise (although the subcompact hard drives they use are pretty quiet). You’ll find products from Sound Devices, Korg, iRiver, iaudio, and others,

• MP3 player with voice recording. Sure, it has a little tiny mic designed to capture audio notes like “Don’t forget to pick up the cat litter.” But when all else fails, they work — and you can capture some gloriously lo-fi samples that are the perfect complement to experimental electronic music.

• Cell phone. Some cell phones have voice recording options; if not, call yourself and record into your voicemail.

• Minidisc. I admit to a bias toward these “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” devices because they’ve served me well for almost a decade. They sound good, are convenient, get good battery life, and of course, are totally unhip in the Age of iPod.

• Video camcorder. The audio recorder inside a camcorder is basically a DAT. Although clunkier than carrying around a tiny solid-state recorder, you can get good fidelity and video to boot.

I hardly go anywhere without at least one of these — just in case. The MP3 player/recorder and cell phone are with me pretty much all the time; for extensive sampling expeditions, I take my Minidisc (go ahead, laugh — I don’t care). However, having had the chance to work with the Korg MR-1, that’s going to get the call for high-end sampling sessions in the future.

ACCESSORIZE, BABY!

If you’re just trying to grab a few sounds here and there, a recorder is all you need. But if you’re on a serious sonic safari, you’ll need accessories.

• Additional recording media. This will also determine what type of recorder to take with you. If the only way to offload files is via a computer, then you gotta bring a computer. With cartridge-based solid state recorders, you’ll need to bring plenty of memory cartridges —unless you’ve also brought a computer to which you can transfer files. And for Minidisc, bring extra discs.

• Additional power. You don’t want your batteries to die just as you’re capturing the sound of a lifetime. That’s why I always like devices that have rechargeable batteries, but the option to slip in additional batteries if needed. Some older Minidiscs had “sidecars” that held batteries to provide extra oomph; for serious battery power, make a box with D cells or lantern batteries, and go through the AC adapter input. Once while in Alaska sampling whales, I had a Casio DAT recorder (really) and because it went through batteries like a glutton through filet mignon, I brought several 6V lantern batteries with me — a pain in the butt, but I got the samples.

• Mics. The internal mics on many recorders are surprisingly good, but it’s worth bringing some external mics. This is particularly important if your recorder of choice has moving parts; for quiet sounds, you’ll want the mic as far away from the recorder as possible.

• Plastic freezer bag. Fold this up, and put it in your pocket. If there’s rain, ocean spray, or other environmental nastiness, put the recorder in the bag and seal it up. If you still need to record, feed the mic cable out one corner of the bag; it’s almost certain you’ll be able to manipulate the buttons and work things while it’s in the bag.

• Notepad. Keep notes on what you’ve recorded, as you really don’t want to have several gigabytes of data staring you in the face without a clue as to what sounds are where.

SEEK OUT THE OPTIMUM RECORDING SPACE

Airports are great for found sounds: You get crowd noises, announcements of planes going to exotic destinations, restaurant sounds, cars in the parking garage (including door slams with killer ambience), and of course, the roar of airplane engines and the strangely annoying announcements for shuttle trains and such. But whatever you record, consider the best way to record it.

For example, with one project I needed to get some airport announcements in isolation, especially the one in the Atlanta airport warning you to watch your luggage (“Maintain control . . .”) which with a little cut and paste, would make the perfect “Big Brother” counterpoint to a hip-hop tune. What to do?

Well, they have speakers in the bathrooms, and as it was 2 AM and I was delayed coming back from Europe due to a hurricane, I just camped out in a bathroom, found where the speaker was, stood on a toilet seat to get as close to it as possible, and waited for a stretch of time when no one came in and flushed. (However, I do wonder what one guy thought when he came in and saw me pointing a mic in the general direction of the ceiling, while the announcer said “Report any suspicious behavior…”.)

When you’re looking for found sounds, there’s always a sweet spot to record them. For best results, wear earphones that enclose your ear to block out noise, and listen as you test different miking positions. I used to use big honkin’ headphones but found that I could use those $15 Koss ear buds from Radio Shack, which go in your ear and effectively seal out ambient sounds. They also allow for surreptitious recording, as people think I’m just listening to an iPod or whatever.

LEGAL ISSUES

Be careful, because nothing spoils your day faster than a lawyer’s phone call. For example, once I thought it would be very cool to record the cacophony of slot machines in Las Vegas. Only problem: There was almost constant background music. Aside from interfering with the vibe, the music was readily identifiable. The solution was to move as far away from the house speakers as possible, and as close to the machines as possible, so the music would get drowned out. Also because of the general noise and chaos level, there was no problem isolating parts with little or no music, and crossfading them to create what sounded like a continuous recording.

Sometimes there is no real solution. I recorded a bunch of phone sex line commercials off French TV, and thought the voices would work well in one of my tunes. But I got cold feet at the last minute, as again, what I sampled could be readily identified. The solution: I changed the song’s slant from girl-wants-boy to boy-wants-girl, and did the vocals myself . . . but kept the phrasing, and even the phrases, as they were sufficiently non-descript that I doubted anyone would sue.

Then there are the judgment calls. I recorded some street preachers in New York who were at the absolute top of their form, shouting “The Lord will come with fire!” and a bunch of other apocalyptic messages. It was great stuff, and I plan to release it someday as part of a tune . . . but it’s not like I can find their publishing company and get clearance. So I’m going to assume that one of three things will happen: They’ll never hear it and the point will be moot, they’ll be flattered that I’m spreading their message, or they will want to kill me. I guess I’ll find out.

A RECORDER’S BEST FRIEND: DIGITAL AUDIO EDITORS

It’s not just enough to record the sounds — you need to massage them with a good digital audio editor. It’s hard to recommend a specific one, because they all have their own cool little DSP processes; and convolving samples using a convolution reverb (no one says they have to be used only for reverb; see Fig. 2) can make just about anything sound cool.

Excessive pitch transposition is a sure-fire route to uniqueness (just remember to remove DC offset if you’re shifting way down), as are vocoding, delays, resonant filters, ring modulators, and those other cool tools in the sound designer’s arsenal. I also recommend noise reduction: In some whale samples, you could hear motor sounds from a boat several miles away. Taking a “noiseprint” of the offending signal got rid of most of it; a few well-placed notch filters got rid of the rest.

Also, don’t forget gating and enveloping. For example, “radical recording” enthusiast Dr. Walker is a fan of taking vinyl hiss, amplifying it way up, gating it, and using it to replace the hi-hat sample in drum kits. Gated shortwave radio noises with really fast decays can sound like weird percussion, and just about anything mixed in with a snare drum can sound pretty cool.

AND FINALLY . . .

Treat the sounds you’ve found as a real sample library. Back them up, document them, and keep both the original and processed versions. I’ve even used some samples made way back in the 80s in music I’m working on now . . . you never know when a found sound will turn out to be a found treasure.