Where's That Sound?

“If a tree falls in the forest, and there isn’t a studio around, will anybody hear it?” While Zen-obsessed engineers try to wrap their brains around this question, many experimental musicians/engineers explore the real-world possibilities and ramifications of such enigmas. Oftentimes it’s the sound engineers who are charged with bringing unorthodox musical visions to life, having to record sounds that aren’t necessarily easily accessible. So when a musician goes off the deep end, how, why, and where do engineers follow?
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Some musicians/engineers go to incredible lengths to capture noise patterns and manipulate them. Case in point: Recently Aussie musical experimentalist Phil Dadson chartered a weeklong found-sound fishing expedition in The Dry Valleys of the Antarctic (to study the sonic properties of stone and ice) where he discovered — and recorded — the flapping of a wind-blown safety flag and the natural Aeolian tones of a communication aerial at Scott Base.

Armed with nothing more than one omni-directional, stereo/mono, shotgun capsule mic (equipped with wind sock/catcher and mainly switched to “stereo”) and two Sony PD10 video cameras (both with XLR inputs; the Sony PD10 had adjustable volume input levels), Dadson waited for the ecology to reveal itself to him. “Because it was early summer [in the Antarctic], there were slight trickles of water off the face of the glacier,” says Dadson. “There was this delicate sound of water trickling through ice. I kept following the trickle at various stages, down the valley from the glacier face until the point it became a little stream and it was joined by trickles from other glaciers. Eventually it becomes a roaring torrent. I didn’t have to do much to it.”


“I take trips into industrial areas where there are a lot of weird machines working,” says Colorado-based ambient musician Kelly David, a former radio DJ of 17 years. “You can just stand in an alleyway outside of some factory and capture the sounds and then take it and manipulate it later with time stretching. I used train sounds I had recorded in Vancouver, British Columbia, at a yard around midnight for ‘Outside the Temperate Zone’, a track on my Angkor (2006) record, time strecthing so that you hear a slow repeating ‘woomph,’ ‘woomph,’ ‘woomph.’

“In the field I use lavalier mics,” David says. “They are good quality (but they are subject to wind noise) and, being small, I can use some putty and attach them to tree backs (as I did in the Arizona Chiricahua Mountains to limit wind noise), or, for example, to the two sides of a milk carton sitting at the edge of the Kenai River in Alaska. That allowed me to get an interesting audio perspective along the river. Basically, because of their flexibility, it is easy to set up a stereo field that works for the particular application. I run the mics into the Lunatec preamp, which gives me some nice gain but little noise, and then into the portable [Sound Devices] 722 via a digital connection. I can then throw these samples into artificial ambiences with digital reverbs and mix them in the background, especially if I’m doing real deep space music.”

Brit Pete Lockett, percussionist extraordinaire (Nelly Furtado, Evan Dando, Jeff Beck) utilizes sound samples from the environment and everyday life. Lockett has captured sound via Minidiscs and DAT recorders, but now he simply uses the mic on a Panasonic NV-GS5 camcorder (equipped with a “zoom” mic function). “I usually transfer [the samples] digitally via USB into Vegas, the video software,” Lockett says. “These files are AVI, which open in Sound Forge. I then save them as WAV files, to the multiple LaCie FireWire hard drives I have for video storage, for audio applications . . . sometimes I edit within Vegas, because it has so many easy crossfade functions. I also use a number of programs within Logic Pro: Stylus RMX, EXS24, and others. I use Stylus RMX for REX files I’ve prepared in ReCycle, which is usually more rhythmic stuff, for example, a lorry [truck] engine turning over.”


Steve Roach, a pioneer of the ambient genre, creates soundscapes through sampling found objects and sounds, then processing them through his collection of synth modules. “Through synthesis — taking sounds from the real world and layering them and then editing them — I place natural sounds into an electronic world through experimentation,” says Roach.

Through his willingness to sample the sounds of rocks and sticks being struck, birds chirping, pre-Hispanic Native American flutes, and even human breathing, Roach has literally infused life into his recordings. Listen to records such as Early Man, Magnificent Void, and Structures from Silence and you’ll hear how his evolving soundscapes operate much like elements of the natural world (that is, the sonic components of Roach’s compositions themselves have life cycles in which aspects are born and then decay). “I’ll combine a lot of elements with techniques of transposition and extreme filtering, pitch shifting, and layering,” Roach says. “By combining natural sounds that have been processed, and the more straightforward versions of these sources, the listener has a perspective of the integrity of the original sound but at the same time can almost feel it coming apart at a cellular level.”

Before an ambient work can be declared finished, it first must burrow a hole inside Roach’s psyche and soul — a process that requires Roach to eat, sleep, dream, and breathe nothing but the work he’s focused on at the moment. This organic obsessive-compulsive approach, or “zone” as he calls it, fuses with (and is a byproduct of) Roach’s real-time manipulation of found sounds. The end result is a kind of ambient musical organism, a continuum full of cavernous noise, echoing voids, deep drones, and synchronous loops moving in cloud-like shifts. “Doing this outboard external processing over the years and then having the DAW platform come in — having the ability to take these acoustical/electronic forms that I am actually shaping as I go along, then to put them into Acid and Vegas — to have that whole thing added to the mix — pretty much doesn’t let me sleep anymore.”


Given what we know about recording found sounds, is there any wrong way to approach them in the studio? “A good thing to remember is, if it sounds good and translates well, then it works,” says Merrick Blackwood.

“The easy part of a recording like this is that no one can compare it to a tradition of such recording,” says New Zealand musician/engineer Wayne Laird. “What I don’t worry about with these sources is their quirks — they all have them abundantly. The whirs, fizzes, rattles, and squeaks? I keep [those noises] with this kind of recording. It’s part of the uniqueness.”