Saturday, 24 January 2015

Location Sound Recording Workshop
University of the West of Scotland
19th-23rd January 2015

Me and Chris Watson headed up north, driving along increasingly snow sided roads, to Ayr on the west coast of Scotland following an invitation from Peter Snowdon (lecturer in film making) and Nick Higgins (director of the Creative Media Academy). As part of the Honeycomb - Creative Works project, funded by the EU and aiming to bring leading creative industry professionals to the border counties of Ireland and the western seaboard of Scotland.

A group of 26 participants joined us for the 5 day intensive workshop, taking in field / location recording, extended listening, critical playback and discussions on equipment and techniques.

day one: introductions
through till lunch we spent the time getting to hear about each participant: their practice, aims for the week and what motivates them to work in the field. As always when we do these courses there’s a wide variety of interests; sound art, experimental music, social contexts, film and tv production and wildlife. After lunch Chris talked through various aspects of his approach to sound recording, playing examples to illustrate. I then spoke about my work with a particular focus on creative settings and the use of non-conventional microphones / devices (hydrophones, contact microphones, ultrasonic detectors, coils, geophones, vlf receivers etc). Essential to these talks is that they aren’t lectures - they’re discussions, a sharing of knowledge. The questions and comments from those attending not only provide an essential social element but also allow for everyone to think about aspects they perhaps don’t usually consider. Someone aiming for a career in film crew work can learn a lot from a sound artist whose concern is primarily the use of material to trigger different levels of listening. Likewise an artist can think in different ways about their practice when hearing how a sound mixer works. The two worlds are often concerned with very different aims and intentions - indeed, there is often a very wide gulf between the values (in terms of listening and the texture of sound) of these different approaches and this is why there’s a lot to be gained from exploring those differences in a sociable and group setting. Having tutored on workshops for some years now I can say without doubt that there’s almost always a total ‘group linking’ in the first hours or day of a course - where everyone involved understands that, whatever our specific approach or knowledge, we are all these through an interest in better and more expansive listening.

day two: equipment and first field trip
before lunch we begin discussing field recording equipment. About half of the group have limited previous experience with field recording (though most have some background in sound, whether in a studio setting or through music) and the other half have some experience and their own kit. So steep learning curves all round - but thats one of the reasons to come on a course such as this.
The Uni campus in Ayr has the River Ayr running though its grounds and so the lecturers decided a theme of the river for this weeks course. With that in mind our first field trip was to Glenbuck Loch, the source of the RIver Ayr. We arrived to find an amazing icicle-covered wood circling the totally frozen Loch, complete with ice-anchored boats and unsteady swans attempting to break the ice sheets. 26 is a big group and lets face it, field recording and site specific listening is a solitary pastime, by necessity. With that in mind I would say that the first thing people learn on these kinds of courses is how noisy we are a species. How challenging it can be to stand or sit totally still for 10, 20 , 30 + minutes without making a sound, or without ones recording or experience being affected by the sounds of others. 
I concentrated on showing my approach to recording the ice on the Loch and the fence wires surrounding it. Chris headed into the trees to listen for bird life and we all came away with an additional, unexpected sound-memory, that of the icicles falling from trees when the wind picked up; a rain of small, cold bells - glass like fragments of sound, and very evocative.


day three: second field trip
moving down the river, towards Ayr itself, we first visited the site of Wallace’s Cave (or at least one of the caves associated with him). Some of the group went searching for the cave itself and others took the time to find their own spots amongst the trees and along the tracks.  Here folks began to get a sense of how radically different the sound of single source (the river) can be every few centimetres or metres, and when its filtered through trees, fences, caves and other surfaces.
The next stop was at Ballochmyle, where we’d been told there were cup and ring markings  (a form of prehistoric wall art, the exact meaning of which is subject to various theories) on several stones. Here we walked along one of the paths, leading us past numerous icicle screens where the melting snow was running into the small stream by the side of the track, to a bridge over the river and a rather odd box, marked AV, which at high volume was pushing water up through its cover. This ‘break’ in the soundscape of the walk had the effect of re-setting our ears and, of course, opening up thoughts about how our perception of place is often linked to what we expect rather than a more momentary and immersive openness to reality. Walking further the group began to split - some heading for the cup and ring marks and others taking time to venture down to the river to use hydrophones and contact microphones.

day four: third field trip and recording logging
we began at the Uni campus, following the path along the banks of the Ayr to a footbridge. I stayed near the bridge, with around half the group, attaching contact mics (not enough wind to resonate the structure on its own) and the others spent time recording along the banks or with Chris setting up mics around piles of bread and biscuits to try to attract birds closer to the mics. 
As the bridge wasn’t sounding I then attached contact mics to a tree nearby, choosing one with dry, crisp leaves. Several of the group listened and then got on with finding their own tree sounds, either allowing the breeze to cause the sounds or taking a more interactive approach.

From here we decided to push back the scheduled lunch break and head to the docks at the mouth of the Ayr. By this time all participants were fully heading off on their own to use whatever kit they had or had borrowed. Some spent time on the beach and others concentrated on the diffused sounds of the active docks on the other bank of the Ayr; 2 cargo vessels were being loaded , the small pilot boat ran up and down the river, a nearby construction site, and of course the wind and water.
I took the opportunity to test some new omni mics, comparing them to my trusty DPA4060’s. Having made several recordings along the pier facing the docks I then switched to contact mics. As is often the case I stumble across one surface that offers up something special and here it was one of the large, flat metal pier plates stretching from the top to just below the waterline (at the time we were there). A massive low end filter for the tide and all activity on the river - deep drones from machinery, less focused elements which, whilst somehow representing the sensation of being on this windswept promontory, were abstracted - mirroring again ones ability to listen beyond the obvious. I’d have happily stayed listening to this one surface for hours.
Returning to the Uni campus participants either stayed and logged their recordings or set off to work on this at home. The point was to fully document each recording they’d kept, noting location, date, time and equipment used (either from notes taken in the field or from spoken idents on the recordings).

day five: critical playback
coming together as a group we listened back to one or two recordings from participants, discussing each one. Amongst the tracks were recordings of:
icicles falling from trees
ice sheets on the loch
fence wires
swans pecking seeds from the ice
sound of the river from inside and outside Wallace’s cave
frozen waterfall at the gorge
icicle drips
metal pier plate
dock ambience
and more....

These playback sessions are always valuable, not only to compare different microphones, recorders and techniques but to hear the radical differences that even small decisions can produce. Quite often someone will say ‘I don’t think this is very good’ and on hearing it played back to the group, through speakers rather than in the enclosed world of solitary headphone listening, it becomes obvious that the recording not only ‘works’ but represents something of the individual. It is the aspects of our work that we doubt that we perhaps perceive what makes it ‘ours’.

No comments: