Monday, 27 April 2015

The reed beds of the Humber

with the Rycote Cyclone

(photos by Pheobe riley Law)

For the past 4 years i’ve been documenting the reed beds along both banks of the river Humber close to where I live and i’ve chosen to begin testing the Rycote Cyclone as part of this on going project. My interest is primarily in the sounds of the reeds themselves - a rich and varied sonic experience that requires durational listening and a willingness to have ones ears open to what at first appears a fairly uniform sound. Its also quite a challenging sound to record in a way that transmits to the listener the same qualities as in-situ, rather like when one attempts to record the sound of the sea on a beach. Both sources can start to edge into ‘white noise’ when one is removed from the visual prompt of the specific location. With the reed beds there is however enough other sound of an equal or lower level to give a real sense of place. Not only other wildlife sounds but also those of human activity, with the low drone of shipping on the river a constant element best captured with a pair of decent omni’s (I use DPA4060’s extensively). 

A quick kit list for this project:

Sound Devices 7-series recorder
DPA4060 stereo pair on small omni’s
Sanken CUW-180 stereo mic
various other cardioid and hypercardioid mics
Rycote Cyclone 
Boom pole

i’ve also been using JrF c-series contact mics, d-series hydrophones, adapted geophones and
Pettersson Ultrasonic detectors.

The Cyclone

The Cyclone comes pre-rigged with a cable for connecting up a hypercardioid mic, which is probably how lots of folks will want to use them. I however rarely use one so I wanted to test it out with other combinations, such as rigging up a pair of DPA4060’s inside and the Sanken CUW-180. I’ve also been testing some of the MicW pencil mics recently (a fairly new brand here in the UK, supplying entry & pro-sumer level mics mostly and an area I try to keep up on for advising students or others on tight budgets) and so combined those tests with putting the Cyclone through its paces. 

First thing to mention is that the Cyclone has a very ‘in the field’ handy system for getting in to rig mics. It takes seconds and with the magnetic snap back features for the main cage i’m sure there’ll be much less fumbling and trying to wedge one section under your arm whilst looking on the floor for the end cap you just dropped ! The new design is simple but very well thought out and its that simplicity that will appeal to anyone who needs to work quickly on location. Most of my work for example is personal - not to commission - and I tend to work very intuitively. So being able to react very quickly to something I stumble across is essential. I’d say this new system also makes the whole process quieter, which will be of particular interest to wildlife recordists.

The new ‘3D-Tex’ fabric appears to be incredibly transparent and even with the good old East Yorkshire winter winds i’ve yet to need an additional ‘fluffy’ windjammer. Learning how to listen closely enough to hear what difference even the best windjammer can make takes time, although its much easier to spot when some of the cheaper ones are used, especially with their fake fur covers on. I rarely use fluffy windjammers on my other Rycote actually but I do know that one issue with them is that if you don’t keep them in tip-top condition, over time the fibres can become matted and because its a slow process one can miss the effect this is having on your recordings. With the Cyclone it looks (sounds !) like that particular problem is simply avoided by use of this new material. 

One of the main challenges when recording along the Humber in the reed beds is that any wind can get trapped in the reeds and come at you from all angles and often in quite focused streams. Good wind protection is needed especially when recording close to the top of the reeds. With its windjammer on my older Rycote has at times still struggled with what i’d refer to as average winds for this location, specifically because the reeds can act as a kind of whisk for the wind if it comes in at the right velocity and direction, but the Cyclone doesn’t - there’s been no wind impact noise at all. What I also particularly like is that in stronger winds whilst the impact noise is again avoided the actual sound of the wind (another of the most challenging sounds to record well) has a nice quality to it. Its these subtle and often overlooked aspects that, in my opinion, are elemental is making work that engages the listener and that can move recordings beyond the purely documentary.


The Cyclone also had an early outing during a workshop I led with students from Newcastle University. Here the challenges of the North East coast (& weather) got the better of the Cyclone and indeed all the other wind protection we had with us, although with its additional fluffy cover the Cyclone coped well, as expected. Further inland and it once again impressed with its transparency and ease of use in the field. 

I'll be in Northumbria again in a couple of weeks and no doubt the Cyclone will be put through its paces again.

Any downside ?

One thing I still like about the classic Rycote design, simply because I use a wide range of mics beyond just having a hypercardioid permanently installed, is the way the cable feeds through the main compartment down past the handle / pole mount - and indeed the fact that the Cyclone doesn’t come with a pre-mounted handle. For most users this probably won’t be a major issue and the advantages of the Cyclone make up for it.


Put simply, it ‘feels’ good - I warmed to it almost immediately and whilst lots of recordists base their judgement of kit on the technical aspects alone I for one need to feel comfortable with the kit I use - that it sits immediately into my way of working somehow. On the technical side of things this new design, as one would expect, offers decent improvements over the already impressive Rycote range. As i’ve already mentioned, a significant advantage is the magnetic snap-close arrangement which makes rigging and de-rigging a doddle in the field, even with all the other cables and bags taking up valuable hand space. 

Wind protection is, for lots of users, a big spend in their budget and they want good value for their outlay. The Cyclone isn’t the most expensive on the market and it isn’t the cheapest but so far I think it deserves its pricing in the context of what else is available.

So, all in all, so far an impressive upgrade and one that i’ll enjoy using on forthcoming trips back to Northumberland, Iceland and further afield.

Now, if only Rycote could come up with a Cyclone that packs down for space saving travel and backpack storage !

update: I've also been testing the small Cyclone - with various mics inside inc. my very sensitive Sanken CUW-180 stereo mic (worth noting that the cyclone isn't designed specifically for this mic but its characteristics mean its a really good test). I really like the small cyclone - its a handy size and as I rarely use hypercardioid mics its a good fit for the other mics I do use regularly. 

Thursday, 23 April 2015

publishing imprint

as previously announced in early 2014 we (myself and my daughter) are expanding into the world of book / zine publishing. 

‘I do not want to publish coffee-table books. I don’t drink coffee for one thing, although I do like tables’

there is a fine line between presenting work with a degree of stillness and space for the viewer / listener and allowing ones hand to rest rather heavily on the work.

our new press imprint will issue small photo-books, zine style. they’re meant to sit subtly into ones hands.

the first publications will feature new and archive material by Jez riley French and Pheobe riley Law

jez riley french  |  dissolves

limited edition ty cd + photo book + download code
(100 copies)

price + postage
the eagerly awaited document of the first series of mineral explorations, capturing the sounds of shale, iron ore, limestone, dolomite and snail shells in flux.

(download code for full album + 48 minute bonus track)

‘again, French turns our ears towards captivating worlds of sound’

‘when he gets it right, which he very often does, French has an uncanny knack of producing work that grabs us firmly by the ear and the mind...stunning images that trigger the imagination as much as the intimate sound worlds presented here’

‘leaving things as they are is often misunderstood as ‘do nothing’. There are few artists in the world, especially working with sound, who get this and JrF is one who does. Not only that but he seems able to present work that forces us to re-evaluate everything we think we know about minimalism’

‘small sound worlds perhaps, but far richer and more varied than our immediate impression tells us’

jez riley french  |  beam | charcoal

limited edition ty cd + photo-book + download code
(100 copies)

price + postage
released for a month as a digital download only this 2014 release soon attracted a fair bit of attention. Now re-released as a limited ty cd accompanied by a book of JrF’s brooding photographs of woods and forests at night.

‘a release of the natural sounds of trees in various states that allows you to re-tune your ears. Worth a purchase for the long bonfire track on its own. Remarkable. The images show another fascinating side to French’s visual work’

‘you might at first assume this release is one amongst many such surveys of these kinds of sounds but look hard and you’ll find very little to compare, either in terms of content or quality’

both are available from May 10th 

| forthcoming: 

Pheobe riley Law  |  desire lines
Pheobe riley Law  |  dial
Jez riley French  |  adagios
Jez riley French  |  iceland
Jez riley French  |  suketchi
Jez riley French  |  audible silence (weaves)

Sunday, 19 April 2015

the idyll
(do we ever actually hear the world around us)

nb. the format of this article is 'straight' - that is to say that I haven't followed the conventional rules of such things, with quotes, footnotes and references. It is fair to say that some have been critical of this approach, often misunderstanding it as a sign of unnecessary opposition to the norm or a sign of a less rigorous thought process. In truth it stems from a deep and long private, personal exploration of the subjects and similarly extensive observations of the various theories and systems of understanding involved. Put another way, I do reject the idea that to investigate our role in any creative endeavour means constantly removing layers of ones own personal reaction only to replace it with systems that are as arbitrary, as invented. 

There is limited evidence as to how the landscape around us was represented in artistic terms as we moved from prehistoric times to societies constructed around ritual, celebration and communication. Early cave art appears either representational or unfathomably abstract. Just as primitive hunting scenes could be both documentary and fiction, cup and ring marks could be saying something savage or slight. The use of sound in the earliest artistic actions is also a subject for competing theories; acoustic 'sweet spots' in caves seem to indicate a deliberate understanding of the power of altered sound, whilst the earliest hints of 'music' stem from a slowly developing skill set in the shaping of sounding instruments. Once we humans began to bring in ever more 'sophisticated' ideas to our renderings of the world around us it is possible to see a fork in the path of creative evolution; one route phasing in and out of a deepening understanding of our interaction with 'nature', and the other, perhaps more dominant, a racing, all consuming rush of ego and detachment. 

Throughout the history of art 'landscape' has, almost exclusively been veiled in a thick, sweet fog - an idealistic view of what nature is, can be or indeed should be. We stand in front of paintings that speak of summer, of slow afternoons heavy with light and bird song or of snow falling from proud, insect free trees. Likewise in the quite incredibly short moments that we actually spend looking at our surroundings themselves is it not true to say that we are seeing and hearing what we decide is there ? What we have come to expect and desire from nature ? Any idea of 'reality' is filtered through so many layers that it has become almost impossible for us to approach a connection to nature that is not already based on an evolved removal of our species. Even the dictionary definition of the actual word 'nature' has been changed to fit our changing ideas of our superiority. In early dictionaries, and indeed texts that pre-date them, references to nature include 'all things living' or 'everything that populated the earth' and other such blanket statements, whereas now it has been set loose from having any connection to the human race or its impact on the planet.

Definition of nature in English:


1[MASS NOUN] The phenomena of the physical worldcollectively, including plantsanimals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earthas opposed to humans or human creations:the breathtaking beauty of nature(from the Oxford English Dictionary)

Further, there is the whole 'Mother Earth' issue; the reasons for that choice and the frankly often worrying ease by which some people with a religious fervour and unshakeable belief impose certain views onto the very thing they claim to celebrate. Imposition stands contrary to respect, just as it does in the relationships we form between ourselves and our partners; if one partner tells another who they are, what they are and should be everyone can agree that would be problematic at best and controlling at worst and yet, when it comes to the planet it is easy to find people who will, with a straight face, tell you that singing to the forest is honouring the earth, the trees or the creatures in them. However uncomfortable it is to accept for some, such ideas are based on our own human arrogance and ego. I say that not only because I disagree but that it is clearly not based on an acceptance of 'nature' on its own terms. Perhaps it is impossible for any species to have a complete acceptance on other terms than its own ? Perhaps if it were possible it would not lead to anything better or more connected ? Again, i'll state that what puzzles me most is how unquestioning we are, especially when we are telling ourselves we are 'special' because we are questioning the norm. It's always one uniform replacing another. All are equally floored.

We contemplate birds nests or termite hills  as almost miraculous structures and yet we think of our human architecture as entirely different, from another place and evolutionary level. We hear grass moving in the breeze and are pre-programmed to associate it with ideas of peacefulness or beauty, without any understanding of what that simple process means for all the other species affected by it. We think of nature as 'countryside' or 'the wild' rather than, for example, urban landscapes or the indoor spaces we construct and yet all are results of natural evolution. In short we invent what we see and hear of the world to such a large degree that I feel certain that we have tipped over from a growing, richer palette of creative associations to the world and into an increasingly more restricted new-ageism, unquestioning and always ready to accept that reality fits neatly into our most surface expectations of it.

As an artist and composer who has taken great pleasure in the act of listening for many years and has developed a close connection to that activity through field recording i'll let readers in on a secret: being a field recordist does not mean one listens to lots of other peoples recordings ! Field recording is a wide interest and there are lots and lots of folks whose interest involves comparison and indeed collecting of recordings by themselves and others and that of course is a totally valid approach. However it should not be seen as being any more connected to 'listening' or indeed to an understanding of the world than those whose interest is personal or who do not perceive field recording as a genre. I'm involved in various FR related activities (blogs, forums, facebook groups and of course leading workshops and lecturing) so I do listen to more field recordings by other recordists than I would perhaps choose to in the same way as I do to 'music'. I enjoy it of course, but for me there has to be a purpose to this activity. A reason for turning my ears towards a recording, whether that be in workshop playback sessions or to preview a post submitted to a website. Through all of these connections I believe i'm qualified to state that, as ever, there are a large number of recordings being made that, in my opinion, are documents of just one approach to the natural world; go to a place, record it, present it as a kind of audio postcard. I've done this myself and my comments here aren't meant as a criticism of that practice. What I will say however is that I am constantly surprised at how little things have progressed since the whale song / forest morning and waves on a beach days of the 1970's and 80's. A recording of a rain forest, no matter how well recorded, does not and cannot capture the experience of being in a rainforest and yet there are endless recordings of such places that appear to be publicly shared in some way that seeks to 'transport the listener', and lets face it a large number of listeners are primed to be transported - not only by the medium but perhaps by the way we live our daily lives. This leads back to the question of what it is that we are hearing - whether it is reality or our ideas of reality. We listen to a rain forest recording and think of it as restful or relaxing. In fact for all the creatures and natural systems that create its audible soup it is sonic chaos, a battlefield and a quest for survival in extreme conditions. Does the recordist think of that or of how to record some 'perfect' impression of the location that is in fact a denial of its true nature ?

genre / restriction

This is by no means an accurate survey but I would say that still the vast majority of 'field recording' releases are restricted to the most obvious idea of 'documentation'. Is there any part of the process that sees the recordist ask deeper questions about the purpose or content of such material ? Are such questions in fact a way to cause the 'record' button less work ? 

Over the years I have become less and less interested in how the term 'field recording' has become almost a genre, defined in large part by this drive to present 'reality' to ones audience. Here perhaps there is a comparison with other art forms; throughout history there have always been a very large number of very competent painters, musicians, sculptors or writers for example, and yet, even in the widest sense and with ones deep belief that all the arts are available to all, it is a true statement to say that there is an important distinction between an individual competent at their chosen art or craft and those that are able to transform the art and transport the audience 'elsewhere'. I confess that I increasingly have no real idea why someone would record, say, a rain forest at night and release said recording as a creative artwork. Don't get me wrong, i'm not saying I think it a mistake to make such recordings available - for some reason there is still an audience for work that has no more creative merit than pointing any camera at a view and pressing the shutter - but I am unsure of what critical process is taking place and of how this then effects the wider understanding of what field recording is or can be. As with camera's the technology is democratic and yet it is doubtful that any recordist would choose to spend valuable time gazing at a snapshot that does not have additional creative content unless it were taken by someone they are connected to perhaps. In that sense a standard recording of a rain forest at night has a similar public value as a selfie on instagram - neither seeks to say anything other than 'here this is'. 

On the other hand such recordings are often afforded value (by recordist or audience) as documents of a world in flux; a way to preserve the environment in some form or to draw ones attention to it. As I have attempted to state already, in fact we are only documenting human experience and in that respect I personally feel we owe it to our species and to the world in which we live to put more of ourselves into the work.

So, the question remains; as field recording grows as an interest for various audiences and recordists what is it we are recording ? more, what is it we are even hearing ?