Field Report: Occupy Protest Crowd Sound Effects

2011/12/07

Occupy Toronto Anarchist

Protestor Sound Effects

A week last Wednesday the mayor of Toronto’s patience evaporated. He ordered police to evict the Occupy Toronto protestors.

The protestors had been camped in St. James Park, a city-block-sized area next to a church. Tents, tarps and scrap wood structures made a protestor city.

I had no idea this was happening. Luckily, I was in a waiting room that day and the television showed live coverage.

As most of you know, I focus on recording immersive sound effects for Airborne Sound. I like the idea of sound effects transporting the listener to another place. I’m thrilled if I can imprint the experience of an event with someone long after it has happened.

The Occupy Movement had engaged the world. Everyone had an opinion on it one way or another. I thought this would be a great opportunity to document this moment via sound.

Thankfully, I bring my Zoom H4n with me everywhere. I decided to head downtown and record some protest sound effects.

The Location

At the park about 150 police stood like sentinels dividing access to areas of the park. City sanitation crew were pitching wood pallets, tarps and plywood into garbage trucks. There were about 500 other people in the muddy, trampled park.

Occupy Toronto Crowd at Yurt

The shoot

Challenges

When I arrived I saw three challenges:

  1. Energy. By the time I arrive a lot of the encampment had been cleaned up. Apparently negotiation had already taken place so both the protestors and the police were relaxed. Initially, anyway.
  2. Crowd presence. News crew and normal citizens outnumbered the protestors. I had noticed these ‘protest tourists’ (i.e. non-vested people photographing or ‘rubbernecking’) when I recorded the G20. It was worse here.
    There were plenty of protestors in the crowd. That wasn’t the problem. However news crews loitered chatting loudly on cell phones. The protest tourists were amused by some of the protestors’ antics. Their causal chatter and laughter was common enough to taint the protestor crowd sound fx.
    At times the park felt like a street party.
    The problem with these crowds is that they compromise the spirit of the atmosphere. I didn’t want the passion of a protest chant interrupted by a reporter updating their producer on their mobile.
  3. Complexity. To make my sound effects useful to more people, I record the sound clips in isolation. This means recording crowds separate from city sounds, airplanes or music.
    When I arrived I realized the protestors were overlapped by traffic, church bells and the protest tourists. The protestors were also drumming primal beats on overturned tubs. The background garbage trucks in particular added a thick, muddy aspect with their low-end idles.
    The H4n microphone is especially poor working with complex overlapping sounds like these. Because it cannot represent depth well, complex, dense atmospheres become a wall of thick, fatiguing sound.

Results

I shot these tracks from a medium distant perspective. I felt that very close recordings of this crowd would be too detailed and distracting. A semi-distant perspective would give a sense of ambience.

At one point some resisting protestors were hauled bodily into the backs of vans. The crowd began chanting ‘let them go.’ Midway a protestor up in a tree began spewing venom at the police, completely overwhelmed with fury. A few closer voices, the background drums, garbage trucks and blaring horns give a good impression of the chaos you’d feel there.

I like this next track because of the disarray. There are some swearing protestors, a man speaking zen-like messages from a megaphone, drums, milling crowd and a distant garbage truck crushing wood structures.

Here’s a closer perspective the garbage trucks destroying the protestor city. There are a few ‘pop-out’ voices of protestors challenging bystander opinions.

Some thoughts

Lessons learned

Most problems when field recording ambient sound effects can be cleared up by altering the microphone position.

In this specific case it wouldn’t help with overlap or the protest tourists. It had only a minor effect on the energy.

So I turned to another strategy from the field recordist’s tool box: patience. It’s often essential to wait for the nature of an atmosphere to change.

I waited in the clammy cold and mud about four hours. Eventually some decent sound effects emerged. That, combined with editing, provided some sound effects that I feel gave an impression of being there.

Using projection

It’s easy to become occupied by the technical aspects of recording sound effects: getting lost setting levels, swapping flash cards and choosing microphones. All of this is essential to capturing a sound effect correctly, of course.

However I also believe that more vivid field recordings are created when the recordist employs ‘projection‘ – placing themselves in the subject’s shoes.

For example, my goal was to represent the feelings and energy of the protestors, the stoicism of the police and even the irritation of the sanitation crew in the best way to portray the atmosphere that day. In other words, the intentions of the subjects in the park.

The occupy movement is politically-charged. People at Occupy Toronto were angry and defiant. Both the authorities and the protestors felt strongly. I wanted to capture the energy of their beliefs via sound effects.

Some aspects of the recordings that captured the emotion or intention for me were:

  • The rabid, berating protestor in the distance.
  • Chanting.
  • The relentless drumming.
  • The creaks and squeaks of crushing wood.
  • The business of the crowd roaming in the mud.
  • The intense whine of the labouring garbage trucks.

These contributed to the predominant impression I received from that day: chaos. There was so much activity and disorganization. Protestors hooted and police sergeants delegated. Sanitation crews attacked the structures with military determination. And the drums pounded endlessly.

If I was successful the sounds effects above gave you an sense of what it was like to be in that atmosphere of upheaval.

Regardless of your politics, I’d suggest any field recordist visit a protest as an exercise. It’s one of the best opportunities to try to absorb emotions via field recording.

If you can capture these things your field recordings will move beyond a WAV file and have a chance to become evocative for others. It will transmit emotion from the live event to the listener.

Notes

Links

If you’re intersted in hearing more protest or riot sound effects, I have more on Airborne Sound.

  • G20 protest crowds sound effects
  • Tamil Tiger protest march sound clips

Gear used

  • Zoom H4n




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4 responses to Field Report: Occupy Protest Crowd Sound Effects

  1. Hey Paul,

    Interesting observations. When I recorded the Occupy Dallas protests last month it was in a very different situation, as the protesters had not yet clashed with police and while they were vocal they were also very friendly and accommodating to me as an outsider.

    Obv any recording you get is going to be better than no recording at all, but in a perfect world I think you’d run a nice stereo shotgun so that you can get a sound that’s closer to the action with fewer extraneous noises.

    Sometimes situations are so specific that the recordings may never make it into a project (like the destruction of the tents), but the experience gained by hearing those things go down in real life can be extremely informative when building related events in projects.

    Nice stuff!

    • Hi Rene,

      Thanks! I agree, a shotgun mic would be ideal for focus while gaining a bit more distance. I may have better luck if I had my Neumann 191 with me.

      When I saw the challenges I mentioned in the post for a moment I considered not bothering to record. I did gamble that patience would improve the situation. Also, as you mentioned, since the lack of isolation would not see the effects make it into projects, I switched gears into making it a more of a ‘documentary’ and ’emotional’ recording. The change of perspective was a good exercise.

      And you bring up a good point that such sounds remain useful as research when creating new compositions.

      Incidentally, for other readers, you can see Rene’s post about the Occupy Dallas recordings here:
      http://thesoundmyheadmakes.blogspot.com/2011/10/recording-of-occupy-dallas.html

      Check out the recordings – they are quite clean and clear.

  2. Hi Paul,

    Check this out:

    http://www.mediateletipos.net/archives/15881
    http://mikelrnieto.net/archives/2521
    http://www.mediateletipos.net/archives/15901

    The sound of democracy

    The compilation El so de la democracia is the result of a four days workshop on « the politics of sound » which I conducted at l’ull cec, Barcelona, in November 2010. The project started with a collective sound documentation of the regional elections that take place once every four years in Catalunia.

    Our group visited polling stations in several neighbourhoods in the city, recording the election process, atmospheres, voices of citizens and party members, as well as sounds from the surroundings.

    These recordings have then served as a basis for group discussions about contemporary and historical democratic practices, as well as about political aspects of sound production and reception. Finally, each participant has produced an individual track mirroring these reflections, using sometimes additional audio material from media or historical sources.

    Following Rancière’s idea of « politics as a form of experience which revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time », our attention went especially to those voices which remain unheard in the democratic process of voting. By approaching polling stations as sound environments and considering them in relation with the social structure of their surroundings, the absence in the process of those whose part in the civic society is that they « have no part » became more evident: migrants, homeless people, teenagers, absentionists and other outsiders.

    Writing these lines, I’m witnessing on TV changes happening right now in Libya, Spain… – a revolution – which represent another powerful example of « sound of democracy ». Such democratic eruptions reminds us that democracy is always rooted in the violent desire to interrupt and reconfigure power relations, a desire which still haunts the relative silence and peace of our polling stations. It is up to us to decide if we want to hear its echo or not.

    • Hi David,

      Thanks for sharing the excellent comment.

      The recordings of the revolution and also the polling stations are impressive (other readers – check them out and use google translate if you need to!).

      I like the idea that recording the polling stations give a voice to the voters beyond their ballot alone. The ambient nature of the recordings add another interesting aspect – it is not just one voice but many, together.

      We’re fortunate to have these evocative moments preserved in audio.

      They’re a fascinating record of two extremes of a democratic voice in action.

      Thanks for sharing!
      Paul