Asking Questions through Field Recording – Q & A with Michael Raphael of Rabbit Ears Audio

2014/05/28

Michael Raphael and Helicopter

A few weeks ago, I interviewed Stuart Fowkes. Fowkes’ Cities and Memories website allows field recordists to post worldwide atmospheres on a soundmap, and even remix the originals. I wrote that a good way to supercharge your creativity is to record and share these “foreign” ambiences. Can you explore creativity closer to home, though?

You certainly can. Rabbit Ears Audio’s Michael Raphael is well known for his evocative sonic portraits of his home of New York City. In addition, he also shares sound effects collections of compelling subjects such as jet bikes, steam whistles, and military vehicles.

I wrote to Michael to ask about his thought on this. He graciously shared his ideas about capturing character and place through field recordings.

For those new to the field recording community, can you tell us a bit about how you became involved in pro audio?

When I was in school, I worked at my college radio station, where I was exposed to a variety of avant-garde music that helped shape the way I think about sound. I consumed copious amounts of music (not just the weird stuff), and started listening differently. During that time, one of my brothers was working as a production sound mixer, so I was exposed to that end of the business as well.

Right after college I ended up in the public radio system. I was both producing and doing engineering work. I ended up working out in the field a fair amount. I love radio as a medium to this day.

When did you begin field recording sound effects? Was it a particular gig, or a subject?

I dove head first into music concrete when I was in college and there was a Xenakis piece called Bohor that scared the living daylights out of me. It featured recordings of pitched down bracelets. It was so simple and shook me to my core. That is when I really started thinking about getting out and recording.

I remember asking my brother about gear, which then led me to many conversations with Buzz Turner, who ran Turner Audio. Sadly, Buzz has retired, but he helped me through finding the right rig. Buzz has helped me through many rigs over the last 15 years. The first setup Buzz and my brother talked me into was a Schoeps MS rig with a Sound Devices MP–2 as a front end. Back then it was feeding an old Tascam DA-P1. I think I was the only assistant producer working in public radio running around with a Schoeps MS rig. I still have to laugh about that. Everyone else was running around with RE50s and thought I was nuts.

It was that rig that helped land my first sound effects gig. A friend of mine had a gig recording some sound effects for a Smithsonian exhibit on the history of transportation in the United States. I went with her to record the sounds of some old trolleys and train equipment. That is where I managed to get the bug.

It was years later, in 2007, that I started the Fieldsepulchra blog. Initially it was a means to push me out the door and record more, and it slowly grew into something significant for me.

Sound Effects with Character

Your field recordings are quite focused. They are typically unique (a fog horn), or rare (jet bike recordings). How do you decide upon these unique sound effects?

I am driven by what fascinates me. When it comes to products that work for Rabbit Ears Audio, I try and have that sense of curiosity drive the work as much as possible. That approach always leads to interesting subjects, and sometimes it leads to projects that aren’t terribly cost effective. That’s okay too!

I like things that are unique and often difficult to capture. I don’t think the world is beating down my door for my Animal Bells library, but it was something that I had a unique opportunity to record and I took it. Now, if folks need rare Animal Bells, they have a place to go. The same is true for the Mi–24 Hind Helicopter. I had a unique opportunity to record a Hind and I took it. There are only a few in United States, so it was something I couldn’t pass up.

When describing the rocket recordings on the Tonebenders podcast, you mentioned how “curiosity” draws you into field recording. Can you tell us about that?

A large percentage of the material I record requires me to engage with the obsessions and hobbies of others. In the case of the REA_001 Rockets, I had to find enthusiasts that were willing to open up their passions to me. Not only was I asking to record their rockets, but I needed “quiet launches.” I had to record launches where no one would applaud or cheer after each rocket took off. Some of the rockets I recorded took months of labor and passion to put together and it was important for everyone to know that I respected that. Before I reached out to anyone, I spent time researching that world. In the process, I gained an understanding on how to best record the material, and also developed an understanding of rocketry fans. Having a base of trust and respect is important. If you are not curious or don’t respect the time of others, you are not going to get very far.

Incidentally, Rabbit Ears Audio has recently released a follow-up rocket library: Rockets 2: Static Burns.

Sharing Unique Recordings

What inspired you to share your sound effects on the Web at Rabbit Ears Audio?

For years I had been doing contract work here and there, and the majority of that work came from the fieldsepulchra blog. Editors would hear something they liked and it often led to work. It made sense to formalize that work into a storefront.

What kind of “quality control” do you do? How do you decide a sound effect or collection is something you want to share?

I like to hold my work to a high standard. We all have recordings that are useful and we keep in our libraries, but if you are selling a product, they should be held to a higher standard.

If I am going to release a collection it must have a strong sense of identity and there has to be diversity amongst that material.

Deeper Field Recordings

Your recordings document the identity of New York, such as a marathon, cycling, handball, and Halloween). Other ambiences are subtle, yet evocative, such as recording sleepy time Brooklyn. Others record important events, like Hurricane Sandy. What interests you about recording these places? How do you discover and capture their character?

When I go anywhere, I listen carefully to what is around me. New York is a complex place with a tons of things happening all of the time. When I’m thinking about capturing a place, I have to think about what slice I’m going to focus on. I rarely find myself wanting to capture “generic” New York. I want to capture specifics that evoke an emotion or sense of place. The same is true for any ambience. It is all about finding something that is evocative of what the place represents. If you listen carefully, you will be able to hear the things you want to capture and also hear the things you don’t want to capture.

Your written posts describe immersive detail about your recordings, and create a strong sense of “being there,” such as in your Cold Weather Pals post. Your recordings go beyond just sound and also involve those interesting details or stories. Do back stories and details play a role in your decision to record a sound?

I think this comes in part from the years I’ve spent working in radio. We all use sound to help tell stories, and for years I was making radio that told narrative stories. Many of the subjects I record involve the hard work and passions of others. I always want to learn new things and engage with them about their passions. I often record interviews with the people that I record with. Those interviews help with the librarian work, but I’m also genuinely interested in the stories they have to tell.

When you are surrounded by someone who has spent years collecting and restoring stationary steam engines, how do you not ask tons of questions?

Many thanks to Michael Raphael for sharing his thoughts!

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