A Month of Field Recordists: Gordon Hempton

2016/09/07

Gordon Hempton - Gordon Hempton 2012

Gordon Hempton is one of the most inspiring figures not only in field recording, but in the entire discipline of pro audio. Gordon is an American field recordist motivated by a belief that we are all enriched by the message the earth is sending. This has led him on a powerful mission: to preserve the few natural acoustic wildlife spaces on the planet.

To spread the word about this vital task, Gordon created the One Square Inch of Silence project, a mission to protect the Hoh Rain Forest of Olympic National Park from noise pollution. He has captured many sound effects there, which he shares on his Quiet Planet website, along with other pristine field recordings of forests, waves, and weather captured worldwide.

He has educated tens of thousands about the importance of sound through his lectures and the indie film about his vocation, Soundtracker. His approach to field recording has influenced countless other sound pros.

I was curious about the role equipment played in Gordon Hempton’s vocation, and how that influenced his goal of preserving the voice of the planet. He kindly agreed to share his thoughts and experiences with us.

So, today Gordon Hempton gives us a rare treat: he describes the equipment he uses, why, and how his choices evolved. What’s more, he shares a valuable lesson: the importance of the role of the field recordist as a listener, and how that skill helped him in a fascinating experience in the Kalahari Desert.

Creative Field Recording: You’ve mentioned you have over 20 microphones. Which is your favorite microphone and audio recorder?

Gordon Hempton: A Neumann KU–81i (modified), [and a] Sound Devices 722 (modified).

CFR: Why is it your favourite?

GH: Neumann produces a full-bodied sound and the KU–81i images the spatial field so well – the results are outright hallucinogenic when properly positioned. Sound Devices has clean pre’s, rugged and dependable, with handy controls that are well thought out. Both require modification for use outdoors under adverse weather and nighttime activity.

Gordon Hempton's Neumann KU-81i

Gordon Hempton’s Neumann KU-81i

CFR: Which equipment did you begin using to record nature sounds, and how did that evolve to your current kit?

GH: I have to laugh, because in the beginning I thought it was just about buying the right equipment and going to work. Everyone has to pay for their education one way or another – my first expense was to visit an audio discount sales office and bust my budget on eye candy that did not perform as needed. Then I asked studio engineers for advice and they pointed me to a pair of cardiod condensers in ORTF configuration. This sounded good but the audible hiss from inherent mic noise drove me crazy when recording quiet ambiences. It was great for train sounds and this is when I first started recording trains, hopping freight, and interviewing hobos in the jungle. I went on to read microphone handbooks to lower inherent noise within my low to no budget. I visited Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology and learned about parabolas and acoustic gain which is noise-free and then improvised on this to design a stereo parabola system. But as I stepped closer to my answer new questions appeared. I noticed how two microphone systems side by side were decidedly different not just in inherent noise, frequency response, but spatial definition. Transient response appeared just as critical as low noise. Instead of getting closer to my answer the question just got more complex.

After paying for my education with a series of expensive but wrong choices, I started to rent equipment to hedge my bets. Gotham Audio in NYC sent me my first Neumann Dummy Head as a rental with an option to buy for $750/week. I inquired about the possibility of renting after seeing that it was used to evaluate concert hall acoustics and they agreed. It was love at first listen. I purchased the world’s best recorder at the time a Nagra IV-S that same year.

Gordon Hempton recording at Rialto Beach

Gordon Hempton recording at Rialto Beach

Outfitted with the right gear, I was still destined to remain with my day job for another six years before I was able to become a full time professional thanks to a grant from the Lindbergh Fund. But as the adage goes: When opportunity knocks you have to be ready to answer.

CFR: You have mentioned that you don’t see yourself as a field recordist, but more of a listener who is receiving the message the earth is sending us, and your microphone as the ears that hear this unedited message. You’ve said that it’s important to hear this message purely, and unfiltered. Many microphones will colour sound in some way. Given such an important task, how did you approach choosing equipment to emphasize the purity of this message?

GH: Yes, my art is listening and it is a performing art just like a singer or musician except on the other end of the propagation line. Thoreau once described how the sound of a bell from a nearby village to Walden Pond was two sounds, the original sound and then the sound as heard as it travels outward through the environment. My job is to explore the acoustic environment, blindly, and intercept sound waves. It’s amazing how one or two centimeters in any direction can add just the right touch to my experience. Then when I hear something that feels great – the space feels sacred – I replace my head with the Neumann KU–81i.

It takes time to listen, unlike a camera with fast shutter speeds. And as I listen I hear not just music but the current news and information flow emanating from a natural place. It’s a bit like watching an aquarium and noticing how each fish is doing its own thing but when you let your eyes relax and view all the fish at once, you see how the whole aquarium shows pattern, rhythm, community.

So when it comes to equipment selection my goals are simple. Just get as accurate as possible with replicating the human experience. Every once in a while I read a spec sheet that is so impressive that I will get my hands on it in hopes of lightening my load. I have not found a better system yet.

Gordon Hempton moving onto location in Amazon

Gordon Hempton moving onto location in the Amazon

Some critics of my work say that my recordings, while good, have limited value because the listener must use headphones to get the binaural image that documents the acoustics of my wilderness amphitheaters. This is an unfortunate false assumption today left over from the 60s when binaural was first used commercially and before innovations. Not only does the KU–81i play back great over speakers but because it is technically a two channel surround microphone system with sound field information it can be processed to however many channels are needed using such processors as Dolby Pro Logic II. To my ears the KU–81i is the perfect choice when you want authenticity with a lot of options in the studio.

In the end, my recordings are valuable but not nearly as valuable as saving the places that I visit. This is why I founded the One Square Inch of Silence Foundation to save natural areas from noise pollution. Quiet Planet, my business, also donates 10% of all proceeds from direct sales towards numerous other environmental non-profits that include saving quiet and fighting noise pollution in their mission statement.

CFR: Can you share with readers why you prefer to record with binaural microphones?

GH: I work in the same style as classic landscape photographers. Binaural microphones do a great job at replicating the human hearing. Binaural works well on stereo headphones (increasingly the choice of audio playback for personal entertainment and gaming) and also, if the right binaural system is used, on speakers. I am not trying to sell binaural on anyone, in fact, I highly recommend that each field recordist follow their ears and use whatever microphone system sounds best – ultimately that is your only choice because it will be your feelings that guide you towards your next best recording. And if you find your feelings change over time with what you are using, maybe it’s time to try something different.

CFR: You’ve written often about finding pure, natural spaces untouched by noise pollution. I imagine many of these places are quite remote. How do you manage to bring your equipment to such remote locations?

GH: I have observed noise from a tourist generator 20 miles away through my recording system. I know this because of the time of day this intrusion occurred on my recording and then visiting that tourist facility later that day and interviewing them on the exact time that they start to provide electricity to tourists – 6AM. This was in the Kalahari Desert where dry air would in theory increase atmospheric attenuation. The size of a circle with a 20 mile radius is 1256.64 square miles. That’s a huge recording studio! So if you want a noise-free recording using a microphones system that lacks rejection then you are going to have to travel to the most remote places on the planet.

You can get explicit directions about how to do that from the blog on the Quiet Planet website or in the articles that are included with each Quiet Planet collection.

Most of my trips start with a jet, then car or jeep, often a boat then ultimately backpacking for days with a guide. My equipment is in pelican cases until I move to foot travel. While I backpack, one set of gear is safe inside my backpack and a second set of gear is slung around my shoulder in DIY weatherproof bags that are ready to record at a moment’s notice – very important! You must be able to start recording within three minutes (max) at anytime. If it takes you longer you are going to miss a lot of opportunities.

But think about this: if you are going where no one else is, and the world’s current head count is 7.3 billion people, there’s got to be a reason. Maybe political violence, large man-eating cats, viperous snakes, deadly spiders but most often disease or extreme weather conditions that make unprepared survival unlikely. Do your homework before you go and whenever possible find a reputable guide.

This all sounds expensive, and it is. You might only be able to afford a trip once a year or only every five years, but if planned correctly it will prove in the long run to be a more equitable use of funds than recording locally.

CFR: You’ve mentioned that you enjoy contrasting nature recordings with other louder sounds, such as one of your favourites: train recordings. What gear would you choose to record that type of voice or sound?

GH: The same equipment, actually. My Nuemann KU–81i will handle sound pressure levels from 28 dB or 100+ dB with equal ease, it is just a matter of settings and positioning for balance. If the sound pressure levels fall below or above these levels I have to change microphone systems.

When I say balance, I don’t mean equal signal strength on both channels, or placing a featured performer center stage. I mean swinging your microphone system back and forth while you listen through your headphones. While the sounds are coming in, just let them flow into you and balance your feelings. Every sound creates a feeling, a complex soundscape can have complex feelings but not usually, the feelings often summarize. When I have that magic feeling in my sights, I setup and record.

In the case of recording both a passing train and a songbird at once, as in the indie film Soundtracker, things get new. The same rule applies – I have to listen to my feelings even when insanity takes over.

It’s a fact – the more you record, the better you get. So don’t let my advice on equipment or location hold you back from recording today, wherever you are and with whatever gear is at hand. Go for it!

CFR: Can you share with readers a favourite experience or field recording you’ve captured on your favourite gear?

GH: The Kalahari was hot as hell – triple-digit temperatures. I was there to record morning birdsong as part of a global project but there weren’t any – it was the seventh year of a drought. What was I going to do, I simply had to have birdsong.

Gordon Hempton in the Kalahari Desert

Gordon Hempton in the Kalahari Desert

Dr. Liversedge, my English-speaking bird expert and driver, plus Bertis my native guide were my only companions while we crisscrossed the famous red sands of the Kalahari Desert. I learned that Bertis only knew English words – Lions and NO Lions. Whenever we pulled over to listen and stretch our legs, I would give Bertis the look and he would say, “No Lions.”

Days went on with wind, heat, torture and little promise of success. Then I saw on the far horizon a touch of green and heard the faintest birdsong. I knew green meant life, meant song, and enthusiastically pointed in the direction for Dr. Liversedge to drive. Coming to a stop at the edge of the Bush, I lean over to grab my gear and reach for the door lever… Bertis erupts, “Lions!”

I looked around – “I don’t see any lions. How does Bertis know?” Dr. Liversedge asks Bertis this simple question and initiates a long conversation until I hear, “Bertis does not know how he knows but he knows.”

“So there’s an element of doubt,” and I got out while they simply watched. Just a few steps into the Bush I was suddenly met by five lions! Very slowly I back tracked to the vehicle and got safely inside with new respect for Bertis.

We drove several hours further to a place called Bushman Fountain consisting of several water holes with a thick film of green algae. On some of the more prominent rocks there were petroglyphs left thousands of years earlier by Bushman hunters. Such a small person would no doubt have to listen to survive and would choose wisely their position to accomplish a task that would take days. What did he hear? I set up my binaural microphone there, in the position of the Bushman artist.

Africa Bushman Fountain Petrogyph

Africa Bushman Fountain Petrogyph

At treasured opportunities like these I usually set up a second binaural system to document other experiences. In this case it was about 100m distant on a bare patch of ground among some bushes that looked as though a large carnivore might lurk awaiting prey who dared to quench their thirst.

Both positions proved to be excellent choices because I recognized that both the Bushman and the Lion listen to survive – I just needed to get out of the way and follow their advice.

Mission accomplished, Bertis asks me through Dr. Liversedge, “Is there is anything that I would like to bring back to America?”

Thinking of my 5 year old son, I said “Yes, I would like a magic stick.” I wasn’t sure how these words would translate but Bertis said he knew where one grew and gave Dr. Liversedge instructions in Afrikaans.

Hours later we stop to my total surprise at the exact same place that I had seen the lions. Bertis grabs the door lever and I shout “LIONS!” He calmly nods his head, “No Lions.” How does he know? Another long conversation ends with the same answer. “Bertis does not know how he knows, but he knows.” Together we walk into the Bush and cut the magic stick. As we stroll back to the Land Rover we notice, lounging on a knoll, all five lions once again and they have eaten.

Bertis is a true listener.


Gordon Hempton has generously shared some tracks for Creative Field Recording readers.

Nature’s largest violin.

Bushman fountain.

Steam engine.

Many thanks to Gordon Hempton for taking the time to describe his kit, his reflections, and field recording experiences with us!

Quick Links: Gordon Hempton’s Kit

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