Revealing Field Recording Craft Through Location: Interview with Mark Ferguson

2017/10/04

Field recording is often compared to photography. There are good reasons for this, too: both crafts sample our environment so they can share it, later. There is one key feature that separates the two, though: time. Photography freezes a specific moment in time and presents to others. On the other hand, field recording captures duration. It samples moments collectively as they evolve.

A recent project by nature field recordist Mark Ferguson explored this aspect in an interesting way. Ferguson was granted exclusive access to the 800 hectares of Slimbridge wetland wildlife reserve. Known for having the largest collection of captive wildfowl, Slimbridge also witnesses dozens of species migrate through the marsh. After repeated visits to the Trust and facing constant sonic challenges, Ferguson unveiled a project on his website that highlights the craft’s defining features from one special location: a sense of transition, the power of serendipity, and a revelation of experiences through sound.

Mark Ferguson tells us more in today’s article.

Creative Field Recording: What inspired you to begin field recording?

Mark Ferguson: My inspiration for field recording came out of my love for both sound and nature.

When I was about seven years old and in primary (elementary) school in Northern Ireland, I began taking violin lessons. I was really interested in the mechanics of sound production; in fact, the reason I started was pure and simple curiosity about the construction of the bow and how the instrument as a whole produced sound. I continued playing throughout grammar (high) school, involving myself with every available musical ensemble and eventually taking up guitar and music theory.

Alongside all of this, I had a deep and constant connection to nature and an interest in the outdoors. My dad enrolled me in the RSPB’s Young Ornithologists’ Club, which was the earliest exposure I had to the observation and categorisation of bird species. I also fished and hiked regularly, and I believe that time spent listening and observing during both of these activities had a huge influence on my current approaches to field recording.

After school, I ended up studying for a Bachelor of Music degree at Queen’s University Belfast. I completely immersed myself in academia; I was obsessed with sound, and spent every spare moment in libraries and studios learning and listening. As my studies progressed, I began drifting more and more towards electroacoustic and electronic/computer-based music. I decided about halfway through my second year to teach myself recording and computer programming, in order to really grasp the fundamentals of sound and begin manipulating it at the lowest possible level. During my final year at Queen’s, I won a travel scholarship which allowed me to organise a solo recording project around the Alhambra Palaces in Granada, Spain, where I made a number of detailed binaural soundscape recordings.

In mid-2012, I won an AHRC postgraduate studentship and subsequently began master’s degree studies in Electroacoustic Music Composition at the University of Manchester. During my time there, I experimented with more complex field recording methods and manipulated sound in multichannel studios using computer programming languages such as Csound, SuperCollider and Pure Data.

After graduating in 2013 and finding employment in professional audio, I made what I would call my first ‘proper’ wildlife sound recordings. I remember very distinctly that something just fell into place, and I realised then that I wanted to devote the rest of my life to recording sounds from nature.

Recently, I launched my own website, www.markfergusonaudio.com, to share my work with others around the world.

CFR: Why did you choose Slimbridge as a location?

There were many reasons, including wetland conservation interest, the logistics of travelling at the time, budget… What tempted me most of all, though, was the wonderful sense of transition at the reserve. There are hundreds of fascinating moments as species approach, pass and recede. Everything is in transition, from the smallest to the largest element. I became aware of this during initial scouting trips and knew I wanted to spend time listening and exploring there.

I also realised from the beginning that it would be one of the most challenging projects I had ever undertaken. We all understand the inherent difficulties of getting clean source capture, but a range of factors greatly intensified these challenges at Slimbridge: sometimes to the point of utter despair. For example, I couldn’t use a parabolic reflector: that would have meant too many questions and remarks from visitors and staff. In terms of remote deployment, I couldn’t leave large windshields or my main recorders in full public view for the same reasons, as well as the additional risks of theft and damage. The reserve is directly under a number of busy UK flight paths, is fairly close to the M5 motorway (which is especially audible during winter, when there’s less vegetation to absorb sound), suffers rather poor weather all year round and undergoes constant, essential maintenance from staff. In addition to all of this, the wildlife is often unpredictable and difficult to capture.

I wanted to find out what I could achieve with all of these challenges in place, in a year-long attempt to reveal the hidden sonic fabric of the place.

CFR: You have mentioned that you wanted to pursue a more “experience-based” field recording style. Can you share your approach with readers?

MF: I’m currently building a high-quality sound library, and one of the driving forces behind this is ‘the next species/natural phenomenon’. Most recordists will understand the constant desire to record something new, linked with curatorial objectives like preserving, categorising and ticking-off. It’s addictive. There’s also a certain level of pride when you capture that elusive species and add it to your collection.

I think it’s very important to have that driving force; however, for me the craft of wildlife sound recording is really about exploring. My approach is much more about embarking on the (intertwined) processes of discovery and revealing than about gathering sounds to create a bigger library. With Slimbridge, I felt there was an opportunity to incorporate these elements even more extensively into my overall approach, chasing raw experiences up-close using small microphones and trying to convey the energy behind them. I wanted to emphasise the unique dynamic of the reserve and weave narrative elements around it.

I suppose I can summarise what I’m trying to say with Luck: one of the portraits from the project, featuring several mute swans as they emerge from surrounding fog and pass just inches over a tall hedge on the southern tip of the reserve. You can hear the intimate details of their vibrating wing feathers, the natural Doppler effect conveying speed and passage… there’s a real sense of energy and motion. That was what I was aiming for; I was trying to capture the experience, not the species.

CFR: What were the effects of recording In this style?

MF: I suppose the first effect was an increased focus on sonic detail. I was using small, omnidirectional mics to chase these experiences, which allowed me to get incredibly close to my sources. In Scamper, for example, the wingbeat and body detail I captured was a natural consequence of that recording approach.

My own fieldcraft also developed over the project’s duration, especially for bird species. Once the remotely deployed mics were in an ideal spot, I had to be patient and wait things out. If a flock of geese suddenly appeared several hundred metres away, the temptation was to change position; but of course, in the process of changing I would miss a golden opportunity in the original spot. Ultimately, I found that if I did my research and observed flight patterns, heights, feeding times and so on, I would optimise my chances of getting decent avian recordings. Given the amount of restrictions and challenges outlined previously, I really had to think hard about my approaches in the field.

There was also something liberating about recording with small, concealed mics. You take yourself out of the recording and sacrifice a lot of control. When you place three sets of recorders/mics in different areas at the same time, you also begin to listen to the overall soundscape: to connect sounds together over a wider area instead of isolating and analysing individual elements. (That comes later in the studio or at home, when you have a change to sit down and absorb minute details.) So, I suppose the third major effect was a greater appreciation of the wider soundscape and how individual recordings are a part of it.

CFR: Nature recording typically seeks to separate human sounds from wildlife recordings. You had a different approach. Can you explain this to us?

MF: This was largely shaped by the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust’s ethos of bringing people into direct contact with nature. I observed many visitors connecting directly with the natural world by hand-feeding geese, pond-dipping and so on, and it made sense to embrace this rather than fight against it. I feel that there would have been an unnatural, sterile quality to the project otherwise, since the reserve is almost never free of people; that said, there is a balance between incorporating anthropogenic material for framing and complementary purposes and having recordings where absolutely nothing beneficial is added by human-induced sounds.

To be honest, I find urban and suburban wildlife recordings just as interesting sonically as more ‘conventional’ recordings made in remote environments. This is not to say that I don’t seek out isolated locations free from human interference: most wildlife sound recordists do, and two of my upcoming projects will take exactly that approach. It just means I hear a lot of opportunities for fascinating nature recordings in populated areas, where other recordists would perhaps reject them outright.

As an example, earlier this year I made a recording of tree bumblebees foraging amongst cotoneaster plants in a suburban parking space. The sounds of the nearby motorway created some of the most interesting juxtapositions I have ever heard; the microphones brought the bees directly into proximate space, immediately in front of the listener, and the motorway framed everything spatially. I feel there was an opportunity for contrast that wouldn’t have been there if the bees had been foraging in a quiet meadow.

CFR: What was your thought process while choosing equipment?

MF: My equipment needed to be good enough to achieve high-quality recordings, but not so expensive that I couldn’t risk leaving it remotely. I needed the best overall balance between audio quality, ability to camouflage, robustness and cost.

In terms of recorders, I had lots of top-quality options that I could have used from my regular gear, but after a bit of testing and experimentation I ended up going with three Zoom H4n and H4n Pro units. The on-board mics weren’t good enough, but using both XLR inputs with DPA 4060 matched pairs meant the quality and flexibility I needed was there. I also occasionally used Primo EM172 capsules, but favoured the openness, clarity and LF response of the DPA mics despite their slightly higher self-noise.

I couldn’t speak highly enough about DPA 4060s. They are superbly engineered and allow so much flexibility in the field: brambles, branch forks, walls, fences, bird nests and other spots become ideal, discreet placement options with those little mics. In a public wetland reserve, they were the logical choice. I could place stereo pairs up a tree somewhere, or use separate XLR cables to place each one ten or twenty metres apart, allowing me to vastly extend my coverage of a single area.

For wind protection, I went with my usual Rycote Lavalier Windjammers and added a variety of soft materials around recorders and wires for camouflage. I also custom-built a variety of accessories for very specific situations; for Connection, I built a small, metal wrist brace to hold a single 4060, which allowed me to record detailed sounds of grain ingestion exactly the way I wanted, with optimal mic positioning.

Other essentials included clothes pegs, chopsticks, dry bags (in case of rain), spare SD cards, batteries, binoculars, and a flask of coffee. I never go anywhere without coffee.

CFR: Often access to special locations is limited, or requires working closely with “gatekeepers.” Slimbridge is a very special location. What was your experience working with the staff at Slimbridge?

MF: The staff and volunteers at the reserve are superb, and they do incredible work every single day.

I owe a particular debt to Dave Paynter, the Reserve Manager. We met to discuss the project in early 2016, and he understood exactly what I was trying to do. Although it wasn’t possible to access areas in front of the hides – that would have caused far too much disturbance, especially during breeding season – he granted access to lots of hidden spots around the wetlands. If I hadn’t had access to those, I wouldn’t have been able to make many of the recordings featured in the finished project.

If you are recording around a managed nature reserve, establishing a working relationship with the staff and volunteers there is crucial. They hold a wealth of on-the-ground knowledge, and you can save hours in the long run simply by listening and taking their advice.

CFR: Were you able to access Slimbridge many times? How did this affect your recordings?

MF: Yes: I was there morning, noon and night, thanks to the access granted by Dave. From spring 2016 onwards, I would regularly get up at 2am in order to start placing mics in the right spots before sunrise.

Despite this constant access and level of commitment, about 97% of the recordings from the project were unusable. I recorded for hundreds and hundreds of hours, but was mostly defeated by traffic noise, aircraft and other anthropogenic disturbances (except where I wanted to work it in purposely). It takes a particular kind of person to persist despite these setbacks: to continue to get up at 2am in the cold and suffer through maybe three consecutive, ten-hour recording attempts without results. This is something that is simply acknowledged as part of the wildlife sound recording craft. Because of these demands, there is a mutual, often unspoken respect amongst us which can be difficult for others to fully understand.

CFR: Is there a recording you are particularly proud of? Why?

MF: Frenzy is definitely a favourite.

After many months of failed attempts and persistent observation, I managed to record the sounds of frantically feeding black-headed gulls – perhaps thirty or more – around a special feeding cage designed for diving ducks in the centre of the reserve. I wanted to convey the sheer energy of this event and place the listener right inside it, but that proved incredibly challenging. I had problems with phase cancellation caused by surrounding reflective surfaces. When I found a way around this with a boundary mount method, maintenance and cleaning machinery would start up. When I worked with the staff to choose the best time to avoid this, the weather was poor or the gulls wouldn’t show.

Eventually, I got what I was after. It’s an intense sonic event many visitors will come across on a visit to the central reserve, but rarely this close and in such detail. I like to think I did something to reveal hidden sounds within the flock that people wouldn’t normally be able to experience.

CFR: How has this experience affected your craft? What’s next for you?

MF: It’s given me a privileged insight into a world-famous, globally significant wetland reserve that few others have had. It’s also reminded me of how important it is to seek out hidden sounds – to go beyond the obvious – and reaffirmed my belief that narrative in sound recording is a hugely important element. There is so much potential for storytelling locked away in our subjects.

Regarding future work, I already have two other major projects underway. One will hopefully launch this winter, and will focus on sounds from an ancient and very peaceful location in Dartmoor National Park; the other will explore a number of recordings made in a secret location in the Cotswold Hills in Gloucestershire, and should launch around spring 2018. I’ve also just released a short environmental film called Green Space, which I completed in my spare time using computer programming languages and a customised microcomputer. As described on my website, it explores themes of noise pollution and green infrastructure in our cities using a series of hard-hitting juxtapositions. It’s been received very positively worldwide.

Some of my library recordings were recently played on BBC Radio 4, and later in the year I’ll be uploading a new, 2017 series featuring more hand-picked sounds.

My thanks to Mark Ferguson for sharing his thoughts with us.

All photos courtesy of Mark Ferguson.

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