How does one start field recording? What background do you need begin?
Many have followed a path from post production, game audio, or music. Others have discovered field recording from their work in production sound.
There is always a story hidden in each sound pro’s journey to capturing sound beyond the studio. That’s part of what this series is about. It’s especially interesting when a sound pro arrives at field recording from an unorthodox discipline.
Diane Hope’s story is one of these: her field recording career evolved from nearly a decade spent in academics. And that was only the beginning. Since then she has followed a varied career nature recording for radio, podcasts, audio guides, museums, as well as for a journey to the other side of the globe.
I was fascinated by these rare field recording projects. I reached out to Diane to learn more. She kindly spent an hour with me on Skype speaking about her experiences.
So, in today’s post Diane Hope shares how a pivotal moment in Arizona led her to field recording dragons on the opposite side of the planet.
From Academics to Creativity
Diane Hope’s field recording career had an unexpected beginning. Educated with a Masters in Ecology and a PhD in Biogeochemistry, Hope initially worked for nine years managing a large interdisciplinary urban ecology study for National Science Foundation at Arizona State University. Towards the end of that time, she began to crave a change.
“I’d been in science for nearly twenty years. I wanted to do something more creative,” she told me.
At that time, a friend invited her to watch a student jazz band perform in a coffee shop. It would prove to be a transformative evening.
“I walked through the door and I was eveloped with this wave of sound. They were playing a Thelonious Monk tune ‘Well You Needn’t’ – but they were doing it with a hip-hop rhythm. I suddenly realized – it was like an epiphany – I realized I loved jazz. I’d always quite liked music, but I never was really passionate about it. But more than anything,” she realized, “I love sound.”
Hope began the challenging task of a radical career change: “Over the next couple of years I developed this plan to leave my good paying job as a research professor and project manager at ASU.” Her goal was to travel the globe recording sound as a radio producer. She initially met with success.
“I had a real string of luck,” she told me, “I met independent producers who had worked for BBC … who liked my ideas. We pitched [and] we got money three times in a row for BBC Radio programs.”
Entwining Field Recording with Radio Programs
Hope’s radio programs are thoughtful, deliberate creations. The interviews, field recordings, and music create an incredibly immersive listening experience not only in the way the stories unravel, but with the ambiences, music, and sound in general.
Hope explained that her projects are conceived from a visionary source: “I get this sense of a really interesting topic, and then I start to hear fragments of a finished program in my head before I’ve ever done anything.”
She described how she structures the radio program upon this creative foundation: “When I start working on a theme, I’m trying to develop a narrative thread, trying to find really interesting characters who’ve got unusual lifestyles with great voices… For the Ghost Town program I made for Between Years on BBC Radio 3, [I found] this old caretaker guy who sounded fantastic – his voice just embodied the American West partly because he smoked two packs of Lucky Strike a day!”
Hope supports the characters and their stories with atmospheric field recordings. She elaborated: “I surround the voices with a shifting mosaic of sound – the style is called ‘sound montage.’ Sometimes it’s ambient sound that evokes the places where these people work – sometimes it’s music – often the music that the people themselves really like.”
For more than one program, Hope has camped out overnight in the wilderness to get the idea sound for a piece. For the show, Lonely Nights she told me:
“I was sleeping in my tent at two in the morning and all of a sudden I heard these awful screams, it sounded like a banshee wailing… after a few moments of sheer terror, I realized it was a bugling elk echoing around a large meadow in dead-still reverberant conditions. I had the microphone set up outside the tent, I was sleeping inside the tent so I just had to hit record … once my hand stopped trembling.”
Just as the elk finished bugling, another sound began: a coyote howl. “The minute I heard this coyote I thought, that’s ”lonely night“ right there, and he’s the coyote you hear right at the end of that program.”
Capturing the Sound of Shanghai
Hope expanded her sound work from radio features into other fascinating disciplines: educational podcasts, museum audio guides, and more.
It was at this time that she had stumbled across an article in the Smithsonian Magazine by David Devoss called “Shanghai Gets Supersized.” The article describes the explosive growth of the Chinese city. It wasn’t urban planning in particular that influenced Hope; it was the leading image for the article. The photograph presents a dense, hazy urban sprawl of high rises from 87 stories in the air, sliced through by the copper-coloured Huangpu River.
“I looked at it and I was just entranced,” Hope recalled. She thought, “What kind of a challenge would that be? What does that city sound like? Something so big, how do you explore that in sound or represent that in sound?”
Hope had been creating an online audio guide to watching wildlife around Flagstaff, Arizona, and was struck with inspiration.
“I had this idea to write some sort of guide to Shanghai involving sound… Audio guiding is really great for tourism and that kind of meshed with my interest in Shanghai,” she told me. She decided to create an audio guide of the Chinese city. “My idea was to give people signposts of where to listen, when to listen, and how to listen,” she explained. “It’s just enough education for them to create their own immersive audio tour.”
Soon she found Shanghai-based American sound recordist Terrence Lauren while searching for Shanghai recordings on SoundCloud. “We got talking, he told me about the artist in residency and he said it was a really obscure, opaque process as to who gets picked.”
“But I decided to have a go anyway.” Hope was selected for the residency program, and four years after seeing that magazine article, was stepping off the plane in China to capture field recordings.
Stealth Recording in Shanghai
Hope found that field recording in China required a change of tactics.
“I had my bigwig jammer with the fluff cover on and I went out my first morning on the Bund,” she said. “I wasn’t quite attracting a crowd – but everyone was giving me these looks… I realized I just couldn’t record anything incognito this way.”
Realizing that a conventional blimp recording set up wouldn’t work, on Lauren’s suggestion Hope switched to working with a pair of diminutive DPA 4060 omnidirectional microphones to capture binaural stereo, on microphone mounted behind each ear.
“I went out the first afternoon down this street full of musical instrument shops and I started wandering in and out with them because people are jamming and trying things out.” She returned home and listened to the recordings, certain that they would be full of handling noise. The results surprised her: “I… put the headphones on … and it was exactly like being there – I was SO excited!.”
The 4060s proved to be invaluable. "I’d walk down all these little back alleys into the Shikumen residential areas, through the street markets, watch … musicians in the park, and no one knew I was recording so everyone acted really naturally.
“I even snuck into the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, past the guards at the gate and … I found the music department, and I’d go down [to] the practice rooms? These doors are opening and closing and you hear these fabulous fragments of singing and piano playing. Then I found the traditional musical instrument department and that was ten times better because there’s all these really weird instruments. You couldn’t have done any of that with you’re a great big wind jammer.”
Hope reflected on the broader impact of culture on field recording:
“A lot of people in China – especially the older people, even [with] the little Zoom H2n – they see something that looks like it’s monitoring, it’s got a little red light on it, they get very suspicious. They went through the Cultural Revolution. There’s this fear of the State and they’re either very suspicious or very curious. So even the Zoom can be too much. People see it. I had a load of people look at me or come up to me with the Zoom just on a window ledge on a street where I was recording and say, What’s that? They’re very sensitive so that’s why the candid recording was so essential for China.”
You can listen to Diane Hope’s recordings in the Shanghai Sounds Guide website.
The Sound of the Winter Solstice
In 2015, Diane Hope launched a new venture: the Solstice Sounds Project. Unable to visit her family in the UK for Christmas, Hope decided start a collaborative field recording project instead.
She described the project to me: “I was very aware the Solstice was coming up and to me, northern latitudes, cold places, it’s a very quiet and dark time and so it’s a bit of a challenge to find interesting sounds. I was intrigued as to how other people were experiencing it.” She reflected, “Here I am 7,000 feet above sea level in the mountains and it’s going to be the Solstice soon, I wonder what the sound recording is like north of the Arctic Circle or in France … or in Australia.”
Similar to the way she begins her radio projects, Hope envisioned the project before it began: “I had this visual in my mind of points on this globe going from north to south.”
Hope invited a variety of international recordists to capture field recordings of wherever they were on the exact moment of the Winter Solstice. Soon the audio began streaming in.
“I was here sitting on my own, starting to receive all these recordings and emailing with people and hearing their sounds and I felt like I was really connected with people all over the world. It was a really nice feeling.”
The result was 22 field recordings from Straumsbukta, Norway to Plimmerton, New Zealand.
“I just wanted to create something that was beautiful that people enjoy listening to that they can follow even if there’s no talking all the time.”
Field Recording Equipment
I asked Diane hope about the equipment she uses to get the job done, and how it evolved.
“I have subsisted for ten years on a very minimal sound kit. I’m kind of this Zen master of minimal soundkitism,” she laughed.
Years ago, Hope’s first kit was a MiniDisc recorder. She wanted to improve her equipment, so she asked respected field recordist Chris Watson his thoughts while attending one of his workshops. He strongly influenced Hope’s selections. “Most of the microphones I own were all recommendations of his.”
Her Shanghai field recordings showcased the power of the DPA 4060 microphones. However, Hope cautions, “you have to be really careful with them because the wires on them are very, very thin. You need the adapters because they’ve got microdot connectors on the end and you need an [XLR] adapter… so you can plug it into your Sound Devices.”
She also carries a microphone in a conventional form factor: a Røde NT4 which she heard in action when working with experienced producer Matt Thompson on a feature for BBC Radio 4 about the evocative sound of the American freight train horn. I asked her about it.
“[While] it’s meant to be a studio mic, if you put it in the Rycote Windshield kit 4 – you can take it outside. I’ve done loads of outdoor wildlife recordings with it… it can do a beautiful job on wild soundscapes. Røde make very good microphones for the money.”
For a recorder, she mentioned “I was going to buy a Marantz, and [Watson] said spend the extra money and get Sound Devices, the preamps are so much better, you’ll never regret it and I haven’t. It’s fantastic.” She chose the Sound Devices 702.
“This is fine for anyone. The only thing I would do differently is I would buy maybe the 702T that has time code on it so you could work in conjunction with a camera man that needed time-coding if you were going to suddenly start doing some work with camera audio… The only upgrade I’d ever do is get a four track. It would be great to have a four track because then you could have a stereo mic going on one [stereo pair], you could maybe have a different mono mics on the other channels and then you could choose.”
Hope supplements her pro kit with a Zoom H2n, which she calls “my little backup, always-with-me, recorder. I discovered recently that Rycote make a mount for that too – which is essential if you don’t have a stable surface to rest it on – hand held you get a lot of handling noise without it.”
Capturing the Sound of Dragons
Years ago, Diane Hope found a colony of blue herons in Arizona. The prospect of recording them wasn’t easy, but that didn’t stop her from trying:
“I bivouacked out under the trees all night to get recordings of them,” she told me. “They only make the sounds when they wake up in the morning, then they all fly off the roost to go and feed, so you’ve got to be there, and they’re very nervous in wild situations.”
Years later, Hope found them in a more convenient, yet unlikely location: underneath the Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai. She found herself “a few hundred yards from this bustling tourist trap. I was almost on my own in this tiny little park.” She had discovered the living sonic embodiment of Chinese Dragons! Night herons nesting in the park above her. “It just sounded like dragons in the trees overhead.”
Thank you to Diane Hope for sharing her kit and field recording experiences with us.
Quick Links: Diane Hope’s Kit
- DPA 4060 omnidirectional condenser microphone.
- Røde NT4 stereo X/Y condenser cardioid microphone.
- DolphinEar hydrophone.
- Visit Diane Hope’s website.
- Listen to samples from the Solstice Sounds Project.
- Listen to Diane Hope’s Shanghai Sounds Guide.
- Follow her on Twitter.
Read more about the A Month of Field Recordists series.
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