A Month of Field Recordists: Miguel Isaza

Image courtesy of Liminaria.org

Image courtesy of Liminaria.org

The majority of field recording mentioned on this site is for a practical purpose: you need a sound, you fetch it, and then you use it. But does that mean all field recording is only captured, cut, and lined up in commercial projects?

Of course not. Many field recordists capture audio beyond the studio for enjoyment alone. Others explore boundaries of the sonic world itself and express them not in games or episodic television, but present them in pure creativity as art itself.

Miguel Isaza is one of those people. He has founded industry-leading sound websites Designing Sound and Sonic Field. He is editor for sound for media, sound art and sound technology at the Spanish Hispasonic Web portal. He is well known for his artistic field recordings, which he releases on via Bandcamp and on his own label, Éter.

I approached Miguel and asked if he would like to share his philosophical approach to capturing field recordings. I was curious what role – if any – equipment plays in his deeply creative approach to capturing audio.

I was quite thrilled that he agreed. So, today Miguel Isaza shares how his field recording explorations of the sonic realm delve into an interconnected “sonic web” to create a unique listening experience that reveals a deeper understanding about the experience of field recording itself.

Creative Field Recording: Can you share how and why you began field recording?

Miguel Isaza: I started when I was into sound design for media, in the usual process of looking for materials for sound effects. I began by simply going around with a Zoom H2 and then listening back to materials a lot, then processing, layering and designing them, so in those stages recordings started to get new lives a reveal new possibilities.

Miguel Isaza D50

CFR: How do you personally approach field recording for art, as opposed to “typical” field recording? Do you feel field recording for art is different than studio field recording?

MI: I don’t think there is an opposition at all. Actually, field recording serves as an invitation for not drawing strict lines between sound practices and actually intertwine them. I approach field recording as an extension of my listening practice, not so much towards a specific goal but more towards an experience, so most of the time I’m recording just for getting inside echoes, questioning time or printing some ghostly events which lead me to certain perceptual paths. So it is not really made because of an art project or a research, as it can be unintentional as well. It can be an excuse for listening; a way of remembrance; a technique for gathering resources for design and art; a musical task, etc, but at the end, it is not attached to a particular practice at all and instead it works as a meeting point between processes, and that makes it wonderful for me.

Image courtesy of Liminaria.org

Image courtesy of Liminaria.org

That is what shapes the “artistic” aspect of it I guess, such set of intentions and/or processes one explores or avoids in the actual listening-recording-playback chain, although it depends a lot on oneself, not only because of the function, use or aim, but because of the actual experience that is implied when recording, plus the set of values you give or ignore, also because it’s not merely auditory, but affective in the logic of the whole inter-sensory dynamics. Sounds happen both on the physical and in the psychic aspects of our experience, so field recording is about capturing signals in both aspects, involving both recording and remembering. Our listening memory and those sounds we cannot tell if are imagined or real, also get recorded in certain way. Also, one is not merely hearing but breathing, touching, seeing, thinking, etc and all that can also be involved in our sound experience, so when “in the field”, one actually finds a lot of processes going on, both in the invisible/acousmatic aspect, as in the visual/conceptual one. I guess that’s where field recording serves for an art and also can be an art on its own: when frontiers between a supposed reality and imagination are dissolved and you find yourself floating around both “the sounds of the world” and “the worlds of the sound.” In my case, I’m particularly interested in the latter, because it offers me a perspective in which field recording is mainly a creative listening practice, a prosthetic technology which allows to travel in sound, but not so much in static places or contexts – although some aspects of them are “preserved” in the recording – but in ever-changing realities. In that case, I would think that in artistic procedures is not about caring too much about a fixed idea of recording sounds which objectively inhabit the world, but more about the worlds arising in the listening experience, and this not something exclusive of sound artists or musicians, but also Foley artists and sound designers, because they really focus on the many layers happening inside a recording and the acousmatic contract which makes them to interconnect; that’s why vegetables can sound like flesh or a pair of coconuts work perfectly as gallop. It’s also interesting how it is approached in science or even medicine, where you find more and more layers of sonic relations being explored with field recording. It is actually interesting for politics, astronomy or religious studies… It’s a meeting point, as said before. So I would say the artistic aspect of field recording lies in that way of openly interacting with those possibilities present in the vast sonic web, pointing to the interconnection of them rather than fragmentation; opening doors to explore the field as an entanglement of multiple modes of listening in order to reveal a sonic multiverse that serves a point of convergence of elements which can be aesthetic, poetic, socio-political, spiritual, psychological or scientific, but are primarily a simple task of going around and listening.

CFR; Can you share your favourite field recording gear?

MI: I use a Sony PCM-D50 and an iPad’s internal mic. Sometimes I carry a Sound Devices USBpre2 to power a hydrophone made by Jez-Riley French, which also works nicely as contact mic. Also, I would say my notebook is also an important part of the kit, as it captures a lot of sounds the recorder can’t.

JrF Hydrophone

JrF Hydrophone

CFR: Why is this field recording kit your favourite, as opposed to other equipment?

MI: Because of my current workflow and needs. I used to go around with a larger field recording kit (dedicated recorder, different kinds of microphones, batteries, windshields, cables, etc) but over time I have been changing it a lot, simplifying it as much as I can. The quality and portability of a handheld recorder is enough for me as opposed to other equipment which can be better in quality or specificity but not for my needs. I think hardware has to be linked to your needs and workflow, never to a supposed standard. It can be simpler than what one imagines it has to be, so in my case I just want to print some signals, no matter how “noisy” or “detailed.” PCM-D50 is my favourite because is solid and works perfect in many conditions. It has been with me for years, so I know it pretty well. Nowadays I want to record quickly and in a very portable way, so it’s perfect to carry easily. It allows me to focus on other things such as contemplation, rather than being complicated with connections and stuff. I know I lose the opportunity of getting certain sound qualities, but I don’t need that.


CFR: Can you share with readers a favourite field recording, or favourite experience using this gear, or field recording in general?

MI: It’s a tricky question because there are many recordings you can deeply relate to, many times not just because the sound as such, but because of the whole moment. I remember one I did recently at the Pisa Baptistry of St. John. The place itself is so special both in the cosmological as in the mystical aspect, being a great expression of the numinous qualities of the sonic. I was sitting down contemplating the place, and after some interesting acoustic interactions, a lady suddenly arrived, then asked for silence and started to sing. It was pretty amazing not only because of the beautiful reverberation or the different layers of her voice interacting even when she stopped to sing, but mostly because of the way those echoes, in that particular space, made me feel. It was a sonic poem: the architectural drone, the deep hits, the microsonic subtlety; all sounds really felt magical to me, not mere footsteps, doors or voices being amplified because of material space, but actually magical spaces being revealed in the way all sounds interact detached from their sources. I’m not sure if it’s a favourite recording because of the sound as such or because of what I remember – probably both – but actually I think I like it just because is one of those moments you simply feel grateful for having the rec button activated.

Following your question, I think the amazing experience of field recording is not because of gear, but actually because of the experience as such. For example, I was recently heading to a wind farm to record a big wind turbine, and although the sound I finally got was very nice, the actual experience of walking for almost an hour, in a wonderful land and all the things that happened during the trip, were the amazing thing and actually charged the recording with memory and reverie. I have talked with friends about this and many of their experiences become “favourites” or memorable because of the whole process, not merely because of the sonic capture, although we all get crazy from time to time when we get some sound we really love. That’s actually why I love field recording, because in one side it asks you to be quiet, aware and go slowly, but in the other, invites you to explore, be active and curious. There’s a spiritual treasure in such practice, perhaps because it integrates two technologies: recording and listening, making you not only experience sound, but also dream with it.

Thank you to Miguel Isaza for sharing his experiences with us!

Quick Links: Miguel Isaza’s Kit


Audio recorders:

  • Sony PCM-D50 portable recorder with electret condenser microphones.

Other equipment mentioned:

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