Field recordings are often compared to photography. Why? Well, many feel sound effect recordings are an “audio snapshot,” a focused study of a specific event beyond the studio. Field recordist Des Coulam has written about this, as has Cities and Memory’s Stewart Fowkes.
There’s one key difference, though. It’s pretty easy to ground a photograph to a specific place on the planet after the fact – simply match the locations by eye. Audio tracks are more nebulous. Was that market recorded in northern Bangkok, or in the centre? For an inexperienced listener, that’s almost impossible to determine from sound alone. Field recordings are a more difficult to pin to location.
Relating a sound to a specific place isn’t a simple task, though. What’s the best way to show a sound clip in a space? A GPS list? A Google map? And what’s the best way for listeners to experience them? One field recordist has been a pioneer exploring these questions: Ian Rawes.
Rawes is the mind and ears behind the London Sound Survey. Since 2009, that website has plotted field recordings on a map of the English capital. Ian Rawes and his website have been featured on a number of publications including The Wire magazine, the BBC, The Guardian, and others.
I have admired Ian Rawes, his work, and his website for many years. In addition to adding field recordings on the London Sound Survey and sharing them with others, Rawes has explored the nature of sound maps themselves with fresh, interesting ideas.
I asked Ian Rawes if he would be interested in an interview about this, and the gear he uses to capture his field recordings. He kindly agreed. So, today Ian shares his ideas on sound maps as well as another provoking thought: how field recordings become a wormhole to transport a listener to another time and place.
Creative Field Recording: How did you first begin field recording? What was your first field recording?
Ian Rawes: Once I’d decided I wanted to make field recordings, I searched the internet for a long time trying to decide on a good set-up to buy and use. Some of the recordings by the anthropologist Steven Feld impressed me a lot, especially those on his ‘Time of Bells’ CDs. He’d used a special pair of mics made in Oregon by a small business called Sonic Studios. I sent my money off to the USA and when the mics arrived I began trying them out around the house and then wore them on a trip to my local corner shop. They looked like a pair of headphones, with a headband holding the mics in place near the temples. The mics themselves were very small and concealed inside fabric windshields.
The first serious recording made with them was on a Sunday morning in early 2008 at a London street market called Petticoat Lane. As the name suggests, the market sells clothes as well as other non-perishable goods. It’s been there for a long time. The traders there carry on the old habit of raising cries to sell what they’ve got, so it seemed like a good place to go and record. I started at the north end of the market and walked slowly down the Lane as the recorder was running.
This method of recording doesn’t easily let you monitor what’s happening, so it’s a case of setting your levels at the outset, moving quietly and not turning your head abruptly, otherwise, in the absence of visual cues, it creates a confusing stereo image. When I got home I couldn’t wait to hear the results. Having the sounds of the outside world recreated vividly indoors was really surprising and exciting. It was like the roof had been taken off the house or, through recording alone, you had somehow opened up a wormhole to a different place.
CFR: What was the inspiration for the London Sound Survey website?
IR: The idea for it came out very gradually. For a long time I’d wanted to start a website about London as a way to explore and appreciate those aspects of it I liked, but I couldn’t think of a good, original angle. This began to change when I started work at the British Library’s Sound Archive as a storeman. I was based in a large warehouse about a mile or so away from the main Library building. There were no senior management around, so it was a great place to work with a friendly, democratic sort of atmosphere.
I grew curious about the recordings I was handling and carrying around every day. Some were tapes made by amateurs who’d recorded all sorts of things: birdsong and other wildlife sounds, folk music, and more unusual subjects like foghorns. One collection of tapes even featured the sounds of bus journeys on every route in Yorkshire, a large county in the north of England. My first thought was to record street sounds in London, maybe burn them onto CDs and give them to the Sound Archive to add to their collections. But I realised that very few people would ever get to hear them that way, so I decided to make a website and share them online instead.
CFR: The London Sound Survey site takes a different approach to displaying sound geographical on a map (as opposed to a Google map). Can you share what inspired this approach?
IR: At work somebody once said something about ‘sound maps’, a term I hadn’t come across before. But it was obvious what a sound map would have to be: points on a map that you clicked to hear sound files from different places. There were a few examples online: one from New York called Soundseeker and the Soundcities series of maps by Steve Tanza, an artist from south London.
These, like several other projects, were based on Google Maps. I tried to make sense of the Google API documentation to learn how to make my own sound map but I had little coding experience and so didn’t get very far. I tried a simpler approach, which was to divide London up into a grid of just over 100 squares and then assign recordings to those squares. The site’s content management system would then total up how many recordings there were for each square and display the number as a clickable link.
I probably got the idea of a number-grid from the National Lottery, and told myself there were advantages to this approach over a Google sound map – but this was just self-consolation for not being able to understand how to make one. Later I would try out another non-Google approach using clickable image maps which I think has more going for it. It’s a diagrammatic method which allows you to use any graphic as the map’s basis. You’re not tied to having to represent location with any accuracy, or even at all. Exactly where a recording was made isn’t necessarily the most interesting about it. Instead, you might want to represent different times of the year or other values, such as similarity.
CFR: You have mentioned that while many sound maps take a “preservationist” approach to documenting audio, you prefer to see your recordings and the sound map as a current, “living” sounds. Can you share with readers why this approach appeals to you, and what inspired it?
IR: The film ‘Cloverfield’ is meant to be made of footage shot on a video camera by one of the protagonists. Early on he has to explain this by saying that he’s ‘documenting’ some event, and this immediately marks him out as a prat. It’s a pompous thing to say.
There is a problem in trying to account for your actions when the fundamental reasons for them are not obviously open to introspection. You can strike an altruistic pose and say you’re out there documenting sounds for the general good. Or, over-compensating for that, you claim it’s all for selfish reasons: you do it to improve your job prospects or to gain recognition and esteem.
I thought Philip Larkin’s explanation for why he wrote poems was reasonable: he said they were his way of preserving fragments of experience so that they could be reproduced indefinitely in the minds of readers. Perhaps that’s similar to what I try to do in making recordings and thinking of ways to organise and present them on web pages. I get pleasure from what I do otherwise I’d try something else, and I’m pleased if other people find pleasure in the results.
There’s much more urgency involved in projects around oral history, or recording languages and folk customs and musical forms which are threatened with extinction. That’s where documentary or preservationist goals become substantial.
CFR: What is your favourite field recording equipment?
IR: Ideally it would be a time machine, as an extension of the general principle whereby you get new kit to help extend the range of situations in which you can make recordings. So many of the historical references and recordings I’ve collected suggest that the London street life of the past was a lot more lively and interesting-sounding than today.
What I do have and like a lot is a pair of DPA 2006C omindirectional mics fitted to an old Beyerdynamic headphone headband with plumber’s clips. This lets me wear them on each side of my head, like the Sonic Studios mics I began recording with.
CFR: Why do you prefer this equipment, as opposed to other gear?
IR: I like the stereo image which results from this headworn array. You get good sound localisation which, while not as vivid as that produced by in-ear binaural mics, nonetheless works well over both loudspeakers and headphones. You can’t monitor what you record but that’s not too important provided you’ve set your levels right. The mics are omnidirectional so what you can hear is pretty much what they’ll pick up.
There are drawbacks. The mics with their protruding XLR cables make your head look like that of the Borg Queen, so it’s not the best method for busy places. Wind protection is only as good as what can be achieved with foams and furry covers. Lastly, it’s very difficult to stay quiet for more than a few minutes at a time. The mics will pick up your breathing if you’re not careful or your stomach rumbling. You can put them on top of an acoustic baffle on a tripod instead, which solves most of those problems, but it becomes a hassle carrying all that around.
The DPA 2006Cs have a really fine sound. I can’t describe it precisely apart from vague words like ‘detail’, ‘sweetness’ and so on. I prefer them to the more expensive Sennheiser MKH-8020s which I own, although the Sennheisers have lower self-noise which makes them much better suited to very quiet environments.
CFR: Can you share a favourite experience or field recording you’ve captured using this kit?
IR: Nearly all the recordings on the Waterways sound map were made using the headworn DPAs as those places were just about right for them: not too quiet and not too busy. It’s an easy set-up to carry around and you can plonk it on your head and start recording in a few seconds.
The recording below was made inside one of the machine rooms in Tower Bridge. The bridge uses powerful electric motors to raise the road sections when a tall ship needs to pass through, and what you can hear in the recording is the motors engaged in this effort. Listeners into drone music may enjoy this.
Many thanks to Ian Rawes for sharing his field recordings and website with us!
Quick Links: Ian Rawes’ Kit
- Sonic Studios omnidirectional binaural headworn microphone.
- DPA 2006C omindirectional microphones.
- Sennheiser MKH 8020 omnidirectional condenser microphone.
- Visit Ian’s London Sound Survey website.
- Follow him on Twitter.
- Listen to his recordings on SoundCloud.
- Watch an interview with Ian Rawes on L4L.
- Ian writes about the London Sound Survey on Sounding Out!
Read more about the A Month of Field Recordists series.