To some degree, the craft of field recording has become easier in the past decade. Technology has become so refined that recording any sound with reasonably good quality is a simple matter of flicking a switch and pressing a button. Is your cat groaning strangely? Hear a thunderstorm approaching? Both can be captured with very little effort.
Field recording becomes more challenging as we release control of our environment. Step outside your house and it becomes challenging to account for rogue air conditioners, distant industry hum, crowd chatter, and more. In fact, the more field recordists encounter these issues and embrace unpredictability, the more skill is needed to find a pure expression of sound. It’s not only technical challenges, of course. Politics, terrain, and other issues come between a field recordist and their goal.
In today’s post, Daan Hendriks shares with us how he overcame each of these challenges to capture the sounds of Africa. He shares his experiences traveling to remote – and sometimes dangerous – places, and how the equipment he brings affected his journeys from Uganda to Madacasar.
Creative Field Recording: The last time we chatted here on the blog, you were telling readers about your experiences recording in Africa. Let's back up a bit. What inspired you to begin field recording in the first place?
Daan Hendriks: When I started out as a game sound designer back in 2007, I was also doing a lot of sound effects recording to augment my personal library. I recorded anything I liked, usually indoors in my ‘studio’ or house, or I would go to museums where they had fascinating sounding objects such as steam engines. I also had a natural affinity with ambient sounds, and would use public transport to go to forests or other outdoor areas to record. So, the fascination with recording sound was there, but it wasn’t until I saw a video by Tim Prebble when it really kicked off for me. He filmed himself getting into his SUV, driving through the beautiful landscapes of New Zealand to arrive at a beach where he took out his MKH70 to go and record seals. That’s when I decided I should learn how to drive and use a car to get to interesting places for recording wildlife and nature sounds.
CFR: And what prompted you to capture field recordings in distant places? You've mentioned on your blog that Africa draws you, especially in terms of expressing sound art. Is there something that captivates you to record more "exotic" sounds?
DH: I am drawn to recording natural sounds that are rare to my own ears. There is real satisfaction in recording ‘difficult’ sounds, for instance of animals that are hard to approach or rarely vocalise. I don’t find recording wildlife in captivity that satisfying even though you get more reliable results. Though I do believe that animals in captivity often vocalise differently from those living free. I am fascinated by the language of animals – the calls made by wildlife, their emotive meaning and how little we understand about this as humans.
Also, when I pour over pictures of jungles or savannas, I always get excited trying to imagine what they would sound like. So, recording the ambience of a far-away place that is devoid of human sounds is a goal in itself.
CFR: You've been back to Africa a few times since we've last chatted. Can you tell us a bit about those trips?
DH: Since then I have been twice to Uganda and once to Madagascar. These three trips were all in 2018. I have not been back to the continent after that, and am yet to make any new plans. I am taking a long break from field recording while I re-focus myself on other audio things that I love, specifically game sound design, music production and learning more about synthesis.
Back in 2018 I decided I wanted to see what it would be like if I fully threw myself into field recording, which is why I did so many trips in that year. The first trip to Uganda was together with my partner and lasted three weeks, in which we traveled the entire country in a rented 4×4 and I recorded everywhere. I then returned a few months later for a 4 weeks trip, this time traveling alone, again in a 4×4 rental.
During the first trip I had recorded gorillas but failed to capture sounds of chimpanzees, so this was one big reason to return. I also wanted more rainforest ambient recordings as the first time I had visited during the rainy season, which has upsides in terms of wildlife but downsides when it comes to logistics and recording circumstances. Plus, I wanted to spend more time in Kidepo in the north, which is a beautiful and remote nature reserve consisting of expansive grassland savanna. Finally, I wanted to see what it would be like to be all by myself in a vehicle, tent and my gear for 4 weeks.
The result was mixed. I did come back with tons of recordings, many of which I was happy with, and I’d managed to track chimps on foot and set up my mics where they roost for the night. But I also came back feeling that nature in Uganda is still healing from years of conflict, and quite entrenched by human encroachment. And while it had been excellent to fully indulge myself in recording for 4 weeks, there was also a certain kind of loneliness that I felt while I was all by myself in these beautiful places. Mixed feelings, as being alone while driving around in this environment was also exciting.
I then went to Madagascar and this turned out to be quite a pivotal trip for me. Madagascar hit me hard. This country is so unique, it is essentially a continent onto itself – a blend of Asia and Africa in terms of people, culture and food. The flora and fauna are like nowhere else, it has many unique species of wildlife including lemurs and countless insects and amphibians, together with unique biomes such as the spiny forests. But the country is burning, and quite literally you see what is left of its nature disappear before your eyes. It is very saddening. Poverty here also struck me harder than elsewhere. All of this was compounded by my struggles with language, as my French is only basic.
The upside was that both my brother and dad spent some time with me down there, and it was very nice to have them be part of this. It was a six weeks trip in total for me, of which two weeks were with them while they joined me on my recording endeavours, and the other 4 weeks I spent by myself, accompanied by a driver that I had hired. I normally prefer to do all the driving myself but for a large part of this trip I wanted to go to remote areas where it was strongly recommended to be with a local, and I’m glad I did. Madagascar is a tough country to travel by car, the roads can be very bad but mostly it is down to endurance – a short day’s drive from A to B is 6 hours, normally a driving day would last 12+ hours of slow going through mud and sand tracks and numerous ferry crossings. There was always the threat of bandits as well, driving at night was a bit uncomfortable for this reason and generally not recommended. Wild camping was also less of an option due to the security situation being wobbly.
I did get a lot of unique recordings, but Madagascar being such a vast country that is rough to traverse by car, and this being my first time to visit, a lot of it was about discovery. Some places that I spent a long time getting to turned out to be disappointing for sound recording. For instance, there was a 3-day jungle trek that I had organised with several porters and a local guide which I ultimately called short by the end of the first day. After finally setting up camp and being continuously assaulted by leeches we went on the first exploration of the deeper forest to look for recording spots, but it turned out that it was impossible to escape the noise of rivers and water. This is the kind of situation that a language barrier makes hard to prevent because while I did ask many questions in French to the guide before setting off, a lot got lost in translation, even though I also had my driver ask them questions in Malagasy. Besides this, the simple truth is that they can really use your business, so when you ask if there is a lot of noise in an area, they will always tell you no, everything is perfect. I don’t blame them at all however, this is just one of the aspects of discovering a country and where to go recording.
Also, while 6 weeks is a lot of time, there were vast parts of the country that I simply couldn’t visit due to it being so difficult to travel in. I do intend to go back to Madagascar at some point in the future to get more recordings. But it was a pivotal trip for me, as it was exhausting, and I started questioning my motivations. Truth be told, when I returned home, all I wanted was to get back to doing sound design in a studio for some time while I reconsider why I travel to capture sound.
Listen to a recording of Mada Frogs recorded by Daan Hendriks.
CFR: You detailed your impressive kit to readers last time. Has your equipment changed in any way? Upgrades or downsizing?
DH: My main field kit consists of essentially two ambient recording rigs: a Double-MS Sennheiser setup (2x MKH 8040, 1x MKH 30) to record in surround, and a custom built SASS-like structure for faux-binaural recordings using a pair of MKH 8020s. I especially love the sound of the SASS, but the Double MS is a bit more practical and can be left out in the rain for hours without issues.
My recorder is now a Zoom F8 for the Double MS, and a Sound Devices USBPre 2 via optical into a Sony PCM-D100 for the SASS. I think the preamps on both the F8 and USBPre 2 sound excellent, and the build quality is great on both as well.
I also still use my Telinga parabolic dish together with either an MKH 8040 or 8020 for when I want to grab individual bird sounds. Sometimes I tape miniature omnis to the sides of the dish to record in LCR with a very focused mid. I’ve toyed a bit with using an MKH 70 out in the field for getting wildlife sounds, but it doesn’t fit my workflow.
Finally, the use of camouflage netting has become an important aspect of how I set up my recording rigs. I leave both the Double MS and the SASS out for up to 22hrs at a time, so hiding the mics is quite important – both to try and not distract animals and to try and avoid the attention of people. On the flipside, especially in Uganda I would often put a toy snake near my microphone rig. This was to deter baboons, who are notorious for wrecking stuff. Whether they are actually afraid of snakes though I am not entirely sure anymore, because they do eat almost everything. Either way, while my mics have survived, my tent was destroyed by a troop of baboons while I was out recording.
CFR: Is this kit any different from what you'd use for field recordings closer to home?
DH: It is the exact same, minus the toy snake!
CFR: To record in the harsh environments you visit, you thoughtfully plan everything. This includes a variety of audio gear of course to capture various sounds, as well as your vehicle, and much more. A lot of equipment is necessary. How do you feel your equipment affects your field recordings? How do you balance being prepared with mobility or the ability to capitalize on the unexpected?
DH: I have a bit of a moreish attitude to equipment. Perhaps I bring too much, the two ambient rigs described above do come with logistics challenges. In both Uganda and Madagascar, I would always hire porters to help me bring my gear deep into the forests. For the savanna areas, I could just drive everywhere by car, so it was less of a problem. That said, I did have to take stupid risks by getting out of my car and walking into the bush to set up mics. You can’t be sure what lies in wait in the tall grass or behind the foliage and trees. But I didn’t want to have park rangers with me to restrict me in my movement, so in the end I just took the risk. However, in some Ugandan nature reserves they really insisted on having a ranger with me in the car, for ‘protection’ – but it generally turned out quite fun and useful, as they always wanted me to get the best recordings I could, so they went out of their way to help me identify good spots.
When it comes to capitalising on the unexpected, I do always have a handheld recorder ready, and my gear is generally wired up and ready to go even when it is packed on my back while hiking. When in the car, it gets easier again. Especially in Uganda where I rented Landcruisers with modified roofs – the roof would pop up, safari style, so I could leave a microphone mounted under the roof and stop the car and start recording right on the spot.
In the end of the day, if I travel far, I don’t want to be there with inferior recording gear. I want to get the best recordings I possibly can, so while it can be a pain to carry that much equipment around, it’s always worth it.
CFR: Would you change anything for your next trip?
DH: The next time I go to Madagascar, I might not travel as much by car – I might rely more on domestic flights to get to where I want to be. This is the usual approach for visitors of the country, but I now see more value in it. Then again, there are still many parts of the country that you can only get to by car, boat or a combination – so as usual, a proper plan will have to be made.
But most importantly, I want to find the right reasons again for field recording in distant places. For a short time, it became increasingly something that I approached as work, and after having tried the ‘work’ attitude I’ve concluded that this isn’t where the fun is for me. It is about discovery and being there, and while I care deeply about getting results in the form of great recordings, I care less about what I should do with those recordings afterwards. If a place and its environment has truly inspired me, I want to dive deep into the material and sort it all out to release it as a library, or do something else with it. But if I am still answering many questions about this place, I don’t want to feel obliged to myself that the time and financial investment needs to be turned into a product.
CFR: What have you learned about field recording while travelling, as opposed to being in the studio? Have there been any revelations about the craft while on the road?
DH: There are the usual observations, where field recording is about relinquishing control and trying to second guess the environment as much as possible. The better you understand the place you are recording in, the more you can deal with the variables and mitigate randomness that is inherent with all field recording, and this is of course diametrically opposed to studio work where you are in full control of everything.
For me the biggest revelation has been to do with promotion and social media. I have grown mildly averse of having to advertise myself to the wider world. While there is a joy in sharing what you discover, the noise of social media became such for me that I have completely turned my back on it for over a year now. I dislike presenting field recording as if it is such an adventurous endeavour, or feeling like I should spam every relevant feed or group with my exploits. It seems that that is what you must do to stand out, but I find that cringe-worthy, so I am generally turned off by very active social media presence. If you want to get on, you must shout a lot about yourself, but field recording to me is more about introspection, quiet discovery and learning about an environment. That all being said, it is great to share, and the important thing for me is therefore about striking a balance.
CFR: What was your favourite experience while recording?
DH: Recording for me is almost passive, as I am generally not present during the recording. I spend hours to find the right place, then I set up my equipment and return about a day later. So, I can’t strictly say what http://daanhendriks.co.uk/wildlife-nature-sound-recording/sound-recording-roadtrip-through-uganda my favourite experience is ‘while’ recording – but what I absolutely love is digging through my hours and hours of material and finding exciting stuff in there.
My favourite aspect of the recording trips I’ve done is basically the travel and discovery side: the feeling of a new place slowly revealing itself to you. In the beginning everything is alien, and after some time, you start to recognise patterns, sounds, smells – it becomes a new kind of familiar, and you’ve made yourself a fleeting new home. Then when you return to your actual home, you have all these recordings that instantly transport you back to those places. These sounds now belong to you in their recorded form, like you have stolen something without depriving anyone or anything from something. You captured the sounds, they will exist forever, and through repeated listening can become iconic to yourself as the listener – it is strange but wonderful how satisfying this can be.
My thanks to Daan Hendriks for sharing his experiences, sounds, and photos with us.