Invisibility and Biophonies: the art of field recording

Parabolic on clifftop

Over the last few months I have read a few articles and a book or two written by well-known people associated with field recording, and I am somewhat disappointed with their comments regarding how field recording should be done. It is as if anybody who is not recording in a way or with a purpose, other than the method they consider correct, are wrong and therefore should be considered as inferior.

Everybody can go about recording in anyway they want. The reason why they have gone about recording in the way they have should be inherently obvious to listeners; if it isn’t then they may well have failed in their objective but this is no reason to castigate their methodology, unless their approach has caused distress to the subject. We all have to learn from our mistakes, after all.

I made my first sound recording in my early teens and I am in my 60s now. My dad was always a bit of a materialist (just like I am) and so, sometime in the 1950s, the Grundig TK 819 tape recorder was bought. It had a “magic eye” gain meter that shone a radioactive green and it blinked at you if you over-modulated. It was very heavy and, when I had permission to use it, I would lug it up to my attic bedroom and record the latest hits from Radio Luxembourg.

My first field recording was made up in that attic room by dangling the impressive Grundig ribbon microphone out of the window to record the buses as they came to and from the bus stop outside our house. I would then speed up the recording, the effect being to turn the no. 96 bus into a racing car coming into and out of the pits on race day. Great fun.

Fifteen or so years later, I became a wildlife sound recordist; a serious hobby, recording any animal that cared to make a sound, using both an open microphone or my trusty 20-inch reflector.  Those were the days of dynamic microphones, so I quickly learnt that fieldcraft was essential to get my microphone close enough to the subject to enable a recording with sensible gain to be made on my ITT Studio 60 cassette recorder.

This meant learning to become “invisible”, an ability that not everyone can master, but I became pretty good at it, and hopefully still am, as I enjoy the knowledge that I can become “invisible”.

This “invisibility” became the key to successfully recording good quality recordings of many species. The hunting instinct, that most humans still have to some extent, came to the fore on those trips to find the “prey” species, getting close enough to capture their sounds without causing disturbance and distress to them. Leaving a concealed and camouflaged microphone, cabling back to the recorder making it all “invisible” and then “putting on” my own “invisibility cloak” and waiting, relaxed in the knowledge that all the world around you would carry on with its business as if you were not there.

At these times you listened not to just that individual species, but the soundscape at large. Here I must add that the word “soundscape” does not really do justice to the natural sound panorama that one encounters, and I think Bernie Krause‘s word “biophony” comes a lot closer to the mark.

As time went on and I started to record with more than one microphone, I began to obtain more pleasure by recording these biophonies. They appealed to me as more satisfying to listen to. I enjoyed the dynamics of the recording. By this time I was using developed binaural and trihead techniques for most of my work and I still do, as they are techniques that bring out all the dimensions of the soundstage; left and right, front and back, and up and down. Let us call this a “true biophony”, something I have always tried to achieve when recording in the field. If this ”trueness” is achieved it can be said to be “true to life”, not falsified in any way, no time reduction and not pressurised by my existence within that space. (For those purists out there, one could say that the “trueness” of the sound being recorded has been falsified by the very fact that you are using recording equipment that could give the resultant recording some colouration. To minimise this effect one should use equipment that can be shown to offer very accurate sound capturing ability across the audible sound spectrum.)

I find listening to this type of recording very relaxing, headphones on, and then closing my eyes and immersing myself into the surround sound that I hear. I seem to get a deeper pleasure listening to my own recordings as I can remember the wind on my face, the smell of the earth and the rub of the stone wall on my back where I was being “invisible” when making the recording. One cannot do that with other people’s recordings so much; you can imagine what it felt like but you cannot obtain full “trueness” of it.

Is this a defining question that separates an ordinary person like me, a sometimes creator of “false biophonies” from those people who call themselves sound artists? Is it that the true artist gets greater satisfaction from the knowledge that the listener gets more pleasure from his/her creations than the artist does. I doubt one could prove it, as in an art world full of self-gratification and self-confidence-building, it seems unlikely that one would be able to differentiate between them being truly altruistic or unknowingly/knowingly pretentious.

I realise that some readers will find the use of the words true and false to be ill-used, as they are definitive. I have purposely used them because I want readers to think about what is really true and how false things can really be. So over to you.

Having been recording these things for over five decades, only very rarely does one have the feeling that the biophony listened to and being made in that “invisibility” state is absolutely perfect, that nothing could be added or taken away from it to make it more rounded, more poignant, more focussed – just more or, maybe, less. Those few times when everything just seems perfection, live in my memory and give me great peace. They are very personal feelings and, of course, everybody has their own ideas about perfection.

Ansel Adams wrote, “a great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense and is, therefore, a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety”. I feel the same goes for sound recording: you have to connect your emotions to the sound landscape, the biophony, around you. It’s no good recording bits of sound and expecting to get the complete biophony.

When you visit your favourite places, probably over many years, you listen to many different sounds that make up the complete biophony of the place. Each time this partial “true biophony” can conjure up many different feelings. I find that to get the most fulfilment out of any visit or, more importantly, the listening, you have to be in that relaxed, open state of mind. In a busy world this is sometimes very difficult to achieve, but once you are there, “visible in that space” you have become part of that biophony, although, in a different time frame the senses become extra sensitive and the fulfilment can become more whole.

Over time these visits sometimes never reach what I, as an individual, think of as finding their full potential. (This is where you may think I have gone completely off the rails!!) Maybe, but bear with me. On one occasion the sound of the grass swirls around you but on subsequent visits it is never the same. On another occasion the skylark is singing sublimely and on another the warmth of the day has triggered the insects to buzz and tick around you. Could one not combine all these separate biophonies and create something that is truly reflective, by bringing together all those different feelings that you felt over all those years? Or would you spoil everything and shatter all those memories?

The creation of these composite sound pictures is a challenge. I see it as the creation of a “false biophony”. One where the possibility of it happening and therefore being a “true biophony” is so small that you may have to wait many lifetimes, being there every day of the year: a near impossibility. Another effect of this “false biophony” is that your “invisibility” when making those original recordings that are being used to create this “false biophony”, is compromised and you can become more “visible”.

This can be exemplified when reviewing my Wild Hebrides CD, where only one track is a “true biophony”, while the other eight can be described as “false biophonies.” These eight were created by me using recordings made by me in my “invisible” state, but then amalgamated into the “false biophony”. This process could be said to be making me “less invisible”, in fact, becoming part of the soundscape. You cannot hear me but I am there. I am sculpturing and manoeuvring the sounds I made and, in so doing, I become more and more “visible”. My aim, however, is just the same as when I made the original recordings: I want to remain “invisible”. The proof of this must surely be if any of the listeners can tell the “true biophony” from the “false” ones.

Also, my wish is to enable the finished piece to help individual listeners to become part of that biophony, either in remembrance of being in the place “pictured” by that “false soundscape” or enjoying the sound sculpture and wishing to be there. In these acts the listener becomes “visible”, but in a separate sonic dimension. I will always endeavour not to be “seen”, but am there in every second of the recording, hoping that this listener and all the listeners to these “false biophonies” find fulfilment that brings more colour to the sonic symphony that they are listening to and in that other sense being part of.

One other thing to take into consideration is that, as this world we live in becomes more sonically polluted, to be able to listen to true, wild biophonies without the noise of humans becomes increasingly impossible. It therefore could be argued that all those “invisible” recordists out in their own fields have done a great service to mankind as, when we all learn to listen (and I very much worry that this is just wishful thinking), the majority of us will want to hear those biophonies, both true and false without human noise. If, on the other hand, we become happy with the sound of a tinkling brook where insects buzz and birds sing complete with the accompaniment of a jet engine or chainsaw, then I feel we will all be up “a smelly creek without a paddle”, sonically speaking, and it will not matter one jot whether you are “visible” or “invisible”.

Well, I must be off to record the final side of a performance piece I am planning. It is to “herd” an audience into a space – let’s call it an imaginary field – and surround them on all four sides with the sound of the wind vibrating through sheep netting, with the view of them experiencing what it is like being a farmed animal, being trapped, nowhere to escape when a predator, like a badly trained dog or fox, threatens their very existence. Just one more wire recording to do and I have found a great bit of fencing that creates interesting vibrations if the wind blows from the north-west, which it is today. Then there is that final climatic recording of a lamb been ripped apart by fox to do. This could be difficult to record – it may take me some time! Unfortunately it does happen most years on the fell-sides and fields around me. But the reactions of that “herded” audience should be very interesting to watch, don’t you think?!

Now where did I put that contact mic?


One thought on “Invisibility and Biophonies: the art of field recording

  1. Found this blog fascinating and very thought provoking….need to sit still and do some pondering. Thank you. I am enjoying listening to your Wild Hebrides CD and see whether I can spot the true biophony. The sound is wonderfully evocative and makes me want to take a (stumbling) step closer to a good/true recording. Thank you Roger.
    Peter Annear

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