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SONIC MMABOLELA – a report for fellow sound designers/recordists

When I first read about Sonic Mmabolela, I knew immediately that this was something I wanted to partake in. A two week sound recording workshop/residency held at a private game reserve in South Africa, rented out in its entirety for the sole purpose of recording and thus promising minimal outside interference – it’s a field recordist’s dream come true. And further reading of its description, plus the fact that it is organised by renowned sound artists Francisco Lopez and Barbara Ellison, promised that this was going to be thematically quite different from other recording workshops out there, which tend to focus a lot on the technical side of things.

Pictures from a previous year of Sonic Mmabolela

I had many reasons to join up, but chief among them were a longing to go back to the African continent for more sound recording, and a growing interest in sound art. I was curious to learn from people who work as independent sonic artists and perhaps find a new outlet for my love of recording sounds of the natural environment and its wildlife.

All that being said, the biggest draw was simply to go out and spend two weeks of non-stop recording in the bush. If nothing else, perhaps I could gather enough material to release another African wildlife themed library. And so it happened that I found myself at the end of November of 2016 as one of the participants in that year’s Sonic Mmabolela.

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Sound recording & camping in the African wilderness – Part 2: Namibia & South Africa

Read part I about recording & camping in Botswana here

Namibia is a land of extremes: huge empty deserts with glowing red sand dunes and rock formations shaped as if placed by giants, a wild coastline littered with shipwrecks, whale carcasses and immense seal colonies, lakes and salt pans attracting all the wildlife that you’d expect from an African country, and lush green tree and shrub savanna in the Caprivi strip bordering Botswana, Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Its natural extremities not withstanding, this is a country easily traversed by car, boasting endless straight-lined gravel roads through its vast expanses of nothingness and national parks. Unlike Botswana, a 4×4 vehicle is for many areas not even a necessity, though having one opens up parts of the country that would otherwise be inaccessible. As for our trip specifically, we only needed the 4-wheel drive engaged on a couple of trails in Namib-Naukluft national park.

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Sound recording & camping in the African wilderness – Part I: Botswana

Take a look at this image, a screenshot of worldwide flight traffic taken from a random visit to the Flightradar website.
What do you see?

Likely, your eye will be drawn to the insane clusters of air traffic that obscure those parts of the map where the United States, Asia and Western Europe lie; the latter being where I generally call home. But go down from Europe to Africa, and we are greeted by space, emptiness, a lovely void of air traffic.

While a few airplanes dot the skies over southern and eastern Africa, seeing this image late 2014 reinforced my will to visit the southern part of the continent, and bring my microphones with me. The never-ending cacaphony of anthropophonic noise in Western Europe, caused by continuous overflying air planes, highway drones and general overpopulation is without a doubt one of my main annoyances – not just as a sound recordist, but as a human being. I crave for a degree of quiet and solitude, for a place that is wilder and more real than the perfectly cut grassy fields and micromanaged spaces that we call ‘natural parks’ in Europe and the UK.

And so I flew down in March 2015, to first spend a couple of months in Zimbabwe, learning about the environment and recording as much wildlife and nature sound as I could, about which I have already quite extensively written & shared recordings of on this site.

After my time there, I flew to Johannesburg in May to meet up with my girlfriend and pick up a rented Toyota Hilux, equipped with all the tools and toys for a few weeks of camping, self-drive game drives and sound recording in the nature of Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.

  • The car, as we picked it up

    Still nice and clean and with everything intact.

  • Camp fires were made every night

    Sometimes to cook, and always to keep the wildlife at bay.

  • My mics were placed on top of the car

    For overnight recording, as long as there were no baboons roosting nearby.

  • Another shot of the mics on top of the car

    The recorder was normally inside the tent, allowing for monitoring overnight.

  • A typical camp site

    This was taken in Moremi, Okavango Delta, Botswana

 A few images to show the car, camping and recording setup

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Quick dispatch from Zimbabwe

I really should be studying. In fact I should be sleeping. Though it is only 21:30 right now, I am waking up at 5am again for the morning game drive, which acts as a practical class in the field. When we return a few hours later, it’s time for breakfast, followed by some time ‘off’ for studying notes and books and excercises. Then follows an hour long lecture on the subject of the day – probably more about trees tomorrow. We’ve done a hell of a lot of tree stuff in this first week during the FGASA field guide course in Zimbabwe.

Stopping for our morning coffee break

After the lecture is over, it should be about lunch time – finish your food, and continue studying for about an hour or three until it is time to get back into the vehicle for the afternoon/evening game drive. Return to camp three hours later, have dinner. It is eight o clock now. Study for another hour, two hours – bed. Alarm goes again at 5am, and the circle continues. No days off – this is the seven day a week schedule for the 55 days of this course.

I really should be studying or sleeping right now.

Practicing some basic car maintenance

 

Last night I got woken up at 2:30 by a lion walking past and roaring about 10 meters from where I sleep. I thought I had been dreaming about lions until I heard him roar again. So I jumped out of bed, scrambled my recording gear together, and stumbled outside to try and record it. Had a chat with the night guard, set up my mics, and tried to go back to sleep – no luck on the sleeping part after this, but I did record the lion when it roared again, though fairly distant, and in tandem with a jackal.

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Slowed down blackbird + tawny owl = deep sea chorus

Slowing down recordings, yes we have all done it, but would I ever get bored of it? I slow down sounds to my heart’s content. It is like Christmas every time – what wondrous goofy or awe-inspiring sonic textures lay beyond the pitching down of this here sound? Those are the sort of questions I heroically and relentlessly seek answers to.

Here is a recording I made of a blackbird doing what it does best, sitting on a tree branch singing its guts out, showing off and telling all other nearby songbirds how it’s done.

And this here is a male tawny owl hooting wistfully from a perch to a distant female.

Now what happens when we slow these recordings down and combine them?

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Testing Schoeps CCM 4’s: wide ambient loveliness

I own a pair of Sennheiser MKH8040’s and though they are stunning sounding mics, they do have an irritating fault and that is that they add a huge bed of noise to the ultrasonic frequency range. This becomes annoying, or even a problem when pitching down my recordings – something I do a lot when designing sounds.

Enter the pair of Schoeps CCM 4’s, which are a direct competitor for size and quality to the 8040’s. I’d rented these for a weekend in Summer 2014 to try and see for myself what the fuss is all about, as Schoeps mics have an almost mythical air to them, supposedly sounding like angels pissing in your ears if you are to believe the halleluja-ing Schoeps owners on internet forums. Whether this is due to simply them needing to justify the astronomical cost of these mics or if there’s really something special about them was what I was curious to find out.

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Telinga-tastic: super close up recordings of birds & crickets

In Summer 2014 I’d finally bit the bullet and bought a Telinga Universal MK2 parabolic dish reflector, a piece of equipment that I’d been umm’ing and ah’ing about for years. Though a bit pricey in my opinion, this is a well-built, lightweight parabolic with the added benefits of it allowing you to use your microphone of choice and its relative portability due to the dish itself being foldable.

I’m using an MKH8040 in the Telinga, guaranteeing a flat frequency response, high sensitivity & low noise. It being a cardioid mic it is relatively susceptible to handling noise, so some practice is required using this in a parabolic as a lot of this kind of recording is handheld whilst tracking your subject (like flying birds for instance). The above sound file is an example of tracked recording, as these are the calls of common terns that were flying over my head and around me, at distances ranging from ~20 to 5 meters from the mic. They seemed to be playing a game of chase with each other, which I don’t know if it’s a mating ritual or simply them having fun.

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Brent Geese in wintery Holland

Here’s a 5 minute snippet of a 20+ minute recording I made of a group of Dark-bellied Brent geese chilling and eating on the mudflats of Schiermonnikoog, a small & remote Dutch island off the North-West coast of the country. Two thirds of this island is a nature reserve, there are no cars & other motorised vehicles allowed except for those who live on the island – the total population is approximately 800 and all live in the one village the island boasts. There only footpaths in the reserve, no roads (not even for cyclists) lead through or around it. All in all a pretty good area for nature sound recordists, although there can still be planes heard flying relatively nearby every 30 minutes or so.

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Bolivian sounds

Sounds recorded in various locations in Bolivia: the Amazon, the Amazonian wetlands and the barren mountain lakes near the Uyuni salt planes.

You can either just have listen to the playlist below, or read on for a little more detail and context.

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