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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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Sound recording in Africa – the plan & preparations

Tomorrow my plane leaves for Zimbabwe. I’ve planned a 4 months trip through southern Africa, with the aim of recording wildlife and nature sounds. Besides Zimbabwe, I’ll visit Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, and I literally want to record anything I can – I have no specific goal to record a type of species or sound, and neither do I have a particular end product in mind. It’s simply about the joy of recording, and hopefully finding places that aren’t as infested by manmade noise as Western Europe is. As you can imagine though, there are a number of potential problems and pitfalls that I’ve tried to address before setting off, in order to get an as good result as I possibly can.

 

Problem 1 – The best nature and wildlife sound recording happens when you understand your environment

I have never been to Africa, and I know nothing about the habitats and wildlife of the countries and natural parks I am visiting. I have seen nature documentaries, but that is about the extent of my ‘knowledge’. I could go and plant my mics and see what happens, but I want to take it beyond that and try to have a better understanding of what I am recording, and how to record it.

For that reason, my time in Zimbabwe will be spent taking a 55 days professional safari guide course. This is a very intensive, 7 days a week training program, after which you get the opportunity to try and pass an exam. If you pass, you are awarded a Level 1 Field Guide certificate, accredited by the Field Guide Association of Southern Africa (FGASA). In other words, you can then work as a junior safari guide. Have a look here for the full overview of what is being taught in this 2 months course.

I have no intention to change my career to become a safari guide, but I am very interested in the knowledge taught at this course. It includes subjects such as animal behaviour, ecology, geology, plants and grasses, weather and climate, astronomy – it’s incredibly diverse as it’s intended to steamroll you into having general knowledge about the environment and the wildlife of southern African countries. We’ll spend multiple hours in the bush every day, both on foot and in a vehicle, setting off twice a day, just before dawn and a few hours before dusk, with theory classes taught back at the camp as well.

While I will not be Mr Super Survival Man & The Ultimate Field Guide Expert after a mere two months of intense training, it should hugely increase my knowledge about the places that I am visiting after the course. With a bit of luck, I can also get some sound recording in while there.

 

This photo was taken at the Nakavango centre in Zimbabwe, where the field guide course takes place
Image credit Nakavango Conservation Centre

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A simple technique for wide & enveloping sea recordings

Somehow I find myself with a microphone at the beach a lot. I don’t particularly tend to relax much on beaches at all, but still end up visiting them often. And it might be the biggest cliche in nature sound recording, but don’t we all love that sound of waves lapsing onto a shore? Besides, the sea never sounds the same. Weather conditions of course have a great impact, and so do the time of day, ebb and flow and naturally whether it’s a sandy, rocky or pebbled beach.

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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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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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Hydrophones – beginner experiments

Today, I made a little trip to the beach. Earlier in the morning I had received two hydrophones in the post that I ordered from Jez riley French, and I was eager to try them out.

I’ve never owned or used hydrophones before, so this was all purely an experiment. I pretty much plugged the two of them into the pebbles, spaced approx a meter and a half apart, rolled back the cable towards the recorder, and hit record, whilst adjusting the levels. I clearly need some practice with all of this – these cables are 10 meters each and I was fiddling about quite a lot before I had them untied.

When I was finally ready to record, I noticed there was some sort of buzzing tone or interference in the signal which I couldn’t directly locate – and I didn’t feel like getting my shoes off again to go back into the cold British sea’s water and mess with the hydrophones to see if it had any effect. I decided to just let the recording roll.

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