Over the last year In The Dark has been digging into it’s library of audio shorts to pull together a series of curated podcasts for the D&AD Inspired by Audio website. The idea behind this has been to introduce new audiences to some of our favourite audio shorts and give them an idea of what can be achieved through creative audio production. If you’ve never been to one of our events before, these podcasts will give you a good sense of the material we play.
Creating a sense of place through sound can often help us connect with the human stories that are so strongly tied to our surroundings.
In this episode producers have used sound in different ways to provide colour and personality to the spaces that they’re exploring, from the dark soundscapes of an abandoned prison to the vibrant musicality of a Baltimore cityblock.
So close your eyes and take a trip across some sonic terrain…
In a week’s time In The Dark will be hosting a special listening event at the Wellcome Collection, as part of the larger Voice event. We will be curating an evening of listening that taps into our complex relationship with the voice, featuring a rich chorus of vocalisations, speech and other oral oddities. The listening event will run for approximately 20 minutes and will be repeated throughout the night (timings below) – I’ve just finished mixing the playlist and we’ve managed to squeeze in an interesting range of material, from strong narrative pieces to the more avant garde.
In addition to our own event, there’s a load of other great stuff going on under the same roof, including talks exploring the science of speech, live vocal demonstrations from yodellers and sports commentators, talking parrots and technology that will remix your voice in real time. It’s all FREE as well, so if you’re in London next Friday you may as well drop by and have a look / listen for yourself.
It’s halloween, so I thought it’d be a good opportunity to post some audio shorts and transitions produced for the In The Dark ‘Beyond The Grave’ event, held back in July. The event took place in the derelict chapel in the grounds of Abney cemetery, Stoke Newington. We ran two sessions with the later taking place in almost complete darkness. Audience members were locked inside the Chapel for their own safety!
These shorts acted as transitions between the main pieces featured at the event.
BONUS TRIP TO HELL: Brighton Horror Hotel
Not quite a bonus or a trip to hell, but anyway here’s an extra recording of a Ghost Train taken whilst on a trip to Brighton back in May. Walking along the pier we came across the ‘Horror Hotel’ and couldn’t resist paying for a ride inside. Screams generously provided by my girlfriend.
I was recently made aware of the online platform Thinglink.com – which essentially allows you to ‘tag’ an image and embed media from around the web – such as from YouTube and Soundcloud. Anyway this really got me thinking about some of the potential that such a platform offers – images provide a really powerful and direct way of communicating something (an image is worth a thousand words, bla bla) – and being able to combine an image with additional multimedia or information can offer a much richer experience to the audience.
For example, you could use an image as a backdrop for presenting other media (such as related video and audio), or you could expand upon an image, by tagging key areas and providing additional context with video, audio, text and other images.
I thought a lot about how this could be used in terms of story telling and perhaps even communicating science, particularly by augmenting image diagrams. There’s loads of cool interactive / animated diagrams and educational apps already out there, that essentially bring textbooks into the digital sphere, but they take a lot of ‘know-how’ and time to develop. Thinglink offers a quick and accessible route for users to create their own interactive diagrams and multimedia packages, through which to share a rich wealth of information and also tell stories through non-linear pathways.
This was just a really quick proof of concept mock up, using existing work – but I’m really keen to start using this platform as a way of quickly creating rich multimedia packages, which combine images, video and audio to communicate stories, ideas and information in a non-linear fashion.
An audio feature I produced over the summer for Pod Academy, exploring the development of the vOICe technology and it’s impact on blind users. The vOICe is a computer program developed by dutch engineer Dr Peter Meijer which essentially converts images into sound. Through training and experience blind users can learn to interpret these sounds as a sort of ‘synthetic vision’. The piece explores the technology from the perspective of blind user Pat Fletcher, and uncovers some of the science and technology behind its use with it’s creator Dr Peter Meijer and cognitive psychologist Dr Michael Proulx (University of Bath).
It was my thought that technology and the computer would be my way out of blindness.
Essentially, the software takes spatial information captured by a camera and converts this into a coded soundscape. Users can then learn how to decode this auditory signal into a visual one thanks to a process known as ‘sensory substitution’, where information from one sense is fed to the brain via another. Fundamentally what the vOICe is doing is re-routing information usually obtained by the eyes and delivering it through another sense organ, the ears.
Although the neuroscience and psychology behind the technology is still largely unknown, it is thought that the visual cortex is eventually recruited to process the incoming auditory information and through experience, is able to decode it as spatial / visual information. There’s a great article over at New Scientist that goes into greater depth about the neuroscience behind it – including a useful diagram depicting how the technology works.
The software is currently freely available and can be used with virtually any imaging device, from webcams to camera-mounted glasses – there’s even an android version available for mobile devices! With the increasing prevalence of mobile computing, the vOICe technology is liberating users from their blindness, allowing them to step outside and experience the world through a completely new visual perspective.
Field recordings from Bitton Railway Station (a comparison between the Sony PCM-10 and the Zoom H4n)
A few weeks ago, as part of a filming trip with work I went to Bitton Railway Station just outside of Bristol. Whilst there I thought it would be a good opportunity to throw my audio recorders about and hopefully capture some nice recordings of steam engines. It would also give me a nice opportunity to make comparisons between my Zoom H4n and Sony PCM-10 recorders – not only on sound quality* but on ease of use.
I absolutely love the complex sounds of machinery and especially the rare sound of an old steam engine – so whilst in between hoping around madly with cameras, changing lenses or getting lost in clouds of steam I placed my recorders mostly at random and very much hoped for the best. I’ll go through the results below:
*A caveat – the recorders weren’t placed in identical locations and the recordings aren’t all made simultaneously – so the comparisons are in no way definitive.
I was really pleased by the quality of these recordings – theres a lot of detail in them and I found that this recorder relative to the Zoom H4n was much easier to manage, in terms of setting it down somewhere and getting it into record quickly. Due to its generous battery life and size I could very easily leave it powered on and bung it in my trouser pocket – this allowed me to get it out very quickly and stick it on record at a moments notice – something that wasn’t as easy to do with the Zoom.
Another, very simple note – in this instance I much preferred the Sony’s analog gain dial, which is a physical wheel (rather than the Zoom’s buttons) – it’s not only easier to make minute adjustments but also easier to set without necessarily having to monitor the output (for example just by looking or feeling for the position of the dial)- the Zoom has a digital interface, with values from 1-100, although it’s more precise, it’s a little more fiddly to make quick adjustments and is at a greater risk of creating handling noise if adjusting during a recording.
Recordings are in stereo using the inbuilt mics, light eq added in post, removing some low end and a subtle limiter placed on it.
Train Departs Station 1 (01:31)
Recorded at the end of the station platform, with the train about a meter or so away. You can hear a few voices in the background and the controllers whistle just before it departs – I especially love the sound of the train whistle from a distance with its light reverb, it has a very haunting quality to it. The train was probably a couple of meters from the recorder.
Train Departs Station 2 (02:40)
This was both the best and the worst recording of the day, recorded from ‘the other side of the tracks’ – in other words from the ground across from the station with the train a couple of meters away, departing from center to left of the recorder. There’s some nice detail in this as the train moves into the distance, particularly its whistle and the rattly carriages, but the beginning is pretty useless as it peaks and distorts!
Setting the levels was total guess work as I had to just leave the recorder running whilst we filmed – so in this case I wasn’t so lucky! Bugger.
Here’s the same thing happening, but from the camera input (Panasonic AF101) via a Rode NTG2 shotgun mic (mono):
I’ve always loved my Zoom, but I must admit on this occasion it was a lot more hassle to manage. It’s a lot bulkier, meaning it’s a bit of a faff to carry around and keep about your person, especially when you’ve got a lot of other gear. It also seemed to take a lot longer to power and set up (esp having to put the wind shield on each time) – the Sony seemed to manage fairly well without a windshield (but there wasn’t much wind). However the recordings were pretty nice – sometimes they sounded a bit ‘muddier’ than the Sony but this could be due to the recorders physical placement, it was often a bit further away from the action than the Sony.
Note – these recordings (I think) were taken at different times to the Sony recordings. Recordings in stereo with built in mics – light eq added in post to reduce low-end and a subtle limiter.
Train Departs Station 1 (01:22)
Recorded from the station platform, a little further back than the Sony – train moves across to the right, I particularly like the sound of the carriages as they move across the center and again the train’s whistle in the distance is lovely.
Train Enters Station (00:50)
A lot noiser this one – this captures the train entering the station from the other end, passing from left to right – the recorder was pretty low on the station floor and a couple of meters from the platform edge, it picks up a lot of voices and excited children!
Train Departs Station 2 (01:10)
Still at the other end of the platform, this time the train departs moving from right to left – you can clearly hear the controllers whistle before the train departs and voices from people standing about the platform. Again the recorder was a couple of meters from the platform edge.
Okay so this isn’t a definitive comparison review, but personally I found the Sony PCM-10 to be the more useful recorder in this circumstance. It’s far more portable – I tend to keep the Sony on me all of the time now and only bring the Zoom when I know I’m going to be recording something. If I was concentrating specifically on capturing audio, then the situation might well be different, but in this instance, when I wanted to quickly make decent recordings without much thought, the Sony was ideal. Monitoring audio without headphones was also a lot clearer with the Sony as it has little green and red (for when audio peaks) indicator lights mounted above the screen below the mics – this is great for quickly knowing when your record levels are set too high – even from a distance I could see this.
I think the pre-amps in the Sony are also much quieter than the Zoom’s which often leads to recordings with much less noise and hiss. This is especially useful when capturing the more subtle, quieter details of a soundscape.
Ultimately the portability and battery life of the Sony means that I can just leave it powered on and bung it in a bag or pocket and because of this it’s the recorder I tend to reach for more often.
If you have any thoughts, questions or experience with these recorders I would be interested to hear about them in the comments below. Additionally all these recordings are available under a Creative Commons licence – attribution, non-commercial, share-alike and I’d be happy to send them to anyone who wants them. Hopefully I’ll get round to adding them to the Freesound Archive.
I’ve recently started producing podcasts for a new non-profit organisation called Pod Academy – they release weekly podcasts on academia and research, covering everything from the arts and culture to science and the environment. There’s a really nice range of subjects covered by the podcasts and their library is growing on a weekly basis. You can browse what they have to offer here.
My latest offering takes a trip around the morgue of the Sunderland Royal Infirmary, with pathologist Dr Stuart Hamilton as a guide. The piece provides a glimpse into mortuary life, from working with the dead on a daily basis, to dealing with cross dressing ‘auto-erotic asphyxiation’ fatalities.
The event explored British landscapes, both urban and rural, through a collection of sounds, words and film and included a panel discussion chaired by the Guardian’s Madeline Bunting. On the panel were writer Rachel Lichtenstein, T.S. Eliot prizewinning poet Alice Oswald and Professor of Literature at the University of Essex, Marina Warner. The event set out to explore how writers, filmmakers and artists explore and capture the essence of British landscapes within their work – and the different approaches they take to achieve their art. You can read a lovely write up of the event by Cherly Tipp here.
To begin the event, I composed several sound pieces, which were to accompany and compliment live readings from both Alice Oswald and Rachel Lichtenstein. These pieces were designed to augment the imagery evoked within the readings and provide a powerful listening experience through the combination of spoken word and abstract sound. The pieces were mixed live under the readings, which brought an element of performance to the soundwork – something which I’d not really explored before in the context of listening events. This also introduced some lovely moments of serendipity, as abstract sounds from the compositions aligned themselves with the words of the readers.
Listening to the landscape
In darkness, Alice opened the event with a powerful reading of her piece ‘Sea Poem’, which was followed by a piece composed from an old recording of Ted Hughes, reading his piece ‘Wild Rock’ (listen below):
After this came ‘A Whitechapel Walk’ from Rachel Lichtenstein, which introduced the sounds of moden Whitechapel into the auditorium. This was then followed by the second and final reading by Alice, who finished off with a her piece ‘Epileptic’ a piece which brought with it the sounds of night, fluttering wings and the distant tide.
You can hear the live recording from the event here:
The tracklist is as follows:
Alice Oswald – ‘Sea Poem’
Ted Hughes – ‘Wild Rock’
Rachel Lichtenstein – ‘A Whitechapel Walk’
Alice Oswald – ‘Epileptic’
To close the event I’d composed a final soundscape which blended elements of both the rural and urban landscape, moving from the noise of the country into that of the city. With this piece I wanted to demonstrate noise as a feature of both the rural and urban soundscapes and so pulled out elements of both. This piece features a modified version of a previous work, ‘The Dustbin Man Cometh’ – which was produced for an In The Dark listening event back in March.
In addition to the event are a series of podcasts over at the Guardian which continue the themes of landscape literature, dedicating an episode each to the works of Alice and Rachel. You can also view the short film ‘Notes on Orford Ness’ which was screened at the event here, an aurally rich portrait of this unusual location, featuring extracts from writer Robert Macfarlane’s newly commissioned work, Untrue Island.
The idea for this piece fell out of a session playing around with audio samples taken from various pornography films, in a bid to produce something for an In the Dark listening event. After a while of manipulating and stretching out these smutty samples I was struck by how much the moans and groans came to resemble the calls of whales.
After a bit of whale sound research I worked to manipulate these sounds until they modelled the range of sounds associated with whales. From the high-pitched clicks, squeaks and squeals to the lower frequency rumbles. The sounds become slightly more unsettling when processed in this way (although out of context they didn’t originally sound that nice to begin with), removing the visual element with which these sounds were originally presented with, definitely made them more sinister. The high-pitched screams are particularly unsettling on their own, baring very little resemblance to the original sample.
However for the event this piece was to be presented at we were keen to finish with something fairly light hearted and I thought it would be much more fun to experiment and explore the concept of ‘porn whales’ than turn this into something dark and foreboding – there was plenty of that featured at the event anyway.
The sounds of the sea were added to provide a little context (recorded in Brighton on a zoom H4n) and the gentle, soothing music came from Kevin Macleod.
The latest In The Dark listening event: ‘One Night Stand’ took an unusual step into the murky world of erotica, featuring pieces exploring sex across the animal kingdom; from humans, to snails, to fish and finally to whales. The night proved to be so popular that we had to put on a second sitting, suggesting that sex really does sell, even when it comes to curated listening events.
Sofia Saldanha and I mixed and compiled the audio for the night, including the production of new material to interweave and transition between pieces. Audio featured included a beautiful and emotionally charged interview from the Dialogue Project, a rather unsettling but humorous piece from Canadian radio show Audio Smut (about masterbating in public places) and and a personal favourite from Danish producer Pejk Malinovski whose piece made reference to the artist Matisse by exploring the reproductive behaviours of snails (can be heard here).
We were really keen to move past a linear playlist which simply presented the pieces rigidly, separated by silence. Instead we experimented in blending all the pieces together into a seamless mix. In many cases we produced short interludes and transitions to help take the listener smoothly from one piece to the next and to keep them immersed within the general narrative of the night.
Finishing off the event was ‘Porn Whales’ – an audio short I’d produced, manipulating the sounds of pornography to resemble the calls of whales (below).
After a bit of whale sound research I worked to manipulate these sounds until they modelled the range of sounds associated with whales. From the high-pitched clicks, squeaks and squeals to the lower frequency rumbles. The sounds of the sea were added to provide a little context (recorded in Brighton on a zoom H4n) and the gentle, soothing music came from Kevin Macleod.