I’ve talked before about how much I love hydrophones, the why’s and wherefores of their continued fascination for me, and the ways in which every time I encounter them I lose time researching them and debating the feasibility of getting my own. However, I’ve been spending a fair amount of time lately making contact mic recordings, and realised that I pretty much never write about contact mics which I’ve loved for far longer.
I first encountered contact microphones as a student. At the time contact mics were pretty expensive to buy – certainly out of a student’s price-range – but our course technician came across instructions to make your own and passed them on to us with the warning to be careful what you attached them to as he’d accidentally eavesdropped on adjacent offices trying to record some gurgling radiators. A course mate and I spent a delightful afternoon building some together and attaching them to things gleefully, and though they long since burned out, I still have one in my cable drawer for sentimental value.
Many moons later, though still quite a while ago, I ended up chatting about contact microphones with the then-artist-in-residence at the hospital radio station I volunteered with. We had a good chat about building our own contact mics and the way the components burned out after so long, and then he pointed out that you can now get them pretty reasonably online so you don’t need to build them yourself anymore if you don’t want to. The idea lodged itself in my brain and a few years ago I did in fact get myself a cheap little contact mic to see how it turned out. I was never particularly impressed by it, I figured either it didn’t work properly or it really needed a pre-amp, but it never did work well with my old – and much beloved – sound recorder.
However, back in the Summer of last year, I finally got round to treating myself to a new sound recorder – a Zoom H2n, I prefer the H5n but the H2n wins on portability, it literally fits in my pocket – and when I was listening to Deep Blue Notes and falling down the hydrophone rabbit hole I told myself sternly that I wasn’t allowed to buy one until I’d got my contact microphone situation sorted. I hadn’t tried it out with the new recorder, as I’d previously had enough to experiment with trying out it’s different built-in microphone configurations – it has X/Y, Mid-Side, 2 channel surround and 4 channel surround options, after years of using an X/Y set up for recording atmos on location it remains my go-to but I’m trying to be more adventurous and make better use of the surround options. In the course of my most recent hydrophone researching I’d been looking at the compatibility requirements for them and it noted that they needed ‘plug-in-power’ – which if it’s a new one on you as it was to me, is similar to phantom power, just a considerably lower voltage – and when it turned out that my new recorder did in fact have that, it occurred that that might be what my contact microphone needed. Indeed that made all the difference and while I suspect it would benefit from a preamp, I was able to once again enjoy the delightful world of secret sounds that a contact microphone reveals and make some delightful new recordings. I’ve spent the last couple of months delightedly attaching my contact microphone to everything I could imagine.
In practical terms the best element of contact microphones is the way they allow me to capture a sound in isolation. The sound of a clock ticking without the sound of the room around it, the otherwise nearly inaudible sounds of a sound desk’s faders in motion or the sound of a swing bridge clanking and rumbling as traffic trundles across it. (As you’ll hear from the recording embedded above, it does collect a certain amount of ambient noise but that is pushed into the background, allowing me to collect a particular sound without it being overwhelmed by it’s surroundings. Allowing the sound to shine, without having to remove the item from it’s context in order to record it – something that really isn’t possible when it comes to the clanking bridge, you need traffic for it to make the sound, but normally you wouldn’t be able to hear it over the traffic.) But there are also the secret joys of the contact microphone, the gorgeous, resonate bell tones of a fire extinguisher – CO2 is far superior to foam in this matter – the differing sounds of the bannisters in my office, that I have no practical use for but were a joy to capture and left me feeling as though I knew a secret about the building I’ve worked in for large chunks of the last seven years.