Deep Blue Notes

Deep Blue Notes is a three part podcast, by wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson and Professor Tony Myatt a spatial audio sound artist, released through the Guardian’s Science Weekly podcast. It follows them on their quest – at the start of the year – to record Blue Whales in the Sea of Cortez – off Loreto, Mexico – creatures whose sounds have eluded Watson throughout his long career as a wildlife sound recordist. The two of them are collaborating on a sound installation for Oceans 21 – a project on the fascination and endangerment of the oceans – called Seaphony, which premiers in Berlin in May of next year.

The podcast uses their quest for these very specific sounds as a jumping off point to talk to a variety of specialists about a variety of issues around sound and sea-life, from how sound carries through water, through the impact of climate change – both human driven and natural phenomena like El Niño – to how human noise – essentially sound pollution – impacts on sealife. It’s all fascinating stuff, and I always love listening to recordings from hydrophones – I definitely spent part of at least two of the episodes looking at hydrophones online and checking specs to see if a reasonably affordable one would be compatible with my new sound recorder – but it also made me want to introduce Watson and Myatt to the fine folks at the Lighthouse Field Station. I suspect, in these travel limited times, they could probably recommend some good marine life recording spots that are a little closer to home than Mexico.

One of the most interesting aspects of the whole podcast, to me, is that they made a three-part podcast about their quest to record Blue Whale vocalisations, and in the end they didn’t succeed in recording the Whales. They spent time among the whales, sometimes with them being almost in touching distance and the whales just, didn’t sing for them. Of course, that’s the reality of sound recording, especially when you’re recording wildlife. On a trip this summer to record a variety of other sounds, I came across a frog, sitting in the middle of the road. It seemed quite happy for me to crouch down beside it – making no attempt to hop away or otherwise escape – and settle my recorder close by, but while other frogs in the hedgerows nearby croaked away quietly, the one literally at my feet, remained completely silent. It’s one of the great frustrations of sound recording, that so often you’ll hear an interesting sound and the minute you get your recorder out and running, it will stop. So theoretically that’s actually the most likely outcome of any given recording trip, yet narrative documentaries have taught us to expect a final act triumph, and I was definitely expecting one right up until the end. Yet that simple unapologetic acknowledgement that these things happen, that they knew that was a likely outcome, and have learned a lot from the experience so that they’ll do better next time they try, was so very refreshing and dare I say it, quite affirming too.

Soundscapes and Binaural Radio

Back in the late spring/early summer of this year, when I was gleefully falling down a rabbit hole of radio drama on BBC Sounds, I also took a detour into the non-fiction parts of its output. While the iPlayer algorithm has never really thrown me anything that I wouldn’t otherwise have stumbled upon, Sounds regularly throws things into my feed that I wouldn’t have thought to go looking for but nonetheless really enjoy. Perhaps it’s simply a data volume issue, not only do I listen to more radio than television, perhaps more of the people who like similar content to me are using Sounds than are using the iPlayer? Alternatively perhaps the people making/programming Sounds are also radio geeks who listen to a similarly wide range of audio sources and genres so have taught their algorithm more realistic suggestions?

Soundscapes was one of those serendipitous discoveries – I seem to recall it being a ‘suggested listen’ after a slow radio episode recorded in a bog somewhere in Wales – as it’s a late night specialist music show out of Radio Ulster/Foyle so realistically something I would never have come across of my own volition. It’s mostly a modern classical music show, but it covers ambient and electronic music as well, and more importantly from my perspective, it contains a weekly soundscape. Usually the soundscape centres around an interview with someone – generally an artist or poet or historian, but also just people with interesting life experiences or specialist knowledge – layering their voice and the sounds of their environment/specialist subject, in with a piece of music. Sometimes they feel like very beautiful oral histories and other times like abstract art.

It somehow managed to feel both like very old-fashioned radio and also like something ground breaking and adventurous. Over a six-month period the show wormed it’s way into my affections, becoming my favourite regular radio programme that I looked forward to listening to each week. So naturally of course it came to an end in the autumn. (Although the show has finished, the soundscapes are still up online, and I highly recommend giving them a listen while you can.) The presenter Stephen McCauley has been rewarded with a longer more prime-time slot, and while I’m pleased for him, I shall miss this strange little show; it was like nothing else on the radio.

In search of a new radio love affair, I’ve recently stumbled across the show Between the Ears, which despite having run since 1993 and having its own podcast has completely escaped my notice. One of the driving forces behind the series is to make innovative use of sound in telling stories. At the moment they seem to be focusing quite heavily on binaural sound, which works better in some cases than others. While some episodes just feel like they’re in really good stereo, the episode Living in a Box felt as though you were in the protagonist’s head with him and M1 Symphony left me feeling as though I might drown in sound.

It’s also through this series that I made the surprising discover that Radio 3 are using binaural sound techniques to create a more immersive sound experience for the increasing number of listeners using headphones. I can’t say I’d ever noticed radio via headphones sounding ‘flat’ but perhaps that’s attenuation from years of listening to podcasts via either built-in laptop speakers or cheap ear buds. I certainly prefer to listen to audio drama with headphones, as it’s always felt more immersive, like I’ve stepped into another world.

I normally listen to Radio 3 output on an actual radio – either the hi-fi in my living room or the radio alarm clock beside my bed – so unless I’m listening to a podcast on a bus or train, headphones don’t really come into it. However, increasingly when travelling for work, I’ve taken to using the BBC Sounds app and the hotel Wi-Fi to enjoy whole radio programmes. Clearly next time I’m on the road I need to pack my good headphones and tune in with my phone to see the difference between stations!

I know that ASMR has become the go to trend/obsession for tech fixated Internet folks over the last few years, but for my money binaural sound is far more transformative. (Possibly because the actual ‘response’ part of ASMR doesn’t actually work for me, I find good ASMR soothing in the way a white noise generator’s rain sounds are soothing. The closest I’ve got to an actual ASMR experience is that binaural barbershop haircut you can find on YouTube.)

I was fascinated to discover the strides that have been made over the last few years to create immersive binaural sound for VR environments, combining the techniques of surround sound with binaural recordings to create a responsive sound environment. Personally I’ve always found the few VR environments I’ve tried out, to be quite disconcerting and alienating, but I can see how properly immersive sound could make it actually immersive. Also I appreciated Click presenter Spencer Kelly pointing out how sound could be used to draw the explorer’s attention in particular directions, which does answer a floating question about narrative that I’ve been left with after previous discussions on the increasing crossover between films and video games. How do you draw the viewer’s attention to the correct place to pick up narrative clues without breaking the fourth wall?

Also I clearly need to go back and watch that Doctor Who episode they did with binaural sound while wearing headphones, because based on a clip I just watched that’s a whole other level of immersive and creepy.

A Summer of Audiodrama

When BBC Sounds first split off from the iPlayer, I was somewhat dubious of the whole endeavour – the iPlayer had never quite known what to do with radio and this new endeavour seemed a bit gimmicky. On the rare occasions I used it, it was as a convenient medium for catching up with Slow Radio. However, over the last six months I’ve really warmed up to it, as I’ve come to discover new things I really enjoy, subscribed to things I enjoy but don’t exist as podcasts, and the recommendation algorithm has got to know my tastes and offers me things I enjoy but wouldn’t have known to look for previously. As a result my radio drama listening has increased substantially. I’m fairly rubbish at remembering to tune in for particular points in the linear schedule on a regular basis, which is not ideal when it comes to episodic audio drama. (The bulk of my regular radio listening takes place either when I’m being woken by my radio alarm, or driving somewhere in a work pool car, or, you know driving the desk for the radio programme in question and that’s a very different experience.) However, now I have an easy way to find new (or in some cases old) audio dramas that are currently or have recently run on the radio, the latest episodes dropping into my feed ready for me to have the time and inclination to listen.

Forest 404

Forest 404 was my gateway drug to this new world. I heard a trailer for it and the end of an episode of the From Our Own Correspondent podcast that sounded amazing and sought it out. It turned out that only the first four episodes were available as a podcast but I could have the whole series at once on BBC Sounds. Not only that but it came with delightful extras, as each episode had both a scientist talking about an issue explored in the episode, along with a full blown soundscape to accompany it. It’s an eco-thriller with truly amazing sound design, and more than that, the soundscapes that it uses are an integral part of the plot. (Our heroine Pan is an archivist, tasked with ‘cleansing’ old audio visual recordings in a time when digital storage is finite and precious, and it is old sound recordings – I suspect in reality old BBC Radiophonics Sound Effects and Recordings – that lead her down the rabbit hole into uncovering the conspiracy at the heart of the story.) The score is by Bonobo, and is both perfect for the story and stands alone as some cracking tunes I’d happily listen to most days of the week.

The plot itself deals with issues from artificial intelligence and bio-hacking, through climate change and sustainability, to colonialism and cultural remembrance and forgetting. It’s experimental and adventurous and very different from the normal run of the mill of audio drama. It certainly helps that the characters are deeply compelling, even though, and perhaps especially, when you aren’t sure if you like or trust them, or whether you should.

Also if you’re a Dr Who fan, it stars Pearl Mackie and she has an amazing voice.

Guards Guards

Guards Guards is an adaptation of the Discworld novel of the same name, from 1992, and it holds up surprisingly well. It’s quite a good adaptation/abridgement of the book, keeping most of the charm and most of the best lines – that caged whale section is still funny after all these years – while doing a good job of distracting your attention from the whole swathes of the plot that they’ve excised. I think both Wonse and Vetinari come across as far less competent than they do in the book but the plot is sturdy enough to get along regardless.

Mabinogi

Mabinogi is a charming short series, which is an adaptation of the Mabinogion (which are some of the oldest surviving prose stories of these islands) specifically the Red Book of Hergest. It was very Welsh and very brutal in the way that stories that old always are, but mostly I was following along for the friendship between the daft young prince and his foster sister the bard – it was very much the Pryderi and Brigid show as far as I was concerned. Very different from anything else I’ve been listening to lately.

Stillicide

Stillicide is set in a near future world where water is a very scarce and valuable resource. There are two strands to the story, that weave around each other throughout the twelve-part series. One following the Water Train that that keeps London supplied with water – and drains the life out of the surrounding communities – and the people who work and live around it. The other following the process of transporting a giant iceberg down from the Artic to solve the same issue, and the destruction and dispute around the building of the dock to facilitate it. My favourite parts of the story were the little details about how the water shortages affect everyday life for people – migrant workers, homeless kids, hospital patients, scientists and police officers – in big and small ways.

Unfortunately, I feel as though the story lost it’s way a little towards the end there. It worked best for me when the episodes were standalone vignettes, snapshots of this almost familiar world from different perspectives. When it tried to tie all it’s loose ends together in the last few episodes I felt it just got tangled up and left me less certain about what came before. Perhaps a second listen through without a week between episodes would improve it I think the overarching plot suffered a little from that style of delivery.

Slow Radio

It’s almost the end of November, and where has the time gone? There were so many more articles I was going to write for nablopomo and it feels like the month went by in a flash. The temptation to panic and try to squeeze as much in to the last few days of the month is almost overwhelming, but sometimes, when you instead just take some time to pause and reflect for a while, you end up achieving much more. Much like taking the time to check out Slow Radio this afternoon, actually caused me to be far more productive than I would have been otherwise and inspired an article for this blog!

I’ve always liked the concept of Slow Television more than it’s actual execution. Perhaps because the slightly meditative state of mind I have to be in to enjoy it, is something that nature documentaries give me. Unless I’m loaded with the cold – in which case I want my television viewing to just gently waft over me.

Slow Radio on the other hand works much better for me. Perhaps because I’m more accustomed to having the radio on in the background while I do something else, so the slow gentle unwinding of the episodes is a more natural fit for my brain. I can listen closely to the narrated episodes if I want to, or just let someone’s lovely voice drift over me. Secure in the knowledge that the content will be interesting if I tune in, but that I’m not missing anything vital if I tune out for a little while.

I listen to Radio 3 for much the same reasons that some people listen to ASMR podcasts and videos; I find their output deeply soothing. I used to subscribe to the Front Row podcast, purely to have a backlog of Mathew Sweet to talk me to sleep whenever I needed a little outside assistance. One of my other favourite podcasts, 99% Invisible did an episode on that other great friend of insomniacs across the British Isles, The Shipping Forecast, and it has that quality too, slow, soothing and slightly strange. (Somehow deeply arcane yet utterly mundane, all at once.) It is pleasing to know that in these days of ever faster and ever louder content, that people making radio still remember that there is an audience for something slower and quieter and have found a way to make space for it. Radio 3 is a bit of an oddity in these times and it’s something of a pleasure and relief to see them embracing that oddity and taking that as licence to push the boundaries in their own unique way. It reminds me of that odd delight of the early days of DAB radios, when someone came up with a channel that was nothing but birdsong that ended up with something of cult following for a while. Fundamentally though, I can’t help but feel that this is the kind of thing that public service broadcasting does so well, giving the audience not necessarily what they want, but instead striving to provide what they didn’t realise they needed.

As a sound designer, I’m delighted by both the concept and the execution of Slow Radio, the combination of experimentation and carefully craft on display is a pleasure to behold. As a listener it’s just a deeply soothing – if occasionally decidedly odd – experience, like being wrapped in a warm fluffy blanket of sound. The perfect accompaniment to a cold winter’s evening, tucked up with a hot beverage and an actual fluffy blanket.

March of the Podcasts

A couple of years ago I started doing a regular feature here, where I wrote about the sound-based content (whether sound art and installations, podcasts, radio plays or radio documentaries) I consumed that month or that I made that month. As well as being an enjoyable project, it was a great motivator to both listen to and create more sound-based content. There are far too many deadlines at my main freelance gig for me to enjoy them outside of it, but accountability is always helpful and motivating.

I’m breaking myself in gently this month with a review of my recent non-fiction podcast discoveries.

First up I’ve taken up yet another language based podcast. The Allusionist is a podcast that looks at the oddities and idiosyncrasies of the English language. Unlike the linguistics podcasts that I also follow, this podcast is less about the mechanics of language – the syntax and grammar – and more about the cultural and historical influences and impacts of the language. It’s a podcast that appreciates the essential weirdness of English and likes to pull those strange bits out and examine them.

I’ve been bingeing the entirety of 2017’s episodes over the last few weeks, and have been left with the desire to go back to the start of the podcast in 2015 and listen to every single episode, which I always feels bodes well for the staying power of a podcast. If it holds up to binge listening, it’s likely to stay the distance in my affections.

Next up there’s Twenty Thousand Hertz. I actually came across this podcast thanks to The Allusionist as they did a guest episode on accents. Though as I’ve been working through their archive I discovered they’d also done a guest episode of 99% Invisible on the NBC chimes. It’s one of those podcasts that I come across and have to wonder how I didn’t know about it before. I feel sure that someone I know who’s also into podcasts must have recommended it to me before, as it’s the most relevant to my interests podcast I can imagine existing. (Basically, if I were going to make a podcast, it would be this podcast.) However it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve left an interesting link open in a tab and forgotten about it. I used to use twitter as a bookmarking device for that sort of thing but there’s far too much content on there these days for that to be effective.

Anyway, the podcast itself is a delight to listen to, it’s beautifully produced and mixed – you’d hope so from a sound design podcast – and, while it took them a wee while to get into the swing of things, they manage to strike a good balance of being general enough to engage a non-specialised listener, but detailed enough to keep a more dedicated sound design geek like myself coming back for more.

Finally, we have the Hammer House of Podcast, which is a much newer series – it only started at the turn of the year. In which two writers – and sci-fi geeks – watch and review their way through Hammer Films backlog of horror films. As longer term readers of this blog will know, I have strong feelings about Hammer Horror films. (For newer readers, when I first graduated from university I spend some time writing academic film reviews for a now defunct film review website Montage films. As my specialism at university was sound in horror films, I ended up with all the horror films to review, and there were a lot of Hammer Horror films released on DVD in that period. As such, I know more about late 60s – early 70s Hammer Horror films than I ever wanted to.) I’m enjoying the reviews so far – very funny, and honestly I hadn’t realised how much I wanted more podcasts where someone has a Scottish accent – but I strongly suspect that as we get on to the ones I know best I will spend a certain amount of time shouting ‘you’re wrong’ at my computer. Which, in fairness was a considerable part of my enjoyment of the Wittertainment podcast – 80% nodding in agreement, 10% cackling gleefully, 10% shouting ‘you’re wrong, Mark!’ at my radio.

I Have Heard the Future: Limetown Returns

Back in the winter of 2015/16 when I was doing some data entry to get through the winter freelancing lull, I fell down a rabbit-hole of audio drama podcasts. It was Limetown that acted as my gateway into the genre proper. I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with Welcome to Nightvale since it started back in 2012, but it never made me want to go looking for other audio drama podcasts. But Limetown made me love, not only it, but also the genre and seek out other shows that I might love. I found some excellent audio dramas to enjoy, whether as short flings or long-term commitments, and perhaps equally importantly I found inspiration to write about sound and work on strange sound projects of my own again. Nonetheless, I would sporadically keep checking back on the show, hoping to find that the second season would indeed be coming soon.

This morning I refreshed my podcasts and for the first time since December 2015, there was something new waiting for me in my Limetown feed. A trailer for the Second Season. It’s short, creepy and intriguing, Lia’s voice speaking to us but not, it appears, actually Lia. I haven’t been this excited about a trailer for any series I like in years. And I won’t even be able to listen to the new episodes until at least the New Year!

In these days of on-demand viewing and binge-watching/listening – which to be fair is my preferred form of drama podcast consuming – it sometimes seems that both creators and fans have forgotten the pleasure of anticipation. The power of having to wait between seasons/series often with nothing but hope for and vague rumours about the next season to sustain you. That peculiar satisfaction and relief when you’ve waited ages and then the new content is good. (I grew up being a Doctor Who fan in the 1990s; it may have had a formative impact on my relationship with fiction.) It’s been two years and I’d pretty much given up on finding out the resolution to Season One’s cliff-hanger, but listening to the trailer there, all the feelings I had about the show came flooding back. What did happen to the people of Limetown? What happened to Lia Haddock? Will we find out, or will we find out something much worse but equally compelling? On one hand, I can’t wait; on the other hand the anticipation that I’ll find out soon, but just not quite yet, is absolutely delicious. After so long, I’ll need to re-listen to the show to get myself back into the mood for it and make sure I haven’t forgotten anything that turns out to be significant. I’m delighted to have the excuse to do so.

Well played little podcast, I’m hooked once more.

The Sound of Learning

This year I’ve been spending a lot of time working on my language skills. I’ve been learning Gaelic off and on for most of the last decade and at the start of the year, that this would be the year that I upgrade my language speaking status from the plateau of Intermediate learner to the slopes of advanced learner. I would develop an accent in Gaelic.

One of the less talked about difficulties of language learning, particularly when it comes to a minority language is the difficult hinterland of being an intermediate learner. There are – relatively speaking – tonnes of resources for beginner learners and increasing amounts of content and literature suitable for the fluent or native speaker of the language. But for the intermediate learner, there are few resources and even less classes, most of which are aimed at younger learners. As it is, I mostly read poetry and comic books in Gaelic. (One day I’m going to track down whoever it was that had the genius idea of translating Tintin and Asterix the Gaul into Gaelic, and buy them a pint.)

As part of my efforts to increase my fluency I’ve been slowly working my way through the backlog of Beag air Bheag, which is a programme expressly aimed at Gaelic learners. There was talk for a while about refocusing the programme on beginner Gaelic learners, because it was felt that the programme was getting too advanced. To my great relief they seem to have tackled this problem by dedicating a section of the programme to beginner learners. The programme as it is – both as a radio show and as a podcast – is one of the few resources that feels aimed at those of us caught in the middle so it would be a great loss.

Speaking of its podcast incarnation, during the season break in the show last year they produced a special mini series revising the Grammar points of the previous series. Oisean a’ Ghràmair is my favourite part of the show, so to have a mini-series dedicated to collecting it together is perfect for me. The series in general, uses examples from Radio nan Gaidheal programs, so unlike the stilted fake conversations of so many language learning courses, instead we have extracts of documentaries, news reports and interviews with poets, musicians, politicians or just people who’ve lived interesting lives. The extracts features colloquialisms, jokes and regional dialect variations, the natural use of the language, full of the nuance and detail that the learner can easily miss or misinterpret. To have those explained – along with their grammatical consistencies and inconsistencies is incredibly helpful. There’s something reassuring having these things treated as an aspect of grammar, as much a key to comprehension as recognising that a particular verb is irregular in certain tenses. There’s something delightful to listening back to the extract with your extra knowledge, and understanding all the things you’d have missed before.

Otherwise, I’ve been indulging my love of languages and linguistics more generally with a couple of excellent podcast series.

I’ve been listening to The World in Words for a while now, having come across it at the height of the Standing Rock protects, via an article about the protest that referenced their episode about the Lakota language outreach work that was going on alongside the protests. (The Standing Rock Sioux’s Other Fight.) The series is a companion piece to PRI’s The World focusing in on language issues, sometimes spun off from issues and stories covered on the parent program others by tangents their reporters have stumbled across while reporting other stories entirely. It mainly focuses on minority languages and diaspora languages, the cultural and political impacts by and on languages and the hows and whys of who speaks which language and where. It’s a really interesting series if you’ve ever wondered about how and why language – particularly minority language – is political.

The episodes are quite short and as such are more short introductions to the issues raised than in depth analysis but the show notes are often extensive and helpful if something piques your interest and leaves you wanting more.

Lingthusiasm is a more recent discovery, and very much more of a podcast about linguistics than about languages. It’s about the mechanics of language, how and why they are constructed and work. It’s actually really useful – in an abstract way – for someone like me who loves learning languages but struggles with a lot of grammar constructions because they don’t actually know what the equivalents are in English. I’m going to learn a lot of useful things as the series progresses.

It’s presented by two linguists, one Canadian – Gretchen McCulloch – and the other Australian – Lauren Gawne – and it’s of the genre of podcasts where you’re essentially listening in on the conversation between two very smart people geeking out about something they both love and are very knowledgeable about. It’s unashamedly geeky and enthusiastic about its topic, but really quite accessible for enthusiastic amateurs or non-specialist listeners.

It’s a lovely, intriguing little podcast and while the production values are a little…amateurish…to start with, it’s worth bearing with them. (For a while the next reward level on their Patreon was ‘lets buy Gretchen a decent mic’ and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in being delighted when they made it.) This particular audiophile finds the content well worth the occasional wincing.

I suppose the best review I could give it is this: when I first started listening there were 9 episodes available and I listened to them all – including a 3 and a bit hour special episode – over the course of one weekend.

It’s Got Knitsonik On It

I accidentally gave myself a bit of writers block last week, as I had two more posts I wanted to make about the Inverness Film Festival but wasn’t feeling at all inspired to write them. Therefore I couldn’t write anything else until I’d written them. Completely logical.

Yesterday, I finished catching up with a really interesting sound-related podcast, Knitsonik, so I decided to write about that instead – and hopefully kick the writer’s block to the curb while I’m at it.

Approximately a year ago, at a friend’s birthday party, I got into a discussion with someone about my twin passions of sound design and knitting. Now the relationship between these two things is completely clear to me, but is not something that is always obvious to other people. In fact, until that point the only person I knew who really shared these as twin, interweaved passions, was my former tutor from my masters course Gary Hayton and he’s now a Textile Artist who applies Fibonacci number sequences to knitted fabric. So to casually meet some in everyday life who not only didn’t think it was an odd combination of passions but did in fact tell me they knew someone who had done their PHD in that sort of thing and that they had a podcast about the subject. The idea that there were enough people into both of those things to sustain a podcast was both surprising and delightful.

(The exception is generally if you’re really into maths. Maths geeks – and occasionally engineers – who knit will nod understandingly and talk to me about Fibonacci sequences and the golden ratio and then be horrified that I’m not only not a maths geek but that I don’t actually like maths. Most sound designers seem to come from either a maths/engineering background or a music composition background, I’m neither, I’m first and foremost a craftsperson. Oddly enough, it wasn’t until I was altering a knitting pattern the other week – I didn’t have any graph paper to hand so I used an excel spreadsheet – that I realised that I visualise knitting designs the same way that I design soundscapes. Interchangeable blocks that layer and interweave to create something new and unique.)

Having spent the early months of this year clearing out my backlog of podcasts, I was able to justify subscribing to a few new ones and Knitsonik was naturally among the first to be chosen back in March. Why did it take until now for me to work my way through the backlog? Certainly not because the podcast isn’t interesting. It’s not even that the episodes are long, though that does mean I need to carve out time specifically to listen rather than sticking them on in short periods between other things. The problem with the podcast is that it’s…well…too interesting and inspiring. I couldn’t binge listen to it, because I came out of each episode really wanting to go and do some field recordings or make some sound art. Around 50% of my sound recording field trips this year, were as a direct result of listening to this podcast. I’d sit down with a pot of tea and some knitting on a Sunday afternoon intending to have a binge listen and a couple of hours later I’d be standing somewhere unexpected wearing my giant headphones, recording an interesting bird noise or weird echo and wondering vaguely how I’d got there.

I keep forgetting how much listening to other people be passionate about sound design and sound art stirs up my own passion for the work. (You would think that the exponential increase in my sound production work when the hospital radio station I used to volunteer with had an artist in residence would have clued me in but apparently not.) Sound is, in many ways, quite a solitary pursuit. Anti-social even. You spend a lot of time listening really hard to your environment; it’s quite hard to do in company unless you’re working on something that specifically needs another person to achieve. (The idea of embedding sound in a place, or in objects of the place the sound originates from, is increasingly important to me, especially since I relocated to the Highlands.) It is, therefore, quite easy to feel isolated in your work. Especially, if you don’t live in a large metropolis with an established community of sound artists. Even having an outlet like this blog, it can feel a bit like no-one’s listening.

Therefore, it’s been great to have this window into someone else’s sound projects, their passions and quirks, especially that rare confluence of viewing sound design/art as a craft with all that that implies. And oddly comforting to know that someone else finds sheep noises just as compelling and comical as I do.

Perhaps, if this year’s project was to write more about sound, then next year’s project should be to send more sound out into the world. Not just the stuff that I get paid to make, but the little projects that I make just for the joy of making soundscapes too.

Universal Goat, Frankenstein’s Castle and Other Overused Sound Effects

I’ve been catching up on my podcast backlog this week and I came across something that struck a chord, but that has also come up in the general zeitgeist a few times over the last wee while. Over on the Knitsonik podcast – a podcast about knitting and sound art/design, it’s a niche interest group, but not as niche as I would have expected: I blame the golden ratio – there’s been an on-going discussion about ‘wrong’ sound effects in films, that was started off by a listener who keeps goats bemoaning the use of stock goat sounds that to her were really blatantly not belonging to the goats in question. What she termed ‘universal goat’. This in turn has led to lots of interesting stories and sound recordings of sounds in the wrong places and what the correct sounds should be. (Artic wolves in hill country that would actually be full of coyotes, tree frogs native to the Hollywood hills that turn up all over the place, and explain helpfully why I’ve never heard a frog go ‘ribbet’ in real life.) Additionally, last winter, there was a thread of conversation on Radio 4’s Film Programme about sound effects in the wrong place (Great Northern Divers are something of a short hand for frozen wastelands – shame they’re only found in the Artic and not in the Alps). Ammunition, if ever I heard it, for sound designers everywhere, when faced with a director insisting on their using a generic stock sound rather than hunting down an accurate one, to refute the ‘who’s going to notice’ argument. Clearly, not just us sound geeks.

My own personal version of the universal goat comes courtesy of the BBC Sound Effects Library. That glorious collection of CDs that lurked in the media departments of practically every university or college in the UK, courtesy of those fine folks at the Radiophonics workshop. The point towards the end of my Masters when I could actually pick out sound effects that I recognised in not only student films, but also actual commercial television and film, has probably shaped my attitude towards location recording, Foley and using library sound effects. Once you tune into a ‘wrong’ sound effect that is in common circulation, it becomes practically impossible not to hear it. Nearly a decade on, I’ll be watching an old Hammer Horror film or a Jon Pertwee Dr Who serial, there’ll be a storm and there it’ll be: ‘Frankenstein’s Castle (Rain, Thunder etc.)’. It’s a really good thunderstorm, nicely atmospheric, but by goodness does it get used a lot. It even turns up occasionally in modern low budget British horror films. I really hope that’s because sound designers are using it ironically – a knowing nod and a wink to genre savvy geeks in the audience – but I doubt it.

Part of the problem is, that sound is very powerful, it often completely bypasses our conscious brain, to press buttons in our brain we don’t necessarily even know we have. Particularly fear, it’s really, really good at fear. (Trust me on this. That was my dissertation topic; I could talk about it all day.) So we often come to associate particular sounds with particular emotional states when it comes to movie watching. Which is fine, but when it comes to making movies, both audiences and filmmakers come with a whole plethora of pre-conceptions – both conscious and unconscious – about how things ‘should’ sound. As a sound designer its very easy to get drawn into that trap, it would be very easy for me to forget, if I were recreating the sound of a forest at night that the sounds I associate with the woods of my childhood – deciduous woodland in the Lowlands of Scotland – aren’t necessarily going to be accurate to a pine forest in the Highlands. Because those sounds are familiar to me, they won’t sound obviously ‘wrong’ – the way a 1960s ambulance siren would sound out of place in a modern drama – because I expect them to be there. So it is with sounds that we associate with particular locales because we’ve only seen them in movies and they always have a certain soundscape. Audiences will sometimes find the ‘correct’ sound unconvincing because they’re so used to stock effects that are ‘wrong’ or over emphasised. Some directors will vehemently resist the use of a sound that is factually correct, because it doesn’t conform to their expectation, with their mental soundscape for how that location should sound. And still other occasions the actual sound just doesn’t sound dramatic or evocative enough – flesh tearing is actually a really quiet un-dramatic noise, you need to layer it with various other elements to actually get a sound with the right impact. Flesh is really good at deadening sound, meaning that punches mostly have more of a solid dull sound with very little echo, rather than the crisp neat bam of a lot of movie punches.

But, as with so much in sound design; the sign of really good sound work is when you don’t notice its there. If this discussion proves anything, it’s that audiences only really notice us, when we get it wrong. Which arguably, is how it should be.

April Sounds

Our first April sound is that familiar gentle hiss and rattle, that warm analogue sound of…audio tape? First there was the vinyl revival, now, on a much smaller scale audio tape is making a quiet comeback. A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled upon a news video about the last audio tape company in the US (possibly the last one anywhere). They originally made blank tapes, but as their competitors started transitioning to making CDs, they bought out their equipment and have slowly cornered the market in tape duplication. Now that nostalgia has given cassette tapes a certain level of cool, they have the skills and the technology to take advantage of the small but steadily growing market of indie bands and movie soundtracks that want to tap into that nostalgia.

(You can watch it here, as the embed doesn’t work on WordPress.

I must admit, that while I do have a certain fond nostalgia for audio tapes, as the audio media of my childhood – particularly the blank tapes with their versatility and ability to be overlaid and re-recorded to your heart’s content – I can’t see myself rebuilding my music collection in audio tapes. But it does please me to think that somewhere out there some fourteen year old is gently fishing a tape out of a tape deck, half its tape spooled out in awkward heaps around itself and being handed a pencil – a nice hexagonal pencil, none of your cylindrical nonsense – and having the vital relationship between the two explained to them. And perhaps more importantly, an apprentice somewhere else is by now learning how to repair magnetic tape and microprocessors at the same time.

Next up is the Sunday Feature from Radio 3 back at the start of the month called Taking it all Back Home. Which is about reuniting the sound recordings that lurk in the archives of various museums and universities with the descendants of the people they came from. Like any kind of cultural repatriation this is a complex and fraught process, but listening to the stories on the important role that these recordings can have in connecting these communities with their own past – especially people from minority cultures whose culture or language may have been actively damaged or destroyed by outside forces – was both deeply sad and rather uplifting. They cannot get back what was lost, but they can use these recordings to inspire and to build upon to create something new that is grounded in what came before it.

I spent a while last winter poking about in the sound archives of the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh, paging through old file cards and even older ledgers and listening to ancient recordings. I felt then, as now, the importance of the work done to record a changing culture on the cusp of modernity. And also of the ongoing work, to keep those recordings in circulation. The artists in residence that the School of Scottish Studies has, musicians making new works inspired and shaped by the recordings, by their own history. Listening to some of the contributors speak, I felt as though someone had finally articulated for me, just why I have such a visceral emotional response to the Niteworks tracks that use archival samples.

In the obligatory podcast corner of this monthly update, due to iTunes having a wee hiccup, I accidentally downloaded the entire archive of Gastropod. And spent April listening to the entirety of said backlog. I’ve written about that in more detail over at my food blog, but the relevant part for this blog is that it meant that I unexpectedly discovered a double bill of episodes from Gastropod, exploring the relationship between sound and food. The first episode – ‘Field Recordings’ – looks at how sounds effect crops and agriculture. From the use of highly sensitive microphones to detect weevil infestations in grain stores and using the sounds of caterpillars eating them to stimulate crops to secrete their own insect repellent to ward off other predators, to the rather more esoteric art of playing different kinds of music to plants to make them grow faster. (Plants ‘feel’ rather than ‘hear’ sound much like the way we feel a really good bass line reverberating in our chest cavity.) I rather hoped that there might be more acousmetrics in the research, it would be interesting to see whether industrial noise – such as being under a noisy flight-path – has an impact on crop growth and animal well-being. However there was an interesting section on documenting the range of sounds and calls that barn and factory chickens make and the use of that information to track animal welfare and wellness in their populations. The second episode – ‘Crunch, Crackle, and Pop’ – looks at how sound affects taste. Anyone who has ever had a heavy cold knows that smell affects taste – the way everything tastes bland when your nose is blocked and how much worse cough medicine tastes when you’re on the mend – and the impact of sight on taste is also commonly accepted. (There was an entertaining experiment recently where a bunch of wine critics were fooled into thinking that white wine was red wine by the simple application of food colouring…) It appears to be a largely psychosomatic effect, but nonetheless one with a very definite effect, marine sounds will make seafood taste more fishy and playing carefully synced crisp crunches to someone as they eat stale crisps will fool them into thinking they’re fresher. An equally fascinating topic but one with less practical implications than the first episode – unless of course you’re a budding restaurateur looking to build the correct ambience for your new eatery.

Special hat-tip this month to @CherylTipp who is the Curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds at the British Library and is a great source of interesting sound projects, articles and other sound ephemera. Lots of the interesting things I post about in this series were either brought to my attention by her twitter feed or discovered down some rabbit hole that started with me following a link from her. You can hear her being interviewed for Source Magazine here.