A multi-disciplinary designer’s journey in field recording, sound design, and music.

Creeping Crawlies and Contact Mics

Posted: July 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, gear, nature recording
Full-Contact Audio: Contact microphones are cheap, fun, and beg for questionable uses.

Full-Contact Audio: Contact microphones are cheap, fun, and beg for questionable uses.

There are Japanese beetle larvae living in my planter boxes. When we turn the soil, we sometimes unearth over a hundred at a time. We usually dig them out, leave them in a shallow bowl, and the local birds have a feast. I always wondered what disgusting critters that small sounded like, crawling around in a big ol’ pile.

This seemed like a job for contact microphones, the small little piezo elements that detect vibrations through objects rather than through the air. You can make your own for less than $5, but being a complete soldering nimrod, I ordered two hand-built, XLR-equipped and Plasti-Dipped contact microphones from Jeff Thompson at ContactMics.com. I jammed  one of them into this slowly writhing mass. Totally gross. However, the sound was not at all as I had expected: crisp, brittle, and not that slimy. Since I’ve just recontextualized what this sound is, you’ll probably get all creeped out anyway. So enjoy. (Sorry about the ground loop hum, I was in a hurry and didn’t properly troubleshoot…)


[Piezo contact microphone into Sound Devices 702]

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More Antler Shenanigans

Posted: December 20th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: found sound objects, music, sound design
antlersII

A lush nest of sonic discomfort.

Following on my last post, I’ve continued to play around with my recordings of deer antlers through a contact microphone. Today’s sound is almost entirely from that session, with only a handful of synthesized sounds, all triggered by LFOs and other random modulations. The manipulations of the deer antler sounds were done in the very weird, pretty unstable, and utterly unique Gleetchlab application, as well as iZotope Iris, which did an amazing job of figuring out the root frequency of the flute-like and cello-like bowed resonances.

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Deer Antlers as Instrument

Posted: December 15th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: found sound objects, music, sound design

aantlers

Most years I host a “white elephant” party: Bring gifts you were given that are pretty bad, re-wrap them, and then you pick from the pile and laugh at the bizarre stuff you unwrap. Last year, I wound up with a pair of deer antlers.

I don’t hunt, yet I have a thing for taxidermy. I have no idea why.

As they sat in my studio, I thought back to an interview I did with Cheryl Leonard for the Sonic Terrain blog a few years ago. I remember her making instruments from limpet shells and other organic objects. Why was I not exploring the sonic possibilities of this strange object on my shelf?

Deer antlers are bone, not hair, so they are riddled with hollow channels, and are extremely tough. The main thing I tried was to explore their resonance, with a cello bow. I had to lay a good amount of rosin on the bow, but they did resonate. The sound is hissy, atonal, but with some pronounced fundamentals and overtones…just not in relationships that one usually considers musical. I used a Barcus Berry 4000 contact microphone and recorded onto a Sound Devices 702 field recorder.

When I hear an interesting sustained sound with too many frequencies, or odd frequency relationships, I usually go to one place to create something musical out of it: iZotope Iris. It’s a very creative tool for making playable virtual instruments out of pretty much any sound. In this case I also used New Sonic Arts’ Granite granular synthesis plugin for several layers. It all sounded very breath-y, like a somewhat melodic whisper. I mixed it with some LFO-driven rhythms in Reason and a bassline and drone from Madrona Labs’ Aalto. It was all put together in Logic Pro X with very few effects, lightly compressed by Cytomic’s The Glue.

Deer antlers, even processed through modern software, aren’t the most flexible or sonically soothing instruments around, but this article can at least serve as a reminder to explore everything around us for its interesting sonic possibilities. You never know what you’ll find.

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Creaks in the Wind

Posted: June 3rd, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, found sound objects
bbCmic01

Contact mics are bloomin’ fun.

They say that wind in the San Francisco Bay Area doesn’t blow, it sucks. Actually, that’s physically accurate.

When California’s Central Valley heats up, the Sierra Nevada mountain range prevents the air from moving east, so it goes straight up. The cool, heavy air from the western coast then rushes in to fill the gap. This is what causes San Francisco’s famed summer winds and fog, creating summers that feel colder than winters.

Depending on what you’re trying to record, this can be a blessing or a curse. When I saw part of my fence moving about in 15-20 knot winds, I figured something interesting was happening. I could hear some subtle creaking, but if my ears were hearing it, I figured more was going on beneath the surface.

Windy days, of course, are great times to pull out the contact microphones. (Coincidentally, Tim Prebble just announced his second contact microphone sound library at the time of this writing.) No windscreens, no infrasound distortion, nothing. When I placed my contact mic on a fencepost, I got not only wood creaks, but the strain of metal wires tied into the fence to promote upwards growth of roses and vines. This added a metallic overtone that’s quite interesting.

It feels evocative of the strains and groans of a ship heaving at sea, or a castle gate straining under the weight of many warriors or beasts of war (recorded as always at 192khz, this kind of material sounds great pitch shifted -2 octaves). It’s been nice to get back to the world of contact microphones! Posted with no processing whatsoever, so you can actually hear some nearby windchimes in the background if you listen carefully, whose vibrations must have been picked up by the planks in the fence.

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Lite2Sound

Posted: April 2nd, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, gear, sound design
Rare Waves' Lite2Sound PX, by Eric Archer: A photonic microphone!

Rare Waves’ Lite2Sound PX, by Eric Archer: A photonic microphone!

I’ve previously written about the heavily-built, wickedly cool Grendel Drone Commander synth from Eric Archer. I check his site, Rare Waves, from time to time for new handmade electronic toys, and I was really intrigued by his newer Lite2Sound PX unit. This small device, in Eric’s words, “extracts audio from ambient light.” It’s a photodiode amplifier. Or a photosensitive microphone. Point it at light, it makes sound. It runs off a 9-volt battery, has a volume control, and a headphone jack. Simple, exciting, and a whole new world of sonic insanity. You can buy them as kits or, as I did, fully assembled.

Sounds pretty straightforward. If you just point it at bright, broad light sources, it’s kind of disappointing. It’s when you start listening to artificial lights in otherwise dim environments that some serious magic starts to happen. My experiments were conducted in and around high tech computer equipment, running an 1/8″ mini jack from the headphone output into my Sony PCM -D50 recorder.

Lights inside of PCs, modulated by fans…and further modulated by speaker grills as I passed the Lite2Sound from side to side. Ethernet network activity lights. Server disk access indicator lights. A close up of the power button of an XBox 360 while booting up. Pulsing lights of devices in standby mode. Halogen lamps behind spinning desk fans.

Lightly armored for future fieldwork!

Lightly armored for future fieldwork!

The resulting sounds were astounding in their range: Static, glitches, distorted synth pads, pure sinewave tones, sawtooth-like tones, and much more. You can’t control it, really. It’s a tool of discovery, and its very nature encourages constant experimentation. It was so small and so perfectly complemented a handheld field recorder, I just wanted to take it everywhere and point it at everything! It imparted the same joy as when you start recording with contact microphones, or hydrophones: A new way to listen to the world around you. The more I used the Lite2Sound, I put it in a small plastic container (hacked with an XActo knife for access to controls and the headphone jack) in order to keep the components better protected.

Lite2Sound is a pretty narrowly-focused device and how useful it is to you depends on your taste for the unpredictable. Me, I adore this thing. Hell, I bought two (for future stereo photo-phonic insanity). It encourages constant experimentation, weighs nothing, and I can see using its output in both sound design and musical contexts. Eric Archer nails it again with an odd concept and a rock-solid, focused execution that results in a toy that just begs to be played with.

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Thrift Store Sounds: Grillage

Posted: October 13th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: found sound objects, sound design

My mecca on a foggy morning: Urban Ore!

I went to the granddaddy of thrift stores recently, so much so that it’s more of a glorified junk store…but oh, what glorious junk. I’m talking about Urban Ore in Berkeley, California. Sometimes I’m self-conscious shopping for things by ear, picking up random things and just listening to them, but at Urban Ore – heck, Berkeley in general – I can ear-shop in peace.

I was in a metallic mood, so I filled a bag with things that squeak, resonate, creak, clank, and sproing. Based on the dronetastic results of striking wire shelving last year, I picked up a few thin-wire metal grills that had sonic promise, among other things that will surely find their way to this blog later this fall and winter.

For the grills, I decided to trot out my much-neglected piezo contact microphones. The resonant notes were so subtle that it seemed like the best way to capture the sound at a reasonable volume. I plucked them, struck them, and played them with a cello bow. The magic happened, though, when I realized one was easily played with a bow and the other was not, so I stuck the bowable one inside of the other, and played away, causing both of them to resonate when played appropriately.

The results were like ultra-low-fi bastardizations of stringed instruments played in horror movies, and I just loved the character. The rawness of hearing the actual hairs of the bow on the metal, in my opinion, lends to the eerie charm.


[Contact microphone into Sound Devices 702 recorder]

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Thrift Store Sounds: Toy Helicopter

Posted: July 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: found sound objects, sound design

Brrrrwwwwaaaawwwrrrrrwwwaaar!

This might be harder to find at a thrift store than at an electronics or hobby store, but there are a large number of ultra-small toy helicopters on the market that can be had for not a lot of dosh. They’re flimsy. They don’t fly well. But they do scare the hell out of family pets, which instantly makes them entertaining, and they do make pretty cool sounds.

So, imagine this: You’re only one person with no assistants nearby. These helicopters, well, they fly erratically. How do you keep a mic trained on it to get a good recording? I solved this problem before by putting wireless mics on moving objects, but they’re far to heavy for something like this. Well, let’s just take advantage of the toy’s weak flying ability: Why not just hold the stupid thing while the rotors rotate? The rotors, however, rotate really quickly, and move a surprising amount of air. The body of the helicopter is so teensy that I couldn’t find a good mic position that blocked the air being moved around, which of course creates a lot of distortion and rumble.

Rather than futz around with a bulky windscreen and furry windjammer, I decided to just attach a contact microphone to the helicopter with gaffer’s tape. This worked reasonably well, especially after a quick equalization adjustment to overcome the somewhat dull midrange response of the mic itself. The sound that was transmitted through the high-density foam body was actually more interesting and full than the rotor’s sound in the free air, anyway. Besides the aforementioned EQ pass, this recording is unaltered. Recorded at 192kHz, this could provide all manner of mechanical effects if pitched down or processed further!


[Contact microphone into Sound Devices 702 recorder]

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Satan’s Violin Lesson

Posted: July 14th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, found sound objects, sound design

Noise Jockey: Taking the "E" out of "e-bow."

Almost exactly one year ago, I played a steel cable on a gate with an eBow, recorded with contact microphones. I decided to give it a go with a regular bow when I realized that this gate was basically a one-stringed guitar.

Think about it: Wound metal string under tension, wooden resonator. That’s all a guitar really is. What a wooden gate lacks is thickness, like a guitar, but at more than a meter in width and height, that’s a broad-enough surface to send air molecules running for cover.

I had to rosin the hell out of the bow to make it tacky enough to grip this oversized “string.” I found that also spreading rosin on the wrapped steel cable was helpful. I tuned the cable, as much as one can, by adjusting a turnbuckle.

I recorded in mid-side stereo. Today’s sample features is comprised of one mono track totally dry, one mono track run through Michael Norris’ Spectral Blurring effect, one mono track pitch-shifted down by 1.5 octaves, and the one stereo track pitch-shifted down by three octaves. Recording at 192Hz helps for such tomfoolery.

I apologize to my neighbhors for the unholy racket that I’m sure they thought was a demonic violin 101 class.

[Sennheiser MKH 50 and MKH 30 recorded as mid-side stereo into Sound Devices 702 recorder]

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Roam Home to a Drone

Posted: June 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: found sound objects, sound design
Rycote, Shelving, & Bear Canister

Today's lesson: Channelling resonance through a vibrationally conductive chamber!

[This post’s title not ringing a bell? Read more.]

As regular visitors to Noise Jockey have read before, I’m pro-drone, and I vote.

Any rich, enveloping tone is like audio heroin to me. Why? It’s definitely psychoacoustic, possibly all alignin’ my chakras ‘n’ such, maybe it’s the resonant frequency of my skull…I have no idea. While they’re easy to synthesize, they’re harder to record in the real world, but can be much richer and full of sonic surprises.

But it’s not like they’re rare. Quite the contrary: Almost anything will resonate under the right circumstances, but thin metals seems to be the best, including commonplace wire shelving units.

In trying to record a set of metal wire shelves in my shed, I started with contact mics, figuring there’d be subtleties to be captured…but putting mics on the thin rods of the shelves prevented them from moving as freely, and it just lacked the character that my ears heard. I ditched the contact mics and moved a large, polycarbonate bear-proof food canister onto a shelf and stuck a hypercardioid mic right at the mouth of the canister. This amplified the sound, added more of overtones, and increased the sound’s sustain.

Today’s sound is an edit of decays and tones from striking these metal shelves with a hammer. I simply edited out all of the transients of the actual hammer falls, and layered many sequences of these resonant tones together, “boomerang-reversing” some of them to get more consistent volume and tone. However, no plugins have been used.


[Sennheiser MKH 50 into Sound Devices 702 recorder]

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Hyperhopper

Posted: June 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: found sound objects, sound design

Sunshine on his shoulder makes him jumpy...

No sound designer can resist sound-making objects, so I did some recent damage at ThinkGeek for some small, inexpensive musical items…but then I noticed the robots.

Sadly,  buying a spendy mechanical robot arm just to record servo sounds seemed like a horrible investment. I learned this lesson last year. ;-)

However, I did get a tiny solar-powered grasshopper kit. An offset actuator in its abdomen makes the whole thing vibrate on tiny wire legs when it’s solar-cell carapace is hit with sunlight or a strong halogen source.

Of course, that would sound tiny and delicate. Which is OK. But how to make that sound bigger? Well, you put it on something that will resonate: Something with air around it that will conduct vibrations easily. (I’ve had loud, racous luck with this before.)

Being a hot, sunny Sunday, I chose the top of my closed Weber grill. I tested the sound with contact mics, but the steel was too thick. Truly, and unusually, where my ears were – close to the top of the grill – was where the best sound was. I switched to a hypercardioid mic in a windscreen, and captured today’s sound.

To accentuate the lovely low-mid resonant tones, I applied a huge -24dB cut at 5.5kHz , where the metallic feet where vibrating against the grill (I still wanted a tiny hint of chatter  in there), tand a +9dB boost at 180Hz. Could make for a nice layer with some other design elements.


[Sennheiser MKH 50 into Sound Devices 702 recorder]

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