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

Watery Creaking…and Aquatic Jazz

Posted: October 25th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: field recording

I found myself at Jack London Square in Oakland during San Francisco Fleet Week. The majestic Lady Washington was in port, so I skulked around with my Sony PCM-D50 field recorder (I was there for other purposes, so I wasn’t toting around my full field recording kit).

It was a foggy morning and the air was still, and the ship wasn’t really making any sound. Its dock, though, sure was. It wound up being one of my favorite sounds in some time, between the metal strains, the rubbing of rubber, and the lapping of water.

Even more interesting was the jazz quartet that set up mid-deck on the Lady Washington around lunchtime. I don’t know what they were playing, but here it is, regardless, recorded about 60′ away. Loads of people to the right of the stereo field, nothing but open bay to the left.

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F/A-18 Hornet Fly-Bys

Posted: October 12th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: field recording


When I was a kid, I loved jets. Like most boys, I seemed to love vehicles of all sorts. That all waned as I got older, but fast fighter jets are pretty impressive machine…even if the US Navy’s Blue Angels make my blood boil with their noise, and when I think that my tax dollars pay for all that jet fuel in their F/A-18 Hornets.

Nevertheless, as an audio recordist, jet fly-bys aren’t that easy to get on cue. So, every year, I try to record the Blue Angels over San Francisco during Fleet Week. I always say I’ll go somewhere and record them, but life gets in the way on the weekends. But Thursday and Friday beforehand, they do practice runs over the city.

I planned to go onto the roof of my workplace, but a bunch of tech hipsters got there first: Too much talking and reaction sounds. So I just stuck my Sony PCM-D50 out the window, in a small channel between skyscrapers.

When these things scream by, I was measuring between 40dB and 50dB over the background noise level…which, in an urban area is already between 40 and 70dBA. The PCM-D50 has pretty bad limiting – it actually is always recording at two different levels, and fades between the two, so it’s not even a real limiter. So you need to set your levels very carefully. I did a test on Thursday to get just two fly-bys on Friday that were relatively clean.

I liked how the sounds were rendered. The reverb off the tall buildings was nice, even though the background noise masked some of the jets’ approach. But in a city of 760,000 people, you take what you can get…

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Nathan profiled on CreativeFieldRecording.com

Posted: October 7th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, gear, news


Paul Virostek of Creative Field Recording, focuses more on approach and technique than equipment, which I think is entirely appropriate. It’s all too easy to get caught in the vortex of gear over doing creative and innovative things with it.

However, it’s always interesting to know what people do use, and why, and what informed their decisions in doing so. To that end, Paul is in the midst of “A Month of Field Recording,” and yours truly was the latest to be profiled, among such field recordist luminaries as Frank Bry, Watson Wu, and many others.

I’m deeply humbled to have been asked to contribute to this series, and thank Paul for the opportunity. What’s more, I also need to thank the online recordist and sound design community, without whom I’d basically know nothing.  More than half of those being profiled by Paul this month are people who have exhibited nothing but excitement and patience in fielding my questions to them about gear, practice, and theory.


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Aeolian Day 2015: May 31, Oakland, CA

Posted: May 6th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, news

I’ll be the field recordist for the second Aeolian Day, put on by Thingamajigs, at Jack London Square, Oakland, California! The event is Sunday, May 31, 11am-4pm, and coincides with the weekly farmer’s market there. You can help the local art scene – which has been locally challenged by gentrification and rising Bay Area rents – and fill your face with awesome Bay Area eats!

Come check out a whole day of wind-driven art, and the sounds that they make! And if you see the guy with the boom pole, please do say hi…just, please, not while I’m rolling… :-D

Thingamajigs will be doing fun stuff with the audio and video, too, so keep an eye on their website for more!

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Lighthouse Winds

Posted: April 22nd, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, gear, nature recording, sound design


My past winter holiday involved a sea kayak crossing to Las Islas de Los Todos Santos, a pair of islands four nautical miles offshore of Ensenada, México. We were greeted – and partied with – a nearly toothless lighthouse keeper, and slept in an old lighthouse built in the 1930′s.

We had two days of 15-25 knot winds, and as you might imagine, a lighthouse is a roughshod place. The winds were howling through the old windows and making amazing sounds.

Only one problem: I had a small sea kayak with no room to even pack a handheld field recorder. As I’ve said many times before, the best field recorder is the one you have with you, and this case, my only option was my iPhone. In glorious, shimmering mono.

Today’s sound are of these howling winds, recorded with the Voice Memos app on iOS. I’m not about to make a habit of using my iPhone as a field recorder, even with aftermarket microphones, but hopefully this goes to show that sometimes you do the best with what you have. Especially if the sounds and location are literally once-in-a-lifetime events.

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Desert Train

Posted: April 21st, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: field recording

I’m in the Mojave National Preserve. Massively underrated location, more Joshua trees per acre than Joshua Tree National Park. Gorgeous. Quiet.

My girlfriend is photographing wildflowers in a shallow roadside arroyo. The road follows a set of train tracks; there are small bridges over each arroyo, wash, and ditch. I’m a little bored.

I hear a distant train.

“Where the hell is my field recorder?!?!”

I rummage through the back seat of our car, packed with disorganized camping gear. I violently toss out three huge bags to get at the small Pelican case that holds my Sony PCM-D50. The train gets closer.

I switch on up the D50: No power. “F#&%!!!” I dump the dead batteries into the desert sand, slam fresh batteries in. I toss the Pelican case in the sand and sprint to the small concrete bridge over the arroyo. I slate the take as I run. The train is now visible and almost at the bridge, arriving from my right. I’m rolling. I’m ready…or so I think, having never recorded a train close up before.

The train has two locomotives at the front: They absolutely overload the mics and kick in the D50′s horrendously useless limiters. “S#!%!!!”

But then the cars start rolling by, at least 30dB less loud than the engines. I’m taken aback by the loudness difference and the relative quiet of the cars’ wheels. I’m only 18″ away from the rails; the center of the wheels are at my eye level, elevated above the wash I’m standing in. The old freight cars make a solid chack-chack-chack rhythm, sometimes a galloping sound like a 12-legged horse. The modern liquid container cars produce a smooth, buttery whoosh as they pass. The final engine passes by, screaming like a spacecraft in a sci-fi movie.

I think, for a moment, that I will have no photo to accompany this sound on my blog. Then I do my absolutely ugliest, uncoordinated happy dance, seen only by the ravens and the bees.

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Windy Chaos

Posted: June 17th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: field recording


It’s been an inordinately windy spring, even for the infamously windy San Francisco area. A previous post captured the sound of my fence swaying in heavy winds, and recently I discovered that my garage door not only creaks and groans in heavy winds, parts of it start vibrating.

So, into the garage with my MKH 50 I went…this high-pitched hiss in the background are leaves on a camphor tree just on the other side of the door. (I freely admit that while I was using a mid-side pair during recording and, ummm, well…I only had one track on my Sound Devices 702 armed to record. Sounded great in mid-side, but ya know what? You get to hear it in glittering, stunning mono!)

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Creaks in the Wind

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

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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Static Shower

Posted: April 25th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, found sound objects

This post doesn’t have a whole lot of details around it, but the sound is neat.

I don’t remember the hotel. Was it the crappy motel in Monterey? The mildewed joint in Fort Bragg? Something more upscale on a work trip? I really don’t recall. But I remember the showerhead.

There was an aerator on the showerhead that, when the water wasn’t quite all the way off, made the most interesting sound as it sputtered out small air pockets in between drops. It sounded purely electrical and nothing like water at all. Check it out.

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Beach, Please

Posted: April 16th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, nature recording
The view west to the Pacific Ocean from Catala Island, British Colombia, Canada.

The view west to the Pacific Ocean from Catala Island, British Colombia, Canada.

During my 2013 kayak-camping expedition on the west coast of Vancouver Island, I spent a day by myself photographing and field recording Catala Island. You know you’re in a remote area when you refer to Vancouver Island as “the mainland.”

I found myself on a beach away from the direct Pacific swell, with a nice mix of pebbles and cobbles that made a wonderful rainstick-like tone when the gentle waves receded. (Of course, I’ve posted on recording waves before.)

Cobble cobble cobble.

Cobble cobble cobble.

But as isolated as I was, man made sounds still managed to intrude. A lonely acoustic buoy in the distance bleated like a seasick cow on every incoming swell. You may be able to hear this in the background of this recording, faintly, although an aggressive 130Hz high pass filter helped remove the worst of it. Luckily this also removed the distant roar of the sea, actually helping to focus the sound on the small waves that really didn’t have much low-end to them at all.

Many dozens of miles from any road, on an island off another island off the main continent, the sounds of man still pervade. Or perhaps invade.

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