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

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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Raven Chatter

Posted: June 5th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, nature recording

Thus quoth the raven, "Press record, idiot!" (This picture was taken years ago in Oakland, CA, not where today's sound was recorded.)

[One in a series of posts from my spring 2011 trip to the southern California desert.]

I love ravens. Not because I’m all Mr. Gothy McLordbyron, but because they’re big, majestic, smart as hell, and have gravelly voices. Like crows, but drunker. They’re the Tom Waits of the bird world.

Ravens aren’t exactly rare, and perhaps because of this, they’re hard to record in the wild. They can be anywhere: Urban areas, tops of trees, windswept hills…but by the time I show up with a recorder, they’re either deciding to be quiet or are surrounded by traffic noise, intense winds, other birds, or even people. I’ve had the darnedest time capturing one cleanly.

Thankfully, the ravens of Joshua Tree National Park are pretty fearless…well, they’re also always looking for snacks, and have learned that people can be a good source for tasty (dropped) morsels. I’ve noticed that they often travel in pairs or groups of less than four to six, and one day we were followed by a pair of ravens as we wandered the desert trails. The vocalizations aren’t anything super-special, but they’re (for once) pretty clean, articulate, and detailed. Just what I was hoping for!

This raven was talking to his companion quietly as they spread out looking for snacks. He landed about twenty feet from me and I recorded him as he was hopping around. I like the little lilt he added at the end!


[Sony PCM-D50 recorder, capsules at 120°]

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Abandoned Mine Shaft

Posted: May 12th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, found sound objects, sound design

Eton Mine, Lucky Boy Trail, Joshua Tree National Park, California, USA.

[One in a series of posts from my spring 2011 trip to the southern California desert.]

Joshua Tree National Park is beautiful, but much of its history (prior to being designated a National Park) has scarred and pockmarked its landscape. In the Gold Rush, the Joshua Tree hinterlands held some of the most productive mines in California until well into the 1900′s. These mines were big, sprawling, and deep. To my knowledge, no Balrogs were released as a result. But that would explain a lot about Golden State politics.

We hiked on some lesser-traveled trails and found an acre of land with no fewer than five vertical holes in the ground: Mine shafts. They were all wired off and had metal grates over them. One in particular, the Eton Mine on the Lucky Boy trail, had warning signs on the wire fence surrounding it.

It was quite windy that day, and I just knew I had to get the creaking, squeaking sounds of this battered sign on the rusty wire. It took me a surprisingly long time to figure out how to protect my handheld recorder from the wind, but ultimately I decided to use my body as a shield and then stick it under my microfleece hoody. (I had the OEM fuzzy windscreen on it, which is one of the most useless strips of fabric I’ve ever seen, er, heard.) I just hoped that my body protected it from the 25+ mph wind gusts and that the fabric wouldn’t dampen the high frequencies too badly…and because of the sound, I had high-frequency content to burn.

With some judicious noise reduction in post – subtle, as always, gives the best result – it didn’t come out too shabby, considering the horrible recording conditions and super-no-budget wind blocking techniques!


[Sony PCM-D50 recorder, capsules at 120°]

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Wheezing Water Pump

Posted: May 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, found sound objects, sound design

"Ol' Wheezy" the Water Spigot, as we called him, at our campground in the desert.

[One in a series of posts from my spring 2011 trip to the southern California desert.]

Joshua Tree National Park is in the Mojave Desert. It’s dry. Only two campgrounds in the entire park have running water of any kind. Bad weather on the coast of California caused us to decide to stay in the desert at the tail end of a week’s vacation, so we were lucky to just show up at Joshua Tree and grab a spot at one of these prime campgrounds.

I camp a lot, all over the place, but I had never seen a water spigot quite like the one near our site. It was like the wet dream of a post-apocalytpic film production designer: Big, industrial, heavy, and red. If a common water pump could be bad ass, this one could.

Anyway, the draw-up of water sounded really neat, so I whipped out the ol’ handheld recorder and took some samples on our last morning there. It reminded me a bit of the sound of EVE coming out of her landing ship’s tube from the film WALL•E.

In developed campgrounds, you need to be up really early to avoid noise from fellow campers. No wonder I like backpacking so much…


[Sony PCM-D50 recorder, capsules at 120°]

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Desert Frogsong

Posted: April 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, nature recording

[One in a series of posts from my spring 2011 trip to the southern California desert.]

Anza Borrego Desert State Park is the second largest state park in the lower 48 United States. It’s dry, as its name implies, but it’s very seismically active and has many natural hot springs and oases scattered throughout the park, so water is less scarce than you’d think.

Even so, it shocked me almost beyond belief how filled some of these hot seeps were with frogs, and how loud they got at night. Sadly, I didn’t get any pictures of these tiny thumb-sized frogs, puffing out their chins to impress their ladyfriends, but I watched them for an hour with my headlamp while I recorded them from several perspectives. (Tip: Get a headlamp with a red LED or filter. This goes a long way in preserving your night vision while still illuminating nearby things like field recorder controls, and tends to spook animals less.)

Here is one long take from this session. It starts with distant frogs, one slow croaker nearby, and then gets really hopping (ugh, sorry, I had to do it) around 1 minute in. Then, after two and a half minutes, it dies down as quickly as it started.


[Sony PCM-D50 recorder, capsules at 120°]

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