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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The MV Uchuck III

Posted: April 10th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: field recording
The MV Uchuck III, passenger vessel and freigher on the west coast of Vancouver island.

The MV Uchuck III, passenger vessel and freigher on the west coast of Vancouver island. Kayak for scale.

One of the many reasons this site experienced an almost 1-year hiatus was a self-supported 2-week kayak expedition (check out the video of this amazing trip) on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island. The island is so riddled with deep networks of inlets that it’s actually quite hard to actually get to the exposed west coast. So, at the tiny logging town of Gold River, BC, we put our kayaks on the MV Uchuck III to get motored out to the coast.

The MV Uchuck III engine room, starboard engine.

The MV Uchuck III engine room, starboard engine.

The Uchuck III is a lifeline for those that live on the edge of the world, where no roads exist and all travel must be by boat. The Uchuck III brings mail, deliveries, empty dumpsters, groceries, supplies, fish farm provisions, passengers and kayakers from Gold River out to Kyuquot, where we started our trip. It plays a vital role in this extremely remote region, and many generations of skippers and engineers have plied this route. The boat is so storied that there’s even a book about it and its predecessors.

The Uchuck III is a heavily modified World War II minesweeper. The inner double hull and stabilizers were removed to make room for a cargo hold, a crane was added, and the pilot house was moved astern. Its two propellers are powered by one straight-eight diesel engine apiece (a more cranky and surly version of the MV Tutoko, which I rode and recorded in the inlets of New Zealand’s Fiordland), and the skipper can’t control the engines from the pilot house: An actual telegraph is used to relay coded bell rings to the engineer below to take certain actions and “shift gears.” When this thing breaks down, parts need to be machined in Vancouver, from the original construction plans kept aboard.

The engine telegraph unit.

The engine telegraph unit.

Because we were just passing through, essentially, I didn’t get a chance to record too much material, but this post contains some of the perspectives I captured of the ship’s engines and cargo crane. Being a kayak expedition, I only had room for my Sony PCM-D50 recorder, which sucked for nature recording while kayaking…but it was more than sufficient for the loud pounding of the Uchuck III’s twin diesel engines.

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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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Heavy Metal Pie

Posted: December 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: found sound objects, sound design

Exterminate! Exterminate!

In North America, the end of the Western calendar year brings Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Christmas…lots of holidays, most of which revolve around eating. In our household, that means one thing above all else: PIE SEASON.

My wife loves making pies and tarts, and one of the baker’s secret weapons for such endeavors are pie weights. They’re simply large, heavy versions of the more common metal-ball-style keychain. Ours is about four feet in length.

While washing dishes after a piemaking bonanza, I noticed the sound it made as I dragged it over the lip of our stainless steel sink. Finally, on a rainy winter day, I decided to do some recording and processing.

I grabbed three things for this session: The pie weights, a really beat-up baking sheet, and a small model of a Dalek made from spare parts (a gift from a dear friend). I simply moved the pie weights across each of these objects in different ways. Hot metal-on-metal action!

The balls on the pie weights made a great ratcheting sound that instantly made me think of a castle portcullis being raised and lowered, or a ship’s winch retracting an anchor. Of course, the size of these weights made pretty bright sounds, but that’s what pitch shifting is for…

So, today’s sound is a mix of these sounds, some raw, and some pitched down significantly. I didn’t do anything besides pitch shifting and EQ, just to show how flexible these high-frequency, detailed sounds can be when recorded at 192kHz. These sounds were recorded with a large-diaphragm condenser mic, because I found that proximity effect from close-miking with a small-diaphragm condenser produced too much bass to provide the balanced, bright sounds that I was going after.


[Røde NT1a 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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Doors, and Saying No

Posted: July 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, found sound objects

Mmm, so many tasty, carcinogenic choices.

Like over 100 other field recordists, I signed up for Tim Prebble’s crowdsourced special effects library of doors from around the world on his boutique effects label, Hiss and a Roar.

Unfortunately, due to extenuating circumstances, I had to bow out of the project, and a number of other side-projects. (Saying “no” is a powerful tool to help rein in your life from your own over-committal. Just do it early enough.)

However, one of the more interesting doors I did manage to record was the hinged front panel of an all-metal, 1970′s-era cigarette vending machine. This thing lives in my office, inherited from previous tenants. It’s too big to get rid of, and too odd and ironic to let go of, since none of us smoke. This object has been heard here before.

In honor of the awesome work everyone has done on this upcoming release, today’s sound is a fragment of my own aborted contribution, in the hopes that everyone will support Hiss and a Roar and pick up the collection when it’s released.


[Sennheiser MKH 50/30 mid-side stereo pair with into Sound Devices 702 recorder]

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Hard Drive Guts

Posted: April 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: found sound objects, sound design
Hard Drive Guts

I'm killing this platter slowly with a screwdriver, and it never sounded so good.

Nothing puts Moore’s Law in perspective like ripping an 80 gigabyte hard drive out of an enclosure and swapping with a 2 terabyte drive. 80GB isn’t even big enough to act as a Photoshop scratch disk in 2010.

It’s not new ground by any means, but I did get some pretty interesting results, ranging from IDM-like chirps and squeaks to all sorts of weird drive vocalizations when I slowed the platter down with a screwdriver – much to my surprise, the damn thing came to a stop, jittered around, and then spun right back up again. Most of the sounds were pretty subtle (perfect for the MKH 50), surprisingly, but with lots of surprises. [I shot video of the whole thing, a still of which can be seen above, but really, a hard drive spinning is not that interesting. Trust me on this one.]

I had a great time until Chuck Russom suggested on Twitter what might happen if the 7200rpm drive would have come loose…

These sounds have only been normalized and no sound processing has been applied.


[Sennheiser MKH 50 microphone into Sound Devices 702 recorder]

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Sump Pump

Posted: April 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, sound design
Sump Pump

"Sump pump." I mean, ewww. What is "sump," anyway? Sure sounds like it's something in need of pumping!

Our house is very poorly placed on its lot. Since our place is downslope from the street, water runs down the driveway towards the house.  Thankfully, someone long ago put a pretty good drainage system with an electric pump that pumps the water back to the curb, where it can run to a drainage grate in the street.

In the midst of a week of spring rain, I decided to toss the ol’ hydrophone into the drain box and record the pump, which is activated when a bobber reaches a certain height. The drain box is poured concrete, so it’s acoustically reflective. The pump kicking in is my favorite part, sure to be used for something later on. The big dropoff in volume is where the hydrophone was left high and dry when the water level dropped. Notice how the sound of air bubbles become more pronounced as the water level meets the capsule, and then passes by it. Water turbulence right on the capsule tends to be very loud, as it imparts direct mechanical vibrations to the mic element itself.


[Aquarian Audio H2a-XLR hydrophone into Sound Devices 702 field recorder]

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Robot’s First Steps

Posted: November 27th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, found sound objects, sound design
I'm now the proud owner of an NJ-1 Heavy Lifting and Utility Unit!

I'm now the proud owner of an NJ-1 Heavy Lifting Utility Unit!

I’m very excited to share a new audio recording: The first steps of my new NJ-1 Heavy Lifting Utility Unit (HLUU). The HLUU is a do-everything kind of robot, and I’m hoping to use it for landscaping and home improvement projects. It was a big purchase in a pretty down economy, but my significant other and I think it’s a solid long-term investment.

I was so excited that I had to grab my field recorder and document its first steps. The manual says to let it charge overnight and then calibrate its voice command recognition system, but I just couldn’t wait to just let ‘er rip. Unfortunately, that meant that it only took a few steps before losing power and automatically shutting down, so that’s why this clip is so short.

This puts my Roomba to shame. Check out the recording below and say hello to HLUU!

WalkingRobot 001 by noisejockey
[Røde NT4 stereo microphone into Sound Devices 702 recorder]

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Street Sweeper: Attack of the Drones

Posted: November 24th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: field recording
Street sweeper on South Van Ness, San Francisco.

Street sweeper on South Van Ness, San Francisco.

Why do I like the sound of street sweeping trucks? I see them every morning in San Francisco’s Mission District; I’m a morning person, so I wind up parking for work right as they come through the neighborhood.

I think it’s their distinctive, constant drones that I like. That whine so full of midrange tones that it drowns out the actual engine until it’s right next to you. Drones pronounce the doppler effect when they pass, as well. But hey, I just like drones. I use a white noise machine to sleep to, and heck, the Drone Zone is my favorite internet radio station!

I recorded this one while having a coffee at a sidewalk café. A short loop of it could be used for industrial ambience, or properly filtered (and dopplered further) it could be a neat spaceship pass-by. (Sidebar: While I largely dislike the new Star Wars prequel trilogy as a set of films, the sound design is still up to Ben Burtt’s awesome standards, and the spaceship pass-by’s are pretty distinctive.) Drone on, man.

Streetsweeper by noisejockey
[Zoom H2 recorder]

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