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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Urban Trumpet

Posted: July 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, music

Hot days in the city can force people into the street, where it can be cooler than in their apartments or homes. I usually reach for my field recorder when the mercury rises, which I hang out of a third-floor office window.

This is a recording (longer than most I usually post) that features everything I like in an urban ambiences: Sirens. Heavy trucks. Busses. Voices in different languages. Motorcycles. Car horns. Murmuring and footsteps.

And a guy noodling around on the trumpet.


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

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Unmarked Helicopter

Posted: February 24th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, gear, sound design
This wasn't the helicopter I recorded. This is just the only photo of a helicopter I've ever taken! (Shot on the Kaikoura Peninsula, South Island, New Zealand.)

This wasn't the helicopter I recorded. This is just the only photo of a helicopter I've ever taken! (Shot on the Kaikoura Peninsula, South Island, New Zealand.)

Audio professionals may cringe when they hear this, but I always keep a microphone mounted in my windscreen/blimp/zeppelin, which is always on a short boom pole. No doubt I’ll pay the price when the little mic suspension’s rubber bands stretch and age prematurely, but I like to be prepared for those unexpected moments.

This paid off when I heard a helicopter over my house…much lower and louder than usual. I poked my head outside and could tell the pilot was going in very tight circles over my street. I grabbed my mic rig and my field recorder, and all I had to do was plug in, power up, and hit “Record.” Granted, I happened to have a stereo mic in my windscreen, which wouldn’t have been my ideal choice, but I’d rather use it rather than lose the recording! (Want a horribly embarrassing tale about losing a choice recording opportunity? Read the epilogue after this post’s sound recording.)

I don’t exactly live in a city center, so I’ve got both highway and bird noise polluting most of my backyard recordings. This time, though, the helicopter was so low that the highway was drowned out, and he circled enough times that I was able to do some splicing of the takes to eliminate most of the birdsong. EQ could remove the rest, but I didn’t want to lose the higher-frequency sizzle that I liked in the recording. I did some surgery to make it loop seamlessly, and the result is below.

Circling Helicopter by noisejockey
[Røde NT4 stereo microphone into Sound Devices 702 recorder]

Epilogue and cautionary tale: I was at a hut on the Kepler Track in New Zealand when a helicopter landed on a nearby pad to drop off some fellow trampers/hikers who were “heli-hiking.” I scrambled for the Zoom H2 in my pack. Through the headphones, the sound was loud, intense, perfectly overwhelming what tiny background noise there might have been. I listened to the chopper landing, idling, and taking off. And then I realized I was only monitoring the entire event, not actually recording. The H2 requires one press of the Record button to arm recording mode, and another press to actually get rolling (a common interface convention in most hand-held recorders). In the moment, I lost track of how many button presses I did, and my fuzzy windscreen prevented me from seeing the time -elapsed readout, which of course wasn’t moving. What is there to learn from this, besides that I’m a complete spastic loser?

  • Never assume anything. Triple check everything, even if you’re going to introduce handling noise or off-axis sound into the beginning of your recording. Better to have a shorter recording than none.
  • Gear that’s always in record mode when it’s on is good, gear that audibly gives you feedback when you’re rolling is better, and gear whose display isn’t concealed by necessary accessories is best.

(P.S. The title of this post refers not to what I saw, but the song “Unmarked Helicopters” by Soul Coughing, which has been playing in my head ever since I made this recording. Damn you, catchy melodies, damn yoooouuuu!)

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New Zealand: Engines of the M.V. Tutoko

Posted: February 9th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, found sound objects, sound design
The smokestacks of the M.V. Tutoko, motoring towards the sea on Doubtful Sound, Fiordland National Park, South Island, New Zealand.

The smokestacks of the M.V. Tutoko, motoring towards the sea on Doubtful Sound, Fiordland National Park, South Island, New Zealand.

I went on an overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound on the M. V. Tutoko. Her diesel engines made a throbbing hum that I found enveloping, comforting, and even calming. I headed to the upper deck and recorded her at the exhaust stacks. It took a little EQ to get rid of the splashing water alongside, but this recording should give you a nice sense of the unique timbre and rhythm. Easily looped, this could absolutely make a cool vehicle sound (with granulation and dopplering), or a unique interior thrumming for a vehicle or mechanical interior.

MvTutoko by noisejockey
[Zoom H2 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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