Pacific Northwest sound ambiences Asbjoern Andersen


Experienced sound designer and recordist Andy Martin is making big plans: He wants to capture the sounds of the Pacific Northwest in the US in a way it’s never been done before, and he’s planning on spending a year doing it. To make the project a reality, he’s just launched a Kickstarter campaign, and below he explains the idea and approach for this big project – and how you can help make it happen:
 

Hi Andy, please introduce yourself and the Northwest Soundscapes Project:

Hi Asbjoern! My name is Andy Martin. I’ve been a commercial, television, feature film, and video game sound designer for over fifteen years. My credits include video games such as Grim Fandango and the inFAMOUS franchise and animated TV and films such as Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

I’m also an active field recordist. In my work, I’ve always sought out the most unique recording sources I can. Since moving to Seattle in 2007, I’ve been slowly recording and documenting my way across the Northwest. Most of my recording trips have been for my own purposes and collection as I experimented with differing recording techniques, and were not planned for commercial use. Now I want to return to previous locations and explore new destinations to document them properly.

Andy packed and ready to go

Andy packed and ready to go

The Northwest Soundscapes Project is a year-long series of field recordings from the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. The series is divided into two libraries: Natural Location Open Air Impulse Responses and Natural Soundscapes of the Northwest. The Pacific Northwest, or PNW, is an area that covers roughly just North of San Francisco to the Canadian border, from the ocean coast to the Eastern edges of Washington and Oregon. If you’ve ever heard the term “Cascadia”, it’s somewhat synonymous with the PNW. The focus for this project will be primarily in the states of Washington and north-central Oregon.

Rather than just being “another ambience library”, the Natural Soundscapes collection has three goals: 1) environmental variety, 2) length — up to 30 minute long individual recordings, 3) comprehensiveness — multiple times of day at every location, covering at least dawn, mid-day, and dusk.
 

How did the idea for the Northwest Soundscapes Project come about, and what’s your goal for it?

The idea originally came about on a lark and frustration. I spend a lot of time recording. While working on inFAMOUS Second Son I became enamored with bird recording. All of the birds you hear in the game were recorded within the city or over in Bellevue, WA, where our office is based. There was a lot of effort and use of isotope RX to clean up the recordings and make them useful, let me tell you!

As I spent more and more time learning about bird recording, I began making soundscape recordings in a way I’d never done before. For influence, I read Gordon Hempton’s “One Square Inch of Silence” — it’s in the PNW, by the way! — and Bernie Krause’s wonderful “Great Animal Orchestra”. They helped me realize that what I was listening to was not just a cacophony of wildlife calling out to each other, but a carefully orchestrated soundscape of voices working with and around one another and the landscape to survive. An orchestrated soundscape, by the way, that we humans are increasingly tone deaf to and that is under threat by every plane that flies overhead and every car that drives through.

Another deep influence has been Trevor Cox’s “The Sound Book”, a travelogue of sorts about acoustics both natural and manmade and about how our brains understand what they hear. His book helped me understand that it’s not just the voices of the wildlife working together that make up the sonic palette, but it also the landscape itself. There’s a “feel” to every location based on the particular structures, materials, their densities and shapes. The wildlife in Hempton’s and Krause’s books evolved to inhabit these locations and their voices make use of it.

It made me realize that capturing the soundscape of a place is more than just capturing the sounds over an extended period.

One day, while recording in the forests, I brought along a small bag of balloons (a lesson learned from “The Sound Book”) and burst one in the middle of a dense cottonwood forest. I took the recording home and immediately tried using it as an impulse in Audioease’s Altiverb. The result was… enlightening. While it wasn’t the best impulse in the world, it made me realize that capturing the soundscape of a place is more than just capturing the sounds over an extended period. It meant capturing the space itself. I arranged to haul a speaker out on my next trip and conducted some sweep-based reverb impulse captures and was hooked.

At that point the idea was set: I wanted to create a massive library containing a huge variety of open air impulse responses and natural soundscapes. How I was going to make that happen, and how I was going to share it with the world would be questions I had to answer.

How you can help make the project a reality:

Andy Martin has just launched a Kickstarter campaign to get the project off the ground. Get more details about it, and find out how you can help, here.

 

What’s so special about the Pacific Northwest in terms of sound – and what are some of the locations you’re looking to capture?

The PNW encompasses a vast variety of environments and eco-regions, from old growth forests with some of the tallest and most massive trees on earth to high desert plains of volcanic tuff, thundering ocean shores to quiet moss-laden secluded areas where you can hear your heart beat, tall mountain peaks to water-carved canyons.

To make this all the more magical, much of this is contained in protected National Parks and Forests, encompassing some of the largest tracts of undeveloped wilderness remaining in North America

It’s an area of North America with ecological and climatic extremes within a relatively short distance from each other. In a half-day drive you move from desert to glacier-covered volcano to dense forest to ocean.
To make this all the more magical, much of this is contained in protected National Parks and Forests, encompassing some of the largest tracts of undeveloped wilderness remaining in North America. This means they are also some of the largest tracts of open soundscape in North America with long, unbroken periods without anthropogenic — human-created — sound. Humanity being what it is, those periods are shrinking every day. Even without an ever-present onslaught of human sounds, the soundscape has still be irreparably harmed by human influence, from previous deforestation to loss of species that once filled out the sonic world even more than now.

The Columbia Platea

The Columbia Platea

With the dramatic changes in landscape and ecological regions comes the accompanying variety of wildlife and soundscapes. What we hope to capture with the Northwest Soundscapes Project is the variety of natural soundscapes as they are today to represent them in the future. With that in mind, it’s not so much the specific locations that we hope to record but the rich variety. Sure, we’ll be visiting and re-visiting a few specific locations such as Trout Lake, a natural refuge formed thousands of years ago when a glacial dam on Mount Adams burst, flooding the valley below, and the Columbia Plateau, known as a major destination for migrating birds.

We’ll also be visiting the remnant desolation of Mt Saint Helens, still trying to return to life thirty-five years after it erupted so cataclysmically. I’m particularly excited to make my first trips out to the Northeastern Rockies, the grasslands of the eastern-central Washington, and the Blue Mountains in central Oregon. Living in Seattle, these regions are normally too far away for me to take in on a day trip, and I usually spend my recording time in the Cascade Mountains and volcanos or in the Olympic Peninsula. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!
 


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Any sounds or locations you’re particularly looking forward to recording?

Not to sound facetious, but all of it!

What I’m looking forward to most are locations that are far outside my normal range in the Cascade Mountain foothills. There’s a decommissioned nuclear missile base far out in the middle of Washington that I’ll camping at in May. It’s privately owned now and nestled way out in the prairie.

I’ve become enamored with coyotes calling during the night and listening to their voices echo and bounce around

While one doesn’t normally think, “nuclear missile base” and “natural soundscape”, the exciting part lays in its remoteness and that its centrally located to use as a basecamp for traveling up into the Rocky Mountains. Camping out in the middle of the prairie is exciting itself. I’m hoping to record a lot of coyotes and birds-of-prey on this trip. I’ve become enamored with coyotes calling during the night and listening to their voices echo and bounce around.

The Hoh Rainforest during winter

The Hoh Rainforest during winter

Also expect a lot of forest recording. From new forest to old-growth we’ve got a lot of it in in the PNW. Hardwood and softwood, deciduous and coniferous, it all reverberates differently when excited by a sine sweep, and it all sounds different when you sit down and listen.

Being able to really illustrate that for others is exciting to me.
 
 
 
 

What’s your recording setup for the project – and how do you plan on capturing the ambiences and impulses?

All Natural Soundscape recordings will be multi-channel recordings made with Sennheiser MKH and MKH8000 series microphones via a Sound Devices 744t recorder at 192khz sample rate and 24-bit depth. This is similar to current configuration, but with added channels! My regular go-to rig is a Sound Devices 702 with Sennheiser MKH30+MKH8020 microphones for stereo omni-mid-side recording. I really like the openness and spatiality of the omni-mid-side pattern, so will retain that for the front channels, adding an ORTF configuration of MKH 8040s for the rears.

All Natural Location Open Air Impulse Responses will be recorded with the same microphone configuration, but the 744t will act as a backup recorder, passing through via an AES digital connection to an interface on my MacBookPro laptop. I use Impulse Response Utility to playback and record the sweep through an Adam A8X speaker.
 

It’s a one-year endeavour – can you give an estimated timeline for the project?

The biggest hurdle is the Kickstarter campaign. Assuming it is successful, finishing the supplemental gear acquisition will occur during the month of April. After that it’s off we go! My goal is to have the first expedition ready by the end of April, but any delays in funding or acquisition could set it back to May.

Assuming it is successful, finishing the supplemental gear acquisition will occur during the month of April. After that it’s off we go!

Expeditions are generally set for the third week of every month, lasting 4-6 days depending on destination. Editing and mastering will commence immediately.

Deliveries will be rolled out to Kickstarter backers on a rolling basis as assets are completed. The final recording expedition will wrap a year later in April or May 2017 with the library complete in July 2017.
 

How can people help make the project happen?

Simple! By going to northwestsoundscapes.com! For the duration of the campaign, northwestsoundscapes.com will forward directly to the Kickstarter campaign page. After the campaign is complete, northwestsoundscapes.com will revert to a blog and travelogue for the project but will also have a storefront link for anyone who missed the campaign, offering the same early-bird buy-in discounts as the Kickstarter, but without the extra Kickstarter goodies (sorry!).

 

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A big thanks to Andy Martin for sharing the story behind his ambitious new project. Help make the project a reality on the Kickstarter page here.

 
 
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