Interview by Jennifer Walden, photos courtesy of Gordon Hempton
Y ears ago, there were tourism posters for the US Virgin Islands lining the insides of the NYC subway cars. I remember zoning out while staring at them on my commute home, trading the screech and clatter of the train for the tickle of wind across an empty beach and the gentle hissing of broken waves snaking up the warm sand. It was a soothing daydream.
In our daily bustle and grind, it’s easy to take for granted the quiet solace of nature. We know it’s out there, somewhere, that promise of calming waves and wind. Or, maybe you prefer a chorus of birds and insects.
Here’s the bad news — quiet is disappearing at an alarming rate. Noise pollution has inundated even locations that are so remote you can walk for 1,200 miles in one direction before coming to a road, according to Gordon Hempton — Emmy award-winning nature sound recordist/acoustic ecologist/co-founder of Quiet Parks International.
That place Hempton is referring to belongs to the Cofan Nation of Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest, which Hempton has visited on numerous field recording trips for his Quiet Planet series — a growing library of nature recordings that is Hempton’s life’s work. It spans decades and covers the planet’s quietest places, from deserts to rainforests. It’s like a lexicon of Earth’s language. And to help sound designers understand it, Hempton wrote a companion piece, a book called Earth is a Solar Powered Jukebox.
If you’re interested in joining Hempton on a field recording trip to Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest, you can sign up through Explorer X .
Hempton’s search for quiet spaces in nature went from being a passion to a preservation mission. He co-authored a book with John Grossmann called One Square Inch of Silence that documents Hempton’s trek across the US, recording sounds and data in preparation for a meeting with federal officials to request protection for natural soundscapes against noise pollution.
Hempton and Vikram Chauhan are co-founders of Quiet Parks International, which, according to their site quietparks.org, is a nonprofit organization that is creating a set of classifications, standards, testing methods, and management guidelines for the certification of the world’s pristine and endangered quiet places. Quiet Parks International has established the world’s first Wilderness Quiet Park and developed a list of over 262 potential sites around the globe that should be certified and preserved.
Here, Hempton talks about his strategies for capturing natural ambiences, shares stories from his recording trips around the globe, gives tips on minimizing your physical and acoustical impact on nature, and discusses the importance of quiet and how you can help to preserve it.
Not many people visit the Amazon rainforest, but you’ve been there numerous times. What’s it like?
Gordon Hempton (GH): I go down there at least twice a year, and I’m heading down there now. This time though, it’s during the summer. The first time I went down there in June, to the Ecuadorian Amazon, I was sweltering. I had a bug net on. It was torturous. So I asked my guide, “When’s the good time to come?” and he thinks about it and then answers, “This is it!”
June is in their winter, so it’s “cooler” and “less buggy” then it will be when I go down now (in March). I’ll be taking my assistant with me. It’s exciting and adventurous because we’re going to a new region of the Amazon, called the “Lakes Region.” That seems to be the literal translation of the place name. So I asked my guides if there will be alligators down there, and they said, “Yeah, well, that’s where it gets its name from.”
We plan on doing a lot of sound recording from the boat and so we’re not going to use the “small boat” this time because it’s too easy for the alligators to get in. The small boat is really small. It’s practically a large coconut shell. It’s amazing that you can get in there and paddle. The Cofan paddle from the front of the canoe, not the back. So, yeah, it’s a large canoe but it’s not a boat. We are going to stay awake and alert I’m sure.
One thing I’ve learned long ago is to stay right behind your guide, never in front. And where ever my guide steps, my foot is going to go into their footprint. They are making little decisions that I can’t see. My work essentially takes me to places where people are not. And when I get there, I find out why people aren’t there. That’s because something there is going to kill you. Unless, of course, you stay awake; stay alert and do what your guide does.
The guide, by the way, thinks that what they know is common sense. But in reality, even their little kids know better than I know. The guide doesn’t know how little I know. Also, when we have a limited vocabulary, I might interpret them wrong. So that’s why I want to do exactly what the guide does.
For instance, my last trip to the Amazon was in June 2019. I was there with another fellow from the Bay Area. Our two guides — whom we didn’t understand at all — were leading us in to the jungle to drop us off in two different places. They were going to leave us alone so we could camp all by ourselves in the jungle. That’s not a bad thing for me, because I know that if there is any noise pollution then I’ll be responsible. All I have to do is be quiet and I know I’m going to nail some fantastic sounds for Quiet Planet. On our way in, the guides stop. So we stop. We’re all being quiet. The guides look at each other and start giving hand signals. I’m looking at them, like, “What does that mean?”
They start sniffing the air in an exaggerated way, to get us to sniff the air too. I’m not smelling what they smell because their senses are not compromised by Western living.
So they indicate there’s a sound coming from one direction. Then they point to the ground and show the hoof marks of wild boar. And they show there are a lot of wild boar.
So for some reason, I claim to be an expert at interpreting sign language and gestures. So I turn to Sam, the fellow I was traveling with, and say, “They say there are wild boar that way. 45 of them.” And I believe it myself. Like, I know they just said 45 to me.
I tell Sam, “Whatever happens, we stay with them. Because without them, we’re lost.”
Then, the guides take off. They run into the jungle and so we run after one of the guys. And he’s going fast. Really fast. Right into a herd of wild boar, with tusks, and there are more than a hundred of them.
Sam and I can’t believe we’re in this situation, like, “What are we doing here?!?!”
Then the guns go off. And the boar stampede. And we’re all set to jump up a tree.
As soon as the guns went off, it was over. The whole hunt lasted five seconds. It happened so fast there wasn’t even time to pick a tree. But, we survived.
So now I’m thinking our guides are lost. We saw them throw down their machetes and we’re in this thick jungle. Plus, they need their machetes to cut up the three wild boar they shot because the boar are as big as they are.
But no. The guide reaches down and grabs this wild boar and puts it in a fireman’s carry. This boar is equal to his own weight. He holds it with one hand and balances it on his shoulders. The boar, meanwhile, is dripping its entrails down the Cofan’s back. The guy is feeling really comfortable; he’s a successful hunter. He walks through the jungle — and again, we follow him with our footsteps going into his footsteps — and he walks right to his machete, picks it up, and walks right back to “the path.” By the way, we can’t even see this path. They see it though.
So they drop these three wild boar down and we continue on for another hour or so. Sam goes off with one guide and I walk with the other guide for another hour. We construct a shelter from jungle palms. And then the guide leaves me. As he’s leaving, I say, “Thank you. Have a good night. Hope you stay safe.” And so he gives me what I think is the Cofan equivalent of “goodnight.” He hands me the machete with both hands and says, “muy peligro.”
I think, boy these Cofan can really be serious when they say goodnight and pleasant dreams.
Fast forward to later when I get back to the village and ask the chief’s son what “muy peligro” means. He says, “Very dangerous.”
I slept well that night in the jungle though, after that boar hunt. I ended up drinking a full gallon of water and eating all the food meant to last a day and a half, and then I lay down and, for all purposes, just died in the rain forest. Any animal could have had their way with me. But, I woke up in the morning. I grabbed my recording gear and then used my own sense of hearing (which, by the way, is pretty impaired and that’s why I work with assistants) to find where to set up the microphones. I hit record and just let it roll.
I know for other field recordists out there, that situation is a dream come true. During the entire morning period there were absolutely no noise intrusions. It’s nature at its wildest for sure.
I’m seriously considering starting to assist the Cofan in Ecuador by leading field recording workshops down into the Amazon once or twice a year. I don’t get paid a dollar to do this. In fact, I pay for my own meals and transportation. This is entirely to benefit the Cofan (the indigenous tribe that hosts us). They are interested in not only sharing their wonderful nation but they also would like to use the money they earn from these workshops to pay the legal fees to defend their lands against foreign corporations that seek to take their oil, their gold, their wildlife, and their timber despite their unwillingness to sign any legal agreements to allow that.
The Cofan today only number 1,200 individuals, up from 300 people. Their original population was 30,000. The Cofan just turned down a contract from an oil company that would allow all 1,200 Cofan living there to never work another day in their life. They turned down that contract because they knew that if they accepted it then they would cease to be people of the forest. They would cease to be who they truly know they are. They’ve made their stand and they said, “No.” But the companies are coming in any way. This is a fossil fuel-hungry world. And they live in a nation of laws that are somewhat corrupt. They need our assistance. You don’t even need to attend the field recording workshops I am planning on repeating every year. You can simply go to Cofan.org and make a contribution.
Humans are impossibly disruptive, even just by trekking out to remote places we disturb nature. On your recording expeditions, what are some things you do to minimize your impact on the environment, both physically and also acoustically?
GH: First, where I go is very carefully chosen. More than 90% of the time spent for a recording trip is just researching where you’re going to go. And even after you have done your best to research your spot, you often find out that it’s a compromised situation. Then, you try to work with it as best you can.
Many of the locations in Quiet Planet were recorded decades ago, prior to the huge levels of noise pollution that we now experience on the planet. But still, whether it was done then or today, there are two things that you need to do. First, all of your equipment — your recording equipment and what you’re wearing — needs to be silenced.
For example, you don’t want to use a metal zipper. You want a lot of your closures to be strings that you tie, or buttons. If you do have a zipper, you want it to be nylon. And you can make it quieter by rubbing wax over the teeth and then zipping it back and forth a couple times and that acts as a good lubricant. The pull tab on the zipper is commonly metal. So you have metal hitting another metal part. You need to take a pair of pliers and clip that off. Then tie a little string on there instead, so you’re pulling on a string to open and close the zipper. Otherwise, you’re going to have this constant clacking sound. It may not be significant to you but it is to the wildlife. What is faint to us is not faint to them.
You have to go through all of your gear. You buy it off the shelf and then you have to silence it.
You have to choose the right clothes to wear. If you’re going to wear raingear, then don’t choose a synthetic rain coat and rain pants. That swishy sound is going to announce your approach. Forget it.
When I was a bike messenger for nine years (that was my day job when I was just starting out as the Sound Tracker), we used to say, “We’re all wet from the skin in.” So get wet, but stay warm. Choose wool. Or cotton and wool. Cotton and wool in the right amounts is very friendly when the temperatures get high. I’m not really a believer in synthetics. The good news is that instead of going to REI or a Patagonia store and spending top dollar for your field clothes, go to Goodwill. Go to thrift stores and buy what grandma and grandpa used to wear. The clothes there are up for grabs for nearly free.
The important thing when traveling is that your gear is carry-on…Make sure that when you hit the ground, even if your luggage is lost, you can still do the job.
For your shoulder bag and gear bags, you’re going to pack them in such a way that even if it’s raining while you’re recording there will be no damage to your gear. There are different tricks to do that and I write about it in the book called Earth is a Solar Powered Jukebox. You can learn more about silencing yourself and silencing your gear in there.
The important thing when traveling is that your gear is carry-on. You can replace your clothes. Check that as luggage at the airport. But your gear, you can’t. Make sure that when you hit the ground, even if your luggage is lost, you can still do the job.
Watch a great 360° video featuring Gordon Hempton as he explores the sounds of mossy, green Hoh Rain Forest in Washington State above
Once you are on location, if you hear something you like you’re not going to be opening up a pelican case and starting to assemble your gear. That is going to take minutes. You don’t have minutes. You have seconds. You want to make sure you’re ready to capture what might be an opportunity of a lifetime, which has happened several times for me. Some of the sounds that have literally defined what thunder, or coyotes, or a particular bird song sounds like — sounds that have been my career-best — have pretty much happened where I was able to hit record within seconds even though I didn’t think I’d be recording for hours to come. So that’s how you pack your gear.
Once you’re ready to walk into a location, how you walk is very important. You have to be casual and relaxed. The pace of your footsteps should be smooth and consistent. They shouldn’t be slow and sneaking nor fast-paced and frantic. Look at the way wildlife walks when it is stalking a creature or when it is fleeing a predator. Compare that to how they walk when they feel secure. So you want to feel secure.
Most of your action is going to occur in your feet. You can influence how much noise you make by choosing whether you step on the gravel or the moss. You want to choose the quieter option (but you don’t want to be sneaky). One common problem if you haven’t been out in the field in awhile is that your boots are dry. And you have squeaky boot! It’s nice to treat your footwear in advance to prevent that, but if you’re on location with squeaky boot then you should find the nearest source of water and stand in it for about five minutes. Then you’ll have sloshy boot, but you’ll only have sloshy boot for less than five minutes whereas squeaky boot will go on for hours.
For night recording, you’ll be wearing a headlamp (which, fortunately, is silent). That’s enough, right there, to keep you safe. It’s just too strange for a predatory cat to think of lunging at something it’s never seen before.
Those are intelligent animals. They need more information. I’ve had a predatory cat follow me every night for a series of nights in a row. It was unnerving at first but then I realized this cat is so much smarter than I am. If it was hungry, it probably ate. The big cat is much more intelligent than it needs to be and so some newness in its environment, like myself working at night, is very uncommon and that’s enough of an interest that it just wants to watch. Cats are so quiet anyway; they’d never disturb a recording like a human would.
There are a few do’s and don’ts to be safe. Each location has its own sets of dangers. The locals will know about those dangers. Before you go into a place you have to ask. To them, the dangers seem so obvious and feel like common sense, so they won’t tell you unless you ask. For instance, when I was in Australia I asked Dr. Laurie if it was safe. And he said, “Sure it’s safe, just as long as you follow horse sense.”
I grimaced and reluctantly asked, “Can you give me an example?”
He said, “Well, don’t go near the water.”
And so I asked, “Why?”
He lit up at that, like, here’s this stupid American I’m in charge of, and if he dies then my life becomes very complicated. So he says, “Because if you go near the water, then the crocs will get you.”
Well, as the way things go, water is a wonderful attractant for wildlife. Also, in the billabong, it has a very smooth and acoustically reflective surface with thermal layers that trap the sound. Sounds come from all around the environment but then get trapped in that boundary layer on the surface of the billabong. So even though it’s a dangerous place it is where you want to record. That’s where you want to be very careful. It’s not like the dangers are going to stop you, but you do need to know what you’re up against. You need to be a wide-open listener, and not be overconfident.
Once you’re at your location, you need to choose what to record. It’s not about being “interesting.” Interesting sounds happen in your head. An interesting sound might be an insect making a high-pitched drone, and it’s pitching itself depending on the ambient light. So during the afternoon in the Kalahari desert, you’ll hear an insect start to make this high-pitched humming sound because it’s evolved that way to make that sound at that time. But then a thunderstorm will roll in, and the insect stops humming.
But the audience is not interested in what’s “interesting.” They are therefore an emotional bond, an emotional reaction.
Suddenly, a flash of lightning happens, and the insect will once again make its humming sound. Then another flash will happen, and the insect will intensify its hum. All of that is very interesting and worthwhile to record to further your familiarity with how the workings of the sonic environment are with living creatures.
But the audience is not interested in what’s “interesting.” They are therefore an emotional bond, an emotional reaction. Whether the scene setting is to have a sense of prosperity or suspense or fear or panic or romance — all these human emotions can be felt through the natural ambience alone. I don’t worry about listening to the environment. My ears are always listening to the environment. We do that naturally…after we train ourselves to get out of our bad habits.
Our ears don’t have eyelids. They don’t cover up. They will alert us to sounds in the middle of the night even while we are sleeping. We don’t have to take conscious charge of listening. Everything you’ve learned about listening as focused attention is useless. Just take all of the sounds in with equal value. What you listen to is what you feel. You become your audience and you make choices on where to put the microphone based on what you feel.
For example, you want to record the ambience of a space that has a stream, some birds, some insects, a light wind rustling leaves, and the tone of some pines. All of that is going on. If you start thinking about the individual elements, then you aren’t doing what you need to do.
What you need to do is just feel it. You walk towards the creek and feel the balance as the creek becomes louder. You notice how you feel. Do you feel really good? Don’t stop there. It might get better. Keep on walking until the feeling is not so good and you feel like the creek is now dominating and limiting your access to the other sounds; the faint sounds are particularly important. So you’ve gone too far and now you need to backup.
It’s a lot like taking a picture. When you’re focusing the lens, you go beyond the point of sharp to blurry and then go back to sharp and stop there.
You notice how you feel and you arrive at your point of listening. That’s where you set up your equipment.
It’s not just about the stream. It’s also about those other sounds. You notice how you feel and you arrive at your point of listening. That’s where you set up your equipment. Usually, the first couple of days of being on location you are not only using that exercise but you are also monitoring. You don’t walk away from the equipment even if you’re recording for hours. You don’t want to learn from the recordings when you’re off location back in the studio. You need to be there with that equipment so you can use your super-sensitive hearing to monitor the whole activity of that area, which is going to extend for miles in every direction in these places that aren’t inundated with noise pollution. You’re going to be learning about the rhythms, about the emotions, about the options and opportunities that are likely ahead over the period of time you’re going to be there. Using that, you’ll be able to pick other locations and, in my case, be able to operate multiple sets of equipment. You’ll choose just one of those sets to monitor to gain more information and knowledge. But, each set will be placed in the way that I’ve just explained to you, by listening to your feelings.
The technical side of recording isn’t that tough. I tutor field recordists at all levels, whether they’ve been recording in the field for 10 years and work at some of the most prestigious studios or they are recording for the first time and using my equipment. I teach them technically everything they need to know in just three days. Everything else is about instilling the confidence for them to feel what they feel, to give them permission to feel. It’s not about what happens in your head in the forebrain. The forebrain has very little use in field recording. It’s everything else you want to listen to. It’s about giving yourself permission to feel and to produce work that is uniquely yours as an artist.
Sound effect libraries, ambient libraries, all these things are really just sonic photo banks. Just as a photographer has a certain style that other photographers can recognize — you know when you’re looking at an Ansell Adams — the same is true for field recording. By following your own feelings to guide you to your next best recording, you don’t have to worry about competition. You aren’t trying to be someone else. No one can be you. Just liberate yourself and do it.
And the less you care about your appearance, the less the wildlife will care about your appearance and the less impactful your presence will be.
And just like photography, don’t wait. The more pictures you take the better the photographer you become. The more time you spend in the field the better the field recordist you become. Don’t wait for things to be perfect. And don’t wait until you can afford the equipment that is going to make it worthwhile. It’s not about the equipment.
One of the biggest mistakes that I see with field recordists today is that they want to look professional. They want their equipment to look impressive. But that’s a good way to get your equipment stolen. That’s a good way to get pulled aside and questioned about your paperwork. When you do things right, you’re going to look like a bum. The wildlife don’t care. And the less you care about your appearance, the less the wildlife will care about your appearance and the less impactful your presence will be.
When it comes to choosing what to do with yourself while your equipment is running, there are a few things to consider. I like to have a tree to my back. That, especially in the tropical areas, will prevent a predatory cat from lunging at you. If you’re sitting down and relaxing, you’re looking small to a predatory cat. You’re inviting trouble. So, put something to your back so that their approach has to be more or less in your visible range because you won’t hear them.
Then, try bringing one of your legs up, with just a little bend at the knees. That breaks the straight line and creates a more natural contour, similar to a root coming out from a tree.
Don’t miss ‘Being Hear’ above – a much-praised documentary on sound and listening, featuring Gordon Hempton
Also, in looking for a place to record, you have 360 choices of where to walk. You’re going to have a lot of feelings right away, so what I do is look for places or things that have a natural curve. Our ears are curved and those curves are also mirrored in our acoustic instruments. The curved surfaces are what you want to look for in the natural environment. Straight surfaces offer boundary effect, and offer reflections but the curved surfaces offer the opportunity to focus sounds. In other words, they are like an extension of our ears or an extension of the microphone so they offer supersonic opportunity. These curved surfaces are frequently areas where wildlife chooses to bed down and birds will nest because it does give them enhanced sensitivity in terms of hearing. It’s also an area where you’ll frequently find artifacts from ancient people who have been there.
You can play the environmental ambience. The whole perception of what is out there changes because of, ultimately, what you are listening through.
So look around; there’s a lot of relationship between what you see and how it is going to sound.
One of the first things I do when tutoring is present the student with a shakuhachi flute, a Japanese bamboo flute. I have the student cover up all of the holes on the flute and then hold it against one ear. Then, open the finger holes one at a time and notice how the tone changes. You can play the environmental ambience. The whole perception of what is out there changes because of, ultimately, what you are listening through.
That never stops. Our ears are different. Even if we both think we are hearing the same thing, we’re not. We hear similar things because we have similar ears, but it’s not the same.
Also, the shape of the landforms and vegetation acts as an extension of the ears. They affect the tonality of the recording.
When I did amateur photography back in the days of film, I really liked Kodachrome 25. It was so warm and really did justice to the red side of the spectrum. Everything felt warm and human and friendly, very different from Ektachrome, which emphasized the greens and blues.
My love of warmth and harmonics and undertones is expressed in my recordings. Even in the tropics, if I can position the microphones relatively close to a large wooden object it becomes a much warmer recording, much friendlier, much less harsh. Sound waves travel through objects. It’s not like sight, where we only see what’s on the surface. Every object is vibrating and when it vibrates it creates its own color which is added to the sound.
You can hear the presence of a tree root ball if it is within 20 feet and you are in a forest. With your microphone system (the mic and headphones you’re listening through), go right up to the tree root ball and feel how incredibly different it is. At that close point, it’s an occlusion; it’s blocking sounds. Go right up to the tree and feel that there is a dramatic presence that you can’t ignore. Take a minute to memorize its tone and then notice as you back off from it how its presence changes and is reduced but some of the tone still remains. Use your feelings (not your ears) to decide how close to this object you want to be.
I believe that what has given me the competitive edge in the history of nature sound recording is that I am a trained botanist and plant ecologist. That was my undergraduate training, and I have some graduate training in plant pathology. Plants, ultimately, are the musical score. Wildlife (monkeys, insects, birds, and so on that are making sounds) has such a close association with particular species of plants. In the middle of the day, when most wildlife is subdued, that’s not a good time to judge where to record. But you can get some insight into what the overall best amphitheaters and best compositions might be by looking at the vegetation. In a forest, it’s going to make a big difference whether the trees are mainly conifers or deciduous, whether it’s going to be an arched-over cathedral like setting. But more than that, you also have to consider plant diversity. The more plant diversity you have, the more wildlife diversity, and that immediately translates into sonic diversity.
So once I’ve explained all this to the student, and did the flute demonstration, I’ll hand out the recording gear and push them out into the wild lands.
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Once you follow your feelings and find the spot you want to record, do you back off from the recording gear so that your presence doesn’t intrude upon the natural space?
GH: Yes. The minimum distance is 25-feet. All of my microphone cables are 25-feet or longer. Keep in mind that if you do go longer than 25-feet, then you’re going to need a bigger-gauge microphone cable. It’s pretty rare that I go longer than 25-feet, just because of the weight factor. For me, 25-feet is ideal.
All of my recordings are two-channel or more. My cables are taped together so that when I’m on location and trying to record quickly I can set my tripod down and run out the bundle of cables. Hopefully, 25-feet from the recorder there’ll be a spot with a tree you can put your back to and then you quietly relax and let it all unfold.
If you haven’t memorized the buttons on your recorder, you can glue a bit of sandpaper onto the record button so you can simply stick your hand into your bag and hit record without looking or pulling out the recorder. If it’s raining, you don’t want to open up your bag. You can just slide your hand in there, feel for the sandpaper, and hit record.
Also, in your recorder settings, you want to have those all set up beforehand. You want to hear a chime or bell when you hit record. And you want to have at least 10-seconds of pre-roll if not longer. That’s important.
If you’re closer than 25-feet from your recorder, then any sounds you make (from stomach grumbles to wiggling your toes inside your shoes to the mosquitoes you are attracting) become part of the recording. Also, you yourself are an object, so you’re resonating sound and reflecting sound into this 3-D sound portrait. You need to disappear.
…you’ll wish you had brought something to eat so you aren’t recording the sound of a hungry nature-sound recordist at sunrise.
One essential piece of gear is food bars. You wake up to record before dawn. You’re on location an hour before it gets light. You go to all of this effort to get there only to record your complaining stomach! When you get up that early, you’re not thinking. You’re going through the motions and it’s often like a forced-march because there is frost on top of your sleeping bag. By the time you’re waking up, you’re actually waking up with the rest of the wildlife and you’ll wish you had brought something to eat so you aren’t recording the sound of a hungry nature-sound recordist at sunrise. I like to carry high protein bars, so I can get that protein hit in the morning.
My favorite foods to carry are cheese chunks and bread chunks because they are quiet. I drop them down into a thin plastic sandwich baggie because that doesn’t make a sound. Anything wrapped in cellophane, which is what most snack foods come in, makes that crinkly sound and in places like parks and often-visited nature trails, that sound is like a dinner bell to the beggars who have habituated to tourist traffic. You’ll bring in Jays and squirrels that would eat right out of your hand.
Being in the field is not about eating; it’s about quieting. So, eat to keep yourself quiet. And be sure to drink water to reduce headaches which are distracting. Headaches bring your attention back to the forebrain and you don’t want that. You want to feel the warmth in your heart. We can do that at any time. When you ask yourself how you feel, if you have trouble answering that question or feeling what you feel then notice where your energy is. Is your energy in your head or in your heart? You can move your energy at any time; you can drop it down into your heart. I’m not trying to be poetic. This is practical advice. There is nothing you need to think about, but there is everything that you need to feel.
What are some of the mics and recorders you like to carry into the field?
GH: The bottom line is your microphones are going to be expensive; they don’t make inexpensive microphones that will do the job.
Starting out, you can use inexpensive microphones while deciding if you want to do this job seriously, and those will improve your skill level while you’re saving up to buy more expensive microphones.
The most important piece of gear is the microphone. The recorder is the second most important but really it’s just data storage. And third is your headphones, which are almost but not quite as important as your microphone.
If you know you’re going to be a serious recordist, then spend the money on your microphone. Put it on a credit card if you have to. That technology does not change that often. In photography, it’s the same for the lens. Good glass hasn’t changed much.
The lower range microphones have become more affordable, just as the lower range camera lenses have become more affordable. But the good stuff has always been expensive and is always the best and is always much cheaper than what you are going to spend in travel fees and time on location. So don’t shoot yourself in the foot by scrimping on the microphone. Put it on a credit card and make payments if you are serious.
…you always have to go with what sounds best to you because, remember, you are navigating by your feelings. You don’t want to start off with a bad feeling.
You’re going to want a high-sensitivity, low-noise microphone to record nature. Expect to pay more than $1,000 per microphone. I am particularly in love with German microphones. The Germans have a long history with beautiful sound. Just go into a train station in Germany and listen to their sound system which they call a PA. I wish I had that in my home to play music!
Germans have an extraordinary sense of sound. While I have used other manufacturers, all of them seem to be in Europe. Manufacturers from other regions of the world have their own sensibility of tonality and what sounds good, but that doesn’t quite match mine. The bottom line is you always have to go with what sounds best to you because, remember, you are navigating by your feelings. You don’t want to start off with a bad feeling. So choose microphones that you love the sound of.
I had a salesman call me up about these large-diaphragm DPA microphones that I couldn’t afford and so he said I could take them out for a week, free of charge, and try them out. So I immediately rescheduled everything, picked up the microphones, and headed off to my favorite recording spots in the Pacific Northwest. After a week, I came back to him and laid down the credit card. Since then, I explain that situation to my son by saying, “Never kiss a woman you can’t afford.” I don’t regret it for a moment.
The DPAs and the Sennheiser MKH series are all excellent. They all have strengths and their own weaknesses, but their ability to render the faint sounds and the ability to record transient responses is just phenomenal. Their noise floors are substantially low.
However, my first choice for a microphone — where I always start — is with the Neumann
KU 81i. It’s a binaural microphone and if I were to pass you this head-shaped microphone you’d be surprised by how heavy a human head is. The ears are flexible. The microphones are internal. And despite the falsely-reported information out there that binaural recordings aren’t speaker compatible, that system is speaker-compatible. I won an Emmy for recordings I did for the PBS documentary Vanishing Dawn Chorus in which I only used that binaural microphone and that was played back on TV, in mono as well as stereo, with no headphones involved.
The problem with that system is that the noise floor is 16 dB, where as the noise floor for the Sennheiser MKH 20 (the omnidirectional mic) is just slightly under 10 dB, and the DPAs are at 7 dB. The lower the inherent self-noise, the greater the area you can deliver without that annoying hiss.
If you record in a noise-polluted area than you are not recording all of the native species that belong in the concert.
The hiss in digital technology is nowhere near what it was in the analog world using tape, and that’s when I started. So the digital technology is good for reducing the noise floor but for my sensibilities we have never improved on the sweetness of analog recordings.
I have analog recordings that I made back in the 80s that still, to my ears, are my best work. Not only do you have the richness of the analog recording, but the compositions of those natural symphonies of wildlife are the least impacted by noise pollution. All the performers, all the players, were there. If you record in a noise-polluted area than you are not recording all of the native species that belong in the concert. Some species have actually been eliminated by noise pollution, even though there is food and shelter for them there. They’ve been eliminated because they are unable to communicate. Dr. Jesse Barber at the Barber Sensory Ecology Lab at Boise State University has done a lot of research on that.
I’d like to guide any potential sound recordists out there in their search for a location. Don’t waste your time on a bad location (unless that is the only place you can go to practice). Practice is number one. Number two is get to the best location you can get to. And number three is to bring along equipment that will make it worth your while.
Vanishing Dawn Chorus was recorded in 1992. How has the world changed sonically since then?
GH: I knew it was changing, and others knew it was changing, but it’s changing far faster than I ever thought possible. I honestly thought when I began my work that I would have the rest of my life to record before it became nearly impossible because of noise pollution. I’m 66 now and finding a place to record takes a lot of work.
Twenty years ago, the Cofan had no noise intrusions at all. The only noise would be when they decided to power up one of the motors on their canoes to go up the Amazon River to a city to get what they needed. The Cofan live in a place so remote that if you get lost you can walk for 1,200 miles before crossing a road. Today, though, there are eight flights that fly over that region. Still, it’s the least noise polluted place that I have been to in 10 years.
In my home state of Washington in 1984, I identified 21 places that had noise-free intervals of 15 minutes or longer, which was long enough to record using Nagra master on my ¼-inch reel. I could get a pure, pristine nature sound recording and not have to edit. I was crap with a razor blade, so I had to find quiet places.
Today, I would like to say that there are three in Washington but we had lost Olympic National Park, which was the quietest of all those places back then. Now, the commercial jet traffic has grown 30% over the last 10 years. A lot of it is going over to Asia.
…the opportunity to experience quiet in nature and to feel connected to the presence of all things around us has become so scarce that we’re in the process of losing our identity…
Also, the U.S. Navy has decided that the North Olympic Peninsula — this location of a World Heritage Site, the best example of temperate rainforest in the northern hemisphere, this International Biosphere Reserve and the most sonically diverse of all our national parks — would make an excellent electronic warfare exercise range. For 2020, there are 5,000 flights planned to fly over Olympic National Park. These Growler jets are so high that you can’t see them yet they peek at 90 dB, in an area where the natural ambient SPL is 24-28 dB during the daytime. How does this happen?
I think it happens because the opportunity to experience quiet in nature and to feel connected to the presence of all things around us has become so scarce that we’re in the process of losing our identity, who we are, and what it means, and where we come from, and where we are going. We’re all just getting through our day.
Quiet is the common denominator in all spiritual practices.
One of my biggest pieces of advice for anyone who is experiencing confusion in their own life and have complicated questions about what they are going to do next — whether it is career or personal decisions — should find a quiet place in nature. They are there. They are on the road to extinction but Quiet Parks International and I are here to tell you that they will not go extinct.
Quiet is the common denominator in all spiritual practices. All religions have silence as a practice and a belief because it is in quiet, that we received this reconnection with what is right and wrong. We can navigate, just as our ancestors have, the path to making right decisions. I truly believe that. But like anything, it will get worse before it gets better. When it gets bad enough, that’s when we will change things.
Twenty years from now, how do you expect the sonic landscape to sound?
GH: Twenty years from now, we’re going to be busy silencing our roads and tuning our cities just as today we are busy unearthing the streams that we buried in our cities 100 years ago. We’re understanding that we don’t have this global environmental crisis. That’s a marketing tool to sell green products. We have a spiritual crisis. That’s not going to be solved by consumer actions alone. We are going to be reawakened to the idea that stuff is not enough. It’ll stop being this financial economy and become this attention economy. This feeds well into what field recordists do. There’s a difference between a sound effect — which is one singular sound that can be used out of context, any way, for whatever — and natural ambience. With pristine nature ambience, there’s something magic that happens. We hear it in the same way that we hear music. Why is that? Why do we hear music coming from the land when the land expresses no real intention for us?
We hear music because we have evolved here. We are part of the land. And in that music comes this romance and we fall back in love with Earth. And love creates this paradigm shift and things we thought were impossible aren’t impossible. In fact, they have to happen. This is what defines us.
The encroachment of human activity has made it challenging to find quiet spaces to record in. When gathering the sounds for Quiet Planet, have you ever shown up somewhere you thought was going to be quiet but was in fact extremely noise polluted?
GH: What isn’t obvious about the Quiet Planet series is that everything in the series was not recorded for a sound library. It was recorded as an art, to be published for its listening value as an art form. In other words, it’s the difference between Ansell Adams practicing his art and Ansell Adams shooting to supply a photo bank. Those are whole different levels of output.
It took nearly 40 years of field recording to provide the sounds for Quiet Planet, at a time when it was far easier to record than it is today.
Then it took seven years of careful selection, organization, labeling and description to provide useful libraries to sound designers and producers. It’s a monumental effort.
We are continuing to record but the recording is slow and painful. We are not cheapening the quality of Quiet Planet so it’s going to take time. I do hope that we will soon be able to release the next installment in the series and have another six collections out in perhaps the next eight years. This level of work takes that long.
What are your thoughts on editing your recordings? Do you do noise reduction, or is that cheating?
GH: When it comes to producing a sound library, nothing is cheating. Unless, that is, you misrepresent nature. If you start layering together elements that don’t occur in the natural world then you are presenting to your audience a fantasy world. And you’re disconnecting them even further from nature. That nature audio is there to reconnect them. This is not just a bunch of random sounds. There is meaning, and messages in these natural ambiences.
So I knew I had to do more than just publish my life’s work in a sound library. I had to write a book, ‘Earth is a Solar Powered Jukebox‘…and help the sound designer understand that this is the Earth’s language.
As I started releasing the Quiet Planet series, I thought it was going to revolutionize the choices for sound designers and how they would design. I was shocked to learn the truth, which is there are lots of sound designers that do not have the nature experience to know what to use and when, what are the cycle of sounds that occur in a day, a year, and over time, and how to listen to a stream and know if it is young or old. They don’t know how to listen to the wind to hear if it’s blowing through a pine, or a hemlock, or a cedar.
Before Quiet Planet came out, wind was not recorded. Wind was synthesized using a wind machine, because wind was considered un-recordable. That’s crazy. Wind is one of the most emotionally expressive sounds in nature. Naturalist John Muir goes on at length about how the sounds of the wind alone helped him navigate up the Yosemite valley on a dark night in the 1800s.
So I knew I had to do more than just publish my life’s work in a sound library. I had to write a book, Earth is a Solar Powered Jukebox, and then chapter by chapter, go through each collection and help the sound designer understand that this is the Earth’s language. In many ways, it’s the first language of people. Before we had words to talk to each other, we weren’t listening to each other; we were listening to nature, and gathering information to help us survive. So I wrote the book as a guide to listening, recording, and sound designing with nature.
Honestly, I felt the book was so essential that I was going to give it away. But my wife helps to ground me, and she says, “Isn’t it worth something?” And yeah, it’s worth a lifetime of knowledge. So what I do now is include a copy with every collection of Quiet Planet but I also sell it separately for those that are creating their own collections.
Any final thoughts you’d like to share on nature and recording?
GH: The German philosopher Martin Heidegger said, “True listening is worship.” And when I do my work right, I am the messenger. I’m only delivering what is already there and worth preserving, not just as a sound recording but in real life.
My final thought here would be, if you’ve gained anything out of this and want to support the future of listening to nature and the future of recording nature sounds then please visit Quiet Parks International. We are a 501-c3 tax-exempt charitable organization. I’m one of the co-founders. Everyone you see on our team page is a volunteer. Donate to us and we will save quiet. Our mission is to save quiet for the benefit of all life.
A big thanks to Gordon Hempton for giving us a behind-the-scenes look at the sound of Quiet Planet and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!
Gordon Hempton writes: “Any fellow or wannabe field recordists who want to join me on my next recording trip to Zabalo River Wilderness Quiet Park are welcome to contact me and I will add them to the mailing list. I do these trips voluntarily to help the Cofan raise funds for their legal defense and all fees are at cost and paid directly to Cofan once we arrive.”
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