In this article, I’m going to share some thoughts I’ve had over the last few years. I realize that I’m going to bump into some people’s heads with this, but I hope we can take this article as the basis for an exciting discussion.
As field recording increasingly became my full-time job, I thought about what I would like to record. Everything from whales in the deep ocean to giant waves in Tahiti and freaky birds in the rainforests of Indonesia came to mind. While I was thinking about projects I could plan in order to make these things happen, which could be financed through funding or by selling sounds, my personal situation changed. For an unforeseeable period, I would be bound within a radius of 100 km from my front door. This is in the middle of the Ruhr area, one of the most densely populated regions in Germany and therefore also an anthropogenically noisy one.
So, I thought about where there are exciting sounds in my immediate environment, for example, where there are architectural or naturally occurring structures that function as sound insulation and create quiet or particularly interesting sounding places.
All of a sudden, my creativity started to run away with me. In distant countries I always need help from local guides or tips from the internet – but here, I knew my way around. In addition, I knew hundreds of people who are gatekeepers for special sounds, from animal breeders to janitors, press officers, and artists. So I had already discovered the first big advantage of recording on my own doorstep.
1. It is much easier to discover and access special sounds locally
This phenomenon multiplies over time: the more sounds you record (and present locally, if necessary), the more people approach you with tips. I’ve had great offers from conservationists, hunters, graziers, vehicle collectors, friends, and clients, among others, to dive into and record their acoustic world.
Most of these people have become aware of me through newspaper articles, local radio and TV features, social media, or just on a job. If I had traveled the Ruhr area for just three weeks from another country, I would have had to find all these people, secure their suggestions in advance, and convince them over the internet and phone to let me record their treasures; much more time-consuming and in most cases also harder to implement. In addition, I am often offered spontaneous situations or certain sounds that can only be heard during a short, unplannable period (for example, the wave in the Ruhr river after heavy rain). These recordings cannot be planned at all from afar.
This also leads directly to the next point, which is especially important if field recording is a profession, but also interesting if it is a hobby.
2. More projects are brought to you
If you stand around in cities with structures made of microphones, sit by rivers and immerse hydrophones in water, or even organize a soundwalk, you will certainly be noticed and get into conversations with people. At a city event, you may get to talk to a lighting technician who is putting on a festival of lights and needs sounds to go with it. These and similar situations happen to me all the time, and have resulted in new local projects several times. Add to that the local press and soon you’re being contacted from all sides, learning lots of exciting news about your home area and the sounds available there.
People often contact me months or even years after they’ve heard of me, because they remember this guy who records local sounds. Being close by also makes projects which might otherwise require a huge budget for travel and accommodation much more feasible. This way, you can eavesdrop on a place during different seasons or even over years.
3. You can document local history
In this way, you gradually create a library of sounds that document certain periods in the history of your city. Changes that are coming or are already happening are best experienced in everyday life. Residents may load small local sounds with emotion, giving them great value even if they seem insignificant to strangers.
My favorite example is a street installation I made for a festival week, for which I recorded the sounds of an alleyway. The idea was to play these sounds through 10 loudspeakers to external visitors who would not be able to experience it otherwise in the hustle and bustle of an evening festival. In the process, I recorded an iron plate that lay on the ground at the entrance to the alley, part of a permanent construction site, which made a small reverberation when stepped upon. In the course of my recordings, children not only jumped on it repeatedly, but many adults also deliberately stepped on it with extra force.
Half a year later, when the installation was in place, the construction was completed and the plate had disappeared. I was sad, because I thought the recording of it in the installation would lose its meaning, since the visitors would not be able to place it – but in fact, the opposite was the case. Many residents told me how happy they were to hear this sound again, and it became one of the highlights of my work there, finding its way into many conversations.
Discovering and preserving these little acoustic treasures is only possible for the attentive recordist, one who is intensively involved with a place and talks to the people who inhabit and animate it.
And now things might get a bit awkward. Another reason it’s best to record sounds at home is that it’s best not to record anywhere else in the world.
4. Non-local recording can replicate colonialism
It follows from the previous point that certain sounds and their meaning cannot be grasped by outsiders right away. Therefore, in other countries, it is always better to commission someone local (or at least someone who is integrated into local customs) to record sounds, in order to correctly contextualize them.
In an extreme case, take the recording of a religious ceremony or an object used in a local ritual. The emotions that can be triggered by recording these examples without permission and without knowledge may sometimes be enormous, and should therefore at least always be discussed in advance with local residents.
But even with everyday sounds, we recordists often come, make our recording, and leave. And that is a colonial act. As an outsider, we don’t know how long a sound has existed or how it came about, how it changes over the course of months or years, and so on. We have no right to take this sound and give it our own meaning. Of course it can still sound nice, but the context has to be considered.
On the other hand, if we give someone local a microphone and recorder and ask them to record a significant local sound, they may choose the same sound but record it at a different time, from a different place, or at a different length. Thus something of much greater value would emerge, something more appropriate to the lived experience of the place.
My planned recordings of freaky birds in Indonesia would have been just a glimpse – or a listen – into a way of life and natural environments that were foreign to me, which I would have interpreted from the perspective of a tourist, nothing else.
In addition, I would be taking work away from local talent. If I, as a European, pay a guide, and a driver, then I already have an enormous advantage over sound-interested locals.
The gap between poverty and wealth is often even bigger outside of Europe, partly due to the legacies of colonialism – problems we can’t solve by not hunting for sounds in those places.
So, when recording in a foreign country, it may be advisable to settle there for a longer period. Try to make local friends and contacts and become familiar with local customs yourself. Then you can record in a foreign country in a less contentious way.
5. Save the planet and such
Another important aspect of local recording is the environmental angle. Man-made climate change is more important than ever before. As field recordists, we are passionate about nature and its sounds. With our recordings we try to draw attention to the disappearance of biodiversity and support organizations doing nature conservation work on the ground.
However, the CO₂ footprint of travel – especially by air or sea, but of course also by car – leaves its mark. If you not only want to preserve nature on tape, but also by leaving exciting animal sounds for our descendants in real life, then switching to travel by foot and bicycle (or rail) is certainly sensible. If traveling to a nearby recording destination by one of these methods, there is another advantage: you can hear what is happening around you.
There is already a ‘low-carbon birding’ movement being pioneered. I recommend reading articles on this topic.
Though I emphasize the advantages of traveling by muscle power, I am of course fully aware that the concept of the individual carbon footprint was exploited by the resourceful marketing people of a large oil company, to divert blame for air pollution from the industry and to make the consumer liable. And I know that switching to an animal-product-free diet, consuming less of everything (yes also microphones) or switching to renewable energy (loading recorder batteries with solar power) has a positive impact too on achieving climate goals. Despite all this, every CO₂ emission we can prevent counts and transport is at the top of emissions. In addition, muscle-power travel creates less noise pollution.
Besides travel, there are many other things we field recordists – as well as microphone and recorder companies – can do to contribute to a better-protected environment. Maybe I’ll write down my thoughts about that another time.
6. Your own health
Last but not least, scheduling recording sessions nearby and reaching them on foot or by bike has a direct benefit for your own health. The extra exercise boosts both body and mind. It may also save valuable time, allowing you to record even more, in a better mood, without traffic jams or waiting forever at the terminal.
Local recording also gives the chance to scout new spots with family or friends and enjoy the benefits of a solid social environment, which a nomad life may not give. At the same time, when traveling slowly, you get to see much more of your surroundings and in turn find new interesting places to listen to.
Where is the limit: what distance from home is too far, how much time exactly should you spend on location, and how often should you change the place? I don’t know the answer to all of that. I just wanted to give you a little insight into the thoughts that sometimes strike me, when sitting in the car on the way to a remote location that I’ve been invited to or that interests me. Unfortunately, I can’t always reach recording sessions by bike, on foot, or by train. But I try to arrange that whenever possible, or even decide not to take certain trips, even if they are initially tempting. Maybe some of you want to think about these things before your next recording session, too; in any case, I have a great desire to hear how it sounds directly outside your front door.
Have fun collecting sounds!
Nils Mosh is a field recordist and sound artist and designer from Essen, Germany, whose work explores the spirit of the sounds of diverse locations. Though he listens to these places with an awareness of their social context, and examines the convergence of natural and man-made sounds, at other times he simply opts out of the world and falls in love with the resonances of a handrail or the delicate chirping of a water beetle.
🎧 Listen to his field recordings on earth.fm
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Photos courtesy of Nils Mosh
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