I cannot say enough good things about the Nature Sound Workshop by Martyn Stewart. I love recording sounds and I love listening. I love being out in nature and I love exploring new places. To be able to listen, ask questions and converse with recordists of such amazing talent as Martyn, Bernie Krause and Andrew Skeoch was truly inspiring. The workshop had a good mix of technical discussion, tips for in the field and the chance to explore different microphones and setups. There was discussion of different recorders of varying cost that included the top choices of the pros along with a few surprises that proved out in some testing.A Discipline on the Fringe of the Technology
What I found absolutely fascinating is that there are no real mic setups made for recording outdoors in extreme conditions. Instead, there is a small set of gear that happens to perform well in these circumstances although they were actually designed for other use. For example, the figure-8 pattern mic that makes the mid-side setup possible was originally designed to record a two sided conversation across a table. Now, that signal can be decoded with some tricky algorithms in order to generate a stereo signal from that plus a directional mic.
Getting to experience these high-end setups created with top-notch microphones was invaluable. I even got to listen through a parabolic dish designed by an eccentric, curmudgeonly mic building genius. To which I say “let that guy be whoever he is if he makes amazing stuff” which he does. I listened through it.
Listening and Conservation
A huge emphasis of nature recordists of the caliber is preservation and conservation. Much of why they do this is to document the natural world not only to create a record but to remind people of what is at stake if we don’t change our ways. Bernie Krause outlines this nicely in his book when he shows that while a before and after photo of a “selectively deforested” meadow might look the same 5 years after the logging company was finished, the before and after soundscape recordings tell a more accurate story. It is clear from the soundscape recording that most of the birds that inhabited that area are gone. So it’s not the same no matter what the logging company or the city might claim. It’s forever changed by the actions of the logging company but if you only saw the image, you’d never know. As Bernie puts it, “if a picture is worth 1,000 words, a sound is worth 1,000 pictures.”
Each of the 3 days ended with a message of conservation and stewardship regarding the animal kingdom. The first day was a talk from Martyn about the importance of the soundscape work. The second was a much stronger punch in the gut. Martyn makes a good point. We are too quick to look away when something terrible is happening, even if presented in the form of true yet disturbing images. We don’t want to see it. Martyn believes that we do need to look and be emotionally affected by it enough to take action. Looking away is the act of wanting to forget. He very unapologetically showed a video that was very, very hard to watch. It included the mass destruction of tuna, the inhuman and slow slaughtering of dolphins in a cove caught on hidden camera that he hid and (most disturbingly) a couple of guys in what looked like an Indian city killing a mangy but alive and sad looking dog by tossing it into a garbage truck and lowering the compactor. It really got to me, which was his point. Me and many others from the group were collectively choking back tears and intentionally not looking at each other. Martyn was affected too but he closed the evening with a nice statement about how the future is up to us. Tragic yet inspiring. The third finished with a second video of his that showed some of the awful but transitioned into some of the positive. A new feature video he is working on attempts to give whale hunters a different view of the whale, the one that we share through a love of the sea, aquariums and even things as goofy as sea world performances. It seems to have had an impact on the subjects of the film. I look forward to its release.
For me though, the best part of the weekend was definitely the people. It was an amazing group from a variety of backgrounds participating in the workshop for a host of reasons. There were researchers and academics mixed with practitioners and hobbyists. Folks that were there because they love the animals and those who came because they love the gear. Everyone was friendly and ready to talk about their interests and yours. It was not a crowd of posturing. It was a crowd of listeners and this was clear from the dynamic within the group. Same goes for the pros that were leading it. They listened to every question and concern, no matter how rudimentary or redundant and answered everyone with the same level of care and detail as they discussed their own work. It was clear that the room was assembled from people who loved nature and loved to listen. I too love nature and love to listen and if I am totally honest with myself, the workshop made me realize that I need to clarify what it is that I am interested in when it comes to sound, noise, nature and infrastructure. I took a lot away from this workshop. Yes, I learned a lot about microphones and the different setups. Yes, I got to see Bernie Krause’s explanation of the mid-side pair setup totally derailed when the group suddenly started saying “bald eagle, BALD EAGLE” as a massive eagle swooped into the nearby meadow to catch some prey. I also gained a new sense of awareness for the natural soundscape sparked by the passion and enthusiasm of Martyn Stewart, Bernie Krause and Andrew Skeoch. For this, I think them a great deal.