Is that a mic in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?

Last week’s column seemed to stimulate a lot of folks—in addition to the many comments that were posted in direct response, I got quite a few emails from people who wanted to keep the conversation going off-site. (While I am always glad to hear from interested, interesting readers by email, I’d like to encourage people to post their comments below so that everyone can have the benefit of your thoughts.) Anyway, one email came from frequent participant on this board, our own Chris Becker, who pointed me to a blog entry of his referencing the composer Doug Henderson, who seems to be onto some very innovative mic techniques, including freezing a microphone in ice and recording the sound of it melting. Now that’s a cool technique! (oof)

One of the courses that I teach here in Japan is a team project called Basic Moulding, during which first-year students are introduced in six-week sessions to different artistic media. The team includes teachers of sculpture, video, computer graphics, and action art. My responsibility is sound as creative material. The students do various exercises during their six weeks with me, including learning how to do field recording. They get a digital recorder, stereo microphone, and headsets for the length of the term and are encouraged to seek and record interesting sounds out in the wide world. At the end they are each charged with making a one-minute composition using the materials they have gathered, and we spend the last class listening to everyone’s pieces and commenting. Over the years, I’ve gotten used to a certain familiarity with what students chose for their sound sources. With a nod to T.S. Eliot, I might say that I have measured my life not with coffee spoons, but with train station announcements, summer wind chimes, and cicadas. But recently one student delighted me with a nicely original idea, well executed. He outfitted a dog collar with his recorder (an Edirol R-9, for you geeks out there), and then slipped it on Fido, turned the record function on, and then let the dog loose out on the sidewalks around town. The result was a dog’s ear view of the world that lasted about ten minutes, which was fun both sonically and conceptually. I was glad he shared it with me.

So I got to thinking about creative uses of microphones and unorthodox recording techniques in general, and was wondering if any of you have any that you’d like to tell us about. In pop music, sonic ennui has caused quite a few creative producers to seek new ways of recording, from using a speaker as a mic to singing into a modified old phone handset. Frank Zappa’s use of the sound board of a Bösendorfer piano as a reverberation chamber wouldn’t raise the eyebrows of anyone who had heard Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children, but it is not a technique often used in the rock world. Legend has it that producer Martin Hannett once forced Joy Division drummer Stephen Morris to take apart his drum kit during a recording session and reassemble it to include additional parts from a toilet. Got some examples you would care to share, whether from your own experience, observation, or encounter in a producer’s “Behind-the-Microphone” diary? I’d be keen to hear from you.

5 thoughts on “Is that a mic in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?

  1. Chris Becker

    Doug’s work can be seen at http://douglashenderson.org/works.html and in Berlin if you’re in the neighborhood…

    The post Carl points to describes my deep knowledge of mic placement technique which included sticking a cheap mic from Radio Shack covered in plastic wrap into a blob of clay and letting a potter manipulate the stuff while I watched my recording signal levels clip over and over again…

    What I ended up with was about 80 percent useless noise with very brief moments of in your face squishes and sucking sounds. Couldn’t have gotten them any other way. And the resulting material (heavily edited and compressed) ended up in a dance performance.

    I highly recomment recording your own material for sampling and composition. Try to stay away from those CD libraries…one way to put your stamp on this kind of music is to get those sounds yourself.

    Reply
  2. subbasshead

    Most interesting techniques I have used were via a contact mic – I discovered it after reading an article about Alan Splet & Anne Krobers work on Dune.
    They work well on anything resonant (metal, wood) and really let you hear the world in a new way & with no room acoustic..
    I also once froze a cymbal using dry ice & then attached the contact mic & recorded 20 minutes of beautiful pings & tings as it went through a thermal change back to normal temperature…

    A few other recordings are here:
    http://substation.co.nz/blog/?p=88

    Reply
  3. srgmp

    Not sure if this counts, but I regularly use a small stereo mic stashed in the mesh pocket of a backpack to record source sounds. I just walk around with the bag on my shoulder, recording whatever sounds there are to hear in the environment.
    Once, in NYC Chinatown, I was in a huge bookstore that sells, in addition to a staggering variety of Chinese books, some Chinese musical instruments. With the mic on and my minidisc recorder running, I recorded sounds from a number of different cymbals. It was all very unplanned–just trying out the instruments. (I’ll deal with the karmic repercussions of not actually buying the cymbals.) After editing the sounds into useable fragments, I assembled a piece, “Bell Meditation,” by arranging the segments of recorded cymbal sounds. You can listen to it here. (You’ll find several pieces that feature sounds collected in this way.)
    Totally agree with Chris that collecting and using your own sounds is the way to go.

    Peace
    jr

    Reply

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