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The Art of Listening

Sound recording is, as someone famously said about football, a game of two halves. With the air of depression (for some of us at least) surrounding the early exit of France and England from the 2010 football World Cup perhaps that isn’t the most timely analogy but nevertheless the analogy holds true. Sound recording may not be a game but it is certainly an art of two halves – recording and listening. 

Popular music producers understand this very well. The finished product we hear is often compressed, expanded, equalised, sampled and otherwise manipulated so that it often bears little relationship to the sound that the artists produced in the first place. All this is done to provide the quite specific listening experience envisaged by the producer. Radio and TV producers do the same with programme sound. They recognise that most people do not listen to their programmes in specially treated sound studios through highly sophisticated monitor loudspeakers. Most of us listen to radio and TV programmes at home, in the car, on a computer via the internet, in a hotel room or a variety of other places probably none of which have the ideal acoustics of the monitoring studio. The programmes engineers recognise this and adjust the sound output to take account of the probably less than ideal listening conditions of the audience.

For those of us involved in sound recording, but not in the professional recording business with an audience of millions, the distinction between recording and listening is still important.

With the technology available today it is possible for anyone to record sound to a high standard with affordable equipment. ‘Affordable’ of course is a relative term. In general terms, the more you pay the more you get especially where microphones are concerned.  But even the most expensive recording equipment will count for little if the ultimate listening experience isn’t at the forefront of the sound recordist’s mind.

When making a recording the sound recordist needs to consider the following question; “What am I trying to achieve?” For example, is the recording intended to be a faithful reproduction of what you heard at the time of recording or is it raw material destined to be used in a different context later on?

Most of the recording I do is street, or ambient, recording. My objective is to produce a faithful sound record of a particular atmosphere, place or definitive sound at a specific moment in time. It follows therefore that I am trying to reproduce the sounds I record exactly as I heard them at the time of recording. It is important to remember this when it comes to listening to the recordings.

There is a difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is something we do instinctively but listening is something we have to work at. Listening is an art rather than an instinctive act.

There are four main components that affect the listening process – the means by which you listen to a recording, the amount of processing applied to the original recording, the volume at which you listen to the recording and the amount of effort you put into the listening process.

The means by which you listen to a recording is important but it doesn’t mean that you have to spend thousands on state-of-the-art loudspeaker systems and even more thousands sound-proofing your sitting room. It does mean though that you should give yourself at least a fighting chance of having a good listening experience. Money spent on good loudspeakers or good headphones is always money well spent but the aim is to try to match the quality of the listening experience to the quality of the recording. For example, if you listen to a genuine binaural recording using loudpeakers some of the binaural effect will be lost or, if you make a high quality recording and then play it back on the recorder’s internal loudspeaker outside in the street something will get lost in the process.

The post-recording processing of sound is, I admit, a bit of a hobbyhorse of mine. Any processing of a sound recording affects the listening experience. Sometimes, processing can significantly enhance a sound recording and consequently enhance the listening experience but, if overused, it more often than not detracts from the listening experience. It’s a matter of taste. In my ambient street recordings I am searching more for authenticity rather than artistry so for me less is always more as far as processing is concerned. Lest you should think that I am a complete dinosaur in respect of sound processing, there are some sound artists who’s work I admire enormously who make full use of sound processing with stunning effect.

The volume at which you listen to sound recordings is crucial and, for me, it is perhaps the most important element of the listening process. The key is to listen to the recording at the same level that you would have heard the original sound. The full-on sound of a metro train arriving at a station is much louder than the sound of a wood pigeon in the far distance and this difference should be respected in the listening process. The temptation always seems to be to raise the level of the lower sound to make it seemingly easier to listen to but this misses the point. As far as ambient recordings are concerned, the sound level is more often than not a function of distance and it is important to maintain this spatial effect in the listening process. Loudness can also affect the mood of a recording as is shown in the recordings included with this post. Before you listen to those, let’s consider the final component that affects the listening process – the amount of effort you put into actually listening.

As I said earlier, there is a difference between hearing and listening. Listening requires effort whereas hearing is instinctive. The more effort you apply to the listening process the more you will hear. Listening to a recording once will give you a sense of what the recording is about, listening for a second and third time will add more of the detail and give a sense of what the recording is trying to say. A good recording accompanied by good listening will transfer not only the recording but also the sense of the recording from the mind of the recordist to the mind of the listener.

Here are two very different recordings both saying different things.

The first is a recording of the start of the Trans-African rally recorded in Paris in 2007. I made the recording standing some ten metres or so away from the motorcycles and cars as they left Paris at the start of the rally. It is recorded in stereo, but not binaural stereo. My object was to record a sense of the occasion, the excitement and the enthusiasm.

Trans-African Rally Start – 2007

The second recording is very different. It is my attempt to record silence in the Eglise Saint-Gervais in Paris. Of course, no church is completely silent as this recording shows. Listen for the two rings of a telephone bell, a woman’s sigh, distant church bells, the inevitable door banging and high-heel shoes. This recording was made in binaural stereo.

Silence; Eglise Saint-Gervais

The recording of the rally is intended to be loud and punchy, the recording in the church is intended to be the opposite. Experiment with the sound levels at which you listen to these recordings and find which level suits each recording best. My tip is that for the church recording less is very definitely more.

If you’re like me, the recording inside the church makes for the more challenging listening but is also perhaps the most rewarding.

As always, it’s a matter of taste.


La Fête de la Musique continued …

I shall keep the writing very brief for this post and let the music speak instead.

Here are two of the several recordings that made from the feast of music that was to be found in Paris on Midsummer’s Day. These recordings were made at the jazz festival on the Esplanade of La Défense.

The originals were recorded in broadcast wav format and compressed to mp3 for this post.

Jazz festival; La Défense; June 2010 – 02

Jazz festival; La Défense; June 2010 – 03


La Fête de la Musique

Today is Midsummer’s Day, the summer solstice and here in France it is also La Fête de la Musique, the day on which all public transport is free and free music performances are available everywhere for all.

The idea was first broached in 1976 by American musician Joel Cohen, then employed by the national French radio station France Musique. Cohen proposed an all-night music celebration at the moment of the summer solstice. The idea was taken up by the French Music and Dance director Maurice Fleuret for the Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, in 1981 and the first Fête de la Musique took place in 1982.

Its purpose is to promote music in two ways:

First, both amateur and professional musicians are encouraged to perform in the streets and second, free concerts are organized, making all genres of music accessible to the public.

There are two caveats to being sanctioned by the official Fête de la Musique organization in Paris and they are that all concerts must be free to the public, and all performers donate their time for free.

La Fête de la Musique is just one of the things that makes Paris such a delightful city to live in.

This is the programme of what’s on today in my neck of the woods:

(It’s in French … but then I have lived in France for the last eleven years and so one can’t get too precious about insisting that everything should be in English!)

Date : Lundi 21 juin 2010

Lieu : Hôtel de Ville (Neuilly Sur Seine 92200)

La 29ème édition de la Fête de la musique se déclinera au féminin avec Jeanne CHERHAL et Sophie FORTE. Les groupes Revolver et The Yolks sont également invités.

Dès 17h30, en famille : Sophie Forte
Après avoir fait ses preuves auprès des adultes, Sophie Forte a gagné le cœur des plus jeunes grâce au succès de son premier album Maman dit qu’il ne faut pas et du spectacle joué dans toute la France. Avec son nouvel album J’suis vert, elle aborde avec espièglerie les thèmes qui la touchent et concernent toute la famille.
Pour les grands, Sophie Forte est également comédienne (Festival d’Avignon), actrice et chanteuse. Sophie Forte est lauréate du Cours René Simon en 1989.

À partir de 18h00 : Scène ouverte aux Jeunes Talents de Neuilly !
Réane et Hat ! ont été découverts lors des auditions organisées par la ville en avril dernier. Ils joueront des reprises et des compositions avant de céder la place aux artistes plus confirmés.

Dès 19h30, pop, rock, électro
Jeanne Cherhal
En deux albums studio disques d’or et une Victoire de la musique, Jeanne Cherhal est parvenue à imposer sa personnalité et son style. Dans son nouvel album, elle se raconte en charade dans un style très pop. Une ode à l’amour tout en finesse, en humour et en poésie.

À partir de 21h, les indépendants entrent en scène : the Yolks
Depuis 2007, ce groupe, originaire de Neuilly, s’impose progressivement comme un groupe phare de la scène indépendante parisienne.Repéré par la Fnac, il a été sélectionné pour figurer sur l’album Nouveaux Talents 2010. The Yolks propose une musique mélangeant pop anglaise, funk et électro.

22h : la pop de Chambre de Revolver
Christophe, Ambroise et Jérémie sont tous trois passionnés de musique classique. Ambroise et Jérémie se sont rencontrés enfants à la Maîtrise de Notre Dame de Paris. Jérémie joue du piano et du violoncelle ; Ambroise chante, joue du piano et de la guitare ; Christophe assure les chœurs et joue de la guitare. Fin 2006, ils créent Revolver, associant musique classique et rock, Haydn et les Beatles, musique moderne et compositeurs de la Renaissance.

Even if you can’t read French it’s easy to see that here, in my quartier, there is a large selection music being performed this evening and it’s all free. And this will be happening right across the city and indeed across France. See, the French do get some things exactly right.

I shall go and have a look. After all, there are bound to be some sound recording opportunities.


My Audio Diary

I’ve always been fascinated by reading diaries. History is littered with enthusiastic diary keepers some well known, others less so, who have published their diaries for people like me to read. But for every diary that is published there surely must be thousands or perhaps millions of diaries kept by ordinary people leading ordinary lives that go unread by anyone except the author. One can’t help thinking that there are many windows into many worlds that may never see the light of day.

I keep a diary, an audio diary, which I began in October 2006. The date is significant; at least it is significant to me.  It was in October 2006 that I looked death in the face and didn’t much like what I saw. Without trawling through the details, suffice it to say that I found myself in hospital with time on my hands and a microphone and sound recorder within reach. To occupy the time and with little else to do I began to record some thoughts. It wasn’t until I escaped from the hospital and got back home that I realised that I had unwittingly begun to create an audio diary.

It was during the evening of my first day back at home when I was still feeling very weak and vulnerable that I listened to the recordings. I was shocked. It wasn’t what I had said that affected me but rather the ambience, the noises-off, the background atmosphere underlying what I had said that had a profound effect on me.  The persistent bleeping of the heart monitor, a sound impossible to ignore, the constant hissing of oxygen pumping into the mask I was wearing, the ever present sound of trolleys being pushed, nurses coming and going, drips being tended to, the doctors’ examinations with the repetitive instruction in French to “Respirez” with what seemed like a worrying urgency.

I never intended to start an audio diary but I came to realise that the record I had made in sound was different and more powerful than anything I could have produced in writing. This fascinated me and continues to fascinate me as my audio diary has grown. And grown it has. Since those days in October 2006, I have recorded entries into my audio diary almost every day and have never tired of doing so. I record for the diary when the mood takes me wherever I am. There are entries made in airports, in aeroplanes, on trains, on buses, in railway stations, in cafés, on the street, in a variety of countries including my home now, France, as well as in England, Scotland, Ireland, Spain, Germany, Poland, Russia, Switzerland, Italy, the Czech Republic and probably several others that I’ve forgotten. The diary includes recordings made at wide variety of events I have witnessed and records in words many events that I have not witnessed first hand.  The content ranges from the reporting of my ordinary daily doings to the places I’ve been and the things I have done to my comments on the world in general and all points in between.

My audio diary has become important to me and so I have it saved on my computer, on two external hard disks kept in different places as well as on, at the last count, 149 CD’s. I haven’t calculated the actual playing time but I imagine that it totals somewhere in the region of 160 hours … so far! I haven’t created the audio diary for publication, at least not yet. I do occasionally use extracts to make “sound postcards” of a particular place or event for friends and relatives but essentially the diary remains a private thing. I do have in mind though that when I am no longer in a position to add to the diary that I shall offer it to the British Library Sound Archive. Maybe they will be able to preserve the window on my world for posterity and who knows, maybe some keen researcher studying the early twenty-first century in a hundred years from now will find it of some use. I hope so.


Street Recordings – Classifying Them

This post is about classifying street recordings.

Whilst it is not absolutely necessary to classify recordings, I find that it helps if you do classify them not only to bring some sort of order to an overstretched filing system but also to give one a sense of focus and structure when making a recording. Providing the classification is not too rigid and you recognise that there may be some degree of overlap between the classifications then I find that it is better to classify than not to. Any classification you apply to your recordings will depend on the kind of recording you do. The wild-life recordists will have different classifications from the street recordists as will the documentary makers.

For my street recordings I use three main classifications: “Atmospheres”, “Locations” and “Targets”.


“Atmospheres” are common to all field recording. Sometimes referred to as “atmos” or “wild-tracks” they provide a context to a recording. They are especially important to programme makers in the editing process. Correctly used in a film or in a TV or radio programme, “atmospheres” are barely noticed but they are, nevertheless, an integral part of the programme sound. Imagine a TV documentary, a radio play, a film or a David Attenborough blockbuster without “atmos” and you will see what I mean.

Street recording is one of the areas where “atmospheres” can sometimes take centre stage in their own right but this has to treated with caution and used sparingly. If one regards street recording, as I do, as the compilation of an historical record then the atmosphere of a street, a town, a city or any other location at a given point in time is an integral part of that record.

It is important to consider sound levels in relation to “atmospheres”. Remember that whether they are used as stand-alone pieces or as a background to a broader recording, “atmospheres” are there to provide a context. When recording them the normal rules apply, set the record levels to capture the best dynamic range. The difference between “atmospheres” and other recordings is the level at which you play them back. The object is to listen to the recording when you play it back at the same level as you heard it originally which is not necessarily the same as the level at which you recorded it. Less is most definitely more!

Here is an “atmosphere” recorded in a churchyard in Montamartre on a Saturday afternoon in May. Do not be tempted to turn up the volume too much! Atmos Montmartre


This is the second of my street recording classifications.

“Locations” in this context means recordings of specific locations with distinctive sounds which clearly define the location. Making these recording can be a time consuming process. I may visit a specific location several times before I make a recording, varying the time of day or night, to try to establish what the specific sounds are that define the location. I also consider the best vantage point from which to make the recording. Only after doing this preliminary groundwork do I think about making the recording.

Here is a location recording I made in the Gare du Nord:   Gare du Nord

To those experts in Paris railway stations, this can only be the Gare du Nord. The giveaway is the public address announcements, only the trains mentioned depart from the Gare du Nord. It’s easy really! However, there is another distinguishing feature that is more subtle. The Gare du Nord for some reason has a different reverberation characteristic from other Paris stations. I know, because I have visited them all. This in itself makes the Gare du Nord unique.

More about sound levels. During the recording of “locations” again the standard rules apply, set the record levels to capture the best dynamic range. For play-back more latitude is acceptable than with playing back “atmosphere” recordings. It depends what you want to achieve. Playing back at the same level as the original sound you heard is a good starting point but, depending on the texture of the “location” recording, it is acceptable to play it back slightly louder if you want a more punchy effect.


This is the third classification for my street recordings.

Target recordings are those made of a specific sound or sounds which are distinct from the background atmosphere or the location in which they occur. The range of “targets” can be very broad – buskers, barrel organs, individual vehicles or aircraft, singers, machinery, steam engines, police sirens, speeches, the list goes on and on.

The important thing when making these “target” recordings is to be very clear about the specific sounds you want to capture before you start recording and then make a plan about the best way to capture those sounds. Sometimes you can do this in advance. As with recording atmospheres or locations time spent on a thorough recce is time well spent. However, sometimes a target sound appears from nowhere and you have to think on your feet and react quickly. If using your recording equipment is second nature and you are constantly building a sound map in your head, then you should be able to capture something of value.

Here is a “target” recording I made of the Chinese New Year here in Paris in 2008. The specific target sound was the special type of firecrackers the Chinese use on such occassions, something notoriously difficult to record.  Chinese New Year

Again, to the sound levels. Recording something like firecrackers with their staccato effect plays havoc with recording levels and so great care and attention is called for. As far as the play-back level is concerned, “target” recordings do merit a louder play back level than either “atmospheres” or “locations”. After all, the purpose is to make the target sound take centre stage.


1. It is not essential to classify your street recordings but if you do, you will have a better chance of recording and subsequently listening to your recordings in a structured way.

2. Remember that “atmosphere” recordings are exactly that. They are background sound that provide a context, they are not usually designed to take centre stage even though in a street recording context they may sometimes do so. The play-back level is key, less is always more!

3. “Location” recordings are designed to give a unique sense of place. Prepare carefully and capture the sounds that define the location. More latitude is acceptable with the play-back level.

4. “Target” recordings are designed to lift the target sound out of the background atmosphere and the location. Make the target sound the centrepiece of the recording.

… and finally …

These are my own thoughts about the classification of street sound recordings and others may look at things differently. All I can say is that it works for me. Clearly, there are areas of cross-over between the classifications that I have outlined so we should not get too precious about the classifications themselves. The big advantage I find in classifying street recordings is that it brings a structure to the recordings both during the actual recording process and also in the subsequent listening. For that purpose alone I think it is worthwhile.


Saturday’s Sound of the Day

After six hours of less than fruitful sound hunting in Paris yesterday I was finally rewarded with one of those rare golden moments that seem to come when you are least expecting them.

My sound hunting took place in the Vth and VIth arrondissements, broadly from the Panthéon to St Michelle via the rue des Ecoles and the Sorbonne. A stop in the church of St Etienne du Mont at the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève is something I always do when I am in that part of Paris. This church of course houses the shrine of St. Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris, as well as the tombs of Blaise Pascal and Jean Racine. Jean-Paul Marat is buried in the church’s cemetery.

Close to the church I also called in to one of my favourite shops, La Dame Blanche, which sells CD’s and vinyl records of every genre imaginable. I came away from there with a CD of Bach’s Great Preludes and Fugues for organ.

To cut a long story short, I ended up in St Michel where I had something to eat but little to add to my Paris Soundscapes sound collection. Having eaten, I was about to set off for home when, on the spur of the moment, I decided to call into the Church of St Séverin. Suddenly, a largely barren day in terms of sound turned into an absolute jewel. A group of excellent young singers were rehearsing and I was there ready for the moment.

A very good day.

Saturday’s sound of the day : Singers – St Severin

Notes about the  Église Saint-Séverin

The Église Saint-Séverin is the oldest parish church on the left bank of the Seine. It is a beautiful Parisian church in blazing Gothic style.

The history of this church dates to the 6th century when Séverin, a pious hermit, lived there. The small oratory that honoured Séverin became a chapel and then a basilica because the wives of the kings of France, who then lived in Thermes, used to come and pray here.

The Vikings destroyed the basilica. The church was then rebuilt during the 11th century starting with the façade. It also became, at the same time, a parish church. The first three bays of the nave, the first southern aisle and the bell-tower were built during the same period.

The church was enlarged during the 14th century with the addition of a second southern aisle. From 1489 to 1495, five other bays and the chevet were built. During the same period, the southern aisles were rebuilt while two northern aisles were added.

The several lateral chapels were built from 1498 to 1520. In 1681, the duchess of Montpensier, a close cousin of Louis XIV, who was also called the « Grande Demoiselle », had the idea of covering the chancel’s archways with marble based on plans drawn by Charles Le Brun and executed by Jean-Baptiste Tuby. In the 18th century, the triforium was perforated in order to light up the inside of the church. Finally in 1837, when the St. Pierre-aux-Boeufs church was destroyed to make way for Arcole Street, its portal, dating from the 13th century, was fitted to the unfinished western façade of St. Séverin.

The church is only 60 m (197 ft.) long but is 34 m (112 ft.) wide. Its 8-bay nave has no transept. Its double aisles, as in Notre-Dame, lead to a famous ambulatory. Above the triforium, the large windows are decorated with very beautiful stained glass dating from the 15th and 16th centuries among which some are originating from St. Germain-des-Prés. The bell tower houses the most ancient bell in Paris, in dates back to 1412.

The exterior, with the chapels’ high side walls and the thin flying buttresses, is still surrounded with ancient houses on the north side and discrete archways on the south side.

The organ

St. Séverin church had an organ as early as the 14th century that was replaced early in the 16th century. In the next century, organ builder Valeran de Héman worked at St. Séverin (the stop list for the Positif division dates from July 5, 1626).

Around 1670, organ builders Charles and Alexandre Thierry rebuilt the bellows and completed the restoration of the organ in 1673. It was then a 29-stop instrument.

Michel Forqueray, appointed organist in the beginning of the 18th century, got a new organ loft and a new instrument. According to contracts signed on April 25, 1745, François Dupré was responsible for woodwork and Jacques-François Fichon was responsible for the sculpting. It is still possible today to admire the magnificent organ case in pure Louis XV style (rocaille decorations, base of the large turrets decorated with cherub heads and topped with trophies of instruments, the median turret topped with two angels, the central turret of the Positif topped with the Paschal Lamb laid down on the Book of Seals, lateral turrets crowned with vases).

Organ builder Claude Ferrand built a new instrument using existing pipework. This large “16-foot” organ was considered as one of the best in the Capital and was played by Nicolas-Gilles Forqueray who had succeeded his uncle. He was himself replaced by his nephew Nicolas Séjan who remained organist until the fall of the Ancien Regime.

On October 21, 1825, Dallery Sr. wrote that “ the organ is in such a bad condition that it threatens your interest and public safety “. He got 5 000 francs to execute the repairs mainly on the pipework.

In 1889, the classic-style organ was judged as outdated, John Abbey’s son was awarded a contract to rebuild the organ. Only 25 stops were be preserved. Abbey completely rebuilt the instrument: the bellows, the wind system, the mechanical action and the console are new. The organ was completely revoiced. Even though the organ is now a symphonic instrument, it has lost its great Plein Jeu.

Organist Albert Périlhou played this organ for the next twenty-five years. Fauré and Saint-Saens were invited to improvise on this instrument during Sunday masses.

In 1958, a project was launched by Father Aumont of St. Séverin to commission a new organ. This was built by Alfred Kern of Strasbourg, and comprised a more classic structure. Michel Chapuis, appointed titular organist when the work was completed, made sure that  maintenance of the instrument was performed regularly.

In 1988, organ builder Dominique Lalmand revised the wind system, adjusted the combination pedals for reeds and mixtures, regulated the key action of several manuals, and carried out a revoicing on the Plein Jeu of the Positif division.


Noise – or is it?

Having reached a certain age, I now reluctantly admit to being a fully paid-up member of that not so exclusive club of “Grumpy Old Men”. To qualify for membership it is necessary to be irritated by almost anything and everything however irrational that irritation might be. People who walk up escalators irritate me. Hotel receptionists who answer the telephone while checking me in irritate me. People who send those wretched newsletters instead of Christmas cards irritate me. People who break off a conversation with me to answer their mobile phone irritate me. TV advertisements irritate me. CNN irritates me. Noise irritates me.

Noise, according to my dictionary, is “a sound of any kind, especially when loud, confused, indistinct or disagreeable”.

The same dictionary refers to noise pollution as, “environmental noise of sufficient loudness to be annoying, distracting or physically harmful”.

I think most people would agree that noise pollution is on the increase and, although it’s sometimes difficult to define precisely what constitutes noise pollution, people generally recognise it when they hear it and conclude that it is a bad thing. Defining what constitutes “noise” on the other hand can be more problematic.

I live in Paris, one of the most visited cities in the world. Tourists come here to sample all the delights that this wonderful city has to offer. They do not come here to listen to the traffic noise which is constant and almost impossible to escape from. I live close to the Bois de Boulogne a former Royal hunting ground and now a vast area of trees, lakes and greenery. One might think it possible to gain some respite from the sound of the internal combustion engine here but no, it is not possible. I know that because I’ve done experiments to prove it. I have taken my sound recorder into the depths of the Bois de Boulogne during both the day and the night and all the recordings I have made contain some traffic noise.

So, traffic noise is a bad thing. Or is it? I once saw a person knocked down by a car, a Toyota Prius. This car is a hybrid and was running on the battery at the time and consequently was completely silent. Thankfully, apart from the odd bruise, the person was not hurt but their first words upon recovering their composure were, “I just didn’t hear it coming”. Maybe some degree of traffic noise is necessary if only for the safety of pedestrians.

Being unable to escape the sound of traffic noise I have decided to capitalise on it. Being a street sound recordist I have recorded traffic noise on the basis that it forms part of the tapestry of life here in Paris. I have been surprised by the variation of sounds the traffic makes and by the transformation of traffic “noise” into traffic “sounds”. What one hears as simply a constant background noisy irritation can, upon careful listening, turn into something quite interesting – a melange of lorries, buses, vans, cars, motorcycles and screaming motor-scooters each with their own distinctive sound. I often think that it would be inetresting to stand by a busy street and record the sound of the traffic and then compare that to a recording made in the same place ten years ago and then every ten years before that since 1900. To my knowledge, that particular experiment has never been done but one can’t help thinking how interesting the result would be.

Having said all that, I do subscribe to the view that traffic “noise” is a significant contributor to the sound pollution that we all have to endure today. However, think of steam trains, also major polluters in every sense in their day. Today, recordings of steam trains are much sought after and are listened to with great nostaligia even by those of us who qualify to be “Grumpy Old Men”. Will today’s motor car become tomorrow’s steam train?

Maybe “noise” is just “sound” in the wrong place and in the wrong quantity. What one person hears as noise just might be an interesting or even beautiful sound to others.


Street Recording – What’s in a Name?

What is “street recording”? This is a question that I have wrestled with for a long time. I know what I mean by “street recording” but how do I explain it to others?

The term “street recording” is ambiguous for the simple reason that the kind of recording I do does not always take place in the street. A recording made inside a café, a brasserie, a station or inside the Louvre is self-evidently not a recording made in a street. So, thinking of “street recording” in a literal sense is misleading. Is there a better term to describe the recording that I do?

“Ambient sound recording” is an alternative that is sometimes used and it is a useful term. According to my dictionary, “ambient” is defined as, “designating or pertaining to the immediate environment”. That definition certainly has a resonance which relates to my recording work.

“Phonography” is another possible alternative. My dictionary is not particularly helpful here giving a rather narrow definition, “the science or practice of transcribing speech by means of symbols representing elements of sound”. However, the root of “phonography” is interesting – “phono” meaning sound and “graphy” meaning writing. So we could think of phonography as “sound writing”. Wikipedia expands on this by referring to phonography as, “a neologism used by some to refer to field recording 

Whatever I may choose to call it, the type of sound recording I do is best summed up for me not in my words but in the words of the legendary French street photographer, Robert Doisneau, who for six decades cast his net in still waters, light years away from the predatory news photographers of today. Doisneau delighted in gleaning the instant. Clear of gaze, a man with a winning smile,  he liked to say;

“I never noticed time passing, I was too taken up with the spectacle offered by my contemporaries, that gratuitous, never-ending show for which no ticket is needed”.*

Whatever name one chooses to call it, it is precisely that gratuitous, never-ending show for which no ticket is needed that I try to capture in sound. Suddenly, attaching a name to it doesn’t seem to be all that important. 

*Quoted from “Robert Doisneau 1912-1994” by Jean-Claude Gautrand; published by Taschen

For more information about Robert Doisneau go to:





Maybe it’s a sign of age but, much as I adore my twenty-first century digital sound recorders, the Nagra ARES-M, the H4N Handy recorder and the Sound Devices 722, there is nothing quite like the old  reel-to-reel tape recorders to stir the emotions. There was always something rather comforting about watching those reels of tape going round and round.

I still have my Uher 4200 Report Monitor although sadly, it doesn’t get much use now except for replaying some of my old tapes.

This Uher has long since been superceeded first by DAT and now by digital recording devices but, even so, I simply can’t bear to part with it. It was amazingly heavy to carry around as anyone who had to carry one for any length of time will attest to. The BBC used the mono version of this recorder as their standard radio reporter’s recorder for many years. It was said that it was always easy to spot a BBC radio reporter because they all walked with a permanent list to one side, the infamous “Uher Stoop”, generated by carrying the Uher around all day.

My Uher reel-to-reel recorder has many happy memories associated with it but not as many as the reel-to-reel recorder picured below. I found the picture at:

This is a Ferrograph Series 4, the first tape recorder I used professionally.  In my experience it justifiably earned its reputation of being “Built Like A Battleship”. I was first inroduced to the Series 4 in 1969 and immediately fell in love with it. It was a half track mono, 2 head, 2 speed, valve driven recorder whose most distinguishing feature was its utter reliability. Whilst the sound quality was probably not as good as the subsequent Series 6 and the flagship Series 7, it never failed to perform even in the most arduous conditions.

When I came across this photograph earlier today it was the first time I had seen a Ferrograph Series 4 since 1972 and it brought back many, many, happy memories not to mention a flood of nostalgia.

For the technophiles, you can find more detailed  information about the Ferrograph Series 4 at:


Street Recording – The Importance of The ‘Sound Map’

In yesterday’s post I gave some tips about making street recordings in which I emphasised the importance of building a ‘sound map’ in your head of the location you intend to record in before you start to record. This is especially important when you are making discreet recordings in binaural stereo using in-ear microphones and when you can’t monitor the recording levels visually or monitor the recording through headphones. Today, I want to give an example of how this is done in practice.

A couple of weeks ago I was making street recordings in Montmartre, a particularly fruitful part of Paris for the sound hunter. I had made several recordings when I spied a man playing a harp at the side of Sacre Coeur. I was determined to get a recording of this.

As I approached the man I began to build my sound map of the location. I could see three problems. First, the harp was not amplified so my target sound source would be relatively quiet. Second, the harpist was surrounded by tourists none of whom seemed to be listening to him in silence so there would be the tourist chatter to contend with. Third, if I was to record the harp what might happen? Scanning the location I caught sight of a tourist train off to the right. I knew that these tourist trains have a bell which rings every couple of minutes or so to attract customers. If the bell rang while I was recording the harp, how loud would it be?

I factored the three problems into my sound map. As well as making a judgement about what record levels to set on my recorder I had one other tool at my disposal – my feet! By selecting to stand in the right position, preferably as close to the harp as it was possible to get, I could better balance the quiet sound of the harp with the tourist chatter and the might be of the bell sounding. This all sounds quite complicated but in fact I built my sound map, decided on the recording levels to set and picked the spot where I intended to stand all in the time it took me to walk up to the harpist.

In the final recording the bell did appear – twice, the tourist chatter wasn’t too intrusive and I think I got a decent recording of the harp.

What do you think?

A Harp in Montmartre:


This recording was made using Soundman OKMII binaural in-ear microphones and a Nagra ARES-M recorder. It was recorded in Linear PCM 44.1kHz/16 bit and compressed to mp3 for this post. Apart the addition of a “fade-in” and a “fade-out” there is no editing or processing post-recording.