Starting an Ambient Recording Collection

After a good year and a half of building a collection of short ambient recordings from my travels, I’m finally getting around to uploading and sharing them.

Since college I’ve loved taking 35 mm photos, but the entire time I’ve taken photos my motivation wasn’t just to capture something that caught my eye; it was also to archive all these moments and share them with history, in a way. So why wasn’t I doing the same with sound recordings?

When I started recording ambiences, I began with the typical sounds: cityscapes and nature. Sounds that a photographer might call “wide”. My initial strategy was practical: I could use these sounds on future mixes. For example, why use BBC’s forest recordings when I have my own and I can add my own signature touch to a project in the process? Silly question: their nature recordings are inimitably awesome, but…

…Then my aim developed more as I tried to capture sounds that were one level beyond the typical. And the more sound recordings I took, the more I closely listened for details within these wide shots and even started becoming that guy who interrupts someone to point out a really gnarly-sounding creaking door. My ‘if-we-photograph-why-don’t-we-sound-record’ epiphany came back to me with much more resonance as I developed a fondness for specific, one-of-a-kind (and often fleeting) sounds in the world. In other words, there are sounds out there that are simply worth recording for the sake of recording them!

This more detailed approached made me want to record environments that maybe wouldn’t ever be used in a project because they have too many specific elements that rarely coincide, like the recording I grabbed at Piazza Enrico Bassano at dusk in Genoa. I started to rebel against the original pragmatic approach. The less practical the recording, the more potentially interesting, the more it contained its own story.

While I was at AES in Paris this past June, I stumbled upon a workshop called “Ambient Recordings of the Cretaceous Period.” We all know there’s no such thing, but I wondered for a second if there was actually a scientifically-faithful way to recreate dinosaur noises. And sure enough there is – one paleontologist/amateur audio engineer slowed-down and de-tuned recordings from dinosaurs’ closest extant cousins – birds. And the recordings were hypnotizing! I had jungle recordings of my own from Costa Rica, so I tried the same thing, only mine conjured Yoda’s swamp planet Dagobah after I sound-designed mine with lots of aquatic elements.

It’s fair to say, as an initial reaction, that a lot of these recordings are a bit boring – that certainly wouldn’t surprise or insult me to hear. But I do believe ambient recordings of even the most common events are snowflakes, particularly if you throw on headphones and let the recording wash over you and inundate you with details. Some recordings are tonal and moody (Baltimore suburb with no birds; NYC elevator); some are hypnotically rhythmic and repetitive (Bottling Plant); some are provocative and informational (Costa Rican bird called the Oropendolo); and some are simply relaxing and transporting (Costa Rican creek; Brooklyn daytime exterior.)

Well, I’m still in the beginning stages of this craft. I tend to only take recordings when I travel, but I’m starting to take out my recorder more and more here in New York, as well as recording “small” sounds here in my apartment. My water-heater, for example, sounds awesome when it turns on! And after experiencing AES’s immersion-oriented convention in Paris last June, I became more interested in ways to record atmospheric sounds beyond basic stereo or M/S. Next goal!

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