Trap Pond Revisited

Trap pondHello everyone. I’m fresh back from a week-long silent retreat at nearby Light On The Hill. The retreat was led by my good friends Jeff Collins and Gisela Konrad. It was a challenge, involving difficult “heart-centered” work, but I left the retreat refreshed and full of enthusiasm about the coming year.

My New Year’s resolution is: to post soundscapes nearly every day this month, encouraging whoever is listening to comment. The goal is to increase my sensitivity concerning what makes an artful, enjoyable, moving, and eminently “listenable” recording. In this vein, I intend to post a number of recordings that are my personal favorites, hoping all of you will share honestly with me how you feel about them.

Let’s begin today with “Trap Pond Soundscape Revisited,” an edited version of the original Trap Pond Soundscape I posted on December 1. Here is that original recording:

Insect and frog soundscape recorded by Lang Elliott at 1 am on 30 July 1988 at Trap Pond State Park near Delmar, Delaware.

I received several important responses concerning this recording. At least three friends who have very good high frequency hearing complained that the high-pitched meadow katydids (in the 10-20kHz range) were a little too loud. As near as I could tell, nobody seemed to mind the midrange True Katydids, even though they are incessantly rattling in the background. I also received a comment that it would be great if the bullfrogs were closer, were more present and audible.

With these impressions in mind, I began working on the original recording. I first lowered the loudness of the high-pitched meadow katytids. Then I increased the presence of bullfrogs by mixing-in a separate recording (an explanation of my reasoning for doing this can be found at the bottom of this post). Below is my new version of the Trap Pond Soundscape, altered with the intention of improving your listening experience and more closely approximating the magic of actually being there (which I personally experienced with considerable delight in spite of temperature in the high 80s accompanied by high humidity):

Insect and frog soundscape recorded by Lang Elliott at 1 am on 30 July 1988 at Trap Pond State Park near Delmar, Delaware. Edited Version.

Whatya think? Have I improved on the original? Or do you think the first recording is the better of the two? Should I pull the bullfrogs down a bit? All is possible, you know!

WHY ALTER RECORDINGS?

Some of you may be wondering why I altered the original and whether or not this is a valid thing to do. My answers are as follows.

First, if my primary goal was scientific analysis of soundscapes, I would not alter anything. I would carefully document my recording setup, the exact recording location, and related variables such as time and temperature—and that would be the end of it. But my goal here is not scientific analysis. Rather, it is to convey “the magic of the experience of being there.” I approach this challenge as an artist would, willing to use available tools to more adequately reproduce or infer the miracle of the moment.

Second, it is my opinion that trying to duplicate the actual experience of being there via soundscapes is rather futile. How can one reduce a multi-dimensional experience into fewer dimensions, such as sound coming from two speakers, without losing many essential aspects? It cannot be done. A soundscape, no matter how beautiful or poignant, is a far cry from the natural event. However, by bringing one’s imagination alive, bolstered by a beautiful and moving soundscape, one can potentially experience something almost as powerful as the real thing. My responsibility is to deliver an optimal soundscape. Your responsibility as a listener is to exercise your imagination.

With regard to tweaking the Trap Pond Soundscape, here is what I did and why:

1) I lowered the volume of the high-ended meadow katydids (in the 10-20kHz range), based on feedback from people with excellent high-pitched hearing (they were a bit annoyed by the loudness of the katydids).

2) I added more bullfrogs by mixing-in a second recording to increase the bullfrog presence. I think this is okay because there were many bullfrogs in the background, so adding more doesn’t invalidate the experience. In fact, I believe it adds to it, making the experience of listening over speakers more equivalent to what I experienced when I was there (I vividly remember the bellowing of the bullfrogs, yet in the unaltered recording they seemed rather distant and muted).

The only thing invalidated by my tweaking is that the recording is no longer a purely objective rendering of sounds picked up by a microphone setup in a particular place. While this is true, it is not entirely accurate. In actuality, an un-altered microphone-captured recording is not truly objective because it conveys a very narrow spectrum of the actual multi-sensory event. In other words, an unaltered recording is not inherently a superior rendering of the human listening experience. Why? Because it entirely ignores the action of our minds on sounds we hear in natural settings. Taking this into consideration, an altered recording that reduces disturbing elements and augments other aspects of the soundscape may indeed more accurately convey the magic of being there.

Indeed!

Clearly my approach is that of an artist. While I am careful not to alter a recording so that it mis-represents place (for example, by adding sounds of species that don’t belong in a particular habitat or location), I give myself the leeway to alter or “massage” a recording to render it more enjoyable and more powerful in its effect on the human psyche—but only if doing so creates a listening experience that more closely approximates the actual experience of being there.

My approach is human-centered. Ultimately, I want you to share the living miracle with you. I want you to imagine being there, to experience the supreme freshness of that reality, to breath it fully into your being. This is my goal as a sound artist and this is why I grant myself the freedom to massage soundscapes that I present to your ears.

Do you have any problems with this approach? In doing so, aren’t I being of greater service to you? Aren’t you concerned more about the quality of your experience than about witnessing a constrained and hypothetical objectivity?

Comments

  1. Zack Frieben says:

    I like both recordings, and I have to admit that in the original recording the insects are quite loud.

  2. It’s 20*f, a light breeze blowing here in Maine. My 5 minutes of being somewhere else and warm is gone. #2 has depth, it makes me feel like I am there. #1 is also good, it’s a record of a time and place, it gives one an idea of that place. But listening to #2 makes me feel like I am in that place, minus the mosquitoes & deer flies

  3. Jim: Truth be told, I do not hear the high meadow katydids at all unless I play the recording at high volume. My choices is to get feefback and then adjust loudness for those who do have good hearing, so as not to cause them distress.

    Suzanne: Depending on the actual use of a soundscape, I may or may not be able to alert listeners that something has been changed. In any event, I would only do that if there has been something added that wasn’t there to begin with, or something other drastic alternation. As for adjustment of levels in various frequency bands, this is no different from Ansel Adams dodging and burning to improve visual effect (he certainly did not feel the need to label all his prints as being altered). It all boils down to what the point of it all is. If it’s scientific, then minimize adjustments. If it’s about art and about deliberately producing an emotional effect, then the sky is the limit. In the overall scheme of things, I tend more toward a purist attitude, but I give myself considerable leeway to adjust recordings to make them more enjoyable, most “listenable.” Within the context of my business, I make no guarantees whatsoever that I haven’t dickered with a recording.

  4. Looking out at our unmowed field with very subtle color variations, and under an unremarkable gray winter sky, I find both recordings have something to offer, including an escape from the current weather. I did not find the original recording too loud in the high pitch frequency. They also prompted a discussion of my hearing capabilities vs. that of my wife’s.

  5. I appreciate both recordings. (A) because it is the original and (B) because I can hear the frogs better. I can see the validity of both. It is nice to be able to compare the two. As to altered recordings, I don’t have a problem with it so long as I am told it is altered. Great sounds!

  6. Wil Hershberger says:

    Gorgeous work on the revised audio production. The blending of insects and anurans is much more pleasing and relaxing. I did a lot of A-B comparisons and it is a clear winner. I certainly see no reason to use the direct from the field recordings unless, as you say, there is some scientific purpose to the use of the recording. For creating a listening experience that conveys the reality of how a human would perceive a location, the manipulation of the recording would be essential as no recording system will sample the location in the same way that the human ear would. Rolling off the high frequencies to reduce the intensity of the high-pitched insects was certain necessary to make this recording more enjoyable. The addition of a richer chorus of frogs really makes the foreground and the spacial sensation more pleasing as well.
    Wil

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