Emmy-Award Winner Gordon Hempton gave FieldRecording.de in a exclusive interview insights into his career, his tools, why he almost exclusively records with a dummy head, gives tips on equipment and finally reveals his special approach to field recording.
Part 2/2: Gordon Hempton – Acoustic Ecologist and professional Field Recordist
FieldRecording.de: You have a degree in botanic and plant pathology. Is this the reason for your love to nature? And how becomes a botanist suddenly a Field Recordist?
Studying plants is fascinating. They are superior to me in a way in that they don’t need to wander about to get what they need, instead they just need sun, water, soil. So their ecology points to the seed. I could go on and on about plants. I think this as a subject of study created a feeling of reverence for nature, and because most of my work was outside, I also learned to live outside and even forage on the plants that I studied. Still I was not a listener. The movie tells of my epiphony during a thunderstorm. When you listen, truly listen, you might become changed by what you hear–and I did. It was an accident, a timely one, too. I found this to be my spiritual awakening and my portal to direct experience of nature rather than through nature documentaries or books. I learned by become a field recordist to trust my instincts. Once I found out how expensive the equipment was, well, that pushed me over the cliff and my ambition became professional–except there weren’t any acoustic ecologists at the time. That field did not even have a name yet.
FieldRecording.de: You call yourself as „acoustic ecologist“, what exactly do you mean with it?
Acoustic ecology is the study of sound in the environment, why and how animals send and receive messages and the obstacles that this communication faces to maintain intelligibility. The Earth is also sending messages at a grand scale–such as the planetary tune of the Dawn Chorus which circles the globe continuously. It’s message is to wake-up and join the chorus (and express yourself).
FieldRecording.de: Nobel Price winner Robert Koch said in 1905: „The day will come when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and the plague.“ What do you think about this quote?
He was certainly right. The are more than 5,000 medical research articles that document the deleterious effects of noise on human health below that which causes hearing loss. Koch, by the way, developed Koch’s postulates which is the foundation of modern medicine whereby pathogens are isolated and diseases attributed to them. So he was one smart dude.
FieldRecording.de: With what kind of equipment have you started?
At the beginning I used what other people recommended to me and quickly found out that I had to pay for my education–it was all the wrong stuff! I wanted equipment that would record sound the way a human hears it. Then I found a binaural dummy head Fritz, aka Neumann KU-81, and it was love at first listen–bingo! I had my answer.
FieldRecording.de: Which equipment do you use at the moment?
I still have Fritz and he is still my go to man, but when a client needs something else, then I have about 20 other microphones and four other recorders to choose from. Generally, top quality is required and by that I don’t necessarily mean most expensive, although that is most often true. I mean what equipment sounds best to YOU. Because YOU is all you got when it comes down to doing your best. Trust your ears, not someone elses.
FieldRecording.de: Your faithful companion is „Fritz“, the Neumann Dummy Head. Is this the KU 80, or KU 81, or even the improved version KU 81i?
I have tried all the Dummy Heads and the KU81 is the only one I recommend. Even the KU100 which replaced the KU81 sounds less natural to me. KU81’s are scarce and valuable but you can still pick one up on eBay for less than $4k now and then.
FieldRecording.de: How did it happen that you’ve specialized in the binaural sound recording with a dummy head? What makes the dummy head stereophony for you so special?
Binaural is the only current technology that comes closest to replicating human hearing. I want to be able to user my audience to the exact spot of listening to a place. I can do this with binaural. If you are recording for a studio who will be mixing and altering a place into some fantasy, then a different microphone is best. But mind you, binaural can be speaker compatible, especially the KU81. After all I got an Emmy for sound playback over speakers in Vanishing Dawn Chorus (PBS 1992) and the sound was recorded binaurally.
FieldRecording.de: Which choice and positioning (XY, MS, Surround,…) and which set of microphones do you recommend for nature recordings?
I have used many systems for nature recordings but only when a client’s specific project requires it, so I am familiar with different setups and configurations. But unhesitatingly, I feel high quality binaural microphones (expect to pay more than $5k) is the way to go when at a pristine location. If you are not at a pristine location, well, then use whatever you have. Just remember, it is not about getting close, get back, let the acoustics become a part of the recording.
FieldRecording.de: Would you recommend mics with an open polar pattern like omnidirectional, or something like supercardioid or even shotgun? Or does is depend on if you´re recording atmospheres or individual sounds?
If I am recording atmospheres, I always use binaural. When I am after something specific and want to isolate a sound from its environment then I will use an omni in a parabola for birdsong, a hypercardioid (AKA short shotgun) if I need the low end, or a shotgun if I need a very narrow beam of acceptance and the low end. If I need an atmosphere with a blind side to face away from an unwanted noise source then M/S is OK but I prefer ORTF with a pair of cardioids. Probably a bigger issue for nature recording is noise floor. You need very quiet microphones and hence they are expensive. But that is not the full story, you also need a very good transient response to catch all the fluctuations in a birdsong and especially insects. If you want to learn all about recording nature, then the best thing to do is save your money and ask a professional nature sound recordist if they will give you a tutorial using their equipment. Expect to pay about $1000/day and take about three days–but this will save you more money in the long run and years of effort.
FieldRecording.de: Do you plan to expand your equipment and what do you want to buy in the near future?
I am always expanding my equipment to expand my knowledge base. The equipment is getting smaller and cheaper but NOT better sounding. The advantage of buying cheaper equipment is that you can take more risks–explore the crackle of the campfire a bit closer, maybe ☺ There is nothing on my wish list, no new products that leap out at me. If I had all the money in the world, it wouldn’t be spent on more equipment. I have my answers.
FieldRecording.de: Do you use a parabolic dish?
Sure. I use polycarbonate for the sound I like. Metal and fiberglass don’t sound right to me. The sound actually gets colored by the material of the parabola. BTW: use a real quiet omnidirectional like the MKH20 for best results but also experiment with positions just outside or inside the focus. Have fun–play!
FieldRecording.de: Is there any piece of equipment you wouldn’t leave the house without?
A tin of copenhagen snuff? After that it would be dummy head, Sound Devices 722 digital recorder and everything in between all tucked into ready for action storage. You have to be ready to push record and get a sound in less than a minute in any kind of weather–I got that all wrapped up so I don’t even think about equipment anymore, I just feel, without words, the place I am in and respond appropriately by moving intuitively to that sweet spot where it all comes together. Its is a lot like photography–when the light is right, you have to be ready and just look. I have to be ready and just listen.
FieldRecording.de: How do you edit your recordings, and what tools do you use for it?
I’ve done about 50 hours a week for the past 3 years editing my recordings for Quiet Planet–we are releasing an colossal sound library that we hope will change the way people listen to nature in movies, radio, apps, video games, or wherever nature is heard indoors. I do not try to do in the studio what I should have done on location–find the right place and then wait for the right time. So my editing software is antiquated but familiar–I can work quickly. I stopped using Pro-Tools when Sound Designer II and Deck disappeared, a long, long time ago. I now use an old version of Sound Forge before it was sold to Sony with a few Waves plug-ins. Spectrum analysis is a handy tool to study a sound when you have a hearing issue. But even better is a pair of YOUNG ears to sit beside you (if you are over 30) to check all of your work and comment. My daughter (age 23) just put in six days in the past two weeks doing the final pass on Quiet Planet’s Flowing Water Collection and also the Waves Collection. She has the ears I wish I still had.
FieldRecording.de: Do you give your recordings away for mastering before you publish them?
My recordings are my work and never leave my hands until publishing. Because my work is essentially in the field and not in the studio, there is very little I need to do except pick my portraits, determine start and end points, and give it a close check.
FieldRecording.de: As an avid Field Recordist, I know this problem: To find the perfect moment and place for a for an outstanding Recording. How did you manage this for your previous recordings?
I have taught maybe about 50 individuals field recording through my workshops in the 90’s and more recently through private tutorials. The technical part takes just a few hours, then the rest of the time is spent instilling confidence in each student that they were not only born listeners, but they hear differently than anyone else. Do not try to hear what I hear, simply open up and hear what you hear, then go with what you like. The less you think about what to do and the more you simply respond emotionally to what you hear the better. And remember, disappointment is just an epiphony in disguise. You will be disappointed, often, in yourself, in a place, the list is endless, but get past that, grieve if you can, and then finally you have arrived, completely, into a moment of true listening. I once wrote a poem called, The Victory of Defeat, which I have since lost, but the message is still with me. Once the ego is defeated the world is revealed.
FieldRecording.de: How much time do you spend in the nature for your recordings?
Well in the last two years since I have been struggling with my hearing loss my recording time has shrunk miserably to just a few weeks out of the year when I simply need to get away. I started working with hearing persons to help me continue my work, but now of course, with medical treatment my hearing is coming back and I expect to get back to my normal schedule which is one week each month, plus one entire month each year.
I need big chunks of time because there is usually a great distance to fly and then lots of hours driving, then finally hiking until I am on location. Once there I have to get to know it. Three days of no contact with modern people is needed just to feel in the spirit of a place, and hopefully two weeks of seeking out the right opportunities. So practically speaking the week long trips are to keep me sane and the one month trip is to do my best work.
FieldRecording.de: If you should pick only one recording, as your most memorable one, which one should it be?
Enjoying the beauty pageant of sound as I recalled so many wonderful listening opportunities. If I had a gun to my head and needed to pick one in ten seconds I would say: Nature’s Largest Violin
And it is hard to explain why, other than the feeling it gives me. When I go inside a beach log I forget about time and I am just so fully present and alive. I stop thinking with words and experience the world differently, feelings are my thoughts, my thinking shifts from my head to my heart.
I’ve recorded more than 700 beach logs. Each one is different. Hope you enjoy the blog. (https://soundcloud.com/airbornesound/gordon-hempton-natures-largest-violin)
FieldRecording.de: Gordon, thank you very much for taking your time to answer our questions. We wish you all the best and continued success as the Sound Tracker and we hope to hear a lot more of your wonderful recordings!
Interesting Links on the topic:
Gordon Hemptons multipart audio column „Das Ohr zur Welt“ for Zeit Online: http://www.zeit.de/serie/hoer-reise
Binaural Recording: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binaural_recording
Neumann KU 100 Dummy Head: http://www.neumann.com/?lang=en&id=current_microphones&cid=ku100_description
Olympic National Park: http://www.nps.gov/olym/index.htm