Research: The Listening Project

The Listening Project is a collaborative project between Radio 4, BBC Local Radio stations and the British Library. Its premise is poetically simple: one listens to, or perhaps eavesdrop on, to two people having a conversation with each other. They are short – around about 3 minutes long, and the conversationalists know each other beforehand, often friends, and sometimes family.

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There is never a prescribed topic or theme, and I don’t think there are rules (although I never hear swearing) so each conversation is not only unique but also doesn’t necessarily fit with any of the other conversations at all.

The low barrier to entry – anybody in the UK could have their conversation recorded, either in their nearest BBC Radio, or in their home – means that not only do you get a variety of topics that are more reflective of the population that a lot of what is often broadcast on Radio 4, but you also get people who are better reflect societal demographics in terms of age, in terms of class, and in terms of accent. Far from ‘BBC English’, on conversations in ‘The listening project’ often have a broad Black country, or Yorkshire, Glaswegian or Swansea accents. This is a breath of fresh air on Radio 4 the West Midlands accent, in particular, feels like home.

Although much of this makes it similar to ‘This American Life’, The listening project’ is distinct in several key ways: the lack of overarching theme, the absolute brevity, the immediate familiarity of the British context, accents and references. It’s collaboration with the British Library also lends it another element – that of the archival. The conversations will act as, and the project is designed in part to generate, something like ‘Time Capsules’. This links with the British Library’s recent exhibition of sound resources. I’m reminded in particular of a clip from the beginning of Radio Four’s ‘Today’ program on the day after the European Union Referendum. The conversations in ‘The listening project’ are also a piece of recorded oral history, but coming from and connected more directly with the general population.

What I gained from this:

  • Personal stories, even inane ones are interesting to listen to, even if the speaker may not be convinced of this fact. The resultant recorded audio can act as either direct oral recorded history for future generations, but even just connecting with a few now is a noble cause.
  • It was listening to podcasts and radio broadcasts like this one that has steeped me in personal storytelling which is reflected in my writing.

What I’m going to take forward:

  • An appreciation of the importance and value of oral history as well as the value added by a base of technical professional grade recording equipment and technicians

 

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Research: This American Life

I’ve been listening to podcasts for several years now, and my absolute favourite has shifted during that time from a design podcast called ‘99 Percent Invisible‘ to a publication with a large following and space in general public media space – ‘This American Life’.

TAL_color2I’ve listened to it so frequently that the opening lines, almost always exactly the same, and almost always uttered by Ira Glass in similar but not identical intonation “It’s This American Life, I’m Ira Glass…”. He’s said it so many times and considers it almost an aside (judging from the credence he often gives it compared to the later part of the sentence – often the topic of the show) and rushes through it.

The format of the show is to choose one particular topic, for example, ‘Words You Can’t Say”, ‘In Dog We Trust’ or ‘Essay B’, and then present three separate stories, known as ‘Acts’ which are variations on the given theme for that week’s show. The stories are often journalistic, but could also be essays, memoirs, short fiction pieces, field recordings (such as stand-up comedy sets) and found footage.

Although the stories and they are most often known as stories regardless of media, do necessarily vary in the topic as well as tone, they are often intimate and enthralling.

This is the real strength of the show, the pieces tend to be around 20 minutes or so long, long enough to be substantial but short enough not to feel dragged out or overwhelming – the time limit is not strictly enforced, but it is an average and that balance of brevity vs substance works well.

What I gained from this:

  • I often connected strongly to the stories told in the show, especially if I share any of the same experiences, but still if I didn’t. It takes strength and courage to share, but from the perspective of a listener to this show, it is very compelling to the audience and they are thankful for it.

What I’m going to take forward:

  • The strength and compelling nature of  the personal, intimate stories convinced me that it was important to face the difficult topics that I wanted to make work about, not only as a catharsis for myself but hopefully to allow for that connection with the audience

Final Piece: Recording & Editing

I recorded the audio for my final piece in the sound room using the RØDE NT2 mics. The microphones had shock mounts to mitigate against noise generated by shaking and pop guards to mitigate overly loud plosive sounds (the word ‘POP’ for example with the P sounding like a small bang). I also recorded in the dedicated studio rather than outside as  I wanted the crisp, clear recording this technique would give me.

Having recorded all the text in full takes, and sometimes repeating particular sections if I misspoke or if there was an external noise, I went through and extracted the sections I wanted to use based on the quality of the recording.

I used Adobe Audition to edit the footage. I used this particular software as it had the range of tools I required, specifically noise reducation and the large support community which would make troubleshooting easier and time effective when problems arose. It also has a range of useful tools when it comes to exporting – being able to select specific sections and export those as full files, and to specify exactly the format and the quality of the export, as well as settings such as mono or stereo.

Ambient noise reduction was a primary concern for the editing process as I wanted the final piece to be a clear voice with no interference. This involved capturing a Noise Print which gives a reference for the program as to what the unwanted noise sounds like on its own. This meant I could command the program to apply the filter to the entire audio file and remove the unwanted sounds.

In the second step of the Noise Reduction (process), when adjusting the strength of the Noise Reduction (a percentage) I had to strike a balance between removing hums and hisses and comprimising the actual voice footage – that which I wanted to keep. If I removed 100% of the noise using the Noise Print as a guide, the progam would accidentally remove key parts of the sound of the voice leaving it sounding tinny and hollow. Technically, the trouble was that the frequencies of the humms and hisses (the noise) that I wanted to removeo were the same as that of the human voice; my voice.

This balance of the strength and amount of noise reduction allowing for as much noise reduction as possible while still allowing for a full and rich sounding audio track without distractions.

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I then placed the extracted segments of individual lines into a new single timeline that included all the audio I wanted from the two recording sessions.  This meant I could treat all the individual excerpts as a whole piece of audio, and edit it to feel cohesive. This involved EQ balancing to normalise the volume and ….

 

  • What I gained from this

I increased my knowledge of audio editing software. Particularly how to isolate sound to create an immersive atmosphere, allowing the contents of the piece to transcend the limitations of live audio and let the listener get lost in the story.

  • What I’m going to take forward

In future when recording I’m going to ensure the original recording is as close to perfection as possible so less editing is required. Editing is extremely time-consuming with diminishing returns and so ensuring a proper set up as early as possible would mean I could be as productive and efficient as possible and allow me to focus more on the content of the piece.

 

 

 

PPD: External Recording – LCC

Uncertainty Playground: FutureMakers‘ was a series of events run at the London College of Communication in September- October 2017.

I was employed for one day to assist with two events: A DIY Instrument Making Workshop with Hackoustic as well as a Percussion Performance and Workshop. I got the job from a contact at Wimbledon who had recently transfered to Elephant & Castle campus.

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The organiser was very invested and it was a hands on installation and set-up, of which my part was to help where I could, although my main task was to record the live performance.

Because the performance involved a fair number of different instruments lain across the space that the performer would go between, I set up two mics in an XY pattern generally used for choirs and the like. This would give an impression of the space and acoustics, as well as allow you to orientate yourself to the movement of the performer around the space.

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The other half of the day was helping Hackoustic with their workshop and set-up, although they were extremely self-reliant and had bespoke kit that they’d built themselves. The workshop involved making instruments – a rudimentary electric guitar striped down to its basic components – using a standard rectangle timber as the base.

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This was part of the reason why I couldn’t offer much help to Hackoustic – I didn’t know the material well enough to help teach the workshop participants. So instead, I helped with basic tasks and anybody who was stuck during the workshop, though if it was something complex, I often ended up calling over one of the two main guys. and learning from them in the process.

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For the Percussion Performance, I knew the gear and knew what I was doing, for the Instrument making workshop, far less so – however I did the best I could and learnt as I went.

What I got from this:

– I had a lot of responsibilty with this event, the recording I made was for both promotional reasons but also the documentation and proof the event happened. If I had messed up the recording, it couldn’t be recreated.

 

http://events.arts.ac.uk/event/2017/9/16/Uncertainty-Playground-FutureMakers/

Research: Listen; 140 Years of Recorded Sound, The British Library

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The British Library has an extensive sound archive, which had been curated into an exhibition as part of the ‘Season of Sound‘ to promote not only the archive itself but also the efforts to digitise the works which are across a plethora of media.

 

 

 

The ‘Voices of the Forces’ piece was of great interest to me. The physical object was a five-inch aluminium disc, although the audio from it had been converted for digital playback on the iPad underneath. The two were also accompanied by a British Pathé film on the subject from 1945 (below).

Besides his love, your man in the forces will now be able to send you his voice – for one and ninepence. It’s a natty Naafi idea. At many of the Nafi clubs overseas, recording rooms have been installed, where the men can come and actually speak the messages they want to send to their people at home.”
British Pathé film ‘Voices of the Forces’ (1945)

The recording was at once an intimate message from a serving soldier to his home and a piece of oral history. In its original state, it was never intended for such wide consumption as an exhibition in a national library, and as the British Pathé film alludes to, the physical media was never meant to last indefinitely. This lent a curious air of voyeurism to the experience of listening.

 

Built Space and Curation

Wooden slats painted white separated into discrete sections ran along the length of the wall, with iPads mounted next to headphones where the listener could select what to listen to as well as the linked physical media sat above in small inset sections behind perspex.

There were also cove like listening booths, with headphones and seats set up in sections that were cut out from the wood. These cocoon-like spaces were surprisingly effective at removing the person from the immediate context of the large public building. This allowed greater immersion in the sounds, which listeners were able to pick from the large selection on the iPads.

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Although the context of space is quite different here than the space in which I will be exhibiting, this visit gave key insights to the practices of displaying audio works for public consumption.

https://sounds.bl.uk/

 

What I got from this:

  • How to successfully isolate someone from their immediate context so they can fully engage with a sound piece, something I need to be able to do for my final piece.
  • How small snippets of a strangers history can provide unique archival information for the future. Recording one’s own experiences will always be important and gain importance over time, it’s a powerful link back to a past history.

Research: This Is A Voice

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The Welcome Collection hosted an exhibition entitled ‘This Is A Voice”, which was something like a retrospective for the capacity of human speech. The large space tackled many facets of speech, through the lenses of anthropology, linguistics, sociology, psychology, medicine and art practice.

The entire space had been carefully constructed with sound and acoustics in mind, from acoustic foam panelling, similar to that of a recording studio, to directional parabolic speakers that offered to ‘shower’ the listener with sound.

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Something I’ve always been fascinated with accents, and the sociology surrounding it.

As the promo for a linked discussion entitled ‘What Does Your Voice Say About You’ puts it:

“Your voice is unique. As soon as you open your mouth to speak you reveal something deeply personal about yourself – your biology, status, geography and state of mind. Join us for a discussion on the relationship between the voice and identity.” 

                                                                         –   The Welcome Collection website

 

I think voice is far more revealing and interesting a thing to focus on, especially with someone you don’t know, than say clothing, or even perhaps race (although race and voice often have a complex and multi-faceted relationship). I’m careful here not to overstate this, but accent for me can be suggestive (not authoritative) of the location of the formative years of childhood, both geographically and socially, class and background – revealing often more than the speaker intends.

Convergence and Divergence come to mind here, wherein a speaker tries to ally themselves to or distinguish themselves from whomever they’re talking to, but this is only within bounds. There are markers of accent which are undisguisable.

A piece which particularly fascinated me was ‘Emily’ by Danica Dakić which showed a young girl being given British Sign Language elocution lessons, with the voice of a middle-aged woman (off-screen) pushing her to hold tension in her fingers, and be precise about her movements – all in an effort to be more readily understood.

Emily; Video Stills; Loop

What was incredible about this was that previously I had held BSL and elocution in two very separate categories in my mind: though of course, it makes sense that as part of BSL education, something like elocution would be involved.

Another piece involved a mid 20s MtF (Male to Female) Trans Woman talked about trying to develop a vocal patterns that presented more readily as female – accompanied by a physician suggesting that this was a common experience among Trans Women, much more so than Trans Men, as Trans Men’s voices are in partly transformed by the Testosterone that many choose to take.

What I got from this:

  • This exhibition spoke to the breadth and power of speech and recorded sound, both as a rich area of linguistic and sociological exploration, but also for the purposes of contemporary fine art practice.
  • It also was very helpful to see how the various spaces had been constructed and curated, and as I work towards installing my final show, I can and am referring back to some of the techniques used in ‘This Is A Voice’.

 

 

Project: Milk Update

Millie, our one-woman film powerhouse, has been working on a third edit of ‘Milk’, and I have been there to advise and offer input.

One clear new direction was the involvement of a new composer and sound director, Guillermo, who reached out via a mass email looking for projects to work on. I met Guillermo, showed him the film as it stood and we discussed where we wanted to go from here and what was needed to be done.

Yesterday, he came back with his first edit (not yet finished). It was fantastic – a huge elevation in the overall tone and storytelling potential of the film. Through music composition, some foley, new overlaid ambient sound and a few other tricks, the film now stands on a whole new level.

There is still work to be done, and I’m meeting him this afternoon to give him some notes, however, they are really minor tweaks here and there – with the exception of the long conversation (scene 6); I think it’s missing something that I just can’t put my finger on.

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What I got from this:

  • The importance of background noise and ambient noise is integral to making any scene feel “real”. Without these extra effects, the sound felt flat. I could utilise this in my own work, removing the ambient noise to make something feel otherworldly and outside the normal parameters of audio.
  • I need to increase my knowledge of sound production in order to have a better idea of what’s missing, experimenting with different levels to achieve something close to what’s right this time will mean next time I come across this problem, I’ll know what I need to do to fix it.