Luke Pearson, a sound recordist specializing in ecology talks to BBC Earth about the challenges of recording in nature and his upcoming podcast, Listen Over Hear.
Tell us about a day in the life of a sound recordist specialising in ecology…
I was first introduced into the realm of sound recording from an artistic perspective and I had been used to having fairly controlled conditions with which to work. When it comes to recording outdoors and in nature, however, the conditions are far from controlled. When setting up for a new recording I might have a general idea of what I want to capture, but the sound content of what I will actually be recording is completely unpredictable. It is important for me to keep an open mind and be able to find a sense of success no matter what the outcome. A successful recording is quite difficult to define since it really depends on what is done with the recording afterwards. As a recordist specializing in ecology, it is important for me to analyze each recording within a scientific context. Fields like acoustic ecology (or soundscape ecology) and animal bioacoustics are becoming a larger part of conservation research every year.
Recording nature must have its challenges, especially when it comes to audio quality, what equipment do you lean on to counteract whatever nature throws at you?
Wind protection is a nature recordist’s best friend. Without protection from even the lightest of breezes most microphones won’t be able to capture a usable recording. I always make sure to have the best windscreens available for the job, and even simple things such as microphone clips or flexible tripods to hang on tree branches can give me more options for placement that will perhaps avoid issues that come with recording at the mercy of mother nature. I use microphones that are made by an independent company called LOM Label because I enjoy supporting the recordist who started it a few years back and he is constantly researching new ways to record sound which I think is important for almost any line of work.
How did you get into recording sounds of nature?
I have always been an avid outdoorsman and lover of nature, but I never really gave much thought to the idea that I could have a job working outside until I went to college. I was studying sound engineering and design at Berklee College of Music when I happened across a book in the library that completely opened my eyes (and ears) to the idea of natural sounds. The book, The Great Animal Orchestra by legendary recordist Bernie Krause, discussed how music is emulated in the natural world and the important role that sound plays in nature. These ideas really resonated with me as a young musician and nature lover. From there, I slowly combined my passions of sound and nature through education such as field courses in acoustic ecology and collaborative projects like a group recording expedition to southern Africa.
How much has your set up changed from that very first time you came out to record nature to now?
The very first time I recorded the sounds of nature I used my phone, so I would say that my set up has changed quite drastically since then. My recording kit was slowly built up as I needed more equipment for things such as school and local indie films projects, but eventually I found myself taking trips around my favorite parks just to record the sounds of the natural world. The biggest and most important changes I think has been my mindset. It takes a lot of practice and patience in order to know how to listen and correctly assess each environment. Audio technology has come very far in the last decade and most commercially available microphones have very minor differences that separate them. Microphones capture what they hear objectively, but they will never replace the act of listening with our own ears.
Tell us about your own podcast!
The podcast title, Listen Over Hear, is a play on words meant to emphasize the importance of being able to genuinely and actively listen to our environment instead of simply hearing it. It’s a brand new project of mine that focuses on the relationship between human culture and nature in various regions and forms. I have always been fascinated with geography and how different groups of people express themselves, and I’m hoping that this podcast will shed some light on how the musical and artistic culture of a place has been shaped by its unique soundscapes and the role that nature has played in the community. I have recorded the material for the first episodes and am in the process of gearing up for the initial release! It will be available sometime in October on all the main platforms.
What have you learned about the relationship between active and subconscious listening, as a result of producing your podcast?
So far, I have already been surprised to find that many people are excited to learn new ways of listening to their environment but simply lack the understanding of how to achieve it. A good way to start is by going on intentional sound walks and noting all the sounds you hear. As humans we have a tendency to identify and label everything we hear, but by letting go of these labels and instead paying attention to the textures, pitches, and rhythms of the world around us we can slowly redefine what listening means. From an evolutionary standpoint, humans have used hearing, even subconsciously, as a way to connect to our environment and identify our place in the world; It is just one step further to open up, actively listen, and use it as a tool to better understand and relate to each other and the natural world around us.
What has been a podcast highlight, to date?
For the first episode I visited Asheville, North Carolina in the Appalachian mountains to interview Jim Debardi, communications manager at Moog Synthesizers. Ever since Moog Music relocated to Asheville it has been a staple of the community, accepted for its ingenuity and ability to connect the natural roots of Appalachian folk culture with advanced electronics. It was neat to see how every synthesizer was hand built and incorporated things that represented the local history and relationship between people and nature. Their ideas such as repurposing local trees to use as components for some of the world’s best electronic instruments help reinforce the importance of nature in a digital world.
Your surroundings must play a big role in your recordings too, what are your first steps when scoping out a location to record in?
The first and most important step in my process is deciding what I hear that needs to be captured in a recording. Unique or polluted environments are points of emphasis simply because they are subject to change more quickly. Keystone species of an ecosystem, changes in biodiversity, and causes for concern are all things that I look for in my recordings. Soundscape recordings provide great indicators for habitat health and it is becoming increasingly important to document these soundscapes considering the rate at which unique ecosystems are disappearing.
How do you prepare for differing soundscapes such as recording sounds of the weather to recording sounds of a small animal?
With a lot of luck! Many good recordings come down to chance, especially weather. It is possible to take precautions, however. I can use outdoor skills such as building a natural shelter from available resources to prevent extraneous noises from rain and other environmental factors hitting equipment. This maintains the illusion of human absence. For recording specific animals, it can be helpful to do research beforehand such as setting camera traps to know where and when to place microphones.
What preparations do you tend to take beforehand to try and achieve the best recording possible?
Microphone placement is very important to me because a recording acts as a spatial representation of the time and place and is directly dependent on where a microphone is positioned. For instance, placing microphones around a lake or wetland during either dawn or dusk is a good way of capturing frog choruses, but it would not be the best way to hear other wildlife in the region because frogs tend to dominate the soundscape during those times and places. Another good example of how placement affects a recording is geographic features such as cliffs and rocks which will have a resonating and echoing effect on the sounds that reflect off of them.
Working with wildlife must come with its unexpected moments, what do you do when something doesn’t go to plan when recording?
That’s very true! Working with nature means that I can expect something completely different every time I step out to record. Being able to be flexible with the results is necessary when it comes to recording wildlife. There was one overnight recording session while in South Africa where I came back to retrieve my equipment only to discover that a baboon had untied my cable and stolen a microphone. While it was unfortunate to lose, the next night I was able to adapt a more secure method. There is a learning curve to recording in a new environment – especially one with thieving monkeys! Working with wildlife is exciting, but being in an unpredictable environment often means weighing the risk of something being broken or stolen with the reward of capturing something incredible.
Learn more about Luke’s podcast, Listen Over Hear, on his website. Check back in, in Autumn, for the announcement of its launch: https://lukewarmsound.com/listenoverhear