Posted by: recordingsofnature | August 12, 2016

Subjectivity of audio nature recordings

Evaluating the sound quality of nature recordings is a volatile and delicate subject. Though, in this small essay I will try to collect my ideas on why there is actually a good reason for that.

My personal objective of my recordings is to reproduce a fully authentic listening experience as if being out in the field. Sound quality has been a main driver for my recordings, but also a source of frustrations as it seems after many years of field recording, I sometimes don’t feel like having moved much forward.

In general the sound quality of field recordings appears to be more critical than for e.g. hearing music. I think the reason is that ambient recording/sound needs to match the listener’s personal hearing experience and expectations quite precisely, in order to trigger the special memories and feelings of being in an other place. Nature recordings seem to be balancing on a narrower path between sounding good or not.

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Though, the main message here is that I believe there is a lot more to it than technical performance and specifications. Subjective matters will easily have a dominating part to play in the listening experience.

Hearing is relative

In my experience, when listening to old recordings, it often surprises me how the same recording may sound completely different from time to time, and different from how I remembered it. Mood, time of the day, stress level, ambient sounds, etc. seem to have a great influence. One can start noticing sounds never heard before, and the background hiss, or other technical factors that seemed disturbing, can be fully absent or negligible. I think the brain’s ability to focus on certain aspects and elements in the sounds and neglect others is overwhelming.

Hearing is a relative matter. Your brain constantly adapts and compensates, equalises for persistent sounds or noise. E.g. when background traffic is constant and ever present, you may not notice it, but when it absent you start noticing the individual cars driving by at long distances. Under long duration concentrated listening sessions, the brain has a tremendous power to adapt to sounds. And for the ears every day is one long listening session.

Lack of reference points

Another fundamental complication is the lack of general reference points when evaluating recordings. All that is available is one’s own subjective selective hearing and personal preferences when trying to compare the recording with how you think you remember the sounds were in the field. Fully objective hearing, free from any subjective impulses, is extremely difficult and may not a practical thing, (though some people may have the skill?)

Add to this, the enormous variation in sound reproduction systems, especially headphones or speakers. A recording that sounds perfectly natural in your ears with your headphones, may not give that experience to another person with an other sound system.

Ideal microphone Setup?

So, this is the basis on which one can try to develop and optimize a recording technique. In my view, no recording technique that can be seen as technically ideal. Again, it will come down to a subjective preference. All have their distinct qualities and produce their specific sounds; whether it is the simplistic AB omni or the fully binaural human replica. While the AB setup excellences in flat and undisturbed true sampling of the sound field, it may lack a bit in the stereo definition in head phones. The binaural setup has a very natural directional sensation, but produces highly colored sounds, with a very delicate balance between sounding perfect or quite off. Being very different, both methods can arguably be termed as ideal methods.

Likewise with the many other methods being variations and combinations from those two methods; ORTF, use of jecklin discs and baffles, contructions, arrays, (M-S is maybe a special case), etc. All can produce outstanding natural recordings, just somehow sounding different, of course with strengths and short comings (which mainly relates to a tradeoff between directionality and a clean frequency response?). It all depends on personal preferences, what aspects of the sound that one finds most important.

Conclusion

The world of nature recordings is complex and peculiar, and deeply influenced by uncontrollable technical and personal variables. One should not underestimate the brain’s ability to focus on special elements in the sound and adapt to different sound qualities. Thus too much focus on technical details and demands for perfection serves little good.

A nature recording is a personal experience that needs time, deepening and relaxation. I would say it could take 5-10 minutes into a recording for the brain to start adopting into the sounds and the context of the recording. So, one could say it not just relaxation, but actually takes some effort to listen to nature recordings.

The captured audio need to be understood from the context of the recording/microphone method. Additional, the recording environment, weather, outdoor acoustics and other details are important information to enhance the listening experience. Even then, as pointed out by  The Field Recordist (see comment below), it may never be the same experience for others to listen to a recording, as it is for the recordist, who has a whole set of additional memories and feelings associated to that particular the recording trip.

Nature recordings operates on many more levels than just technical specs, and it is never a matter of ultimate right or wrong. The work of the brain always has the final say.  And this is why old recordings on cassette tapes can be very powerful.

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Responses

  1. I agree, well put!

    I would go further and say there are two types of field recording: (a) those captured by yourself and (b) those by captured by others.

    With (a), the subsequent listening experience of the captured field recording will always be enhanced by the physical memory of that particular field recording trip, the events which took place, and your experience of being at that particular location at the time the recording was captured; those memories should endure with you for the rest of your life, they are ‘memorable’ occasions, some better than others!
    However, over time you tend to become more critical of your own work and your expectations can become unrealistic; it should be remembered that field recordists’ activities take place in the real World, complete with noisy neighbours, road traffic, aircraft, gusty wind, heavy rain, sound levels with higher dynamic range than your recording equipment can handle, faulty cables & connectors, depleted power supplies, rumbling stomachs…… etc., so why should you expect to capture a perfect, pristine recording?

    However with (b) there is no such attachment, you were never present at the location being recorded, there is no accompanying physical memory, so there can be no enhancement taking place as you listen to someone else’s field recording; you are completely detached from it, with the perceived quality of someone else’s field recording being purely subjective at the time of listening.

    Returning to type (a), I refer in my Documentary Film https://youtu.be/ZSAqx3m8SfM at approx. 29:00 min mark, that for accuracy of recording, there’s nothing that can beat the high sample rates and large bit depths of modern recorders; but my all-time favourite field recording was not captured by one of these modern high resolution recorders, but captured some 35 years ago on an AIWA TPR-910 Radio Cassette Recorder using nondescript C90 tape cassette.
    There are many other of my field recordings which I enjoy listening to which were recorded on even lower quality equipment than the AIWA, such as early generation micro and mini-cassette mono office Dictaphones, which by modern standards would be considered of appalling quality, but I love listening to them, as those recordings have their associated memories, despite having been captured some 46 years ago; so when I see reviews and comparisons made between the various field recorders on the market about the quality or otherwise of their A-D converters, their noise floors, their ability to record at the amazingly high 24 bit/192 KHz formats etc., then you can perhaps understand my thoughts…… ‘I wish these people would get a life and just go out and record’.

    Like

    • Thank you for additional clarifying words – I agree very much. The special relationship to own recordings is something unique. It is a kind of complex field to get hold of and put down into text, and it could easily need many more words. I know your video, it is a great resource!

      Like


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