Chris Watson is probably the world’s most famous field recordist. Without a doubt he has more recordings of animal sounds than we could listen to in a lifetime, However, we’re straying slightly off of animal recordings and into Watson’s collection of natural sounds – and how they ended up as one of the most unique and exciting sampled instruments: Geosonics by Soniccouture. Designing Sound chatted with Soniccouture’s James Thompson about the project.
DS: How did Geosonics come about?
We’ve made our name with unusual, niche, libraries. One of our first products was the Hang drum library. That’s what inspires and attracts us.
Over the last few years, there was a period where we were there were a lot of ideas flying around. People would email us and say “Have you seen this?” That happened with the Novachord synthesizer. For the Skiddaw Stones – I think I saw something on QI about that – so we were always picking up ideas from the media, we’re quite attuned to that.
A couple of years ago there was a little bit in the media about the Wired Lab in Australia (where Chris Watson was then a resident artist), and I had never heard of this recording technique before; using huge runs of wires. I heard the BBC Radio 4 documentary and Chris Watson was the main part of the documentary, and we’d always been fans of his – I remember years ago Dan (Powell, the other half of Soniccouture) played me one of his wildlife recordings on CD.
So we had heard little snippets of the wire recordings on Radio 4 and the idea was evocative. For us, it’s 50% about a sound but the other 50% is about the idea: it could be a back story or an interesting technique; just something evocative that catches the imagination. Anyway, we thought “This is great: can we do this? Can we set this up?” We quickly decided that no, we can’t. Certainly not hundreds of kilometers of wire in the landscape; it’s a big undertaking. Then you’ve got to sit there for days and weeks, so we quickly realized we’re not going to do that, and anyway it would be great to work with Chris Watson!
We went about contacting via his record label Touch and they weren’t really sure about what we were talking about doing, and Chris is hard to talk to because he’s often away for weeks at a time, out of contact, so it was quite a slow process.
After we received some wire recordings from Chris we were a little disappointed at first because even though the recordings are incredible, we really had no idea of the breadth that would be available and mistakenly got the impression from the Radio 4 documentary that there was going to be this very wide range of different sounds and different textures. We’d also been secretly hoping there would be a wide range of pitches and that we’d be able to extract a chromatic scale of different recordings and put those together as instruments so you’d be able to chromatically play the wires, but that wasn’t the case. Although they were very rich in harmonics, they were all pretty atonal, so we decided we better widen the concept with Chris and widened it out to “elements”. In talking with him we settled on wind, ice and water, the wire recordings and swamps.
Once we had what we felt would be enough recorded material, we set about trying to make something good, something people would like. We were very much aware that for most musicians or producers, just giving them a bunch of field recordings is kind of dry. I know there was a certain amount of interest in Geosonics from sound effects editors who did in fact just want to get their hands on a file list of Chris Watson recordings to use as atmospheres in film, but that wasn’t what we wanted to offer and it would’ve been very difficult to police that as well: we would’ve just been effectively giving away Chris’ recordings for people to copy and share, so it was in Chris’ interest that the recordings were encoded within a software instrument. And we wanted to make something that that sounds cool, that sounds new and that was a musical instrument.
So we were very definite that we would have to include musical material that could be juxtaposed with Chris’ recordings to create an instrument, although Dan took a lot of convincing: he didn’t want to put anything in there that wasn’t derived from Chris’ recordings and so he started off trying to wrangle pitched material from the source recordings. He used various DSP processes like harmonic freezing and filtering to try and extract a false pitch. That did work to an extent – some of that material is in the instrument – but it did start to sound quite similar after awhile so I argued strongly that it was okay if we put some sine waves or string sounds in there to layer up. You can be a purist, but ultimately most people just want great sounds, they don’t really care where they come from. We’re not pretending that Chris Watson is somehow responsible for the sine wave or the string sounds, they’re just there as tools.
I’m really glad we did go that route because it works brilliantly. It was one of those happy projects where we just sort of seemed to get everything right, from working with Chris Watson which is obviously the main big thing, but the way it’s conceived, the way the GUI looks, the way it sounds, the presets: it seems to strike a huge chord with people and it attracted a lot of attention and its been our most successful-selling instrument by far.
DS: So no one had to be convinced to buy an instrument based on field recordings
Not at all. We never take anything for granted. With any product, you have to go out there and convince people and market it. We wanted to cover every base, we wanted to make sure it was a genuinely useful musical instrument, we made walk-through videos, all sorts of things. I guess you’re right, we did in a sense go out to convince people but the response was immediate. It just struck a chord with people – they love ambient soundscapes and field recordings.
They also just love the idea: with a lot of sampled instruments, like an analogue synth, everyone can get their hands on one. Or even if it’s a guitar or a piano, there’s always that argument that, “Well, if I want a piano I’ll go and record the one in the studio down the road,” or “My friend’s got a guitar.” But with this, you really cannot get these sounds anywhere else. It’s a unique collection of field recordings and you’re just not going to get them. You’re not going to go out and make them, you’re never going to travel to the North Pole and if you do, then you’re probably not also going to travel to the Kalahari Desert. We’re talking about a lifetime’s worth of work that he’s cherry-picked, and I think people recognize that immediately. I think our instrument concept – whereby you can layer these things up musically – I think that answered the question of “How am I going to use it?”. There’s 100 different ways you can use the library.
DS: Did the other sound designers have any comments on the recordings, or the instrument in general?
(Geonics sound designers include Ian Boddy, Biomechanoid, Martin Walker, Andrew Wheddon, James Thompson and Dan Powell)
The sound designers all seemed to get it, I think what most people found was that you have to err on the side of caution with field recordings, they’re so – as someone else has written in a review somewhere – they’re so fat and so big, they’re so wideband that you really have to filter them and shape them and mix them down quite low otherwise they dominate. If that’s what you want, if you just want pure atmosphere then that’s perfect – they’re sonically enormous. If you want them to sit with other elements, you have to shape them.
What I personally love is having the musical elements. The sine wave is probably my favourite element for layering because if you just add a sine wave under any of his recordings, the sine wave will find whatever musical harmonic content that is in the field recording, it kind of bonds to it. You no longer hear the sine wave, it just instantly makes everything sound more musical in an organic way.
I found that when I was making presets that you really want to to turn down the field recording, often so that it becomes almost imperceptible. I made a lot of presets and sometimes I’d think “is it still there?” and you turn it off and of course as soon as you do, all the space disappears, all the texture disappears, and you realise that is was still a huge part of the sound, even though you’ve reduced it to a much lesser level.
DS: And what does Chris think of the instrument?
We’ve had a positive response from him. I was thinking of asking him to make a few presets at some point for an update but I haven’t explored the idea with him yet.
DS: But that’s a possibility?
Yes, absolutely. We’re going to be doing Geosonics 2 at some point, probably in a year or so. I think he’ll be much more involved in that. I don’t think he knew what we were doing on this, and we didn’t realize how successful it was going to be. I think we’ll certainly work closely with him next time, even if that means going and sitting with him to select recordings from his archives, which we weren’t able to do this time. He selected things he thought would be suitable. I would be very curious to go through them with him, and see what catches our ear.
DS: There must be thousands of hours to go through!
(laughs) That’s part of the problem. You can’t sit and listen to it all. Some of these wire recordings were made over several days…I don’t know how he auditions them. I’ve been meaning to ask him this actually, because personally I certainly wouldn’t have the patience and I can’t believe he has the time. What are you going to do, just put on a 24 hour recording and sit there through it? Do you look at it on the screen and look for peaks or events to check out? I don’t know. There must be hundreds and hundreds of hours of stuff in his collection that no one is ever going to hear.
DS: Is there anything about the instrument you wanted to highlight?
It’s probably worth mentioning the focus technique: the instrument has two modes and if you open one of the raw recording presets you’ll see an unfocused mode. That enables you to play through the whole recording raw, but its split into a lot of different pieces across the keyboard, which means you can very quickly scan through the recording, rather than sit and listen through a 15 minute recording.
When you find a slice you like, you hit the Focus button and that maps just that slice across the keyboard in a sampler mode. That mode also brings up access to the pitch layers, which you can then use to build a soundscape. We developed the technique for working with long snippets of sound or recordings, because they don’t normally work well in samplers, you just end up having to press and hold a key just to listen to it.