Recording the Sounds of Nature: a Q&A with Jeremy Hegge
Jeremy Hegge is an Australian field recordist, based in Sydney, who has been recording the sounds of nature for just over a year. A new donor to the British Library's sound archive, a selection of Jeremy's recordings will soon be available in the Environment & Nature section of British Library Sounds.
1. When did you first become interested in recording the sounds of the natural world?
I guess I first started when I used to go for walks in the Royal National Park in my late teens. At the time I had been using my mobile phone to record my own lo-fi music at home and around that time, I think particularly because of the films I had been watching, ambient sound was starting to become much more important to me. So, I started recording the sounds of the forest with my phone, either just to listen to later or with the intention of putting them in between the lo-fi songs I had been recording, sometimes also incorporating them into the music too. I never released any of this music though!
In my late teens I was becoming more and more interested in films, so I started to see a much larger diversity of films. One thing that annoyed me as I became more aware of the different aspects of filmmaking was the scores of the film, which I felt were unnecessary. I found that all they usually did was add melodrama and take away a lot of the sincerity and natural ambience of the moment. I also felt, and still do, that the ambient sound of a place is far more powerful than any musical score. I think 'Lancelot du Lac' by Robert Bresson was the first film I remember seeing without any score and seeing what a difference it made was probably quite influential. Eventually I decided I wanted to make films myself and when I did I knew how I wanted to make them. Long static takes, largely focusing on nature, and only using the ambient sound of the place and the imagery to give narrative to the films.
I made my first film 'Miluwarra' in late 2012, which I shot in a small pocket of rainforest in the Royal National Park. At first I intended to just use the internal sound of the camera but, after listening back, I realised the sound quality wasn't good enough. I wanted the film to have only the sounds of nature without man-made sound, but that made it too difficult to wait to shoot until the sounds of planes and cars were gone! At that point I bought an Olympus LS-5 and went into the forest over several weeks and gathered sounds for the film. Although the recorder was initially just to use for my films, I had started to listen to other field recordists sometime in mid-late 2012 and so eventually started to use it to record other sounds. For some reason on one night in April 2013, I decided to go out to my favourite part of the Royal National Park and went into the forest to record for a few hours. I remember setting up my recorder and standing in the dark, the full moon shining through the canopy of the forest; standing still, listening, then after a few minutes hearing one Southern Boobook (at the time I had no idea what was making the sound) starting to call in the distance and then another closer. I had never just stood in the darkness, in a forest, and just listened before. It was a really mesmerizing experience. After that I started to become addicted to field recording, in particular recording nature sounds.
2. Do you have a preference when it comes to recording subjects? Wildlife over atmospheres for example?
I definitely don't have a preference in that sense. All that matters to me is if a sound moves me or not. I like a lot of mechanical/electrical sounds as well as biophony and geophony. I think I do have a preference to the more surreal sounds though and I probably prefer nocturnal sounds over diurnal ones. One of my favourite birds is the Tawny Frogmouth whose call sounds a bit like a car alarm, and I also love owls and nightjars. Possums can make some incredibly haunting sounds too!
3. You’ve only been recording for just over a year. What do you think you’ve learnt in that time?
It's hard to say. I've learnt most of the basic things about field recording by myself, from experience and experimenting, although every now and then I will ask other field recordists that I respect for advice. My editing technique is something I have been working on for a while now and I am really happy with my editing lately (which is normally quite minimal, usually just raising the higher frequencies by about 5db and occasionally editing out any sounds that I don't like or don't feel appropriate for the mood of the recording). Microphone placement is more important to me than when I first started, and also the quality of the equipment that I now use. When I first started I was using an Olympus LS-5 and now I use an AT BP4025 in a Tascam DR-680, along with two jrf d-series hydrophones and two c-series contact microphones. I'm planning to replace the BP4025 with two DPA 4060s within the next few months too.
Durations have become more important to me too, both in film and sound. When I first started recording I would usually record 10-15 minutes in one location but now I record at least 1-2 hours, and lately I have been getting recordings 12-15 hours long, usually releasing albums with just one recording from one location.
4. Australia seems like a recordist’s paradise, with so many wonderful wild spaces and incredible species. Do you have favourite recording locations and why do they resonate with you so much?
Australia certainly is but, since I don't have a driver's licence, I'm not able to explore much of it at the moment unfortunately! Since I'm only able to access a few locations by train, I feel like a kid in a candy store but I can only choose two or three of the hundreds of candies! I'm working on getting my licence at the moment, so hopefully by the end of the year I will have it. Australia is such an incredibly diverse country and, as you say, there is still so much wilderness left, though no "untouched" wilderness I might add, and I aim to spend most of my life mainly exploring and recording the Australian continent.
My favourite place that I have recorded in so far would easily be the Daintree rainforest in far North Queensland. I really loved the songs of the birds there, in particular the Black Butcherbird and Green Oriole, as well as the incredible variety of cicadas. Unfortunately I got some tropical flu while I was there, so was sick for half the time and didn't get to explore the jungle as much as I would have liked to. I am aiming to head back there sometime during the next wet season if weather permits (the Daintree can receive up to 8m of rainfall a year!), though last year when I went it was very dry, so you never know.
5. Are there any recordings in your collection that you’re particularly proud of? Why is that?
One of my favourite recordings that I've gotten since I started is a frog chorus I recorded last summer in the Royal National Park. I had stayed in the forest, about 30 minutes walk from the road, from late afternoon and recorded the transition from dusk until night for about an hour and a half (you would not believe how incredibly loud the cicadas were on that night!). About an hour or so into the night, I left my spot by the creek where I had been sitting for nearly 2 hours and went to pick up my recorder. After I had walked back to the road, I continued along it as I was still about an hour's walk from the entrance of the forest and, as I started to get close to a bridge which goes over the Hacking River, I could hear this amazing frog chorus, the most alive I had ever heard in the area. I set up the recorder right by the edge of the river, underneath the bridge, and left it for about 20 minutes. When you listen you can hear how close the frogs were to the microphone; some were almost next to it. Two of the frogs species have some of my favourite vocalisations as well (Litoria phyllochroa and Litoria peronii).
I also got some fantastic recordings in the Daintree. I got a really textural recording in the tropical mangroves there at 1am in the morning; you can hear all the fruit popping off the mangrove trees and falling into the water along with a quiet insect chorus, the occasional bat, a distant bird, and crustaceans. The dawn choruses up there were wonderful too! I hope my best recordings are ahead of me though.
6. You’ve already published several albums, both independently and through labels such as Very Quiet Records. Is this something you would like develop further?
I certainly would and am. I'm pretty easy going with releasing albums and if I record something that I like then I will usually release it digitally for free.
At the moment I have a digital release coming out in November on Gruenrekorder titled 'Marrdja', which features two approximately 30 minute recordings made in the tropical mangroves in the Daintree: the nocturnal one I mentioned earlier as well as the transition from dawn to morning. There's also a digital release coming out in December on Green Field Recordings called 'The Coast Of Cape Tribulation' which features four recordings from the coastal forests/mangrove swamps of Cape Tribulation, two above water and two under it.
Once I get my driver's license, I will be releasing a lot more recordings from other places throughout Australia, and I'm going to northern South Africa in November as part of Francisco Lopez and James Webb's Sonic Mmabolela residency, so I'm sure I will be releasing a lot of material from there as well!
7. Are there any wildlife sound recordists who particularly inspire you?
I don't know if inspire is the right word (maybe it is) but there are few that have influenced me in one way or another.
David Michael's long form recordings really struck a chord with me when I discovered them and he has given me some great advice about external batteries, as well as giving me the advice to leave the low frequencies in my recordings. I always used to edit out the frequencies below 100hz but when you do that you take out a lot of the depth of the recording.
Tony Whitehead and his label Very Quiet Records has been very influential on my listening and appreciation of quiet sounds, something I didn't used to find very interesting before, and recently I have been trying to record sounds at the volume they actually are, and not amplifying in post either, largely because of this. I think listening to quiet sounds can offer a completely different type of tranquillity and is something so many of us are not used to in our busy, noisy urban/suburban lives. From my experience, nature usually is pretty quiet and is nowhere near as loud as the levels recordists usually amplify their sounds to, which I think gives an unrealistic documentation of the way natural habitats sound.
Jez Riley French's and many other recordists explorations with contact microphones and hydrophones has also been very influential on my way of listening.
8. Finally, with so many ways of documenting our surroundings we ask the question Why field recording?
I think sound is such a powerful, moving medium and that it will always resonate with people. Sound has been important to humans since the day we existed, as well as the primates that we evolved from. The sounds in our every day life strongly effects us in almost every aspect. I feel that listening to the sounds of the earth, whether "natural" or man-made, can give us a closer connection to and awareness of our planet and everything within it. Field recording has changed my life and it's always fascinating to be continually discovering how incredibly diverse the sounds of the earth can be, through my own and many other peoples recording.
Sounds and images all courtesy of Jeremy Hegge. Visit Jeremy's Bandcamp page here.