The Ghost Variations – Technical Gear

We used three different portable audio technologies to make the walk recordings. These included:

  • an Olympus LS-14 music recorder;
  • a Zoom H4n portable audio Recorder;
  • an iPhone 4.

The first two pieces of gear are professional audio recorders, which worked excellently for picking up minute details in an environment, such as pages turning or distant footsteps. Interestingly, the sound quality of each of the pro audio recorders varied somewhat – the Zoom recordings seem slightly more crispy or tinny, picking up nearby sounds better than the Olympus, which captures near and far sounds more evenly. We didn’t use windscreens on the professional recorders during our outdoor recordings, so ironically the iPhone provided the best quality for the outdoor recordings.

As mentioned in last week’s post, walking around a space with an audio recorder makes one feel like a suspicious bystander, as one steals audio material from the public. We held the recorders fairly casually, so as not to stick out, but the professional recorders clearly don’t look like everyday objects. The ubiquity of cellphones, on the other hand, made recording with the iPhone much more covert. The audio and video recordings that are now possible with the latest smart phones, which can be of increasingly high quality, longer length, and incorporate various effects or functions (such as 10-picture burst photography), make public unauthorized surveillance extremely easy. Though this was not at all our intent in making the recordings, we couldn’t escape these inconsequential feelings of guilt, as we found ourselves considering the morality of recording in public spaces.

For sound editing, as our needs were fairly basic, we opted to use Audacity, a piece of freeware that is quite intuitive. Richard Windeyer, the Digital Dramaturgy Lab’s sound designer, ran a little workshop for us to cover our basic needs, including cutting and overlapping tracks, pitch and frequency changes, left-right channel switching, as well as minor audio effects that might possibly be useful in our editing. While editing, we outputted the audio through computer and external speakers, but we kept in mind that ultimately we were building a walking tour for a portable mp3 player or smartphone where the walker-listener would be using portable headphones or earbuds.

When we eventually tested the tracks, we were struck by the ‘two-dimensionality’ of the sound. Similar to taking a photograph, which flattens 3-dimensional space, audio recordings flatten the sound of a space, making both near and far audio material seem much closer together. It becomes difficult to distinguish between quiet sounds and distant sounds, and much of this depends on the perception or interpretation of the listener. The simple act of turning a page, for instance, is fairly quiet, and in hearing such a sound, a listener will likely assume that he or she is fairly close to the page being turned. However, it is also possible (if unlikely) that a page is being turned loudly in the distance. Such a confusion can occur in real life, but is far more likely in listening to the ‘flattened’ sound of audio recordings. Our sonic perception is significantly altered whether we listen to live or recorded sound, and recorded sound can be further distorted by the live background sounds that can be difficult to eliminate with regular headphones.

This difference in perception became one of the ways in which we play with disorienting the walker-listener. Next week, we’ll discuss the concept we devised for the audio tour, which eventually led to the on-going creation of the Ghost Variations.