Binaural microphones are worn in your ears. They come as a stereo pair (these are mine), and look a bit like cheap headphones. If you stand still and quietly (they pick up any noise that your body makes), the microphones will record a 360 degree soundscape around your head. For this reason, the recordings are best listened to with headphones, to hear how the sound travels from ear to ear (try listening to the swan in flight recording below to see what I mean).
I like recording with binaural mics as they allow you to travel light and begin recording quickly if any interesting sound begins (again, with the swan recording, I heard the bird coming and set up as quickly as possible). Conceptually, I like that binaurals record a very personal, bodily experience of the soundscape, which is different to when you set up remote microphones at a distance away from you.
I think that for all we may want to capture perfect representations of the world through top-quality equipment, the presence of the recordist is always there in the recordings you make. Nothing we record is ever a truly objective representation of the world: we make choices about equipment, locations, time of day that all influence what we listen back to. Binaural mics, for me at least, emphasise this very personal nature of recording: the occasional cough or rustle of clothing might creep in, but really, when you’re out recording, you’re part of the landscape (and soundscape), so I don’t worry too much about it.
Hydrophones are microphones that you use to record underwater. Again, they come as a stereo pair (these are mine), and I think about the idea of “fishing for sound” when I use them. It’s often quite hard to predict what you’re going to hear when you lower them underwater – which I think is pretty exciting – and the results can often be quite surprising, weird and beautiful.
Here’s a couple of hydrophone recordings. The first was taken by lowering the hydrophones down the dock wall where the Lea meets the River Thames at Trinity Wharf when a dredger was sailing past: the sounds are pretty percussive, sometimes like a snare drum rattle.
The second was taken as part of a public sound recording workshop I ran all day at the Love the Lea festival on Walthamstow Marsh. With members of the public, I put the hydrophones into a clump of myriophyllum (or water milfoil) plants growing between two houseboats.
Myriophyllum is an oxygenating plant, meaning that it releases tiny bubbles into the water as part of photosynthesis – a process that’s very important for the health of the river ecosystem. These tiny bubbles give an endless minimal rhythm to the recordings, with the occasional scrape and rattle of insects swimming past and stridulating (rubbing together) their legs to communicate.