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Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

19 November 2016

Making a simple clamp for the Sound Devices MixPre-D

SOUND DEVICES are a US-based firm who make digital sound recorders. These are very expensive: even their entry-level two-channel recorder, the basic 702 model, costs around £2,700. They’re attractive and robust little machines filled with top-notch electronics ensuring extremely good signal quality. But, still, for that amount you could buy a saloon in reasonable nick and start work as a minicab driver.

Cost-conscious amateur recordists wanting to sprinkle a little Sound Devices stardust on their work can team the slightly more affordable MixPre-D with an inexpensive pocket-sized recorder, connecting the two via the latter’s line-in socket. This poor recordist’s 702 is capable of very good results. Some say the MixPre-D has the same preamps as the full-size recorders, others disagree, but I doubt I could hear the difference between the two.

Suppose you’d like to attach and detach the recorder from the MixPre-D in a quick and easy way. You could try gluing strips of velcro onto each, but this seems a crude approach. An alternative is to exploit a feature Sound Devices have built into the machine.

The upper side of the MixPre-D has two little holes for bolts for fixing on a special camera clamp, also made by Sound Devices. The clamp has to be bought separately and it costs around £130. It has to be a pretty amazing piece of kit for that much. Maybe it’s got an inbuilt talking spirit level urging you to go left a bit, up a bit, with Fenella Fielding’s voice. You can see for yourself on this webpage.

Or you can make one out of a small piece of 6mm plywood, two UNC No.6 bolts (this is a US-style thread size available from good hardware shops in the UK), some UNC No.6 nuts to make up to the bolts’ standard 50mm length, and a cheap quick-release camera clamp.

Cheap clamp for the MixPre-D

Just about all pocket-sized recorders have a camera tripod socket on their undersides, to which the quick-release plate can be screwed into. Now you can change in a couple of seconds from having the recorder securely attached to the MixPre-D to using the recorder freely on its own.

Cheap clamp for the MixPre-D with recorder attached

Total cost: about £10.

12 November 2016

A visit to the old nuclear weapons development site at Orford Ness

MY FRIENDS Iain Chambers and Kate Romano recently invited me to go along with them to Orford Ness on the Suffolk Coast. It’s a long shingly spit of land, the northern end of which extends to Aldeburgh, out of sight in the aerial view below.

Orford Ness can be reached by car and then a very short ferry trip across the river Alde. It’s owned by the National Trust who run it as a nature reserve. Many people will also know it as the kind of mysterious forbidden area which might have appeared in an old film like Quatermass 2, because it’s where nuclear weapons research was once carried out. Rutted roads and crumbling buildings are all that remain of a busy scientific and engineering community.

Public access to Orford Ness is allowed during daylight hours on some days of the week: most of the year it’s limited to Saturdays only. You can look at the bunkers from the outside but you’re usually not allowed inside, in case a rusting piece of pipework falls on your head. We were lucky in being given supervised access to the insides of the bunkers, some of which are called ‘pagodas’. Here are a few of the photos I took.

Below is the outside of a pagoda. The heavy roof is supported on concrete pillars and this was to minimise damage in case of an explosion inside the building: the blast wave would be easily vented to the outside well above ground level.

Inside was rusting switch-gear and other equipment.

The pagoda seen across an expanse of wind-swept shingle.

Inside the remains of a laboratory and administrative block.

More old equipment, possibly the remains of a heat exchanger.

Inside a workshop. The more luxuriant vegetation on the right-hand side conceals a deep, water-filled trough. H-bomb casings would have been assembled here.

There was quite a lot to look at, but not much to hear. The railings of a small lookout tower hummed and whined in the brisk wind. Inside some of the bunkers and other buildings there was the occasional clatter from loose fittings on ceilings being blown to and fro. Wading birds called out. Otherwise, near silence.

Orford Ness is probably worth a visit during fine weather if you’re already a fan of bleak-looking, peripheral areas like Dungeness. The National Trust’s approach here is one of managed decay with a welcome lack of obtrusive signage.

For a livelier, though not fatal, dose of Cold War nostalgia, you might also wish to consider a visit to the bunker at Kelvedon Hatch in Essex. I’m a big fan of those leaflets you find in hotels advertising local attractions, often with a scowling child in a pirate’s hat on the front, or a man my age pretending to be a Viking – Grimwald the Grizzled.

However, Kelvedon Hatch’s flyer takes some beating, with its lurid photo of an H-bomb explosion:

I went a few years ago and had an enjoyable afternoon. Also, keep an eye out if you’re driving there for an old-school roadside cafe nearby. It’s built to resemble a log cabin and there are few places like that left now.

19 August 2016

Audio problems for Android users

AN EMAIL ARRIVES from the United States helpfully pointing out that this site’s audio players won’t work on an Android tablet. I’ve since checked it on someone’s Android smartphone and find the same thing happening, or rather not happening.

Once upon a time the audio player, in its different visual forms, did work with Android but evidently times have changed. The only solution is for me to change all the players for a much newer version, which means redesigning and reinstalling them all from scratch. That’s not quite as bad as it sounds, since the pages here are dynamically generated, meaning only the templates need adjusting, but it’ll still take a while to get everything sorted.

For those interested in such things, the now-obsolete player was called Pickle Player. I’ll be replacing it with Wimpy Player, which is made by the same company. It looks pretty versatile and should allow for playback on just about every device around.

19 August 2016

Hello to New York Times readers

RECENTLY I APPEARED in the New York Times alongside Kate Carr and Chris Watson in a piece written by Alex Marshall about field recordists. So if you’ve come here from there, hello.

Alex originally approached me a couple of months earlier and we agreed to head out to north-east London so he could watch me in action. But action perhaps isn’t the right word for what I do. There is a lot of walking from A to B but once you find something you want to record, it’s usually a matter of standing stock-still for a short while.

This was frustrating for a student documentary-maker I met some years ago and the only highlight of that outing was when I stepped on a plank with a nail sticking out of it. The nail went through the sole of my shoe, up between my big toe and the next toe, and then out through the top of the shoe. I sat down on the ground abruptly in surprise and stared at my foot. The documentary-maker sprang out of his despondent state and began eagerly filming me.

Alex made for good company as we first visited New Spitalfields Market in Leyton and then made a long walk northwards to Stamford Hill. The market sounds like this when it’s closing up and there were indeed forklift trucks hurtling about, one of them coming uncomfortably close:

It was a Saturday and the streets around Stamford Hill were full or Orthodox Jews coming out of the local synagogues. Alex took this photo of me frowning at my recorder, which he’s kindly let me reproduce here:

Me recording in Stamford Hill

A pleasant Sabbath-day atmosphere filled the streets with conversations and occasional cries of greeting in English and Yiddish. I hung around at a corner where two streets joined together in a fork to try to capture some sense of time and place:

Opportunities like that presented by the New York Times are rare, and I’m always keen to ask journalists about their jobs and the workings of newspapers and broadcasters. Earlier this year Alex wrote another sound-related article for the NYT on the European Music Archaeology Project and he told me about Republic or Death!, his Random House book on the stories behind national anthems. You can read more about the subject on his blog of the same title.

Kate Carr is due to make a live performance at Cafe Oto on Thursday 22 September, for which I’m doing a support slot. More information on the Cafe Oto website.

22 June 2016

The EU referendum and the silence of the streets

THE EU REFERENDUM vote is due tomorrow, June 23rd, but the campaigners haven’t made the streets resound with action, which is what urban recordists like me yearn for.

So far I’ve had one campaigner knock on my front door, and there have been a few stalls in pedestrianised shopping streets and outside tube stations. In London the Remainers are more visible than the Leavers, but they’re not much more audible. One old chap was politely trying to dish out Remain literature with all the passion of someone advertising a church jumble sale: “Leaflet sir? Leaflet madam? We’re stronger in Europe.”

Mainstream politics had more of a street presence three or four decades ago. This BBC video about the 1975 European referendum shows a different world of marches headed by Highland pipers, town hall meetings and busy walkabout schedules for politicians.

Just as today, televised debates were of great importance, but they were different in style. Last night’s BBC debate, broadcast from Wembley, had six main speakers playing a kind of conker match armed with some soundbites and their supposed credentials: “speaking as a mother and a grandmother”, “speaking as the only one here who has served in the armed forces” and so on. One Twitter wag described it as looking like the worst Kraftwerk gig ever.

Compare it with the 1975 televised Oxford Union debate, titled ‘A Question of Europe’. Each of the four speakers – Peter Shore, Jeremy Thorpe, Barbara Castle and Ted Heath – are skillful orators and have the time to develop arguments of some substance. The Liberal Party leader Thorpe puts in a particularly memorable performance at odds with his austere, headmasterly appearance, beginning around 27 minutes into the video.

Even as far back as the mid-1970s there was a detectable move away from the rough-and-tumble of the open political hustings towards the security of studio debates and ticket-only election rallies. A pivotal moment in this transition was the public mauling of the Conservative Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home during the 1964 election campaign in Birmingham. Whilst addressing a crowd at the Rag Market in the Bull Ring, he came under intense heckling from Labour Party and other opponents which eventually overwhelmed him. The event was televised, compounding Douglas-Home’s humiliation. As he noted in his memoirs:

It produced an appearance of strain which inevitably conveyed itself to the television onlookers – I looked rather hunted and that had a bad effect. I blame myself for not studying the techniques of television more than I did.

Attempts by politicians in more recent times to return to the soapbox in the street have been rare. John Major spent part of his youth speaking for the Conservative cause outdoors near Brixton Market and, in 1992, he decided to revive this approach in Luton during the General Election campaign. There’s a Press Association photo of him looking quite cheerful as he contends with Trot Left hecklers, helped by what must surely be called the ‘Executive’ model from the loudhailer range.

Media reactions to this approach were mixed, although it evidently didn’t harm Major’s chances greatly, since he won the election. Less fortunate was the former Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, who oversaw Labour’s demolition by the SNP in the 2015 General Election. Murphy had tried for a down-to-earth image by going on a lengthy campaign tour with a couple of Irn Bru crates given prominence as improvised speaking platforms.

The lesson of Douglas-Home in the Rag Market seems largely to have stuck. The Rag Market itself had been a gathering place for radical and labour movement speakers since the 1830s, with some rallies attracting many thousands. The pressure for popular involvement in politics was eventually reflected in the main political parties enjoying very large numbers of members.

In the 1950s the Conservatives had around three million members, and the Labour Party one million. Today’s figures are 150,000 and 270,000 respectively. Even allowing for the fact that many may have joined for pragmatic rather than idealistic reasons, such as making business contacts through a local Conservative Association, or being able to buy a drink in the local Labour Club, mass membership provided a large pool of potential helpers during elections.

Have a listen to the enthusiastic crowds in this 1949 recording from the Hammersmith South by-election in west London. Both Labour and the Conservatives flooded the constituency with hundreds of volunteers, organising marches, rallies and noisy motorcades with slogans broadcast from roof-mounted loudhailers. Below is Mark Kaufman’s photograph of a large crowd attending the hustings in February of that year:


Vocal involvement in politics was expressed and encouraged in other ways too. A common feature of popular political tracts from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is the effort to provide their readers with the ammunition to help them win verbal arguments or debates with friends, workmates and neighbours. Sometimes this was done in the form of a dialogue in which the main speaker would overcome a series of convenient objections from a sceptical listener. Or, the pamphlet might be written in a markedly oratorical style, as though designed to be read aloud to an audience.

The most successful political book to combine both approaches was the socialist Robert Blatchford’s Merrie England, originally published in 1893. It would eventually sell over two million copies across the English-speaking world.

Blatchford begins by addressing an imaginary Mr Smith, a ‘shrewd, hard-headed, practical man’. What better kind of person to be able to convince?

Now, Mr. Smith, if you really are a man of hard, shrewd sense, we shall get on very well. I am myself a plain, practical man. I base my beliefs on what I know and see, and respect “a fact” more than a Lord Mayor. [. . .] Now I assert that if the labour of the British people were properly organised and wisely applied, this country would, in return for very little toil, yield abundance for all.

The goal of face-to-face persuasion is now limited in politics to occasional doorstepping and is absent in political writing. It survives only among Christian proselytisers and in the pamphlets and leaflets they produce. The best-known examples are the inadvertently entertaining Jack Chick tracts from the United States, and which are sometimes found in religious bookshops in this country.

You may detect a note of regret here and you’d be right. An atomised society is a difficult one to record.