LAST FRIDAY IN Dean Street, Soho, there was an Association of Motion Picture Sound talk given by Jez riley French. Pretty much anyone with an interest in field recording must have heard of him, and quite a few will own one of the hydrophones or contact mics which he makes and sells at very affordable prices.
I’d had a rotten tooth tugged out earlier that day, and was coasting along on the last of the dihydrocodeine pills a friend had kindly donated. One thirty-mig capsule dulls the ache, and two will put you on the cover of the Val Doonican Christmas album. The viewing theatre in the media production house was dark and seemed to be lit by infrared lamps, like the ones which keep the pies warm in Greggs.
Jez riley French has a nice way of speaking and I recommend you go and hear him if you get the chance. He’s very down-to-earth and informal and, with decades of recording experience under his belt, he has nothing to prove. We were treated to some fantastic, otherworldly recordings he’d made with contact mics, hydrophones, and electromagnetic coils. Putting a contact mic on a handrail in a stairwell sounded like Captain Nemo at the organ aboard the Nautilus.
Another contact mic recording tapped into a secret world of wire-borne sounds made by the wind and the day’s rising heat on a fence in Australia:
Jez described himself modestly as an amateur who’d been lucky enough to make a living doing what he loves. His work is eclectic and he’s interested in other media as well, such as photography, but he avoids the label of sound artist: “Don’t get me started on sound art!” He made some other points which stuck in the mind.
Modern ears, he claims, are becoming lazy for all sorts of reasons, including the prevalence of dynamic range compression in recorded music, telly adverts and so on. People don’t have to try to listen much now and recordists just starting out are not immune to this effect. Jez helps run wildlife recording workshops, and he says that a common mistake is for the recordist to set the levels too high for natural scenes which should be quiet and so demand some effort on the listener’s part.
I was surprised to hear Jez say that you therefore don’t necessarily need mics with very low self-noise (i.e. sub-16dBA) to make good nature recordings. It is almost an article of faith among nature recordists to use the lowest self-noise mics they can get which can cope with cold and damp conditions outdoors. But both he and the recordist Chris Watson do a lot of their work with DPA 4060s, which are rated at around 21-22dBA. You just don’t have the levels too high, and listeners won’t hear the hiss.
He ended by saying that he was spending more time simply listening and less time recording. You need to know when not to worry about hitting the record button. This does have a kind of resonance. More and more we seem to want to mediate our experiences of the world through some kind of device. But I hope Jez riley French doesn’t stop recording altogether.
After the talk we filed out in dribs and drabs onto Dean Street. Friday night: voices shouting, conversations, a huddle of excited media types queueing to get into Black’s, lone men in nylon hillwalking jackets clutching at the sense of purpose in their cameras. A street dealer came up to me and said softly: You look like a man who’s looking for something.
Hello to Tim and Martin, if you’re reading this. We met that evening at the talk.