Normally, it can take weeks (even months) preparing a story for this space. I need time in my attempts to share something imaginative, hopefully insightful — or dare I reach as an offering towards a sliver of enlightenment — in an era when everything and anything is brilliantly rehashed on the Internet.
This week I’ve decided to loose my laundry and dive as rapidly as I can into the Ring of Blogging Fire on a topic surely well written upon. What happened just under two weeks ago (though it’s been quietly going on for sometime) is indeed one of the biggest developments not only in the world of field recording history, it’s also a landmark moment for social documentary photography.
The Alan Lomax collection is now completely accessible online — 5,000 hours of sound recordings, 400,000 feet of film, 3,000 videotapes, piles of manuscripts — including 5,000 photographs he took over this astonishing career.
Oh, did I mention the best part…these thousands of hours of audio are not only accessible in their entirety (most of the Lomax collection has been available online for years but as 45 second intro pieces), they are streaming for FREE!
For those who do not know who Alan Lomax was, he was an American folklorist and one of the preeminent ethnomusicologists of our time. Born in Texas in 1915, Alan was the son of John Lomax, a teacher and pioneering folklorist in his own right. By age 17, Alan Lomax began traveling with his father throughout the American south and the Caribbean as his dad made what are considered some of the most important early recordings of American culture while working for the Library of Congress (John Lomax set out in 1933 on the first recording expedition ever undertaken by the Library of Congress with son Alan in tow). According to Don Fleming with the Association for Cultural Equity, Alan primarily traveled with a Ampex 601-2 audio tape recorder and two RCA 77-D microphones — would need a well padder steamer trunk for such a large but truly awesome quality kit. He also traveled with camera, taking photographs that matched his field recordings in places like Haiti, Dominican Republic, Scotland, England, Ireland, all over the Caribbean, Italy, and Spain. Here are some photographs of Alan Lomax throughout his 60 years of literally recording our world ~
When the Association for Cultural Equity, a not-for profit Mr. Lomax started, announced that the entire Alan Lomax Collection would be available for streaming, I was beyond thrilled. In my World Music collection I have two or three treasured CD’s of his which are as pure and raw as it gets.
During the last 20 years of his life, Lomax created an interactive multimedia educational computer project he called the Global Jukebox. This recent ability for the entire collection to be accessible to everyone is indeed a dream come true for Alan, who died at the age of 87 in 2002 — he wanted his messages of change, inspiration and education to be available for all.
This is huge on many levels.
Lomax wasn’t only the preeminent and pioneering ethnomusicologist and field recordist of our time, he was social documentarian who used both audio and photography to educate and raise awareness of issues. In many ways, he was a fellow photojournalist.
Take a gander as some of these rare contacts which a young Alan, about 18 years of age, took while he and his father worked for the Library of Congress ~
His microphones and cameras traveled the world during an era when musical traditions were already under pressure due to development and cultural apathy. Lomax knew the importance of creating audio recordings and photographs as a means to make change and raise awareness, well before a drop of notion that a tool called the Internet would arrive, let along recording device that would fit into a shirt pocket. Lomax knew that the musical and cultural traditions which took all of human civilization to develop was under pressure and about to becoming extinct, in the same manner of urgency that the present day preservation of linguistic heritage is sending anthropologists (sadly with scarce funding) to record the last speakers of dying languages on our planet — every two weeks a last speaker dies, taking with them the vestiges of our global language which not only makes up our global cultural heritage, we lose the wisdom of our ancestors.
Lomax was also a social activist, focusing heavily on civil rights issues, once again using music/field recordings and photography as a compendium against social injustice and raising cultural awareness. He was a co-founding member of People’s Songs, with Pete Seeger and others in 1945, with the belief that folk music could be an effective impetus for social change. His recordings from America’s southern states in the 30′s, 40′s and 50′s were key in raising awareness and helping to end racial discrimination while Lomax championed civil rights issues for African Americans.
Alan Lomax used the power of images and the awesome power of sound not just to record history, he used these communication tools to make a difference.
This is one of my favorite Lomax quotes:
“The dimension of cultural equity needs to be added to the humane continuum of liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and social justice.”—Alan Lomax, 1972
I can type effortlessly for hours on how important Alan Lomax was to the preservation of culture and the weighted issues on a whole host of human rights efforts and activism he was connected to. Given the wealth of the Lomax collection now accessible to all — and the countless books, news articles and whatnot written/recorded about Mr. Lomax — you can easily learn more about this extremely talented and passionate individual yourself by making a simply Google search (click here). Anyone wanting to really delve deep into Lomax’s career and life, make sure to read the book, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World.
My reason for rapidly writing this piece — and what’s often overlooked in all the writings, reviews and ravings about Alan Lomax — is his eye.
Alan Lomax was a pretty darn good photographer.
I hope these few photographs — and Alan Lomax’s entire archive — inspires you as much as it has me for continuing to use our cameras to make social change for those who cannot themselves, while in compendium, make field recordings, helping to expand the minds and hearts of others through the consciousness arresting power of sound and sight.
These days we tend to call it multimedia.
Fine, though I prefer to call it Visual Audio.
Either way, well before anyone of us were creating such combination storytelling, Alan Lomax was…and most of us weren’t even born yet.
NOTE: An enormous level of gratitude goes to Nathan Salsburg and Don Fleming — both with the Association for Cultural Equity — for allowing me to used un-watermarked photographs taken by Alan Lomax over his amazing career. Nathan had the weighted task of gathering 20+ high res files and helping me source proper captions. A super group of people continue the legacy of Alan Lomax, all of whom I’d be honored to meet on my next visit to New York City.
April 9, 2012 2 Comments
Where the Hell Have I Been?
Have come to the conclusion that feeding this blog will happen on event time, not calendar nor clock time. When having the ability to ponder, pen and present something meaningful, it will arrive.
What has helped inspire me back onto the saddle of this beast — for what I sense will be longer sustained ride — are two pieces of audiophile brilliance which recently arrived in the post box.
Binaural microphones and dead kitten binaural ear muffs by Soundman.
What are binaural microphones?
For those who know about binaural microphones, skip the following bits and go to Creating.
Most of us see in three dimension. With two separated eyes, signals to our brain present a rich perspective of depth, layers, texture and most importantly, a sense of place. It’s easy to take the simple act of sight for granted until loosing it.
We also hear in three dimensions. With separate ears on both extreme sides of our heads, the audible world around us is being presented in a spellbinding rich landscape of spacial sounds. Because of the spacial separation of our ears, we can sense discernible distance, layers, texture, even feel sound elicit it’s flow and movement.
With a mono microphone (and most shotgun and lavaliere clip mic’s), you’re presented with a one dimensional sense of our world. Perfect for listening to someone speak or to isolate certain sounds but otherwise flat, simple and completely dimensionless.
With a stereo mic, we think we’re being presented with sounds that represent what our ears hear, however that’s not the reality. Stereo microphone field recordings basically fake a sense of spacial audio by presenting our brains with a concept of left and right spacial sounds. The main field of sound recording heavily overlaps with both their left or right counterparts in front of the mic, focusing 40 percent or more (depending on the microphone) on the sound in front of us. This is not how we actually hear. We accept this because our eyes see forward in this rather narrow 40% overlap, therefore we think that is how the sound actually moves around us, but that’s not the reality of sounds audible presents around us. In addition, stereo never reaches much further than beyond a 180º sound plain. What about the sounds behind us that we can hear equally as well as the sounds before us?
Look at this stereo “polar pattern” for the Rødes VideoMic, a brilliant stereo microphone many of us use with our 5D Mark II and equivalent Nikon gear, and witness what this stereo microphone actually hears (polar pattern diagrams shows how each specific microphone pick up a field of sound):
By no means can a stereo microphone truly present the dimension of sounds which naturally emanate not only from the left, right, but before and behind us, in the same manner which our ears deliver to our brains the exact audible landscape we hear.
With binaural microphones, we are presented with an exact replication of the entire theater of sound surrounding us in the exact same way our ears send the audible sensation to our brains. I like to call this, Reality Audio, because a binaural audio recording is the unconditionally true presentation of dimensional sounds that we hear.
Here is the polar pattern for the Soundman OKM II Classic Studio microphones showing just how unique the audio field of recording actually is on binaural microphones:
Binaural mic’s are placed in each ear, allowing for the exact same sound dimension to be recorded to tape or SD card as our ears hear, in turn it’s what our brains process into diminutional understanding of sound space.
The natural divide — the extreme separation of left/right channels — caused by, yes, our thick heads, replicate exactly the natural three-dimensional sounds that are swirling all around us. It’s only possible therefore to bring a true audible sense of location from the sounds moving and emanating around us via binaural microphones.
There is indeed another level of sound recording even more spacial — surround sound. That’s über technical and far more involving than most photographers will want to dabble in — not to mention you wouldn’t blend in too well wandering the streets of New Deli or New York City (ok, maybe in NYC) with a getup like this on your head from Sonic Studios: Click Here
On a professional level, I’m a photographer. The power of the still image will last for all the history to come. Anyone wanting to debate this reality till it turns to glue can do so to your hearts content. Just do so while defending your theories to a doorknob, not me. Such discussions are by far the grandest waste of ones time in this art and profession. The discussion should be upon what we can do with all forms of communication.
On a personal level, I’m a field recording junkie. While living in Italy in the mid 80′s — using a camera in a completely, unequivocally, different form of photography…fashion — I would roam around Milan making recordings on a macro cassette recorder, moving onward to a Sony stereo cassette recorder once realizing I was hooked by the mesmerizing sounds of sound. Using a host of different microphones over the years, around seven years ago I stumbled upon binaural microphones for recording dimensional audio space, dramatically changing not only how I recorded audio from the perspective of spacial sound, it also allowed me to be a photographer at the same time.
I was gone.
Before the dawn of what really was the turning point — when still photography and filming merged more seamlessly with the arrival of the Canon 5D Mark II — photographers would tote around flash recorders, capturing ambient sounds that were then used in slideshows for what became termed as multimedia, though I prefer the term Visual Audio. To do so meant not only carrying your camera, a camera bag and an audio recorder, there was the microphone which needed to be carried in the kit. A street photographer begins to look like an over decorated Christmas tree that much gear.
We are now being asked to produce short films as compendiums to a photographic story. Excellent. We should relish the act of expanding lateral and outward, same as a guitar player can only expand their art further by learning and then playing the piano.
But how can we make this deliberate act of going from the fluid function of taking still images, then switching over to filming, without taking on an epic level of bulky audio gear or a secondary sound person?
After each stellar National Geographic seminar (the latest being last January 12th), the next day is reserved as a gathering of photographers who regularly work for the magazine. The day-long event begins Friday morning at 8:30 with a session titled Nuts & Bolts. During past sessions, brilliant talents like Kenji Yamaguchi and Dave Mathews from National Geographic’s Photo Engineering department, would demonstrate the latest in remote aerial camera planes like the one now being used by Michael ‘Nick’ Nichols for his latest project on lions, new camera trap designs by the ever inspiring Steve Winter or utterly trip-out underwater custom camera housings used by the likes of the brilliant Paul Nicklen and David Doubilet. 2012′s Nuts & Bolts was on the greater merging of stills and filmmaking.
The photo department at National Geographic had recently hired the talented, Pamela Chen, as a Senior Photo editor. Her background in filmmaking, photography and audio reads like the who’s who of present-day photojournalism. Her presentation on the audio and film background to a piece she’d produced for the NYT’s was enlightening. Afterwards, questions began swirling around the room, the usual we tend to hear when still photographers mull the prospect of juggling both mediums where one key aspect, the stills, outweigh the moving images:
“How can we be expected to jump between still image making and video in a seamless manner?”
“With all the gear needed to produce video, how can I also manage decent audio without hiring assistants?”
All super important questions, however there is a solution to solve much of the general audio kit catastrophes related to filmmaking.
Sitting in the back of the room, I raised my hand:
“All of this is getting too technical. Use binaural microphones.”
50 or more sets of eyes gazed at me as if I were speaking in tongue. Understandably so. Many have never heard nor even used such microphones.
By using binaural microphones when filming, you’re hands are free to hold the camera and BE a filmmaker, easily switch back to BE a photographer. Even better, no bulbous microphone attached to the hotshot of the camera.
Then the best part, you’re bringing to the film a dimensional sound experience, equally layered as your film and photography.
And the crowning touch…when not wanting to film, the mic’s fit in your shirt pocket or can stay resting in your ears till wanting to film again later. Here’s how small these microphones actually are:
For poshing the sound quality even further, make sure to order the Soundman A3 Adapter, a mini preamp and noise reducer when going with the 1/8″ jack directly from the Soundman earbud binaural mics into your camera. The binaural mic’s can work without the preamp however the difference in sound quality is noticeable:
And for those who want to really up the sound quality even further by taking the Soundman binaural mic’s into a Sound Devices or another high-end audio recorder, Soundman has a new XLR connector with A3 mini pre-amp:
Binaural mic’s in your ears is not the solution for everything. Not all aspects of filmmaking can be accomplished with them. There are indeed moments when a lavaliere mic clipped on a persons lapel is needed for an interview (call it the macro mic) or a shotgun mic may be used to isolate sound you want within a crowd (call it the telephoto mic). But I would imagine 60-80 percent of all audio needs for journalistic reportage filmmaking can be accomplish with extremely small, unobtrusive, binaural microphones, which allow your hands to be completely available to focus on filmmaking.
My original Soundman binaural’s had its wire ripped out a few years ago — got snagged on something. In the interim I’ve been enjoying the Rødes, Sennheiser lavalieres and my original Audio Technica from the early 1990′s but I sure was missing those awesome — and small — binaural microphones. When ordering this replacement pair last week, I noticed a new piece of kit on the Soundman website that all audiophiles need — dead kittens.
These dead kittens (wind screens) aren’t just any type of kitten. They are custom made earmuffs to avoid wind sounds while making handsfree binaural recordings.
When they arrived, I was as excited as my 8 year-old tends to be when receiving a gift on his birthday. Fiddle and faddling around the house completed, I couldn’t wait to hear how these kittens worked in wind. Trouble was, no wind.
Two days later I had my chance. A 15-30 mph cold wind was blowing through the Berkshires.
Here are a few recent binaural field recordings. The first is test recording made specifically for this blog when the wind was whipping through large pine trees in front of our home. There’s also sounds of the gate opening, a car passing and the arrival home on the bus of Konstantin.
The second field recording was created while I wandered through snow around the farm wearing the dead kitten earmuffs (it was windy) while our family dogs, Emma and Asia, followed. It’s a simple, short piece, but if you listen closely you’ll hear — hopefully feel — the movements of Asia, a 30 lb. Beagle, running past me on the right, followed by Emma, a 110 lb. French Mastiff, thudding just a second or two later on my right. Crank the bass if you really wanna hear Emma’s gait.
The third recording was also created last week while on a brief visit to New York City. To test wirling wind suppression moving around the city — and to bombard the binaural mic’s with as many dimensional layers of sound as possible — I took a brief stroll through Time Square at around 5pm.
Make sure you have either excellent speakers connected to your computer or posh headphones so you can sense the spacial sound.
Wind, Car and School Bus
(iPhone and iPad)
Walking in the Snow with Emma and Asia
(iPhone and iPad)
Binaural Recording while wandering around Time Square
(iPhone and iPad)
Field Recording Store
If you’ve ever poked around this blog you’ve likely stumbled upon the Field Recording Store. In this section you’ll find entire albums from musicians who otherwise wouldn’t ever have the opportunity to share their music globally, let alone locally. Two of the albums in the store, Bauza Drummers of Zambia and Ratan and Piddut of Bangladesh were recorded using Soundman binaural mic’s, bringing an entirely different dimension of live musical performances.
While in NYC this week filling a missing gap in a National Geographic story code name, “Sweetness”, I meandered in B&H Photo and picked up a pair of micro-dead kitten wind covers made specifically for lavaliere mic’s. Amazingly, they fit perfectly snug on the recording ends of binaural Soundman mic’s. Making some basic recording level tests I could see that the wind does diminish with these macro-kittens but if in heavy wind, far more noise is suppressed with the Soundman muff versions. This lavaliere option makes a nifty secondary wind sound removal whenever recording in warm climates because the ear muffs dead kittens do keep your ears warm.
And some big news about to completely change audio field recording…we’re only a week or so away from the first meaningful stereo-IN recording option for an iPhone. There has been another on the market for some time, the GuitarJack by Sonoma. There are two problems with this iPhone add-on — the GuitarJack is large and the audio-IN connector is a 1/4 inch plug, meant more to be used for a guitar then a small yet powerful stereo field recording kit. The soon to be released Soundman looks promising — a mini clip-on item which by the looks of the photograph seems to be petite, making it less prone to flexing when attached to the iPhone…and it has a 1/8 inch audio jack. It should make for an extremely small audio field recording kit when combined with some of the pro-recording app’s for the iPhone.
More on this iPhone add-on in the coming weeks.
Till then, keep well and enjoy making your life as a photographer and a filmmaker more seamless, less technical — and far less cumbersome — by using binaural microphones.
February 22, 2012 34 Comments
For nearly ten years, no one could find him. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent, more blood spilled than one could ever imagine, all in search of one person.
Yet Osama Bin Laden was everywhere — on t-shirts, packaging, painted on trucks, you name it. Around the world, Osama’s image had become as recognizable as Mickey Mouse.
In 2006, I became intrigued by the notion of so many people searching yet not finding Osama Bin Laden, producing a photo essay titled “Where is OBL?“, focusing in Indonesia where I was living at the time, viewing this phenomena from the perspective of how well-marketed, clearly visible and how common it is for Osama to pop up out of nowhere. Even in areas like Indonesia, where the vast majority of the population is just like you and me: non-confrontational and just living our lives.
Here are a series of images where I’ve seen Osama:
I saw Osama Bin Laden everywhere.
As events unfolded late in the evening of May 1, I began looking in the archive for other places I’d seen Osama…for example, here on a roadside shop of a sign maker in Tanzania:
And throughout Pakistan, Bin Laden was indeed always there, like here at a October 2001 rally in Peshawar:
OBL Rally, Pashawar, Pakistan
(iPhone and iPad)
Even more wacky, Osama — along with flying missiles, jet fighters and tanks — on a package of mint flavored pan masala or beetle nut I found in a roadside shop at the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan near Quetta back in 2003:
Yet it took until this past Sunday to realize he was in a fairly nice home in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Some may think we’ve reached a closure in this decade-long period of our collective humanity. In some ways, we have. In other ways, maybe not completely. Only reflections upon history along with the elapse of time will tell.
Will close with words from Martin Luther King Jr., reminded to me from countless repostings on Facebook over the last 48 hours.
“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence and toughness multiples toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.” ~ Martin Luther King
May 4, 2011 3 Comments
In Dr. Souvakis’s waiting room hung a phrase on a pale wall, its washed out blue paint showing evidence of having been applied with a cheap brush. In hand stroked yellow script were the words:
Life is short
The art long
The moment instant
Can’t say it was enjoyable visiting his office, located in an old British colonial style two-story walkup. But like any child mildly delirious with the flu, this ever present sign hanging next to his office door was hypnotizing, making the muggy room without Highlight Magazines less troublesome while trying to unravel it’s meaning, well before the one-click instant answer of the Internet.
It took a number of years before discovering the phrase, smashing about the internal dialogue, was actually a quote from Hypocrites, considered the Father of Medicine. This mantra either sidestepped its purpose or screwed me up forever, meandering upon timelessness and brevity. Sensory and possibility.
This phrase oddly tapped a profound interest in both seeing and listening, which to this day befuddles how a kid with big ears and a perpetual bad hair day could connect such sensory to the brevity and wonderment of life from the only hanging object on the good doctor’s wall.
As profoundly misconstrued the mind likely was to such wisdom, at an early age there somehow became known what today never ceases to astonish…
Images create sounds in the mind. Sounds creates images in the mind. Both are wonderful individually. Together they can be profound.
Sounds of Deep Trance and Prayers in a cave on Nusa Penida Island, Bali
Prayer & Trance
(iPhone and iPad)
At the time both felt like the meaning of life yet I was truly too much a child to understand it’s impact.
Like many Greeks in the 1950s and ’60s, Dr. Souvakis immigrated to Nassau for a better life. The Bahamas was, in the early 1970s, still a magical place. Bay Street had intriguingly seedy bars where posters hung at the entrance of local musicians donning fantastic costumes and instruments. The Straw Market had not yet been transformed into a Florida-inspired strip mall, and the true colors of Bahamian life and culture were still saturated yellows, deliciously inky blacks and the deep turquoise of this yet-to-be-independent nation’s flag — not the watered-down pastels of present-day marketed Bahamas, which mirrors that of a Key West trinket shop, which mirrors a myriad of a tropical-themed restaurant across America, which mirrors that of a pavilion’s design in a theme park I once visited in Southern China.
To a 9 year-old boy from Chicago, there existed legends and magic.
Prayers at dawn along the Ganges
Prayers to Vishnu
(iPhone and iPad)
Over three decades later, I still question if I truly understand the weight and measure of Hypocrites’s words, preferring the fanciful notion of a young Midwestern boy’s imagination to that of such weighty symbolism.
It is for this reason – and surely more – that today begins a blog about what inspires the natural human desire of wonderment and purpose within myself and surely all of us.
What lies over that mountain?
Can we actually make monumental change and if so, how?
What is the rhythm which links us collectively?
Why is everything so utterly fascinating, even in its most mundane or unseen, and so profoundly heard and felt?
Few definitive answers will come of this, as there are many, yet there are none. Just as there are no meaningful nor quantitative answers to a question, I’m all too often asked by young photographers…
“How do I take a good picture?”
I haven’t fucking a clue.
But I do know we have to understand what our purpose is while viewing the world through the perspective of a camera. While doing so, being amazed at everything, by everything. Questioning everything we see, sensing every vibration of sound. Listening to our internal consciousness colliding by the astonishing realities before us, in turn learning, then sharing that weight and measure with others.
The real question to ask is not necessarily “How do I take a good picture?”
The question might be to ask:
“How do I stop to listen, in order to see what’s happening right before me?”
(I am fully open to turning this blog into a forum for each and every discussion. Just please don’t turn this into technical chatter. I’m the anti-tech. I haven’t a clue what a megapixel is. No interest in why a sensor within one camera is more brilliant than another. I love film grain but am far more interested in the weight and measure of the recorded moment. Don’t give a damn about what compression is better for audio so long as it blows me away. I find it far more fascinating to share what we can do with these tools towards creating monumental change and enlightenment than wording printed on the camera strap.)
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May 1, 2011 No Comments