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 3 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.
[wpaudio url="http://220.127.116.11/~jstanmeyer/blog/audio/free-audio/Sounds of Wind, a Car and School Bus.mp3" text="Wind, Car and School Bus" dl="0"]
(iPhone and iPad)
[wpaudio url="http://18.104.22.168/~jstanmeyer/blog/audio/free-audio/Walking in Snow and Dogs Running.mp3" text="Walking in the Snow with Emma and Asia" dl="0"]
(iPhone and iPad)
[wpaudio url="http://22.214.171.124/~jstanmeyer/blog/audio/free-audio/Sounds of Time Square.mp3" text="Binaural Recording while wandering around Time Square" dl="0"]
(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 35 Comments
A rangerfinder is a lapdog, always faithful, a stalwart.
A digital SLR is a rabbit, blisteringly fast, hard worker.
A Holga is a land tortoise, staggeringly slow, a meditative beast.
If there was a contemporary symbol added in Chinese astrology — reminding us to slow down in these gigabyte blasting, hard drive stuffing days — it should be a giant land turtle.
When choosing a Holga for the book, Island of the Spirits, it was deliberate act in order to delve into a mindset of not only looking back in time from the perspective of the present, the decision also was to slow things down.
Here’s why: A 64 GB flash card equals roughly 60+ rolls of 35 mm or 180+ fills of 120 mm film into space smaller than a cracker.
In some ways such a massive table to work on is liberating…near limitless photography where batteries will need changing before ever considering the need to change film.
Troublesome in other ways — one can end up producing far too much food to choose from on that table, allowing the weakness of being human to consume more tasteless excess than needed, hindering the mystery and depth found in patients to see (often time sooner) the more flavorful dishes buried amongst the excess. Decelerating also avoids the hours spent in a hotel room working off the gorging from a day’s visual consumption.
Even worse…a lack of moderation can lead to never finding your visual voice.
The protracted pace of the Holga forces you slow down simply by its idiosyncrasies, which can be welcoming*.
Slowing down to a turtles pace while photographing a multitude of ceremonies in Bali had its ying but also a weighted yang;
How to photograph certain spiritual events which at times moved quickly while using a camera that moves film as if dancing tango with your partner in heavy mud?
Cremation ceremonies can last all day, sometimes at a glacial pace. Other times, briskly.
Thousands descend upon sacred water sources during Melasti (cleansing) ceremonies, with many entering rapidly into dramatic states of trance.
How to solve the frame past number 12 with a camera that can take 2-4 minutes just to change film?
Solution: Five Holga’s and one assistant, deftly changing rolls of 120 film, turning the tortoise and all it’s pensive but laborious wisdom into a zen-like animal of fluid photographic efficiency.
Throughout the five years it took to photograph Island of the Sprits there were two truly wonderful friends who assisted in making this book actually happen. Bli Wayan Tilik and Bli Yudhistira Dharma, better known in the Indonesian photographic community as JP.
Wayan and/or JP came with me to each and every wedding, cremation, tooth filing, land blessing, spiritual event for the book. Neither of them had ever used a Holga let alone worked with 120 film before.
Appreciating the light leak effects which the Holga naturally creates, I was more interested in deciding the outcome of photographs, not have the camera create the feel of each image with random acts of fogging. To do so, it was imperative to ensure the porous shell of each Holga was completely sealed with electrical tape. There was also deft skill needed to make sure the often loosely spooled rolls of film was somehow tightly sealed before opening the camera back. It required all sorts of beguiling objects taped or glued to the exposed film area inside the camera — FYI, earlier Holga’s didn’t come with the small pieces of foam in present models.
To achieve success also meant finding shade, which is challenging when photographing in a geographic location 8 degrees below the equator.
In the beginning we had hit and miss results but over time JP and Wayan quickly learned techniques and tricks to sustain a fairly consistent level of unfogged film.
Often times looking like an overly decorated Christmas tree, it was this ability to always have 2-3 pre-loaded cameras around my neck (or at least in reach) which helped achieve a fluid flow of photography when events called for nonstop photography.
By no means can one move massive amount of film with a Holga as can be done with a DSLR or even a rangefinder film camera. It defeats it’s purpose. But there were days during truly astonishing event filled ceremonies where we’d get back to the studio and realize there were 20-25 rolls of film in the film bag…and for a Holga, that’s seemed staggering — a whopping 240-300 photographs.
When photographing with the Holga, I often times made field recordings. The rituals were of course stunning to witness but the audible essence of Balinese spirituality and culture was equally hypnotizing. Here’s a short binaural recording of gamelan performed by a 30-piece orchestra during a cremation in Ubud, Bali:
[wpaudio url="http://126.96.36.199/~jstanmeyer/blog/audio/free-audio/Gamelan at a Cremation Ceremony.mp3" text="Gamelan at a Cremation Ceremony" dl="0"]
(iPhone and iPad)
While changing film and totting 1-2 extra camera bodies, JP or Wayan would also carry the Fostex and an Audio Technica microphone, recording ambience from the periphery, while I had binaural microphones in my ears connected to an Edirol, freeing the hands to work the camera while recording truly three dimensional sound.
To view some of Lukman Bintoro’s photography, visit his blog.
Reminder: I’ll be teaching a 9-day workshop in Bali between August 11-19, 2011. If you’re interested in taking your photography further, being guided through in-depth storytelling and seeking more insight into working with a Holga, this is a workshop not to miss. Visit the workshops section for registration and more details. Hope to see you then.
* For an average National Geographic story, it’s not unusual for me to produce (when working over the course of 8-10 weeks) 25,000 or more photographs. That’s an average of round 360 photographs a day or only 10 rolls of 36 exposure film…which truly makes the Holga a tortoise compared to the hare.
May 19, 2011 4 Comments
Don’t much like the word multimedia.
Moving images with sound are films, no matter how short or long.
The combing of sounds and still images is not multi.
At the most it’s dual-media.
Multimedia is far more grander.
Becoming disenchanted with the term multimedia, it felt intriguing to sort an answer: How did the word multimedia come about?
Back 1966, a musician/artist by the name of Bobb Goldstein merged the words multi and media to promote his opening of “LightWorks at L’Oursin” in Long Island, NY.
Goldstein had something going which was truly multi-media — highlighting or coating music by surrounding the viewer with synchronized lighting effects, photographs, films, screens which moved and with mirror balls that gave the illusion the room was spinning.
A year later began what might be considered the grander start of what is truly multimedia — Liquid Light Shows. Appearing in the mid 60′s to early 70′s, these events were nothing less than multimedia.
Take a look at this astounding photograph from 1966:
Now that’s multimedia!
And in a 1967 NYT’s’ review, the lead of the story begins: A new method of communication is developing in our society – the technique of multimedia.
What’s brilliant is White’s influence is still present today, here in this performance from 2008:
Also interesting is Joshua is still creating. Here is a link explaining his latest projects and the revival of analogue multimedia presentations. There’s also a Kickstarter project to help fund a new Joshua Light Show titled, Liquid Loops II.
Arriving to the origins of the word multimedia, the combination of audio with visuals (stills or even film) just doesn’t feel multi enough.
So what should we call the combination of sounds with stills, where the audio recordings play an equal or possible greater importance with the visuals?
I prefer Visual Audio. Far more enthralling. A truer essence where sounds create images in the mind.
Below are two short visual audio pieces, the first a field recording while stuck in some of the most maddening traffic on earth (I love India…even the traffic), and the latter recorded during the height of riots, mayhem and bloodshed in Indonesia in 1999.
Stuck in traffic driving through Kolkata, one of my favorite cities.
[wpaudio url="http://188.8.131.52/~jstanmeyer/blog/audio/free-audio/Calcutta Street Traffic.mp3" text="Kolkata Traffic" dl="0"]
(iPhone and iPad)
Many people died over this weekend of riots in Jakarta. The sounds visuals from Egypt
in March 2011 reminded of that weekend 12 years ago in Indonesia.
[wpaudio url="http://184.108.40.206/~jstanmeyer/blog/audio/free-audio/Indonesia Reformasi-bombs.mp3" text="Reformasi" dl="0"]
(iPhone and iPad)
May 10, 2011 4 Comments