Contact Microphone and Electromagnetic Sounds

Unit Two: Sound Capture

Having already presented a piece for a previous unit using sounds recorded around the home with a telephone pick-up coil, my aim with this assignment was to produce a short London-based ‘sound walk’ – an unusual ‘sound walk’ where the hidden sounds picked up by contact microphones and electromagnetic pick-ups break through into the everyday.

My initial plan was to take a walk along the Grand Union Canal in Harlesden, catch the Bakerloo Line from Willesden Junction to the Thames, cross the Millennium Bridge, then follow Borough High Street down past Resonance 104.4FM to Elephant and Castle and the London College of Communication.

The first part of my plan came unstuck when I discovered that, due to the large electrical cables running underneath the towpath, the only thing I was able to record whilst alongside the Grand Union Canal was a very loud and very constant hum!

The Bakerloo Line proved to be much more fruitful. After three separate journeys, where I tried out a number of different locations in various carriages, I was able to capture what I took to be the electrical contact between the tube train and the live rail – a hellishly loud crackling sound that mirrored the roar of the tube train as it hurtled down the tunnel.

The Millennium Bridge turned out to be the ideal testing ground for my newly constructed contact microphones. Affixing them to the thick steel wires running through the handrail posts, the stomping feet of a passing primary school day-trip was transformed into a fascinating and richly detailed low-end drone. Recording a suitably atmospheric field recording to compliment this drone almost lead to frostbite whilst waiting for nearly half an hour in the freezing cold for the bells of St. Paul’s Cathedral to ring out!

The walk down Borough High Street was unfortunately pretty quiet electromagnetically. I was about to pack up my recording gear when I stumbled across a large white junction box outside one of the entrances to Elephant and Castle tube station. What was fascinating about the electromagnetic waves emanating from this box was that they were being modulated by the nearby traffic. Each passing lorry and bus caused the junction box’s low hum to flutter and fluctuate in an unpredictable and interesting manner.

Whilst capturing the above-mentioned sounds with my contact microphones and telephone pick-up coil, I was also using my recorder to capture the overall ambience of each space – the roar of the tube train, the bells of St. Paul’s, the constant stop/start of the traffic around Elephant and Castle roundabout.

Listening through, selecting and then editing down these disparate sound sources proved to be pretty straightforward – thanks in part to a degree of forward planning and a copious amount of note-taking!

Listening back to my finished piece, I felt that I had captured the essence of what I had set out to do – the usually unheard sounds of London appear to punch through into the world of the everyday, exposing the hidden waves and vibrations that lurk just out of earshot all around us.


Tutor Peter Cusack’s comments:

Your exploration of the non-audible sounds is excellent and you’ve obviously found some very interesting material. Particularly the last electrical recording from the E&C is great.


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