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Funny Field Recordings at Boat Ramps – Ducks and Drugs

One thing I’ve learned from my experiences when field recording is that nothing (like many things in life) is guaranteed, from audio results to all manner of encounters with practically any kind of sound, person, wildlife, vehicle, weather phenomena, insect, etc.  I’ve also learned from experience that some places are much better than others for doing quiet recordings.  At least, some locations are much better at certain times and worse at other.  Case in point are boat ramps.  It kind of all depends on things, from the time of day and wind speed, to the level of the water.  It also depends on those unexpected flurries of traffic having nothing to do with boating or fishing.

Well, in my recent adventures with field recording, I discovered that a quiet night without traffic, with a near-perfect, one-mph breeze, wasn’t going to be the paradise I initially anticipated it to be.  In fact, it turned in to one of my top three most-annoying recording experiences ever.  I’ve learned to accept that there’s always going to be some kind of unexpected noise or racket that occurs during the course of field recording.  It is, after all, nature, and it just goes with the territory.  However, sometimes there are those experiences which try their best to defy any natural explanation for happening.  Two different adventures come to mind with some late-night recording I did back in April and May of 2011, a few miles from my home.

The first peculiar adventure was at a boat ramp located on a well-developed lake near where I live (the lake covers about 93,000 acres).  It was a quiet, warm night, with just a hint of crickets chirping in the grass on either side of the boat ramp.  Great, I thought, the ambient sound of crickets with gentle lake waves lapping at the boat ramp!   In my estimation the crickets’ chirping would add an excellent stereo image to varying lake waves.  The wind was at my back out of the east, so I could stand in front of my simple microphone setup to block what little air movement might reach the diaphragms.  I was using a Sony MS-ECM957, a simple stereo mic setup in a mid-side (MS matrix) configuration.  I figured one dead-cat (furry mic cover) over the mic-foam would pretty well handle things.  I didn’t feel like dealing with a heavy microphone array on that particular night, so I went with the single stereo mic, a small mic stand, stereo XLR mic cable,  headphones, and a modified Marantz PMD661 field recorder.  I pulled my light-weight wooden stool out of my trunk and headed across the grass to the water at the boat ramp.

It was around 2 AM.  The boat ramp and nearby asphalt parking-lot were vacant and – most importantly – quiet.  A small dock had been built to divide the boat ramp into two halves.  It extended out into the water about 25 or 30 feet.  I decided to sit down at the point where the dock touched the concrete boat ramp.  I noticed that a group of six or seven ducks was foraging in and around the water under the dock for fish.  Also, a couple of Great Blue Herons were feeding, cautiously watching their shorter counterparts.  But, these beautiful, winged creatures were primarily keeping a wary eye on me.  Occasionally, one would fly in from out of the darkness to awkwardly land on a post of the dock, or one would launch into the clear sky, spread with endless stars overhead, to explore other regions for food.  Behind me, an amber-colored street lamp abundantly illuminated the whole scene. Things felt really, really nice.  Could it get any more perfect?

I continued standing there, holding all my stuff, just listening and enjoying the scene.  Sometimes, I thought to myself, some of life’s greatest pleasures are found in the quietest and simplest of things.  That night – at that moment – was definitely one of those times.  The scent of the water wasn’t too pungent, either.  A lot of times, in late Spring and throughout Summer, the lake-water there tends to take on a strong, pungent scent.  It’s a very familiar and welcome smell I love to encounter.  But, sometimes, there are the smells of other things drifting in with the scent, things too dead and decayed to usually identify.  These smells tend to be dead fish or gar.  Gladly, nothing was there to mar the scent that evening.  I could also hear the distant hum of an air-conditioner or water-pump, somewhere across the water.  I remembered that sound tends to always bend downwards when it crosses water, especially on a pond, lake, or the ocean.  It’s because water always causes the air immediately above it to be cooler than the air higher up.  When sound encounters cooler air, it bends into it.  Because sound waves tend to build up and amplify when combined, the sound waves bending over water tend to act similarly, thereby causing the listener to hear them more clearly and loudly.  The irony is that sound travels slower in cold air.  The bending of the waves, though, seems to overcome this problem.  As an example, take my experience above, or when you’ve gone fishing out on a lake or pond and can hear things far off rather clearly.  For a more detailed, solid explanation, check this site:  Refraction of Sound

Well, while all of that info was rattling around in my head, I debated whether or not I could overcome the stuff that was going to show up in the recording.  Namely, the 60 Hz hum from the amber street light overhead and the distant hum from the presumed water-pump.  I knew the frequencies well from other urban-ish places I’d recorded at, as well as this place.  I knew that a little bit of precise EQ, with some audio plugins I have, would take care of that very well.  So, I sat down, hooked up my cables, got comfortable, and commenced to recording.  Things should have gone quite well, though, from that moment forward.  I’d been here before to record, and traffic sounds were usually non-existent up until at least 4:30 or 5:00 AM.  That’s when local folks would start heading off to early jobs.  However, this was now an early Saturday morning, and few people would be heading to work.  At worst they’d be pulling boats and trailers to this boat ramp.  So, I calculated that the chances for a wonderfully quiet recording (at least, for a few hours) were very much in my favor.

2:30 AM rolled around and my first clue that things weren’t going to be very smooth on this night (or, morning) came about.  A county sheriff’s car came flying through the area behind me.  He didn’t seem to slow down much as he zipped into the parking lot and back out onto the main road.  Well, it was just one vehicle, nothing to worry about – too much.  After dumping the audio file to my computer, I could easily chop all of that sound out and cross-fade the remaining sections.  Well, 30 minutes passed.  Directly, an old pick-up truck meandered into the parking lot behind me.  For the longest it sat there with its noisy motor rumbling.  The driver finally shut the engine off and I breathed a sigh of relief.  That was at least another 10-15 minutes of audio I’d have to chop out.  Well, I could sit there another 10-15 minutes to regain what I’d lost.  So, I did.

30 minutes passed again.  I’d been sitting there enjoying watching the ducks feeding and the cautious herons standing perfectly still, watching intently for fish to grab up in their beaks.  As I watched and listened, I heard another vehicle approaching from somewhere up the highway.  That all-to-familiar noise gradually became louder until the vehicle was on top of me.  Whoa, I thought, another sheriff’s vehicle.  This time it was an SUV.  It was traveling much slower.  I could tell the driver was checking things out more than the first one.  But, I wondered, what was the deal tonight?  Two county sheriff’s within an hour of each other.  Something had to be going on, or perhaps law enforcement was looking for someone (or one’s) around the area.  This guy pulled up into the boat ramp area to my immediate right, rolled down his window, and started asking me about my fishing.  I quickly explained that I wasn’t fishing.  I told him I was audio-recording the water.  He quickly apologized, put his vehicle in reverse, turned around and sped away.  To this day I’m not sure what was up or why.  Well, minus the guy in the pickup behind me, I presumed that things would quieten down.  Boy, was I wrong.  I’d sat there maybe 15 minutes longer, if that, when yet another truck pulled up, back behind me to my left, less than 20 feet away.  This was one of those vehicles you see that has seen substantially better days.  It doesn’t just need to be put out to pasture.  No, this kind of vehicle needs to be put down – permanently – forever – with as many bullets and as much brush-fire as possible.  After I’d stopped choking on the thick cloud of exhaust spewing out from under the truck, as well as from the cab – wait, I thought, the cab??  I turned around and stared at the vehicle.  Yep, smoke was pouring from the cab, too.  Well, after I got over the stench and the noise, I decided to turn everything off and clear out.  With that much smoke, maybe drug addicts were taking over the boat ramp and I didn’t care to endanger my existence, or my equipment, with the wrong kinds of people.  In short, better safe than sorry.  I could record another time.  Safety now came first.

I proceeded to walk back to my car in the parking lot and go home.  The first truck, which was still sitting in the parking lot, apparently wanted nothing to do with the noisy, smelly invader, either.  That driver cranked up his bucket of bolts and moved further back up the parking lot.  I stood for the longest behind my vehicle just watching and listening.  After the cloud of fumes and who-knows-what had cleared out at the boat ramp, I could see a young guy in his early 20s standing beside his vehicle, attempting to re-light his cigarette.  I also could hear a fairly loud amount of music throbbing in the night air.  I waited there for a while.  I even hooked my equipment back up and pointed the mic in his direction, just to hear what all was there.  Well, that turned into a waste of time.  The ducks and herons had been scared off by the noise, smoke, and fumes, so no critters remained around the dock.  Given the overwhelming influx of methadone around the mostly rural area, I estimated that this guy was likely waiting for a drop-off or pick-up with drugs of some kind.  If this was accurate, then I really didn’t want to be around things if another sheriff came flying through.

I made my mind up and finally left.  It’s really hard to give up recording on a beautiful, mostly quiet night when that kind of headache rears itself up.  But, I argued within myself, it was better to protect myself and my stuff.  I finally gave in to reason and decided I would go get something to eat in a nearby town, then stop by on the way back home and listen to what was happening.  An hour and a half later, I was back and feeling full from a late-night hamburger.  I even put some extra gas in my vehicle.  As I pulled up to the boat ramp, the quieter of the two trucks was still parked at the top of the boat ramp, but there was no sign anywhere of the noisy, smelly, racket-trap.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  Maybe I could finish up my recording for tonight.  I parked, got out with my equipment, and started recording as before.  Again, no more than 30 minutes elapsed when yet another county sheriff’s car came flying up.  This one passed through without even using brake-lights.  I turned around just in time to get blinded by a side-light on the car shining in my eyes.  But, no slowing down.  The light switched off and the car sped up as it crossed the parking lot behind me and zipped back down the main road.

Okay, I thought to myself, three sheriff’s cars tonight and one loud, stinky, fumigated vehicle with a druggy-looking driver.  Something’s up – even the fish glittering in the waves on the ramp in front of me could see that.  I turned back around and looked at them and debated if asking would do any good.  Nah, probably not.  And, with the frequency of sheriff’s cars coming through, someone was likely to think I was *just* the kind of person they needed to arrest that night.  I started imagining how that conversation would go.  “Yep,” one sheriff would say, “you shoulda seen that guy at the boat ramp tonight.  When I came through there, I coulda swore good ‘n well I saw fins disappearin’ up that feller’s nose.”  He’d hold up a thick-fingered hand to his buddies, close his eyes for dramatic effect, then continue, “Now, I know we’ve been hearing from our local contacts that folks wuz snortin’ fish down there, but I never woulda believed it – and I tell ya, I really wouldn’t have – if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.  I tell ya, he even smelled like dead fish.  Whew!”  With an exaggerated wave of his hand across his face, he’d pause, shake his head, then trail off, “Never in my all my years – snortin’ fish instead o’ meth – go figure….”

Well, I figured that things had to get better at some point for my recording.  At least, that was my hope.  Again, in about an hour, a fourth sheriff’s car came flying through, spot-light shining.  Off they went again.  At this point, it was nearing 5:00 AM.  A new thought crossed my mind.  Are all of these sheriffs trying to keep the boat ramp clear so they can mount a fishing party after work?  I had to wonder.  Well, fish were healthier than donuts, but I dunno.  I wrinkled my forehead thinking about that one.  My recording was going descent at this point, and I was aiming to finish, come herons or high water.  Things did quieten down after that.  The guy on the boat ramp eventually started his bucket of bolts up and left.  But, there I still was, standing as motionless as a hungry heron, intently listening as I recorded.  The ducks had finally come back, as had one of the Great Blue Herons.  They were relaxed and so was I.  I watched the lone heron skillfully grab a bite of fish out of the gentle surf.  I started wondering if the four sheriff’s had gotten their shift-orders mixed up?  Maybe some old-timer had called in from around the area complaining about all the herons at the boat ramp.  He’d even go out of his way to explain about them heroine’s flying around all over the place.  “Yep,” the desk sergeant would politely acknowledge, “heroin will make ya feel like you’re flying.”  Well, he wanted the sheriff’s department to do something about it.  It was flat dangerous to the community around there.  “Yes, sir,” the desk sergeant would respond gravely, “we’ll have that checked out immediately.”  And maybe, just maybe, everybody involved thought they’d have a glorious “heron” bust goin’ on that night.  Just maybe.

Well, I sighed yet again, then chuckled to myself at the humor of it all.  Yep, ducks ‘n drugs don’t mix…

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Seagulls without Souls – or, Weirdness with Wings

November 15, 2010 – Sabine Pass, Texas – McFaddin Park

My field recording trip to McFaddin Park at Sabine Pass (Texas) turned out a lot more interesting than I bargained for.  Saw my first live dolphin in the waves early that morning, maybe 40-50 feet out into the water behind the breaking waves.   A single, curved dorsal fin broke the surface and disappeared, no doubt looking for a breakfast of fish.  I also had an encounter with the law enforcement that keeps an eye on the state park.   He looked to be a young guy in his 30s, driving an SUV for the local sheriff’s department.  I think my strange wind basket, which I custom-built for my mics, caught his eye when he passed through.  He was trying to figure out for several minutes what in the heck it was.  I did my best to explain it to him and the nature recording I was doing of the Gulf waves that morning.  Felt kind of strange explaining about the 4″ long fur I put around the wind cage, but in the end, I think I made enough sense of the weird conglomeration of equipment I had around my car to satisfy his curiosity (microphones, mic stands, and wind cages aren’t usually common fare I’m sure for folks to see from afar, or even up close).

The wind cage itself was a reptile cage I purchased online (from exo-terra.com – the PT2592 Explorarium 45) and which closely resembles the porous clothes hampers you can buy at Wal-Mart.   A large spring enables it to stand up when the sides are unsnapped.   It’s roughly 24″ in height and 18″ in diameter.  Once assembled, the cage, pvc pipe,  wood disk, and legs look very much like a small deer feeder with 3 tripod legs.  Once you put the fur around the top and sides, it looks like Cousin It (Adams family?).  I’ve often thought to myself that – for grins – I should find me a couple of large eye-disks with black dots jiggling around inside them, then mount those on the front of this puppy.  But, so far, I haven’t felt that adventurous.

Well, once all this was set up, and law enforcement had gone on about their business, I finally got into the recording.  Things went fairly quietly for a few hours, for the most part.  Occasionally someone would drive onto the beach – more vehicle motors to EQ out later.  Two helicopters during the whole day.  Not too much recording time would have to be removed there, but a little.  Winds kept swinging around.  Waves were crashing well, but became really erratic when the winds began blowing cross-shore and onshore.  The fur around the wind cage blocked it really well, though.

I tried recording 1 ½ hours for each of 4 tracks.  What was different was that two tracks were created with the mics at about 6 feet in the air, and the other two were with the mics at 2 ½ feet in the air.  The thing I learned from this trip was that the sound was significantly better the lower I set the mics. I’ve also read online (and personally heard the difference) where it’s suggested to find the sweet spot with recording at around zero to 24″ off the ground. The reason is so that your recording doesn’t end up with sound reflecting back up from the ground with a tiny delay and merging with the direct sound to cause a comb-filtered effect (or phase-canceled set of frequencies) in the recording. It’s also the same reason why it’s often suggested that when stereo recording in large rooms (say, a long, elementary school cafeteria) that one mic is put against a boundary of some kind, like a concrete or cylinder-block wall, or even on the floor (this can apply to both mics, too, just depends on what stereo technique you’re using mainly). Boundary mics are a whole other matter and not always do-able out in nature, unless you’re recording near some types of architecture or extremely thick areas of trees, vegetation, etc. But, the same issue still applies – reflected sound merging with the direct sound when both sound waves arrive at the microphone(s) with a timing difference of less than 30 milliseconds apart, or even under 1 millisecond in some cases (called a microsecond). Again, the result is that you have a comb-filtering effect, and this can color the tone of what you’re recording by boosting even-numbered harmonics to make it too warm, or odd-numbered harmonics to make it too bright or brittle. Now, if the coloration to the tone sounds good to you, then stick to that and don’t change it. It’s all subjective really, and just depends on how it sounds to your ears! Let your ears be the guide when you aren’t sure, regardless of what anyone suggests – me included. Just be mindful of the process that’s happening mainly, then aim and position your mics for what sounds right to you.

Another incredible lesson I learned was – DON’T FEED THE BIRDS!  I say this with the strongest of emphasis on the fact that it does not matter how loud they’re being on the mics – DO NOT FEED THEM!  Two black birds were nearby initially, one of which occasionally chirped or lightly squawked.  Its partner was silent for the most part.  Well, as the time passed, I noticed the squawking becoming louder and more insistent.  I finally took my headphones off and started walking towards the noise-maker such that he/she would fly some distance from me and land.  However, he/she continued squawking.  After doing this several times,  I finally decided I’d had enough.  I had stashed a bag of potato chips in the car while driving to the beach earlier that morning, so I pulled those out and opened them.  I proceeded to toss a chip or two to both birds every few minutes.  That quieted the noise-maker down, but only for a little while.  After eating one, he/she would be quiet for a bit.  Maybe 10-15 minutes later, the chirping would start-up behind my back.  I could hear this faintly on my headphones.  Then, the agitated squawking would begin.  Chirp..squawk…chirp…squawk. Back and forth it went, until the squawking was all I could hear.  Then, that pesky bird would start getting closer.  I turned around on my stool and looked at the critter.  It was dancing back and forth, turning to its left, then back to its right, squawking without a break.  It was most evident from his/her body language that someone – wanted more chips.

Well, things continued like this for maybe 30-45 minutes.  I figured I would be able to get enough descent waves recorded without the loud bird squawks if my chips held out.  Boy, was I wrong.  I forgot one massively important detail about the beach – seagulls.

Yep, a whole flock of those birds were maybe 100+ yards downwind from me on the beach, huddled together in a huge group.  I’d dare to guess that there were over 100 of them there.  Well, I looked up at one point, mainly to check for the noisy blackbird and his/her partner.   As luck would have it, I glimpsed 2 or 3 seagulls standing with silent, ominous stares some 20 feet away from me.  They were watching me, and nothing more.

The next chip I threw to the blackbirds, those 3 watchers were on it, managing to grab the chip off the sand before the blackbirds could even begin to visually locate the morsel.   I knew then that this didn’t bode well.  Something would be amiss very shortly.  I proceeded to throw more chips.   I figured, hey, what could it hurt, just 2 blackbirds and 3 seagulls?  Not too bad.

Again, my reasoning and logic were sadly lacking.  You see, there were well over 100 seagulls not far from these 3.   Why I didn’t think that others – many, many others – wouldn’t be interested in free food, I’ll never know.  But, as I threw chips, the seagull population within 20 feet of me began to increase with logarithmic proportion, density, and mass, like some college physics lesson gone horribly wrong.  And, the more who gathered for free food, the more this new group became noticed by the larger population.

I began to stare with disdain and hopeless resolve at the silent, gaping eyes of what seemed like endless  seagulls, all staring blank and hungrily – at me – and my chips.  5…10…15 – I dare not count more I reasoned, and decided that the squawker might have been just fine as a single problem.  I decided to walk to my car and see if I had any more food.  I just wasn’t a fast learner that day.

Opening my car door, I turned my head and glanced at the gulls and blackbirds.  They were following me, under 10 feet away.  Silent stares.  I shook my head.  I drove 2½ hours here to record waves in the hope of creating a sellable nature CD, not to try to avoid bodily harm from blackbirds and seagulls if my food reserves ran low.  I sighed.  What to do, I wondered?

Well, I considered, if I hadn’t started feeding these pesky critters, I might not be where I was.  Glad the law enforcement wasn’t expecting donuts.  I really would’ve had problems.  It was late in the afternoon at this point, roughly 5 pm or so.  The sun would be dipping under the horizon in another 45 minutes, so I decided that too many seagulls and noisy blackbirds had been enough.  Besides, those stares from the seagulls were starting to make me feel a bit weird.  Silent, dead, evil stares.  I shuddered.

Yep, time to head it home and leave these winged worry-warts to their selves.  Besides, I’d had a long day, a slight sunburn, and many more annoyances than the typical recording expedition I was accustomed to having.

After loading all my equipment up, all the while being squawked at loudly by one certain blackbird, I had the sudden realization why law enforcement kept an eye on this state park beach.  It wasn’t to keep tabs on the people out here.  No sir, not at all.   Rather, I personally felt with great conviction and certainty that it was to protect us human folk from those long, blank stares – evil stares – seagulls without souls.  As I climbed into my car and shut the door, I glanced in my rear-view mirror.  Silent stares.  Ominous, silent stares. I wasted no time hitting the gas pedal.