About working with soundscape recordings

I have been recording “real world” sound from the very beginning of my involvement with electroacoustic composition. Getting my main influences from composers such as Trevor Wishart, Jonty Harrison, Francis Dhomond, François Baille, Ives Daust, Beatriz Ferreira and others from the traditional Musique concrete – acousmatic scene, I chose recorded sound as my main material for sonic art.


Three main strategies for collecting material:

 1) Everything around me: Exploring my sonic environment I just recorded everything that happened in my life – the cities I found myself in, houses and other buildings I spent time in (doors, chairs, household machines, ambience, whatever), my footsteps on various materials, transportation (bus, car, train, boat, plane), crowds, music events/rehearsals while moving around, sounds of the beach and the surrounding nature, forests and mountains, and so on. I just wanted to get any sound that happened around me. For years a minidisk and a small collection of mics were always in my bag ready for use. In many cases I did long sound collecting “expeditions” with more sophisticated equipment, such as portable DAT and hi quality stereo mic. I also recorded at various hours depending on the case, wanting to capture specific or just different soundscapes of a particular space. In some occasions the mic would be static for varying stretches of time, in others I would carefully move it, “performing” this way the recording (zooming in/out, turning around, fading from one source to another, etc).

 2) Staged sonic events and sequences: In the way of foley art or musique concrete sound sourcing, I used various objects to record sonic performances with – in the studio or outdoors. Often I would stage a small artificial environment with its own special ambience and sound producing activities. Looking for particular sound objects or sound families, I just discovered a lot more while playing around. Metal, plastic, paper, cloth, water, stones, glass, containers, tools, musical instruments, and so on, as well as various devised sound producing contraptions.

 3) Sourcing for a particular project: Following a set theme I targeted sound events in a more consistent way. For example in Reims, France, I recorded a 24 hour cycle in a shopping mall for Rites of Passage. For The Maze I was recording the empty university building late at night, as well as the various activities during the day. A series of sound walks in the centre of Athens for Big Village Dynamics. Rain on a metal canopy for Rainwater.

These days I don’t record that much any more, as I have to a large extent fulfilled my appetite for random sound collection. Also, I realized two obvious things: a) one can never collect all sounds and b) sound is always there to collect when needed. Exploration of everyday sound, with the ever present recorder and bionic hearing over headphones, has been a compulsive hobby that completed a circle for me, at least so far. Sound synthesis techniques, micro scale sound design, real-time sound processing and formal aspects of composition have nowadays replaced the composer/sound collector’s maximalist approach. Having said that I still record a lot – mostly sound scenes or sound objects with a special interest for me or for specific projects or just for fun every now and then. The portable recorder is one of the things that I will certainly take with me when I travel or go somewhere I know there will be sonic interest, although I might not use it as much after all.

What do I do with the material?

 1)  Reviewing and indexing.

2)  Isolating sound objects and longer sequences. Almost no sound is deemed garbage, even mic noises or artefacts can be very interesting to work with.

3)  Allowing material to lead towards a theme or an approach, compositional or technical.

4)  Choosing the parts that work best together according to a compositional plan.

5)  Sculpting material to fit certain needs, compositional or technical.

6)  Processing using a wide palette of techniques, thus creating more material or connecting sound objects to make new ones.

7)  Imitating some recorded sound objects with synthesis techniques, or just resynthesizing analysis files.

8)   Montage, mixing.

9)   More listening.

In some cases I used unprocessed sound and drove the composition forward by cutting, juxtaposing and/or mixing, playing with connotations and the locally emerging “myth”. In other cases I used the recording as a malleable material that I would change and warp around to the extreme. Natural sound has always had a certain power on the mind of the listener and so have the processes of natural sound transformation, subtle or dramatic, gradual or sudden, playing with degrees of recognizability and creating imaginary sonic journeys that are based on the known but extend to the adventure of the unknown – laying out some kind of idiosyncratic dreamscape for everyone to let evolve and explore in their own mind.

To be continued….

Some pieces of mine that are based on soundscape recordings or use a lot of “real life” sound:

Big Village Dynamics, Athens Sound Walks

Rites of Passage, 24 Hours in Passage International


Nectariou 5

Chaotic Lucidity 


The Way In

The Maze 

The Door Study  


About stelios giannoulakis

composition, sound design, engineering, improvisation
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