About a year and a half ago I decided to purchase an Olympus LS14. Although originally intended to be a quick and easy solution to recording outside of the studio for clients, I’ve since gotten into the habit of taking it with me everywhere. As an audio engineer I’ve been trained to listen to sounds and analyse them. However, unfortunately, this isn’t something I can just switch off like that. Every now and then I’ll find myself pausing to record a few minutes of background sound of nothing in particular, just the general ambience of the world, and for no particular purpose it would seem. Last week one of my friends commented that most people would instead stop to take a picture and they asked me why I do this. I guess I’d never really thought about the why before. I struggled to provide an answer and said I was simply building up a collection of sounds from around the world, but I knew there was more to it than that.
Around the age of four I would regularly be sent to the head teacher’s office in primary school for ‘not paying attention and ignoring the teachers’, much to my confusion. Coupled with this, my speech was indistinct and I was having trouble learning how to use language properly. After a few worried visits to my doctor I was diagnosed with a condition called Otitis media, also referred to as ‘glue ear’. This causes the space behind the eardrums to fill with fluid, resulting in near deafness, and is a lot more common than I imagined. Shortly thereafter I was scheduled in for an operation at Alder Hey children’s hospital to have grommets, basically the equivalent of a pair tiny tunnels, inserted into my eardrums to drain the fluid and restore my hearing. Looking back now, I’m quite glad it wasn’t a more serious operation.
According to my parents, when I first came home I was stunned by the sound of traffic and would stand by the front window for hours just listening to the cars go by. A whole new world had opened up for me and I could suddenly hear so many things that I’d never been able to hear before. Whereas previously nobody could get my attention because I simply couldn’t hear them, now nobody could get my attention because of all these fascinating new sounds I was experiencing. It would seem that this obsession would stay with me throughout the rest of my life.
There’s something very evocative about sound in my opinion. Much like particular smells can instantly bring back memories, I find that certain sounds and ambiences can trigger the imagination and drastically affect our mood. For example, the sound of rain against a window or the ocean lapping up against the shore at night is enough to send anyone to sleep. I don’t know the particular science behind it but this would certainly explain why there are countless videos many hours long on YouTube of exactly these things. For me, sound makes it easy to paint a picture in your head, especially if you’re hearing something familiar that evokes a very specific feeling or takes you back to an earlier time in your life.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to visit a variety of places since the arrival of my trusty handheld portable recorder. From Manchester to Brisbane and a number of stops in between, I’ve been inspired to press record and build up a decent collection of sounds for The Ambience Of The World project. Although I’ve never quite fully understood the reasons before, and couldn’t explain to my friend last week, I now know why. I’m just feeling the same way I felt as an awe-inspired four year old boy. Listening to the traffic outside the window for the first time.