Dave Robinson was in New York City – or was it the Amazon? – for a major interactive audio experience, courtesy of Audio-Technica.
This is me talking to my voice recorder:
“There is a moment where the howler monkeys got louder, just as the police sirens are getting louder. A real sense of unease….
“The rainforest fades into a some kind of hippy-style narration talking about the state of reality and non-reality.. but it fits perfectly.. and then the Amazon [River] kicks in. All very… all very weird. The voice, he’s talking about superimposed realities…
“As you turn around…I’m standing by the Amazon… You hear the river… As I turn around.. I am – literally – in the river…
“And now I’m walking down 44th, and the sun, which is just peeping over the buildings, in New York, in the oppression of Times Square, the rainbirds are started to sing, you get the sense of heat… I feel like I want to go back to the river and cool down.”
This actually happened. I’m a participant in the Jungle-Ized audio experience, which was held in central Manhattan during the month of April. I’m wandering in and around an eight-square grid of streets, my Audio-Technica ATH-M70x headphones plugged into my smartphone, listening to a jungle soundtrack being created and mixed by a mobile app (downloaded earlier). I’m watching yellow cabs and hearing the buzz of bees. I’m staring at skyscrapers and hearing the rumble of a thunder. I am floating. I am transported.
The Soundwalk Collective
Jungle-Ized is principally the work of the Soundwalk Collective – Stephan Crasneanscki, Simone Merli and Kamran Sadeghi. This trio of composers work between Berlin and New York and specialise in sound compositions for installations, exhibits and audio guides. “We are always working around landscape and memory, with sounds that we collect from places we visit,” suggests Crasneanscki.
The Collective was approached to create an installation in New York by the Times Square Arts (TSA), an organisation that provides a platform for artists’ work in the heart of the city. TSA does this by working with the Times Square Advertising Coalition, owners of 68 of the 180 or so huge LED screens that characterise the famous landmark. For three minutes leading up to midnight during a particular ‘installation’, these 68 screens display the work of the commissioned artist. “Last year it was Yoko Ono,” says Crasneanscki. “This time they wanted to do something from a sound point of view.”
Crasneanscki describes how his team agreed on a theme of how New York’s ‘concrete jungle’ had eliminated any real nature (jungle or otherwise) that had originally existed on the site eons ago. They also discovered that, by following the 73 degrees W longitude south, from New York and across the equator, it passed through the Peruvian rainforest. “It was obvious to us that we should invite nature back: have a jungle-to-jungle conversation, in fact. Soundwise, it should allow some kind of reflection, where the listener could experience the concept of time. Times Square is all about people running after time, running short of time; the Amazon has no time, it existed before us and it will exist after us.”
The plan, then, was to pitch the two sonic realities against each other: the Amazon jungle in the concrete jungle.
How to implement this idea? Soundwalk Collective (SC) worked with Audio-Technica to procure a small number of microphones for location recording of source material; more importantly, to establish a means of delivering the experience to the public. That required several dozen sets of headphones. (The AT team were already familiar with SC, having met 18 months previously at a soundtracked poetry reading event in London.)
Next, enter sound artist Francisco Lopez, a Spanish composer working with soundscapes collected from nature and urban environments. SC have worked with Lopez several times before, and were aware of his extensive archive of sounds collected from the Amazon over the last 25 years.
Lopez’s approach to collecting material has been completely equipment agnostic – he’s used many different types of recorders and microphones over the years. As he puts it: “Things in nature you have no control over, so you need to be patient. Not only to collect the sounds, but to have a sense of the pace and complexity in an environment. If you get to know the environment you can do amazing things with simple kit.”
For Crasneanscki, it was straight to the Audio-Technica kit to add to Lopez’s content. “We used the BP4029 and BP4027 shotgun mics and the AT4050ST (large diaphragm stereo condenser), all specifically used for ambient recordings from the river shore, as I was drifting on the Amazon river on a boat.”
The BP4027 worked “extremely well” for the long shot recordings, and was able to capture a very defined area through its directional recording angle, notes Crasneanscki. “I mounted it on a fix stand on the boat to perceive a set section of the jungle from the specific point of view of the river, as i was moving along the waters, allowing the jungle sound spectrum to continuously shift [around me].
“We had absolutely no difficulties with moisture and heat, the mic handled the hard conditions extremely well,” he adds.
Putting it all together
The Sounds – howler monkeys, oriole birds, thunderstorms, native tribespeople, (Lopez: “hundreds of recordings”) – were compiled, edited down, tweaked and looped and then transferred to the Jungle-Ized app. This was developed in collaboration with a Vancouver-based game design house, who, says Crasneanscki, “were very happy to join us because they were allowed to do something for real life.”
And this is where the magic lies: the app is designed to produce a mix of the jungle sounds, depending on your GPS position. Atmospherics and animals (and a few voices) crossfade in and out of the headphone mix as the listener wanders around Times Square, with the boundaries of its application being marked by a ‘river’ at 8th Avenue (to the west) and 6th Avenue (to the east) and 43rd and 47th streets south and north respectively. Each Jungle-ized participant creates a unique mix, depending on their GPS coordinate.
What Crasneanscki and Lopez both agreed on was the “crucial” role the M70x headphones played, in mastering the sound for playback from a smartphone.
Lopez: “For the average listener, the issue is not the encoding/decoding: there are very good algorithms that will do magic with sound files. But there’s no magic with the speaker other than having a good speaker. So for playback, the ‘listening’ part is absolutely crucial: crucial enough to engineer, master or design the sound for specific systems.”
Hence, Lopez wanted to work with the headphones chosen for playback in Times Square: the M70x model. All Lopez’s source material was remastered on his own DAW, using those headphones exclusively: the “shape” of the Jungle-Ized soundtrack is particular to those headphones. “They are closed circum-aural headphones which have pretty good isolation. Times Square is probably one of the noisiest places in Manhattan – between 90 and 100dB constantly, lots of trucks and the crowds and so on. No headphones will give you complete isolation from that, but the M70xs give you an excellent trade-off between a high degree of isolation and very good sound in an almost impossible environment.”
AT set up a booth in Times Square, enabling the public to borrow a pair of headphones, download the app, and head off into the virtual undergrowth.
The audio is complemented each night, for three minutes before midnight, by a film jungle images, shot by Crasneanscki while he was collecting the audio. In order to make the 68 jungle screens stand out among the 120 still playing adverts, SC made the film ‘negative’. So, by switching the smartphone to negative mode too, the real or ‘positive’ colours of the film appear as originally intended.
Crasneanscki says they had to use the “right headphone to deal with the beast that is Times Square. Jungle-Ized would not have existed without the M70x headphones.” Audio-Technica’s Robert Morgan-Males comments that working with Soundwalk Collective is not like an endorsement. “For a number of manufacturers, there’s the bog-standard artist relations deal and all that. What we are talking about here, through Sound Collective, is exposing our brand to people who would never even consider even looking at a headphone or a microphone.”
Crasneanscki says they had never approached an equipment maker before, but they were very happy with the AT arrangement: “For us, anything we can do beyond the brand that has a human relationship, in a creative way without being limited, we like that.”
The headphones “allow the richness of the jungle to come in, it really allows people to drift around in nature… maybe for an hour.
“To have a New Yorker to drift for an hour in Time Square, it’s a miracle, a pure miracle! If we achieved one thing, it is to allow people to step out of this almost fascist time imposed on people.”
That evening we return to Times Square and observe a young couple trying out the experience. We see the looks of wonder on their faces as they hear the frogs, the birds, the rain. They, too, are transported.
Top pic: Dave Robinson lost in the concrete/Amazonian jungle audio. Second pic: Audio-Technica established a booth for distributing the phones. Third pic: Kamran Saedeghi (left) and Stephan Craseanscki from the Soundwalk Collective. Fourth pic: Francisco Lopez, confronting an unseen issue in Brazil. Fifth pic: Reverse out the smartphone to see the jungle images. Last pic: You can see how this couple were enraptured by the experience.