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Interview: Ecological Ambisonic Recordings from the Rainforest

We had a chat with James Benjamin, one of the artists behind the exhibition Ecological Ambisonic Recordings 001: Rainforest and the limited edition vinyl record accompanying the exhibition, launching today on our webshop.

Tell us a little bit about yourselves and the people who’ve worked on this project.

JB: My name is James Benjamin, and I’ve been a producer and audio engineer running Breakglass Studios here in Montreal for the past decade. In 2017 I first collaborated with Danica Olders, providing an immersive and experiential original soundtrack for her wearable sculpture pieces for Wiggle at Never Apart. 2017 was also when I first went down to the jaguar reserve in the primary rainforest of Costa Rica with Jan Schipper (Arizona Centre for Nature Conservation) and Jose F. Gonzalez-Maya (ProCAT) to record several hundred hours of ambisonic sound, with the goal of documenting a healthy natural habitat as well as to begin looking at ways recordings like this could be used scientifically in conjunction with algorithms to do things like document wildlife, and draw comparisons with the sound of other environments and environment states.

It was pretty amazing being out in the rainforest with these research scientists, almost completely off the grid of the internet and social media etc. At night, after full days out in the rainforest, we’d be hanging out, drinking Panamanian rum, and we started to have long discussions about how cool it would be if in addition to scientific research, we were able to use these recordings to create immersive installations that could travel all over the world for outreach and education purposes. This was the beginning of the Ecological Ambisonic Recording initiative. Fast forward to 2019 and Danica and I were together on an artist residency called Can Serrat in a small mountain town in spain called El Bruc, where we met and collaborated with Chipp Jansen (King’s College, PHD student Robotics). Interestingly, this was also a fairly off the grid experience, with limited internet access, and lots of late nights hanging out, this time with cheap spanish wine. Somehow by the end of the residency, we’d convinced Chipp to join the project providing invaluable assistance with the coding of the max patches needed to power the immersive installation.

These ambisonic sounds were recorded on the pacific slope of the Talamanca Mountains in Costa Rica, on the buffer zone of La Amistad International Peace Park and Biosphere Reserve. What is your relationship to Costa Rica and why did you pick this specific place?

JB : So this connects really well with the goals of some of the partner organizations involved with this project. The Mikelberg Foundation, in conjunction with the Arizona Centre for Nature Conservation and ProCAT fund and run a research station in that area of the Talamanca Mountains in Costa Rica. The goal of the organization, as well as the research station is to promote and protect Jaguar migration corridors in Costa Rica as well as throughout central and South America. Most people don’t realize this, but Jaguars migrate every year all the way from Mexico to Argentina. They literally swim across the panama canal! Deforestation, clear cut farming, and the presence of poachers have made this essential migration more and more difficult over time, and jaguars are now a threatened species. As an apex predator, their continued survival is crucially important to the health of the ecosystem as a whole. There’s not too much more I can say about the Las Alturas jaguar reserve itself, where the research station is located, other than that it’s a privately owned 32000 acre property and provides crucial protection for jaguars in the form of full time armed guards patrolling the enormous grounds. The people running this reserve are careful not to put too much information out about their operations as it can actually help the poachers and other potentially dangerous neighbours.

 

For those who are new to it, what is ambisonic B format recording ?

JB: Ambisonic recording is a full sphere surround sound format. I won’t go too deep into the technical, but being a recording studio guy, one of the things that I think is really cool about ambisonic recordings is that it makes use of stereo microphone recording configurations and techniques that have been around for a really long time. Some people may have heard of a technique for creating additional stereo depth in a recording called a ‘mid-side’. This recording configuration uses two microphones, one with a cardioid response pattern, and the other with a figure of eight response pattern arranged in a very specific position. In mixing if you ‘place’ the cardioid microphone signal right in the center of your mix, and then take the figure of eight signal, duplicate it, and place one copy all the way on the left of your mix, and then flip the phase of the other copy and pan it all the way to the right in your mix, you can unlock a super wide and detailed stereo image.
Ambisonic recording expands on that technique with four microphones arranged very precisely in what’s called a tetra format. With just those four recorded mono signals, a complex algorithm can extrapolate what sound would be coming from an infinite number of speakers placed anywhere around a central listening point in a full 3-dimensional sphere. In this way a listener placed in the centre of the sphere can hear exactly what the recorder ‘heard’ in its original recording position.

Side A is 5AM TO 5:25AM, and side B 5PM TO 5:25PM. Can you tell us about the chosen format and titles?

JB: The tracks and titles of ‘5AM TO 5:25 AM’ and ‘5PM TO 5:25 PM’ are very literal! For the installation within the gallery, and that will be available at some point via an online tour, the idea is that it’s a 24 hour loop of rainforest sound, and that whatever time of day you experience the installation, you will be hearing that same time of day in the rainforest in costa rica. For the medium of the vinyl album, we were naturally much more limited in terms of time, 25 minutes being about the longest running time recommended for a vinyl side. We chose 5AM and 5PM as good times to press to vinyl because they were transitional moments within a day, filled with a lot of different sounds and sonic elements. I also liked the symmetry of putting the two opposite sides of a 24 hour day onto the sides of a vinyl album; sunrise and sunset, or dawn and dusk. Just within these two 25 minute sides we get to hear a wonderful range of wildlife and nature. There are a variety of birds, some moments of peace and quiet, moments where the wind really picks up and causes quite a stir in the surrounding trees and their leaves, and we even can hear animals walking past the microphone, brushing leaves and making footsteps as they pass.

Can you tell us about some of the previous artists and researchers that have inspired you? I am reminded here of the work of the World Soundscape Project, Hildegard Westerkamp and soon.

JB: I love the work of Hildegard Westerkamp! I was just listening to her album Transformations. Tracks like Kits Beach Soundwalk and Beneath the Forest Floor are hugely influential for me. The World Soundscape project is also a really interesting reference point. Schafer’s focus on the issue of noise pollution and his goal of documenting what he called ‘good’ and ‘bad’ acoustic environments in stereo recordings back in the 60s and 70s, in many ways mirrors our goals of documenting healthy and unhealthy ecosystems ambisonically. One of my favorite artists is James Turrell. Our approach to light in the installation, and its use in helping to designate time draws heavily from Turrell’s early work at the Mendota Hotel.

All the proceeds from the record go to the Ecological Ambisonic Recording Initiative. Can you tell us more about this organization and the work they do?

JB: The Ecological Ambisonic Recording Initiative has as its goal to compile and distribute ambisonic field recordings from diverse environments of threatened species around the world, for the purposes of scientific research, outreach and education. The more of these environments that we’re able to document, the more we’ll be able to extrapolate from the recordings scientifically, and the more environments we’ll be able to present for the purposes of art and outreach. The next environment we’d like to document is the cloud forest in Colombia, habitat of the Andean Bear. Now more than ever documentation like this is an invaluable tool in global awareness and conservation.

The artwork is gorgeous! Tell about the photographer(s), designer(s), illustrator(s) involved.

JB: On my last trip to Costa Rica, just a few months ago in January, Danica Olders was able to accompany me and get a real understanding of the environment we’re trying to recreate for this installation. Danica took all the pictures, did all the graphic design and original illustrations, as well as designing and overseeing the physical elements of the installation.

For the physical installation, her goal is to deconstruct the naive idyllicism often associated with the rainforest and instead show the beauty inherent to the often uncomfortable aspects of the rainforest as well as the difficult journey necessary to access a place so remote. From long and extremely bumpy rides in the back of a pick up truck, to thick scratchy brush and chigger bites, the installation attempts to recreate the experiences one might have on a journey to the primary rainforest.

Tell us about the making of this record: where was it pressed?

JB: I did all the selection and editing, as well as the mixing and mastering of the vinyl masters at Breakglass Studios here in Montreal, before sending the finished masters to a company called Mobineko based in London. It was really exciting to get the finished records back in the mail, and even more exciting to put the needle on the record and hear the sound that we’d recorded deep in the primary rainforest coming through on the speakers.

How do you think this kind of soundscape work can help with the conservation of the forest? What do you suggest for people who want to get involved further?

JB: I think that outreach and education are key tools in effective conservation work. These remote places are better left undisturbed by us, and therefore are not the easiest places to visit. This kind of tool provides a window into an otherwise inaccessible experience. At the same time, there are also very exciting scientific research applications for these banks of ambisonic recordings.

If anyone would like to help with the project, whether with funding, or to suggest collaborations, whether for the Ecological Ambisonic Recording Initiative directly, or to support the general work of pro CAT at the research station, they can send me an email at [email protected]

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