Chris Watson’s fascination with location sound recording has taken him to some of the most remote places on Earth, where climatic extremes and uncooperative wildlife push his equipment and skills to their limits.
Recording sound outside the studio environment has its challenges, and veteran wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson has encountered most of them. His equipment has been frozen on polar expeditions, crushed by elephants’ feet, showered by snapping alligators, gnawed by ground squirrels and simply eaten whole by hyenas. And then there are the physical demands of dealing with extreme climates, carrying heavy equipment over unforgiving terrain and waiting patiently, day and night, for the subjects to turn up and make a noise.
“The SAS have a great saying, which is that any idiot can be uncomfortable,” say Chris, when asked how he copes with the demands of the job. “I don’t endure hardship for the sake of it, so if there is an easy route, I take it, and I do work with other people. For example, I went to Australia and Tasmania last year and my son Alex took a month off work to come and help his old dad carry stuff. So although it is very physically demanding, I am very happy to accept help from all sorts of places. I’m in my 60s now, but I still love being out there. You learn a lot about fieldcraft. You learn what you don’t need to do and about being outside.”
Chris’s career as a professional sound recordist began when he joined Tyne Tees Television in 1981, but before that he was a member of the experimental band Cabaret Voltaire, which he founded in 1973 alongside Stephen Mallinder and Richard H Kirk. Even then, Chris was primarily interested in the art of recording sounds and manipulating them, having been inspired by the Musique Concrète movement and, more specifically, the work of French composer Pierre Schaeffer. For Chris, all of these activities are intrinsically linked, and they were sparked by a gift he received from his parents as a child.
“I’ve been a sound recordist since my early teens,” he explains. “My parents bought me a National reel‑to‑reel tape recorder when I was about 12, and it’s something I still have in my studio. I can’t remember asking for it, so it was an inspired gift! It is a portable, battery‑powered device with a handle and a little microphone on a metre or so of cable. It’s designed for taking outside.
“At first I didn’t realise that it could be used outside, so I explored everything in the house. Then I remember looking out of our kitchen window in Sheffield, where I grew up, and seeing the birds on the bird table but not being able to hear them. It was like watching a silent film. I was really interested in sounds that I could see but couldn’t hear, so I ran outside with the recorder, fixed the microphone by the table and hung the recorder underneath. I put out some food then ran back inside and started recording. Fortunately the birds returned before the tape ran out, and I could see the reels going round. It was really exciting. I can remember playing those sounds back and being transported into a place that we can never be: hearing these magical time‑and‑location‑shifted sounds. I was fascinated by that.
“Later in my teens I discovered Musique Concrète and the work of composers like Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, and realised that you could use a tape recorder not only for documenting and recording sounds, but also as a creative instrument. You could sculpt sounds with the cut and splice technique using a razor blade and edit block.
“Then in the early 1970s I found a remarkable book by Terence Dwyer called Composing With Tape Recorders: Musique Concrète For Beginners, which became my handbook and Bible for working creatively with sound. It explained the techniques and what was possible: things like tape loops, speed changes, octave shifts and playing things backwards. It was so hands‑on. Unlike now with computer editing, where things either work perfectly or they don’t work at all, there’s a beautiful rough edge to tape. I’m sure I am speaking with nostalgia, but I enjoyed that physical process and contact with the material.”
Chris still uses old analogue gear on occasion because of this physical aspect and its distinctive sound. In general, though, he is thankful for the continual improvements taking place in the digital realm, with equipment becoming more reliable and more portable as technology advances. “Things are getting much lighter, more portable and better quality. Twenty years ago I was carrying Nagra IV‑S stereo recorders around, which weigh an absolute ton. They sound fantastic, as the preamps are astonishingly good, and occasionally I still use the preamps and take the noise reduction outputs from the Nagra into a digital recorder. For example, recently I was working on a film soundtrack where the director wanted an analogue patina to the atmosphere tracks, so I processed some original digital recordings via the Nagra, recording at 15ips.
“But my Sonosax SX‑R4+ recorder, which is relatively new, is incredibly lightweight and its battery consumption is minimal. This year I’ve taken it everywhere from the deserts of Saudi Arabia to the Norwegian Arctic, where it has performed better than I have in really hot and freezing temperatures. It has 16 record channels and really beautiful preamplifiers, which...
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