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Chris Watson: The Art Of Location Recording

Wild Tracks
Published December 2018
By Tom Flint

Wild Tracks

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.”

Bands & Bird Tables

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.

An inspired gift: the National tape recorder that launched Chris Watson on his career in sound recording.An inspired gift: the National tape recorder that launched Chris Watson on his career in sound recording.“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...

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Published December 2018