Roaming Running Recorders
(flying, bumping, hopping, hiking)

october 07, 2010.

[ podcast :: sbpc 42 ... s ]

Over the past week or so I came across two examples of recordings that were made by setting a functioning recording device free, letting it travel around for some time, recover it, and uncover what was captured.

Luke Geissbühler from Brooklyn NY fabricated a styrofoam capsule in which he put a running digicam, an iPhone (serving as a GPS device to be able to track the camera's journey) and a small folded parachute. He attached the capsule to a helium filled weather balloon and - after a couple of months of diligent experimenting - let it loose. Luke's 'homemade spacecraft' whirled upwards, upwards, upwards. The balloon-et-digicam reached a height of some 30 kilometers, where in the very middle of the stratosphere due to diminished air pressure the helium bubble burst. The parachute then had the capsule soaring - safely - back to earth, where Luke eventually was able to recover it in a tree, at some 50 kilometers distance from its launching site. (The camera apparently stopped recording about two minutes before touchdown.)

A 7 minute vimeo (with useful additional information in Luke's replies to the comments) documents the flight and explains what happens at each of the cam's journey's different stages. The following vimeo - without the explaining texts - brings 5 minutes of wonderful images and fine sound captured by this homemade space roaming recorder.

[ Homemade Spacecraft (textless version), by Luke Geissbuhler. ]

Lauri Warsta packed a recording dictaphone in a parcel that she then sent by snail mail from London to Helsinki, capturing the sounds of the parcel traveling through the global mail system. That's an old idea. Which I do not mean in a negative way. Not at all. A great many of the very best of ideas that I know are pretty old ones. Moreover, come to think of it, even though it is something that I know many have talked about, I am totally unable to point you to an example of someone that actually has done this before. (Though maybe some of you viewers will be able to help me out here... [ added October 8th 2010: And indeed you were. See the update below. ])

Even though it's an 'old' idea, it seems far from evident to put it into practice. Just think of the timespan that one needs to cover. Of course one would avoid recording the recorder's voyage's time outs by applying something like VOR to stop the machine whenever the sonic input received is below a certain threshold. But would that suffice to cover all of the parcel's way? It is hard to see how that would be possible using an analogue tape machine, for even at the lowest possible recording speed, the amount of recording time available is pretty limited.

Lauri's vimeo, an animated short film entitled Dictaphone Parcel, shows a fine vintage professional reel-to-reel machine being put into a parcel along with a microphone, and then being switched on. (Specialists among the viewers will surely be able to identify the recorder. Is it a Nagra?)

The lovely animation visualizes the parcel's journey, as it travels via the South London Sorting Depot (february 13th, 2010), arrives at Helsinki Airport (february 16th, 2010, at 23h45) and then goes on to its final destination, where it is being unpacked. The sounds used in the animation are those captured by the dictaphone that was inside.

[ Dictaphone Parcel by Lauri Warsta. ]

It is, however, hard to believe that a reel-to-reel machine like the one shown in the video, even with VOR, would be able to capture on tape all of the sounds it is going through for - at least - three or four full days in a stretch. It is therefore more than unlikely that the actual - pretty good - recordings that we hear in the soundtrack were produced in the way the video and its description suggest. Of course it is the artist's right not to disclose the dirty details involved in a work's creation, but Lauri's film - obviously - made me very curious. How were these recordings made? Did Lauri use a digital dictaphone? Given a sufficiently powerful memory card and the right file format, these in theory can record for sufficiently long periods of time...

I stumbled upon 'Dictaphone Parcel' on Sunday October 3th, mere hours before I was to take a train from Amsterdam to Maastricht. And I decided to right away conduct an experiment: I would do a re-make of 'Dictaphone Parcel', not by sending a recording dictaphone by snail mail, but by acting myself as the postman or courier, transporting a dictaphone parcel from Amsterdam to Maastricht.

Here then follow the story of the parcel's journey and the sounding results of my experiment...


The recorder that I used was one of my Sony TCM-200DV/150 Cassette-Corders, a monophonic dictaphone with a built-in microphone and VOR. In order to have a maximum of recording time, I used a C120 cassette. Letting the dictaphone run at half-speed, this would allow for 2 hours of recording on each of the cassette's sides (a total duration of 4 hours).

dictahike dictahike

Just before leaving for Maastricht, I switched the dictaphone on record. I put it in a cardboard box that in turn I slipped into an envelop. This package with recording dictaphone went into a small rucksack that I carried on my back.

And off we were.

First on foot, from the Amsterdam Pijp to the Amstel train station.

At the Amstel station we boarded a train for Maastricht. Now usually such a train will go all the way. Due to track maintenance work between Roermond and Maastricht, though, the service was interrupted. In Weert we had to change for a bus. In the left photograph below you see the parcel in the train. Once in the train, I took it out of the rucksack and had it lying as in the picture for the full duration of the train trip. And because it was lying there, I actually heard it switch off shortly before arriving at Eindhoven station. That meant that the dictaphone had finished recording the first side of the cassette, and indeed had already been running for 2 hours. Therefore, not surprisingly, there had been but little time out causing the VOR to switch it off. I decided to turn the cassette and continue to record also the remaining part of the journey.

dictahike dictahike

In Weert we had to leave the train. We boarded a bus that then took us to Maastricht. In the right photograph above you see the rucksack with the dictaphone parcel some time during the bus trip from Weert to Maastricht.

In the picture below you again see the parcel, that, in yet another bus, I once again had taken out of the rucksack for the final motorized part of its trip. That one took us from the Maastricht train station to our final destination: my mother's house in a suburb called Malberg.


The last picture then shows the dictaphone unpacked in my room at my mother's house, shortly before I switched it off. When I did, it had almost finished to record also all of the cassette's second side, indeed making for almost four hours of 'secret recording'...


As this SB-entry's podcast, here is an almost 7 minute summary of that recording. I used the possibility Soundcloud offers to comment a track to indicate what part of the recording corresponds to what part of the dictaphone's hike from Amsterdam to Maastricht.

Dictaphone Hike

Just one more observation. Maybe you remember that in Lauri's animation at its arrival in Helsinki the dictaphone parcel is welcomed by a barking dog? As you can hear, also in my re-make the parcel is greeted by a dog's barking. Now would that be a mere coincidence or are barking dogs, au contraire, a roaming running recorder's ultimate destiny?


[ added October 8th, 2010 - Several viewers fast as lightning pointed me to Janek Schaefer's Recorded Delivery from 1995: "Recorded Delivery is a sound activated tape recording of a parcel travelling through the Post Office system from Exhibition Road, to the room of the installation in the Acorn Self Storage centre, Wembley, London. The sound reactive dictaphone automatically edited the 15 hour journey to a 72 minute recording, capturing only the most sonically interesting elements of the journey from the 28th to 29th March 1995."
Special thanks to Classical-Drone's Caleb Deupree (at the phonography Yahoo group) and Nicolas Schoener (of the Lundispensable Songs of Praise, broadcasting singular musics into the Parisian aether since 1989 at Aligre FM 93.1), who included this link to a webpage with an exhaustive description of Janek's piece.
Caleb moreover mentioned that Janek "later put a dictaphone in a weather balloon and released a time-lapse recording of its flight over Minneapolis and released this as a CD called Weather Report".
Greg Hooper, at the soundasart Yahoo group, added: "There is the Janek Schaefer piece, but I remember people doing this in Australia as mail art perhaps in the 1970s with voice activated cassette recorders."

[ Related links : Dictaphone Parcel (Sept. 24, 2010) | The Rhythm of Labor (Oct. 14th, 2010) ]

tags: dictaphone, field recording

# .392.

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