Anyone familiar with my soundtracks will know that I am a huge fan of using field recordings to add a layer of everyday realism to live performances. This can be anything from a recording of an empty room to enhance claustrophobia (as in The Enormous Room), helicopters flying overhead in (Weightless), traffic lights beeping (A Readiness), or the endless rain and thunder of (The Deluge).
Most of the time I use portable recorders to capture the sounds of objects or places, and below are three options which list some equipment that i recommend for field recordings.
1. Microphones for iPhone
If you don’t fancy learning how to use a new piece of kit, there are some excellent microphones that turn your phone into a mobile studio. They are small, super portable (so you can always keep one with you) and very affordable. The downside is that its fiddly to get them off the mobile and onto a computer to edit, and you will inevitably run out of storage on your phone.
In my opinion, the best mic for iPhone is the Rode IXYL, which is mae up of two condenser microphones in an XY position (90 degrees from each other) which allows you to accurately capture a wide sound, or two people in conversation. Rode make excellent microphones, including the VideoMicro which I plug into my camera to improve audio when filming dance shows.
I also recommend looking at the cheaper Blue Mikey, and the 30pin connection Tascam iM2X.
2. Portable Recorder
If I want a quick, but still high quality recording of a place or environment then I like to use the nifty little Zoom H1. It’s quite cheap at around £75 (UK) and you can simply point it in the direction of the sound you want to capture. Just make sure you use a wind shield if you are outside, the foam ones are ok, but no where near as good as a proper windjammer from Rycote. Check out this recording of a choir at Charing Cross Station. As soon as I heard how great the choir sounded on top of the train announcements, I whipped the zoom out of my bag and recorded it.
3. Portable recorder + Professional Microphone
When I need a really professional recording that I can set up anywhere, I use my Tascam DR-40. It has XLR inputs which means I can connect professional microphones to it and get maximum control over what I record. I also use this to record film audio, because using a separate microphone on a boom pole lets me get much closer to specific sounds, or record individual sounds on separate tracks.
Let me know if you have any questions I might b able to help with in the comments below, or if you have a great piece of kit you recommend.
Depicted through a David Lynch-esque filmic style, The Enormous Room portrays a relationship between a father and a daughter who are trying to deal with grief.
The soundtrack for The Enormous Room is a complex mix of dreamy nostalgic music and household sound FX. When I first met Stopgap’s Artistic Director, Lucy Bennett, to discuss her creative ideas I knew instantly that it would be a production in which i could really flex my sound design muscles. So in order to write my tracks for the show I divided the sound design into two aspects:
An internal soundtrack which creates a realistic, nostalgic and at times claustrophobic environment for the characters.
An external Soundtrack which is more musical, cinematic and heard “from above”.
(Continues after photo gallery)
Enormous Room- Stopgap Dance
I loved composing the music for the show. It’s a mix of synths and guitar quite unlike any other i have written for contemporary dance or theatre. It has almost a twin peaks feel to the reverb drenched guitar loops and distant vintage synth sounds.
For the more surreal moments such as Nadenh Poan’s utterly enthralling solo and the beautiful Rooftop Duet between Hannah and Christian, the percussive elements of the music are made from recordings of me drumming on kitchen utensils, pots and pans. In the second half of the show some of these rhythms return for Christian Brinklow’s solo, this time played on a wooden door to give a deeper more dream-like texture to the music.
Under the whole show is a track called the enormous room tone. This is an infinity looping, almost inaudible track of kitchen sounds, opening and closing doors/cupboards, fridge/freezer buzzes, kettles boiling and outside traffic. This track is to make sure that there is never true silence during the performance, keeping the audience immersed in the bizarre melancholy of the show.
The show is touring in 2017, please visit Stopgap Dance Company’s website for more details. http://stopgapdance.com
Writing a soundtrack for contemporary dance can be pretty varied, and as both Co-Artistic Director of Lîla Dance and a freelance composer I’ve made more soundtracks than most. Over the years I’ve made everything from abstract soundscapes to rock and roll and drum and bass. So one thing I’ve found is that you can quickly feel like you never have enough kit to cover what ever crazy brief the next choreographer might give you. But the reality is that generally, there are five pieces of equipment that I take everywhere with me.
#1 A Laptop (Macbook Pro)
I only switched to mac a few years ago, but I can honestly say it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Now, I can confidently change any equipment I connect to my laptop without worrying about installing drivers. Before, buying a new audio interface meant wasting hours of my life trying to get it to work with windows, uninstalling then re-installing drivers, and sometimes in moments of despair… completely re-installing windows.
I own a 13” Macbook Pro with a Retina Screen. I bought the top model from the Apple store, so that it would be a fairly future proof investment for me. It’s about 3 years old now and the new models are almost the same speed. I wasn’t bothered about the Retina Screen when I bought it, but I’ve noticed that it has greatly reduced the strain on my eyes from working on a laptop all day. It’s also great in theatres when everything goes dark, it will automatically dim the brightness and the screen is still easy to read.
#2 Quality Software (Logic Pro X)
While technically software is not equipment, you will be hard pushed to make a soundtrack without any software. There are loads of great music editing apps for composing for dance. I use Logic Pro X, because I’ve found it relatively easy to use and it is able to produce extremely high quality sounds. It is mac only though, so if you use a windows computer then I really recommend FL Studio, which I loved using. I could make a track unbelievably fast with its ‘click and drag’, ‘copy and paste’ style workflow.
One of the things I’ve noticed about ‘going mac’ is that the cost of the laptop is higher, but the software is much cheaper- Logic is £149.99 and so Final Cut X is £229.99. That’s amazingly good value when you consider Cubase Pro is £406, and Pro Tools can cost thousands.
#3 USB Audio Interface (RME Babyface)
An audio interface allows you to connect your computer to inputs and outputs.
Making music on Virgin Trains
Most of my dance soundtracks involve original recordings of guitar tracks or pianos. I think acoustic guitar tracks work well because they can be fluid, expressive, and dynamic. I also really like recording Cello, which can be incredibly beautiful and emotive.
Some soundtrack’s I have written music for, also contained vice overs, and recording of text. Having a quality audio interface allows me to connect a good microphone and record professional voice overs no matter where I am.
One of the reasons I chose the RME Babyface is because it has XLR outputs. This means that when I’m in a theatre running sound for a show, I can give provide high quality, low noise outputs which lock into place, so I don’t have to worry about it accidentally disconnecting during a show. Connecting to the headphone output of a laptop can cause interference from other technology, such as mobiles phones in the audience, and the longer the cable the worse the sound.
#4 Portable Recorder (Tascam DR-40 / Zoom H1)
Contemporary dance can be quite an abstract art form. One of the things I like to do in my soundtracks is add ‘found sounds’ from everyday life, to give a sense of place to the dance. It makes movement look ‘real’, and it can really support the choreographer in creating an environment or sense of place to the performances.
I own two portable recorders, the Tascam DR-40 and the Zoom H1. the tascam has XLR inputs which means I can connect professional microphones to it and record anywhere, I also use this to record film audio. The Zoom H1 is half the size and weight, which makes it super convenient to keep in my bag, and its built in microphones are capable of some very high quality recordings. Check out the recording I made of a choir at Charing Cross Station. As soon as i heard how great the choir sounded on top of the train announcements, I was able to quickly get the zoom out of my bag and record it.
#5 An instrument
These days you can get some absolutely beautiful sounding virtual instruments, but for me, nothing beats being in the studio with a real instrument, reacting to the movement around me. It’s not always a guitar, but I find that the recordings I make have more life, soul, and character than a digital instrument can ever reproduce. Recordings also have a sense of space which I find can help fit with dance.
I’ve watched choreographers spend huge amounts of time working with dancers on movement qualities, and this has had a huge impact on the importance that I also place on qualities. An important lesson i have learnt is that sometimes the way I play an instrument is more important than the notes I play.
So now you’ve heard what I use, I want to know if you’ve ever tried to make music for dance, and if so what did do you use? I look froward to reading your comments below.
Last week I finished my second contemporary dance soundtrack of the year. This time it was for the lovely and talented Tim Casson who has made a family friendly piece on Stopgap‘s SG2 Company, called Night at the Theatre.
It’s a show about three unlikely characters (Hannah Sampson, Nadenh Poan and Connor Quill) accidentally stumbling into a theatre and becoming the stars of their own show. It has some hilarious moments in it, and some really beautiful dancing.
The set and lighting design is spectacular- creating the beautiful illusion of an old abandoned theatre. I’ve tried to match this with a sound design which includes creaking floorboard, and a draughty atmosphere. When the music for each section fades away the characters are always left in this sound design.
Some of the highlights are Dan’s dreamy solo (pictured at the top) which I created a track with windchimes and glockenspiels for, and Hannah’s Disco which has more funk than you can shake a stick at.
SG2 are an integrated dance company run by Stopgap, which means that their dancers are a mix of disabled and non-disabled dancers. I’ve worked with Nadenh and Hannah before when we worked with George Adams on Integrance a European cultural commission for disabled dancers. Both Hannah and Nadenh are really skilled dancers, so it was great to work with them again, and inspiring to see how much they continue to improve.
It’s no surprise that Joli Vyann’s new show Imbalance got a standing ovation at its premiere. I was super excited after they first asked me to do their sound design. The two performers are mind-blowingly talented, and they’ve fused contemporary dance with hand-to-hand circus to create a really spectacular take on modern life. The show explores our obsessive dependence with technology, asking whether our lives are ‘in’ or ‘out’ of balance? And Jonathan Lunn’s choreography has clearly taken the company forward leaps and bounds to create a show that feels incredibly current and well crafted.
I write a lot of music for dance, and this show is a sound designer’s dream. We are surrounded by the sounds of modern technology all the time- from the clicking sounds of typing on a smart phone to sell service check outs- and that gives me a lot of material to make my music. For one section, the two dancers try to keep up while the sounds around them, which constantly demand their attention, gradually get faster and faster. The result is a hilarious reflection on how pressured and under control we can feel from the technology around us. And yet, later in the show the same sounds are chilling when they return over the top of a section on cyber bullying.
Alongside the music I composed for specific sections, we used a few tracks which were so great they sounded like they were made for the show. It starts with the beautiful Georgian singing of Ensemble Georgika, has a few glitchy Matmos tracks, and ends with an equally beautiful but completely different track by Fridge called ‘Our Place in This.
Last month I finished a new soundtrack for Bootworks Theatre’s new children’s show The Many Doors of Frank Feelbad. The play follows Frank, a young boy with a habit for losing things, who discovers he’s lost his mum. The show tackles some difficult subjects and themes for young children, and it was really important that the music supported this in a fun and engaging way.
It was awesome to work with such a creative theatre company. The performers do a phenomenal amount both in terms of making elements of the show, as well as during the performances, changing costumes whilst triggering sound and lighting cues.
One of my favourite tracks from the show is puzzle:
For a play about grief, the magic of Frank Feelbad is that it’s a hilarious show and kids will love it. The music has everything from a scottish jig to a dubstep baroque track (something i never thought i’d say).
Just finished working with La Petite Mort Dance Theatre on a new show called Cabinet of Curiosities, which premieres in Accrington Library and will be performed in non-dance venues across Lancashire.
I collaborated with choreographer and Director George Adams on Cabinet of Curiosities over a few weeks during April in Lancaster. The soundtrack features everything from a Fly buzzing around the space to my trademark acoustic guitar, piano and found sounds.
George and I have previously collaborated together on the EU Cultural Commission, Integrance, which featured Stopgap, Platform-K, Micadanses, & Indepen-Dance.
LPM Dance Theatre creates evocative, cross-artform theatre that puts entertainment and artistic collaboration at the centre of its work.
Cabinet of Curiosities Forthcoming Performances:
Accrington Library- 26th June-7pm
(Taster performance) The Storey Gallery, Lancaster- 3rd July 6.30 and 7.30
The Dukes Theatre, Lancaster- 12th September -8pm