I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Re-embracing the full sonic spectrum in the era of binary digital sound
Sonics are the most supernatural art form as they produce no object. Unlike sculpture, music is not a thing, but an experience.
Recording, though, turned music from an activity into something material. Nearly a century later, music videos emerged, rendering visual what had been a strictly aural experience. In many of these clips, it’s clear that the imagery was born before the music. The songs themselves often seem like an afterthought—a score for striking poses.
Much of modern music has lost spirituality because digital correction erases the very places where the humanity is found—in the “mistakes,” the flat or sharp notes, rhythmic variance. Music played without risk—performed with the aid of click-tracks and pre-recorded guide vocals—lacks tension. The quest for clinical sound is like chasing a mirage, for perfection itself does not exist.
Too often, professional recording studios resemble bunkers or crypts. I prefer to record outdoors, or if working in a traditional studio, to make sure that it has at least one window. And to open doors whenever possible and let a little light—and the world—in. The ideal is to seek out a place that has personal meaning for the artist (such as the house they grew up in) and whose specialness shakes and reawakens their outlook. When recording outside, one way or another, a little grit always finds its way into the music. And usually, that’s a good thing.
For over a decade, my wife, the photographer and documentarian Marilena Umuhoza Delli, and I have devoted ourselves to providing an international platform for original music from under-represented regions and languages. Since 2010, we’ve produced twenty-five albums across four continents, including artists from Malawi, Rwanda, Ukerewe Island, Romania, Cambodia, and the newest nation in the world, South Sudan.
We’ve frequently worked with people who have no previous musical experience, as well as historically persecuted populations, such as people with albinism in Tanzania and elderly women accused of witchcraft in Ghana. These underknown voices in world music are plentiful and far outnumber the dominant ones.
For anyone who might misconstrue field recording as merely pointing a handheld device at someone, be cautioned. We already suffer from an oversaturation of recorded content. The larger challenge is to improve the quality rather than the quantity of what is preserved, so that fewer gems are lost amid the static.
What any one person thinks is “good” is highly subjective, and these evaluations are subject to change. For me, the litmus test is the honesty of the performer, someone who communicates clearly and uniquely. Psychologists have identified six core emotional states (fear, sadness, anger, happiness, disgust, surprise) that we come hard-wired for. These are expressed and recognized universally and are almost impossible to convincingly fake. At their fullest, emotions are expressed simultaneously, in layers—fear masked by anger, joy underpinned by sadness. The hallmark of a pedestrian artist is one who sings a happy song as if it were only happy.
A recording can almost never be one-hundred-percent “honest,” since performance is rife with unreality. The difference between recording a live performance and cobbling one together from overdubs is that what is being heard is a moment that actually occurred rather than a simulation.
Though I gravitate toward transparent warts-and-all methods, the result is not intended to be lo-fi. While my admittedly limited technical skill set may impose an unintended ceiling, I aspire to present artists in the best possible light. But my top goal is truthful representation—a fly-on-the-wall sensation with as high fidelity as circumstances and budgets allow.
One world music label sent a record back to me to be remixed three times because they thought it sounded “too good.” The patronizing message was clear: the higher powers had deemed that someone from a poor country must in turn be represented with degraded sound, even if this wasn’t what the artist desired or what in fact existed on tape. Similarly, I’ve often had to switch engineers mid-project, since many people approach unorthodox recordings as lesser or even barely worthy of their time and therefore make almost no effort to maximize the potential of the material.
Over 100,000 albums are released annually in the US each year. Meanwhile, the majority of countries have no albums with wide international distribution. In the simulated democracy of the Internet, we’re made to think that merely posting content is enough for it to be heard around the world. Though a recent survey revealed that over twenty percent of songs available on Spotify have never been streamed. It’s not for lack of product but lack of resources and promotion that most music remains imprisoned within linguistic and geographic borders.
Don’t fight the results you capture. Amplify and make a performance more of what it already is.
We visited the newest nation in the world in 2012, just days after its first anniversary of existence. The heart of the Zande people’s village is the kpaningbo, a xylophone that is over ten feet long and requires five people to play it simultaneously.
When we arrived, there was a raucous midday crowd awaiting us. Since the party seemed to already be in full swing, with dozens of dancers circling the players and vocalists trading off in a seemingly spontaneous, ragtag fashion, there was little choice but to throw up a coverage of mics as quickly as possible. As a default, I loosely followed “Sound Engineering 101” principles and placed the microphones:
1. as close to the source as possible
2. but as far away from each other as allowable.
In such instances it usually helps to bear in mind that in post-production it’s easier to take away frequencies than add them. And best microphone placement starts with simply getting down on the ground and listening with the naked ear, letting the sound dictate where things should go.
Close by, a straw-and-plywood bar blasted dub music that might send a schooled sound engineer to the edge of a psychotic break. The villagers said it would be impolite to ask him to turn it down. But I was amazed later how this intrusive sound was completely absent on the actual recording. It stood as further affirmation that you can record just about anywhere. The outdoors provide a sonic sphere about as close to neutral as possible, since there is minimal sonic reflection compared to surfaces like windows and walls.
Music should bleed and breathe, not be vacuum-sealed. If silence is the ideal backdrop, then we are doomed to failure since silence does not exist. Sound is always found. Silence is merely noise that has been stabilized, masked, or ignored. That’s why filmmakers rarely utilize actual silence for effect. Instead they indicate it by emphasizing the meeker details that wouldn’t normally be evident if things were louder (like a fly’s buzzing). “Noise” is nothing more than unwelcome sound.
One of the most valuable pieces of equipment needed to record outdoors is actually the cheapest: duct tape. It can be used to make jury-rigged mic stands out of tree limbs or anything else perpendicular.
One technical reality of recording outdoors is that often pieces of machinery fall—sometimes, quite literally—in the line of duty. Certainly, the field is no place for fastidiousness. Shure SM57 microphones have a well-deserved reputation for versatility and durability, but, as I discovered while recording in South Sudan, we all have our limits.
Since the wind was gusting intermittently, I improvised pop screens for the mics from the sweaty socks off my own feet. Almost any cloth barrier will do.
Meet people where they are at instead of placing them in unfamiliar or uncomfortable positions.
We went to Hanoi to record Vietnamese war veterans. Among them were music masters, one of whom had joined the army at age thirteen and whose job it was to serenade the troops to boost morale and provide solace from within the trenches. Others were amateurs expressing themselves publicly for the first time about their combat trauma.
The elderly musician was a shy man, and each time I moved the microphones closer to him, he inched back. It appeared as if I was unintentionally shoving him around the room until he ended up cornered. Seeing this, I realized it was time to fall back on my default theory: Bring the studio to where the music is happening. If that’s a parking lot with a singer sitting on the ground and the mics farther away than is optimal, so be it.
Those who dismiss traditional Vietnamese music as without an edge may have simply overlooked its intricacy. With a whammy-bar technology that dates back to the ninth century, it’s fair to say that Vietnamese tradition had a bit of a head start over the headbangers of the 1980s.
Sound modification like distortion has been part of their tradition for thousands of years, as it is in so many other “ancient” systems, where rattles are added to instruments to create more overtones, since “noise” is valued as much as identified notes.
Art is born from momentum. Unnecessary interruption is anathema to creativity.
The trio Fra Fra specializes in funeral songs, which in Northern Ghana are somewhat akin to New Orleans jazz second line processions in that they don’t wallow in sadness but instead sound more like celebrations of life. This group’s leader, Small, plays a homemade two-string guitar with dog tags for rattles.
I took the mics to the group since they seemed reluctant to enter the compound. Instead, they gyrated in circles on the gravel outside. In recording, coverage is more important than precision. Each microphone tells a slightly different version of the truth, so I quickly threw up as many as possible.
The group leader, Small, was able to riff almost endlessly. In fact, his performances grew freer and stronger past the ten-minute mark, so much so that songs would become different tunes entirely. Following his flow, I simply let the tape roll until things fell apart. But even then, I sensed that still greater things lay ahead if only they’d kept going.
The answer is not in the blowing wind.
The Abatwa are among the most persecuted populations in Africa. They make up one of a number of semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers of short stature historically referred to as pygmies, though the term is now widely considered a slur. Still, many tribe members we met prefer this name over the more PC mouthful that has replaced it, which roughly translates to: “The people who were left behind because of the facts of Rwandan history.”
We recorded in the hills abutting the Republic of Burundi, often in government designated villages that resemble reservations.
When recording outdoors, trees act as resonators for wind. Therefore, a forest is the equivalent of a mountain of Marshall stacks. This presents a case where it’s best to place your back to a wall—similar to how when defending yourself from multiple assailants being cornered, counterintuitively, limits access to your person when no other escape proves possible.
Another common sonic trap is a tin roof. It provides great protection. That is, until it starts raining. At that point it becomes a soundboard for the storm.
Much of the Abatwa recording occurred next door to a construction site with a constant stream of concrete trucks backing up. But what seemed hopelessly ruined to the naked ear left hardly a trace on the actual recording.
DOWN THE ROAD FROM MONKEY BAY, MALAWI
Amplify and value idiosyncrasies.
It was just around the corner from the “Pack-and-Go” coffin shop in 2011 that we first met the members of the Malawi Mouse Boys, on the only skinny stretch of road where they sell barbecued mice on sticks to passing travelers. Working around the clock, whistling and waving their wares at oncoming traffic, the Malawi Mouse Boys’ core trio spend the downtime of their days (and nights) beside the highway, strumming guitars tailored from recycled scrap-metal parts.
Initially, the group was highly resistant to bringing their self-crafted, salvaged-parts, four-string guitar on their first tour of Europe. They were ashamed of it and wanted to play “real” instruments instead. It did not take them but one gig, though, to appreciate that the rudimentary piece of equipment that had earned them so much castigation at home leant a certain cachet overseas.
Seeing fans line up to snap photos of their hand-painted tree branch “axe,” as it rested against a wall following their inaugural show only solidified their newfound appreciation of such a dowdy instrument. So much so that when we next returned to Malawi, the band had sold most of the factory-made guitars that we’d given to them as gifts, and they used the money to construct a small armory of funky, one-of-a-kind scrap-metal playthings.
Ultimately, any instrument is merely a vehicle, a means to an end.
It is at the moment of decay that an instrument takes on a life of its own, beyond the player’s control—a beginning rather than an ending.
Like a neurosurgeon who learns to eat and write with their non-dominant hand to develop ambidexterity, you should try playing conventional instruments in an unconventional way—upside-down, de- or re-tuned. The goal is to break existing patterns and locate pockets of liberty.
All sound contains music. Superior artists help us hear better and more of the world around us.
Hawks crowd the skies above Karachi as a blessing. They are fed animal scraps—such nonverbal prayers are thought to reach God more powerfully. Seventy-five-year-old Master Ustad Naseeruddin Saami has devoted his life to exploring the nuances of every note. He is the only vocal practitioner of Surti, a customized microtonal, multilingual system, passed down by his ancestors for over a thousand years. It incorporates Farsi, Sanskrit, Hindi, ancient Vedic, Arabic, Urdu, and gibberish.
As in many of the predominantly Islamic countries we’ve traveled to (such as Morocco and Djibouti), in Pakistan the daily five calls to prayer have become a sonic intrusion to contend with: Master Saami lamented that now instead of beckoning, the calls to prayer are barked over intercoms around the clock, coarsely and off-pitch, since music is seen by some extremists as having no place in a righteous society.
Master Saami’s custom forty-nine-note scale goes far beyond the tonal language of the seven-note Western scale (let alone the more commonly used five-note blues and folk scale). But it is these unstable pitches that Saami values the most, as they contain the greatest longing.
We recorded the first Zomba Prison Project record (2013) in a maximum-security prison and featured prisoners and officers, largely with no previous musical background. The album received the first Grammy nomination ever for Malawi, which ranks among the poorest nations on earth.
Even though the leader of Zomba’s male band, Binamo, repeatedly protested that it was impossible for him to write a song in mere days per our request, on our last morning at the prison he pulled out a riveting plea, “I Will Never Stop Grieving for You, My Wife.” It came replete with orchestrated handclaps. From the first note, my breath thinned as I feared anything might interfere with such a miraculous unveiling. Then in the distance, at the entry gate, a car horn tooted. But instead of ruining the take, the sound only enhanced it with more splendor than anything we could’ve planned.
AFAR (RED SEA)
A recording should be born from and reflect a precise place and time.
Seventy-one-year-old singer Yanna gained notice on the border of Djibouti, while accompanied on a two-string shingle played with nails, along with a matchbox for maracas.
She became known among the Afar people—whose territory traverses Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Eritrea—not just for her kamikaze vibrato but for being the rare Afar woman who writes her own songs.
We were seated on the floor of a stilt hut above the sea when the tide came in fast, flanking us. The band’s sound rode atop ocean waves, the floor rocking in the current. The recording could not help but arrive imbued with fluidness and air.
Music is not something the rural Afar people do for show, the quartet told us. Since most have no television, they play music for amusement at night. Every night.
To my surprise, Yanna danced as I tuned my guitar, but then she ceased when I began to play.
We recorded quickly—more time generally just means more opportunities to fuck things up.
As an experiment, I asked her to try speaking over some music. On the spot the septuagenarian brainstormed a rap for the ages, riding an unheard bassline for over ten minutes
The best location and circumstances often yield the worst results.
According to locals, musicians are “zombies” since they rise only after dark, too high from chewing khat all night before.
We’d torn through the lowest point in Africa—beneath the ocean, where there is no ocean. It is one of the driest places on earth. Along the way we passed donkey roadkill and more stray camels than stray dogs.
I was already leery about the musical prospect. A bit of a legend on his own scene, the musician had come too heavily recommended. It’s hard to live up to that sort of buildup.
So few people travel on the main road north that the scant souvenir shops there are kept shuttered. But unmarked, just a hundred yards east of a split-second swerve in the freeway, sits a breathtaking canyon. Tourists here count in the hundreds per year but should rightly be in the millions.
We set up there, on the cliff’s edge, utilizing the largest vintage reverb unit on the global market: the earth itself. As we recorded, a baby scorpion kept crawling atop my eight-track and arching its tail, seemingly supervising the input levels. Best location, worst recording.
Things rarely sound like they should. Paradoxically, what works live often sounds terrible when played back and vice versa. Such is the alchemy of the preservation process. Rather than amplifying sound, the canyon swallowed it.
The most striking sound is not one being recreated or mimicked but born for the first time. Plans are maps to be readily abandoned whenever a better route is found.
Despite California boasting the fifth largest economy in the world, homelessness is rampant and has only escalated during the tech industry’s boom. Many we’ve met in the poorest nations find the concept of homelessness dumbfounding. Despite severe hunger, the notion of people being left without shelter remains foreign to them.
We recorded walking distance from where I was born. Beneath underpasses and elevated BART trains, members of the homeless community shared their voices in the exact spots where they lived. To have suppressed the noises would not have created high fidelity but infidelity.
The most striking thing was the ease with which participants communicated. A few puffs on a blunt and less than two minutes of contemplation, and their freestyles rivaled most studied and practiced “street” rappers.
One woman, Bea, slept on a couch sunken under the freeway. She emerged from her blanket cover and launched into a free-associative song about the loss of hope that followed her mother’s passing. It was a gut-wrenching but seemingly effortless declaration of grief, waged through toothless gums. She went straight from sleep to baring her soul, with zero pretense.
The concern for “noise” interference in recording is largely overemphasized. Generally, the only sounds that intrude are the sudden, transient ones. Constant tones from nature drone on and generally can be adapted to.
Bass sounds travel the farthest and through walls. But it is the high frequencies we hear when someone leans in close to whisper. With proximity, the low end drops away, as does the reflected sound. That’s why vocals drenched in reverb—as is the norm with professional recordings (think of the echo we hear when someone shouts into a cave)—distance the listener from the source. For a voice to be foregrounded, present, and intimate, it needs to be as dry as possible. No additional insulation should come between the artist and the listener; instead the two should be brought closer to one another.
When high frequencies are cut, sound is usually unrecognizable, but this is not so when the low end disappears from a signal. Ninety-five percent of the volume of the voice comes from bass resonance, but in an exact reversal, ninety-five percent of the voiced information used for comprehension comes from treble, the sibilance. Most sounds are distinguished by the upper partials alone, and we subliminally fill in the low end. This is how telephone transmission works, by conveying only the uppermost frequencies and leaving us to imagine most of the rest.
We often hear what we imagine to be there more than what actually occurred.
Paradoxically, point a mic at something to make it go away. Turn it up, in order to hide it.
The Good Ones’ bandleader, Adrien Kazigira, still lives without electricity and running water on the remote hilltop farm that he and his children were born on, and where he hid nearby to survive the genocide. With their debut in 2010, the Good Ones were the first group to have original music in Kinyarwanda widely distributed internationally. Adrien and his co-singer, Janvier Havugimana, have been singing together since childhood.
Consequently, their dovetailing harmonies reflect the single-voice harmonies often found only with familial singing groups like the Carter Family, the Staple Singers, the Jackson 5, and the Everly Brothers.
Kazigira was able to buy a milk cow for his farm with the money from their fall 2019 tour of the US. The animal is housed in a stall attached to his home, and as we recorded, the livestock began squalling. We had to stop to feed the cow in order to silence it. But before doing so, I made sure to mic its moans so that the interruptions could be more prominent and precise. Similarly, the surest way to fix a mistake is to repeat it and thereby create a pattern rather than a deviation.
In the summer of 2009, we recorded The Good Ones’ first album on a Kigali back porch in one sitting. The primary interference in this instance was from the wealthy urban neighbors who saw the musicians as unfit because they’re farmers who sing in dialect. The onlookers were convinced they knew better musicians and shoved phone footage of candidates in our faces. What they meant were predictable, more studied performers.
Digital recording lifted the previous limits of one-, two-, four-, eight-, sixteen-, twenty-four-, and then forty-eight track analog recording. But the expansion of options has not produced better music. Just more of it.
The ways in which digital equipment has made remote recording easier are not lost on me. Today, the main recording unit can be carried in one hand or a medium-sized purse versus the fragile but monolithic systems in excess of a hundred pounds that early pioneers like Jesse Fewkes, Colin Turnbull, and Henrietta Yurchenco had to lug up hillsides.
Any single sound is in fact many sounds, blended.
A truism of sonics is that, paradoxically, isolated sounds rarely sound like themselves. The reason is that they have been taken out of context. In order to simulate the sensation that, say, rainfall produces, it must be rejoined with the layers of other secondary and tertiary elements (rustling branches, birds singing, etcetera) that populate and complement it. Otherwise, if strictly sequestered, the sound becomes unrecognizable and, ironically, not credible in its purest form. We can’t record the sound of wind, only its effects on something else, like leaves or shutters.
Every note is a world to itself, with the web of overtones varying depending on how an instrument is touched or struck, and melodies chart the distance between notes. The late free jazz pioneer Cecil Taylor demonstrated to me how he sits and plays the same key on the piano for hours, acting as a detective to its potential. This is very reminiscent of the twentieth-century Italian composer, Giacinto Scelsi, who wrote entire symphonies comprised of only one note, exploring it intimately through nearly imperceptible movements. The journey is to find the rhythm in the spacing between any two notes or bodies and be carried away by what that sound carries.
You should not feel the same after a song is over as when it began. If it has not changed you in some way, it has failed. Entertainment is amnesia. But art contains suspense, making us look inward to reconnect with the core of our humanity. The ultimate recording technology is the mind of the listener, etching sound into memory.
Ian Brennan is an author and the Grammy-winning music producer of Tinariwen’s Tassili, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s I Stand Alone, and Zomba Prison Project’s I Have No Everything Here, among others. Since 1993, he has taught violence prevention at institutions such as the University of London, UC Berkeley, and the National Academy of Science in Rome. His fifth book, Silenced by Sound: The Music Meritocracy Myth, was published in 2019 by PM Press.
Marilena Umuhoza Delli is a photographer, author, and filmmaker whose work has been published by the BBC, CNN, NPR, Al Jazeera, VICE, Libération, Corriere della Sera, Le Monde, Rolling Stone, Smithsonian, and the New York Times, among others. She has written two Italian-language books about racism and growing up with a Rwandan mother in northern Italy.
Originally published in
Our spring issue features interviews with Chitra Ganesh, Tania Cypriano, Charles Atlas, Netta Yerushalmy, Vi Khi Nao, Amani Al-Thuwaini, Andrea Hasler, and Bruce Boone, as well as fiction from Verónica Gerber Bicecci, Justin Taylor, Rebecca Dinerstein Knight, and Lee Relvas, and poetry from Shuzo Takiguchi and Bruce Boone.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee