New Mexico is an intriguing place. On my first trip there Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Los Alamos were on the travel itinerary with a promise of green chilies for every meal and mountain treks into the dry southwestern altitude. I viewed this opportunity wide-eared with plans to capture some amazing sounds unique to the region. Having to pack light seemed to be the only caveat, but that really didn't factor into the situation since I had some fairly versatile gear on hand. As always, my goal was to capture audio that is either common but for which I have a plan for editing creatively, or is unique or uniquely captured unto itself. I could have spent the entire trip recording urban ambiances, trains, hiking FX, marketplace chatter, and even the brand spanking new '14 Dodge Charger we were able to rent for our desert roaming. But those would not have met my criteria for what I wanted to capture. No, my capture list contained things like green chili roasters (both automatic and manual), clay and pottery FX, gusts of sand sweeping over different landscapes, some local wildlife (certain birds and grasshoppers particularly), and/or manipulations of local flora (with everything being so dry and plentiful), to name a few. I even conjured up some ideas on the spot (as usually happens) which I discovered would be GREAT takeaways.
As it turns out though, for this particular trip, all of the planning and scheduling that was done beforehand did not a single great recording produce. And for an uncomfortably long moment, I was disheartened. Was I just not on my A-game here? Was there a fundamental that I was overlooking which was rendering all of my attempts unsuccessful? I was bothered by it and continually wracked my brain to try to sort out what I was doing wrong when it hit me, driving South to Albuquerque from Los Alamos on the I-25 across the open sands: on this excursion, sound doesn't want to be captured.
Now, I know that sounds a bit ridiculous but let me explain. It wasn't the product of a single element of my technique that was failing me, but rather an amalgamation of events that were relentless in their efforts to benignly foil my attempts at good, clean, unique audio recordings. These are things that every field recordist/sound designer is bound to come across in their work at some point or another, but that I was *fortunate* to have in one big convoluted cocktail of disruption. The situation unfolded with obstacles as follows:
You plan to go out and capture a lot because the opportunity/location is so unique, but you find out the unique sounds just aren't there.
And they weren't. The wildlife was scant at best, the chili roasters had just been stored away for the season, the only pottery craft work I could find was for sale on a sidewalk, street demonstrations were at a minimum, and whether you can believe it or not (and I still really can't) there was virtually no wind for the entire 4-day trip. New Mexico, windless. ...What?
You try to get good captures, but never get the right opportunity.
And I didn't. The bells of the historic Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi were STRICTLY off limits which was a huge bummer. Once I heard the mass bells being struck from across town, I was immediately interested. Alas, when I inquired to get a closer look (listen) I was told that even the workers at the Basilica were prohibited from crossing the upright catwalks to get to the bell tower. Outside wasn't a viable option due to the road noise, though I certainly tried. The Alcove House in the Frijoles Canyon (Bandelier National Park) had one of the coolest IRs that I have heard when captured at different angles. And even though we got up there with no one else behind us and only a few in front that were coming down, by the time we found the right locations to emit and record from, the traffic of folks trickled in just steadily enough to always be in the way. Double bummer.
You have a gear malfunction.
This was a minor occurrence, but the single contact mic that I brought (remember, had to pack light for this trip) was on its last leg and finally crapped out. It turns out that the connections to the PVDF tab were compromised. A terrible piercing electrical signal was the result. At the Bandelier National Park, there were some incredible bridges scattered about that, due to their construction, made some truly beautiful and complex droning and rattling sounds when struck.
You're looking for sound in places where other modalities rule, and should rightly be recognized.
This and the next point are big ones. Should you realize this too late in your journey, and you may pass up some great overall experiences that reside partially or wholly outside of the auditory realm. New Mexico, I found, is really a place of smells and tastes more than it is a bounty of interesting sonic on-goings. The food there is awesome and being the time of year that we were visiting, the smell of burning piñon wood was everywhere and really set the scene nicely. The dryness is another aspect that I couldn't avoid noticing. In North Carolina, we have humid days a majority of the year and the Summers are particularly intense when the heat kicks up and you instantly soak your clothes thoroughly before you make it from your house to your car. While the temperature was cool, the air felt transparent. Yes, it would've made for some ideal recording conditions, but even with the mics off the sounds around the city were easily heard over long distances thanks to the flat stretches of land and gradual elevation changes. It really made me appreciate the breadth of land that sprawled out before me. Being an average of a mile up, Albuquerque and the Sandia Mountains offered views that (literally) took your breath away. Good stuff, and none of it really hinging on the sonics of the place.
You miss a good learning opportunity because you can't get an ideal capture.
Maybe the biggest point here is that even though your chances to capture top quality audio are compromised this doesn't necessarily mean you should stop recording. If you are in a place that does emit some elements of a unique soundscape, then keep the headphones on a bit longer and explore. Priceless lessons/reminders/practice in environmental acoustics, frequency modulation, phasing, mic placement, gain riding, and more can be had just by exploring the area with your gear rolling. You may not capture anything useful in the sense of future design or utility, but you most likely will capture some new insights and ideas into how you work and toward future field recording sessions. In the Frijoles Canyon, they had recently had a forest fire followed by a flood (as I learned, tends to happen from time to time). This left the area pretty desolate of most active wildlife and the flora in general was swept away or mangled severely. This created a whole different ecological soundscape than what would normally be in the canyon. It was quiet, and the river/stream that remained from the flood was clearly heard from all parts of the rising cliff faces. Walking in the aftermath as it were provided some great new perspectives on the ambiance of a mountain forest. Sound traveled exceptionally well and gave a whole new meaning to ambient transients. Couple that with only one plane flying overhead for the hours while we were there and you had a nearly pristine, though modified, natural soundscape.
All of that said, I was able to manage two meager but usable clips from this trip which I will post on our Freebies page. Check back over there soon to have a listen. As well, I had a new idea for another library that is in the works spring up, which I am excited about!
What is seemingly a bust can be a diamond in the rough if you are mindful and patient. Discouragement comes in many forms, but can almost always be dissolved by taking a step back from the microscope and fully taking in your present moment. This trip taught me that and it proves to be a resounding lesson. Ok, that's enough of that.