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In the age of iPhones and other smart devices, it’s almost instinct to drown out the drone of busy streets—screeching buses, shouts from street vendors, blaring horns and passing conversation—with headphones.
But sound artist and musician Halsey Burgund finds the cacophony to be a hum of opportunity; every yell, whisper and grinding escalator stair is music to his ears.
Burgund uses voices and noises—snippets of everyday life, from the clink of car keys to a dripping shower head—in his musical compositions and art installations. “Ocean Voices,” for instance, is an interactive audio map composed of people’s anecdotes about the ocean and conservation, and “Patient Translations” is a crowd-sourced audio and visual artwork on health care.
The documentarian takes us inside his studio for a closer look at what helps him capture everyday life and turn it into art.
ZOOM audio recorders, specifically the H2 model
Burgund uses a number of microphones and recording devices to capture voices. But, he says he’s “not a super gear head”—in fact, his favorite recorder is a small one he can fit in his pocket. “There are similar recorders that probably offer slightly better sound quality or more advanced features, but the convenience of the ZOOMs and the low enough price, [which makes me] comfortable bringing one of them everywhere, is super important to me,” he says. “I always want to be ready to record something. It might not always be someone’s voice; it might be an interesting sound or meteorological phenomenon. I always want to be ready.”
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Sony Over-the-Ear Headphones ($19.99)
Burgund wears these simple headphones gifted to him by a friend ages ago. They’re not fancy or special, but they are sturdy “workhorses [that] get the job done,” he says. “There is something really intimate about the spoken voice, and listening in the equally intimate way that over-ear headphones provides helps me channel the individuals and connect to them better.”
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> Evernote, a productivity app, helps Burgund capture and organize his ideas. It allows him to create audio and photo “notes,” and the app compiles these notes into “notebooks.” Burgund keeps a separate notebook for each of his projects, as well as general notebooks devoted to "Ideas for the Future" and “Finances.” “One of the most important features for me is that it has an iOS app as well and the notes are stored in the cloud, so I can always access them and add to them even while on the go with my iPhone,” he says. “I'm not overly organized by nature, so having a tool like this that can compensate for some of my inadequacies is really great. There is nothing more horrifying to me than having a good idea and then letting it get away.”
Portable Recording Booth
Burgund calls this a “bring your own voice booth.” It’s a big plywood box that breaks down and goes on top of his car; he drives around and sets it up everywhere—from street corners to basements of clubs—to collect raw material. Packing blankets line the inside of the booth, where visitors also find a microphone. “It provides a sort of semi private and semi soundproof environment that people can step in,” Burgund says.
“It’s not always easy to get open and honest and free flowing commentary from people if you walk up to them on the street and stick a microphone in their face. When you have something a little more private or official people [aren’t] as taken aback. People can be as open and honest as they want.”
Nothing on the market fit what Burgund was looking for when he was hunting for a similar space 10 years ago, so he built his own. “Since the booth is an integral part of my artistic process and the experience of the participants, I really treated its creation as a sculpture project,” he says. It’s become a visual reflection of Burgund’s work, too; everyone who goes inside uses a marker to “tag” the outside of the booth with their name, a picture, a drawing, “whatever they want,” he says. If you’re pining for your own booth, don’t fret: As an open-source fan, Burgund says he’s happy to share his design with anyone who is interested.
One of the places Burgund looks for open-source coding, Github is referred to as a "social-coding" site as it allows for people to easily collaborate and share code with each other. Git is a decentralized system, which means multiple people can work off of the same codebase independently without any merging or tracking issues, Burgund says. “It's a great resource to browse, test and contribute back to an amazing array of open-source projects. Git and other similar tools really allow open-source projects to flourish and are probably one of the reasons that there is such a vibrant open-source community today.”
The MalletKAT Pro ($2,289.00)
This electronic percussion tool is laid out like a marimba. Instead of producing sound from wooden bars and resonators, the device can be programmed so that different “keys” are linked to tracks saved on a computer. Burgund, a trained percussionist, uses the malletKAT as an editing tool for his projects; instead of using the computer to compose, he uses mallets to “play” voices and sounds and see how they take shape in song. “I can lay out voices on the malletKAT so a particular note—C3—would actually trigger a person saying a certain thing; D3 would trigger a different voice clip,” Burgund says. “I play them in quick succession and trigger them in different ways.”
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Ableton Live music software ($399)
One of Burgund’s primary tools, Ableton Live is a loop-based music sequencer that can be used with Windows or Mac . “It enables me to quickly pull together different sounds, voices and musical lines into one place and then experiment with them. It's like audio Lego; you put a bunch of blocks into the system and then you can assemble and reassemble however you want,” he says.
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Along with Ableton Live, Burgund uses this music software to create algorithms that play music. “It turns composing from being a linear experience into something much more dynamic and flexible, because you can layer things and loop things and build things up in real time,” he says. The algorithm plays back voices and sounds based on certain parameters, but not in specific, laid out ways. “So I could choose a voice from [this collection of] 20 and play it for somewhere between 10 and 30 seconds. Then, I can wait for one to five seconds and choose a different voice from that set of 20,” Burgund says. “I can make programs that take some of the decision making away from me. In doing so, I create moments that I wouldn’t have come up with on my own.”
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TED Talks and Podcasts (free)
“I try to keep up,” says Burgund, with the newest talks published by the conference giant TED. The diversity of the lectures inspires the artist’s mind to “go in directions it normally wouldn’t,” he says. Two recent favorites: Physicist Garrett Lisi’s talk, “A theory of everything,” and Cloud Appreciation Society founder Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s “Cloudy with a chance of joy. He counts Radiolab, This American Life, 99% Invisible, The Moth and Freakonomics among his favorite podcasts.
Burgund regularly reads this monthly magazine for stories about how people approach audio recording, particularly its interviews with people in the field and reviews of equipment. A recent issue featured an article about Bruce Swedien, the man who engineered Michael Jackson's “Thriller.” TapeOp printed a copy of a thank you from Jackson to Swedien that said, "You are the best engineer in the whole world!”
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