Name: Jez riley French
Company: JrF Microphones
Product: C-Series Contact Microphone
What prompted you to develop the C-series contact mic? What are your quality criteria for contact mics in general?
I’d been using contact mics for some years - in my own music (intuitive / improvised) and recording, building fairly simple ones in different ways but I knew there must be a way to improve them. In 2007 I set up a blog on the act and art of field recording & listening called A Quiet Position and decided to test all the contact mics that were commercially available.
To be frank I was disappointed at the quality of what was available. Some were okay, but no better than DIY methods and the more expensive ones were built mostly for musical instruments and restricted some frequencies. I was already building contact mics to a higher spec for myself and sometimes for friends, but it was this survey that convinced me to start making them available more widely.
As someone fascinated with resonant surfaces I simply wanted to hear more of what was there and as a builder I also wanted the widest range of folks to have access to better quality products at a reasonable price. I use these myself and I wouldn’t sell anything to the public that I didn’t also know was as good as I can get for my own work as an artist.
What was the development process for the microphone like? What was your own background in engineering prior to beginning the project?
I have no training in engineering or electronics - so I/m self-taught and, perhaps more to the point, I didn’t approach building the mics by following established rules. In fact, without going into details, there are a couple of techniques I use that don’t fit in with mainstream thinking on the subject.
I was guided by the results - the sound first - and the fact that they’re so widely used now indicates that that was the right approach to take. So, for the C-Series I went ‘back to the drawing board’ so to speak and started developing each component. I looked at cables specifically produced for use with elements that work on resonance for example, and also spent some time experimenting with different ways to increase the frequency response of the elements.
What were the most challenging aspects of the process?
Finding a way to improve the frequency response and ensure stability of the element. It took some time to find the right way to do this and involved coming up with specific design and production processes.
Describe the ergonomic, aesthetic and practical considerations that went into the design of this mic.
My focus was always on the sound first. When I began building these for myself I wasn’t concerned with how they looked - being able to hear and record the resonances I knew were there was elemental. I’ve also tried to be as ethical as possible in terms of sourcing components and which factories I work with in the production of some of the parts. That can be quite a challenge with certain audio technologies but I feel it’s important to try. Another essential point for me was to have original insights in terms of the techniques used and the design. I guess that comes from my belief that artists have to have their own ideas and not simply use the work of others.
You actually manufacture each microphone by hand. Tell us a bit about this part and what you maybe even enjoy about it.
It’s elemental. I can’t go into details but there are certain aspects of the build that cannot be done by machine or in bulk. I think though that even if that was possible I would prefer to build them by hand. There’s an element of craft and customers know that the quality control process is based around that.
How is it different than other similar contact mics? What are some of the characteristics that set it apart from what's already out there?
Well, the frequency response is wider. More of the mid and low frequencies can be heard and recorded. The elements themselves are hand-built rather than factory-built, which also means that there’s a more ethical process employed. Some of the factories in certain countries that produce elements are, shall we say, hardly at the forefront of good working practices.
The C-series is part of a wider series of mics that also include hydrophones. How does it fit into the larger picture and what are the benefits of using only JrF microphones?
With all my mics I try to provide a high quality product but within reach, financially, of as wide a section of folks as possible. I’m dedicated to the democracy of field recording and so this aspect is important to me.
I use the mics myself of course and as a sound artist I’d never say that one should only ever use one brand of mics, so I can’t say that I’d suggest folks only use mine. I’m proud of them. The C-Series contact mics have the widest frequency response and the hydrophones can compete, sound-wise, with hydrophones costing considerably more. I hope that recordists are happy with them and can therefore spend further budget on other things, travel or indeed day to day expenses.
You work predominantly in the area of field recording. What are some of the most interesting projects you've realised with the microphones so far? Can you show us an example of the sort of results that can be achieved with this mic?
Firstly, I think it’s increasingly important to mention that this term ‘field recording’ has all kinds of connotations, some positive and others less so. As with any term applied to a creative practice, such as ‘sound artist’, it implies certain things to some people. I’ve never been fully comfortable with any of the various terms one either uses oneself or uses in order to place oneself within a framework but I tend to say that I’m an artist, intuitive musician and composer and that I use located sound extensively in my work. I ‘record’ located sound through memory, photographs, text, experience and sometimes by the use of audio recording equipment.
So, for a recent project that makes use of the C-Series contact microphones extensively I would perhaps point to the ‘Teleferica’ and Salts’ projects.
Teleferica documents structures in rural Italy and takes the form of a multi-channel installation. It’s a durational piece, as all of my work is, but an extract of one of the recordings is available here:
Outside of field recordings, what other kinds of applications does this mic have, and in what scenario does it shine the brightest?
The C-Series are used by musicians, composers, sound designers, studio technicians, theatres, architects and even garden designers! They’ve been used to record the sound of a recording studio vibrating with strings, to the pedals of a grand piano to the engine of various cars and all kinds of other things. I think, as with most mics, they ‘shine’ when they’re used by anyone who’s really interested in the qualities of sound around us, whether in an urban or rural setting and particularly in explorative projects.
What do you like the best about the C-series mic?
Simply, the sound of them - they’re warm and have a really well-defined low frequency response. Unlike lots of other contact mics you can listen to sound through the C-Series for hours without ones ears getting tired. For me that’s very important as most of what I do artistically, is about extended listening, both in terms of technique and duration. I’m also really interested in the psychology of listening and how, for example, certain qualities of sound engage an audience whilst others shut down the listening process.