Name: Nikki Sheth
Occupation: Field recordist, sound artist and composer
Current release: Nikki Sheth's Sounds of Mmabolela, a collection of field recordings realised in the Limpopo bushveld on the border of South Africa and Botswana, has just been re-released on the Flaming Pines imprint.
If you enjoyed this interview with Nikki Sheth and would like to find out more, visit her official homepage. You can also find her on Instagram, Soundcloud and twitter.
What sparked your interest in field recordings - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I’ve always loved being outside in nature and listening to environmental sound. I remember when I was younger, I would sit outside on my swing and listen to the sounds before school. My grandma gave me a clay bird caller that you fill with water, and she had a matching one and we used to communicate with that (she only lived two doors away). She taught me a lot and was a huge influence.
Later in life I remember hearing field recordings in some of the music I was listening to and how this brought about such a sense of nostalgia and place. Having been fortunate enough to travel quite a lot in my life, I remember listening to the soundscapes of all the different places.
One of my favourite places was Australia, where I lived in Brisbane for six months as part of an exchange to study music. There was a bird that used to wake me up every morning and I remember getting so annoyed but by my last week there I thought to myself "you’ll miss this when you’re not here anymore’ and I still think about that ten years later."
I think it’s the combination of all those experiences and more that led me to have an interest in field recording. I never recorded any of those sounds or thought about field recording as a practice until I was studying music at university level. It’s funny how something can have such a constant presence in your life and then one day it just clicks, and you think ‘this is what I love and what I want to do’.
What were your main challenges when you started out recording in the field and how have they changed over time?
When I first started out in field recording, I think one of the biggest challenges was my perception that I needed hours and hours of materials to work with. I was more concerned with gathering lots of material rather than the quality of that material and this has completely changed. I am now more selective over the material I record and would rather have shorter, better-quality recordings that I know I can work with.
Another challenge I faced and am now facing again, is access to equipment. Luckily, while studying I had access to some very expensive, high-end equipment. Now that I have finished my studies my access is limited, so I have had to adjust and make the most of the equipment I do have access to.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, from instruments via software tools and recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you personally starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
Many of the choices I made over the years were dependent on what was available to me. I started off very early on just making recordings on my phone, of sounds I enjoyed with no real intention of doing anything with them. My first field recorder was a Tascam which I still have and am regularly using, and I had some Naiant microphones.
While studying I built up a regular field recording kit that I would take on residencies and trips with me. This started off as a Sound Devices 744T, DPA 4060’s, Jez riley French contact microphones and hydrophones and my own Tascam for extra recordings. I then started working with ambisonics and swapped the Sound Devices for a Zoom F8 and Sennheiser Ambeo. I also have some other specialist microphones that I take out on occasion such as a DIY Lom Priezor and DIY bat detector. I’ve become really interested in making my own microphones in recent years as a more affordable option.
I now just use whatever is available to me and have a list of equipment I’d like to purchase over the coming years.
Can you take me through the process of realising a field recording on the basis of a project or album that's particularly dear to you? How do you decide on what you want to record, how do you realise the actual recording and in which way will you edit, arrange or possibly process it afterwards?
It’s all very intuitive. I’ll use my piece "Paddabolela" as an example. This piece was composed whilst on the Sonic Mmabolela field recording residency, so composed on site with limited equipment and facilities.
The first step was listening to the sounds in the field. We often left equipment over long periods of time so I wasn’t always sure of how they would sound or if they even worked. I would take notes of areas I thought sounded particularly rich or beautiful while setting up the equipment and this gave me an indication of the recordings I wanted to use for the piece. After the recording sessions I would listen back to little sections of the recordings (often based on the waveform) and edit small sections to use in the piece (composing a piece was a part of the residency so I knew it wasn’t feasible to listen back to everything due to time constraints). I did this regularly for a few days and put all of those sounds into a new session to work with.
We then had dedicated studio time to work on the sounds and I experimented with processing some of the sounds, layering of sounds, keeping some of the sounds very natural and unprocessed and putting this all together in a convincing way. A lot of my work has a strong interplay between the real and unreal or the natural and abstracted sounds, so I knew I wanted this relationship between the sounds. It came together very intuitively and was a culmination of everything I felt and experienced whilst on the trip.
Field recordings can be made of sonic panoramas as well as tiny details, of very extreme sounds or very mundane ones, they can serve to document very specific phenomena or simply present intriguing sound matter. Which areas attract you personally and why?
I find all of this really exciting and interesting to work with.
I often construct scenes of a place. For example, in my piece "Mmabolela" there is a section where I layer a more ambient field recordings with close up, detailed recording of bird calls and birds flying past the listener to create a larger sonic panorama.
In my most recent piece, "Nocturnal Insights", I capture the sound of bats hunting at dusk and sika deer calling out to each other during the rutting season. I captured those sounds both due to the specific phenomena and because they are very interesting sounds to listen to.
Without going into the semantics of 'music vs field recordings', in how far are there parallels and differences between the process of realising a field recording and composing a piece of sound art or a song? What are some of your considerations with regards to form and the artistic qualities of a recording?
This is an interesting question. I have come from studying more traditional music. I went to university to do a BA in Music and then I did a MMus in Electroacoustic Composition at The University of Manchester and I just finished a PhD in Musical Composition at The University of Birmingham where I worked almost exclusively with field recordings.
I think that my experiences as a musician will always influence the way I approach composition, no matter what the sound matter is. I often look at the musical qualities of the field recordings I take, such as pitch and rhythm and compose with these in mind. For example, "Limpopo" focuses on the rhythms found in the voices of the natural world. I think I compose in a very intuitive and musical way and that my past experiences as a musician will always come into this.
Without any prior information on field recordings, listeners may sometimes find it hard to determine their precise origin and context. Depending on one's perspective, this may be desirable or a problem. Where do you stand on this? Do you feel that, as part of your work, music needs to be explained or should it retain its “inexplicable nature”?
All my work is rooted in place so that much information is always provided to the listener. I think there is a lot of debate surrounding this.
There are times when I aim to represent a place, soundscape, or critical issue so yes, I would want the listener to have this extra context and information. There are other times where I want to have a level of ambiguity and I am focused on the intrinsic qualities of the sounds, so the origin or context is not so important.
Having come from an electroacoustic background I can see the advantages of both approaches, but I think with my work is depends on the specific piece and intentions of this piece.
What, from your point of view, can the sound of a particular location tell us about its nature? Or, to put it differently, in which way can listening to field recordings change our perception of the world?
Sound and field recording can tell you so much about an environment and can one hundred percent change our perception of the world. I feel this almost every time I am out recording. This can be done in so many ways.
It could be that sound is telling you about the health of an ecosystem or environment or that listening to usually inaudible sounds through a microphone changes your perception of what is happening in an environment. There is so much to learn from environmental sound and so many ways in which environmental sound can change your view of the world.
The idea of acoustic ecology has drawn a lot of attention to the question of how much we are affected by the sound surrounding us. What's your take on this and on acoustic ecology as a movement in general?
I think it’s an invaluable resource that can tell us so much more about an environment. I really admire the work being done in this area. I feel that in recent years my own work is moving to the area of acoustic ecology, and I would love to work more in this area.
In how much, do you feel, are sonic environments shaped by cultural differences – and in how much, vice versa, is the perception of sound influenced by cultural differences?
This question has so many layers to it, but it comes down to the fact that everyone experiences a sonic environment differently dependent on their own life experiences, memories and associations.
For interested readers, what are books, websites, articles or other sources of information you recommend for them to educate themselves on the topic?
There are so many resources out there for field recording and soundscape composition.
The World Forum for Acoustic Ecology is compiling a list of resources on their website so I would recommend looking at that.
Definitely check out the Sound of the Year Award winners and nominees for last year.
And for a list of books, articles, and sounds that have influenced me over the years I would suggest looking at my PhD research which will be published towards the end of this year and includes interviews with a selection of artists working with field recordings, as well as more about my work.
Most of all, I would recommend just going outside and listening to the environment around you (with or without a recorder!)