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Chris Watson recording in a volcanic fissure on the Galápagos Islands

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I spend a lot of time with him when we’re away so it was just good use of our time. The idea of the programme was to help promote a BBC Radio 4 series called Tweet of the Day, which is on most mornings at 5:58am. Every month they get different people to present or introduce the birds and David did the ones over the Christmas period. I didn’t really imagine it as an interview. It was really just a conversation that we recorded one afternoon.

Rock Music

As one of the world’s leading sound recordists, Chris Watson’s television work includes BAFTA award-winning programmes with David Attenborough. He talks to Jake Young following a trip to record at some cup and ring stones, a type of prehistoric rock art.

You’ve just got back from recording at some cup and ring stones. How was that? It was at an amazing place called Roughting Linn in north Northumberland, quite close to the Scottish border. It’s for a project for the AV Festival in Newcastle this month and it was with two musicians John Butcher and Rhodri Davies. John is a saxophonist and Rhodri is a harpist and they work a lot with improvisation and the sounds of their instruments in different and particular spaces. I worked on a project with

them recording in an acoustically reverberant place in Newcastle called the Discovery Museum and then we took those recordings to Roughting Linn and played them back through a pair of Anchor speakers mounted either side of these ancient cup and ring mark stones, diffusing the sounds recorded in that

50 March 2014

studio space across these stones and then re-recording them in that landscape. It’s a really interesting technique called worldising that I use sometimes in my work and it seemed appropriate to do it here. I’ve done it a few times but yesterday was the most successful. There were robins singing nearby, redwing and fieldfare calls, as well as migrating geese overhead. It was one of those times where you listen in the headphones and you stand back and get your hands off all the gear, and you just listen, and you think ‘this is absolutely amazing’. I recorded it with a Schoeps Double M/S array so I could listen to it back in surround. In terms of capturing the space and those elements it was amazing.

Where else have you been recently? Well prior to that I was in the

“It was one of those times where you listen in the

headphones and you stand back and get your hands off all the gear, and you just listen, and you think ‘this is

absolutely amazing’” Chris Watson

Kalahari Desert for a week working on a BBC series called Survival. I was there with David Attenborough recording some pieces to camera that are introducing the series and also recording some sounds in the desert.

You interviewed David Attenborough in November in Qatar. What was that like after working together for 20 years?

Your work is released on the Touch label? Not exclusively, but a lot of my recorded output that’s not broadcast goes on CD for Touch. Touch has been going a long time – 30 years, I think. They must be one of the longest established independent record companies around. Jon Wozencroft and Mike Harding run it. I’ve known them a very long time. They gave me the chance, it must have been the early 1990s, to release some material and I’ve done quite a few albums with them.

But you were signed to Rough Trade in the 70s? I was with a band called Cabaret Voltaire and the first label we signed to was Rough Trade. It must have been 1979. We made a few records with them and then we also signed to a Manchester label called Factory. We were on their first ever release, which was called A Factory Sample. I think there was us, Joy Division, The Durutti Column, and a poet called John Dowie. We did one record with Factory and then we worked with a Belgian label called Crépuscule, which has just been revived. They just got in touch with me and said that they were back in business, generously offering me the chance to do something with them, which I might do.

When did you develop an interest in recording? My parents bought me a reel- to-reel tape recorder when I was about 12 – a really inspired gift, which I’ve still got in my studio. It had tiny 3in spools of 0.25in tape and it had a microphone on a metre of cable. I recorded everything

in the house, things I still record actually, creaking doors and the buzz of refrigerators, and things like that. I suddenly realised it had batteries in it so I could take it outside, which was a revelation for me. Later on in my mid teens I

discovered that you could manipulate 0.25in tape and sculpt it. I discovered musique concrète and the works of people like Pierre Schaeffer in Paris who were working using the tape recorder as a compositional tool, as a creative instrument. I became really fascinated by that. That’s really what got me into music, this route of musique concrète, latterly electronic music, a combination of both, and then starting Cabaret Voltaire with Richard H Kirk and Stephen Mallinder.

How did you develop a specialty in location sound? I was always really interested in that and I became more interested in recording and then using the sounds. After some time I realised that what I was trying to do in the studio in terms of manipulating [sounds], really the best results were when I went out and actually made a really good recording. I became more and more interested in that side of things – in improving my location recording techniques and getting experience out in the field.

What are your future plans? At the moment most of my projects are things like installations because I’m much more interested now in spatial sound, which is impossible to get onto a record. The next piece I’m doing is the creation of an island called Hy Brazil in three dimensions of a soundscape, which I’m doing in the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds. It will be installed for about three weeks with this significant 20-channel ambisonic sound system.

What’s in your kitbag? It’s got a Schoeps Double M/S array with three capsules, a Sound Devices MixPre, an analogue stereo preamp, a Sound Devices 744T, and a pair of Sennheiser HD 25 headphones.

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