The sound of one ant walking – inside the world of a wildlife audio expert

Chris Watson, who has worked on Attenborough's Frozen Planet and Life in the Undergrowth, shares a remarkable insight into sound recording, some exclusive clips - and his feelings about music in wildlife shows

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The sound of one ant walking – inside the world of a wildlife audio expert
Written By
David Crawford

During  an acclaimed career working on radio and TV documentaries Chris Watson has become renowned for creating evocative soundscapes that either conjure up the atmosphere of a particular place or take listeners into locations where the human ear cannot normally hear. So it's not surprising to learn that one of the things that spurred him to start a career in wildlife sound recording was something that exercises a lot of people: the overwhelming use of music in wildlife documentaries.

“In the early 80s I became interested in wildlife film-making, which I'd been watching on television, and had been completely appalled at the quality of the wildlife soundtracks, as I mostly still am today. Totally, totally swamped in inappropriate music.”

Referring to a recent letter in Radio Times complaining about the music in the series Africa, he wonders why such a recurring complaint never seems to be addressed.

“Why don't producers take any notice? Is it because they have shorter attention spans than everyone else? I just don't understand it. When I do talks and presentations about my work, I always ask people, 'Is there anybody here who thinks there is not enough music in wildlife documentaries?'”

Understandably, the answer is always no.

Watson suggests that the use of natural sounds – or even the complete removal of sound – can be far more powerful than adding an unnecessary score, and is scathing about the overuse of music.

“Pumping it up with music is like being filled with steroids. It just inflates it, pointlessly. It's just sad, and it's so easy. It's not cheap, but it's a relatively easy way out. It also defines a lack of imagination.”

Watson is aware more than most of the challenges of marrying pictures and sounds, as exemplified by his story of working on David Attenborough's Life in the Undergrowth. While out in Costa Rica for the series, Watson was able to capture the incredible sound of one solitary ant.

“It's actually a really good challenge when you get sounds like that because I'm often asked by producers 'Oh, we've got this amazing bit of animal behaviour, can you get some sound for it?' But sometimes I can say to a producer, 'Look I've got this recording of an ant walking, you can hear its individual footfalls, can you get some pictures to go with that?' It's always too great a challenge for them, but I love asking because I'm always asked to do the reverse.”

As the camera crew were unable to get suitable footage, the recording was never broadcast in the series. But Watson has agreed to plunder his archive and give RT readers an exclusive listen to a microscopic world. Here, for the first time, is the astonishing “Sound of One Ant Walking”.

The only way that Watson was able to capture sound in such detail was thanks to the help of Peng Lee, a man with perhaps the greatest job title in the world  Principal Investigator of Insect Acoustics at the University of Mississippi.

Lee was researching how to record within ants' nests and had made a highly specialised piece of equipment to do so. When Watson told him he was making a programme about ants at the same time, Lee sent over two of his strange, home-made devices.

“They're literally like black box devices with a knitting needle on a wire. But they were actually classified at the time and we had to battle to get clearance to have them exported from US customs.”

Chris Watson

Deploying new technology to interesting effect is something Watson has been doing all his recording life. The first step he took on his journey into sound happened back in the 60s, during his early teens, after his parents had bought him a reel-to-reel tape recorder. It involved a kind of aural epiphany, and is something he describes in detail in the Radio 4 documentary The Listeners (available on BBC iPlayer here).

One day he was standing in the family kitchen watching starlings feeding at the bird table in the garden, when he realised he was merely watching; he could hear nothing of the birds' activity.

“I was watching through a large picture window that gave it a large CinemaScope frame. But it was like watching a silent film.”

Realising he could use his new present to rectify this, he attached the tape recorder and microphone to the bird table, pressed record and waited. The results were a revelation.

“I was just amazed at what I heard. This was the sound of another world. A world where we cannot be because our presence would affect it. All this beautiful, exquisite, fascinating detail came out.”

At the time, Watson was living on the edge of the Peak District and would often take walks in the countryside, which piqued his interest in wildlife further. In the meantime he was also becoming interested in music, and the idea of using tape recorders to create it from everyday sounds.

Watson went on to become a founding member of pioneering 70s industrial rock band Cabaret Voltaire, though throughout what many might describe as his rock 'n' roll years, he still retained his love of recording the natural world.

“It was a perfect antidote to being confined in the studio, getting outside, and in the end, I was very interested in what we were doing musically and it was an exciting time, but I guess I just became more interested in what I was hearing and recording outside than the music we were making inside in the studio.”

Chris Watson 2

So, in the early 80s he joined Tyne Tees Television – then a large, independent television company – as a trainee in the sound department. Over the course of three years it provided him with a solid grounding in the basics of location recording, as he moved from news –­ covering the miners' strike – and documentary to drama and farming outlook.

He also got to work on The Tube, the music show that the nascent Channel 4 bought from Tyne Tees. Assisting a sound recordist on documentary films, Watson found himself being asked to fly out to Jamaica to record such reggae luminaries as Lee Scratch Perry and Sly and Robbie, as well as jetting to Nassau for films on Robert Palmer and John Martyn.

“It was just amazing, incredible. So, of course we were there to do these music documentaries, but my other interest was taking this state-of-the-art professional recording equipment and going and recording the birds and the animals.”

Back in the UK, Watson was then able to convince the dubbing mixers to weave his wildlife recordings into the films, to fill in any dead sound space – a more cost effective solution than going back out to re-record. It's something Watson credits with influencing his work to this day.

“I guess that is why a lot of my work has a narrative element because I think of it cinematically; it's not abstract, it has almost a linear progression, most of my pieces.“

Even in what is an otherworldly soundscape, such as the recording from deep within a glacier, Watson claims there  is a narrative at work even if it sounds abstract. And the act of drawing sound out from places such as a glacier or from under the sea is something that really appeals to him.

“I do love that aspect of putting microphone where you can't put your ears, because then you make the world come alive. It's also because of the cliche about radio being better than television because the pictures are better is true, because it sparks your imagination. I think sound, in a very particular and emotive way, strikes directly into our hearts and imaginations.”

Though there may be certain places on Earth you just can't hear, such as volcanos, Watson is one person who has gone further than any in uncovering hidden worlds of sound.

One of his favourite pieces is from another David Attenborough documentary, Frozen Planet. It's the sound of Weddell seals singing under the sea ice.

“It is another world, but it does sound as if it's from outer space, this wailing voice. But because it's recorded under the sea ice, there's no wave action, so it doesn't sound underwater but there are these haunting voices that are absolutely amazing.”

“I love that aspect of fishing for sound underwater or putting geophones or hydrophones in glaciers, or underground,” says Watson. He also speaks admiringly of a man featured in The Listeners, who records earthquakes and who captured the terrifying, chilling sound of the Japanese tsunami.

“[He was] saying so much, just with sound; the force, or some of the force, of what was happening,” recalls Watson, before adding “I also like using very small microphones in very small spaces, so you tune in to the world in a very different way, and people find that very engaging. Again that works particularly well on radio.”

One such place was the internal organ of a caterpillar, which he managed to capture, again for Life in the Undergrowth.

The only time the caterpillar makes this internal sound is when it has been taken into an ants nest, supposedly to be predated, but instead its stridulations cause the ants to feed it.

And the only way that Watson could capture that sound was with the impressive-sounding particle velocity microphone, a highly specialised bit of equipment that would never fit into an ants' nest in the wild. In the end, it was all recorded in a Bristol studio, with the caterpillar placed on the microphone to fully capture its enticing sound. Nowadays there might be screaming headlines about faked footage, then the recording process was captured on the BBC Six O'Clock News in the “And finally...” slot.

Watson often works in extreme close-up, and it was his experience working on Big Cat Diary that first led him to those intimate perspectives. He realised that while the camera crew could sit in a vehicle with their feet up and use a £50,000 telephoto lens to get a close-up of an animal's eye 50 metres away, there was no aural equivalent.

So he started to play around with mic'ing things up very closely. He'd wanted to get decent sound of vultures predating a zebra carcass and carried out a unique experiment with a Christmas turkey to check his method. The Christmas before he was due to go out to the Masai Mara for Big Cat Diaries he took the turkey carcass the day after Boxing Day – when no-one wants any more turkey – and staked it out in his back garden with tent pegs. Placing two little personal microphones in the cavity he relayed a cable back inside the house to his stereo. Eventually starlings came down and attacked the carcass, pecking it to pieces, and he got this incredible bit of close recording.

“It was a bit like the revelation of my first recording 30 years previously where I was taken into this other world that we can never be in. It was remarkably powerful, visceral recording, it was like having your skull pecked out because they were so close.”

He then transported that process to Kenya and got incredible close-up audio, from a few centimetres away, of vultures devouring a zebra carcass.

“Then of course, when you get to use that, the pictures become redundant because our imaginations take over. Sound where you don't need an image, because it's so powerful.”

A great example of that comes in a story of an installation Watson did at Kew Gardens' Palm House. He'd placed tiny speakers amid the foliage throughout the building, playing tropical rainforest sounds that seemed to emerge from the forest environment itself. When he was setting it up, there were two elderly women sitting on one of the benches in the Palm House with their sandwiches, listening. Suddenly the recording of howler monkeys he'd made in Costa Rica started up in the canopy over their heads.

As Watson recalls, “This elderly lady said to me, 'What on earth is that?' I said “It's a howler monkey.” And she went “Really?” And she stood up and started peering through the foliage, and I thought if this woman thinks there are howler monkeys, it 100% works. She really thought there was a howler monkey up there.”

Watson tries to avoid distinctions between his TV and radio work and his artistic installations and soundscape albums, but there is one important difference with installations that he particularly enjoys: the ability to share in his audience's enjoyment. It's something he's been finding ever more rewarding in work he has been doing at Alder Hey and Royal London Children's Hospital, where not only has he been providing soundscapes but also giving the young patients access to his sound files to play with and manipulate as they see fit.

“What I love about my work is that I when I go on location there's only me who can hear the world in that particular way at that moment, you tune into the world in your own unique way you can't share that with anyone on location, because you have headphones on. So I like that aspect of it, I like the solitary aspect of it, selfishly. It's sort of like a retreat. But what I also like is to play them back to people directly and then rework them, whether it's in a workshop or at Alder Hey, wherever it is sharing them, broadcasting them in the widest sense is the best bit of what I do.”

Asked what the future holds, Watson talks of interesting plans to provide sounds for an independent film, but he is clearly more excited about making a radio documentary and sound installation featuring the song of the blue whale, something which he has long wished to capture.

He knows that he is going to Iceland in June to attempt to record blue whales, but is unsure when the documentary will be aired. Though he does know where to find out about it.

“I don't know. We make the programme, then I don't know what happens, it sort of disappears. I normally read about it in the Radio Times when it's going out. The first time I see it is in the Radio Times. It's great, I love it.”

Ant image by Alex Wild: alexanderwild.com

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