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Patience and focus: A Burlington field recordist explains his process

Two men lean over water's edge on a snowy beach, with recording devices.
Anna Van Dine
/
VPR
Reporter Henry Epp and field recordist Wren Kitz capture the sounds of Lake Champlain at Red Rocks Park in South Burlington.

For several years, Burlington-based musician Wren Kitz has been integrating sounds recorded in nature into his music. But recently, Kitz has been presenting his field recordings, isolated from any music, to audiences.

His rich recordings include the sound of loon calls in chorus with bullfrogs, the sound of a hummingbird buzzing its wings while bear cubs roll down a hill in the background, and the sound of ice hitting the shores of Lake Champlain.

As hosts of VPR's daily news podcast The Frequency, we took an interest in Wren Kitz's wildlife recordings, because each week on the podcast, we share nature sounds recorded by listeners, in a segment called "Wildlife Wednesday."

So to hear about Kitz's approach to the art of field recording, we met him at one of his favorite sonic environments: the shores of Lake Champlain.

This interview was produced for VPR's daily news podcast, The Frequency. Subscribe below.

Anna: For the uninitiated, can you explain what a field recordist is? What do you do?

Wren: For me it, it looks like using an analog tape recorder and microphone and going out into nature and recording the sounds that are around me. A field recording can really be anywhere. It doesn't have to be in nature. Nature is where I've been gravitating towards in the past several years, recording natural sounds, but field recordings really refers to just what it sounds like recording "in the field."

Henry: How did you get into field recording? How did you sort of find your way there?

a man's hands hold a tape recorder
Anna Van Dine
/
VPR
Wren Kitz uses analog recording equipment, like this tape recorder, to make his field recordings.

Wren: Starting from the beginning, when I moved to Vermont close to 12 years ago now, I had a small tape recorder that I would record musical ideas with, and it wound up in my pocket a lot of the times. And just going through my day, thinking of the recorder as almost a camera in my pocket, you know, when you hold a camera and you walk around and you start seeing pictures? That was the same for me with recording.

Anna: What is it like when you're listening? Like what is that like in your mind, in your body, when you are recording in the field?

Wren: I'm not a hunter by any means, but I recently was thinking about it similarly to hunting. I have a hunter friend, and he was describing to me the practice of going out really early in the morning and sitting in one spot for many hours. And even if nothing comes, the experience of sitting there was a peaceful time. Recording can be like that for me.

I will go to a swamp or the water's edge of a pond and sit for sometimes hours waiting for something that I've heard in the past. It's once the sounds start happening that like multiple buttons need to be pushed and worry that something's gonna go wrong, or the wind gusts and bursts a big pop on your recording or what have you, that that's the part that can be kind of technically stressful. But still fun.

Henry: What do you listen for? What are you sort of keeping your ear open for as we let this propane... [laughs]

Wren: I'm looking for the Suburban Propane truck.

[All laugh]

Well, it's kind of a funny, a funny sound to be passing by, but I mean, it all starts from there. Not so much the Suburban Propane truck that's passing by right now, but just from the music that's all around us all the time. And if you stop and close your eyes and really focus on what's going on, even behind the backing up sound of the Suburban Propane truck, there's probably quite a plethora of things that we can hear.

Recording devices held over the edge of a lake
Anna Van Dine
/
VPR
Analog and digital recording equipment capture the sounds of the icy waves.

Right now, on the shore of Lake Champlain, you probably hear winds rumbling through the trees. If you listen – oh, there was a leaf that just rustled by. The waves I know are behind us, and so if I focus I might be able to hear those. As you might imagine, when you put yourself in an environment where there's lots of different – lots of different sounds, it's an exciting experience and you start hearing things more and focusing very, very particularly on what you're hearing.

Henry: So, we do this little segment called Wildlife Wednesday, which was the impetus for this, and we have people submit their wildlife recordings, often, you know, something on an iPhone or something. I wonder if you have tips for people when they're going out and what they might listen for, how they might approach finding sounds in the wild.

Wren: Sure. I can just kind of say what I like to do, which is really just remember that I have a recording device with me. And that sometimes helps me to open my ears more to what's around me. Sitting in one place is not the worst thing to do. Things tend to arrive. And being patient.

It's similar to to birding, you know, or like when you sit in one place, and you see the most. Sometimes if you sit in one place you hear the most. Focusing in. And just remember that you don't always get something, and you know, even if you have one good sound recording for every four times going out walking with a recorder, that's a huge success. There's alway — there's always fun to be had just out in nature.

Anna & Henry: Should we go to the lake?

Wren: Yeah, sure.

Anna: I kind of love that the truck showed up. I have to be honest, I like that the truck showed up.

Henry: I do too.

Wren: Yeah, look at this Adirondack chair! Someone's been, maybe someone's been coming down here with their field recorder and sitting in that Adirondack chair.

The Frequency is Vermont Public Radio’s daily news podcast.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @TheFrequencyVPR.

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Henry is a reporter covering business, the economy and infrastructure at Vermont Public. He's also co-host of The Frequency, Vermont Public's daily news podcast, along with Anna Van Dine. Henry came to Vermont Public in 2017, and worked as the station's host of All Things Considered until November 2021. Prior to that, he was a reporter and host of Morning Edition at New England Public Media in western Massachusetts. A graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, Henry was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Anna is a reporter and co-hosts Vermont Public's daily news podcast, The Frequency, with Henry Epp.
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