The Making of Island Terminus

observations, explanations and insights on my time during the CRES Media Arts Committee Residency

Final Outing: Tsawwassen – Swartz Bay (Victoria)

For my third and final outing I again had a picture perfect day. I took a mid-morning ferry over to Swartz Bay, and from there caught a bus into Victoria, where I spent the remainder of the afternoon. On the ferry over I worked almost exclusively with a recording technique of submerging a hydrophone into a jar half-filled with water (see photo below), as a way to pick-up hull vibration by means of something other than contact microphone. The results varied, but occasionally I was able to find a nice cranny for the jar to fit into, where the sounds were usually more interesting. This particular spot yielded some great results. I found with a lot of these recordings, however, that the low-end was often overbearing, so I made a point of EQing that out in the recordings I ended up using.

While in Victoria I walked around the downtown core but spent most of my time near the water, dropping my hydrophone into various points along the marina. A number of float planes flew in and took off, and the place was busy with vessel traffic. There was a small draw bridge that I was captivated by, because its metal structure came alive when cars passed over it. Outside of what I captured while sitting for half an hour on the shore, this bridge was where I took the bulk of the recording.

There was a funny moment too, when a school of small fish began attacking and nibbling at my hydrophone line. I could see them through the water surrounding the mysterious object, greatly intrigued by it’s presence. The recording is rather ambiguous, but it’s not a moment I’m soon to forget. An exhausting day all around, but a rewarding one at that.

Second Outing: Horseshoe Bay – Langdale

I realized that whomever might be reading this might not be familiar with the BC coast, so I’ve included a simple map of the ferry routes below. Hopefully this will provide a clearer picture of my travels while recording. By the way, I live in Vancouver.

As I was saying in the previous post, my recording became far more specified with each outing. On the first trip to Nanaimo I basically went all over the ship and terminals, and around both ports to get as much material as possible. During this process I became aware of what areas were the best for recording and what types of sounds I wanted to focus on for next time. So, for this trip I decided that I wanted to get more grounded, rougher textures by isolating specific sonic events via contact microphones. Ferries are always vibrating, even when they’re idling, so it wasn’t too hard to pick up sound this way.

It was, however, difficult to achieve variation from recording to recording. The recordings that I think ended up being the strongest were those that picked up not only the engine vibration through metal, but also at least one other element, like wind, or the hum of a nearby vent for example.

The image above shows a contact microphone affixed with a C-clamp to some kind of candy-cane shaped ventilation unit. This was one of my favourites as it captured a really rich sounding drone with an intermittent metal scraping element.

After getting off the ferry at Langdale I decided to hitchhike to the nearby town, Gibsons, where I had an unbelievably good lunch at a place called Smitty’s that was right by the water and… it was pay what you can, yup. Anyway, that got me stoked, so I went down to the marina and spent a good portion of the day hanging out with a hydrophone plunged into the water, listening to the world beneath. I later walked back to the ferry, which was about 4 or 5 kilometers, taking recordings and snapping photos along the way. The ferry ride back was worth the trip alone, as the sun started to sink beneath the mountains, beaming a really nice light over the ocean.

First Outing: Horseshoe Bay – Nanaimo

I showed up at Horeshoe Bay to catch a morning ferry about an hour early to get recordings from the port and terminal before actually boarding the ship. It was a bonus that it turned into a really lovely day. In fact I had ridiculously great weather for these outings, especially on the Langdale trip, which I’ll post next.

So I was careful in focusing only on sounds / sonic events that where immediately pleasing on the ears or that I thought would be beneficial to the composition, as I had planned not to process any of the sounds in the studio and was always thinking ahead to the mix (not sure if this helped though, in the end). I succeeded in the non-processing part, only employing high / low pass filters and other minor EQing. This residency for me was mainly a focus on honing techniques for recording in the field and appreciating and working with unaugmented field recordings.

It’s important to point out that for this type of recording situation, where one is constantly moving and having to cover a lot of ground, keeping equipment to a minimum is key. I had access to a boompole and a number of mics but opted for a shock-mount with a soft handle as opposed to the pole and one shotgun condenser mic. The only other things I brought along were a pair of contact mics, for affixing to solid materials and picking up sound vibration, the aforementioned hydrophone, and a bag filled with useful trinkets (C-clamps, tape, etc…).

Most of my recording on the vessel was done with the shotgun, either down in the car decks where there was a lot of amazing rattling vibration of metal happening (a bit too overpowering for the contact mics though), and on the outside deck. Because it was my first day, I was trying to get as much material as possible, recording all over the place, where as later on I went out with specific ideas of what I wanted to record and spent much more time in individual spots trying to get the perfect recordings.

Sunken Hydrophone off a floating dock in Nanaimo

Back in Vancouver at Dusk

the musical hallucination as i hear it

I want to dedicate this post to talking about what a musical hallucination is and what it means to me as a sound artist. Like most of us, I was a dumb teenager and went to countless concerts without wearing earplugs, thinking nothing of the damage I was obviously doing. I blame those days of idiocy for my current struggles with tinnitus. While it’s not always bad, or even noticeable at times – as it’s usually quite easy to mask the ringing with other sounds – occasionally, it becomes the only possible thing to think about.

While it’s usually nothing more than a dull ringing, tinnitus can also have melody, and be very song-like. I’ve noticed a few times, when it’s especially quiet, usually when I’m lying in bed, that I’ll be hearing music playing out on repeat in a short cycle. It’s a strange sensation, very unlike actually listening to music, or having a song stuck in your head. When first hearing it, I got out of bed to check the living room stereo because I thought I had left a cd playing.

It was around the time I started experiencing these hallucinations that I was starting to seriously record and arrange music. Looking back, I’ve noticed that all the music I’ve made to date embodies a very similar style to how I hear musical hallucinations, as if, subconsciously I was channeling the phenomenon through my practice. All the music I’ve made is in one way or another composed of short segments of sound orbiting around other segments of sound, with the big picture usually being some kind of long, slow-shifting ambient work (very generally speaking, as that makes my music sound really boring).

For the residency I wanted to, for the first time, compose a work while consciously thinking of the musical hallucination as opposed to it bleeding through into the work from my subconscious. It’s too early to tell but I’m interested in how this work will differ from the others as a result of this cognizance. I have a feeling it might end up sounding nothing like a musical hallucination, though it’s hard to say because I’m sure everyone would experience it differently. So maybe, while not sounding like my hallucination, it might sound like somebody’s.

Ultimately, what’s happened – as I’m now nearly completed the residency – is that my initial idea of incorporating this concept into a single, hour long piece has failed. Instead, I’ll be finishing with two 20-25 minute pieces, with the second of the two incorporating this concept, I think, very well. The first of the two tracks has evolved so much from the beginning that I’ve nearly lost sight of it and am considering it done at this point. That’s another thing, don’t force things. If there’s something I’ve learned in my short time as an artist, it’s that things will inevitably turn out differently from how you originally planned them. Roll with the punches or it’ll sound forced.

the concept, the beginning

After realizing that I wanted to secure a spot in the residency I began constructing a rather convoluted proposal for creating a piece that dealt with specific ideas of place, sound disruption and something termed a “musical hallucination.” A musical hallucination is generally the term to describe a phenomenon that people with the condition tinnitus (a ringing in the ears) experience. To create a work that was able to translate this concept of a musical hallucination through a constructed field recording / noise composition became my ultimate goal, while some of the other more trivial aspects of my initial proposal faded away.

I began by choosing a commercial building in downtown Vancouver (the Sinclair Center), as my primary place of interest for gathering recordings for the piece. It quickly became clear to me that the scope of sounds that the building had to offer, though rich, was just too small for it to serve as the primary locale. I wanted more of a dynamic range of sound, and pictured my final work as having long sweeping loud and quiet sections with sounds sourced from industrial machinery like that of engines and generators.

Within a few days of this thought, I came up with the idea to ride and record sounds from the various ferry routes that went through the Georgia Strait here in BC. I had done some recording of the ferries in the past but was now given the opportunity to go into far greater detail, thanks to both the freedom of time and a recent equipment upgrade which now included a hydrophone (under water microphone).


After a rather slow and sketchy start, which saw my all-too-eager self get tossed from one of the ferry terminals for being a “security breach”, I was soon well on my way to capturing what would ultimately become 3.5 hours worth of sound. And if you’re wondering, I did eventually go through the proper channels and signed a contract with help from the residency co-ordinator Anju. It wasn’t without it’s shame though as they made me wear a contractor’s high-vis vest the whole time, prompting patrons to ask me any of a number of silly questions I didn’t know the answers to (because I don’t work for BC ferries, obviously!). In retrospect, it was more funny than annoying.