IN more than 30 years working as a field recordist Chris Watson has captured sounds most human ears have never heard before - from vultures feasting on a carcass to the tide rushing through sand on the seashore.
Now selections from those years of recordings are being compiled on a smartphone app by Brighton-based digital company The Nimbus Group which can be remixed and manipulated to create a portable soundscape.
“I was interested in the unique interactive use of my sounds,” says Watson (pictured right and inset), whose recordings have been heard in BBC Radio 4 nature programmes and David Attenborough's Life series.
“They have selected a range of recordings, from very close-up detailed tracks to wide ambient soundscapes from different places.
“We wanted to use technology to remind us of our animal core in a very experiential way,” adds Carina Westling of The Nimbus Group, explaining the concept behind the app.
“Using sounds from the natural world chosen precisely because of their strangeness and distance from a picture postcard view of the animal kingdom, we have created a sonic paintbox depicting nature devoid of human sentimentalism.”
Formerly a member of Sheffield experimental electronic proto-punks Cabaret Voltaire, Watson joined Tyne Tees Television as a sound recordist in 1981, where his interest in field recording grew.
As well as sound-tracking documentaries Watson's work has been released in album form through arts organisation Touch. Selections from his 1998 album Weather Report, which was listed by The Guardian as one of the 1,000 albums to hear before you die, are featured on the app.
The album is made up of three 18-minute edited soundscapes collected from 12 hours in the Masai Mara, four months in a Scottish glen and a representation of 10,000 years on an Icelandic glacier.
“Unless it's a private commission I have to listen to a lot of material over a long period of time,” says Watson, adding the 10,000-year track was inspired by a trip to Iceland in June when a scientist threw a handful of ice on a glacier and told him how long it would take to reach the bottom.
“My last album on Touch, El Tren Fantasma [Ghost Train] was about a Mexican railway journey I took 12 years ago, which reflects my work rate!”
Although recording technology has improved in leaps and bounds over the last 30 years, Watson says the secret still lies in the positioning of the microphone and his field craft, ensuring he doesn't intrude on the environment he is trying to record.
One of his most famous recordings came about when he was working with a film crew capturing vultures working over a carcass.
“You always saw the vultures in close-up as the cameramen used long telephoto lens but you couldn't get close enough to that behaviour to capture the sound without spooking the birds,” he says.
Watson's solution was to plant small personal microphones, as used in news broadcasts and chat shows, into a fresh carcass. They recorded the sounds of the vultures as they fed.
“I discovered a whole world of sound we've not been privileged to hear before,” he says.
“I'm interested in the point where sound becomes abstract - where you lose the sense of the background. Particular sounds out of context could be anything - almost a piece of electronic music.”
He has created a bee symphony using field recordings of hives and a five-piece choir, as heard at 2010 insect festival Pestival in London's South Bank Centre, and used hydrophones (underwater microphones) to capture sea sounds that the human ear is unable to hear.
One project saw him mic up the West Pier's old concert hall to capture the sound of a murmuration of a million starlings roosting in the building - which was then played to an audience in Sweden where the birds had flown from.
An on-going project is to record the song of a blue whale off the northern coast of Iceland to accompany a finback whale exhibition at Cambridge's Museum Of Zoology - although his efforts have been frustrated over the past five years as the large mammals have proved elusive.
“What concerns me more than anything today is noise pollution,” he says. “We tend to hear everything but we rarely get a chance to listen because we are bombarded with so much noise throughout our lives.
“You go through the day concentrating on phone calls and communication, but our brains have to do a lot of blocking out of other sounds - it's the cocktail party effect. At the end of the day you go home feeling exhausted.”
He looks forward to the moments in his day when he can just be quiet - usually after setting up an environment for a field recording.
“Listening to sounds, rather than just hearing them becomes a powerfully creative opportunity. When you just want to solve some problems or think creatively it's a valuable experience. I think we need that sense of tranquillity.
“Going somewhere to listen is part of our basic human requirement and that is the thing we are losing.”