Recording what Russell Davies calls ambient speech was by far the most interesting and challenging aspect of creating The present sounds of London for The Morning News. Since I was only using my iPhone (for reasons of forgettingness), I had to try and get right up close to the people I was recording.
In cities it’s not hard to get close to people, because there’s often a big crowd to mingle with. But it is hard to get close to the people who are saying something interesting, or saying something dull but in an interesting way, and point a phone in their face without them noticing.
So what I did was put on my most innocent lost-tourist face, and stood as close as I could get to the talky people while looking left, right, and down at my phone, over and over again.
I hoped I gave the impression of being someone who was consulting his phone’s mapping software.
I also hoped that none of the people I was recording would notice me and offer directions.
And that I wouldn’t get mugged for my phone, which I was stupidly waving round on busy London streets, Tube stations and passageways.
Consequently, the recordings that ended up in the finished article are a fraction of the total. I recorded quite a few that didn’t work – mostly because I just didn’t get close enough, or didn’t point the phone in the right direction, or because something else happened to ruin the recording.
In Waterloo station, for example, there was a drunk woman singing her heart out. I moved in closer (still doing the innocent lost puppy face), but two police officers reached her first. She stopping singing and the conversation was then shielded by the police officers’ bodies, so that didn’t work.
It was also impossible to record conversations while moving. I spent time walking up and down some busy streets, listening in to couples or small groups walking and chatting. I could hear them, but couldn’t find a way of pushing my phone in front of them and getting away with it. I had to wait for them to stop walking – which is how I managed to get the two Americans talking about how far away from the Barbican they were. They’d been talking all the way down the street, and suddenly stopped at a pedestrian crossing. During a pause in the roaring traffic, I grabbed that snippet of speech.
Armed with some more professional equipment – a proper digital recorder, a fluffy microphone on a stick – I’d have got much higher quality recordings, but people would have, you know, noticed. It was great fun, in a sort of Famous Five sense of the word, to be sneaking around and recording in secret.
Quite addictive, in fact.