(UBC 2018) Geographical Methods – Sonic Geographies Component

* Undergraduate Course Module taught for GEOG 371, by Max Ritts (2017-18)


This module explores the value of acoustic methods for human geography, and as a component of Geog 371 in particular.  Over three interlinked exercises, you will develop facilities in what we are calling “sonic geographies” – a concept which propses a number of possible applications in the study of sound and spatial practice. Taking advantage of UBC Geography’s recent procurement of new digital recorders, microphones, and studio tools, you and your team will work a range of field-work and studio settings, and under the supervision of Max Ritts (module leader), Dr. Gerry Pratt (class instructor), Nicole Molinari (TA), and AV Tech Bret Petersen. You will consider how sound works to shape social and spatial perceptions; how urban soundscapes reveal the operation of different social structures; and how your own thinking and research can utilize sound studies to deepen its analysis. You will have the opportunity to develop and refine facilities with studio tools, methodologies, and literatures. The point is not simply to study sound as an independent ‘thing,’ but to recognize sound as a resource for animating a number of geographical concerns, critiques, and practices.

“Sonic Geographies” will unfold through production of three separate sonic products:

  1. Soundwalking exercises/ exploration of acoustic space.
  2. Reaper Audio software tutorials.
  3. A place-based ‘audio drift’ (combining 1 and 2).
Jana Winderen (2014)


  1. Intro + Wreck Beach – [lecture + studio]” (January).
  2. Reaper Module  – [2 studio] (February).
  3. “Audio Drift” – [1 lecture + 2 demo]. Four weeks of independent work, with three weeks of office hours + extra help in AV studio (March).


1. Exercise One – Exploring Wreck Beach

Tools – Pocket recorders (Zoom H1-H6); Audio-Technica ATH-M40x headphones; wind muff; cellphone set to off.

A Wreck Beach Winter – 2015

The first thing is to listen. It sounds cheesy but it’s true. Our job in this workshop is to explore the acoustic environment: to intercept sound waves and make sense of the world through the patterns – social, ecological, technological – we discern. One place to begin is Wreck Beach. Located below the cliffs at the edge of UBC’s Pacific Spirit Park, Wreck Beach is dramatic stretch of littoral space where a range of environmental sounds (crashing waves, long slow rollers, distant foghorns, frolicking humans) can be heard. By opening this space up acoustically, Wreck Beach will  open us up as listeners and geographical thinkers.

Before we turn on microphones, just walk down and show up.

Then consider the following…

  • Patterns, textures, and rhythms in the waves: How ‘fast’ are the waves? Do they change speeds, directions?
  • Is it possible to discern an acoustic background, middle ground and foreground to this space? Can you layer persistent sounds, intermittent sounds, and invasive sounds into any sort of consistent assortment?
  • Now move. How does acoustic space recompose itself around you? How does your acoustic picture catch up as swivel quickly, crouch low… Don’t be afraid to look silly!

Ten minutes pass. Next, we plug in headphones, and turn on the recorders.

Now, consider a few more things…

  • What else jumps out at you? What sounds does the headphone set up privilege that your naked ears didn’t?
  • How does repositioning the mic one two centimeters in any direction can change what you hear?  Move it around quickly and slowly, and compare.
  • How does the equipment sound? Is there an audible hiss from inherent mic noise? Too much gain? Can you hear your shuffling feet, slow breathing? (You are part of the recording equipment, by the way. Don’t worry, it’s an assemblage-theory thing).

Spend at least 20 minutes walking around Wreck Beach, considering these things, listening. It may seem weird, awkward, slow. That’s OK, that’s how it should feel. But then we’ll talk about it and you might be surprised to hear what your classmates did and not hear differently from you. What details you found, what interested them, what you agreed with, and so on. And besides, there is STRANGE HISTORY to this kind of thing. Look no further than Psychologically Ultimate Seashore (1969) —a 30-minute recording of nothing but tumbling, lapping waves. It was dreamed up by Irving Tiebel, the founder of an obscure record label, Syntonic Records, with influential strategies for mood manipulation and workplace improvement through sonic environmental modulation. At Tiebel’s side for the recordings (in Brighton Beach, BYC) was noted avant-garde composer Tony Conrad, who in turn credited lightening-field artist Walter De Maria’s ocean recordings in his meditative sound installations (some of which are still running in NYC forty years later). Weird people, these sound-wave artists.

Exercise 2. – Reaper 

REAPER (an acronym for Rapid Environment for Audio Production, Engineering, and Recording) is a multitrack recording and a digital audio workstation. We will use Reaper for editing audio files, both for the Wreck Beach efforts and for the Audio Drift. You can download and use a trial version for 60 days (enough time to complete assignments for this course). UBC Geography has purchased and downloaded a permanent copy, available in 210H. You can book time to work with this copy through UBC Geography’s A/V Whiz, Bret Petersen.

There are some helpful tutorial videos to get you started with the basics.  The videos follow a logical order (building upon information in previous videos).  Start with this introduction video, then click the link above for the rest of the series.

Exercise 3 – Audio Drift  

The “audio drift” represents a culmination of the skills acquired in the first two modules of “sonic geographies”. An audio drift is a sound work composed of a creatively arranged sequence of recorded sounds. Usually, it is more than 5min in length, however in this exercise 5 min will be adequate. Drifts are typically composed of recordings arranged to give a sense of movement and activity particular to place. They can consist entirely of sounds recorded from a static location, or they can be movement-based.  They can feature voice overs as well as non-narrative. This is not a simple narrative exploration, then, but a drift…To put it in Michael Gallagher’s words, “a drifting between the different sonic elements as they were mixed and layered together in the composition; a drifting of both bodily movement and conscious attention experienced when walking and listening back to the work; and the drift between the work’s pre-determined form and the unpredictable movements of listeners, and hence between elements in the soundtrack and elements in the site.”

“Audio Drifts” are particularly good at capturing the haunted and uncanny qualities of places, transits and associated movements. They are feelingful, expressive, and sensuous. They can (and in our case will) make use of additional textual research that  serves as the basis of the reflection piece for the class as a whole.

In this module, you produce a 5 minute “Audio Drift” as part of a broader effort to engage with the social meaning and composition of place. We will use a combination of “Zoom” and “Shotgun” mics, combined with site-specific (non audio) research, will be used to record 20+/- minutes at a particular location. Students will follow this with studio time to edit and arrange their recordings into the 3-5 min presentation.

Samson Young “Liquid Borders”
Samson Young “Liquid Borders”

As with the Wreck Beach exercise, the “Audio Drift” will force you to reckon with wind, background chatter, and reverberant surfaces in your attempts to produce quality representations of a particular acoustic space. Use these to your advantage. At the same time, you engage with lo-cut filters, loops, and basics in post-production (i.e. Audacity based exercises). Finally, you will ask questions about culture, nature, representation and sonic ideology, using readings from 371 and beyond.

How to begin? Begin by searching out a location that contains interesting acoustic properties: an ‘echoey’ cavernous space, a busy site of social exchange, a power station. What social processes pertain to these sounds? What practices do they speak to? Or keep silent? Now, how might you bring those social processes into audibility to people who are not present in the space? What can you convey about the space without the visual? Using post-production techniques on the school computer, you will try to create a creative exploration of the chosen space as a social geography, emphasizing its acoustic features.

D. Tidoni “A Balloon For Linz”
D. Tidoni (2013)

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