Sounds at the End of the Appalachian Trail

Sounds at the End of the Appalachian Trail

The world became a quieter place during the lockdowns of COVID-19. During normal times, there is constant airplane traffic over most of the continental United States. It is rare to find a place that consistently gets more than 15 minutes of natural silence where no trains, planes, or automobiles can be heard. That changed during the pandemic. 

I love searching for the subtle sounds of extremely quiet places. I found the north woods of Maine especially magical after several months of COVID lockdown in Philadelphia. Normally there would be constant noise pollution from airplane traffic over Maine. However, in October 2020, COVID was still causing a drastic reduction in flights. So, the pandemic gave me the chance to document the pristine soundscape of Maine in a way that has not been possible for decades. Step into the “Noise Pollution Time Machine” with me, and enjoy the subtle sounds of this natural silence.

DECIDUOUS RAIN:

I began the trip by hiking deep into the woods near the base of Mount Katahdin. The summit of this lovely mountain is the northern end of the Appalachian Trail and is one of the highest mountains in the eastern US. Imagine dense forests of Maple, Birch, Beech, and Eastern White Pine that are bursting with the vivid colors of autumn. 

In temperate climates, there is a short window each year that is perfect for recording rain. This is in autumn when the temperature is between 32° and 45° Fahrenheit. At these temperatures most birds have migrated south and it is cold enough to silence the insects but it's not yet snowing. In 2020, this window was only a few weeks and I timed my trip to Maine with the primary goal of recording pure rain with zero wildlife. Luckily mother nature cooperated.


I’ve spent a lot of time and energy learning to record rain. I’ve learned many tricks from George Vlad and discovered quite a few myself. On previous trips, I’ve always made mistakes that made the mastering a pain. I finally got things right on this trip and was able to capture over 30 hours of rain! Here’s what I did: 

  • I built natural foliage canopies using the large local Maple leaves to keep the raindrops from thumping on the blimp. This meant a large canopy for my Double Mid/Side blimp or sometimes just a few leaves electrical-taped to the trunk of a tree for my LOM Usi microphones. 
  • For my Double Mid/Side rig, I buried the dry bag containing the Sound Devices MixPre-3 II recorder under the fallen autumn leaves so that the raindrops didn’t thump on the dry bag. I used a Cinela blimp that has been waterproofed with NixWax with the honeycombed Kelly Rain Cover to minimize rain drop thumps. Finally, I used XLR cables with Neutrik X-HD waterproof connectors so moisture didn’t seep into my connection points.  

TREE-EARS IN THE RAIN:

The “tree-ears'' microphone technique is created by attaching two omni microphones to the opposite sides of a tree about the width of a human head. The tree acts as a baffle between the microphones and creates a pseudo-binaural stereo image that I love. I put my LOM Usi microphones covered by Bubblebee Windbubbles. In addition I put these into DIY contraptions I’ve made using Cinela LEO20 blimps, which are designed for larger 20 mm diameter microphones for additional wind protection. I use a 20 mm semi-flexible plastic tube to fill the hole in the blimp and then tape the two blimps to the tree with electrical tape. I do not put a furry on the outside of the LEO because it would get sopping wet and dampen the sound. Instead I coat the LEO20 blimp with NixWax for waterproofing.

I discovered that I could tape Maple leaves directly to the trunk of the tree to create the foliage canopy. The leaves must be taped at least 12 inches above the mics so the sound of the droplets hitting the leaves mixes well with the surrounding soundscape.

It took some experimentation, but once I got all the details right I was able to record hours and hours of pure rain in the north woods of Maine. The LOM Usi mics captured a beautiful soundscape of millions of raindrops on autumn leaves that was essential to my mental health during the isolation of COVID lockdowns.

CANOPY WIND: 

This was my first time recording in predominantly temperate-deciduous forests in the late autumn. When I arrived, most of the leaves had already fallen which left dense capillaries of exposed branches. I was surprised at the lush sound of the wind created by those millions of small branches in the canopy. It had an eerie character with lush droning gusts mostly in the 500 Hz to 2,000 Hz frequencies. These haunting gusts mirror the droning character of wind through wires.

I’ve found that using the “tree-ears'' technique to record wind in forests is music to my ears. The baffle of the tree creates an immersive pseudo-binaural image that sounds lovely on headphones. Also, you can often get away with only Bubblebee Windbubbles because the majority of the wind energy is in the canopy and does not get down to the forest floor. Just tape the small lavalier microphones to the side of the tree with electrical tape and hide the recorder in a camo dry bag at the base. 

Mount Katahdin and several of the surrounding peaks are tall enough to reach above treeline. I climbed a steep ridge during a windstorm to try to capture some of the alpine gusts. I used a double layer of furries on my blimps for extra wind protection and captured some wild sweeping gusts. My favorite sound was that of the 50+ mph gusts whipping through large rock cairns built at lookout points. The rock cairns create a natural comb filtering effect as the wind blows through cracks in the stacked rocks!

ANGRY CHIPMUNKS:

Chipmunks are very territorial. They don’t like field recordists bothering them and taping microphones to their trees. They showed their displeasure by sneaking out onto branches right near my mics and suddenly barking with the staccato sound of an automatic weapon. I think they purposely wait until I get the gain turned up before scaring the shit out of me. Chipmunks also love to chew on audio cables. I lost several LOM Usi cables when the pesky rodents decided I was not allowed to attach my microphones to their trees. After all those mangled cables, I thought the least the chipmunks could do was pay me back for the gear they destroyed. So voila, the “Angry Chipmunk” sound library was born. I hope you enjoy the vocalizations of these incredibly charismatic rodents.

OTHER WILDLIFE ENCOUNTERS: 

The autumn soundscape in Maine is pretty sparse, but there are a few species still making a racket. Here are a few highlights: 

  • A bull moose in rut scared me half to death as he went for a nighttime stroll at the lake. Imagine giant clomping hooves and spooky grunts about 20 meters from your tent!
  • Resonant ravens singing in the rain as they flew above a spring-fed lake. The resonance of their squawks was lovely as it reflected off the lake. 
  • Lynx fighting with snarling feline howls.
  • Mice running under my tent at night. Imagine waking up to the feeling of something slithering under the side of the tent! I thought it was a snake every time and couldn’t go back to sleep for hours. 
  • Astonishingly close owl hoots in the tree right above the tent! Sadly, I had broken my own rule of “always keep a recorder with you” and I missed the magical sonic moment.

NATURE ROOMTONES: WETLANDS

Imagine sitting next to a mirror-still lake. All the sounds of the ecosystem are being amplified by this natural resonator. A distant creek can be heard across the lake to the north as a soothing roar, barely audible pine wind whafts in from a grove to the west, and the last few deciduous leaves of autumn waffle in almost still air to the east. These subtle sounds of light wind and distant water resonate the ecosystem just enough to give it that sense of space. It's like walking into a cathedral, but one made by mother nature. A large resonant space with a subtle but beautiful character.

 

I’ve recorded many natural roomtones in forests and deserts. Nature Roomtones: Wetlands focuses on autumn and winter sounds of lakes and marshes. Specifically barely audible wind, distant flowing water, and a few surprising clips of frozen lakes shifting as living ice. Most sounds are from Maine, but there are a few from Alaska, Michigan, Montana, and Washington. I hope you enjoy the subtle sounds of this “almost silence”.

BACKPACKING: 

I’m no ultralight backpacker with all my recording gear. I was hauling close to 80 pounds of gear into the backcountry on this trip. Most of the weight was from batteries and my three recording rigs. Here’s any overview of the gear I hauled: 

Recording Rigs:

  1. Sennheiser MKH8040 pair and MKH 30 (Double Mid/Side) + Sound Devices MixPre-3 II + Cinela Pianissimo Blimp + 7-pin XLR cables + K-Tek Stingray Junior Audio Bag + Manfrotto 5001B stand.
  2. LOM Usi (Quad) + Sound Devices MixPre-6 + Cinela LEO20 Blimps
  3. LOM Usi (Stereo) + Sony D100 + Bumblebee Windbubbles
  4. LOM Usi (Stereo)+ Sony A10 + Bumblebee Windbubbles

Other Recording Gear: 

  1. Five Anker USB-C batteries of either 20,000 mAh or 26,800 mAh sizes
  2. 32 Eneloop AAs
  3. 20+ SD cards
  4. 15+ Sea to Summit and AquaQuest dry bags

I pack the recording gear (plus all my camping gear) into a massive 80L backpack. Even still, that usually isn’t enough space and I have to strap things to the outside of the pack as well. I highly recommend trekking poles when hauling that much gear. If you are new to backpacking or mountaineering, I’d recommend The Complete Walker IV and Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills. Both books are massive resources that will help to get into the backcountry to record.

BACKCOUNTRY PACKING SUGGESTIONS: 

My packing always varies depending on location and time of year, but here are few things I always need for field recording: 

  1. Bungee cords to strap extra gear to the outside of my pack
  2. Highly absorbent camping towels to dry moisture off gear
  3. Small desiccant packs for soaking up moisture inside dry bags. I buy small ones from McMster-Carr
  4. Lots of dry bags. All recording gear is packed inside its own dry bag, so I usually have at least 10-15 dry bags of various sizes with me. I like the camo bags from AquaQuest. I also often double bag my drop rigs for extra protection. The inner bag holds the recorder and the outer bag holds the mics/blimps for travel. I do this because the blimp furries are often a little damp and I don’t want that moisture getting on the recorder. 
  5. Trekking poles. These are invaluable when hiking on rough terrain with a heavy pack. My poles have kept me from falling over and smashing all the expensive gear in my pack MANY times. 
  6. Lightweight tarp for changing drop-rig batteries and SD cards during rain or snow. I drape it over myself to keep any moisture from getting into my gear. 
  7. Garmin inReach mini for SOS, satellite texting, and off-grid weather forecasts based on your current location
  8. Leatherman multi-tool
  9. Paracord
  10. Electrical tape

I hope you enjoy the subtle sounds of nature in the north woods of Maine. This recording trip was an awe-inspiring and restful time for me. I hope you love these sounds as much as I loved recording them.

Thanks for listening,

Tom