It’s true what they say about the ancient theatre at Epidaurus in Greece – you can hear someone talking in an ordinary voice on the stage from the highest row, ‘The Gods’. David and I arrived very early as we knew that any tourists would not be able to resist testing the acoustics with banal shouting and coarse whistling. I know because I would do the same myself. David and I were fighting colds and so, coughing and wheezing, we made our way up the stone stairs up the long stone aisles at Epidaurus. We were joined by an impossibly cute tabby cat who had moved from her sunny spot to observe us or cadge food or both. I switched on the recorder, and David was about to launch into his improvised comments, when the cat coughed.
It brought to mind a line in the script for episode 3 about a young anthropologist visiting the Congo jungle for the first time. He had been terrified by ‘the sickening cough of a leopard’ – not an easy sound to find. The British library didn’t have one. If only this cat was a leopard. It coughed again preternaturally. I recorded it anyway because you never know when you might need such a sound. Unfortunately, no doubt encouraged by my interest, it continued to make wretched cat noises off, no matter how hard we tried to shoo it away.
In studio three weeks later I was faced with annoying mews to be cut out. It was easy enough to edit out the ones between David’s words but what of those under, that overlapped? This is where we use a remarkable piece of software called “spectral repair”. Like Alan Rickman in Truly, Madly, Deeply we travel across boundaries, in our case the past, and affect repairs. We scan in the original audio and up pops an image which looks similar to underwater sonar. Then using a magic wand, just like in photo shop, we rub out the specific unwanted sounds. Using similar tools we removed traffic from under church bells, a camera beep under a singing monk…we use it a lot.
Normally I don’t try to control the sounds of life, it’s what happened, they are welcomed into my radio programmes. But when we are talking of medieval bells tolling across un-tilled fields does the listener really want to hear the arrival of the Amazon delivery truck? Of course cats have been hanging around Epidaurus for millennia, they are a genuine ye olde sound. Look, I’ll come clean, I am a dog person.
In the end Cathy found a sickening cough of a leopard, thanks to Bernie Krause who like Britain’s Chris Watson is one of the world’s great collectors of the sounds of wild animals (be they well or under the weather like us).
Spectral repair image above = with cat. Spectral repair image below = without cat. Beautiful either way.