In the early 50s, Philips introduced the reel-to-reel tape recorder to the commercial market, marketing it as a device with a host of options: playing music, capturing audio memories, recording and playback of your singing voice to detect false notes etc.… the sky was the limit for the pioneering soul. But what Philips hadn’t foreseen was that daring souls would take the tape recording deep into “the metallic wilderness” in search of prey lurking in our everyday audio fields. Meet the sound hunters.
In 1956 the Nederlandse Vereniging van Geluidsjagers (Dutch Society of Sound Hunters), NVG in short, was formed by a group of enthusiasts for the purpose of cultivating a sport that involved the use of a tape recorder, a practice known as sound hunting. In their community “lodge”, sound enthusiasts would come together and cook up plans for the hunt, repair their gear and explore tricks of the trade. Once all was learned and repaired, the sound hunters would venture into the city with their equipment in tow, capturing any sound deemed interesting. The bounty was then analyzed back home for its potential. Meaning: does the sound have the potential to win?
Well, the Sound Hunters had an annual feast, where a competition would be held for the most interesting piece of sound. A group of judges would carefully analyze the entries and decide who would win the top prize of the year. Exciting times!
As I read all of this in an amazing article by Karin Bijsterveld, I was motivated to investigate this matter further. Information was scarce, so I decided to get straight to the source and mailed the board of the NVG, which is now called the Nederlandse Vereniging voor Beeld & Geluid (NVBG). They were happy to help and directed me to their archive manager Nico Warnaar. I proceeded to call up Nico, and before I knew it, we were 30 minutes in conversation. I decided it was best to head over instead for some coffee and a chat about the sport he still cultivates today. Once I arrived at Nico’s home, a familiar techno beat coming from the back reached my ears. As I looked around the corner, my eyes fell on a limited blue edition of Porter Ricks’ Biokinetics being amplified by a stylus, and I knew this was going to be an interesting visit.
Hi Nico, thanks for having me over! You’ve shown me some interesting stuff displayed around the house, and we’ve listened a fair bit to Porter Ricks, but let me cut it to the chase: based on what I’ve seen, sound still plays a huge role in your life. Has this always been the case?
You can say that, yes. It all started in an early stage of my life. My mom bought me a single once. It contained a radio play from Biotex that’s filled with all kinds of funny voices and noises. I was thrilled; it totally captivated me. I think that’s where my fascination for sound began, and I say sound, because sound enmeshed me more than music; it triggers me more than the latter. Even though I enjoy both, sound became my hobby. And as fate would have it, I joined the Sound Hunters.
How did this come to be?
I visited a photo studio in Spijkernisse because there was a presentation for slide projectors. It was 1976 and I was about 18 years old. As I was standing there, an old man with a dusty raincoat from the NVG stood proudly beside me, and we conversed. The sound hunters occupied themselves by collecting and editing sounds as a hobby. They produced radio plays and hunted for sounds derived from creatures ranging from birds to estrous deers, from church choirs to street musicians, but also sounds of a more experimental kind. Think street compositions, sounds associated with schools etc. To put it simply, they were a group who devoted their spare time to sound.
I read that the sound hunters had picked their name carefully, using the word “hunt” metaphorically to emphasize the element of sport in their occupation. Did it really feel like hunting?
Yes, it was exciting to record sounds with your own equipment. Recording the local church choir was a straightforward thing to do, but you could also dig deeper and find more exciting sounds, like a passing train, or a squeaking door in a hospital you happened to encounter. If you had a recorder on you, this was the stuff you would record. Or what about a nicely resonating aluminum staircase…Poingggg!
Did you always carry a recorder on you?
Most certainly, but I’m glad they got smaller and lighter over the years. It became easier to catch sound. Back in the days it was a true sport to capture these sounds. I mean, I had a portable flashdrive recorder measuring 20 cm in width that came with portable microphones and weighed a couple of kilos. It’s a beautiful device capable of making marvelous recordings. But yes, you had to carry the thing. Before that I rolled with a tape recorder that weighed a whopping 6 kilos. Sore shoulders were part of the deal, yes.
But didn’t you carry a special shoulder bag or something? And it’s actually quite ironic that my phone is able to do everything that you guys were trying to do. What are your thoughts on that?
There were indeed hand-tailored-bags for that.
*Nico’s equips the old bag and shows me how conveniently it was made for the sport, with the level meters always showing so no recording was made in vain. Whilst doing it, Nico let out a gasp and reminds himself of how much effort men had to make back in the days*
Yep, those were different times…but it was worth it! You also knew that you only had 20 minutes of recording time max, so you knew what the stakes were. Things had to be done selectively, which required a totally different philosophical perspective than is nowadays. Today, this mentality is unthinkable, but the world keeps spinning aye?
Was it an expensive hobby?
Every hobby is expensive, sound hunting isn’t excluded. You could buy an entry model tape recorder in the 70s for around 350 gulden, which is around 160 euro. It was smart to join other hobbyists and societies, so you would have access to various recording and editing machines. And from these collaborations came productions that would enter the regional or national competitions.
Speaking of the NVG, how was the diversity? Lots of men and women? Young or old?
Mostly men; I would say between the ages of 30 to 70.
Mostly men who had achieved the white picket fence dream then?
Yep, and we all had in common an overarching drive to keep participating in the sound competition year after year. Once your “sound” has been submitted, the jury – made up of people from record companies, professional audio engineers and public broadcasters – would gather all these compositions and rate them one by one. During the 60/70s there were at times more than 100 entries! The results were presented in places like Hotel Krasnapolsky Amsterdam, RAI or de Doelen in Rotterdam; big venues! These locations were possible since the public broadcasting corporations had funded the whole thing, even distributing tape recorders and other equipment among the winners as prizes.
Ow and on a side note, Andre van Duin (famous Dutch comedian) was also a sound hunter!
Very nice! But back to the competitions. Under which criteria were the entries judged?
There were a few involved, yeah. Ingenuity, creativity and technical execution were the main ones. In other words… what was your idea, where did you get the idea from and how did you get it to sound like this? The jury would then award points according to standard guidelines, and the one with the most points would win.
I’m a sound hunter of the second hour who joined the club 25 years ago, and in that time I was fortunate enough to win over 50 prizes, of which two are first-prize awards in international competitions comprising of 12 countries.
Unfortunately enough, the international competitions have been put on hold. It’s uncertain if they will continue in a digital format.
No, because that would kind of undermine the hobby right?
Yeah, it kills the buzz. The fact of the matter is that our hobby is currently experiencing an aging problem; no new blood is being introduced and the current batch of sound hunters is getting older and older. Weirdly enough a trend began to develop. At first we had our trusty tape recorders, and after that came the cassette, the MiniDisc, the digital recorder and after that, everything could be processed with the computer. Technology improvements made recording more accessible, cheaper and most importantly, without apparent noise. But even though we see these developments are on the upward swing, the animo for sound hunting has fallen. Back in the days everything had to be used with great care and electrical plugs had to be repaired, mounted and checked. In short; a lot of fuss.
Thus, all the little annoyances were constitutive to the sound you guys were cultivating, right?
That’s right, and it was also a societal trend back then. Many people had a tape recorder at home to record, for instance, the first cry of their newborn baby. The tape recorder acted as some sort of audio camera, capturing audio moments in time. But people recorded everything! Tape recorders were used at schools, in the business to dictate letters, on the public radio for radio dramas; you name it.
We even engaged in tape correspondence with the sound hunters! One of us would record a story, bulletin or competition entry on a tape, package it in a small box and send it to person A. Person A would listen to it and send it to person B. Eventually it would take months for it to circle around, or it would mysteriously get lost. In any case, it worked and we loved it.
Last question about the competitions: how would you prepare for such a thing? Did you go to favorite places and did you produce a piece that the jury would like or something that would fascinate yourself?
Making stuff that “the jury would love” doesn’t work at all. The idea had to come from you. Say you read in the newspaper that a theater association was in town, playing Macbeth or something. These were encounters you could use. Recording music has never been my thing though; I would rather invest my time in making a sound collage of a train station. Layering sounds, contrasting them, filter them etc. Eventually you would end up with an audio postcard, except that it’ll be a bit alienated. You add a sort of unknown dimension to it.
Deconstruct in order to reconstruct. What composition would you consider as your masterpiece?
That would be, without doubt, my audio report of a train ride from Moscow to Beijing. It lasted seven days and nights; such a great experience! I was just staring out of the window, hypnotized. Back in those days, I recorded bits and pieces with my stereo microphone, and constructed those pieces at home. Eventually I ended up with a 7-minute piece, capturing the whole story by means of sound. It’s magnificent that I can relive my whole journey with the use of sound. Sound and music can work in guiding and manipulative ways you know…
Can’t disagree there. Oh and how did you end up being the archive manager of the Sound Hunters?
10 years ago, I started a collaboration with two other sound hunters, recording sound compilation records and CDs. We were also helped by the public radio stations and libraries, who granted us a lot of sounds. Over time the archive grew larger and larger. Eventually both my companions kind of dropped out, and I resumed on my own.
Even though the archive is meant for others, it’s super handy for yourself as well, since you still make sound compositions. Do you still hunt, or is the pool of sounds on your computer so huge that it’s no longer necessary?
Of course I still hunt! 14 days ago I went to the Maas tunnel here in Rotterdam to record the ambiance. I positioned myself right in the middle of the passenger walkway and just stood there for 15 minutes, armed with two stereo microphones. Runners passed me by; people with suitcases rolled by and I simply stayed put.
Haha, they didn’t have a clue what I was doing. At a certain point these guards came to me, since they were oblivious of what I was doing, and asked where my camera was. I replied that I didn’t have one. They then asked me what I was doing then. I concluded: just recording… Well they didn’t catch that…
But now I have a genuine recording of the Maas tunnel! I even have an ambience recording of the old post office at the Neude in Utrecht, which has since closed. Those sounds can never be reproduced, but I still have them.
The original function of the tape recorder is still, after all, the making of sound memories.
Yes! And you never know what use these sound memories could have. A little while back I bought a Russian language course LP from a couple of students at Queensday market. Back home I chopped it all up and constructed some sort of astronaut audio drama from it. You follow a conversation between the base station and the astronaut himself. Sputnik is being launched, and everything seems to go right, but then stuff does wind up going wrong. Guess who’s the bad guy? Wodkaaaaaa! These ideas can spring out of something so bumpy as a language course record; just great!
Where do you get these ideas?
They just pop up. I’m super creative in that area if I can say so myself. Ideas always surface and I want to realize them as quickly as possible, before they evaporate. I’m not at all technical, or classically trained in music, but whenever these composition ideas arise, I need to actualize them by means of sound.
Will it ever end?
I sure hope not!
Want to experience the frequencies the sound hunters captured?
In collaboration with the NVGB and Nico Warenaar, we were able to exclusively release some material from the past. The package contains various samples, Nico’s astronaut drama and his 8 minute travel report. Have fun!
Special thanks to Ed Diersmann, chairman of the NVGB and of course Nico Warenaar!