Capturing the Sounds of Kenya for 'Survivor: Africa'
VARIOUS LOCATIONS, KENYA
One of the striking qualities of the CBS hit series "Survivor" is how well the music evokes the feelings of the show's exotic locations, yet with a contemporary edge.
"It's tribal, but orchestrated at the same time," Russ Landau, one of the two composers for "Survivor," said of the music. That description also suits the program itself, which Landau described as "MTV's 'Real World' meets 'The Lord of the Flies.'"
Landau's love for indigenous music - for "Survivor" he blends it with modern samplers and synthesizers - has led him to a sacred cave in Australia to record the aboriginal didgeridoo of David Hudson. In 2001, he visited Kenya to make field recordings of traditional folk music performed by local ensembles for the show's third incarnation, "Survivor: Africa," which CBS televised last winter.
"I was looking for stuff that connects to our DNA, anything ancient, traditional and mystical," related Landau, a self-described "renegade musicologist" and former bass player and producer for the Paul Winter Consort.
SOUNDS OF KENYA
During his two-and-a-half-week stay in Kenya, Landau visited more than a dozen places and tribes throughout the country, including Masai Mara Talek Village, Mombasa, Dandora and the capital, Nairobi. He also worked on the "Survivor" set in the Shaba National Reserve, composing five new pieces that were used by the video editors there.
Landau enlisted Sara Anindo Marshall, a former Kenyan pop singer now living in Los Angeles, as liaison and translator to arrange the recording sessions with local governments and the Deputy Minister of Culture.
Landau was also accompanied by audio assistant Marny Eng and videographer E. J. Foerster, who documented the field recording project, along with a Masai guide and the driver of their main form of transportation, a Nissan minibus.
Landau's equipment all fit into two Pelican cases, ran on batteries and was rugged enough to endure both the windy, dusty, dry, hot weather and the long bumpy treks in the minibus.
For microphones, Landau chose a pair of omnidirectional Earthworks M30BXs as his main recording pair, with a pair of AKG C1000 cardioids, fed into an HHB PortaDisc MiniDisc recorder with USB, as backup. The mics needed to be "pristine sounding," he said.
The Earthworks M30BX is a small diaphragm condenser mic often used as a measurement mic.
For the field recordings, the Earthworks mics were fed into a Sound Devices USBPre 1.5 microphone preamplifier and 24-bit A/D converter, which then connected to an Apple PowerBook G3/500. Software on the PowerBook included Emagic Logic Audio with Logic Software Instruments and EXS24, and BitHeadz Unity DS-1, plus Digidesign Pro Tools and MOTU Digital Performer.
Landau recorded directly on the PowerBook's internal hard drive. "I recorded CD-quality 44.1 kHz, 16-bit audio, stored as SD2 [sound designer] files," he explained.
Keeping the batteries charged was always a challenge, and Landau always had two batteries juiced and ready to go.
A $30 auto power converter proved to be a "savior" on long trips, he said, producing the needed AC that the charging system required. "I kept the power converter plugged into the cigarette lighter of the minibus to keep things charging," Landau said.
The villages had advance notice that Landau and crew were arriving, and they would often greet the recording team with a performance even before the minibus came to a stop. Landau arranged his gear in advance to be record-ready as soon as he jumped out. Booting up the computer took the longest time, three minutes. Even so, he said, sometimes he had to use the audio tracks from the camcorder.
The musicians and singers were not studio professionals. "People would often dance as they sang, so the omni mics were a better choice" in capturing those performances, he said.
"The cardioids came in handy in some extreme spaces, where we had slappy echo, but I preferred the openness of the Earthworks omnis," he said.
Landau recorded two tracks on each of the recording devices. But, he said, "There was no time to do a stereo setup. If all we got was a good capture in mono, that's how it worked.
"We often had to rush in and record it with the mic on a handheld boom," he said. At other times, the mics were strung from their cables over tree limbs or rafters inside village lodging areas.
One of the greatest challenges was the incessant wind, and Landau and his crew came up with some inventive windscreens. In one location, an assistant positioned a hand behind the mic to prevent the wind from blowing across the top of the mic. In one of the Masai Mara villages, blankets were brought in to surround the mics in a makeshift tent, with the singers facing the strange-looking contraption. "The stereo image wasn't that great, but the piece was incorporated into the final composition," Landau said.
When Landau returned to "Survivor" base camp, he backed up the PowerBook soundfiles to a 60 GB external hard drive with FireWire interface.
Much of the traditional songs that Landau recorded are stories about historic events and tales about great hunts. But he also translated the Survivor theme "Ancient Voices" from its native Russian to English, then to Swahili and other Kenyan languages, and he taught the chant to many of the local groups.
Landau said nothing was wasted as he transformed the field recordings into compositions for "Survivor: Africa," blending and manipulating them with his extensive library of samples. "I'll tune a musical phrase with the digital editor, tweak it in time, do tempo stretching or compression or even sometimes turn it backward or do weird atmosphere effects," he said.
Landau believes that "cultural diversity is very important to art to preserve philosophical differences in each of our own tribes." But, he admits, teaching the tribal groups the "Survivor" theme may confound future ethnomusicologists.