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Two dBs students and dBs Pro creative director recording sound aboard an 18th century sailboat in Plymouth
Billie CroucherJun 24, 2020 10:00:00 AM3 min read

dBs Pro and students create soundscape for star-studded Coleridge reading

A team of dBs students, working as part of dBs Pro, have collaborated on a major international project, producing an ambitious 3D sound work that helps to breathe new life into an English literary classic.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is an epic tale of adventure, fear and fascination – a work of 18th-century science fiction that has prophetic messages for the natural world, climate breakdown and mental health, globally relevant in the 21st century.

With this in mind, The Ancient Mariner Big Read, commissioned by The Arts Institute, University of Plymouth seeks to reimagine the poem for the present day. Bringing together the contributions of artists, scientists, and renowned public figures such as Iggy Pop, Tilda Swinton, and Marianne Faithfull, it has already been viewed over 1.7 million times by audiences as far-flung as the UK, United States, Australia, and New Zealand.

The project sees Coleridge’s 150-verse poem divided into a series of readings, which were released online over the course of 40 days. Many of these readings were recorded, edited, and mixed by dBs student assistants Joe Valek, Rafal Bijan, and Ed Shakspeare. 

dBs student Joe Valek recording the ambient sounds inside a church

Joe, who went to London to record Cerys Matthews’ part of the poem said, “Cerys was fresh out of the BBC Radio 6 Music Studio. It was quick and easy. We popped into a pub around the corner from Wogan House. She did one take – it was perfect – and off she went, leaving us sipping our still full half-pints, which she kindly bought us!”

Meanwhile, Ed, whose family traces back to William Shakespeare, headed to Ottery Saint Mary to record a reading by Samuel John Taylor Coleridge, the first descendant in 200 years to be named after the author of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. One of the curators of the project, Philip Hoare, was so excited by this coincidence that he even mentioned it in an interview with The New Yorker.

The student assistants also helped to create a soundscape to accompany the readings, which can now be experienced as a single symphonic piece. All sounds used were recorded specifically for the project in locations significant to Coleridge’s life. For example, much of the core soundscape was recorded on a historical pilot cutter off the Devon coast where Coleridge was born. Using spatial recording, the team captured the sounds of being at sea in 3D, producing a ‘living’ piece of sound art which gives listeners the sense of being pulled under by the Mariner’s spell.

Recording the sound of a ringing bell onboard an 18th century sail boat

Jay Auborn, Creative Director of dBs Pro said, “Using spatial sound recordings allowed us to alter the listener’s auditory perspective over the course of listening. Are you on the ship at sea? Or with the reader at a relevant location to Coleridge’s life? We play with this as a psychedelic sense of place, taking a lead from the Rime and Coleridge.”

In addition to the sounds of the Devon coast, the soundscape contains field recordings from around the world, including the sounds of albatrosses and creaking ice from the Antarctic. Post-recording, the team manipulated the raw samples in the studio to imbue them with a gothic quality. Recorded audio was stretched, re-pitched, distorted, and processed, resulting in a nightmarish sound-world that is entirely bespoke. 

Reflecting on his involvement in the project, Ed said: “Working on the Ancient Mariner was a great experience, and I loved working on something different from what I usually do. It was really interesting being part of the project from near the start and seeing it all eventually come together. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is such a vivid, dramatic poem, so it was cool to try and create soundscapes for it - I hope Samuel Coleridge himself would be proud!” 

A picture of one of the microphones on the sail boat used for recording location sound for Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Joe added “We all had a fantastic time working on this project and I was thrilled to see how well it did upon its release! I feel very fortunate to have had this opportunity thanks to dBs Pro. I learned a lot of valuable industry skills that I can apply both in my studio work and professional. I really hope to be able to work on a similar project in the future.”

dBs Pro is the commercial arm of dBs Music. A professional audio production studio based in Bristol, it provides dBs Music students with opportunities to gain industry experience and broaden their networks through work placements and internship programmes. Find out more about it here.

If you are interested in studio-based production, why not check out our degree in Music Production and Sound Engineering?