She Moved Through the Fair: A Soundscape Experiment

Have you ever included samples of birdsong or other recordings in your music? In this guest blog post, Ruth Carlyle shares her reflections on creating a soundscape mix of the Irish folk-song ‘She moved through the fair’. She includes tips for recording and mixing sounds.

Sounds are around us all the time. Radio stations, notably BBC Radio 3, encourage listeners to share recordings that they have made of the world around them, to be paired with pieces of music. Some music combines “samples” of recorded sound as part of the composition. I have been intrigued by this – particularly as a singer with the complexities of recording with an accompanist during the pandemic.

I thought that “She moved through the fair” would be a good song to combine with soundscapes. It is one of the songs that was collected by Herbert Hughes in County Donegal. In the version he collected, the narrative is slightly ambiguous:

My young love said to me, “My mother won’t mind,

And my father won’t slight you for your lack of kind.”

And she stepped away from me, and this she did say,

“It will not be long, love, ‘til our wedding day.”

She stepped away from me and she went thro’ the fair,

And fondly I watched her move here and move there.

And then she went homeward with one start awake,

As the swan in the evening moves over the lake.

Last night she came to me, she came softly in,

So softly she came that her feet made no din,

And she laid her hand on me and this she did say,

“It will not be long, love, ‘til our wedding day.”

Using soundscapes to set the scene for a story

So, what happened at the fair? Did she just leave, or did she die? In the last verse, does she return as a ghost, a dream or in person? My chosen interpretation is that she left the narrator at the fair and that her return in the last verse is in a dream. That interpretation leads to different locations for each verse, which in turn provide potential soundscapes to accompany the vocal line.

Image for She Moved Through the Fair
Image for She Moved Through the Fair

Images © 2021 Albion Visual

In the first verse, the narrator and the woman are together and not yet in the midst of the fair. I treated this as an outdoor setting for which I recorded birdsong. There are three recordings of birdsong – a dawn chorus, an ominous crow recorded in the local churchyard and chattering sparrows and other birds in a local hedgerow just at the point when the woman moves away.

The action of the second verse takes place at the fair. In the absence of actual fairs to record in the pandemic, it is a recording from a position at which children can be heard playing in the playgrounds of two different schools as a general hubbub of interaction.

With the return in a dream for the last verse, I have chosen to interpret this as an interior, which closes with the ticking of a clock combined with the melancholy of rain on a windowpane.

The recordings were therefore part of telling the story, by setting the scene for each verse. 

Tips for recording, creating a soundscape and mixing sounds

These are my personal tips based on my experience. I would welcome recommendations that others are able to make.

  1. Recording outside: If you are recording soundscapes, then wind can distort the sound. Try to find a sheltered spot. I was recording on an iPad Mini and found that covering the microphone with the side of a canvas bag reduced the distortion. I have also heard radio presenters recommending placing a sock over a smartphone to reduce wind distortion.
  2. Timing the start of a recording: If you are recording yourself playing or singing, you may want to use a package that gives you a few seconds of “countdown” before it starts to record. This is less useful when making soundscape recordings, however, as you are likely to want to capture the sound of the bell that has started to ring or the bird that has just started to sing. It is worth using a couple of different packages depending on what you are recording.
  3. Labelling your recordings: Give your sound a meaningful file name, such as “Sparrows at X location” as it will save you a great deal of time listening through to find the relevant recording.
  4. Copying sound files before editing them: If you want to edit a sound file, make a copy of the original file first, so that it is easy to return to the original if you decide that the edits you have made do not improve the sound.
  5. Treating songs as mini “radio dramas”: When you introduce soundscapes, you change the sense of location for the music – vocal lines that were recorded indoors may sound as though they were recorded outdoors. Try thinking of the piece of music with soundscapes as a mini radio drama and how the soundscapes add to the sense of place in the music.
  6. Mixing soundscapes: the volume of different soundscapes will vary, as will the extent of underlying background noise. When mixing sounds it is worth using the “fade” function, so that you effectively have a crescendo increasing the volume at the start of the clip and a diminuendo reducing the volume at the end. 

A wide variety of Apps and software packages are available both to record sounds and to combine them. The two Apps that I used for this recording are both available to use without a fee. I used Voice Record Pro for the soundscape recordings and Soundtrap to mix the sounds and to record myself singing.

Using Soundtrap to create a Soundscape

With digital packages, you potentially have an unlimited number of lines of sound, or tracks, that you can combine. It is worth experimenting with different combinations. Many classic recordings were made with only a few tracks, so increasing the number of lines of sounds does not necessarily improve the output.

I hope that you will enjoy experimenting with soundscapes in music. If you would like to hear my recording of “She moves through the fair”, you can listen to it without an account on my Soundcloud site or you can find it on Spotify.

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