Sounds From A Pow-Wow

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I attended a Native American pow-wow this past weekend, my first since covering a large gathering years ago for a Wyoming newspaper. The pow-wow back then was a great experience. The grand entry, where all the dancers in their colorful, fancy regalia parade in a clockwise fashion around the arena, began around sunset. A Wyoming sunset can be beautiful any time of year, but just as pretty and not as noticed is the sky opposite where the sun goes down. The pale pinks and pastel blues mix and intensify above the eastern horizon for a brief display seen only in the West it seems. My night concluded with the honor of being able, along with our writer, to sit inside a sweat lodge during a ceremony (for as long as I could stand the heat). A fortunate experience I remember vividly.

When I saw there was a pow-wow in my area, I knew I wanted to capture the sounds of it. To record the glistening bells on the dancers feet as they shuffle around the arena, and especially the sound of the drums, which symbolize the heartbeat of the earth.

Below is a compressed mix of the Grand Entry and a few of the songs performed by drum groups pounding away on their large drums under a tent adjacent the arena.

Recording note: I used a Sony PCM D100, with its microphones in wide mode, to record at 24 bit/96khz. I was standing just outside the tent to record the three drum circles, and opposite the arena’s stereo p.a. system to capture the Grand Entry.

The Sound of the Ohio State Reformatory

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I was given the opportunity this past February to roam unaccompanied inside the old Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio. I had been there a couple of times before, once to make images shortly after the filming of the Shawshank Redemption, and once on a brief tour. However this was my first chance to record its sound. Some say it is haunted. I left my Proton Pack at home. Instead I brought along two recorders, two contact microphones, a pair of omnis arranged in my DIY baffled head and a thick sweater. It was cold and lonely inside those rusty 131-year-old cells.

Yet another feature-length film is about to start filming at the historic prison. Escape Plan 3, starring Sylvester Stallone. This will be his second visit to the prison. He also starred alongside Kurt Russell in the 1989 film Tango and Cash. OSR and the movie industry goes way back to when Harry and Walter Go To New York was filmed there in the mid ‘70’s. Harrison Ford was sent to the prison in the 1997 film Air Force One. Here is IMDB’s list.

What you’ll hear in the mix below, along with the ambient sound of birds that have taken up residence near the large windows, and wind sweeping down corridors, is the sound of cell and chapel doors opening and closing, me walking up and down a huge metal spiral staircase that connects the top and bottom of a cell block, and me walking the length of another cell block, rubbing a wooden broom handle against the bars as I walked. All of these sounds were recorded separately (at 96kHz/24bit) with both contact and regular microphones.

I’m told that when the prison was active (it remained in operation until 1990) it sounded nothing like this. This of course makes sense. Inmates, even the good ones like Andy Dufresne, got little sleep.

Floating Fire Ant Flashbacks

There have been quite of few images and stories floating around the Internet in the last few days of giant fire ant colonies floating on the water’s surface around Houston. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, and the tropical storm that continues to dump overwhelming amounts of rain as it churns eastward toward Louisiana after devastating the Houston area, these images bring back uncomfortably itchy memories of covering quite a few hurricanes, and even more flood events, in Baton Rouge and beyond over the years.

When I moved to south Louisiana in 2000, I remember hearing the tale of an elderly person in a Texas nursing home who was killed by a swarm of red ants while sleeping in their nursing home bed. Perhaps that was urban legend, but the nightmarish horror story stuck. It wasn’t enough that I had to cautiously walk down the center line of flooded streets, since that was usually high ground, thinking at any time I could go feet first into a manhole blown open by rushing water. I also had to worry about floating brown rafts of nasty fire ants as well. To a soaking wet fire ant, whose buddies have been crawling back and forth all over you in a desperate effort to save the queen, you are nothing but dry ground. As they climb onto you, they will be extra angry after being uprooted from their underground homes and having floated – their hind legs and antennae locked in a death grip to millions of their mindless little colleagues – for so long.

I never seemed to have realized it until after it was too late, but I have been bit in the ankles, legs and hands plenty of times by fire ants. Not islands of them at once thankfully, but nevertheless, to this day, even while living in Ohio; I have cautionary flashbacks as I walk across an open field. Hopefully fire ants are climate change deniers, and stay put south of the Ohio River. But I digress.

With all this in mind I want to share with you the sound these red devils make inside their evil lairs. I recorded these fire ants in November 2015 in a historic cemetery in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a place where Spanish moss-covered Live oak trees sweep out far and wide, their long, hardy, drooping branches lightly brushing against 19th century above ground whitewashed tombs, and where both Union and Confederate soldiers hid behind those same tombstones for protection during a fierce battle on August 5, 1862. Any place in south Louisiana is a good home for a fire ant – my former front and back yard included – but a cemetery makes a perfect abode, as edges of tombstones, and the remains that lie beneath, are rarely disturbed and long forgotten.

Armed with a pair of rubber dishwashing gloves, I gingerly placed two contact microphones (in this instance they make the inaudible perceivable) inside an active mound that all but encased the grave marker of Annie B. Schorten. Schorten was born in 1847, died in 1922, and, for the duration of my stay anyway, regrettably had her spirit tormented by the vile little insects. To make matters worse, invasive fire ants were brought into the United States years after she passed on. Ants survived one of the world’s five mass extinctions, so there is no reason to think they cannot survive any flood Mother Nature rains down upon them.

Since I am not an entomologist or an ant expert, I will not pretend to explain the sounds you hear in the recording excerpt below, or how or why ants make the sounds they do to communicate. There is however plenty of information on the web regarding this. Just sit back, close your eyes, and enjoy the creepy sounds. But for heavens sake don’t do while taking your evening bath.

As a side note, I have found the best way to combat a fire ant bite itch is to blast it for as long as possible with a blow dryer as hot as you can stand it. Your results may vary.


Beneath the Pond at Gorman Nature Center

I’ve hiked about the grounds of Gorman Nature Center quite a few times since coming back to Ohio, mostly with my dog walking faithfully beside, (unless she spots a rabbit). It’s minutes from my home, and one of the nicest natural locations in town. Last evening I made a solo trip at sunset to record the underwater sounds of the center’s front pond. Dropping two evenly spaced hydrophones off the wooden dock, I could hear many more sounds than what I heard when I tried this same experiment earlier this year. I had considered the pond dead back in the spring. I was wrong.

State Route 42 is a mere 930-feet away from the pond and my recording location. To record using regular microphones – which I’ve done at Gorman’s back pond – would have been a frustratingly short exercise with the amount of traffic that motors past on a Friday evening.

Satellite view of Gorman Nature Center and my recording location.

The mp3 excerpt below is from 47-minute recording starting at dusk, using two Aquarian H2A XLR mics, a Sound Devices Mixpre-D and a Sony PCM M10 recorder capturing at 96kHz/24 bit. I compressed it slightly. My panoramic pond image is from nearly this same time last year. I chose not to photograph last night as any movement along the dock creates loud, unwelcome sounds that easily transfer down to the microphones.


How Fish Hear Fireworks

To be honest, I am not really sure how fish hear fireworks. If you’re curious, which I hope by the end of this post you will be, you should take a look.

I had wanted to hear and record fireworks and boat traffic on a lake from an underwater perspective for a while. There are three man-made reservoirs within minutes of my home. Pontoon boats, jet skies and fishing boats zigzag back and forth creating plenty of undesirable noise. With a pair of hydrophones and a friend’s access to a private dock, I drove out this past Memorial Day weekend to Charles Mill Lake in north central Ohio. I recorded fireworks here last year. The long, decaying echoes the blasts create are tremendous. I wondered if they could be heard underwater as well.

The rickety wooden dock screeches and bends from every footstep taken and each wave that passes by it. I stretched out microphone cables along its entire length in order to get the best stereo separation possible. I then set up a recorder to capture above-water sound, and took a wobbly seat to watch the show.

As anticipated, the sound of fireworks underwater is not all that different than what we hear as we’re being bit by mosquitos above water. Somewhat muffled, but still loud. It’s got to be frightfully, if not painfully loud down there for fish and other aquatic life as fireworks blast above their heads.

On a larger scale, there was a scientific paper put out not too many years ago postulating that the sound of the world’s oceans were louder in the 1800’s than they are now due to whale noise. The planet had more whales then of course. The sound of a lightning strike heard underwater, or the sounds of pistol shrimp eating are also extremely loud. But these are natural sounds. Sounds that fit into the acoustical slots animals evolved with. On the contrary, the machine noise our boats and our ships and our oil exploration rigs make has become, to the detriment of marine life, the dominant sound in our oceans.

What you hear in the sound excerpt below, taken from the original 17-minute recording, is a mix of two recordings capturing the finale simultaneously. I then synced both in post, with an abrupt dropout of the above-water recording 15 seconds in. I then bring the ambient sound back up toward the end where you can faintly hear a happy boating crowd cheering and honking their horns in approval. (See screenshot below).


For further reading on the subject of noise pollution in the world’s oceans:


Since writing this blog post, I have had several email exchanges with Michael Stocker, director of Ocean Conservation Research, and author of Hear Where We Are: Sound Ecology, And Sense Of Place. Looking into the phenomenology of sound perception is the cornerstone of his work as he puts it. He has been kind enough to share some of his concepts with me.

“Fish hearing is not calibrated to human hearing”, says Stocker. “There is ample reason to believe that fishes sensitivity to impulse sounds might be greater than their sensitivity to continuous sounds. But it is good to establish some relativistic benchmark,” he added. I wondered if an impulse sound such as a firework, or a sonar blast, or a lightning strike, or an underwater pile driver, would disturb a fish more than the continuous noise of shipping lane traffic or an already-established offshore wind turbine, sort of like how some humans get used to the train noise out their bedroom window. “It is a bit more complicated than this, said Stocker. But in an environment where visibility is often really limited, and where everything from lightening strikes to earthquakes can be heard for thousands of miles, and the most pernicious or most valuable sound needs to be heard equally well in crashing and calm seas, volume is not necessarily the most important perceptual characteristic. So from a phenomenological as well as a physiological standpoint, signal rise time is much more important than amplitude. There is no clear evidence of “habituation” in the cognitive sense, but adaptation may include the ability to sort out signals in the time domain where amplitude or frequency characteristics might otherwise mask important sounds.”

Stocker goes on to write, “There is a 65dB attenuation at the air/water boundary layer, but that doesn’t mean that it calibrates out to how fish hear the noise because water transmits sound intensity much better than air.” Ultimately he says it comes down to two things; how much energy is in the system (some math involved) and what the fish hear (some speculation on our part). “Because while we know some fish hearing thresholds, we only know these in the pressure domain, not particle velocity. And my suspicions are that fishes may be much more sensitive to coherent sounds that we understand.”

Now to sort through everything he said, examine his book links, and find more scientific work on the subject. Hydrophones definitely open up a whole new world of listening, and thinking.

Also, an Italian pyrotechnics company has produced a silent firework that in theory could prevent the stressful and disorienting effects the loud bangs have on everything from your family dog, to a special-needs child, to that lowly fish in the sea. See a link to a story about this here.

And as a side geek note, if you’re interested in how I sync my two recorders, I purchased a D-Day cricket at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans a couple of years ago specifically for this purpose. The sound it makes is loud and quick, better than a handclap. It allows me to easily see spikes on my waveforms to match the tracks. William Hurt used one to great effect in the show Goliath.

Observing the Sound of an Observatory

I picked up a book at the library the other day entitled American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World. The book tells the story of the 1878 total solar eclipse seen most vividly in the western United States, and the eclipse chasers that aimed to dominate the world of astronomy in the latter part of the nineteenth century. With another total solar eclipse fast approaching on August 21 tracing some of the same path, I thought it fitting to read.

Unfortunately for me, the eclipse will not be observable in Ohio. Nevertheless, I have a first-class amateur astronomical observatory right down the road from my home, and on a whim, I made a telephone call last week to see if I could record the sound of the dome spinning. The voice on the other end was Dan Everly, Warren Rupp Observatory’s Night Sky Coordinator, who said I could come right then and there if I hurried.

The first thing one sees after driving up a winding, tree-covered road and out into a clearing is the observatory’s silver 30-foot diameter dome. Underneath sits “Big Blue,” a 36-inch, f/6.3 mirror, Newtonian telescope placed there in 1985 and weighing over 7,500 pounds. Dan was there waiting. And since he’s obviously into science, I could tell right away he was into the idea of capturing sounds. There was no, “Are you done yet?” Instead, after I recorded the sound of the dome’s slot opening, and the dome spinning, Dan offered up other sounds to record. Bonus.

Dan was a machinist’s mate in the Navy. The Top Watch in the engine room, where, to the astonishment of his subordinates, learned to distinguish the sound of 47-different pumps and spot their ailments. “Every pump had its own song,” he said. He also enjoys the rhythmic sound of the telescope’s clock drive in action. “When you’re here late a night, and that’s running, it’s really soothing.” The farthest astronomical object he has seen with his own eyes and Big Blue’s help was a quasar 7.2 billion light years away. “Halfway to the Big Bang,” he added. “I walked around for a day with my mouth hanging open.”

Light pollution is the source of much consternation and gnashing of teeth for astronomers. And wherever there is light pollution, there is usually a good deal of sound pollution to make things worse. I asked about the close proximity of the interstate and the Wal-Mart nearby. Do those lights cause a problem here? Or how about the nearby ski-resort with its nighttime runs? Dan declared that on a clear night, the area is dark enough that the Milky Way is visible. I hadn’t seen the Milky Way since living in Wyoming, and I was skeptical it could be seen here.

I came back to the observatory last evening for the Richland Astronomical Society’s monthly stargazing event to see if Dan was right, and that I could in fact sneak a peak at the Milky Way. The evening turned into a surprisingly clear night compared to the rainy weather we have experienced this week. The moon, in its Waxing Gibbous phase, took center stage. Jupiter and four of its moons also filled the sights of many of the telescopes near the dome. And the Milky Way was indeed visible. Not spectacular due to the moon’s brightness, but it was out there for all to see if you knew where to look.

Setting up a tripod-mounted camera, I snaked around from member to member, brushing them with the red glow of a LED flashlight, painting with light to create long time exposures. A hit or miss process that gave me the images shown here.

In the recording below, you’ll hear the sound of a clock drive throughout the recording. In reality, you’d only hear this when the telescope is moving. But I made it a bed for the other sounds to lie in. You’ll also hear the sound of Dan moving and raising the forklift that elevates night sky viewers 18-feet above the mirror. You’ll hear the sound of the dome’s slot opening and closing. The sound of the dome rotating is a mixture of sound captured with contact microphones clamped onto opposite sides of the dome interior, and sound captured with a Sony PCM D100 placed directly in the center, the “sweet spot” of the dome, where one’s voice could be heard reflecting from every direction. Mixing the two recordings, made simultaneously, gives the sound a bit more low-end grumble. I placed two contact microphones on the $10,000 worm gear that slowly drives the telescope, keeping it in sync with earth’s orbit. Driving the scope places a greater demand on the gear. This made for a gritty sound.

If you’re in the area, the Richland Astronomical Society hosts public viewings on the first Saturday of each month (unless otherwise noted), March through November with viewings being weather-dependent. Pepper club members with your newbie astronomy questions. They seem eager to share their knowledge and their telescopes.








The Grass Is Always Greener


The grass is always greener. So are the trees and the sky. Everything for that matter is green when you use a piece of welder’s glass as a long time exposure photography filter. I made mine years ago, used it once then put it away, waiting for the opportunity and patience to try it again. On a sound recording trip this past weekend to Daughmer Bur Oak Prairie Savannah State Nature Preserve near Bucyrus, Ohio, I brought it back out in the middle of a sunny afternoon to create long, streaking cloud formations the likes of which one can only achieve with dark neutral density filters.

Daughmer Prairie Savannah panorama, Bucyrus, Ohio, May 6, 2017. Photo by Richard Alan Hannon


Daughmer Bur Oak Prairie is one of the few remaining examples of tall grass prairie and oak tree savanna in the nation. Standing under these giant Bur oaks is like standing in the footsteps of history. So my motivation for attempting a long exposure was to evoke the passage of time. Whether I succeeded or not is up to the viewer. The 35-acre prairie has never been plowed according to scholars that have studied the site. Many of the gnarly, giant trees towering over it are in excess of 250-years-old, meager seedlings during the time when Native people outnumbered whites that would eventually turn the adjacent prairie into farmland.

The gnarly bark of a mature Bur Oak tree at Daughmer Bur Oak Prairie Savannah State Nature Preserve. Photo by Richard Alan Hannon


A welder’s glass filter is the poor-man’s neutral density filter compared to the factory-made and understandably superior alternative, and there are a plethora of how-to videos and written tutorials on the web explaining how to make them, thereby saving you some cash for other useless gadgets. Some photographers use rubber bands to hold the glass in place. My version uses what amounts to a 10-stop, green welder’s glass purchased for around $5 at a local welder’s supply store, an 82mm filter  that I smashed the glass out of, a 49-82mm step-up ring compatible with my Fuji X100 lens, and an unsightly amount of hot glue. Building it this way ensured a light-tight seal. Rubber bands didn’t seem adequate. That said, I’ve had to re-apply the glue after once leaving the filter in a hot trunk. Lesson learned. I also glued the filter near the side of the glass, thinking I could go to any glasscutter who would cut the glass into a square. No one in town would touch it as the glass is tempered. Another lesson learned.


Next, in order to create silky-smooth waterscapes, I’d like to try the filter out on a substantial waterfall. Or perhaps up at Marblehead lighthouse, where Lake Erie waters crash against the rocks surrounding the lighthouse.

Long exposure photographs are not the type of images I create all the time, so a small investment is a lot easier on the pocketbook. Nevertheless, it’s very interesting to see the end results.

If you go to Daughmer, take along a tripod (of course). Equally important, I’d recommend some serious bug spray with tick repellant. Although the Crawford Parks District keeps a well-maintained mowed trail that snakes around the trees, ticks this year are tiny monsters just waiting for you to sit in the grass for several minutes. If you’re allergic to poison ivy, be aware that it surrounds many of the trees. But have a good time. It’s a great place to experience a unique landscape.

Photo note: the main landscape image above was shot at 90-seconds at f8, 200 ISO.

Amish Wagon Ride

Amish Wagon Ride

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I hitched a ride not too long ago aboard an Amish gentleman’s flatbed wagon. Pulled by his draft horses Queen, age 5, and Nell, age 10, we started down a long gravel driveway, the metal wheels of the wagon, absent of rubber and I believe any sort of shock absorber, soaking up every ounce of vibration. Out next to asphalt, potholed roads that took us on a 14-minute ride complete with vehicles whizzing past (I was way more concerned about the zooming trucks then my Amish friend was), to his son’s new home north of Mansfield, Ohio. His son, the oldest of 13 and with a new bride, is now on his own to make a life on his new farm.

The excerpt you hear below is from when we encountered a pack of leaping, vocal country dogs bent on defending their “territory” as we drove past. I held on tight as I was sure that the harassing dogs would make the horses bolt and we’d be off to the races. But to their credit, Queen and Nell stayed the course without a care in the world for the pestering canine trio.

When we arrived at our destination, Mr. Yoder asked me what I thought of the recording, particularly inquiring as to how the dogs sounded. I am grateful for his hospitality. This is the second time he has been more than kind with my “English” curiosity. And I am impressed with his knack of what makes good audio.

Recording note: Sony PCM D100 with internal mics on their wide mode. My Rycote Portable Recorder Kit saved the day on the bumpy ride.

Spiraling Staircase of Sound

I’ve written before about my fascination with using contact microphones on metal objects. The sounds gathered are oftentimes so unique and unexpected that for me, it’s an instant thrill upon pressing record and listening through my headphones. I was never a photographer that got into infrared photography. I’ve seen many fine examples, and I appreciate what the photographer is going for, but it was never my thing. When I stop to think about it however, recording with contact mics, or hydrophones for underwater recording for that matter, is sort of the same as photographing in the infrared. It’s about hearing something that we normally do not experience. Being attuned to this has been ear opening. I find myself searching out resonant structures that I would normally dismiss. So when my wife recently brought home the visitors guide for nearby Knox County, and I saw pictured on the cover the Rastin Observation Tower, located inside Ariel-Foundation Park in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, I knew it would be the perfect structure to “listen to” and record with a pair of contact microphones. The shiny year-old tower is a galvanized steel spiral staircase that twists halfway up a 280-foot reinforced poured concrete, brick-lined smokestack built in 1951. A spectacle in itself being the tallest structure in the land, it is one of the few remaining ruins of what was once the sprawling 60-acre Pittsburg Plate Glass manufacturing plant No. 11 (PPG Industries) built in 1907. The plant flourished in the prosperous automobile glass and sheet glass -making industry until its closure in 1979.

I contacted the foundation’s executive director who enthusiastically granted my peculiar request to record on site. It’s always better to ask permission when attaching small microphones with long cords to structures that people walk upon. After parking at the base of the tower, I instantly realized that it was way taller than it looks in the travel guide. Climbing 224 steps with recording gear, even the stripped-down travel kit that I use, was not going to be fun. Making matters worse was witnessing young children blow right past me on their way to the top.

The climb was worth it, huffing and puffing notwithstanding. The view is pretty special, and the sound I captured by placing microphones on opposite sides of the tower was not at all what I expected. The 5-10 mile per hour winds unfortunately did little to make the tower “sing.” Footsteps on the other hand, made the tower come alive. Booming sounds created as enthusiastic, vocal children ran down steps shouting to their friends and parents below. Softer sounds heard as the elderly slowly, but victoriously labored to the top. High-pitched sounds emanating through metal as jewelry on the hands of tourists tapped a railing, and broom-like swooshing sounds heard as clothing worn by teenagers visibly afraid of heights brushed alongside metal as they clung to the inner railing clutching their cell phone with one hand and their friend’s shoulder with the other.

As was the case when I recorded the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge earlier this year, my microphones and I received a variety of looks. Everything from people keeping their head’s down while quickly climbing past, to curious people stopping to ask me what I was up to. When someone seemed really interested, I explained and offered a chance to listen through headphones. A few said, “wow.” One child went on to explain my recording process to his friend. Two friends opted to press their own ears up to the metal after listening through the headphones. If I can get young kids interested in listening to things around them in a new way, then I know I’m doing something right.

Recording note: I used two Barcus Berry contact mics with their well-matched preamps, running into a Sound Devices Mixpre-D, then into a Sony PCM M10 recorder capturing a WAV file at 96 kHZ/24-bit. The mp3 excerpt you hear below is from a 51-minute recording. I recorded for just shy of two hours, but chose to edit out the sound of a swarm of wasps that invaded and attacked my left microphone for unknown reasons, producing an unnatural scratching sound. I also edited out much, but not all, of the reverberant, and unintelligible talking I captured through the microphones occasionally, leaving only a few human voice sounds in the final mix. The sound waves of a person’s voice transmit through metal just like any other sound wave. Too much of it became a distraction on the recording.


Further reading:


Sounds of South Bass Island

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I spent this past Labor Day tooling around on a golf cart all around South Bass Island in Lake Erie, grateful for the opportunity offered me by my brother-in-law and older sister. Being in full command of the cart, my sister had us circling the island starting at the ferry landing, then to a remote beach, through downtown Put-In-Bay, over to Perry’s Monument, a 352-foot-high column commemorating Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory in the battle for Lake Erie during the War of 1812, back downtown past fancy yachts and polished vintage automobiles, and then back to the ferry, crowded with passengers leaving after their long holiday weekend.

I recorded the sounds of the ferry, condensed here from a 21 minute ride, the sound of the remote beach where small waves hit a stretch of high ground both from the left and right, and the sounds from a small airport on the island. This is by no means all the sounds the island has on display, but being with family, it would have been rude to have spent all my time alone recording.

It was a beautiful blue-sky day up at the lake. Fall will come soon. Tourists will have taken the last ferryboat to the mainland, and a windy winter will set it. Perhaps then the sounds of South Bass Island will turn from tourist to tranquility. It would be nice to find out.

Recording note: To keep things light, I used only my Sony PCM D100 for the trip, either in wide stereo mode, or with a pair of Luhd microphones that I rigged into a DIY binaural setup, which worked quite well for capturing the sound on the ferry from the rear of the boat. I did not bring headphones thinking I was going to use the Luhd mics exclusively. Big mistake. I should at least take a pair of ear buds. The mp3 clip you hear below is a condensed version of my day, originally recorded at 96/24.

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