for information on my work with plant, tree and soil recording / research see;

moss listening (working title)

ink botanic

soil horizons

secret sound of trees

I use various microphones and listening devices for these types of recording, with c-series contact mics and d-series hydrophones an important element, alongside JrF adapted geophones.

There are several adaptations that I use with the c-series mics, for picking up sounds inside trees, ferns, moss, mycelium networks and other plants. I've written some basic advice below, partly to encourage others but also as a response to some unethical actions by a number of artists on social media.

I have built microphones for leading universities, researchers, environmental organisations, film and tv companies, also advising them on the methods I use, as well as individual artists and listeners in all areas of sound culture. 

I also built the mics used in programmes such as David Attenborough's 'The Green Planet' series, and there is a video online of David listening to the sound of a tree using one of my mics with a basic probe adaptation (do read below for more context on this).

"French's work has made a significant contribution to ecoacoustics, pioneering areas of research alongside new methods of listening to plants, soil systems and geology"  (British Library) 

first some context.
As mentioned above there is a video online of David Attenborough listening to a tree using a JrF c-series contact mic, with a simple probe attached. I did build that mic and advised the recordist on the series on how to record such sounds but there is some wider context. Likewise there are images of myself using a probe, taken during the recordings for 'The Secret Sound of Trees' project.

However a number of images and posts have appeared on social media recently (writing this in early 2024) of a few other male artists / recordists putting spikes into trees, plants & the soil to record sounds. Some already have problematic reputations for using other artists recordings / work without permission and passing them off as their own. One also buys fake likes in an attempt to boost their status and take work from others in the arts. There is an important difference between the sharing of ideas or insights, as I and others have done throughout our careers, with a focus on community, and the correcting of sound histories, and simply taking ideas in order to manipulate both ones own reputation and contribute to the colonisation of sound practices. This is a subject that would take too long to discuss here but one only has to spend a few minutes thinking about art history to understand how there has been a significant imbalance when it comes to the need for individual insight, careful respect for histories and a proactive approach to equity in the arts. Tree, plant and soil recording are simply the latest areas of sound recording where these biases can be seen. 

The 'spike' method;
The history of using spikes to record the sound of trees goes back several decades, including to a female researcher in the 1960's who used sap testing equipment, and the use of stylus' by others (nb. as yet, whilst I have seen images of this researcher, the name is not included). The same basic technique, but attaching a probe to a contact microphone has also become ubiquitous in soil research, where such devices are known as 'wave guides'. I am sometimes cited as having being amongst the first to use contact mics in this way, but I take the view that someone somewhere will probably have done anything we come up with before. Certainly by the 1980's, when I first recorded the inner sounds of a plant using contact mics, I am sure there will have been others using something similar if not exactly the same. 

Generally speaking, probes are usually attached to the microphone by using small clamps, or more permanent adaptations. It is important to say however that this technique was developed mostly for researchers interested in data collection rather than for the sound. It is not ideal for sound recording, or indeed for an ethical approach to trees and plants. Using a spike can damage some species and should not be used without permission or reasonable knowledge of the species. I would argue it should also not be done without having a practice that does involve a healthy amount of individual insight. Why? Because simply using techniques or equipment others have developed is the easiest part of any art form and by now we really should be at a point where it isn't enough to influence ideas of artistic value. 

Further, using a spike or probe means, in effect, you are recording the sound of said device also, colouring the sound and picking up a thinner field. I do get lots of emails asking me how I record trees, plants and in soil and I know what people want is a simple 'how to...' guide, but that way of thinking has held back recording and listening and is also, when it comes to recording in environments, impossible, as we do not control what is happening. I do not know which techniques I will use when I arrive in any location. To do so would, in my opinion, limit my approach. I can say however that I rarely use spikes in a conventional sense. 

The different adaptations and ways of working I use are often quite fragile and involve using materials built for medical and scientific research in other fields. I am working on ways to make some more stable but, again, even then we need these fields to have moved forward to a point where there is more understanding of the possibility of causing damage without knowing the species, and indeed the individual locations in some depth. Understanding the potential for impact is one area of research that is increasingly important, even for those of us who prefer to approach situated listening with openness. We simply have to understand the weight of our practice. 

When I do use probes I prefer to use tape or a strong-pull magnet to attach them to the c-series+ contact mics, accepting that both the probe and the magnet are further materials through which the sound is filtered. 

When recording in the soil I tend to use c-series+ contact mics, accepting that there is a chance they could be damaged by damp if in the soil for longer periods of time, or d-series hydrophones, especially when the ground is wet. 

For more fragile or smaller plant species there is an even greater need to understand how the species can be affected by any disturbance. I try to 'step lightly'. 

So, there is no 'how to...' guide that covers all the aspects of these types of recording. In some sense I hope there never is, but if you do want to find out more about how data collection uses some of these methods, then there are papers online.

Field recording is about letting go of the idea that we control environments or can develop ways to capture and define them that are guaranteed. When such things happen they always come with a weight and can have a narrowing effect. The listening changes. As artists we have to do better than that. 

I'll add that on workshops I do show people some of the techniques I use, but with context and the time to discuss the ethics involved, including how technology has been used for too long in support of problematic distortions. We don't own the sounds in any environment, urban or rural, and we don't own any of the techniques we might use or even develop. As artists we might hope for respect at least for the work we do to advance the fields we work in, but when sharing any aspect of our work we know that some will simply take and others might, more carefully allow the information to add to their own attempts to find their own voice. Let's get better at seeing, hearing the difference. 

Listening to trees, plants and soil is something humans have done throughout the existence of our species. It is something other species with auditory response do all the time also. Now, with technology, we are listening in different ways, but with that comes the opportunity to rethink not only our understanding of environments, but our own practices. 

Make a free website with Yola