'The Sound guy'
Damien Barrière-Constantin is half French and half Swiss and 23 years old. He is an audio engineer and a founder member of The Calais Sessions. He has recorded all the music on the album. Here he recalls the very first session, back in September 2015.
I had been working at CooZ’s Records for a year when my boss, Kevin Cousineau, got an e-mail about the The Calais Sessions. They needed a sound engineer to supervise the technical audio aspect of the project. Learning about what they wanted to do, go into the refugee camp in Calais, or “the Jungle” as they call it, I thought it was a pretty awesome idea. Recording tracks and selling them to help the needs of the people and the camp.
I personally wasn’t exactly aware of what was really going on out there. I heard bits on British news radio and newsfeed on my social media platforms, but nothing concrete. I thought this opportunity was both a chance to get my own opinion of what’s going on and also doing something about it. Like someone from The Calais Sessions said, I can’t remember who, I would better help with what I know to do best, with my skill set.
I had been standing for the whole day, and to be honest my legs were killing, my ears were killing, I was just exhausted. And then this kid, just showed out of the night of the camp and brought me a stool and gestured for me to sit down. I was surprised in a good way. That kid who had surely travelled thousands of miles, probably on foot, and he had been living in bad condition in the camp, just thought it would be nice for me to rest up my legs. A basic comfort, but to me that gesture meant a lot.
Sunday was the big day for me. It was my time to shine, and also my time to not mess up. I was about to record compositions from the Jungle, telling stories of the refugees’ struggles and to give them a voice.
We spent quite a long time looking for a decent place to record, but then again, we couldn’t expect the most ideal place to record. But then, a miracle. We managed to find a somewhat secluded area in the camp. It was an extension to an already existing makeshift school/library. We got our generator in place with the help of passers by, which was awesome too.
The tactic that we used to find musicians in the camp was to wander around and let the people in the camp play with us. That meant there were crowds forming up all throughout the camp. And these are people who do not necessarily understand what we are doing at first and so getting recording equipment out right from the start was risky. I had very fragile and expensive audio gear. So for the first two days of the project I was just laying back, listening, observing and analysing what type of instruments were being used, while the others were finding musicians and coming up with the compositions.
I remember on the Saturday night that we were there, we thought we would record a large percussion section with the people in the Jungle. So I started looking at what the best way of recording a large percussion section would be. Get some condenser here and there, close miking the lead percussion, etc. We started to put in place our generator, because they have no running electricity in the camp. But then when the crowd came to play, it was a total nightmare (for me). It was night, people were dancing and playing, some of them because it was, and I’m assuming here, an outlet for what they were feeling, what they’ve experienced, so not in sync with what we wanted. People were moving around and dancing and such. So I decided not to setup my equipment, because I could not have been able to control the sound and get a clean recording. I then decided to stand back and just let them play and enjoy the show.
From an audio engineer’s point of view, recording in an environment such as the Jungle is probably the least idealistic setup for a recording. The main aspect that I need for a clean recording, as an audio engineer is silence. A noise free environment. And that’s impossible to get in a refugee camp. You cannot expect so much. I was about to record in a place where people live, in bad conditions I might add. You cannot ask them to go out of their way for your own comfort.
Now the problem was that I was worried the generator would make too much noise and bleed into the recording. So I suggested we put the generator as far from the recording as possible as to limit the amount of noise that would get onto the recordings. Adding to that the microphone placement facing away from where the generator was, so that the microphones would pick up less of the noise. I also had to compromise with the film crew, as they wanted to film the sessions. So we managed to find middle grounds.
For the recording I was using a digidesign 002 Rack coupled with a Focusrite Oktopre for better preamps, as well as a couple of studio standard microphone such as the AKG C414, awesome for anything really, and some dynamic microphone from Audix and Shure that were really helpful when it came to percussive instrument such as the Darbuka. I also used a couple of ribbon microphone for room and close miking a violin and a Ney (Bamboo flute). I thought I would use a lot of microphones, but we were on a pretty tight schedule so I just played around with half a dozen microphones. I think that the only microphone I used pretty much all the time was the AKG C414 because it really is an amazing microphone. I had to be very careful with it, as it was on loan from a third party studio. All the equipment we used was loaned to us by people who wanted to be there and help but couldn’t. So these loans were their way of helping and I have to thank all of them, even if I don’t know their names.
While recording, I couldn’t really listen back to what I was recording, there were no separation between the instruments and my ears, and it was loud enough for me to not be able differentiate between the instruments and the recording. In the end I just setup the equipment relying on my knowledge of the microphones’ characteristics, my understanding of instruments, my experience recording in studios and also, I know that one is going to make my supervisors and lecturers at SAE Oxford and Geneva want to give me a serious ass kicking, by observing/analysing the waveform on the computer, trying to find in my head the best possible setup for each recording.
At that point I wasn’t too much worried about the generator noise bleeding into the recordings because I was talking to my boss, Kevin Cousineau over the phone, about how it would be a problem. He reminded of a plug-in, RX4 from iZotope, that can clean this kind of noise pretty neatly. And I just used it the week before on a short film I was working on, but I didn't remember right away for some unknown reason.
At the beginning I was worried I would end up having a mediocre recording because of the environment of the Jungle. But in the end, it turned out very well. When I mixed I was very happy at the cleanliness of the recordings, after cleaning the tracks with RX4 of course (I love you RX4). Not only the tracks sounded really good but they even had this studio quality sound that you hope to get when recording. I can’t wait for people to hear what we recorded, but above all I wish the refugees will be able to hear what they did too.