The Guide to Finding Ghosts: Audio and Paranormal Research
Guest post by the Banshee
If the explosion in paranormal media has done anything for modern society, it has gotten all manner of folk hip in the latest in audio and video equipment and gadgets. This might seem as though it has always been, but at the turn of this millennium almost no one in mainstream culture understood the difference between UV, IR and FLIR cameras – or how digital and analog audio recorders can affect audio recordings. EMFs and K2 meters, not to mention geophones, were virtually unknown outside small, specialized markets. A media artist for more than 3 decades now, I can assure the reader that the high-end audio and video gadgets currently available to mass markets at the local Best Buy or Amazon were nowhere to be seen a decade ago – and were much more expensive!
Such is the power of the popular desire to research the paranormal first hand, aided greatly by advances in digital technologies and, of course, rampant consumerism. But not knowing your equipment, particularly its limitations and quirks, can have you literally scared out of your pants by something perfectly natural and normal. Far worse, it can be easily mislabeled as “paranormal.” As a paranormal researcher, I am far more interested in ruling out as much “evidence” as I can, so what I am left with is truly remarkable, and actually inexplicable with current technologic or scientific knowledge.
Because I am first and foremost a musician, audio has preoccupied the vast majority of my life. I have worked both as engineer and talent in recording studios all over the world, and have been a live sound engineer for decades. In the early days of electronic music studios, we employed all manner of audio equipment that started out as military equipment: oscillators, envelope generators, ring modulators, tube amplifiers…
Studios back in the day looked more like the control room of a submarine than the popular fantasy of a modern music studio. But processing sound as an electrical signal through a studio from generation to recording tells you much about the nature of recorded sound, how interference happens, and how to get around it to refine your research. I am happy to share this knowledge here – particularly in the interest of generating more outstanding research that I simply can’t explain.
So, you have watched researchers do EVP sessions right? Along with taking photographs, EVPs are one of the most accessible ways to begin one’s paranormal research. But know this: just because you hear it on the playback and you didn’t hear it during recording, this does NOT mean that it is paranormal. Early EVP researchers would use tape recorders and white noise – generally a radio receiver set to a non-transmitting band – and would listen for voices in the white noise.
But this practice has two problems. First, any radio receiver will “hear” interference. In fact, they are required to! If you read the disclaimer on the back of your recorder it will generally tell you it is required by the FCC to accept interference, imagine how much interference a receiver might intercept! Remember all the sounds and signals in the air around you: radio broadcasts, cell phones, emergency broadcasting, television transmissions, and specialty frequencies like air and sea channels – there is sound everywhere around you.
The second problem with the old “white noise” approach is the nature of white noise itself. True “white noise” is all frequencies appearing at an equal level – real white noise does not sound much like what we hear on the radio. The combination of all frequencies, along with the ease of emphasizing a few frequencies with interference, leads easily to something we in the biz call “audio matrixing.”
Matrixing, whether visual or audio, is the human brain’s tendency to convert what we see into faces, and what we hear into voices. This is great for evolution – let’s face it, if you can see the faces about to pounce on you in the dark shadows, you are more likely to escape and keep living. If you are a parent you know how the sound of a child’s voice can cut through the deepest sleep and send you careening out of bed to their side.
So how can you be sure that what you are hearing isn’t just your brain literally making voices out of the ether?
In my years of research, I’ve developed a few preferences for equipment and a few tricks to keep my brain from fooling me. First, I tend to prefer “old school” analog recorders to newer digital ones. Analogue sound (think vinyl records or cassettes) is generated on media using electronic signals inscribed onto magnetized tape – think the reverse of the needle on a record. The action is pretty direct – something that makes the signal waiver will make it waiver on tape, and it generally works for the entire range of human hearing (roughly 20Hz to 20KHz). Digital recorders cannot hear this entire range, and translate sound into digital language (0’s and 1’s) that is then recorded as strings of numbers.
This process involves some processes you might not think about. First, all digital recordings involve compression – taking sounds from a wide range and making them “smaller” so they can be converted. This means that sounds grabbed from broadcast signals are more likely to get compressed into the recording. Second, audio formats like mp3s or aiff files do NOT contain the original sound waves – they are translated to digital, simplified, and compressed down to a smaller range (this is why your audiophile friends prefer vinyl to CDs).
Third, newer digital recorders tend to be more susceptible to newer digital broadcasts – television is now broadcast digitally, so is satellite radio, so are cell phones. As more and more signals are broadcast digitally, they are more likely to show up on digital recorders. Older analog technology is now immune to these things – though radio frequencies are still clogging the airwaves.
Many digital recorders have another problem – because they are very good at what they do, and generally have very sensitive dynamic microphones, they fix their signal level when the researcher asks a question – usually quite loud. When the researcher waits in silence for an answer, they don’t realize that their equipment is resetting the levels, actually raising the sensitivity of recording to make any background sound the same level as the voice it heard. This can result in a rise of stray noises that often sound like rough, gravelly voices. I’ve had more recordings of “demon voices” sent to me that could easily be explained by this raise in levels of background noise.
…Stay tuned for part 2!