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Entries in Iceland (5)


Chasing Ice in Iceland

I recently saw the film "Chasing Ice" directed by Jeff Orlowski.  It's a really great documentary film that follows the story of National Geographic photographer James Balog and his quest to document in photographic form the accelerating decline in glaciers worldwide.  The film has won numerous awards, including a Sundance award for the cinematography, for which Orlowski must share the acclaim with Balog, whose startling time-lapse sequences of retreating glaciers drive home the message about the perils of a changing arctic climate.  A less talked-about element of the film is the sound design.  The film features two breathtaking scenes of a glacier calving.  Calving is the dramatic breaking-off of huge chunks of a glacier as it 'flows' into the ocean.  When these massive pieces break off they float away as icebergs. "Chasing Ice" shows a calving event which is the largest ever caught on tape.  Essentially, a chunk of ice about half the size of Manhattan breaks off of a glacier in Greenland while the cameras are rolling.  It's an astounding thing to see on a theatre screen.

The scene was shot from 2 miles away, so location sound was most likely just buffeting arctic wind and distant rumble... I left the theatre wondering how they went about designing the sound for such a powerful scene.  How do you create the sound for something that perhaps no person has ever before witnessed? Well, these are exactly the kinds of questions we like to talk about on the Tonebenders podcast, which, if you've been following the blog lately, you'll know is the sound-design podcast that I just recently started co-producing.  So I contacted the sound designer on the film, Dustin Cawood, to talk about his experience working on "Chasing Ice." He spoke to me from his edit suite at Skywalker Ranch in California and I was able to put these questions and others to him, and we also talked about about another big project he worked on this year, Steven Spielberg’s "Lincoln."  I can't wait to share that interview in an upcoming episode of the podcast.  Mr. Cawood is a very interesting guy with lots of great insight into the sound design process. 

Dustin Cawood

"Chasing Ice" really struck a personal chord with me, right from the opening scenes: photographer James Balog, camera in hand, intrepidly climbing over iceberg bits and venturing into the frigid waves breaking on Jökulsárlón beach in Iceland. I recognized the beach right away, since my wife and I spent our honeymoon traveling and camping throughout Iceland. We spent a day right there on that same beach. 

Jökulsárlón beach scattered with Iceberg chunks that did not make it out to sea.

Iceland is indeed a cold land of vast glaciers, but that's not the full story of this remote island.  We traveled through the country in late June, during the height of the melting season, when daylight lasts 24 hours.  As the glaciers melt in the spring, the water overflows the land on it's way to the sea, and creates waterfalls everywhere you turn.  The most iconic waterfall in Iceland is Gullfoss.  It's located a short drive from the capital city of Reykjavík, and about 5 minutes away from the eponymous Geysir, the country's most powerful geyser.  Gullfoss is a spectacular sight to behold as it cascades over many different levels of cliff rocks until it finally drops into a deep crevasse in the earth’s crust. From certain viewing angles, the water tumbles over the falls and then seems to completely disappear.  I was able to record a bit of the sound of the water coming over the “staircase” section of the falls.  Take a listen as you look at some of the pictures we took that day.

Those rainbows are not photoshopped, it is just a magical place.

One camping stop on our trip was in Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður National Park, (I have no idea how to pronounce that) near the Skaftafell visitors centre at the southeast end of the country.  We read in our guide books about a great hike in the national park that would take us to Svartifoss, a beautiful waterfall that flowed over a cliff made basalt columns. So after dinner at our camp site we set out on our quest.  The strange and startling thing about Iceland is the seemingly incompatible landscapes that exist side by side.  Our hike took us through green pastures dotted with with trees and covered by tall grasses and wildflowers.  All the while we were just a couple of kilometers away from of one of the largest glaciers in the world, Vatnajökull (area: 8,100 km²).  It was worth the hike for sure.  By the time we arrived at Svartifoss, it was well into the evening, but of course the sun was still high in the sky.  After a good hike deep into the wilds, in an already fairly remote area of the country, the waterfall we came upon was just about the most peaceful thing I have ever encountered.  Again, here is some sound from Svartifoss to listen to while you look at some photos of the area.

The final Icelandic water sound I'll share is the water rolling in on Vík beach, which is along the island’s southern coast.  This beach is a popular tour stop because of it's black lava sand as well as the view of Reynisdrangar.  Reynisdrangar is a formation of rock columns jutting out of the ocean just off the beach.  Legend says the rocky formations came to be when trolls were struck by sunlight and turned to stone.  The very locaction where the following audio was recorded has since been featured in the music video for Holocene by Bon Iver - go to the 5:08 min. mark of the video to see the rock formation in all its glory. (Svartifoss Falls are also featured in the video at 2:51 and Jökulsárlón beach can be seen around 2:15.)

BON IVER "Holocene" from nabil elderkin on Vimeo.


Here is the sound of the waves rolling in on Vík beach.

I love this sound because of the strange combing effect the basalt columns produce as the waves rush past them.  I could listen to it all day.

At the time, when I was seeing all these beautiful waterfalls in Iceland, I was only thinking how breathtaking and amazing they were to behold.  After seeing the film "Chasing Ice" I now realize  these recordings are the chilling sound of the glaciers seeping away into the ocean, never to return.  How depressing is that...


Here are some photos of some of the other waterfalls we encountered throughout Iceland.  All photos courtesy of Ehrin Albright (the good ones) and myself (the out of focus ones).

For more blog posts and recordings from my Icelandic adventure click here.


Sounds from the Icelandic Interior 

Two years ago, in June 2010, I went on a trip to Iceland and I have been making occasional posts about it on this blog, and including various sounds I recorded on the adventure.  This is the latest in the series.

When my wife and I arrived in Iceland we spent a few days in Reykjavik, then we rented a Suzuki Jimny, a small 4x4, and headed out for a week-long camping trip in the countryside.  The fact that the vehicle was a 4x4 was crucial, as our plans called for us to be driving into the interior of the country where only a 4-wheel-drive will do.  There are no 4-star hotels in Iceland's interior; in fact there is essentially nothing at all once you leave the coastal areas.  So we loaded up our little Jimny with everything we could possibly need.  Packed with a tent, sleeping bags, a cook stove, dishes, and food and water to last us through the trip, my recording gear, my wife's photography gear and lots of other equipment, the little jeep was almost full to overflowing.  So much so we had the back seats removed to make room.

After pulling off the Ring Road (the main highway that runs around the coast, circling the entire island) we quickly encountered signs informing us that only 4x4 vehicles are permitted to go any further, and very soon after that, the landscape proved why the signs are necessary.  

The roads are constantly being washed out by meandering rivers. A few hours into this leg of the trip and driving through water became as routine as stopping at a traffic light in the city.  At each obstacle we had to get out of the Jimny and ponder the best course to get ourselves across the flowing water.  Sometimes it was obvious, other times it was a crap shoot. 

What made this even more heart-pounding was knowing that if the Jimny got stuck it would be hours or days before anyone else came along to help us out.  We would go 5 or 6 hours without seeing any other cars of any kind.  Luckily we never got in any serious trouble getting through these water hazards, though we had some hairy moments.

Here is a short video of our 4x4 crossing the last river before our destination.  

Even once we'd successfully negotiated our way through yet another washout, the rocky terrain made getting up to any sort of cruising speed nearly impossible.  One leg of our journey was only 60 km but it took us a full day to cover the distance.  Granted, we stopped a lot to take in the amazing surroundings and snap some photos.  The driving was a real grind, requiring constant attention.  Steep climbs, big rocks, blinding dust, and the aforementioned river crossings kept our pace down to a crawl.  And with the back of the jeep piled high with our camping gear, each bump in the road sent all the gear bouncing around the vehicle.  Between the road and the equipment it made for a unique interior vehicle ambience.  

We arrived at Landmannalaugar in the highlands, a popular hiking and camping destination with hot springs nearby, just as the weather took a turn for the worse. Our experience in Iceland had so far confirmed the adage that if you don't like the weather just wait a few minutes.  It would regularly shift from sunny and calm to a crazy storm in what seemed like the blink of an eye, and then switch back again just as quick.  This time though, the weather meant business and the rain and wind were considerable.  Setting up the tent took a lot of effort and left us extremely cold and soggy.  After finding a small cave where we could cook our dinner we settled into the tent to try to sleep but the storm kept us up most of the night.  Here is a recording from inside the tent.  It was recorded with a Zoom H4n and sadly does not capture the power of the wind very well at all, but I have still been able to use it as a rainy tent interior a few times.

We survived Landmannalaugar and did manage to get back to civilization. The last recording I'm going to post this week is a recording of an Icelandic folk song.  In the small town of Ísafjörður there is a museum that houses maritime artifacts on the main floor and, unexpectedly, an accordion museum on the second floor. While we were exploring the main floor exhibit, a troop of local teenagers invaded the building without warning and started up a performance of folksongs.  The teens accompanied their singing with a kind of percussive dance, marking the songs' rhythms with foot stomps and body slaps.

It turns out that in Iceland all teens between the ages of 13 and 16 take part in a work program run by municipalities called unglingavinnan which I gather roughly translates as: "teen job squad".  Most of the jobs involve manual labour, but kids with musical talent get to avoid the hard work and perform for tourists instead.

Outliers, Vol I: Iceland from effixx on Vimeo.


If you take notice of the Soundcloud comments on the recording of the above folk song you will see one of the commentors is Deru,  a fantastic electronic composer.  Recently there was a project called Outlliers:Iceland, that proposed to send a group of artists to Iceland to create a collection of art in various mediums, based on their encounters during the trip.  The artists included photographers, filmmakers, and musicians.  One of the musicians invloved is Deru,  I was able to pass along this folk song recording for the Outliers crew to hear before their trip and they followed up with me within minutes of hearing it saying "that folk music recording is absolutely amazing. Can you imagine Deru getting his hands on this?" The project is not finished yet but I am really looking forward to hearing what Deru has come up with when it is released later this spring.  

Here are a few more photos from the drive through Iceland's interior.

All Photos courtesy of my super talented wife Ehrin Albright.

The recording above of the rain on the tent was my contribution to the Sound Collector's Club first crowd source library, the Rain Collection.  If you want to be able to get a high resolution download of that recording as well as many others, please join the club and add your own recordings to the collection.  


Recording the geysers at Geysir

As regular readers might know last year I went on a trip to Iceland and I have been slowly sharing some of the sounds recorded on the trip over the last many months.  So here is the next batch of sounds I captured while touring around the country.

The only Icelandic word that is used regularly in the English language is Geyser. It means roughly "hot gush of water" and is derived from the the name of Iceland's largest geyser named "Geysir".  Along with the famous Blue Lagoon spa it is one of Iceland's most popular tourist attractions.  To get to Geysir it is a few hours drive from Reykjavik through extremely beautiful landscapes.  As you approach the Haukadalur valley, where Geysir is found, you feel like the whole area was recently on fire because the ground is steaming everywhere from the geothermal activity just below the ground. 

Sadly the famous Geysir rarely ever erupts anymore and I was disappointed when it was dormant during my time in the area.  The upside is just a couple hundred meters away from Geysir is another hot spring named Strokkur that erupts quite frequently.  Next to the 70 meter high spouts Geysir is said to feature, Strokkur eruptions are only a tame 30 meters high, but it is a very impressive 30 meters!  Here is a photo from a distance of the steam cloud that follows after Strokkur kicks into action.

For perspective you can see 3 people stand near the base of the cloud.

This is what Strokkur looks like when it is not active.  Notice the ropes keeping people back, so when the hot water falls back down to the ground it does not land on anyone.

I was able to record a few eruptions and they are really impressive sounding jets of water.  The hard part is always being ready because there is no warning as to when the hot water is going to launch like a liquid rocket out of the ground.  Luckily when the eruption starts it is loud enough to drown out most of the tourists voices, but sadly the voices really become apparent while the water is splashing back down on the ground.  There is also a curious low rumble following the eruption that is really evident if you can listen through a subwoofer.

Geysir Eruptions by azimuthaudio

While the erupting Geysers are clearly the main draw of the area they are not the only interesting things there.  With so much geothermal heated water in the area there are lots of little craters in the ground filled with boiling water.  When I say boiling water I don't mean the water is bubbling so it appears like it is boiling, it is very hot.  There many signs in the area in multiple languages telling you the water temperature is 100 degrees celsius and is dangerous.  At this temperature water will be literally boiling.  

As a result of this water possibly burning the public there are lots of ropes keeping people back from the various geysers and boiling pots.  These ropes also stop tourist from trying to drop things into the holes as well, which has been a big problem in the past.  People would try to drop objects into Geysir (the largest one) just before it erupted in order to launch things way into the sky. Over the years as they have mis-timed this over and over again, they have clogged up the water works.  This is one of the reasons Geysir does not erupt frequently any longer.  As a result I really respected the ropes, as this is a magical place that I wanted to leave in as good condition as I found it. But I also wanted to record some of the boiling water up close.  After humming and hawing for a few minutes I decided to hop over the ropes at one of the bigger hotpots and get my microphone up close and personal with the boiling water.  

Luckily no one seemed to notice me breaking the rules and I was able to get some great bubbling and broiling water movement sounds.  The bad part was the wind was really pushing through this area of the valley and there is a bit of low-end wind noise in the recording.  (not to mention moving a slight smell of sulphur to my nose) Here is a sample of what the boiling hotpot sounded like without any treatment and then the second half has a highpass EQ to battle the wind noise.

Icelandic Boiling Natural Hotspring by azimuthaudio

Recording as I approached the hot water with the safety rope behind me.  Notice I forgot to clip the extra cable to my belt loop in my attempt to be inconspicuous.  Ooops.

Audio Nerd info: Recorded with a Rode NTG-3 to a Fostex FR-2LE

Photo Credits: Ehrin Albright


Arctic Terns Attack!!


Last year I was lucky enough to find myself on the tiny Island of Vigur off the northern coast of Iceland. Vigur is located about an hour's boat ride from Ísafjörður, the unofficial capital of Iceland's north coast. 

Ísafjörður is a small isolated town built on a spit of land at the foot of the fjords. My wife and I spent the morning kayaking around the the town harbour and then in the afternoon boarded a boat to go to the magical island of Vigur. It is a small island: so tiny it only has 5 residents and they are all living in the same building. But there are also thousands and thousands of birds that call the little island home at various times of the year. The most popular in terms of tourism is the puffin. The puffin is a cute little aquatic bird that seems like something out of a cartoon rather than real life. They don't make a lot of noise and are very shy, so there was no way to get close enough to record their little peeps and chirps. 

As we explored the island we discovered (or rather were discovered by) a bird that was not shy at all, the Arctic Tern. We had arrived during their hatching season.  These birds are fiercely territorial and they will attack aggressively if someone comes close to a nest. There was a clearly marked path that we were warned to stay on but on this day the terns decided that even the well-worn path was cutting it too close and they swooped down from the sky with fury as we walked through the south part of the island. I quickly busted out my mic and hit record, using the windscreen for protection as the birds dive-bombed at my face. They were relentless.

Earlier in our trip we had accidentally parked our jeep near a nest and when we returned after taking some photos, a tern was waiting for us and chased us away. They will actually dive in and peck at your head; it does not draw blood but it's not a love tap either. Here is a shot of me running away from a tern after trying to get to our jeep.

I ended up capturing some great sounds of the terns. Take a listen:

Artic Terns Blog Demo by azimuthaudio

The conditions were tough for recording as the North Atlantic is extremely windy, and as you can see in the video above I was recording very close to the shore where the waves were rolling in. Plus, these birds were insanely loud! I had to bring my levels super low in order to keep from peaking and even then some of the birds still kicked in the limiters pretty hard. But with a little low-end roll-off EQ, some minor noise reduction and a lot of editing, I was able to get some great files out of these recordings. They came in quite handy on one of the shows I edit SFX for, "Bakugan." In season 3 one of the main characters was a giant bird-like creature named Hawktor (see picture below), and these Arctic Terns ended up being a main element in the creature's roars.

If you want to download a little library of Arctic Tern caws and chirps, click the link below to get a .zip that has 30 .wav files, all with embedded metadata, at 48 kHz, 24 bit.

Download: Arctic Terns Attack!.zip  UPDATE: All 40 Downloads have been claimed.

There are only 40 downloads available so grab them quick. All 40 are gone from the last free collection I posted. 

Feel free to use them for whatever you want, all rights unreserved. It would be great if you could let me know what they end up being used on though. Have fun.

Tech notes: recorded with a Rode NTG-3 mic into a Fostex FR2-LE recorder.

All photos taken by Ehrin Albright (my super-talented wife.)


This is the second post in a series of recordings I made on a trip to Iceland in 2010.  To read the first click here.


Icelandic Ice Hits

In 2010 I went on an amazing trip to Iceland and I was lucky enough to grab some sounds on my travels.  I am going to be peppering these recordings into this blog every now and then because there is just too much stuff to put in one post.  So here goes part one of my Audible Icelandic Adventures:

About half way through my trip I went on a glacier hike on the Sólheimajökull Glacial Tongue near Skaftafell in Vatnajökull National Park.  Even after hearing things pronounced many times I never could quite pronounce Icelandic words properly, but it was an awesome site to behold.  Located along the south east shore of the island the glacial tongue is where the glacier rolls down from its highest points in the mountains towards the ocean shore.  The hike starts at sea level and goes up about an hours hike when you start really seeing the magical neon blue ice formations.  

The ice has a covering of dirt and ash but it is still breath taking (after the hike to get up there I mean that literally).

The ice shifts and water carves out crevasses so at all times you have to watch your step.


At one point, while my fellow hikers were all taking a break, I slipped over a ridge and pulled out my handheld digital recorder to try to get some recordings of the crampons and the ice axe interacting with the hundreds of feet of ice I was standing on.  Sadly I was not in the mood to drag my full rig up the glacier (I know where is the dedication to my craft?!) but the little zoom recorder I did bring held out ok.  
Fist up I tried some foley walking with the crampons on the ice, I got some single hits as well as paced walking and some erratic running/scrambling foot sounds.  Sadly the wind was pretty strong up there and not having a full windshield kit for the recorder made it tough to get very long takes without wind blasts but I got a couple.  
Next up was stabbing the ice with the ice axe, a climbing tool I had with me.  The first few attempts were tough as I had to get the recorder pretty close to get the crunchy detailed sound i was hoping for but at the same time far enough away so that the chips of ice that were sent flying upon impact did not just bang off the microphone making audible spikes.  After a bunch of experimenting I was able to find a middle ground and started flailing away at the ice with my axe.  
On the hike up I noticed the pick axe had a great metallic ring to it when dragged, so I tried to get some of that sound as well.  I laid the axe down on the ice and then dragged it holding just the very end of the handle to get some nice ice scrapes.  I also got some axe drops onto the hard ice as it bounced around.
Take a listen.

Icelandic Ice hits by azimuthaudio


After the hike we went down to the shore where chunks of the glacier break off and float out into the north Atlantic sea.  It was a truly amazing day.