Sound Adventures in Teufelsberg

  • To skip ahead to the sounds you can download them here.

As most of you may know I have been living in Berlin off and on for over a year now. As of today that journey has come to a close as I make my way zipping down the Autobahn towards Frankfurt. Though the speed limitless German highways don’t really give that much time for pause, I’ve managed to take a small portion of the ride to share something new on my site as well as a small sample of my time in Berlin. 

 Main listening tower

Main listening tower

There’s no doubt that Berlin lives up to its über creative and dynamic reputation. As a composer/sound designer/all around audio geek, Berlin is teeming with people like me and has been a very nourishing place to grow in. Though there were a few things I still wished to have accomplished there, during my last week I did tick a big check off my list when I booked a field recording day in the city. Already having been spoiled on dramatically cheaper day to day living than in New York, audio equipment rentals were luckily no different. I nabbed a Zoom H6 field recorder, grabbed a bike rental for the afternoon, and I was off to record a farewell tour of my temporary adopted home. 

Other than some general city ambiences I had been determined to record all summer, my main target for the field trip was a bit of a sound designer's Mecca. Though interest in it has widened in recent years, the very-off-the-beaten-path former NSA site at Teufelsberg still remains a fascinating abandoned place with a bizarre history and incredible street art and murals. 

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Built atop a man-made mountain made from WW2 debris, The decaying buildings at Teufelsberg were once used as a U.S. listening station during the cold war. Much like other sites in Berlin, it is a place where history collapses with the present day in a beautifully juxtapose center out of which something new grows. For my purposes however, Teufelsberg also hails another unique feature. In the tallest structure on the site lies the main listening sphere (that looks like a dystopian version of the Epcot ball if it were a telecommunications themed ride... oh wait it is)? 

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Inside the sphere you're met with one of the most unique and bizarre acoustic spaces you'll ever step foot in. As best described as "hearing yourself before you talk," the hexagonal mesh structured walls diffuse and reflect sounds as if you are in a real life ping pong delay verb. Sounds ricochet and melt with an incredible decay time, where even the most mundane sounds turn into resonating beauty. This was a particularly big draw for me, one that was strong enough to have me nearly crash my bike through the overgrown Grunewald forest pathways while being sucked dry by mosquitos to get there. 

 Inside the main listening sphere

Inside the main listening sphere

As with any field recording, you're either limited or delighted by the environment you're trying to record. I did have some specific "wouldn't it be cool to record this" ideas for going there, though not having any idea how crowded it may be I knew I would just need to improvise. I was surprised to see quite a few tourists, as it is a difficult place to get to. I also wouldn't think of Teufelsberg as a particularly family-friendly spot, though many families and children found their way up the stairs and into this strange place.

After making the big climb to the sphere, without headphones or recording engaged, I was immediately taken aback by how strange it is to hear your own voice as if you were whispering in your own ear. Not being the only person there, others started to gently play with this strange phenomenon as well. As I pulled the recorder from my bag, more and more people started to pile in. At first I thought I might have lost an opportunity to get some sounds, but then I placed the headphones on and started recording. What followed was not so much a directed foley session, but more of a passive human observation experiment.

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Adults and children aligned with the same sense of wonder and excitement at what they were experiencing. From whistling, snapping, shuffling, prodding, screaming and singing, people found new ways to express themselves. Even a family dog had to bark a few times to hear how it sounded. Sonically the result was more than I could have ever asked for from a field recording, and much more interesting than me dropping a few metal pipes by myself. 

These recordings are incredibly useful on their own, but crazy things start to happen when you mess with them in post. Just a simple varispeed effect on some of the vocal sounds creates the most eerie and twisted sound palettes. Through effective layering and editing you can create industrial ambiences suited for the likes of Playdead's industrial masterpiece Inside. The woman who spontaneously started singing a medieval ballad is also a particular favorite that can be used in so many sound design applications. 

As I've had a great time with these files already, this has prompted me to open a new section of my site so that I can share it with you. Introducing the brand new Downloads page, where you can download all of these recordings and more for free. I am still working on the Berlin Ambience digital download, but for now I hope you enjoy the Teufelsberg recordings as much as I have. 

From children to adults, we all react to sound in unique and personal ways. Anyone who has found themselves singing in the shower can attest to this. Acoustic spaces do something to our sense of self-- we can break free from doubtful bonds and hear ourselves outside of our own likeness. The next time I throw on a digital or convolution reverb onto a track, I'll always think of my trip to Teufelsberg knowing what a real reflection can make you feel.

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