With a range of devices for recording electromagnetic fields and set of affordable specialist microphones for budding field recordists, Bratislava’s LOM addresses a very specific problem. John Twells talks to Jonáš Gruska to find out what inspired him to assemble a community focused on the quiet stuff.
It was while studying at The Netherlands’ Institute of Sonology that Slovakian sound artist Jonáš Gruska stumbled across the concept of field recording for the first time. Gruska had grown up studying classical guitar before shifting his attention to experimental music and noise and field recording promised a completely new world to the young explorer.
“I started being fascinated by sound in general, regardless of whether it was musical or not,” Gruska explained to FACT’s Adam Badi Donoval earlier this year. “I discovered a community of people who were interested in recording and listening to pretty much anything, without discrimination.”
Gruska’s new obsession set him on the path to establishing LOM, a musical device manufacturer, event promoter, record label, music studio and artist incubator. “It’s kind of a cliche story,” Gruska says from the LOM headquarters in Bratislava. “I was an experimental musician and a field recordist on a budget and I had to improvise with my gear because I couldn’t afford the proper things. So I started to build for myself and my friends became interested and their friends became interested and it slowly grew. I’m bootstrapped into the company now.”
Price is a serious consideration for anyone looking to get into sound recording. While more traditional instruments can be found cheaply online, good recording equipment is still too often out of reach. Cheap microphones are readily available, but using an off-the-shelf mic to record environmental sounds is a frustrating experience. Even the microphones supplied with most portable recording devices can be disappointing. “They’re basically designed for music recording,” explains Gruska. “And it means they’re not really that sensitive – they’re not made to handle super tiny sounds and quiet sounds. They’re made so they don’t distort with very loud sounds, but our focus is on the other end of the spectrum. Our mics might not be right for super loud sounds, but they’re very focused on the quiet stuff.”
Gruska set about designing a range of microphones with specific considerations in mind. Primarily they had to be cheap, but they also had to be detailed enough for the unique kind of recording that his new community was interested in. “Our focus is towards the other end of the spectrum,” he explains. “Our mics might not be right for super loud sounds, they’re focused more on the quiet stuff. The point was to make them really suited for amateur field recordists.”
The flagship model is the Uši, a pair of stereo-matched, high quality omni-directional electret microphones. Equipped with an 1/8″ stereo jack, the Uši can be plugged directly into the affordable portable recording devices available from Zoom, Tascam, Olympus and Sony. A basic model, such as the Tascam DR-05, can be acquired for around $100; the Uši costs €90 and a pair of special windbubbles to protect the microphones from ugly interference will set you back €40. Altogether, a complete portable field recording set can be purchased for less than the cost of a Nintendo Switch.
Gruska has also designed an XLR-equipped Uši Pro for high-end users; the mikroUši and mikroUši Pro, tiny mics with a 6.8mm diameter; the Ucho Pro, a single, phantom-powered mic with an XLR connector; and the mikroUcho Pro, a phantom powered mic with a tiny profile. It’s not just field recordists who could make use of these; studio musicians are always looking for innovative ways to record difficult sounds and Gruska has provided a refreshingly affordable set of tools.
The size of these microphones is crucial. If you’re a field recordist, being able to travel lightly and discreetly is often just as important as getting up close. Plus, having tiny microphones that can be easily deployed into hollow trees, shells, engines or carcasses can offer endless fun for the budding Chris Watson aficionado. In the studio meanwhile, recording instruments in new ways can crack open new horizons or help solve existing problems. Recording “difficult” instruments like glockenspiels or xylophones, for example, is much less stressful with the Uši Pro on hand.
LOM has grown rapidly in the last few years. Initially just a room in Gruska’s apartment (“my girlfriend at the time really hated the fact that there were electronic components everywhere”), the workshop soon moved to a tiny laboratory space, before expanding and then moving to its current home, a 280 square meter ex-butcher’s shop that seems fated to have ended up as an experimental music research center.
“The plan is to have a public space for workshops, lectures and quiet concerts,” he tells me excitedly. “In the basement we’re planning to open our own studio for LOM-related artists to use, and also we’re planning to build a small anechoic chamber there for microphone testing, or for people who would like to experience sensory deprivation. It’s all in a former state from the 1980s so we are slowly rebuilding it. I’m learning how to do all this – build stuff – which is a lot of fun actually. I really enjoy it as a switch from the computer work.”
Gruska has managed to build more than just a physical location – he’s nurtured a community in Bratislava sensitive to his goals. “We have a very particular style of doing things,” he laughs. “Before we had the space, we were doing most of the events outdoors – in abandoned buildings around the city or under the bridge; these very peculiar spaces. We have a small solar-powered soundsystem that I built, so I can just play with the solar energy, powered by batteries. We don’t use diesel generators or anything, so we can play super quiet music. It’s a lot of fun to meet new people outdoors in new environments.”
The community also stretches outside Slovakia, thanks to the LOM Instruments Facebook group, where users can share recordings and chat about their experiences with Gruska’s devices. There’s even help provided to allow those who can’t afford the instruments to purchase inexpensive components and build their own. “Because it’s open source it’s possible, and I wrote a little guide on how to do it,” says Gruska. “We also started this program a couple of years ago called LOM Plus U. We were accepting submissions from people on a budget, or who couldn’t afford our devices, and if we liked the project we sent them the device they desired. We’ve supported 10 or 11 people so far. Currently the program is on a break because we couldn’t deal with the amount of submissions – there was a lot of stuff coming in – but we’re going to resume it soon.”
Before he started building microphones, Gruska developed the Elektrosluch, a handheld device designed for listening to and recording electromagnetic fields. The first time I came across one, it was being passed around at a pub in London to a chorus of coos from an interested crowd of observers. It’s the kind of device that sparks an immediate response, revealing the dense, eerie sounds hanging in the air around any electronic gadget.
“After seeing some performances of people using pickup coils and guitar pickups for basically the same thing, I thought it would be quite good to make it into a special device for this purpose,” Gruska explains. “You don’t need anything else, you just plug in your headphones and go out and listen. It’s very accessible to even non-recordists, really anyone with a pair of headphones.”
The Elektrosluch is now in its fourth iteration and a new version is currently in development. This time around, Gruska has opted to enlist the help of a professional engineer. “Even though I studied experimental music, I knew next to nothing about electronics,” he says. I admit I’m shocked, given the quality of LOM’s output. “I had to learn it all by myself, with the help of lots of friends of course. I’m trying to make the Elektrosluch more robust and just look more professional as an instrument and I’m revising the circuitry with every iteration to make it more hi-fi, to have more gain with less noise and to use just better components. As I’m learning about electronics it’s improving, and I’m working with an expert in low-noise pre-amplifiers for industrial purposes. So he will help me to adjust the circuits even more for what I need, but it will remain open source.”
Somehow, Gruska has even found the time to work on a passion project, an even more complex electromagnetic listening tool called the Priezor. “It’s been a dream of mine for a couple of years to have a huge antenna that you can walk around with,” he says mischievously. “It’s inspired by the VLF community, which is a community of people listening to very low frequency radio, some people call it natural radio. And it’s basically about airborne electromagnetic sounds, something the Elektrosluch captures as well. They’re very faint and subtle, since they’re naturally generated, and there’s a whole community of people building receivers and antennae for listening to this phenomena.”
This community grew from a global collective of amateur radio enthusiasts, or radio hams, who in another era would spend days tinkering with complicated equipment to be able to communicate with similar enthusiasts on the other side of the world. My great grandfather was a radio ham, so it’s a familiar passion; I remember marveling at this mass of alien-looking technology from an early age. “They don’t communicate with each other,” Gruska laughs. “They just listen to the sounds of the atmosphere of the universe. They are building these huge antennae with the same principle as the Priezor but they’re not very portable, so my goal was to bring this experience to a portable device and to bring more of an ambient sense of electromagnetics.”
Intriguingly, as Gruska developed these devices, another application became clear to him, one that could take the humble Elektrosluch way beyond the realm of experimental music. “The new Elektrosluch is a big thing because I’m also planning to do it in a way that it could be used for scientific research,” he explains slowly. “So you would get calibrated output from the device and you could correlate the loudness of the signal with the exact value of the electromagnetic field.” I start to lose track, so he clarifies. “You would be able to use it to research, for example, the electromagnetic interference from your cellphone. You could make some conclusions about how harmful it can be towards you or some devices around it.”
I’m shocked that something developed purely as a tool for experimental musicians might have a wider usage. Gruska meanwhile is cautious about the implications outside of his community. He’s particularly worried about the small number of people who claim to suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity or EHS, a condition that has no scientific basis as yet, but is supposedly responsible for headaches, stress, fatigue and other ailments. Gruska worries that being able to make the electromagnetic field more tangible – being able to hear it and see data immediately – could exacerbate the litany of symptoms.
“I travel around Europe a lot with these devices and show them to people at workshops,” he tells me. “Once in a while you reach a person who seems to already have this fear and once they hear it with the device it clearly makes the condition worse. They’re just terrified by what they hear and it seems like it’s not helping.”
Gruska is careful to not draw any conclusions as the wider problem of electromagnetic pollution and its effect on humans is not widely understood. This is precisely why a device like the Elektrosluch could prove invaluable; at the very least, being able to collect more data on the subject is vital in improving our understanding of the phenomenon.
“There are of course professional meters for the electromagnetic field but they’re extremely expensive if you want to get the proper calibrated ones,” he concludes. “Maybe offering something more affordable would be interesting?”
John Twells is FACT’s Executive Editor and is on Twitter.