One of the great things about traveling is that it opens up whole new vistas of opportunity for Cow Scrutiny. This post is the first in what I think is likely to be a continuing riff, as I commence my long stay in the US. These posts will all be grouped together under the new Stranger in a Strange Land category. ((As if I don’t have enough categories already!))

Of course, one of the first things a Stranger in a Strange Land needs is a guide. And when in Rome Los Angeles, the must-have accessory is satellite navigation. On my arrival, therefore, I was provided with a TomTom XL – the XL presumably referring to the ‘extra large’ screen that I requested (it actually doesn’t seem particularly ‘extra’ large to me, which is remarkable in a land where ‘extra large’ usually means ‘so big that a normal human can’t deal with it in any meaningful way’).

The TomTom XL is a masterpiece of irritating technology. The TomTom people have taken the miracle of Global Positioning and created a way to interface with it that is clumsy and frustrating. It is a breathtaking accomplishment. Never in my life have I sworn at an inanimate object quite so much. ((I mean, seriously. Operating systems don’t need to be like this folks. This is why we Apple fanboys bang on so much about how good Apple stuff is – it’s all in the operating system and the interface! TomTom people – just take a look at the Maps app in the iPhone. See how EASY that is to use? There ya go.)) Of course, my hatred for it is amplified by the fact that it has a robot voice that pretends it knows more about the world than I do, and we all know how fond I am of that idea.

One of the ‘features’ of the TomTom system though, is that you can log in to the TomTom site and change the default voice (Female Moron #1) for one of hundreds of alternatives. Some of these are for sale and feature the professionally recorded voices of luminaries like Kim Cattrall and Burt Reynolds (I kid you not) or ‘humourous’ instructions provided by C3PO and SpongeBob. Why ANYBODY thinks this kind of thing is a good idea is completely beyond me, unless of course you opt to choose the voice of someone you really hate in order that your levels of rage and frustration from using the device can be amplified just that little bit more. The last thing I want to hear as I miss the exit to the freeway because the damn thing told me to ‘go straight on‘ when it should have said ‘take the right lane‘ ((I’m not exaggerating – the TomTom frequently tells you to do something which is plainly not correct, and I have become convinced that it is maliciously programmed to do so.)) is Yoda advising me that I should have used The Force.

Most of the downloadable voices on the TomTom site are free, however and (Oh frabjous day!) are created by the TomTom community. Now the fact that a person is willing to even admit that they belong to the TomTom community is enough to indicate what kind of very special surprises might be in store here. Sure, there are pages of interminable ‘My Sister’s Funny Voice’ and ‘Me Doing Impressions of a Dalek’ ((Still not exaggerating.)) but there are also some gems. Such as the voice of Alan from the Macedonia Primitive Baptist Church. ((Now, I didn’t even know there was a thing called the Primitive Baptist Church, but the words ‘primitive’ and ‘Baptist’ do sit quite comfortably together.))

Hey hey! Christian navigation! That’s bound to be laff riot. A typical ‘instruction’ from Alan’s voice is:

God has blessed you on your journey. You have reached your destination.

Of course if God doesn’t bless you on your journey and you die horribly in a collision with a truck you won’t ever get that message, but hey, that’s how religion works, right?

My mind goes wild when I try to imagine Alan’s other instructions. OK, we’re coming to an intersection… Alan! Which way do I go?

At the next intersection, take your advice from Genesis 13:9: Is not the whole land before thee? separate thyself, I pray thee, from me: if thou wilt take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if thou depart to the right hand, then I will go to the left.

Or, on approaching the entrance to the freeway:

You are about to enter the freeway. Let me remind you of Isaiah 35:8: And an highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called The way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for those: the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein.

Yes, I can see it now. First traffic lights and Alan and the TomTom would be out the car window and into the LA River.

I’ve been here one week and already I can see the root cause of America’s road rage problems. What, with all the sugar in the breakfast cereals and celebrity voices directing traffic it’s a miracle that anybody gets anywhere in one piece.

Just a reminder that you should make very frequent visits to In case you’re not already. It’s truly super amusive!

Today it is six years since my beautiful Kate faded from this world. I miss you always buddy.

You know how good it sounded in the telling? It was better in the reality. If you can conjure up an image of a ‘Gothic Island Paradise’, Masthead Island is it. Probably just as well then that the film I’m working on is a ghost story…

My main regret is that I only had three days to spend on the island itself – the rest of the week was taken up with travel. It sure ain’t an easy place to get to. Or to escape from… (mwahahahaha!)

I can’t really talk too much about the film just yet – and anyway, no-one wants a creepy tale spoiled for them. Let me just say that the island itself is a significant character in the story and it fulfills its role better than I could have ever expected, with beautiful bone-white coral sand beaches, a lagoon the colour of nicely aged cyanide, and a dense interior of hollow Birdcatcher Pisonia glades edged with blurry casuarinas and Velvet Soldierbush, urgently whispering suggestions to visitors to leave before it’s too late…

I recorded the sound of waves on the distant reef, the shush of the casuarinas, the sombre lap of the incoming tide on broken coral. I made some wind chimes from shells and coral and recorded them in the quiet of the forest – a brittle, tinkling sound like dull glass merged with bamboo.

I also caught enough material to make the third CD in my Morphium series, Atoll.

I took some time to record some impulse responses inside the Pisonia forest – if that means nothing to you, stay tuned. Next post will be an explanation of a truly amazing invention of contemporary audio technology – a technique that allows us to make digital ‘maps’ of acoustic spaces.

An Island

It has to be said that I have a pretty cool job. Over the years people have paid me to do all kinds of things that I would have happily done for free. Or even paid for myself. I’ve been paid to meet Spike Milligan. I’ve been paid to go to the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I’ve been paid to have a 70 piece orchestra perform some of my music. I don’t tell you this by way of boasting – I say it only because I marvel at the wonderful experiences that life has brought my way.[tippy title=”*”]Lest you think it’s all been beer and skittles, I’ve also been paid to record to a knee operation, stand on a beach in New Zealand in sub zero temperatures for most of the night and visit the scene of a freshly-committed domestic murder – none of which I desire to do again.[/tippy]

Next week, some nice people are paying me to journey to Masthead Island, a completely pristine South Pacific island near the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef. I am going there to record sound material for a new Australian feature film for which I’m composing music.

This is where Masthead is, in relationship to mainland Australia:

An Island

Masthead Island is a coral cay, and protected part of Capricornia Cays National Park. It takes two plane trips and two boat trips – the better part of a day’s travel – to get to there from where I live. There is no power on the island, no water and no shelter. The maximum number of people allowed on the island at any one time is 25. We will be about an hour’s fast boat ride from the nearest settled place.

Stuff to take

This is my ‘lightweight’ recording kit. I’m taking my Zoom H4N digital recorder, and my sturdy RØDE NT4 (‘the rodent’) stereo microphone with its ‘fluffy dog’ windshield. There have been astonishing technical changes in my field since I started my career; the little Zoom recorder will allow me to record more than 6 hours of very high quality audio[tippy title=”†”]24bit/48k for all you tech heads – I can record at even higher and stupider levels of quality, but it would truly be a case of gilding the lily.[/tippy] on a 4g SD flash card. I’m taking 4 x 4g cards on this trip (and a big box of batteries, needless to say). 24+ continuous hours of recorded sound is more than enough for the 3 days I’ll be on the island.

When I first started in this business, the recording machine du jour was the Nagra 4 – a mono, reel-to-reel quarter inch tape recorder that cost a small fortune (I could never afford to own one) and weighed 6.4 kilograms (14lbs) with batteries. And that doesn’t include tapes, which typically allowed just 15 minutes of recording at the best possible quality. So, add another 4 kilos worth of tapes and mics and you can see that location recording was once a very weighty proposition. Lugging a Nagra around on a film shoot was almost guaranteed to give you back problems for weeks afterward.

My entire modern kit, including headphones, cables, microphone, windshield, recording media and enough batteries for a week, weighs less than half the weight of the Nagra recorder alone.

So. Off I go. It’s slightly daunting to be working somewhere so far from any modern facilities. There’s little tolerance for equipment malfunction so I’m relying on my tiny kit to hang in there. I’m nervous that I can’t back up any of my recordings immediately to disk as I do under normal circumstances. And I’m hoping that the production company, which is supplying our food, water and lodgings, hasn’t forgotten anything.

But I’ve met the rest of the crew and they seem like a decent bunch. And really, what could possibly go wrong?



*Lest you think it’s all been beer and skittles, I’ve also been paid to record to a knee operation, stand on a beach in New Zealand in sub zero temperatures for most of the night and visit the scene of a freshly-committed domestic murder – none of which I desire to do again.

†24bit/48k for all you tech heads – I can record at even higher and stupider levels of quality, but it would truly be a case of gilding the lily.


One of the great pleasures I enjoy while travelling is spying products on supermarket shelves that challenge my sense of reality. This happens mostly in non-English speaking countries, where the translations into The Mother Tongue throw up all kinds of novelty (you may recall my adventures in Vietnam), but there are also treasures to be found in countries that actually call English their main language.

The ol’ US of A is a case in point. Exhibit A, to the left here, must surely be the cause of great confusion among the sleep-deprived.

Of course, it all makes sense when you spy the word ‘homeopathic’ under the Hylands name – like all homeopathic remedies it makes a bet each way, simultaneously declaring to be completely effective while also claiming to have no unwanted effects. The product name itself is a masterpiece in doublespeak: Calms Forté: ‘strong calm’ – the implication being that it’s an extra-strength version of the usual formula ‘Calms’. Well, since we know that homeopathy works in reverse to normal logic, this must mean that Calms Forté has even less than the usual ‘active’ ingredient* of standard Calms…

And in our kitchen at work, a product which should surely be walking off the shelves (jumping, even), especially at this time of year.



*It can’t be chamomile. Chamomile contains substances that are actually known to promote sleep (and drowsiness) when taken in appropriate quantities and homeopathic remedies never have an ‘active’ ingredient that makes any sense.


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