The World of Volcanoes

Sennheiser Microphones recorded the Earth's innermost!


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Climbing an active volcano may sound like pure insanity. But climbing an active volcano and having a good, long listen is the ultimate audio experience. The VFF Research Institute Mare Nostrum is currently spearheading the “World of Volcanoes” project, led by the audio pioneer Sennheiser. We spoke to the project’s technical director, Ermanno Brosch, about lava, ash and Earth’s primal sounds.

  • Author: Carlo Roschinsky
  • Photos: V.F.F. Institute Mare Nostrum
  • Video: V.F.F. Institute Mare Nostrum

Mr. Brosch, can a volcano be musical? People who listen to volcanoes can detect a melody. We were at Stromboli and its music was very impulsive because no two eruptions are the same. Speaking in tonal terms, there are big, strong, long as well as smaller and finer notes. You could easily create a song using this material – a volcanic cacophony.

What is the aim of the project? We are researching an active volcano and trying to fill gaps in our scientific knowledge. Last year, we visited Mt. Etna. Just recently, we were at Stromboli and New Zealand is soon to follow. We never have more than three or four researchers on our team in order to stay mobile. I am responsible for the technical side of things and I produce short films about each stage.

What results are you hoping to achieve? First, we are testing out which equipment works in a volcanic environment. Then we want to present volcanoes from a different perspective using drones that provide us with great aerial images. Third, different parameters are captured, such as the distribution of temperature on the volcano. And fourth, samples are gathered.

What is it about Stromboli that made it interesting for you? Stromboli is the world’s most active volcano – and for us Europeans, it’s located right at our front door. An eruption can be observed every 10 to 15 minutes. Its activity has earned it a category of its own against which other volcanoes are measured: the Strombolian eruption. Then there’s its form! Just look at the way Stromboli juts out of the sea – it’s wonderful! The volcano and the island are one and the same.

This force of nature can be a very emotional experience.
„It's even more beautiful in person. The cascades and fountains look as if they are being choreographed by some invisible hand.“

In your video, an eruption looks almost graceful. One could spend hours watching it. Does volcanic lava have its own aesthetic? Of course, and I hope the video conveys this. It’s even more beautiful in person. The cascades and fountains look as if they are being choreographed by some invisible hand. Being in the presence of this force of nature can be a very emotional experience. A person has to remind him or herself that Earth is essentially revealing its innermost. In everyday life, people aren’t aware that they are only walking on top of a very thin crust. But when you see these forces up close, you are reminded of this in a very impressive way. The word “transcendence” comes to mind.

Humankind is dwarfed by nature. We are dwarfed, humbled and reminded how weak we are. If it wanted to, nature would have no trouble getting rid of us. The people who live on Stromboli – there’s a small village at the base – are aware of this every day. Nevertheless, the people there are very happy. Maybe they live more consciously than people elsewhere because permanent danger is their next-door neighbor.

So what does Stromboli sound like? What did your Sennheiser microphones reveal? Stromboli acts as if it wants to prove to the world that it’s there and should be respected. Large volcanoes tend to emit longer, constant sounds, whereas smaller volcanoes are like Chihuahuas – much more active and aggressive. Large volcanoes go: booom-booom-booom. Smaller volcanoes go: ratatatatatatatat. You know? Smaller volcanoes get more worked up. Stromboli too.

What kind of adversities do the microphones have to withstand? The microphone has to be compact and stand up against volcanic ash and dust. The Sennheiser MKE600 microphones did an excellent job. They were robust and, at the same time, also delivered the highest technical quality. The microphones are also made with heat-resistant material that can withstand the temperatures found at the edge of the crater. Plastic would melt immediately in this environment.

This whole project began in 2014 and will continue until 2018. Has a dream of yours as a scientist been fulfilled with these volcanic ascents? I always collect two to three hours of raw material that I will edit down into the final video, which is only six minutes long. It hurts to part with a lot of the footage, but the entire experience is of course unbelievable. You get addicted to volcanic eruptions. It may sound funny, but it’s true. Each volcano is different and you learn how to read the nuances. Once you get back to the office, you start itching to get out to the next volcano.