When Ryan Schimmenti, Mesta Bish, Vito Finamore and Eric Farahani played back their first recording of the abandoned Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, they couldn't believe what they were hearing. An out-of-tune piano, being played in a building where no piano was to be found. The voice of a little girl, talking to someone in an asylum that's been closed since 1994.
"I've never actually heard anything in real-time that sounds funky," said Schimmenti.
Calling themselves Acoustic Archives, Schimmenti and his team travel the United States recording the sound of abandoned buildings. Specifically, they enter spaces and use a technique called convolution reverb to record and preserve the building's "audio imprint."
Scroll down to hear some of Acoustic Archives' recordings from the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum.
"Humans hear from 20 hertz to 20 kilohertz. So you take that frequency sweep, play it from a speaker at a pretty decent volume and record it. And you take that sound, plug it into a variety of different programs, and then you can replicate the sound of that room."
These replications of certain places' sounds, called "plug-ins," can then be used by musical artists and audio engineers to create unique recording effects: An amateur singer with the right plug-in can sound like she's singing in the Sydney Opera House -- or, with one of the plug-ins made by Acoustic Archives, like she's singing inside an abandoned mental asylum.
The Huffington Post got a chance to interview Schimmenti just in time for Halloween.
So, first off -- what's your take on the ghost noises you recorded at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum?
You know, I don’t believe in ghosts. I’m an atheist. But we picked up some stuff that was just absolutely some of the strangest sh*t I’ve ever seen ... People whispering, a little girl's voice, somebody playing a piano in a 5000-square-foot building that doesn’t have a piano. You know, really bizarre stuff.
What sounds like a little girl speaking, captured by Acoustic Archives in the asylum.
How did you and your team get onto archiving the acoustics of abandoned buildings?
It started back in April. Mesta and Vito were working on a record together [Kaley Victoria Rose's "The Garden And The Liddle Girl"] and they wanted to work in an asylum because the record they were working on was an experimental record based on mental illness and a girl losing her mind. They asked [me and Eric] to come along and help, and I thought it was a kooky idea -- we were going to drive all the way to West Virginia to record the tonal qualities of an abandoned mental hospital. I thought this was crazy. So that’s how the whole thing started.
Mesta Bish says this was the "most compelling clip" from the asylum: "[This] takes place in room where the murder that shut the asylum down happened. What is most interesting is the voice comes from all around the mic, which is impossible with our microphone."
How do you currently choose the places whose audio you want to preserve?
A lot of going online, [searching] "Abandoned spaces New York,” “Abandoned spaces upstate NY,” “New England." There are actually certain websites where you can find a lot of this stuff; a lot of people, especially photographers, go and photograph things that are like urban decay, industrial places that are falling into disrepair.
A lot of other things we’re doing are just word-of-mouth stuff. I know a lot of people, I’ve been doing music and audio for a long time, and it’s just literally going and finding people and talking to them. My mom has a house in upstate New York, and she has a lot of friends, and once you start telling them about stuff they go, “Oh, you should go here. In Middlebrook, N.Y., there’s an abandoned girls' school that’s been closed since the 80s." Or "Check this out! There’s an abandoned cement mine in this place, you should check it out."
Can you describe the process of recording inside a building to me?
So we go into a structure and then we do a quick walk-through. We’ll go into a room, and we’ll kinda like snap our fingers and yell a little bit just to hear the different echoes in each room. And then once we find the ones we like, we bring in the microphones and we go through the process I described before [convolution reverb]. You have to be really conscious of the space.
A recording of what sounds like a woman singing in the abandoned Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum.
What do you hope to accomplish with Acoustic Archives?
We really want to create a television show, that’s our end goal. We would find a place and basically give a little bit of a history lesson on why it’s important and why we should remember it. We’re trying to hire a camera crew, and it’s just awe-inspiring being in these buildings -- just seeing the rust, the state of wear they’re in, the patinas and everything and the beauty. There’s something absolutely beautiful in urban decay.
But on top of that, we really are interested in preserving this stuff because it’s important. It would be great if we could fiscally preserve a beautiful old building, or say mines, or a factory, which we can’t do because it would be really expensive. But what we can do is preserve the tonal qualities of these things. Think about it: In a hundred years from now, when people are learning about Detroit, the Motor City, how the factories worked, if they could read about it in a textbook in school and also be able to hear what it sounded like on the inside.
Any place you particularly hope to record soon?
There’s this abandoned elementary school in Harlem that I really want to get. There are literally trees growing out of the windows of this place.