Considerations for Creative Field Recording
I purchased my first field recorder in 2010. Ever since it’s become a vital tool in my sound design process. As a result, I now hear the world in a completely different context. I hear a palette of colors, textures, and techniques with which I can capture many weird and wonderful things. Sometimes I record for the sheer joy of it, out of appreciation for the sound itself. On other occasions I might have a purpose, whether for a project or to add something new to my library.
The act of field recording has taught me to appreciate the difference between ‘hearing’ (a subconscious process) and ‘listening’ (a conscious process). Julian Treasure (The Sound Agency, London) has given several great TED talks, webinars, and presentations on the subject of conscious listening. I’ve found his commentary to be inspired and completely relevant to my process as a sound designer and field recordist.
The brunt of this article concerns a creative approach to field recording, but before we look at that, I want to talk about how my inner-ear has developed over time. When I first started field recording, I was listening for interesting “literal” sounds in context. If I heard a dog bark, I would analyse whether it was worth recording on its merits as a dog bark. At the time, I couldn’t (and didn’t think to) disassociate the sound with its source.
Once I had a little more exposure, I found I was evaluating a sound’s worth regardless of the context. I started to focus on specific aspects of a sound; the frequency content, the envelope, the acoustic space. The fact that it was a dog barking no longer concerned me as I knew I might use the sound in an entirely different context.
The next development came once I had been using DSP to alter sounds I had previously recorded. Discovering the effect these tools could have on a sound caused me to listen in a new way. I found myself actively considering how DSP might make a sound (that I previously might have overlooked) more interesting.
By this point, my inner-ear was not only able to identify more potential within sounds, but I also came to understand what makes a sound interesting to me. With this, I was then able to think about designing my own sounds (in the real world) that would possess interesting qualities. So far I think my inner-ear has been through four developmental stages.
- Listening for interesting sounds in relation to context
- Listening for interesting aspects of a sound, regardless of context
- Listening whilst considering the possibilities and later altering sounds to make them interesting
- Conceptualizing interesting sounds in my head and creating the conditions to replicate that sound
My personal progression through these steps was wholly unconscious and it is only now, as I look back, that I can see how my inner-ear has developed. I also find myself bouncing every now and then between the third and fourth steps as the fourth step requires a lot of concentration, energy, experimentation and creativity.
On creativity in field recording…
There are numerous articles and books on field recording. They are wonderful resources to get started, but I feel there’s often too much focus on the practical aspects. It’s easy to get advice on gear, tools, “good” microphone technique, and library management, but I’ve always felt that the creative potential for field recording is largely overlooked. I find that the more I approach field recording as an art form, with elements of improvisation and performance, the more rewarding the process becomes. As a result, I hear, capture, and create more interesting sounds that I might otherwise have overlooked or not thought to produce.
In writing this article I don’t mean to suggest that this is a new idea. There are countless examples of creativity in field recording (just check out any SFX Library on Designing Sound’s independent list, or watch any SoundWorks Collection feature). Despite this, I don’t think it’s a topic that anyone has written about before. Perhaps that’s because creativity is somewhat conceptual, personal, and hard to put into words, but I always like a challenge! So what follows is a window into my creative process when field recording. It’s not right nor wrong, it’s not an industry standard or new technique being widely adopted, and it’s not necessarily for you. What it is, are five “creative considerations” that have helped me consider the vast possibilities when I’m creating and capturing sounds. Perhaps they’ll be of use to you, or inspire you to analyse your own approach in a similar way. Regardless, they are as follows:
- Shifting Perspective
Creative Consideration #1: Additive/Subtractive
This creative consideration involves either adding or subtracting from the sound object you’re recording. This could either be through increasing/decreasing the size of said object, or by recording multiples of that object. For example, I was once recording the sound of a single match being lit. By considering an additive/subtractive approach, I decided to experiment by lighting multiple matches at once to see what effect it would have on the sound. The result wasn’t just a ‘larger’ sound, but due to the intense high frequency content and variations in phase, the sound had much more motion to it than the sound of just a single match being lit.
Another instance where I decided to take an additive approach involved recording a bucket of metal bolts (which I was recording in a warehouse for a sample instrument I was creating). As I was reaching for a bolt, I disturbed some of the other bolts in this large metal bucket and they created a metallic rustling sound. I realised I couldn’t very well stick a wooden spoon into this bucket and stir them, as they were large and heavy. So I instead tilted the bucket on it’s side and rotated it around, which caused all the bolts within to shift about and create this new sound.
Take a moment and think how you might use an additive or subtractive approach to capture a variation of a sound, or a new sound entirely! Can you record multiples of the sound object? Is there a larger or smaller object you could record that is similar? Can you safely add to, or remove mass from the object in question?
Creative Consideration #2: Shifting Perspective
When I use the word “perspective”, I’m referring to that of the microphone. Typically when we record a sound, we do our best to point the microphone directly at the source and often try to record in close proximity to eliminate any extraneous sound. This approach is all very well and good, but often the space you’re in offers up exciting sound possibilities that you might not otherwise be able to create.
The first aspect to perspective you could play with is the microphone’s proximity to the source. Typically I would record anything from two to six feet from a source. This distance captures a version of the sound that closely reflects the way we might typically hear it, with reasonable isolation making for a more ‘useful’ recording. But think creatively, what does this object sound like if I place the ‘micro’phone at a ‘micro’scopic distance? You might be surprised by the sound an object makes when the perspective is within an inch or two from the sound source. Often the high frequency content is emphasised and you’ll begin to hear details you wouldn’t otherwise capture. In this example I recorded an outdoor faucet in a cemetery. Just by looking at it I had an idea for the kind of sound it would make; spluttery, splatty, strained. The closer I put the microphone to the faucet opening, the more detailed and interesting the sound became. It’s almost animalistic in nature.
Here’s the sound of a dishwasher recorded up close by the vent. It’s a wonderful rhythmic and musical sound, the detail of which would be lost had I recorded it at a greater distance.
Another approach you could take would be to back off and increase the distance. Typically, the further from a source you get, the more “reverberant” the sound will become by the nature of the space you’re in. This may not be such a bad thing if you’re in an acoustically interesting environment such as a cave or a squash court. The reverberation can become an interesting quality to the sound you want to capture. Here’s an example where I was scraping wooden planks on a concrete floor in a warehouse. The reverb is as much a part of the sound as the source itself.
In the same space, I found an old wooden door half off it’s hinge that I closed abruptly and captured the decay. I knew that the quality would lend itself well to a LFE Boom, which I later created using the sound of the door.
As part of perspective, you can consider using different microphones with different polar patterns to give you a different “perspective” on a sound. Consider using omni v.s. cardioid v.s. hypercardioid. How do they change the quality of the sound you’re capturing?
With particularly large sound events, sometimes the reverberation can become a sound of it’s own. In these instances you can experiment by directing the microphone off-axis, away from the source to better capture the reverberant effect. I once saw a fireworks display by Revere Beach, near Boston. There was a line of concrete buildings just off-shore that were staggered diagonally and vertically away from the beach where I was recording the fireworks. Their shape resulted in the sound being reflected clearly off of each building in turn in sequential order. It acted like multiple delays, creating multiple instances of the sound of the fireworks in quick succession. It was similar to the effect of cards being shuffled, a snare drum roll, or an animalistic roar! In that instance I attempted to record more of the reflections than the direct sound of the fireworks. Unfortunately this was early in my days and all I had was the built-in omni-directional microphone so the quality unfortunately suffered. I’ve removed the initial attack of the firework in this example.
So next time you’re out recording, think about where you’re pointing your microphone, both in terms of the distance from the source, and the sound of the space that you’re in.
Creative Consideration #3: Changing Context
Context in field recording relates to perspective as I described it, but while that focused on directionality and proximity of the microphone, context (as I will use it) concerns the environment in which the source, the microphone(s) or both, are placed. It can be hard to distinguish between the two; as the line often blurs. The last audio example was a combination of my having taken advantage of a different perspective (off-axis), and the environmental context (having a staggered reflective wall of concrete). However, I didn’t actively change the context of the microphone or source. I could have done so by perhaps submerging the microphone underwater or beneath the sand, or by detonating the fireworks underwater or under the sand. Obviously I’d have to somehow convince city officials that this would have made good use of their fireworks and that it could be accomplished safely, neither of which are true!
Here are some examples where I was able to place my microphone in a different context to produce a new sound.
This is the sound of a standard kettle being filled but with the microphone placed right within the opening, almost inside the kettle. It places the listener in a new acoustic space.
Here’s a similar example but instead with a storm drain.
And this is the sound of traffic passing over the Golden Gate Bridge, recorded from an underpass beneath the bridge.
One of my favorite examples of changing the context is a trick Ben Burtt used on the original Star Wars when developing the sound for Luke’s Landspeader. One of the elements he used in the sound was that of highway traffic driving by. When recording the sound however, he used a tube from a vacuum cleaner and affixed it to the end of his microphone. This resulted in natural comb-filtering as the tube restricted the amount of direct sound, forcing lots of reflections before sound reached the diaphragm resulting in lots of small variations in arrival time. Here’s an example of highway traffic being re-recorded using this technique. You can clearly hear the comb-filtering effect and the steady tone that this approach often produces.
And here’s a close approximation of the “Speeder” sound from Star Wars using this as one of the elements.
Always try to consider in advance what possibilities a location might allow for and come prepared for any eventuality. Contact mics and hydrophones are great tools for changing context but you can get great effects by simply placing a microphone in a condom to keep it dry. Safety first!
Creative Consideration #4: Technique
“Technique” doesn’t refer to microphone technique. I’m instead referring to the way you illicit sound from your source. Let’s consider a classic sound, that of the bowed cymbal.
Typically you see people hitting cymbals, but by applying a different technique you can get a completely different sound. By using a bow and literally bowing the cymbal edge, you get a completely different form of sustained vibration that causes the cymbal to react and ‘sound’ differently. You’ve no doubt heard this before in countless horror films but you may have been left wondering what that sound was.
Here’s the same cymbal bowed again, but on this occasion I quickly bowed backwards and forwards, alternating my technique to get yet another kind of sound.
Here’s another example with a musical instrument, this time a piano. I decided to take the front body off of an upright piano, exposing the strings. I then lifted the lid and let it crash down. This created a wonderful decay as all the strings were excited by the initial shock before slowly vibrating out.
In this next example, I filled a kettle and carefully controlled the opening of the lid to let the water pour out in a controlled manner. It created more of a “slurpy” sound than would have been created by simply pouring out of an open spout.
In this example, I used mallets as well as my hands to run along the top grills of a home radiator whilst recording from the base. As I slowly approach the space directly above the microphone, you begin to hear more and more of the high frequency content as the distance decreases and fewer and fewer grills obstruct the direct sound.
In this example, I found large corrugated iron sheets and dragged them across a concrete floor.
I always try to carry a bow with me when I’m out recording; as well as drum sticks, mallets (soft and hard) and sometimes gloves. So next time you’re recording an object, consider lots of ‘doing’ words. Throw, hit, smash, rip, stretch, bow, shake, rub, wave… do everything you can and see how your source reacts.
Creative Consideration #5: Elemental
By adding new elements to whatever it may be that you’re recording, you can alter the sound in some interesting ways. Unlike the additive approach, this involves combining distinct elements as opposed to more of the same.
We do this all the time in our DAWs when we layer sounds together, but…by combining sounds in the real world…you can often create different amalgamations of those two sounds that can’t quite be replicated within the computer.
A common practice in foley is to use a metal spatula and to scrape it against another metallic object to create the sound of a sword being sheathed or unsheathed. In these examples I used a mic stand as my secondary component.
Sometimes you’ll happen across instances where sounds are combining, perhaps synchronising, by chance in a way that blends. I captured lots of sounds of roller-coasters on a trip to a theme park and I loved the way the sound of the roller-coaster blended with the screams of those aboard it.
In other situations, two elements may come together to create a new singular sound that is the direct product of the two. Here, I recorded traffic crossing the Golden Gate Bridge at a point where I found a ribbed traffic calming device, which when excited by the cars crossing it created this rather odd sound.
Another similar instance happened when coffee dripped onto the hotplate of my coffee machine and I noticed the sound of the water reacting to the heating element.
During hurricane Sandy, I recorded the sound of the storm exciting a skylight through wind and rain.
And here’s another rain based example. but of rain falling onto a plastic surface.
Sometimes you just have to try combining random elements and seeing where they take you. In the SoundWorks Collection video for “Man of Steel”, they described how they created some of the sounds for the Kryptonian technology by pouring beads over various metallic objects. It’s fun and often a good exercise to experiment by combining elements in the studio. So for no good reason, here’s the sound of a coffee cup being spun with my finger inside it whilst it’s full of coffee beans.
So next time you’re out recording, consider how introducing a new element or mixing two together might change the sound you’re hearing or create a new one.
A word on Post-Processing
Obviously once you enter the digital realm, the possibilities extend even further, but by experimenting at the initial stage of recording the audio, you can enhance your ability to create some truly wild sounds. Here are three sounds I created using Kontakt out of samples recorded by colleagues of mine whilst at Berklee College of Music.
I created this sound of horses trotting using a recording of deflated balloons being slapped against each other.
I created this sound of a ship / submarine hull under stress from a creaky door.
And these robotic vocalisations came from the sound of a jaw-harp.
A word on gear
I could talk at length about good gear to have with you, but I’ll offer just one piece of advice. A recorder and mic aren’t worth anything unless they’re with you when you hear these sounds. For me, portability is the most important factor that I balance against fidelity. It’s all very well having a multi-thousand dollar rig with multi-channel input and thousand dollar microphones, but it’s much more important for me to have a rig that I can keep with me in my bag at all times, that I can get running within sixty seconds or less to capture those rare moments when you come across sounds that might not be around for much longer. A more complex setup is certainly appropriate for detailed project specific field sessions, but for my own work, having a simple setup allows me to focus more of my energy and time on exploring the creative potential within these five considerations.
Hailing from England, Richard Gould studied sound and music in the United States at Berklee College of Music, focusing on audio for film and games. He has worked on numerous indie game and film titles in a number of capacities and loves to explore the ways in which music and sound can tell stories. Richard Co-Founded the Berklee Sound Design Network and Hexany Audio, an audio post-production company.