Making Field Recordings
Updated: Jun 10, 2020
As primary audio material for a spatial audio piece I am working on, I intend to use field recordings. At the moment, I am finding it more inspiring to work with recordings rather than synthesizers. With field recordings, the creative sound design process is very organic and starts already when choosing what to record. At best, the recordings are already sounding quite interesting in their raw form. Filter out some unwanted frequencies, change the speed of the sound and you might already arrive at some quite complex and satisfying sounds with minimal processing. Then there are of course countless ways of processing the recordings, but personally I like to adopt a quite minimal approach here in order to preserve the original audio quality. One can hardly write about field recordings without mentioning Musique concrète and French composer Pierre Schaeffer who laid the foundation for this way or working as a compositional practice in the early 1940s. Back then, artists would record sounds onto tape and then manipulate the tape by changing speed, chopping and reassembling tape, making tape loops etc. Today, of course, editing is way easier.
Let's get to it. What kind of gear do we need? Depending on budget, experience and purpose, the equipment may differ substantially. For those starting out and on a slim budget, there are many devices with built in mics to choose from. Most portable field recorders have two little condenser microphones and record in stereo, which for most purposes in my own music is preferred over recording sounds in mono. I am using a Tascam DR-22WL recorder which is a compact and fairly affordable (~140 EUR) device that has served me well for some years. I originally bought it to record my DJ sets (it has a mic/line-in for recording from an external audio source). One important parameter when choosing between recording devices is the self-noise level from its pre-amps. Needless to say, the lower the better.
The cardioid condenser mics are most commonly mounted in a so called XY position (also known as a coincident pair) in order to optimize stereo imaging (not too extreme) and phase alignment. In addition, I am using a wind muff when recording outside as well as a small tripod which serves both as a handle and a stand. The tripod is very useful for microphone placement, which is a crucial part of recording. It is a good idea to try different mic placements; different perspectives bring out different qualities. The obvious placement, if there is one, does not necessarily yield the most satisfying results. Also, using closed back headphones (I am using a pair of Sennheiser HD 25) while recording is highly recommended, in order to monitor the quality and characteristics of what is being recorded in real time. Adjusting the input volume in order to get as strong of a signal as possible but with enough headroom to not be clipping, is also important. I usually aim for around -15 dB. Also, and perhaps needless to say, make sure you have ample free space on your SD card, or bring a spare card, and bring an extra set of batteries / power bank.
Making some field recordings around Funkhaus Berlin in February 2020.
In terms of what types of sounds to record, only your own imagination sets the limits. Try different materials and environments; hits, scrapes, pours.. nature, urban and industrial environments; ambiance, noise and clean recordings on a primary recording target. Personally, although a bit more challenging, I like to capture the decay of sounds as well as the reverb and echo of spaces, as these can be used to create lush ambient textures and pads. These recordings can also be used for your convolution reverb device.
To further broaden the pallet of sounds, different microphones can be connected to the field recorder's mic input, such as a contact microphone or an electromagnetic pick-up coil, both of which are favorites in my own recording tool kit. And whenever possible, recording multiple of each sound is a good idea in order to get some natural variation and to be able to pick the best one(s) later. It is also a good tip to state at the beginning of each recording exactly what you are recording, as you may not recognize or remember this later. And keep it to one sound per clip. These practical measures will make the naming and sorting process much easier later on. Find more useful tips on structuring and naming samples here.
It has been said that the best microphone is the one you always carry with you. If you are a sound enthusiast like me you will often hear interesting sounds wherever you are, and often when you are not specifically on a mission to record sounds. Always bringing your field recorder with you is great if possible. For those times when you do not have it available, using your smartphone to record sounds can be a good alternative. Over the last years, I have recorded a vast amount of sounds with my phone in decent quality. On the iPhone, a tip here is to go into your voice memo settings and change from compressed to lossless audio quality.
For the spatial audio piece I am working on, I am looking for a variety of sound characteristics; droney sounds, rich textures, rythmical patterns and hits. The end goal (at the moment at least) is to make a hypnotic piece with repeating yet evolving rhythmical content embedded in a deep soundscape.
Once I feel satisfied with my collection of field recordings, the next phase of the process is to listen, name and sort them in a folder structure which makes sense. I view this is an ongoing, layered process. First, I prefer to save and sort the raw recordings without any trimming or processing in order to keep all accidentally recorded sounds and unexpected artifacts. Gradually, however, I see myself carving out specific sounds and refining my library.
I will likely create a separate folder structure for trimmed and processed sounds that will serve as my personal sample library; sounds which are ready to be loaded into a sampler, ready to be played with. For processing field recordings in your DAW, the mainly useful plugins will be your EQs and plugins with de-noising capabilities such as Izotope RX. Other spectral processing plugins or applications may be useful as well, not only to correct sounds but also as a way to carve creatively in the frequency spectrum in a more detailed and visual way than an EQ.
Funkhaus in Berlin offers many different spaces and materials to record, often with satisfying echoes and reverbs
In this video, you will hear some of the recordings made at Funkhaus, minimally processed. If you wish to download the 20 minute sample as a 32-bit wav file, just click here. The spatial audio piece for headphones I am working on will mainly use sounds from this file.
I hope this post provided some useful tips or served as inspiration to get out in the field and record your own unique sounds.
Other blog posts on this topic you may find interesting, and which have also served as inspiration for this post include 'Recording Foley for Beginners on a Budget' by João Janz and the Creative Field Recording blog by Paul Virostek.