Making use of the world around you
The world is, it must be said, a very noisy place. Try this simple experiment; close your eyes and try to pick out each of the individual sounds you can hear right now.
You might be sat at a desk and can pick up the whirr of your computer’s internal fan or disk drive. You might be reading on your phone at a bus stop, and can pick out the sounds of cars, people chattering or puddles splashing. The point is that sound is everywhere and, as musicians, that is great news because it opens up the world of field recording.
Field recording, if you’re not familiar with the term, refers to the practice of using recording equipment to capture sounds outside of the studio environment. These sounds can then be manipulated, processed, chopped up, sampled or any other number of things, ready for you to use in your recordings.
Artists like Brian Eno and Burial have employed field recording techniques in their work. Where others hear machinery, field recorders hear textures. Once you know the basics, you’ll see for yourself that the possibilities are endless. Let’s take a look at some of the basic principles.
Hearing vs listening
It seems a strange question but consider this: do you understand the difference between listening and hearing?
Hearing is very much the passive cousin of listening. We hear sounds around us all the time, but actively focusing on a particular sound – listening is a different skill. In field recording, you’ll need to fine-tune your listening skills. By doing this, you’ll begin to see opportunities for creating new sounds. The thud of a car door closing becomes a potential snare sample. Piling delay and reverb effects onto insect sounds can create wonderful soundscapes.
Sound is everywhere and by actively choosing to listen to it, understand it and become inspired by it you open up some amazing creative options.
Rugged Recording Equipment
A basic field recording setup can be something as simple as your smartphone, or something extremely elaborate. What is crucial though is for the equipment you use, whatever it might be, to be up to the job in hand.
It is simply not worth carting expensive rare condenser mics to a rainy field at 3am. Make sure the equipment you use is well built, able to withstand the occasional mishap and not likely to cause emotional distress if it gets dropped off the edge of a cliff.
Anyone into recording of any kind should count the classic Shure SM58 among their line-up. It just so happens to be one of the toughest bits of recording kit out there, and is great as a backup to your more specialist gear.
Travel Light, Be Practical
Another consideration is to keep your field recording rigs lightweight and easy enough to move at a moment’s notice.
It’s all very well setting up a phalanx of microphones on tripods, and using tonnes of outboard gear, but if the thing you’re trying to record moves (like wildlife, for example) then you have the faff of moving everything and setting up again.
A stalwart of the field recording world is small handheld recorders like the Zoom H1 and Zoom H6. These are lightweight, battery powered and – in the case of the H6 – can function as the hub of your setup due to its numerous available mic inputs.
A good, varied selection of microphones is key too. It pays to have different sizes, shapes and specialities. Smaller lapel microphones, like the Rode SmartLav+ are great for clipping to items and recording close-up sounds. Think of them in the same way a photographer would think of a macro lens.
On the other side, the SE Electronics SE5 condenser microphones are ideal for recording ambient sound. They come as a pair, connected to a joint mount, so can be pointed at alternate angles to each other. Sync both recordings up to get a superb, natural snapshot of a room or outdoor location.
Finally, invest in a decent set of headphones. The ones which came free with your smartphone simply won’t cut it. Ideal here are a set of rugged, on or over ear headphones with noise cancelling capability. The better you can hear what you’re recording, the better you can judge the session’s success, after all.
Leave Gear Alone
Every so often it pays to stop fiddling with the recording gear. Putting some distance between you and the microphones allows you to assess a situation better than if you’ve got one eye on your subject and another eye on your input gain levels. Get set up, test your gear and then consider moving somewhere else.
Wildlife recording also benefits from this approach as animals or birds may be curious of a lone microphone, but a bit scared of the giant human stood next to it. Give it, and them, some space and you could end up capturing something amazing.
Patterns All Around You
While every musician has a different process for writing music, a popular approach is to hum or tap out a tune and then work out how to transfer that pattern onto your instrument.
What if we told you nature has done some of the hard work for you? A creaking door may inadvertently inspire a melody line, or a dripping tap could provide the basis for a unique drum pattern. Don’t believe us? Check out a gate on London’s jubilee train line getting in on the act. Who said field recording couldn’t be fun.
Our final tip concerns accurately recording your recordings. By this we mean keeping up to date records of what you recorded, where, when, how, and with what equipment.
From an organisation point of view, you will be glad of this when you’re franticly searching for that sample of a tumble dryer for use in you next masterpiece. It also means you can begin to critically assess your equipment’s suitability for certain tasks.
Journalist, PR and multimedia specialist. Write professionally on subjects ranging from musical instruments to industrial technology.