Why Inspiration Vanishes and What You Can Do About It

2011/08/02

Why finding inspiration is difficult

Over the past fifteen years working in sound I’ve found that inspiration comes in waves.

For months I’ll record and create sound effects for my library at airbornesound.com every day. I’ve painstakingly mastered 19,000 of my own sound effects and over 15,000 sound clips for other libraries. I can be productive for long stretches of time.

Other times I can’t be bothered to power up a recorder or edit a single sample in Pro Tools for weeks.

Why is it difficult to maintain inspiration when field recording? I believe there are two reasons:

Lack of immediacy

By its nature, field recording is an elaborate craft. Capturing the best sound effects rarely happens spontaneously. This lack of immediacy is because of the time it takes to methodically assemble gear. You may have to wait for crew to arrive, or for the talent to get warmed up. It comes from cultivating the perfect environment, waiting hours until dawn to hear a rare bird call. Good sound effects are the product of patience, planning and preparation.

There can certainly be spontaneous moments within a recording session. But recording sound isn’t as immediate as, say, picking up a pen and a pad of paper and drawing. It takes time to get things going.

Field recording is a structured craft. Speed and recklessness can compromise recordings.

It’s challenging to find constant inspiration in a craft that, by its very nature, requires patience and structure.

How we think

It’s hard to stay inspired as a field recordist compared to other crafts.

Unlike arts such as painting, writing and sculpture, the tools that field recordists use are highly technical. We use complex equipment to record sound and computers to edit. Science tells us that using these tools requires the left hemisphere, or literal functions of the brain.

Creativity, on the other hand, uses the right hemisphere, or abstract functions of the brain.

The very manner in which we work is in direct conflict with our creativity.

How do we switch from the left brain to the right brain and create compelling and inspiring sound effects? How do we remain creative in a craft that punishes spontaneity?

What we can do about it

  1. Simplify the shoot
  2. Simplifying while field recording will bring you closer to creativity.

    Start with your workflow. Don’t over-think the recording session. Limit the amount of time spent making spreadsheets or maps in pre-production. The important thing is to be actually recording. Don’t get bogged down by planning.

    This also includes the shoot itself. Streamline your field recording sessions so you focus on the act of recording, not administration and shot lists. The goal is to be “in the moment.”

    Some planning and research is crucial. Avoid dwelling on the pre-production stage, however. This will impede progress and take you farther away from immediate inspiration. Get out there and record instead.

  3. Simplify the equipment
  4. The goal of creative field recording is to become as directly involved in the recording as possible. Immediacy will bring you closer to creativity. Complicated equipment interferes with this. It is important to minimize the filter of equipment to the sound recording. This means the recording will be more immediate. It will reduce the left brain chatter and let the creative right brain speak.

    I try as often as I can to simplify equipment during field recording.

    Complex shoots such as cars and guns require a lot of equipment and preparation. It’s especially hard to be spontaneous in these situations. It’s not reasonable to expect much random creativity in these highly controlled environments. That’s okay, though. Record the best you can with the tools you have.

    In all other aspects I aim for field recording minimalism. I keep my equipment minimal, manageable and intuitive. I keep it as portable as possible so I can take advantage of random inspiration and follow impulses.

    In other situations, this could mean you have your equipment set up as simply and intuitively as possible. You will know how to use your gear instinctively to the point that it is second nature. When you are familiar enough with your equipment in this way, you will find you are more easily receptive to inspiration.

  5. Fewer is better
  6. Field recording is fun. You may be tempted to bring your friends or girlfriend to a recording shoot. In my experience, involving fewer people in the shoot is always better. While extra helpers can sometimes solve problems or share ideas, “too many cooks in the kitchen” may actually slow you down.

    People unfamiliar with field recording may not realize how delicate and particular the craft is. You may spend most of your time coaching them or cleaning up their innocent mistakes.

    Bring the minimum amount of people you need. Any more risks over-complicating the shoot and consequently making field recording more technical and less creative.

  7. Be ready to grasp opportunities
  8. I keep a Sony D-50 recorder with me at all times. It’s small and portable. The recording quality is acceptable. It has helped me capture creative sound effects in unexpected situations.

    Having a simplified, mobile set up will allow you to respond to inspiration swiftly before distractions or obstructions interfere, or the idea slips away.

  9. Use tools designed to emphasize action, not knob twiddling
  10. The type of equipment you use matters. Better engineered equipment, software and operating systems will not completely remove the interference of left brain functions, but they will minimize it. You’ll spend less time in submenus and more time recording or editing cool sounds.

    I look for well-designed equipment. As I mentioned in a previous post, pro gear won’t guarantee excellent sound effects. However, better designed equipment removes barriers to creativity.

  11. Embrace challenges and insight
  12. Creativity may appear with flashes of insight. Often these can come from overcoming challenges in a new or insightful way. A commenter on this blog suggested challenge exercises: deliberately pursuing limitations, knowing that attempting to overcome them will stoke creativity.

    Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor had a stroke and temporarily lost the function of the left side of the brain. This TED Talk is a powerful description of the revelations and sensations experiencing only right brain thought.



Read about some tricks I use to spark creativity and inspire me to record new, fresh and compelling sound effects.

Share with us in the comments below how you stay creative in sound.





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4 responses to Why Inspiration Vanishes and What You Can Do About It

  1. Another excellent article!

    I don’t do much field recording unfortunately, but I certainly agree with your comments regarding work-flow and simplicity. As much as possible tools should be a transparent extension of our intentions, not a clumsy intermediary that actually ends-up distancing us from our goal. In many respects the modern DAW is so complex and powerful that it the wealth of provided options sometimes slows us down. I’ve spent many a long hour customising toolbars, menus and screensets in an attempt to streamline my workflow, luckily it’s had quite a significant affect and was definitely worth the time spent.

    Thanks for the mention in the last paragraph btw 🙂

    • Thanks very much, Nick! Glad you enjoyed the article.

      I agree with you. Streamlining is a valuable way of using complex technology to get us closer to our intentions. Sometimes I find time spent on some elaborate preparation can help make the actual act of creativity easier and more inspired.

      I use an application called QuicKeys that easily gathers a lot of technical steps into scripts that can be later activated by a few simple keystrokes (like macros). This technical prep leaves me more time to focus on being creative.

      Hats off once again to your earlier comments about challenging yourself.

  2. Thanks for an excellent article. All the points you make ring true with me.

    I think we all experience peaks and troughs of creativity – “writers block” happens, it’s best just to get used to it. It happens to me sometimes and I’ve learned to accept it. I’ve found that trying to work in a creative dip is often counterproductive – the more you try the less you achieve.

    I agree that you can make things easier for yourself. People often think that if you use the top-class equipment and gizmos the recordings will almost happen by magic … and if you get it wrong then you can always make up for it in an editing suit. For me, that completely defeats the object. My aim is to use the minimum of equipment (but the right equipment for each project), clearly understand what I’m trying to achieve and then get it right first time. With experience, it becomes second nature. I believe that good recordings are limited not by the equipment but by the imagination. The creative dip occurs when the imagination flags. The trick is to stimulate the imagination.

    • Some great comments here, Des.

      I agree with you that imagination is key. Without that, no amount of gear will bring life to your recordings, or creativity in general. I wrote a bit about why the gear doesn’t matter in an earlier post that matches your sentiments.

      I’ve had some luck “forcing through” writer’s block. I agree in principle about your idea that “the more you try, the less you achieve.” I definitely see merit in that approach. I wrote a bit about forcing writers block earlier. I’d be interested in knowing your thoughts about it.