How to Become a Field Recordist and Sell Your Library

2011/09/30

Amsterdam

I get many emails asking how to be a field recordist, or how to ‘make it.’ Many of them ask how to sell sound effects on line like I do on Airborne Sound, iTunes, Amazon and other websites.

At first I struggled to answer these questions. Because I didn’t follow a checklist, I found it tricky to write details.

Few seemed to like my detailed responses. I can guess why: there’s not a single quick solution.

What worked for me may not necessarily work for you. Feel free to share your own ideas in the comments below. That being said I have written a few tips that will set prospective field recordists on the right path.

Read

Read. A lot. Read books. Books have an advantage over blogs (including this one) in that the format has a sustained focus on single topic. You’ll get more depth from books than you would from 500-word web articles.

That’s not to say that you should avoid blogs. I’ve learned from web articles. However I would say that the majority of the insight I’ve gained has come from books I’ve spent hours or days digesting.

In a future post I’ll provide a reading list, both for blogs and physical books. To get started you can read my post about connecting to a sound community, there are some great blogs listed there.

Anything you could possibly want to know is on the Web or has been written in a book. Start digging and teach yourself.

None of the books I’ve read have had anything to do with sound. They’ve been about negotiating, marketing, search engine optimization and usability theory. In fact, I haven’t read a single sound-related book in my life. Although I have a deep respect the master recordists, mixers and sound editors and audio pioneers, I don’t read anything they write. Some may say that’s a critical error. I disagree. The reason has to do with the next tip.

Do

Reading will only take you so far. Put theory into practice. Get out there and record a full scope of sound effects from simple sound clips like door sound effects to more complex machine sfx and vehicle sounds. This will have a dual benefit:

  1. you’ll get things done and build your library
  2. the experience will be a constant teacher and help you improve your craft

I’ve learned the most of sound not from school (I went to University for writing) but from practicing sound and trying new things.

I personally find books and advice from the sound masters too abstract for me to gain anything from. I’m sure it would be different in a purely theoretical field. A field like sound effects recording is characterized ultimately by action.

To be clear: I’m not saying that books, blogs, sound school and the sound masters are wrong. They’re not. They provide essential theory, background and context.

I just don’t feel they will get you very far in your own personal pursuits. They may start you on your journey. However I feel that the teachings from your own explorations and experiences have a deeper and more lasting impact.

Forget about money

Field recording for TV wasn’t common when I was an assistant editor in Toronto back in the 90’s. I was lucky to work with a talented, motivated and positive sound editor, Rob Bertola, who often dragged us out of the edit suite to record fresh sound effects.

I enjoyed the experiece irrespective to making money from sound effects.

Record sound effects because you love it. The best recordists invest themselves into their recordings and make moving, evocative recordings without thinking of financial gain.

Is it wrong to record sound effects just to make money from them? No. However financial viability from a sound effects library is a long road. If your main motivation is making money you will be disappointed with a lack of immediate reward and you will lose your traction.

Record sound effects that are vivid and rare because you love the sounds you’re recording or you love using the gear. Your passion will translate into excellent sound effects. More gigs, digital downloads and cash will follow.

Baby steps

I know many people with great ideas about starting businesses. Almost all of them become paralyzed after the ‘idea stage.’ It’s understandable. How do you start a bakery? How do you start a business creating custom guitars?

If you start by focusing on the end result the task will seem so daunting that it will be hard to know where to begin. Keep the goal in mind, sure. It can be an inspiration. Just don’t get trapped by it.

If I had thought to myself: “I must have 18,000 sound effects in 25 web stores” the task would have been so huge that I wouldn’t know where to start.

How do you do it? Take small steps.

I started recording or editing my sound library one hour a day before I went into work. Before I knew it I had mastered my ‘legacy’ (DAT) library of 2,500 sound effects. Now I have 18,000 sound effects on airbornesound.com.

I suppose it’s possible to become a field recordist with a huge library in a short time. I personally found it easier to start Airborne Sound on the side while I worked for other companies and sometimes on unfulfilling gigs.

When I reflect on it, I have a hard time breaking down how I got to where I am. This is one reason I had difficulty responding to those emails. I simply bit off small chunks day by day. Again, if you want money right away this will seem like a frustrating method. Which leads us to the next tip.

Persistence

Success in anything takes time. As the saying goes, “if success was easy, everyone would be doing it.”

Finding motivation to get things done isn’t easy. I wrote more about how to find motivation in this post.

The main reason I’ve persisted is because I am enthralled with creating evocative effects. I love stealth recording new sound effects. I even enjoy the finicky craft of mastering.

When my persistence is weak, I use simple rewards to keep going: finish mastering a session of sound effects and I reward myself with sushi.

This article has some other tricks that can help you find motivation and remain creative.

Wow

Seth Godin and Steve Jobs, among others, talk about the ‘wow factor.’ To paraphrase this means that you should focus on creating things that stun and amaze yourself, and therefore others.

When Sound Dogs owner Rob Nokes and I would discuss how to master sound effects, he brought up a phrase that I often recall: “Does it add to the sound effect?” Does an aspect of what you’re cutting add character or value to the whole creation? As an extension of this, does the finished sound effect improve your library or just add quantity?

I am brutal when it comes to mastering my sound library. I rescan and reevaluate my sound library continually. Unless a sound effect is rare, I will purge even medium-quality recordings. If you do this, yes, it means that you will have fewer effects. You may even lose a day’s work or an entire field recording session. But you will have better sound effects that resonate with yourself and therefore your clients, projects and composite creations.

Only put forth your best work. Don’t waste time on mediocre recordings (except perhaps as a means to learn from them).

Spend time creating exceptional work.

Showcase only your best material.

There’s no easy answer

Upon re-reading this post, I realize that a lot of my advice has nothing to do with sound. It has more to do with perspective.

I don’t think there’s a silver bullet checklist of who to talk to, which website to sign up with or particular contract details to be aware of.

As I mentioned, what I found useful may not work for you. There’s no template that will work for everyone.

Do you have any ideas on how to succeed in sound? Write them in the comments below.





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2 responses to How to Become a Field Recordist and Sell Your Library

  1. Nice article.