Recording Evocative Sound Effects: Why Pro Gear Doesn’t Matter


Lycabettus Hill, Athens, Greece

There are a lot of excellent recorders, preamps and microphones on the market.

In the last two posts I’ve answered some reader requests for a list of gear I use. You can read about microphones and headphones here, and a recorder and preamp here.

While writing those posts, I kept thinking about the role of equipment in field recording meaningful and evocative sound effects.

Like many people in our field, I have some serious gear lust. I love getting my hands on new microphones and recorders, as well as computers, gadgets and all kinds of electronic equipment.

But after recording thousands of sound effects for, I now believe equipment is irrelevant.

Hollow Creations

I first started thinking about this years ago when I was dabbled in vintage photography. I had an early 80s-era manual camera, a Canon AE-1. Although a few of the features could be set to automatic, I shot with a fixed lens (no zoom) and fully manual settings. I liked the technical challenge. I shared on Flickr. Friends and I spent days shooting and talking about photos. It was a lot of fun.

Similar to sound recorders and microphones, it was great fun to augment my camera equipment with accessories, better lenses and different film. I’d prowl photography stores, read reviews of latest equipment and long for my own Leica camera.

Then one day while discussing photos with a friend I realized that photography had become empty. I was nowhere in the photographs I took: the reasons I wanted to shoot, why I photographed what I did, nothing.

The photos were technically sufficient. The framing was fine and the light was right. I lined up the dials and pressed the buttons correctly. However there was a problem. If I shared the photo there wasn’t anything in the image itself to indicate that I was the one that took it.

I realized that, given the same time and place, you could easily swap out one photographer for another and achieve roughly the same image.

It had the effect of making the photos hollow. They were fun to flip through but they didn’t particularly compel any feeling or thought, and therefore didn’t create a lasting impact.

An example is the photo at the beginning of this post that I took in Greece.

By contrast look at these photos by popular Flickr photograher Rosie Hardy.

She put her heart into every creation. The photos are technical achievements of course. I’d argue that the technical aspect has less of an impact than the subject matter and emotion she puts into her work. They’re creative and vary between playful, wistful and painful. I think about these photos from time to time, years after they’ve been published.

The Challenge for Field Recordists

Like a good book that pops into your mind years later, the challenge for field recordists is to capture sound effects that will resonate with listeners. We need to record sounds that compliment the films or games they are paired with to become something larger than the recording itself.

We want our sound effects to be evocative, compelling and to amaze listeners. If our recordings have these elements they will always be useful to us and to others.

Like the photographer I mentioned above, we also don’t want to be ‘swappable.’ An important question to consider: if another person set up the same microphone at the same place and time, would the recording be identical to yours? To make your sound effects different you have to invest yourself in the act.

This is why the challenge as field recordists is to put yourself into the recording. It’s not easy to do this. For some people it may be intimidating to broadcast your personality, desires and motivations so openly for an unknown audience. But it is exactly what ensures your recordings will be fresh, captivating and useful.

Why Field Recording Gear Doesn’t Matter

The point of this is that none of this is defined by equipment.

Anyone can save money and buy good gear. Gear becomes cheaper every year. It’s easier now to buy tools and begin recording.

Field recording wouldn’t be much of a creative field if the only qualification for aptitude was money.

This is why I think good sound effects are not defined by money invested or gear selected. I don’t think it is even defined by features on equipment.

Sound recording equipment are tools. Good tools may make the job easier, but they won’t dramatically improve the quality of your work.

This is why well-recorded common sound effects are not as valuable are rare sound effects that may be poorly recorded. A high-definition door slam is not as important as a mere CD-quality recording of a lion eviscerating an impala.

Why? It’s because the best, artistic creations do not come from the equipment. They come from you, the field recordist. It is your experience, perspective and emotion that make good recordings. The gear is just the medium. You are the creator.

We have to be careful not to let the equipment supersede the role of the recordist themselves. The equipment I described in the last two posts helps me get over some technical hurdles while stealth recording. That gear is more important in regard to saving time and capturing recordings easier. But good equipment isn’t the biggest factor when it comes to creativity.

Two cameras may capture a similar photo. The cameras may have different megapixel counts and lenses but these are not important. A good photographer will wait for or evoke a meaningful expression for a portrait. They will wait until light falls upon a landscape at just the right time, or change their angle to make a better picture.

Photographer Ansel Adams waited for hours to take the right photo. He and more modern photographers like Anton Corbijn are easily identified by the look of their photos. Much of this is done in post-processing, an artistic phase where they apply their personal touch. Their style has become synonymous with their names.

I use photography as a metaphor because an image is easy to call to mind. Field recording is no different though. Sound effect recordings require the same consideration as photos, just on a different plane.

What You Can Do

The best thing you can do is to get out there. If you are beginning, recording thoughtfully no matter what gear you use is an excellent step.

After all, better gear requires only cash, and they’re still printing money. What we do need more of is artistic sensibility. Think about what you want to record. Think about the best way to record it to remain faithful to the people there or the environment you are in.

It’s easy to press buttons. Investing yourself what you record is trickier but with thoughtfulness and authenticity you can do it.

It’s easy to get caught up in gear lust and spend thousands of dollars on equipment. I’ve done it myself. In the end I’d say that what gear you use isn’t as important as a solid recording sensibility. An experienced recordist can coax excellent recordings from DAT machines, Nagras or 30 year-old microphones.

Knowing what to record, and why you are recording it, I find is more important than the gear itself.

Another time I’ll describe what we can do as field recordists to invest ourselves into the sound effects we record.

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6 responses to Recording Evocative Sound Effects: Why Pro Gear Doesn’t Matter

  1. Nick Dymond 2011/04/21 at 07:47

    Great piece.

    I think the same applies to most creative mediums and it’s often difficult to remember what’s important in your work. I try to keep to the following priorities, which I think is reflected in your article (in order):

    1) subject (what and why)
    2) personality (why and how are you doing it different to other peoples interpretations)
    3) delivery (tools/production)

    However, when I’m short on inspiration I find myself defaulting to equipment, presuming that to be the deficit rather than realising that I’m just not being inventive enough with the tools I do have. I think the best work is most often a result of limitations, either intentional or circumstantial.

    • Thanks, Nick.

      That’s a great list. I like aspect of personality and interpretation you mention.

      And I think it’s interesting what you say about limitations. Limitations seem to bring out the best work from people as they rise to and overcome challenges. I would guess circumstantial challenges are more common so it is a good reminder to bring some intentional challenges into your work.

      Great advice!

  2. Nick Dymond 2011/04/21 at 10:13


    I’ve started keeping notes of ideas based around limitations so that when I’m short on inspiration I can pick one out and try it. They’re almost like little exercises: try to do x using only z and y. More often than not the results are not what I intended, but the process has meant I’ve learnt something new that I wouldn’t otherwise have stumbled upon. I guess in a way it’s like piano exercises, where you’re pushing your fingers to extremities and then from there, during practical situations, you can bring it back a bit from there.

    • Deliberately pushing your limits like you say takes a lot of focus and dedication. I would agree that the creative results would be just as intense. Cool idea, Nick.

  3. Hi Paul,

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading this post!