Scouting as an essential step when field recording sound effects, especially ambiences. I scout every location before I shoot. It may seem like a waste of time to visit an area first to scout and then return to shoot. I find that it in fact saves an immense amount of time.
What is scouting?
Scouting, also known as a ‘walkthrough’, means the field recordist patrols the location before actually committing to recording sound effects.
The purpose is to find how to best record the target sound effect. Since locations are often out of a field recordist’s control, knowledge of the environment and challenges will make the job easier. This means the recordist will capture better sound effects without interference.
Usually the field recordist walks through the location unencumbered. It’s best not to bring equipment at all so you can travel quickly and unobtrusively.
Why scouting is important
Scouting helps me:
- discover problem sounds – what you thought was a great location may be next to a highway or near an airport. There may be music or HVAC. Five minutes of scouting helps save time and plan for problem sounds. Because you are not dragging around a heavy bag of gear, you can scurry 200 meters further along and listen from another perspective.
If there’s no way to record the ambience without problematic sounds, that’s actually a victory; it’s better to cancel the shoot all together than to slave away mastering sub-par recordings.
- discover the level of activity – a more specific aspect of the point above. I divide this into three categories:
- machine – traffic, vents, whines, and so on. I didn’t scout London, England before I agreed to shoot ambiences there for a week. The problem? London’s four airports had jets flying into my recordings all day. So much for exterior ambiences.
- human – what level of crowd do you need? If you want to record an active post office crowd go at lunch when everyone is showing up on their breaks. Need a subway sound effect with no crowd? A scouting trip can tell you that crowds dip shortly after 7:34 PM.
- animal – unless you specifically want to record bird or insect sound effects, you need your atmospheres “clean.” What times do birds and insects start making noise in the area? Find out when they stop so you can choose the right time to record. Knowing the seasonal cycle of activity can also help.
- learn the geography of the location – what’s the best entrance into a location? Is that side door you planned to use locked? Is a road into a rural shoot closed off? Park closed after dusk?
- navigate any security or ‘attention’ issues – Field recordists must be inconspicuous.
Many interior locations have security waiting at the entrance. You may enter a location and find every person in the room looking at you. This becomes very uncomfortable. It’s not the right time to take out a microphone and start recording. Awareness of a field recordist either silences crowds or attracts too much attention.
Scouting ensures you will be discreet.
I scouted Vancouver General Hospital which allowed me to record this triage room hospital sound effect without any interference.
- choose the right equipment – will extra equipment look out of place and compromise a recording? Once you know how much attention to expect at a location you will know how obtrusive you can be with equipment.
- plan for perspective – many sound effects benefit from multiple takes at different perspectives. The timbre of the sound can change with angle, as well as the distance. Ensure you have your recording spots nailed down before you record. This will save you from running madly up stairs and around corners trying to find good alternate take locations.
I scouted this 12,000 tonne ferry and knew that there were about two dozen varieties of tones throughout the hold. I knew exactly where to record before I even boarded the ship. Here are some of the alternate perspectives from these ferry boat sound effects.
Keeping scouting in context
Field recording is an elaborate craft. It takes much time and organization to even begin recording. It can be incredibly frustrating to invest hours of time into planning, then travel to a location and find it is unusable. Scouting ahead of time will help you keep expectations in the right place.
Scouting is a field recordist’s version of preparation. It is as important to a shoot as packing extra batteries, testing cables and setting the right sample rate.
Scouting also has the effect of solving most technical issues before the shoot begins. This allows you to focus on more important concerns: being creative and open to inspiration.