5 Tricks to Record Better Atmospheres


Notre Dame After the Storm

There are two broad disciplines of field recording: specific sound sound effects and ambiences, also know as atmospheres.

Recording specific sound effect takes focus and technical skill. Capturing race car and fighter jet sound effects correctly is intense. You have one chance to get it right. Evoking characteristic sound from pug dogs or gunshots requires creativity and adaptability.

Atmospheres, however, call for a different approach. When you’re recording ambiences you must be patient and observant. You’ll find yourself more connected to what you’re recording. Commonly you’ll be mentally immersed in the environment and the action there.

Recording atmospheres isn’t as physically demanding as capturing specific sound effects. It’s more passive. That doesn’t mean it is easy. Capturing evocative ambiences takes skill. Because atmospheres are broader, encompassing sounds, there’s arguably higher potential for problem sounds to intrude on the recording.

Have you experienced these while recording or mastering atmospheres?

When recording:

  • can’t scrape together enough duration for a decent recording?
  • sounds always interfering with the purity of your recordings?

When mastering:

  • returned to your edit suite to hear problems you missed when recording?
  • finding that making edits midway interrupts the flow of the atmosphere?
  • can’t recall what made that odd noise at 2:14?
  • finding you’re making dozens of edits in a two-minute recording?

I’ve experienced them too.

Here are six tricks I use to get around them to record better atmospheres.

  1. Create a bubble
  2. Look about yourself when choosing your recording location. Listen closely. Imagine a sphere of two meters around you. Ensure that there is no incidental noise within this bubble: no rustling leaves, creaking chairs, blowing reeds or litter skittering around. Maybe there’s a trash bin bag fluttering occasionally. In this case I’m referring to subtle sounds. Obviously if there’s a groaning gate nearby you need to move further away. Often however these are surreptitious, unavoidable sounds that make noise only lightly and occasionally. Make sure they’re outside your bubble.

    Also ensure no principle sounds pass though this radius. This may include footsteps, doors and voices. It depends on what you’re recording. If you’re recording nature sounds you’d like rustling bushes outside the bubble. In the city you’d like speech beyond the two meters. Why would you do this?

    An ambience is meant to convey breadth. Sounds too close to the mic will distract from the sense of space. They’ll leap out from the consistency of the ambience. They’ll be jarring. A sound editor must remove them to make an atmosphere useful.

    I use a two meter bubble when recording city atmospheres. Use a wider bubble when recording nature. Adjust as needed. The aim is to create space around the microphone to maintain a consistent sense of depth.

    A bubble prevents specific sound effects from interfering with scope. Keeping them outside your bubble ensures they recede into the background.

  3. Soak in the atmosphere
  4. Wait two minutes before beginning to record. Listen. This will give you a feel for the atmosphere. This helps in two ways.

    You’ll notice how sounds develop over time. You’ll know what to expect. You’ll hear refrigerator compressors kicking in, HVAC winding up, the pattern of elevators arriving and departing in a bank lobby and so on. Recording an airy church atmosphere? Wait and watch how people wander through the location. It will allow you to predict how the atmosphere will develop.

    Soaking in the atmosphere also spots subtle details. Often when field recording ambiences our ears initially sense sounds immediately near us. Taking time to get a feel for the atmosphere will reveal nuances. After a moment you may sense a distant whine or construction just on the edge of hearing. You may pick up the slight waft of Musak that was not immediately apparent.

    Reposition to adapt to what you hear.

  5. Walk away
  6. Leave the microphone. If possible walk five to ten seconds away. Why?

    It is incredibly difficult to remain completely still for the duration of an atmosphere. Your microphone will capture every shift, shuffle or sniff you make. Sure, you can edit these. This becomes difficult in dynamic atmospheres, however.

    Perhaps your gear bag rustles on a car pass. You can edit the bag but you’ll take part of the pass with it. The result may deprive the pass of flow.

    It’s tricker with crowds. Removing your rustling nylon jacket may take a valuable part of a crowd’s conversation with it.

    Walk away from the microphone. At a minimum, walk outside your bubble. Then any slight movement you make will blend with the atmosphere.

  7. Give yourself time
  8. When I recorded the World Series for Sound Ideas, they required ten minute long atmospheres. Ten minutes can whip by when you’re busy. When you’re recording atmospheres this can feel like years. It’s a bit excessive to me. I can see their point, however.

    Atmospheres evolve. Longer recordings allow flexibility when mastering. Give yourself time.

    I personally aim for 3:30. I find this gives plenty of material to create a mastered atmosphere lasting 2:30 – 3:00 which is more than enough time to fill most scenes in television and movies.

    Record longer atmospheres if you feel extra time will help. Perhaps a crowd grows, adding voices that give the sound effect character or narrative. Weather can benefit from longer recordings. Long rain recordings are interesting. Storms approach, intensify and depart.

    Otherwise limit your atmospheres to smaller, manageable chunks. Then switch your position to capture another perspective of the same sound that contributes a different feel.

  9. Tail slate
  10. Recording atmospheres isn’t completely passive. It’s true you’re not operating equipment during long spans of time. However, you must listen and watch.

    Note when distracting sounds begin and end. Scan the crowd. Get a feel for its size so you can describe it later. Note the model of car that passed with a characteristic swerve. Does a particular breed of bird sing at thirty seconds then depart?

    Keep track of these things in your head. You may wish to silently jot notes in a smartphone. Slate them all at the end of the recording. This will help you when mastering later.

That’s it for this week.

Next week I’ll have a short series on how to take your sound effects to the next level.

To stay in touch, receive free updates by email newsletter or RSS feed.  |  Follow on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, or SoundCloud.