An Introduction to Gathering Sound Effects


A few months ago I received a revelation while writing here.

In response to a reader’s email, I wrote an article called An Introduction to Sound Effects Mastering.

In that post I outlined the stages of mastering sound clips, and shared my own experience polishing sound effects. I broke the tasks down, then unraveled them. I was forced to consider my workflow, step-by-step. I reflected on the effect each stage of mastering has upon the value of a sound effect.

That post made me realize an important idea: it’s incredibly helpful to return to the roots of your craft. It’s vital to reserve a place for your roots in your thoughts. After all, it’s easy to abandon them while we become dazzled by other aspects of work. Writing the article pulled me away from software versions, headphone models, and plug-in upgrades. It forced me to reflect on the way I work, and what mastering is about, at its core.

I’d like to continue that idea today.

So, in this post, I will describe exactly what happens when a field recordist strikes out into the world. What do they do? What sound do they capture? How do they do this? What happens while field recording?

My new e-Book Field Recording: from Research to Wrap, grew from that original post. I explore those field recording concepts in depth in that book. However, I felt that the ideas may interest blog readers too, so I wanted to share an abridged version here, as well. If you want to go deeper, check out the e-Book.

What is Field Recording?

What do we mean when we talk about field recording? Is it simply recording any sound?

It is more sophisticated than that. After all, there are dozens of professions with respectable audio recording traditions.

Field recording, however, is specialized. How?

Field recording involves:

  • Recording sound effects: specifics and atmospheres. Not music.
  • Recording outside of a studio. So, it doesn’t include Foley or sound design, per se.
  • Collecting and cataloguing a range of voices from a person, prop, place, or event.
  • Representing the subject well by recording the sound effects clean, or isolated from other problem sounds.

The Variety of Field Recording

Field recordists pursue the sounds of machines, animals, people, places, and events. Is it even possible to outline a craft with so much diversity?

It’s true that it can be practiced in many ways. You may call yourself a studio, investigative, stealth, or guerrilla field recordist, or none of them. You may record specific sound effects, or atmospheres, or a mix. Perhaps you’ve decided to focus only on birds of the American southwest. You may choose not to limit what sounds you gather.

There are, however, common steps field recordists encounter as they begin a mission, shoot, or session.

Let’s see what they are.

What do I do? Well, I try a bit of everything. However, my favourite is to record atmospheres as I travel, usually with stealth recording. So, I’ll explain each stage of field recording by also sharing how I do this.

Stages of Field Recording

  1. Research

  2. Field recording begins with research.

    Wait. Isn’t it possible just to throw gear in a bag, dash out the door, and begin recording?

    Yes, that’s true. You’re certainly able to wander and record sound, and it’s often fun to do this.

    Research, however, fortifies recordings. How?

    Field recordists record sounds from desk drawers to dragsters. It’s just not possible to have deep knowledge of every sound you will pursue. Are all drag races the same? They’re not. There are dozens of classes of races, and each sounds differently. Research discovers what makes your sound special.

    Research is helpful when slating. It provides detail for each take. It’s also invaluable when mastering. Additional details distinguish your mastered sounds. You’ll avoid naming your files “bird 1,” and “bird 2,” and instead give your libraries distinction and confidence.

    But, most importantly, research helps achieve that elusive goal of field recording: expressiveness. Research discovers hidden nuances about your subject that you will evoke when you record.

    I research every new city or country I record. I read about its history. I memorize a bit of the language. I learn where the locals spend time. I search for expressive places: seasonal celebrations, weekly craft markets, and tiny nooks far from tourists. I talk to expatriates there, and stumble through language barriers to learn from locals. I use translation websites to read about the city from the native language. This all helps me track down unique, evocative atmospheres.

  3. Scouting

  4. When capturing audio beyond the studio, recordings are no longer isolated. They become saturated with sound. You may be hunting a simple creaky church door. You can expect traffic, pedestrians, and jets overhead to compete for your microphone’s attention.

    The best field recordings are clean. This means they must avoid other problem sounds overlapping your target. This is important for specific sound effects, and it also applies to atmospheres as well. Ambiences may contain many sounds, but they still must avoid audio that interrupts a sense of place.

    Scouting prepares you for problems that may ruin recordings.

    It takes place before the day of recording. A field recordist will patrol their chosen location at various times to see what problems they will encounter. How will this help?

    It discovers problem sounds like vent, traffic, or aircraft flight paths. It gauges how daily activity of people, birds, and insects affect recordings. More than once I’ve skipped scouting and arrived at a location to find doors locked, or roads washed out. Scout, learn geography, and avoid this. It also helps navigate security.

    Scouting helps choose the right equipment. Can you easily roll in road cases of gear to your location? Is a lighter kit better? Will one microphone be superior to another for your spot?

    And, critically, scouting informs perspective. Will a close recording be best? Will the environment allow more distance? Can you reveal an interesting ambience from another angle or height?

    I’ve found scouting essential when I record. Often I’m recording in entirely new places. I usually circle a foreign train station while watching for security, listening for vent or traffic noise, and watching the path people take. I learn the pattern of the arriving trains. Then I pick the best spot and begin recording.

    Read an earlier article on scouting.

  5. Before the Shoot
  6. Blueprint, courtesy WIll Scullin
    There’s a final step field recordists take before recording. They prepare before the shoot by deciding how to record and getting organized. Why?

    When a field recordist is working, they are plunged into a challenging environment. They’ll operate fickle, precise equipment. And, at the same time, they must remain inspired, and pull vivid, creative audio from a subject. That’s the worst time to be fiddling with a loose connector, or scavenging space from a Flash card. Prepare before the shoot.

    • Deciding How to Record
    • Begin with channel selection. How many channels are best? Is it better to record specifics in mono? Do you want endless channels to capture every perspective, or carefully select a few that precisely match your vision?

      Are you using matched mono microphones? You have many stereo recording techniques to choose from. Learn about them, and decide what’s best for the sound you’re capturing.

      Sampling rate and bit depth may seem obvious: higher is better. A deeper answer is more complex. Often bit rate is the most important consideration beyond CD-quality recordings. Higher sampling rates are helpful if you expect to process your recordings heavily.

      Recorders are encrusted with endless settings: limiters, high-pass filters, pre-roll, and auto record. Explore settings before the shoot, and set them to match your subject.

      These are decisions that are helpful to make before you begin recording. They’re often a matter of style, and may change depending on what a field recordist captures that day.

    • Getting Organized
    • One of the most difficult aspects of field recording is summoning vivid expression from a subject. You don’t need to be struggling with paperwork or spotty cabling when being creative. Get organized before the shoot.

      It’s helpful to outline the session. Are you capturing a dozen perspectives? Match each microphone to a recorder channel on a microphone placement diagram. List the takes you want, with all variations, in a shot list or script.

      Don’t wait for the day of the shoot to organize your gear. Set it up. Test equipment and prep gear. Double-check recorder menus, settings, and hard drive space. Power your batteries. Mimic the final layout of your shoot. Capture a test. Import the recordings into Pro Tools and listen to what you’ve captured.

    I always record my city ambiences at 96 kHz, 24-bit. I use a stereo shotgun microphone, the Neumann 191-i, because it captures a lush representation of space. I always leave limiters and filters off, but I find pre-roll helpful.

    I create elaborate Excel worksheets listing every location I visit in a new city. I link them to a Google map with a GPS locations of the places I want to explore. I check off every take on my iPhone as I go. This helps me keep track of where I can capture the best ambiences as I scurry across a new city or country.

  7. During the Shoot

  8. Field recording, at its heart, is a surprisingly fragile balancing act. Recordists must operate gear precisely to capture the dynamic, expressive sounds they pursue. And, while operating settings and switches, it is vital for them to remain inspired and creative.

    The Pre Shoot step prepares the first. During the Shoot balances the last.

    • Pre Shoot
    • The first step of a field recording shoot is to choose a location. Much of this is done earlier while scouting, but that’s a wider scope. I use something called narrow scouting on the actual day of the shoot to choose pin-point recording spots that are sonically neutral, without other problem sounds bleeding into a track, and away from any interfering public reaction.

      After a field recordist sets up gear, they isolate sound effects. This is vital. Overlapping problem sounds ruin recordings. Microphone choice and polar pattern help. To have the greatest effect, field recordists dampen traffic and birds, kill compressors and HVAC, and evade invisible RF and EM fields. I wrote about other suggestions in 5 Tricks to Record Better Atmospheres.

      Once ready, recordists test recordings and set levels. This is a delicate balance itself. Healthy settings are needed. They must have a high gain level that captures the full scope of audio, yet won’t peak with surprising leaps in sound. Capturing tests and playing it back confirms the levels.

    • During the Shoot
    • Until this point a field recording session has involved gear, choices, and the environment. During the shoot an important change happens. This is when a field recordist switches from thinking internally to externally. They must begin projecting outward and think about the sound, and how they will influence it.

      This begins with positioning. Is a crowd best recorded close, at a distance, or off-stage? Will recording a bucket truck near the crane, or the motor capture the most interesting sound? Positioning shapes the cast of the sound by circling it, or approaching it. This is the first way a field recordist contributes a distinct voice to a sound.

      Then, when the position is set, the field recordist gets to work. They have two goals. The first is to catalog expression. Since a recordist is unsure how the final, mastered file will be used, they must capture as many voices of their prop as possible. They may gather a market from its edge, then move deeper into the thick of a bustling crowd. They may capture a plane’s cabin, cockpit switches, as well as the jet departing or arriving on the runway.

      A recordist has immense power to influence performances. In fact, the very best recordings involve more than just mindlessly operating gear. Field recordists can make seemingly boring doors leap with life as they slam them angrily, open them warily, or swing them slowly with a creepy creak. Ambiences are no different. A recordist highlights the bickering of baboons to create a tense jungle atmosphere. They may capture the narrative of a parade as it swells from an expectant idle to an adoring cheer as a war hero passes.

      Of course, technical details do appear throughout the shoot. Slating identifies and frames each take in the recordist’s mind. And, with every sound, the recordist must continually check their work to watch for peaking levels, failing gear, as well as adapt to changes in their prop, performer, or environment.

      It’s a lot to do. It may require hours and many takes. But, when a field recordist leaves their session, they will have hundreds of vibrant sonic snapshots tucked away on their recorder’s hard drive.

    When I record atmospheres of cities and cultures, I try to find out not only the cool sounds that towns, forests, and celebrations make. I want to find out what the people there feel. I want to know what excites them, how they feel about living where they are, and what the love or hate about it. This becomes a treasure map to the most expressive sounds.

    It takes work, though. Haunting tourist traps doesn’t do the trick. It requires digging deeply, and thinking about the places and people who live there, not the gear I’m using, or my impressions of the culture.

    I then race to catalog every expression: different distances, times, and seasons. If the technical challenges cross with creative interpretation, I’ll have ensnared a recording that is more than a sound file. If I’m lucky, I’ll have imprinted a convincing portrait of a culture or event within the sound itself.

  9. After the Shoot
  10. Fireworks, courtesy bayasaa
    A field recordist’s job isn’t finished when they silence their prop and leave a location. There’s plenty to do afterwards.

    You may have just arrived home exhausted after a day of shooting. Before you open that beer, make sure you transfer files to your computer from your recorder immediately. Back up everything, then prep your gear so you record again at a moment’s notice.

Create Your Craft

Is this the only way to record sound effects? Do you have to follow these steps precisely? No, of course not.

These steps are not a checklist. After all, field recording, like all crafts, is not a mechanical pursuit. It’s influenced by your choice of the sounds you hunt, and how you capture them.

Some of this is a matter of taste. Your choices may differ. You may choose to blend some steps with others.

Draw from the ideas here to create your own craft.

Good luck!

Read More

Are you interested in reading more? You may enjoy reading my e-Book Field Recording: from Research to Wrap.

This post describes what happens during field recording. The e-Book goes deeper. It describes why the steps are important, and how you can do the same.

It expands these ideas. There’s over 55,000 words about field recording, avoiding sonic hazards, choosing equipment, and more.

Learn more about the e-Book.

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