6 Ways to Learn Field Recording Skills – Part 1: Schools


Gear Stack
How can you learn field recording? How do you shape solid technique, sensibility, and creativity? How can you discover how to record sound effects beyond the studio?

These were the questions I asked myself as I sat down to write what became “Why a Book About Field Recording,” in my new eBook, Field Recording: from Research to Wrap. (The chapter is included in the free sample, the download link is near the book image).

I knew that the answer wasn’t a simple one. I mentioned in an earlier post that field recording begins as an incidental craft. It lacks apprenticeship programs that directors, or even welders, have.

What about school? Were there courses or programs to learn sound effects recording, theory, or design? And what about workshops? Is it possible to learn skills while recording in the wild?

To answer these questions, I reached out to the field recording community on Twitter. I received many helpful suggestions (thank you to Varun, Shaun, Andy, Jack, and Rick). I also searched the Web.

I found that there are indeed many courses worldwide. I wrote to the heads of these schools and workshops.

I was fortunate to speak with six sound pros, each with deep experience. They graciously shared their time to answer questions about who they are, what courses they offer, and what advice they can give to people new to sound.

They are:

  • Shane Rees, Head of Sound Design for Visual Media of Vancouver Film School.
  • Dr. Iain McGregor, lecturer of Interactive Media Design at Edinburgh Napier University.
  • Stephen Barden, M.A., M.P.S.E., Professor of Advanced Television and Film at Sheridan College.
  • Scott Aitken, lecturer at the Art Institute of Vancouver, and Capilano University.
  • Piers Warren, author, film-maker, and Principal of Wildeye – The International School of Wildlife film-making.
  • Martyn Stewart, audio/naturalist specializing in location and field recordings, who runs the Nature Recording Workshop via naturesound.org.

As you can see, that’s a list of some fantastically talented people.

So, today I’ll begin a three-part series. In part one I’ll begin exploring studying sound in school and universities with answers from Shane Rees, and Iain McGregor. Next week I’ll continue with Stephen Barden and Scott Aitken’s thoughts. In the final week, we’ll learn how field recording can be practiced outside the classroom during weekend-long workshops. Piers Warren and Martyn Stewart will share their ideas about recording wildlife sounds.

I’m excited to share this series for two reasons. First, these are pros that as a bonus also teach sound recording. They have a lot of expertise to offer. Also, they each come from incredibly diverse backgrounds. They include a re-recording mixer, a sound supervisor, a professor with live sound and theatre sound expertise, a wildlife recordist, a production sound mixer, and finally a film-maker and author.

The perspectives they share are fascinating, especially in comparison with each other. This is also a testament to the breadth of ways people interested in sound can express their passion. There are some real gems in their advice.

Thanks once again to each of them for contributing their time and knowledge to those of us curious about sound.

VFS Logo

Shane Rees

Shane Rees is Head of Sound Design for Visual Media at Vancouver Film School.

Shane ReesI lived in Vancouver for years, and had visited VFS a few times. I had met instructors and students, and was curious about how sound effects recording fit into the program. I approached Shane Rees to learn more.

Read Shane Rees’ bio.

Paul Virostek: Can you give an overview of the program? What are highlights for sound designers/fx creators?

Shane Rees: The Sound Design for Visual Media program at VFS is a one-year intensive school. As the title suggests, we focus on doing “sound” for visual media. And in this case, the two main thrusts (visual media) are sound for Film/TV and Video Games.

The program starts with the basics, and through six terms (about two months a piece), culminates in our students being able to create the sound for a short visual piece, which is usually used as a showcase piece for their portfolio. We have many different courses that cover a lot of stuff, which includes recording, editing, mixing and game audio-specific skill sets.

What probably makes our course different than many other programs that teach audio skills, is that our focus is 100% on the “sounds” and not music. Our entire year is spent training people on all the other sounds that go into a soundtrack, and no real time is spent on music. We do have music in the program, however that music is created and mixed, and then delivered to us to integrate into our finished pieces.

We spend the whole year in the Pro Tools environment, so our students are very well trained in Pro Tools. They do, however, also learn other tools which include Native Instruments Kontakt, Wwise, FMOD, Kyma to list a few.

PV: What courses of Sound Design for Visual Media teach skills for field recordists and sound designers?

SR: We have some very specific courses that teach portable recording. The first is more introductory, and we provide each student with their own small portable recorder that is theirs to keep when they’ve finished the program.

We have a second course that the students then move onto, which is when the students get the better equipment (Sound Devices 702 & TASCAM HD-P2), and better microphones (Rode NTG-3, Sennheiser 416 &KMR 81). We also teach a course on on-set mixing, which although it’s not sound effects recording, has important stuff to teach regarding capturing audio using portable equipment. We also do a lot of recording in the studio. And further to that, we do three courses on Foley, with the third course being taught by a professional Foley artist.

Tascam HD-P2

Other courses we teach are Post Audio Editing, Sound Designing, Post Audio Recording and Post Audio Mixing. All of these are meant to have introductory courses that then get built upon in the subsequent courses.

PV: What equipment can students expect to use at VFS for field recording, sound design, and editing?

SR: I mentioned some of our portable recording equipment in the last question, but further to that, we run Pro Tools on every station (Mac-based computers), and depending on what room you’re using the I/O can be different. We have mBoxes, 003 systems and 8 HD3 systems (with a 9th HD1 system used as a re-recording dubber in our mix stage). Our smaller rooms all have Control 24 surfaces (one room still has a Pro-Control) and our main mixing stage has a dual operator ICON Control-D ES control surface.

ICON Control-D ES

We also have some gear in a room called our “Sound Lab” which is stuff that we’re not going to buy a lot of. So that room has the Kyma with a Pacarana unit, a Doepfer analog synthesizer and some samplers.

Finally, we have many mics, and other equipment that our students can sign out, as well as plug-ins like Waves and GRM Tools.

PV: Any advice you can share for people new and curious about sound effects recording and sound design?

SR: Well, honestly, I’d say don’t limit yourself. Our school ensures that all students go through the same curriculum regardless of their specific interest. This is important because so many of these disciplines overlap, and some people come to schools like ours and say they “only want to do video game sound” or some such thing. We make them take all the courses and inevitably something from a course that they didn’t think would interest them will help them when they’re working in the subject or field they’re most interested in.

I’d also say if you want to go to school do your research. Many people come to our school after having taken a program at a university or another type of school. They come to our school because we have a very “hands-on” and practical approach. We try to ensure the skills we’re passing on are practical and not philosophical. And other schools will say they teach the same stuff we do, but it will consist of a week or two in their whole year. When in fact their main focus is usually band/music recording. We are the complete opposite of that, very little music with the concentration on the rest of the sound track.

PV: Your thoughts on the role of fresh, original sound effects/field recordings from the perspective of a mixer?

SR: Originality is what you want. Too many people are using the same sounds from the same effects CDs. There are certain door creaks and certain birds that should be banned now. They’re used all the time. From the first term, we try to enshrine the idea of original sounds in or students so that not only are their finished pieces original-sounding, but they also have some originals in their sound library.

Edinburgh Napier

Dr. Iain McGregor

I am a big fan of socialsounddesign.com. I had admired Dr. McGregor’s responses to posts there. I discovered that he is a lecturer of Interactive Media Design at Edinburgh Napier University. I asked him about his work, and his thoughts on learning sound.

About Dr. McGregor

Dr. McGregor shared his background in his own words:

Dr. Iain McGregor: After I left school, I became a live sound engineer and moved into sound design for theatre. I was extremely lucky, and worked on projects involving the Bolshoi Opera, Ravi Shankar, Nina Simone amongst others, as well as UK theatre companies. About the same time I was offered a part-time job teaching Music Technology to secondary school students. I enjoyed the teaching and decided to study for a degree, which led to a masters and a PhD, I also started teaching in further and eventually higher education.

As part of my work I conduct research into listeners’ experiences of sound designs, and have published in this area. At present my school is considering offering an online masters degree in Sound Design which would be taught remotely by myself and professionals from around the world, but that is still in the planning stages.

Paul Virostek: What are highlights of the Interactive Media Design program for people who have an affinity toward sound design/sfx creation?

IMcG: Sound is taught on three different degrees, Interactive Media Design, Digital Media and Creative Computing. Students can study three modules in sound: theory, production and design. They can also specialize in sound for their honours project, as well as create sound-based projects for some of their other modules (group project, creative computing, independent studies and digital storytelling).

Students start by studying the principles of sound, recording, editing, mixing and mastering, and then progress on to production techniques for different industries (studio music, live music, theatre, radio, film, television, games, interactive applications), and finish with design principles. During the three modules, students will create a ten minute radio drama, re-design the sound for a five minute section of a film, and create a three minute show reel for either film of game sound design.

PV: What equipment can students expect to use in the courses? Do you focus particular microphones, software, recorders, etc?

Røde NT1-aIMcG: Equipment is very simple, we use Pro Tools with a variety of interfaces. For mics we use Shure SM58s and Rode NT-1As, as well as some Audio Technica shotguns. For recorders we just use Zoom H2s and Marantz PM660/661s. Most of the advanced students have access to their own equipment.

PV: You teach Foley and Sound Effects. What students can expect to record, and how they will use these recordings in projects, etc? Is field recording involved?

IMcG: For the sound production module, students create their own Foley tracks, as well as make location recordings. Location recordings have included empty ice rink stadia, as well as factories and concert halls. There has also been a lot of vehicle work, and different types of machinery. The location recordings have been used for room tones as well as ambience and spot effects.

PV: The Sound Design course includes fascinating techniques such as emotions, transitions, presence and soundscapes. What can students expect to learn there?

IMcG: On the sound design course students consider the listener first, hence the soundscapes which represent the individual’s listening experience of their acoustic environment. Students analyse visuals and create sounds to either enhance or contradict the narrative.

Sampling and synthesis is combined with vocalisations, Foley and field recordings to create sounds that will guide or distract the listener. We break sounds down into categories such as type, material, interaction, timing, pitch, content, aesthetics and clarity so that all of the sounds have a purpose and they combine to form a cohesive or disjointed whole as necessary.

PV: Can you share any general advice for people new and curious about sound design and recording?

IMcG: If you are curious about Sound Design, then the best thing that you can do is just do it. Get hold of a portable recorder and a DAW and start building soundscapes. There is so much bad sound out there on YouTube, that it is easy to improve others’s work. Once you have a showreel, then start working on projects. If you are any good, you will start to be noticed. The pay will be terrible at first, but it will improve.

Don’t waste your time and money on gear. Try and use the minimum possible, and concentrate on getting the best sound. As you get better, you will get access to really nice kit. Don’t waste your time in a boring job just to pay for kit. If you get offered a job hire the kit, you will have access to better gear, and it should all work perfectly.

Thank you to Shane Rees and Dr. Iain McGregor for their answers and thoughts.

Next week I’ll continue exploring learning sound in schools. I’ll share thoughts from Professor Stephen Barden, and lecturer Scott Aitken.

Do you have any experience with learning sound in a classroom? Share your ideas or reactions in the comments below.

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