A Playbook for Capturing Tricky Sound Effects



Portable recorder? Check. Headphones and windscreen? Check, check. Some cool sound effects waiting for you to record them? You’ve got that, too.

Have you been recording sound effects for a while? Are you confident with your technique and your gear? Captured all the easily-accessible foundation sound effects nearby?

Eventually a field recordist needs more. How, though, can a recordist switch from capturing the essential bird chirps and car doors around them, and record complex subjects like boats, animals, and cars? Do you need certain gear? Which skills, and why?

I’ll answer these questions in today’s post. I’ll share an attack plan for recording complex sound effects and field recording sessions.

Tomorrow I’ll post how I used these ideas in a session I recorded this summer: recording Honda Indy race cars.

What Are Complex Sound Effects?

Are we talking about advanced recordings?

I hesitate to use the word “advanced.” That suggests a skill ceiling, and I think with enough time any recordist can capture challenging sounds. Instead, I consider what makes sound effects tricky in terms of themselves, not the recordist attempting them.

Not all subjects are equal (in terms of difficulty and value, anyway). What makes a sound effect complex?

  • It has many voices. Even the simplest Ford Taurus has hundreds of sounds: interior, exterior, dashboard movements, and multiple distances.
  • The sound effect’s expression is intricate. Engines rarely have a single tone. They may wheeze or roar, and change timbre at higher RPMs. Animals and people are trickier still. Their voices are endlessly nuanced.
  • It’s hard to control. Animals are tough to record. They never stay still. Other subjects are beyond your influence altogether. I recorded some howitzers this summer during a public celebration. For some reason, the Royal Canadian Artillery’s 7th Regiment weren’t interested in changing their plans for me.
  • It’s hard to evoke voices from a subject. Even when you can control difficult subjects, they may not always act as expected. Dogs, for example, rarely respond on command, or make the sounds we want.

Note: these qualities are also a good checklist to discover a sound effect’s value.

Gears, courtesy William Warby small

Why Record Complex Sound Effects?

So, if the effects are so difficult, why bother with them?

Field recordists commonly find themselves moving from foundation sound effects to more complex ones in three situations.

Perhaps for the past two years you’ve packed your H4n every time you’ve left the house. You’ve pulled it out in the metro, in stores, and at family reunions. Maybe you’ve recorded every clip from your home, cottage, and from your friends’s homes, too. Your skill and experience has grown along with your sound library. Now, however, you’ve run out of subjects. You’re looking for something new.

Maybe it’s because you’ve heard of gun sound effect field recording sessions and would like to try it yourself. You want the challenge of recording a tricky sound effect. Maybe it’s simpler still: your sound supervisor demands a doberman growl and you must deliver. It’s a task you need to accomplish.

It’s time for you to attempt recording complex sound effects. But how?

The Transition from Standard to Complex Sound Clips

I hear about many field recordists who plan a gun recording session minutes after unwrapping their first audio recorder. That enthusiasm is terrific. The love of recording and the pursuit of novel sound is what gives the craft of field recording the energy and excitement it’s known for.

However, recording complex sound effects at the wrong time is risky. It can undermine your work. How?

Record complex subjects too quickly and you’ll find yourself in over your head. Is your first recording a decommissioned battleship? Great find. That’s certainly challenging. But the truth is that if it’s your first session, you’ll likely have more misses than hits. It’s understandable. After all, you may not have enough experience with technique, or the equipment itself. The result? Weak recordings that you can’t use. That’s disappointing. Spending a day attempting Panzer tank recordings and returning with only a handful of consolation sounds is discouraging.

So, slower, then? Maybe we should record foundation sound effects for five years before trying car recordings? That’s not right either. Attempting complex sounds too slowly and you’ll become bored, and your productivity will dribble away.

We want to avoid either of these. Believe me, I speak from experience. I’ve botched sessions both ways. The most important thing for field recordists is to record as often as they can. So, I’m not saying you should never attempt tricky sounds. It’s important that you do. That pushes your boundaries, and helps you grow. The distinction is how you do it.

Okay, so not too fast, but not too slow. What’s the best speed? Is there a proper pace?

No. Instead, there’s a trick that can help you transition from recording your first sound effects to the challenging ones.

Thinking About Field Recording Differently

So, what’s the first step? There are a few misleading ideas that I want to get out of the way first.

  • Equipment. Is getting better gear the solution? It can be, but this doesn’t have the greatest influence on capturing complex sounds well. Getting better equipment is as simple as showing up at your nearest rental store. It’s not a particularly limiting factor in recording difficult sounds.
  • Helpers. Can other recordists help you capture complex sound? Sure. It’s really a matter of logistics, though. Adding assistants can help a shoot go smoother, but it won’t really address our primary concern: getting the best expression from a sound effect.

Why aren’t those things important? Well, they make complex shoots easier but not necessarily better. Because of this, they have a minimal effect on expressive field recordings.

Instead, the solution involves something far less expensive and time consuming: you merely need to approach field recording in a new way. How?

Previously you may have been thinking about field recording in its most basic form: just recording sounds. We all turn on our recorders, work the prop, and commit the audio to tape. That’s natural.

However, you can begin capturing complex sound effects easily by inserting two steps first:

  1. Analysis.
  2. Articulation.
  3. Recording.

You can use these during basic recording, of course. However, those first two steps are especially helpful in understanding, breaking down, and capturing challenging sound clips.

I’ll explain each of them, why they’re essential to capturing tricky clips, and how you can work them into your field recording sessions.

  1. Analysis
  2. 2013 09 25 Magnifying Glass, courtesy nathanmac87 slice

    What it is: Analysis studies your target before you head out into the field. It teaches you about the subject and its environment so you can capture better clips more wisely. It means hassle-free shoots that ensure you record precisely what you planned.

    Why bother? I know. Who wants to sit at a desk researching when you’re eager to dash out the door and capture audio? Analysis. Even the word itself feels clinical.

    The truth is that recording complex sounds before an analysis step undermines them. Field recording complex tracks starts before you punch in. It begins not with microphones and recorders, but in a chair. It’s the first step to capturing complex clips well.

    • It helps you understand complex sounds.
    • You learn differences between similar sounds.
    • You discover recording hazards.
    • You find recording opportunities among and around those hazards.


    How you do it: Analysis is pretty simple, really. It involves the first two steps of field recording I described in my book Field Recording: From Research to Wrap: research and scouting.

    First, research the subject, its environment, and problem sounds there. Your job is to learn everything about your complex subject. Talk to pros, talent, and scour the Internet.

    I’m a fan of car racing, but I don’t follow it closely. I’m not an expert on cars. So, when I decided to record the Honda Indy earlier this summer, I knew I had to learn. That would ensure that the recordings would do justice to the cars, and I would be able to get the job done in a challenging environment.

    My research for the Indy shoot began on their corporate website. I found the race schedule there. That told me which cars were racing, and when. I researched the history and tech specs of each car. That gave me an idea what would affect the sound of each of the five race car types: top speed, RPM, how the race typically progressed, and more. I also researched motor racing generally. I learned to spot changes on the track, such as what the safety flags mean, what a parade lap was, and which races featured a rolling start. I learned about the environment and the track. Slowly the complex car recordings were becoming more understandable, and approachable.

    The next step was scouting the location. In the best cases scouting simply confirms what you’ve learned about the environment from your research. I call this type of scouting broad scouting. There are other reasons to scout, though, including narrow scouting. That examines your location down to the pavement you’re standing on.

    Broad scouting told me an airport was near the race. Narrow scouting helped me find a spot on the track itself, tucked away from PA and crowd.

  3. Articulation
  4. The List, courtesy sunshinecity

    What it is: While analysis told us about the subject and its environment, articulation affects recordings directly. If finds the voice of the sound effect. It discovers expression within the opportunities you revealed, and helps work around those hazards you discovered.

    Why bother? Complex shoots can be overwhelming. There is a lot of material, and endless choices. How do you ensure every clip is captured? This is one of the biggest hurdles to capturing complex sounds: they’re often elaborate, and it’s an overwhelming task for a beginner to discover how to unpack a difficult sound and record everything you need.

    How do you begin recording a lemur? What do you capture? Does it make different sounds in certain moods, at different times of the day, or among males or females?

    I faced the same problem at the race. There were dozens of races during three days on over two kilometres of track. Scouting told me only a tenth of the area was suitable for recording.

    So what does articulation do for you?

    • It helps you break down subjects into their individual sound effects.
    • It creates a list of clips to capture. This ensures you don’t miss recording anything.
    • It helps you avoid repetition. The Indy was spread across three days. How could I record for that long and not record redundant sounds? After all, two of the same sound effect doesn’t help a sound library. Each sound effect must have its own personality to add value to a collection.
    • And, most importantly, it allows you to capture the full range of a subject’s expression.


    The result? It helps you pull complex sound effects back into your control.

    How you do it: Break down a subject into its smallest pieces. This helps you find a subject’s individual sound effects. You learned about it earlier. Then, once you know its smallest nuances, capture them all. I call this cataloging expression.

    Let’s think about our tank recording. The easiest way to approach it would be based on perspective: inside, outside, close, or far. You can go deeper: list the hatches, levers, and switches you need to capture, and what each of them does. You’ll need to capture the tank traveling at five mile-per-hour increments. Already we’ve simplified an intimidating tank recording into hundreds of smaller, easier parts.

    These will capture the what I call scientific takes. Other ideas include speed, energy, tone, frequency, transformation (e.g., fast to slow), movement, position, distance and perspective.

    Remember when you analyzed the target? Put this knowledge into play. You’ll find more even sounds within the subject’s history, its manufacturer, engine type, and more. These are the sound effects that make your Panzer different from later versions, or modified models.

    Once you learn about a target’s personality you can do even more. You can influence performances. For every one of those takes above, provide five performances. How?

    I like to imagine the prop being used in a scene. So, let’s say I’m imagining that the tank is in battle. What performances would happen in battle? What sounds would it make? I’ll record panicked driving (it’s under attack), a vicious one (it’s attacking), and a sloppy or flustered one (perhaps a fire has erupted inside), in addition to the standard take.

    Take what you’ve learned about the prop, then add it through each of expression, environment, performance, and personality. I wrote about these particular four tricks in an earlier article.

    This is pretty easy with props you command or wave around yourself. These are active sessions. Maybe you’re not driving the tank? Perhaps it’s completely out of your control? Use the “4 Ps” to articulate character in passive sessions: pick up pattern, patience, position, and perspective.

    Not sure what a lemur sounds like? Forgot to analyze and research their vocals? It may be a missed opportunity. A valuable sound may be hidden from you. It’s understandable. You’re a field recordist. How can you be expected to know everything about lemurs? But once you do know and articulate the smallest variations of its voices, an impenetrable shoot begins to untangle. Once voices are discovered and articulated, they’re easily captured.

    There are endless voices within a subject waiting to be unlocked. There are dozens of ways to approach each of them. Articulate them to regain control in complex field recording sessions.

  5. Recording
  6. Record

    What’s next? You record the sound. If you have the first two steps covered, capturing it will be as easy as paint-by-numbers. I won’t go into that today. Is that strange? Not really.

    Yes, you’ll need precision and ability to capture the sounds well. However, by the point you’re attempting complex sounds we’ll assume you already know the basics: sound theory, equipment, and technique. Recording complex sounds is just a matter using this technique with increased care and consideration. It’s refining technique you already have.

    The most important thing is to pull the life out of your targets using analysis and articulation.

How to Capture Complex Sound Effects

Analyze what makes a sound effect unique. Find the sonic hazards in your location and limitations of your prop. Find recording opportunities around those limitations.

Detail why a prop is special with articulation. Articulating a subject helps complex sound effects become more understandable, and manageable. It breaks down mammoth, overwhelming shoots into smaller pieces. Once you known these pieces you can tackle them one by one, record them, and cross them off your list. Then, before you realize it, your complex recording will be complete.

Often field recording seems more difficult than it really is. When you explore a sound effect, consider it on a deep level, and break it down into its smallest parts, you will easily bridge the gap from basic recordings to complex sound effects.

And that invites another idea: no matter the gear your carry, or the length of your resume, you have the ability to record the most complex sound effects. Tweak your approach. Include analysis and articulation in addition to the good recording technique you already have.

You’ll find you’ll gather battleship and tank recordings with ease.

Next: how I used these ideas when recording at the Honda Indy.

Images courtesy of William Warby, nathanmac87, sunshinecity.

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