How to Slate Sound FX in the Field with GPS, Photos, and Notes


MyPlaces - 0 - Hero, Toronto Summer 2014 - 03

You’ve spent the day recording the sound of a lively farmer’s market. You return to the studio and open dozens of sound effects in Pro Tools. As you begin mastering the field recordings, confusion creeps over you. Was that 14th sound clip recorded at the market entrance? No, you remember, it was the one in a side alley, between food stalls. Wait, no, that was the one after it…

Does this sound familiar? Correctly identifying sound effects after the fact is a common field recording concern. Keeping track of recordings is absolutely vital. It helps you master sounds accurately even months after field recordings are complete. These details enhance the clips you capture. But, somehow, labelling sound effects in the field is often one of the first recording steps that is overlooked.

I’m guilty of this myself. So, today’s article will share one tool I’ve discovered that helps to solve this problem. It keeps track of your work, adds flavour and detail to your field recordings, and ensures you richly describe every field recording you capture.

The Challenge of Field Recording Record Keeping

Why is it difficult to label tracks while in the field?

Well, it’s easy to become absorbed with tech specs, levels, performances, and listening to the environment when capturing sound. Often there’s so much going on that it’s easy to forget to describe sound effects as we record them. This can be a considerable issue, especially when capturing slightly differing locations, or when recording hordes of files at once.

Usually this is done by slating. I mentioned the importance of slating field recordings in an earlier article. That’s easy when you’re recording takes in a studio. It’s far more challenging when recording stealth ambiences under security’s watchful eye, or when scrambling to gather sounds under a deadline.

Ample detail makes sounds more useful. No matter how great a sound recording is, it is mostly useless until more information is added beyond the audio itself. After all, who wants to listen to hundreds of files from beginning to end, just to see if one of them is the track they need? So, both a descriptive sound file name and metadata help provide the critical info sound pros need to choose a file. Slating is vital to add this bonus info to the audio.

Ways of Slating Sound Effects

Clapper by Illya Sedykh Trim

Typically, field recordings are labelled by verbally describing the sound effect that is about to be recorded. Read Why Slating Sound Effects is Vital – The Basics, and Beyond and A Sound Effects Slating Checklist for more info on how to verbally slate.

Verbal slating often takes a lot of time to do. Because of this, it can bog down the flow of a field recording session. It has the potential to drain inspired performances with a cumbersome list of technical details. It may take time as we rack our brains for a creative description. It’s awkward scampering around to each microphone to catalog it all. These are three main reasons verbal why slating is skipped entirely.

Some field recordists get around this by recording video. They roll a GoPro camera throughout the entire session. It records every performance. Later, these pros line up that the video with their clips in a Pro Tools session. That helps them identify each sound effect performance. In essence, they master field recordings to picture.

Since I move around when field recording, setting up a video camera is a hassle. Also, I record stealth ambiences often. That means verbal slating will draw attention to a field recordist. As we all know, people act differently around microphones and video cameras. In sensitive environments, verbal slating can ruin field recordings entirely.

So, the ideal solution would be to slate fully, quickly, and silently in a way no one will notice. How is this possible?

Using Mobile Apps to Slate

MyPlaces Icon

The solution is to use something most of us carry with us every day: a mobile phone. There are dozens of apps you can use to take notes while on the go.

I’ve tried many of them. iOS App MapAPic ($3.99) are sometimes used for this. My favourite is MyPlaces! (iOS, $3.99). Why?

It has many great features:

  • Multiple fields for slating. Each “app slate” provides many fields, such as one for the recording title as well as multiple takes for each location.
  • It captures GPS location. This geo-location sound map bookmarking provides a visual reminder of exactly where you were when you captured the sound effects. It’s especially valuable for recording ambiences, and for phonographers who create sound maps.
  • It logs the time. That helps you line up your app notes with the audio recorder’s sound file timestamp.
  • It embeds photos with each slate. Another visual cue to help write descriptions later. The photos can be shared afterwards, embedded in Soundminer/Basehead metadata, or added to SoundCloud uploads.
  • Data export. Every record, GPS location, and photo can be exported. That means you can simply copy and paste your notes into metadata apps from a desktop computer.
  • Ease of use. The app is easy to use, and looks good.

I had mentioned this little app on Twitter a while back. A few people asked how I used it. Unfortunately, MyPlaces! wasn’t designed to work strictly with field recording sound effects. That’s no problem, though. It just requires a slight bit of adaptation.

Here’s a step-by-step guide of my workflow:

  1. Create a new “place” or slate.
  2. Set the map.
  3. Begin field recording.
  4. Write notes.
  5. Add photos.

That may seem like a lot to cram in amongst other field recording tasks. No need to worry. Once you’re familiar with the app, you can whip them off in 20 seconds or so. Here’s how.

How to Use MyPlaces! To Slate Sound FX

Set Up Before You Begin Field Recording

MyPlaces! requires a few brief steps before you get started. It may help to download the app and follow along.

  1. Go to the Group Page. The main screen lists every “group.” Groups are collections of slates. Think of it as a folder for your recordings. Each group is a single project, with many recordings and their slates within it.

    Group overview (click to enlarge)

    Group overview (click to enlarge)

    The image shows a number of field recording sessions, such as all recordings made at the Honda Indy, while scouting for rock recordings for Pompeii, and so on.

  2. Create a New Group. Press + to create a new group.

    Create a new group

    Create a new group

    I create a group for each project. So, name your group something like “Hawaii Vacation,” or “Nature Preserve,” or so on.

    Name your group

    Name your group

    I named this group after the target sound effects: pedestrian crowds walking by, which I called “Concourse Crowds.”

  3. Enter the Group. Tap your new group to “enter” it. It is blank at the moment, except for two tabs: “List” (upper left) and “Map” (upper right). These select whether your slates are displayed by text or GPS location on a Google map.

    A new, empty group

    A new, empty group

Now you’re ready to being slating your field recordings.

  1. Create a New “Place” or Slate
  2. To begin, find the best field recording location and settle in. I described these steps in an earlier article under the “Pre Shoot” section: chose a location, perform narrow scouting, position the microphone, isolate the sound effects, test recording, and set levels.

    When you’re ready, return to the app:

    1. Tap + to add a new slate (the app calls this a “Place”). This creates a new slate or entry. You will be shown a GPS map of your location.

  3. Set the Map
  4. Maps of GPS locations are a great way to retrace your steps after a day of wandering around town recording sound effects. They help you remember what you captured, and where you did it.

    Of course, if you’re recording sounds in a studio, you can skip this section.

    1. Select map settings. Tap the gear (bottom right) to choose map display options (standard, satellite, or hybrid) and pin colour. Tap the gear again to exit.

      Find your location

      Find your location

    2. Select location. The map location is quite broad at first. Tap the targeting reticle (bottom left) to zoom in on your current location. The image above shows a zoomed-in GPS location.

      Depending on the mobile phone’s network, this may take up to 10 seconds. It also improves over time. With difficult locations, I’ve found it helpful to deselect the targeting reticle, then reselect it.

      You can also position the location by dragging the map manually, and zooming using the right slider.

  5. Begin Field Recording
  6. Begin recording sound effects. That earlier article described field recording steps under the “During the Shoot” section: adjust positioning if necessary, catalog expression, and influence performances.

    So, when do you use the app to slate? Only once you are sure the recording is proceeding well should you turn your attention to the app.

    This is critical. The sound effect is the most important aspect, of course. It doesn’t pay to be fiddling with an app if it means a field recording will become distorted or you will miss a valuable performance.

    However, once everything is settled down and recording well, you can spare a few seconds to return to slating.

    If you’re not comfortable with multi-tasking and taking notes while field recording, simply save the following steps until after the recording has completed.

  7. Write Notes
  8. The Notes section of the app is where you’ll add the majority of your slating detail.

    1. Tap the Notes icon. This is at the bottom of the app, in the middle. Note that tapping the icon commits the map location to the slate, although this can be changed later. At first, the notes page will be blank.

      Notes screen overview

      Notes screen overview

    2. Set the Date. Tap the “Date” bar. This commits the time to your slate. The time will reflect the moment when you first created the new “Place” or slate, not merely when you tapped the Date bar.

      This is helpful, since your slate’s time will match your field recording’s timestamp within a few seconds or so. That helps match your notes with recordings later if things get jumbled. They shouldn’t, but it’s a nice back up to have.

    3. Set the Title. Tap the title field and type a broad name to match the subject. For ambiences, use something like “Hospital atrium, west side.” Specifics are similarly general, such as “Sheet metal drops.”

    4. Set Notes. Use the Notes for specific slates. The majority of your detail will be placed here.

      Tap the Note bar. Two fields appear. In the “Title” field, type the take number, and the field recorder’s file name. So, for example, type “Take 1 – File 003.” This helps you match that take to the actual audio recorder file, later.

      Then, add detail in the box below. So, mention the microphone, performance detail, and any problem sounds.

      Adding notes

      Adding notes

      For example, describe how ambiences change. Did the crowd thicken around 30 seconds in? You heard the clattering sound of a distant trolley. Mention those details in the notes.

      It’s the same with specifics. Perhaps your first take is a number of aggressive sheet metal drops. Maybe you liked the third drop the best, and a bird chirped later in the take. List this. Save your notes.

      Finished notes

      Finished notes

      Have you changed position at the same location? Attempting lighter sheet metal drops? Create a new note on the same page to slate the second take. You can see from the image above that I recorded two takes in a hallway location.

      If the recording has completed and you are tail-slating, use Siri to transcribe your dictation to text in seconds.

    5. Add an Address (optional). This extracts the address from the GPS location you set earlier. Or, you can manually add an address.

  9. Add Photos
  10. I usually save the entire entry before adding a photo. Sometimes MyPlaces! crashes when adding a photo. I think this is because I’m using an iPhone 4S, which doesn’t have much memory. At any rate, follow these steps to add a photo:

    1. Press the Images icon (bottom right).
    2. Tap +. This will open your phone’s photo app. Take as many photos as you like. They’ll all be embedded with the slate.
    Adding photos

    Adding photos

    Wrap Up

    Press “Done” (upper right) to save the slate. That will return you to the Group screen. Repeat this process for each new slate you want to make.

    After you’ve created a number of slates, you can press “List” and see a satisfying catalogue of notes. Press “Map” to see an even more impressive sound map of your field recording locations.

Export Notes

Of course, all these slates are trapped in your phone. How can you get this info into Pro Tools, or a metadata app?

  1. Return to the Group screen. This will display all your slates.

  2. Press the Export icon. This is the box with an arrow pointing out of it. This will bring up iOS’s “sharing” interface.

  3. Press the Mail Icon.

  4. Select Export Option. You’ll be presented with a number of export format options:
    Export types

    Export types

    • Text is best for copying and pasting elsewhere.
    • HTML creates a mini HTML document website, complete with embedded images.
    • Google Earth exports a file that can be added to Google Maps online.


    Chose whichever you prefer, then press “Done” on the next page. Your data will be added as an attachment to a mail message. Simply mail it to yourself to export the slates to a desktop computer.

The Benefits of App Slating

This article explained each step in detail. It may seem like a lot of steps. However, once you get used to it, you can fire off a slate in a few seconds.

App slating is simple, keeps detailed notes, tracks GPS, and pairs photos with slates. It is an incredibly easy way to slate field recordings when you have a few seconds to spare.

As a bonus, it’s already digitized, so the info can simply be transferred elsewhere without retyping work. It doesn’t require buying new gear, packing anything extra, and the solution fits in your pocket.

Read More

Clapper image courtesy Illya Sedykh

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