The Inspiration for Field Recording: The Art



Why do field recordists capture sound effects?

The last post revealed that many sound pros record audio for the chase: they gather sounds for a specific purpose, or to claim a technical achievement. They use their skill to preserve these sounds. And, for others, they gather audio to amplify their experience of the world around them.

That post looked at how sound itself motivates field recordists. Many are inspired by other, more nebulous reasons, too. So, today’s posts will look at the abstract elements that inspire sound pros: the art of field recording.

Please note: this post explores this idea in depth. It will take you about 15 minutes to read this article. If you’d prefer, click the button below to email the article to yourself to read later.

Motivated by Art

“Art” is a bit of a vague term. After all, what art is to one person may be worthless to someone else. Some say it is “an accurate expression of ideas too complex for only words.” So how does this affect field recording?

Well, last week’s field recordists were inspired by achievements and experiencing the planet. They were actual events. So, while a desire to share sound in a gallery does inspire some field recordists, the idea behind this post is to explore the less tangible things the drive people to begin field recording:

  1. Curiosity.
  2. An emotional connection.
  3. Expressing creativity.
  4. A deeper meaning.


Many field recordists described a restless search. They are hunters. Some listen for intriguing sounds. Others pursue specific sound effects. This curiosity drove a large number of the series’ field recording fans.

Professor Trevor Cox’s curiosity led him to travel the globe to collect clips for his Sound Tourism website. He wanted to explore landmark sounds:

“If you pick up a travel guide there will be plenty about beautiful things to see, but very little about places that sound wonderful or surprising. This was one motivation for me to seek out unusual sounds.”

Found Sounds

In a similar way, Michal Fojcik listens for unexpected, captivating sounds. His favourite sounds “were recorded because I found something unique (POV, object, etc.) while recording what I planned. I always try to follow my intuition and capture something extra.”

Others described the pleasant surprise of stumbling across fascinating sound. Enraptured, they explored the subject, often in unusual places. Shaun Farley heard a peculiar faucet sound while visiting a friend: “it made a really interesting sound as the water came up it when you first turn it on.” Matthew Marteinsson heard a hotel toilet flush like a creature scream, and captured it 15 times over.

While visiting Camargue, France, Colin Hunter heard flamingos and was “taken aback by the sound of their mating calls.” He returned to capture the unusual sound.

Thomas Alf Holmemo seized the opportunity to explore the sounds of a theatre while working on a documentary about an old opera in Oslo: “An old opera is a wonderful place for capturing sound. Everything is so full of character.” Frédéric Devanlay & Cedric Denooz discovered more aggressive sounding effects while recording a metal library:

“…we found an incredible recycling metal factory where they were using a big metal cruncher… Its sound was so huge and impressive!”

A Sonic Fixation

It’s always a pleasant surprise to find a cool sound when you least expect it. For other field recordists, though, their curiosity leads them to fixate on one subject and explore it, often for their entire lives.

Charles Maynes is widely respected as an expert on firearm field recording, something he has mastered over decades: “gun recording was a sort of fascinating thing to me.” Maynes directs his skills to deeply probe other subjects, too, such as the iconic LA film noir locations he captured for the LA Underground sound library:

Like Devanlay and Denooz, Canadian Paul Col has found himself drawn to metal sounds: “Over the years it’s become the type of sound that I most actively seek out.” He explores these sounds searching for “a unique sonic fingerprint.”

With a background in academics, Christine Hass first discovered field recording while studying the ultrasonic voice of the white-nosed coati. That single experience led her to explore all aspects of nature recording: “I started recording dawn choruses, and water, and elk bugling, and I was addicted.” Sebastian-Thies Hinrichsen is drawn to capturing the sound of the wilderness, too. He wakes at dawn to capture German nature ambiences with the goal that each track “reproduces the sound as if you were there.”

On the other side of the globe, Laila Fan regularly records the sounds of the Jiancing Historic Trail in Taiwan. Her motivation for returning again and again? Curiosity about the sound around her:

“I went birdwatching, sometimes I couldn’t see the birds but I could hear so many sounds in the trees. I really hoped I could be the kind of person who can walk into a forest and just by using their ears, know which birds are chattering away.”

Often the complex urban wilderness called field recordists, as well. Diane Hope’s curiosity was ignited when she saw a smokey photo of Shanghai:

“What kind of a challenge would that be? What does that city sound like? Something so big, how do you explore that in sound or represent that in sound?”

Another field recordist has made it his vocation to explore the sound of different city: Paris, France. Des Coulam has been walking the streets of that capital in the spirit of a Parisian flâneur and the street photographers who documented the reconstruction of the city in the late 19th century. Coulam cultivates a particular skill: “how to observe ‘what is happening when nothing is happening.’” His goal?

“[To capture] the changing soundscape of the city by location and over time – how the soundscape changes as one moves from the centre of the city to the periphery for example, or how some sounds vanish and new sounds appear.”

On the other side of the Channel, Ian Rawes explained his motivation for creating his London Sound Survey website with sounds of the English capital:

“For a long time I’d wanted to start a website about London as a way to explore and appreciate those aspects of it I liked, but I couldn’t think of a good, original angle…. I decided to make a website and share them online instead.”

Rawes’s work has been cited by networks and scholars worldwide. To Rawes, that’s the payoff: “I’m pleased if other people find pleasure in the results.”

Michael F. Bates has taken an even more focused look at that city; he has captured countless hours of the mixture of sounds arriving through the windows of his flat: “…the sound is constantly shifting and changing, all of it filtered through this distinctive space in front of my windows.”


An Emotional Connection

Those field recordists use their sonic fascination to examine a fixed place or a specific subject from the planet around them. Others use field recording to explore interior worlds. These pros use the craft to inspire emotion in others, and themselves.

Frank Bry is well known as a technical master that uses elaborate arrangements of microphones to capture his signature gunshot sound effects. Just the same, he has found his motivation is drawn from another source:

“I’m motivated by how sounds make me feel. The technical aspect plays less of a role for me, I have my technical moments, but for the most part, I go with feel.”

Christine Hass heads into the wilderness of the American southwest specifically to gather an emotional connection for herself:

“I’ve used my recording gear to try to capture the sense of peace I feel when I’m in those places.”

Nathan Moody described his experiences during a Nature Sound Society workshop. He rose at 4:30 AM to record the dawn chorus in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. He reflected:

“That sounds can evoke such specific recall years later never ceases to amaze me, and reminds me why I work with sound in the first place.”

Danish field recordist Mikkel Nielsen captured emotion through nature as well, although nature’s voice was far less subtle in his experience. He described a visceral reaction when capturing hurricane winds:

“Being outside when such massive force is coming by is frightening and very impressive I think.”

Others take this personal experience and build upon it. American field recordist Gordon Hempton uses field recordings to capture an encompassing experience not only for himself, but to transform the way anyone perceives audio, and to learn about themselves. He believes his best field recordings succeed when they are “replicating the human experience.”

Reliving an Experience

Unlike visual art, sound recordings unspool over their duration. It’s no surprise that a craft so closely entwined with time invites field recording fans to return to the past. These pros capture field recordings to relive an experience.

Ollie Hall explained his motivation for recording during a trip to Japan in 2009:

“It was a trip that I’d dreamt about for years, and I think the entire experience was enhanced by the action of pausing to focus on what I heard as well as what I saw… Listening to them takes me back instantly. I certainly enjoy the feeling of being taken on short sonic journeys.”

New Yorker Michael Raphael felt the same when recalling his winter ambience sound effects:

“I am immediately transported back to those quiet locations… [The clips] captured the serenity and starkness of those environments.”

Photographer and field recordist Rick Hannon described this sensation well:

“I like how audio can send me back to the time and place I created the recording. Studying old photographs does that as well, but not in the same way.”

Perhaps it is his background in photojournalism that inspired him to write about revelling in these experiences, and sharing them with others, too:

“I find that the process of field recording has opened another door, enabling me to interact with people, explore new things and tell new stories to new audiences.“


Expressing Creativity

Part of the richness of field recording is that no two paths to the craft are the same. Diane Hope explained her unique experience arriving at the craft: “I’d been in science for nearly twenty years. I wanted to do something more creative.” That need to create and inspire motivated many other field recordists in the series. After studying biology, Paul Col changed course and explored audio “to pursue something that I was more passionate about.”

That spark ignited a need to express creativity in field recordists, which they invoked in dozens of ways. Mattia Cellotto explained that his field recordings “start as experiments or tests.” Max Lachmann mirrored similar sentiments of constructing audio compositions: “I have always been interested in film and in building soundscapes,” he wrote. And Diane Hope described that the inspiration for her field recordings pour from a visionary source:

“I get this sense of a really interesting topic, and then I start to hear fragments of a finished program in my head before I’ve ever done anything.”

Hope uses her sound effects in radio programs that have been heard worldwide. Photojournalist Rick Hannon began to enhance his images he submitted to American print media with field recordings, with satisfying results:

“I realized there and then how powerful audio can be in enriching a story… My stories being seen and now heard by “readers.””

For Polish field recordist Michal Fojcik, fresh field recordings became an integral part of the films he works on:

“I learned how important [field recording] was for quality and creative possibilities of my work… I consider my work as finding unique sound language for every film I work on. Field recording is the basis of it.”

Other field recordists have used field recordings in a more direct artistic expression. Andreas Usenbenz is among them. His Bell’s Breath project captured the sound of the bell tower of the cathedral of Ulm. Through his multiple-perspective field recordings of the tower bells, he explored questions about the nature of the church and the bells themselves.

“Bell’s Breath is about silence. It is about the question: “What is a religious place like a church for? Is it for self reflection? Is it for meditation and the like? What does a bell do? What is it for?”

And while many field recordists use their sound effects to express creativity, others use them to find it. The difficulty of capturing tracks outside produced creative revelations. Michael F. Bates described his experience of meditating upon the sounds of the city floating through his London flat:

“I feel about these raw recordings as I guess painters do about sketches, they help clarify ideas and spark inspiration.”

Others were affected in profound ways. While field recording at the nature reserve Wohldorfer Wald, Sebastian-Thies Hinrichsen found he was field recording “to understand what’s nature and life and what’s really listening to nature.” The result of waking at dawn? What he heard he felt “reveals this crescendo of nature’s life.”

American field recordist Gordon Hempton would seem to agree. He has traveled the planet recording the sound of nature. And he knows a special, inspiring spot when he finds it: “when I hear something that feels great – the space feels sacred.”


A Deeper Meaning

Field recording is gathered from physical objects and stored in a digital medium that can be shared with others. Some field recordists reach beyond these limits to discover abstract realizations and deeper meanings within the craft.

Throughout his career, Stephan Marche has probed the effect that field recordings and sound itself can have. The sound effects – and the experience of the field recordist capturing them – “demonstrates the tininess of a single person in contrast to the entire environment – no matter if is natural or man-made.” And the value of these sounds?

“I personally don’t distinguish between good or bad sounds. The sound is just there and this is legitimation enough to treat it as an essential element of our life.”

Miguel Isaza feels that field recording itself has a vital affect on our lives. While the first pros mentioned in the “The Inspiration for Field Recording” series collect sound effects for a tangible purpose, Isaza gathers field recordings from an abstract perspective:

“I approach field recording as an extension of my listening practice, not so much towards a specific goal but more towards an experience.”

Isaza’s sessions do result in rich sounds just like those other pros, of course. His approach is the inverse, however. He begins using the “worlds of sound” to reach “the sounds of the world.” Or, as he put it more simply, “about the worlds arising in the listening experience.”

He wrote eloquently about the effect of using a listening experience as the motivation for gathering field recordings:

“That’s actually why I love field recording, because in one side it asks you to be quiet, aware and go slowly, but in the other, invites you to explore, be active and curious. There’s a spiritual treasure in such practice, perhaps because it integrates two technologies: recording and listening, making you not only experience sound, but also dream with it.”


A Bipolar Craft

Why do people seek out field recording? What causes them to abandon comfortable, quiet edit suites and Foley studios? Why do they shoulder incredibly complex gear and step into a world of buffeting winds and invasive buzzes and hums? Is there a reason why they hunt slippery subjects outside and try to ensnare the shifting audio around us?

The field recordists in this series were motivated powerfully by sound itself. They measure, sample, and slice sound with extreme precision to capture audio for their projects. They take satisfaction in eluding the challenges of recording outdoors, and revel in the satisfaction of capturing a rare recording of pure audio, a perfect expression of a sound they enjoy. They realize that the audio we hear today may evaporate tomorrow. They are inspired to collect these passing moments and preserve them and share them for others to hear. They sample the world around us through one of our senses. These pros use the craft to enhance that one sliver of reality, and use that audio to appreciate everything in their lives.

A less tangible motivation draws other field recordists. They are transfixed by sounds. They are arrested by the better sounds around us. A sonic fixation grips them. It is the sense of discovery that pulls them to record. It is the delight in revealing new sonic treasures, and the satisfaction of gathering these rare sounds. That points to a deeper connection field recordists have to gathering audio. They work their craft to recreate what sound makes us feel, sometimes so strongly that it invites listeners to relive a past experience, or express new ideas through sound alone. That calls field recordists to craft sound recordings that reveal an essential element of our lives – the listening experience itself.

This series began by examining what equipment pros use to gather sound effects. The 49 pros generously shared their kit choices with everyone. As their responses appeared on the site, the series began to take a new shape: their experiences were deeply entwined with their choices. A thought emerged: a pro’s kit is part of their creative character, too. So, while the series began with a curiosity about what hardware they stored in their equipment lockers, we’ve also learned how the pros use those choices to express themselves. It became apparent that their choice for recording sound effects was just as rich and complex as their carefully considered kit. Their desire to pursue sound spoke just as much about these pros as the microphones and recorders they carry into the field.

Field recording is a bipolar craft. On one hand, it is governed by the complex technical equipment field recordists must use to capture audio cleanly and well. The craft cannot exist without it. Despite the rigid, clinical requirements of field recording, another element is fused with this: the purpose for setting up the mic stands, unspooling the cables, and twisting the dials.

The field recording fans in this series have provided that. Sound itself motivated them. They were inspired by the process; by the tangible things around them, and achievable results. They examined what sound makes them feel and how it inspires them, and the power it has to do the same for others. They use sound to explore and reflect upon creative and abstract worlds. In that way, the motivations are bipolar, too. Field recording allows us to explore the external world around us, or use recordings to probe the internal world inside ourselves.

Each motivation for field recording is as varied as the equipment listed in this series. And while this equipment is needed to even begin the process of gathering sound, motivation too is intrinsic to field recording itself. The craft is rarely taught. Mostly, field recordists must teach themselves. They strike out alone into the wilderness to gather sounds. They weather the sleet and the wind. They wait patiently for the ideal sound to emerge, then strike. It’s not metal and plastic that makes this happen. It’s another indispensable tool a field recordist carries with them every time they stride into the wild: a compulsion to capture sound beyond the studio.

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