How to Kill Field Recording Frustration


Los Angeles Smokey

It's a running joke between my brother and I: he's always found himself living in places with too much noise and I'm trying to find places with a lot of it.

A Trap For Sound Pros

Working with sound is technically difficult. Even after you've mastered the apps and outboard gear, sound pros are required to be creative on demand.

There's an even more dangerous challenge, too.

Many sound pros begin working in audio full of idealism. They love sound. They are transformed by how it makes them feel, and the impact it has on others. Their motivation may be even more straightforward than that: it's a lot of fun to discover and use cool sounds, and weave them skillfully into a project.

Unfortunately, sound schedules are often short and restrictive. Sound effect work may be buried behind dialogue and music. This has the real risk of shattering idealism. It's common for cynicism to creep into a sound pro's perspective. This is especially common at the beginning of a career when projects do not have the luxury of long schedules and sympathetic directors. Unfortunately, this is the time that beginning sound pros need idealism the most, and when a positive attitude is most at risk.

That's not to say that veterans have evaded this issue either. Years of short schedules and indifferent sound supervisors may have the same effect. The result?

The creation of the "bitter sound guy" stereotype.

You know that guy. He's the one that is cynical about the project before it begins. He doesn’t think highly about any project he’s working on. He's the guy that tells you that there's no point to striving for excellence. Sometimes he'll tell you any gear other than what he prefers is absolute trash. All you end up hearing from this guy are complaints and disappointments.


Field Recording Frustration

I'm acutely aware that this is an uncomfortable subject. It's rarely discussed.

I mention this because I followed the same path. I began as a sound effect assistant. I was excited about sound effects. I loved pouring though sound libraries. When I began editing episodic television shows, I crafted every background track with care. I cut the five minute sword fights so that the tone of the hits had a subtle melodic cadence throughout the battle. Of course, it was all squashed in the punishing pressure-cooker that is the Canadian television mix. Eventually I became disillusioned with the work. Not long after, I shifted my focus to field recording.

That came with its own frustrations. Television, radio, and wailing babies invaded my shoots. When I wanted to record crowd, traffic would interfere. When I wanted to record traffic, crowd would interfere. That's not even mentioning the wind, electrical interference, and flight paths that interrupt field recordings. In a way, the frustrations of field recording are far greater than studio work because there is so little control. It seemed like it was impossible to win.

Seizing Opportunities

What does my brother have to do with this post?

Well, he's only ever wanted to live on a farm far away from the sounds of the city. Instead, he had to move to Santa Monica for work. Early morning recycling trucks and renovation crews became the bane of his existence. Poor guy. It's not that easy to find peace in LA.

I'm not a fan of being woken up by jackhammers either. However, since I began field recording, I no longer see these things as annoyances. Instead, whenever a sound rattles me out of my sleep or invades my mastering sessions, I see it differently: as an opportunity.

What do I mean? Here are some examples:

  • The super at my previous apartment in Toronto announced that they would be redoing the balconies on all 23 floors. From 8 am to 5 pm work crews pummelled the walls of the building with demolition hammers and ripped at the brick with concrete saws. It was so bad that management handed out industrial ear muffs for hearing protection. It also took a year longer than expected. What could possibly be an upside to this? I now have a huge collection of mast climber work platform recordings and hundreds of specialized machinery takes.
  • I had finally managed to schedule a field recording session in the jungles of Cambodia. Unfortunately, a pair of friendly dogs followed me wherever I set up. I managed to pick up some canine vocals until they wandered away.
  • There was no way to guess that my villa on the island of Koh Phangan would have a pet rooster on the property. Each morning that [expletive omitted] would wake everyone on the compound at ungodly hours. No problem: I planted a Sony PCM-D100 nearby, set the levels low, and captured some crisp crowing. I may turn those vocals into a sound design monster library.
  • One morning storms hit the coast of the Thai island of Koh Samui. Furious rain battered the small town of Lamai that I was visiting. Suddenly the power gave out not just for the hotel I was in, but for the entire coast. The air conditioners silenced. All the distant scooters had pulled over to hide from the rain. What remained was the pure, untarnished sound of the storm. I later picked up some clean surf field recordings, too.
  • I mentioned this one over on Airborne Sound: my condo in Chiang Mai was directly beneath the departure flight path from CNX. The flyovers would drown out conversation for thirty seconds at a time. I downloaded a flight tracking app, then set up a Neumann RSM-191i and Sound Devices 722. I punched in when the app alerted me to a departure. The result is a sound effect library you can download free of charge.

Here's the takeaway: if sounds are so prominent that they'll disturb you or disrupt your sessions, there's a good chance that the level is clear and present enough to capture a sound effect with next to no effort. It's essentially a free, top-tier field recording. It's a gift.

Put another way, if you wanted to find roosters or Airbus A350s, you'd actually have a hard time finding a better environment to capture them. The only issue is that they weren't the subject you wanted to record in the first place. However, if you shift your perspective and improvise, you will seize a rare opportunity.

Recording studio

Squashing Pro Audio Cynicism

Granted, this is a bit trickier when you are working on a project with a team. You can't simply change course with those projects in the same way you can when field recording.

What can you do?

  • Embrace collaboration. Realize you are part of a team. While sound design is your reason for being, flying solo is inappropriate for larger projects. You must defer your ideas to that of the director or producer. Of course, there will be opportunities to be expressive but they must mesh with the needs of others. Learn what the producers and directors want and make it your mission to articulate their vision. This is an easy way to cultivate respect from the crew, too.
  • Interact with your team. I'm referring to people who know nothing about sound effects. Develop a strong relationship with these people. Begin by establishing a solid line of consistent communication. Cultivate rapport. When this is done with care over time (slowly and surely, without being pushy), other departments will become more receptive to your ideas. They'll trust you and support your requests.
  • Change your path. I am a lone wolf. I am less inspired when collaborating. I prefer to pursue my own vision. Obviously working as a sound editor was a poor fit for me. Now my success is self-contained: I am satisfied when I create standalone sound effects libraries. This may work for you on different levels. Instead of cutting sound with a ten-person team, try working on advertising gigs where you are responsible to music, dialogue, and sound effects together. That's an example. There are many other ways to work in sound that match your own need for expression.
  • Recalibrate your definition of success. Alter what satisfies you. Instead of demanding your suite of background tracks is played up in the mix, modify your victory conditions. Aim to have your single best track played. Compromise. This has the side effect of forcing carefully considered editing decisions before they even get to the mix.

Rope and Knots

Untangling Sonic Knots

The "bitter sound guy" may seem grouchy. He doesn't seem pleasant. His attitude is not really a problem, though. In fact, the solution is simple: instead of seeing what is wrong, the best advice is to highlight what is excellent. Sure, that may be a small part of the whole. It may be just a single, small sonic jewel. Focus on it just the same. Polish it alone to perfection. Strive for excellence in these lone, rare victories. Then, when a superior project appears with more sympathetic collaborators, you'll have the tools to embed an entire project with these sonic gems.

And field recordists? Instead of abandoning a shoot when it is overwhelmed by problem sounds, prize out a good sound from amongst the poor ones. Tease it away from the tangle of sound surrounding it. Snip it away. There are amazing field recordings tucked within even the most tangled sonic knots.

You just have to discover them.

Have you transformed a field recording catastrophe into a surprising recording? Do you have tricks for squashing pro audio cynicism? Share them in the comments below.

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7 responses to How to Kill Field Recording Frustration

  1. You´re so right, thanks for sharing this!

    • Thank you, Andreas! It can be difficult to remain optimistic with all the challenges but I believe it is certainly possible for all of us in sound.

  2. Vyacheslav Nesmeyanov 2016/12/30 at 06:16

    Awesome! Thank you so much!

  3. I live in the Bay Area and I’m constantly “fighting” for quietness and peacefulness when I field record. After reading this article, I get it, using the activity of San Francisco and Oakland is an opportunity to capture unique sounds. This is a refreshing perspective. Thank you.

    • It can certainly be frustrating, Kevin, especially in a city as active as San Francisco. I agree the cool sounds are in there though. Great perspective on city recording!

  4. Great article Paul! So true. It’s often so difficult to turn a “bad” situation (i’d rather say uncontrolled environmental noises) into something positive. I guess when we have a specific target in mind, it’s easy to focus on the negatives that may be affecting the results, rather than looking at this as an opportunity.

    • I agree, Colin. I think it’s the nature of field recording that the many challenges stand out in our minds. A slight adjustment works wonders!