You hold an triple A-tier microphone in your hand. An audio recorder with whisper-quiet preamps is by your side. Perhaps you’re deep in a jungle with modern noise miles away. Maybe you’ve arranged a block of dry ice for ideal squeaks and hisses. Every checklist item is ticked. You’re ready to create inspiring sounds and commit them to tape. You’re sure you’ve done all you can to capture perfect field recordings.
The reality? It’s often not enough. Why?
Well, even the best gear and most diligent preparations overlook small problems that can threaten field recordings and sound libraries. Today’s post begins a short series looking at common – yet overlooked – errors. It describes why they happen and how they can be fixed.
We’ll begin looking at field recording mistakes. In the following weeks we’ll look at problems when mastering clips, and curating them later.
A Running List
Over the years I’ve been fortunate to hear a lot of sound libraries. Many have been polished community bundles I’ve listened to while adding them to the Sound Effects Search independent sound library index. At times I’ve consulted for various online stores, and have added thousands of clips to their shops. I’ve also mastered raw sound fx for others – both veterans and aspiring newbies alike – as well critiquing and cleaning my own field recording efforts, of course.
This has all provided a unique opportunity: the chance to listen to a full range of field recordings from the second they are copied from a recorder to the moment they appear in a Web shop. Through the years I’ve noticed common mistakes made when recording, mastering, and curating sound effects.
The interesting thing is that most are easily fixed, as you’ll see below. The biggest challenge? Awareness. Not everyone knows every problem that can entangle a sound clip’s journey. So, this list is meant to help share ideas and generate awareness. My hope is that it will help improve everyone’s technique in the field, behind the edit desk, and while sifting through text in a metadata app.
I often cringe when I think back to when I began field recording, around 1996 or so. I made many mistakes. Given what I know now, some are embarrassing oversights or thoughtless blunders of technique.
That can happen to anyone, of course. With the craft of field recording it becomes even more pronounced. Why?
Field recording is a tangental craft that often grows out of music recording, production sound, or other audio professions. There isn’t an established methodology taught in universities or workshops worldwide, or a field recording union to share guidance. The effect is that much of field recording must be learned by experiencing it on one’s own. This is compounded by the fact that there are endless types of sounds to capture, and each requires a slightly varied technique.
It’s important to remember this when reading the list below. Because there isn’t a silver bullet to learning field recording technique, what seems common sense to one person may be a revelation to another.
The suggestions here and in the posts that follow will be a running list. I’ll add more tips over time.
- Mixing dominant subjects.
- Recording copyrighted audio.
- Working with others.
- Skipping slating.
- Fix it in post.
- Forgetting to listen.
Mixing Dominant Subjects
One of the most common errors I hear is mixing dominant subjects. This happens when a field recording captures sounds from two strong sources at once. An example may be a recording of a marsh with a crowd chatting nearby. Why is this a problem?
Mixed subject recordings are unusable. This is because people who want a marsh atmosphere don’t usually want the sound of people talking. Those that want recordings of chatting will find the marsh birds and frogs interfering with the voices they need to hear.
It’s an odd example, I know. It’s rare to need a recording of both marsh sounds and people. Just the same, the point is these montage-type recordings have less value because they’re so specific. Few people will need a crowd of 10 people chatting and evening frogs. But, in the unusual event that someone is looking for this exact soundscape, they’ll likely need each subject separate. That is, two sound effects: one of the marsh, and another of the people. Most projects will add these separately so the presence of each can be adjusted to taste. If both the marsh and people are in the same recording, it’s impossible to diminish the voices and raise the gain of the frogs. That’s much easier when they’re separate. So, it’s important to capture these subjects with distinct recordings.
Why do people mix subjects? It’s actually a natural mistake for those beginning field recording. Not everyone has had the benefit of needing trimmed and mastered tracks for game audio or film sound. Aspiring field recordists may not know the needs of those projects. They’re primarily field recordists, and simply capture all they hear.
What’s more, it’s very difficult to isolate only a single subject. Often, a problem sound may intrude on your target subject despite your best intentions. So, what do you do when you are recording a marsh environment and hear voices? Change your position so you capture either one or the other. Or, simply wait until the people leave. I wrote about four tips to deal with these situations: alter the pick-up pattern, exercise patience, change position, or the perspective.
In the end, resist capturing field recordings with mixed subjects. Removing one subject from a mixed recording takes more work than it is worth.
Here are other common mixed subjects to avoid:
- Traffic heard in other ambiences such as crowds, markets, church bells, and so on.
- Other ambience mixed in with traffic such as voices with car passes over cobblestones.
- Rain mixed with traffic or trains or people.
- Parks, forests, or other environments with airplanes flying above.
- Any ambience with background HVAC, fridge compressor hum, and so on.
- Crowd ambience with car alarm going off in the background.
- A baby crying, phone ringing, or other strong, distracting sound mixed with any other sound.
A note: these recordings have value in “slice of life” or “in-situ” field recordings for recreation listening. In all other cases keep dominant subjects separate.
Recording Copyrighted Audio
This is related to the last tip. How? It also concerns mixing two types of subjects. In this case, it blends your target with copyrighted sound.
This is a problem because copyrighted material belongs to someone else. The result? Once copyrighted audio enters your track, you can’t use the field recording without their permission. So, all the time you’ve spent recording pedestrian crowds is wasted if a radio is playing in the background.
Here are common examples of copyrighted audio:
- Public address announcements.
- Music in airliners.
- Music in airports.
- Muzak in elevators or offices.
- Distant club bass beat.
- Mobile phone ring tones.
- Any device sound that is closely tied to their brand: Windows or Mac startup tone, video game sounds (guns, Pac Man ghost movement sound, etc).
- Other sounds that are considered “performances”: church sermons, street performers, etc.
This point is often debated on field recording forums. In the end, though, it’s helpful to adopt another point of view: capture field recordings that focus on and amplify only your own creative expression. Either way, only “clean” recordings can be shared in projects and Web shops. Stop recording when you hear copyrighted audio and capture another sound.
Working With Others
Field recording is an exciting craft. We’re called upon to visit unusual locations or capture thrilling subjects. We often have the temptation to share it with others. In the end, though, field recording is best done alone. Why?
Every person added to a session risks contributing intrusive sounds: foot scuffs, stomach grumbles, sniffs, coughing, and so on. It’s worse when you add talent that has little experience with field recording: they may speak at the wrong time, forget to take their keys off their belt loops, or wear a scratchy nylon jacket sound pros have learned to avoid.
This includes photographers and filmmakers. It’s natural to want to document recording tigers or experiencing ancient ruins as wind whistles through them. Be careful. A single DSLR shutter snap can ruin a recording. A filmmaker may cross in front of a microphone and warp the stereo image. I’ve heard dozens of tracks where recordists implore others to not even whisper. A friend may shift their feet, not knowing that will make it to tape.
It’s understandable. Few people except the recordist themselves know how sensitive their microphones are. The excitement of a session may bubble over in those not experienced with the thrill of capturing a rare sound. Reduce the risk by recording solo.
Slating field recordings is a vital skill to develop. A verbal ID spoken as recording begins shares what a recording will be and where it is done. A “tail slate” after a recording describes how the sound evolved and key events.
It’s rarely done. I think this is because most people expect to master their own recordings. Perhaps they expect they’ll remember everything when they finally sit down in the edit suite, later. It’s a gamble. Why?
Often we can’t edit our tracks as soon as we like. Details fade from memory. Sometimes one take rolls after another. Later, you may wonder, how are they different? What was I thinking at the time?
The challenge grows with every microphone added. Is that second microphone 10 meters from the first? Which direction is it facing? Why does the third microphone stop and restart?
This is more pronounced when cleaning someone else’s audio. Without a verbal slate, a mastering tech may have no idea where the microphone was placed, the location details, or that strange sound that occurred midway. Often an aspect of the recording changes midway. Why does the image shift? Was the microphone moved? Why did the gain ramp up suddenly? For the first minute the metal hits sounded dull, now they are sharp. Why? What changed?
Without slating valuable, evocative details are lost. Without them track descriptions become generic. Bland track details aren’t interesting. Those clips won’t be chosen, and rarely used.
Help the mastering tech – and yourself – by slating before and after the take. Identify the subject, the performance, microphone type and recorder, and position. If using multiple microphones, walk though each of them and share where they are relative to one another and the goal of each position.
Fix it in Post
It’s a phrase often heard on televisions and film sets: “fix it in post.” It’s universally dreaded by sound crew. What does it mean?
Well, sometimes a problem on set can’t be solved at the time. Imagine an unseen, distant train passing during a take. Normally the take would be re-shot to capture cleaner dialogue without the background rail clatters. However, light is fading and there’s no way to re-shoot and get the next scene before sundown. So, the director decides to move on and fix the dialogue in post-production later.
Seen from the most critical perspective, “fix it in post” is a way of passing responsibility down the line. It forces the next person to figure it out. This can be especially difficult since the problem solver won’t have direct experience of the issue. The upshot? Not only will the results not be weaker than what was originally intended, but they’ll be less informed, too. It’s a fast track to substandard performances.
There’s a more realistic way of looking at it, though. Often hundreds of people are being paid. Going into overtime to fix a shot? Rates explode. Sometimes environmental issues can’t be avoided. On set, these are real issues that can’t be sidestepped. Often fixing an issue takes more time than it’s worth. So, in these cases, fixing it in post is the best choice.
Field recordists also experience problems that cannot be avoided. Maybe your river recording location picks up distant highway traffic. Perhaps your landslide rock tumbles have nearby bird chirps. There is a difference when fixing these, though: field recordists have more flexibility. They don’t have an entire crew waiting for them. They can respond to problems more nimbly. Just the same, many field recordists record anyway and adopt the “fix it in post” mentality.
It’s rarely a good idea. Filmmakers know that Automated Dialogue Replacement (ADR) neither matches the emotional impact or timing of original performances. It’s the same when field recording. While clever mastering can fix a lot of problems, it risks contributing bigger issues. An over-chopped atmosphere can become a Frankenstein-esque mishmash of edits. It can EQ a track within an inch of its life when removing hum, buzz, traffic rumble and more. Noise reduction tools are impressive, but they can also suck the life out of a track when used carelessly.
The result is that a “fix it in post” mentality is corrosive. It’s a way of admitting that nothing can be done to solve the problem. It’s gambling that a problem can be fixed later. It also wastes time; these problems are rarely fixed quickly when mastering. What’s worse, it risks losing a field recording’s greatest asset: its authenticity.
Instead, fix the issues at the time. Navigate to a better location to avoid problem sounds. Often this may require shifting only a few meters. Waiting out a plane passing overhead may save hours in the edit suite, later. We saw other solutions in Mixing Dominant Subjects, earlier. Sometimes it’s better not to record at all. That may be the best decision when contrasted to struggling with hours of setting EQ notches and drawing spectral repair to achieve frustrating results.
Watch out for these problems:
- Gusts of wind.
- Crickets or birds nearby.
- Distant traffic or industry.
- Machinery: buzzes and hums.
Avoid the “fix it in post” mentality and solve problems now. A few minutes of work saves hours when mastering, later. Use the flexibility that field recording allows to solve the problem instead of delaying the fix until later.
Forgetting to Listen
You’d wouldn’t imagine it, but it’s true. Even top-tier pros forget to listen when recording. Sometimes they’ll position a microphone next to a sparrow’s nest when recording cars. Perhaps they’ll record crowds without noticing distant music nearby. The result? The entire session is ruined.
Field recording captures the sounds around us. How is it possible to forget to listen?
Of course, no one’s ears stop working. However, it’s common for people to shut out sound. It’s likely a natural compensation of the brain; the ear focuses on sounds that are most important and presents the rest in the background. Otherwise, how could we make sense of every sound around us? It would be an overwhelming wash of audio. Our ears discern critical details first.
Field recording skill grows when we learn how to manipulate this. The best field recordists can shift this level of attention to hear and judge audio in our soundscape, from the softest to the loudest, and the closest to the most distant. With even more skill, a pro can pinpoint frequencies, intensities, and patterns.
That takes effort and concentration, though. When in a session, a field recordist must juggle dozens of priorities: gear, talent, performances, and more. With so much to sort out, often the environment or problem sounds aren’t noticed at all.
- Not noticing line hum or buzz from electro-magnetic interference while monitoring.
- Missing hearing a soft television within a churning crowd.
- Recording shopping mall ambiences with distant Musak on the edge of hearing.
- Positioning a microphone next to chattering birds during a vehicle recording shoot.
- A low city drone rumble while recording crowds.
The solution? Listen with intention. All it takes is to remain still for a minute before recording. Forget about the gear. Don’t worry about the talent. Simply listen. Immerse yourself. After a few moments mental chatter and fumbling activity will fade away. Shift your focus to hear audio beyond your subject.
Another trick is to patrol your environment. Often it’s not possible to hear the rumbles or music from your recording position. Many times they’re nearly too faint to notice until you’re in the edit suite. Walking ten seconds in every direction from the microphone will reveal wisps of music or strands of buzzes and hums. It’s even better to do this well before the shoot by scouting.
It’s not easy to do this when talent is waiting. It’s challenging to check yourself when a unique sound is approaching. Under these pressures it’s forgivable to simply set up a microphone and press the record button and hope for success. Resist this. Instead, wait. Listen with intention before you begin. Concentrate on audio other than your subject. You’ll find your results will improve in the field and in the edit suite, later.
It’s a surprising tip, but it’s true. Take a moment to bring listening back to field recording, not just of your target, but of the world of sound around you, too.
More tips in the next post.