The last post began a series exploring common field recording, mastering, and sound library curation mistakes. It shares common yet easily overlooked stumbling blocks for beginners and sound pros alike, and how to fix them.
Today’s post takes another look at field recording foibles: common errors that plague even the veteran sound artists in the crowd. Let’s learn more.
NOTE: I’m very detailed. This article should take you about 15 minutes to read. Don’t have time now? No problem. Click the button below to email it to yourself to read later.
The previous post shared general field recording mistakes:
- Mixing dominant subjects.
- Recording copyrighted audio.
- Working with others.
- Skipping slating.
- Fix it in post.
- Forgetting to listen.
I recently added “Fix it in Post” and “Forgetting to Listen” to the last article, read more here.
Those mistakes – while simple – appear in many sound libraries and field recordings I have heard while previewing, curating, doing QA, and ingesting sound effects for others. They were the broad strokes: missteps common to those new to capturing sound beyond the studio. They are common because aspiring field recordists may not have experience to know three important things:
- That they are actually errors in the first place.
- How to spot the errors.
- The mistakes actually have a significant effect on field recordings.
The mistakes were global ones that have the ability to ruin every field recording session. Today’s article takes a different approach. The errors today are specific. They won’t be encountered every time you punch in. Instead, they focus on missteps that can occur in particular places, with certain subjects, and when using specialized technique. Because they are so specific, they are mistakes even more advanced field recordists can overlook regularly.
I’ve organized them into broad categories. Each has a few short mistakes, and shares ideas on how to fix problems. Like the last post, this will be a running list I’ll update over time.
The categories are:
Many exceptional sound effects are ruined by a by problem called overlap. We learned a bit about that last week discovering the problems when two dominant subjects are mixed. That happens when two desirable sounds happen at the same time. It also occurs when undesirable sounds overlap field recordings, too.
Imagine hearing a recording of distant, rolling thunder. But, when you listen closely, you hear a watch ticking. Perhaps the recordist forgot to remove it. Maybe they assumed the microphone couldn’t hear it. Whichever the case, these sounds have the ability to make an entire recording worthless. You wouldn’t think so. After all, they’re minute. They are deceptively damaging just the same.
The last post touched on this a bit: non-pros may shift their feet or clear their throat, not knowing how “loud” these small sounds are. This problem isn’t limited to the newbies though. Even experienced pros forget that these small sounds dangerously easily. That’s why the problem comes from incidental sounds. They’re often overlooked.
This is such a standard problem that you’ll encounter it in every shoot. Here are common examples I’ve heard:
- Voices. Stepped away from the mic? Whispering to a friend about the amazing sounds you’re hearing? Don’t assume the microphones won’t hear it. Save the comments for later even if you are sure you are distant.
- Movement. This ranges from foot scuffs, clothing rustles, or simple posture shifts. Solve this by putting a sound blanket under your position and equipment.
- Breathing. Even soft breathing can be perceived in quiet ambiences. Be aware of your breath. Had to run back to your equipment or just finished a strenuous performance? Wait until your breathing dies down. Better yet, move three meters away from your microphone.
- Debris. Even a light breeze can kick up dried leaves or trash and contribute unwanted rattling or rustling. Crush the leaves and stow the trash to keep recordings clean.
- Subtle noise. Clocks, watches, fridges, light buzz, and compressor hum. These are so quiet it’s easy to forget about them. They make it into field recordings just the same. Shut them off or pad them with sound blankets. Other examples: tent fabric flapping in the wind (thanks, Rick), jingling car keys while driving, and train window panes rattling. Don’t forget to walk away from your car after you’ve driven to the perfect location; your microphone may pick up metal pings as the car cools down.
- Buffeting wind. A prop passing too quickly or closely to a microphone can cause a swell of air. This appears on recordings as a subtle but problematic thump. This is common when recording shutting doors or when throwing objects. The best solution is to move the microphone back or out of the path of the swell of air.
- Mobile phones. I’ve heard endless field recordings ruined by a cell phone ringing while performing a take. Even the pros get tripped up by this one. There’s a risk even when phones are set to silent mode; a mobile phone can generate interference unheard by the human ear that is picked up on disk as whining, intermittent chatter. Set cell phones on flight mode, or, better yet, turn them off completely.
Field recordings are delicate. Even the smallest incidental sound can ruin a recordist’s hard work. They are infuriating to fix at best, or impossible to deal with at worst. Take a moment to listen to your environment and adjust so field recordings remain pure.
Field recordings are generally split into two categories: passive and active sessions. In passive sessions, the recordist doesn’t interact with the subject at all, and doesn’t control the sound directly. An example would be recording whipping freeway traffic. In contrast, the recordist directly affects the sound in active sessions. This could be metal crash recordings, for instance. The recordist has a great deal influence on both types, despite what you may assume from the names.
This is something even master field recordists seem to overlook. It’s common to hear sound libraries with dozens of clips that sound virtually identical. Some examples:
- Ten door sounds open and shutting at the same speed, direction, distance, and power.
- Dropping ammunition the same distance and strength for every take.
- A forest recording that runs for ten minutes with little change.
- Five 3-minute rain recordings of the same intensity onto similar surfaces.
Of course, if two sounds are nearly the same, why bother having both? The greater issue is that repetitive performances are a lost opportunity: the time spent capturing a clip the same as the last is better spent injecting a new perspective, performance, or position instead.
Why does this happen? I think it’s an understandable mistake for a few reasons. First, the complexity and even the excitement of field recording makes it difficult to record with intentionality. It’s not easy to be über-creative when you’re juggling talent or managing 20 tracks of audio. What’s more, at times field recordists tend to view themselves as passive collectors of audio rather than a force than affects the nature of sound around them.
What helps is to be creative beforehand, prep a shot list, and work from it later in the field. It’s also useful to adopt the perspective of your subject (what is the dog feeling?), conjure emotion keywords (a panicked drawer open), or perform as if you are in a movie scene (drive the car like a bank robber).
Avoid performing a door close the same over and over. Shift your position around a waterfall every few minutes. Alter your recordings to create more valuable effects in the same amount of time. In field recording, time is just as much a resource as battery life and memory card storage. Maximize it.
Many show-stopping sound effects are the big ones: gunshots, booming thunder, super cars, pounding ocean waves, and the cacophony of a jungle. There is a lot of beauty in the softer sounds, too, such as a gentle drizzle, library murmurs, and others.
These quiet sounds are fragile. It’s more difficult to record them because the slightest incidental sound that would be hidden by louder sounds is painfully apparent when recording gentle ones.
Many of these sounds are especially delicate at two spots: when they begin and when they end. These are two areas where people tend to be listening more keenly. Once a sound has become established listeners are more forgiving or distracted and the impact is diminished. So, problem sounds in the “head” or “tail” of a sound have a greater impact. They make those areas of a field recording useless, essentially truncating a sound.
- Car passes. It’s easy to forget there’s a lot of value not just in the loud Doppler pass by, but also in the 15 seconds before and after. The slightest footstep can ruin the valuable head and tail of the pass by.
- Resonant sounds. A metal drop or bell ringing. While the sound may seem complete during the initial crash, cool, characteristic shudders or rocking only reveal themselves after the impact has occurred.
Some of the most valuable sounds are the subtle ones. Why? They can’t be faked. It’s relatively easy to edit a quiet crowd into a larger one. Doing the reverse is nearly impossible. Recreating a car driving into the distance or a subtle metal wobble is challenging.
The solution? Let field recordings breathe. Wait five seconds after beginning recording. Let five seconds pass after the sound before moving, speaking, or stopping the take.
This is especially important to emphasize to talent. Imagine a collector operating a vintage pump. They may not know that it is important to let sounds “ring out” and instead perform one take directly after another. Explain the concept beforehand. During the takes, hold up a finger count so they can see how long they should wait. This helps preserve the valuable head and tail of field recordings.
This is a quick tip for beginners. I sometimes see atmospheres recorded in mono, or dual mono. Always record ambiences in stereo. Why? Since it is a single channel, mono environmental field recordings lack the ability to convey depth, space, and breadth. All three are vital to create a sense of immersion for ambient field recording. Record in stereo instead.
This field recording problem happens when the sound appears to momentarily wobble or ripple. Known as image shift, it happens when the stereo image warps or moves. It typically happens in two ways:
- A handheld microphone is moved, pointing in a new direction for a short period of time. This can happen from arm fatigue or unsteady hands during long takes. The best solution is to use a microphone stand instead of a handheld grip.
- Something moves in front of a microphone, altering the depth and breadth of the stereo image momentarily. Solve this by creating a bubble around your microphone. That ensures there is an uninterrupted space surrounding your microphone at all times.
You hear a siren approaching. You assemble your gear frantically, hoping to get set up before it arrives. You’re not sure how loud it will be. What levels should you set?
It’s often difficult to know. Beginners may not know how loud subjects will be or how much sound pressure level (SPL) their gear will tolerate.
Of course, it’s never good to allow the sound to peak and pass 0 dBFS. This causes distortion and damages a sound. So, this must be avoided at all times. Most field recordists are aware of this. What is not as apparent is how sounds can suddenly change and peak without warning. This is why it is good to leave 5 – 10 dB of headroom. This creates a type of buffer that ensures sudden, loud sounds won’t become damaged.
Another important point: not all sounds should be recorded as loud as possible. Winds recorded at 0 dB will be a torrent of noise. Even sweet morning birds recorded at the highest possible levels will sound overwhelming and unpleasant. Avoid recording everything as loudly as possible. Instead, record levels relative to each other: a gunshot should be very loud, rush hour traffic less than that, pouring rain quieter still, followed by winds and empty rooms at even softer levels. There are number of approaches to setting recording levels depending on who will hear the sounds. Just starting field recording? Use these tips:
- Avoid recording at 0 dB.
- Leave 5 – 10 dB of headroom.
- Record subjects proportionally.
Those guidelines will help record the vast majority of sounds well.
Read an article about 2 techniques for setting field recording levels.
Forgetting Wind Protection
Wind is the greatest threat to field recording. It has the chance to invade almost any location. It’s difficult to avoid when it appears. It destroys all frequencies of sound. I’ve heard enough “blown out” field recordings to realize that the threat of wind is misunderstood.
In the vast majority of cases recording outside demands wind protection. What’s the best way to do this? Options include using foam windscreens, softy/smoothy windjammers, fuzzy windjammers/windbusters/windscreens, and windshield blimps. Don’t have pro wind protection? Use the environment, cardboard, or fabric to make impromptu blinds to shelter microphones from gusts and breezes.
Avoiding wind should be your first task when beginning capturing sounds in the wild.
Use a Microphone Stand
Handheld microphone grips allow “run and gun” field recordists move quickly to capture sound effects. There’s a drawback many of these guerrilla recordists forget: a handheld grip can damage field recordings as they are captured. How?
Well, pointing a handheld grip is a simple task – for a few seconds. It’s not easy to keep your arm steady after half a minute or while tracking a subject’s movement. The result?
- The stereo image may shift.
- The microphone wobbles in the mount, adding rattles to the sound.
- Shifting palms and fingers contribute handling noise to the recording.
These are difficult to fix afterwards. If possible, mount the microphone on a stand instead. If a handheld grip is required, ensure the microphone mount is secure. Check the lyre or elastics to keep wobbling to a minimum.
Reckless Equipment Arrangement
Take the time to ensure your equipment is secured before punching in and beginning performing. Watch out for these common errors:
- Wind whistling through cabling. Use zip ties or tape to secure loose cables.
- Stand rattles. Use sandbags to keep microphone stands on their feet.
Inflated Sampling Rates
Ever experienced dragging over-packed suitcases through airport check-in to immigration line to security check and beyond? As you pull your Rollaboards down yet another endless airport corridor, you may wish you packed lighter.
It’s a sensation similar to using field recordings captured with inflated sampling rates. Using sounds recorded at 192 kHz demands intense processing power to audition, convert, and process the clips. Add a dozen to a session and your machine will slow to a crawl.
In theory, field recordings captured at advanced sampling rates will gather higher quality sound. The reality is not so simple. We typically hear from 20 hz to 20 kHz. A sampling rate of 44.1 kHz is enough to gather sound within that range. What’s more, the majority of microphones cannot detect or capture sound beyond 20 kHz anyway. The result? Files recorded at sampling rates beyond 44.1 kHz collect data that is rarely used or even perceived.
Arguments exist that claim recording at higher sampling rates improves the sound even if we cannot directly hear the result. It’s true there’s little harm in recording at 48 kHz. The standard for sound fx library recording is 96 kHz. Beyond that? Be judicious when choosing to record at 192 kHz.
192 kHz is best used when recording sound clips that are expected to be processed. The extra samples allow clips to be pitched with smoother results, for instance. Recording metal drops? Capturing ice shattering? Cannon blasts? Go for 192 kHz. Out recording ambiences of a flowing river? Stick to 96 kHz instead.
It’s tempting to record with the highest fidelity our field recorders allow. Consider carefully when choosing the loftiest sampling rates. It takes little effort to select the highest sample rates in the field. And yes, hard drive space is cheap. However, field recording files at higher sampling rates are larger than they have to be. The require more computing power to process. 192 kHz files are twice as large as they need to be. This means, for instance, that Web shop will pay more in bandwidth fees every time they are uploaded, shared, or stored. Many shop owners I’ve worked with ask higher sampling rates be downsampled for their customers before ingesting onto their sites.
Be mindful about the sampling rates. Choose the best resolution for the subjects you pursue.
Forgetting Sync Slates
The previous post examined what happens when field recordists forget to ID or slate their recordings. There’s a more specific type of slating that is also overlooked: sync slating.
Imagine recording a protest crowd. You’ve arranged four portable recorders around the town square. However, when you return to the edit suite later, it’s difficult to align them. Each recording is a different length. Getting them in sync is a maddening process of dragging files just milliseconds left, then right, then left again.
Sync slating solves this problem. It is used to create a reference point. You’ve probably seen something similar on film sets when crew snaps a clapperboard in front of a camera. This ensures the audio will be in sync with the camera.
When field recording, a single sync slate is created for all microphones and recorders at the same time. Sometimes this is done with a clapperboard. That’s often not loud enough though, since multiple microphones are usually far apart. So, loud, short, and sharp tones from air horns or bullhorns do the trick. This creates a distinctive sound and waveform. Mastering techs use this in the edit suite later to ensure all microphones and recorders are presented in tandem.
Have a long track? You may discover that field recordings begun and ended at the same time are actually different lengths. This may be only fractions of a second. However, even a small difference can affect the channels when they are used together. This technical issue is called drift.
Minimize this by making a sync slate at the end of the long recording, as well as the beginning. This will provide valuable clues to know if a field recording has drifted, and how serious the change is.
Read more about sync slating.
Want more tips? The next post will feature overlooked sound fx mastering mistakes and how to fix them.