Do you want some advice on how to best capture live audio? Want to know what not to do? Or are you a bit unsure of what "field recording" actually is? Then read on . . .
A field recording, put simply, is an audio recording made outside of a recording studio. You step out of a controlled environment, listen and press record. There is a lot of freedom, which is great, but it can also feel intimidating. So we've written this article to help you get started.
As with everything, the best piece of gear is the thing you have with you. Don't worry if you don't have the latest recorder and the fanciest microphone, a smartphone will do just fine - you just need to be aware of the limitations of your device. A sensitive professional microphone will get you further than a smartphone internal microphone if you want to capture quiet sounds. But a smartphone is easier and lighter to carry around, as well as potentially being less intimidating or intrusive if you end up speaking to people.
The single most important thing you can do to prepare for your field recording is to listen. This means really paying attention. Your environment is full of sounds you've never noticed. Close your eyes, and listen to the different layers of sounds around you. Shift your focus from the loud to the quiet, from the left to the right, from the deep (bass) to the high (treble). Explore your surroundings with your ears. You'll be amazed at how much you can find!
Think about the environment you're going to record in and what you want to record. If you're after ambient noise, a forest will be more sound rich than a meadow in the heat of the day. A stroll in a park under a flight path will be full of aeroplane noises. A bird song can be lost in the bustle of a busy city street.
Whatever device you are using to record, it will not hear the world as you do. This is why it's best to monitor your recording with headphones when you can. If not, get into the habit of listening back to your recordings and comparing them with what you've heard. You'll notice a difference.
Move your feet and explore the sonic space with your microphone. You will capture different sounds from different places. If you want more of a particular sound, get closer to it and point your microphone in that direction.
Think about your place in the recording. The very act of choosing what to capture makes you part of the recording, even if you stand completely still and don't make a noise. But a field recording doesn't have to exclude your body and voice. You can become the centrepiece of the track by moving, manipulating the environment (e.g. shaking a branch, kicking a stone, knocking on different surfaces, talking or singing).
However you choose to express your presence, try to avoid handling your gear after pressing record (e.g. changing recording levels, swapping hands, inserting headphones). Handling noises are never the best - unless you set out to record them, of course! If you really need to fiddle around with something, it’s often best to make the changes then start a new recording.
5. Other tips
Wind has spoiled many a great recording. Use your body and the environment as a windshield, even if you have a fluffy windshield (also known, somewhat morbidly, as a dead cat/kitten) on top of your microphone.
Record for longer you think you need. This will let the sounds unfold at their own pace and give you more material to play with in the editing process (if you decide to edit). As a general guide, record for a minimum of one minute and ideally at least two or three.
If you can, switch your phone off when recording and make sure anyone else with you switches off theirs. It's not so much the beeps and rings that are a problem; it’s the signal, which can create interference during your recording. (This tip of course does not apply if you're recording with your phone!)
At the beginning/end of your track, say where you are, the date/time and any other notes you want to add. This will make editing and sorting out your files much easier afterwards.