Field recording is a craft that rewards skill, patience, a good ear – and sometimes – just pure luck.
How? Well, recording sound is easy, but recording valuable and meaningful sound is considerably harder. Intrusive problem sounds can disturb recordings (distant lawnmowers, passing voices), weather can change from sunshine to storms, and equipment may fail.
It’s common. However, just because these issues happen doesn’t mean field recording time is wasted. In today’s post Pole Position Production co-owners Niklas Olsson and Max Lachmann explain how to turn luck to your side, capitalize on it, and record incredible, unexpected cool sound effects.
Unexpected, Cool Sound Effects
No matter how much preparation is done, the craft of field recording is performed in unpredictable circumstances. When recording beyond the studio, sound becomes very hard to control. One important field recording skill is accepting this lack of control, and adapting and responding to situations as they evolve.
That helps get the right sound recorded well. Sometimes, though, field recording adaptation helps reveal unexpected, cool sound effects. Recently, the Pole team uncovered unexpected thunderstorms, ambient aircraft passes by, crystal-clear sounds of flocks of geese alighting, and more.
Here are 8 tips to help capitalize on field recording surprises:
- Always have gear ready.
- Pivot to record new sound effects.
- Listen for valuable audio.
- Keep your focus.
- Embrace new scenarios.
- Seize predictability.
- Use time to your advantage.
- Create a strip track.
1. Always Have Gear Ready
This one’s the easy one: the best way to be prepared for unexpected sound fx is to have your field recording equipment primed and ready to go. This includes charging the batteries and ensuring the memory cards have enough recording space.
There’s the old saying “the best camera is the one you have with you”. That’s a throwback to the pre-mobile days where cameras were larger, better quality, and harder to bring everywhere you go. With modern mobile phones, this is less of an issue. It still applies to field recording, however. Why?
Well, ideally everyone would like to record a spontaneous cat fight with an elite kit. That’s not always easy with cumbersome microphones and recorders that take time to set up. A small handheld recorder like the Sony PCM-D100 won’t sound as good. However, it’s ultra-portable, sets up quickly, and guarantees you’ll capture those battling cats. So, a less-than-ideal sound recording is better than none at all.
Niklas prefers to have a Sound Devices 702T recorder paired with a Sennheiser MKH 418-S for dual mono/stereo flexibility, with a Sony PCM-M10 as a portable selection. Max’s choice is a Sennehiser MKH 8040 ORTF setup with a 702T, and a Sony PCM-D100 in the bag. There are dozens of other options, such as small Olympus LS-5 models, Zoom switchable capsule models, and more.
Whichever the choice, having a microphone and recorder ready to go increases the chances of picking up surprising cool sound effects as they occur.
2. Pivot to Record New Sound Effects
A recent Pole Position Production session took the team to Pieve a Presciano in the Province of Arezzo, Italy. The goal? To record the sounds of a unique piloted drone. It was a picturesque location: a grass airfield near a village with tolling church bells, surrounded by mountains.
As luck would have it, the weather turned and dark clouds approached. The drone recording was delayed, however Max noticed the brooding sound of the approaching thunder echoing amongst the mountains, surrounded by distant dog barks and roosters. While the rest of the crew waited out the thunderstorm, the team pivoted to record the storm rolling in.
Luckily, the equipment was already set up, including a luscious Holophone microphone which was ideal for capturing rich ambiences.
At another time while recording for The Junkyard Metal Library at a farm, Niklas heard a huge flock of geese approaching. The team stopped recording immediately, grabbed the gear and, while they missed the flock landing, captured the sound of the geese crying while taking flight.
Some first attempts at recording The Stone and Sand Library took place at a barren. Unfortunately, the sand became a resonator for distant trucks passing 2-3 kM away. While this made recording sand impossible, the trucks created an unusual drone for sound design.
The upshot? Always be ready for surprises, and don’t be afraid to take advantage of new, cool sound effects while working on other things.
3. Listen for Valuable Audio
How can you find these cool sound effects?
A lot of it comes from experience: knowing what is rare, what is useful, and how new sounds can help you.
Experience grows over time, of course. Even without it, keep an ear open for unusual sounds, clean environments, and novel situations.
When setting up to record the drone, Max noticed the impeccable ambience in the Italian countryside. The soundscape was clear and evocative. The church bells rang more softly than the serious, demanding bells he was used to in Sweden. It was this sonic character, the cascading village-wide tolling, the contrast to other similar sounds, and the rarity of a clear, melodic tolling bell that made the sounds prized.
Similarly, the clarity of the flock made Niklas appreciate the geese; they landed in a vast open field, far from anything else, creating the rare sound of a huge flock within the purity of the quiet countryside.
Another tip for finding cool sound effects: it’s key to be involved in the session, not a passive listener simply holding a microphone. When field recording, it’s important to listen actively to hear disturbances. While this is vital to detect problematic sounds, this keen listening helps spot valuable sounds too.
4. Keep Your Focus
It may be tempting to capture any new, interesting sound emerging. However, when part of a larger production, remember why you’re there. Keep your focus on the original sounds and don’t risk the purpose you’re there.
For active, complex, multi-track sessions it’s nearly impossible to pivot to capture cool sounds. After all, most often you are field recording on a schedule within the demands of a larger production. Many microphones and recorders will likely be prearranged and difficult to readjust. Moving around microphones, switching recorders, or changing levels will risk the recordings that you need to capture. It’s hard to have an extra layer of awareness to spot new cool sounds in these situations anyway.
In these cases you’ll need to be satisfied with the incidental sound your microphones capture. Just the same, keep your ears open. During calmer, less complex sessions, you may be able to make minor modifications to capture cool sound effects. Otherwise, prioritize and keep your focus on the task at hand.
5. Embrace New Scenarios
Often field recording sessions takes one to unusual places. Capitalize on these opportunities: unusual places will have valuable sounds.
The Pole team recorded cars on a drifting track in Japan for Need for Speed. When they were done work for the day, the team wandered through the streets recording unusual and interesting sounds. Max noted: “In a place like that with the gear we had, it would be a shame not to use it.”
If it’s not for work, most of us find new scenarios on holiday. From Bali to Madeira, Niklas used a Sony PCM-D100 and GorillaPod stand to record jungles, waterfalls, and more. Far-flung locations are the perfect time to gather unusual sounds in new environments.
Max observed: “if you go out with a recorder, you can always find something interesting to record. Curiosity is the most important factor.”
6. Seize Predictability
You don’t need to go far from home to find surprising new sounds. One of Max’s apartments was beneath the flight path of low-flying police helicopters. The ambient soundscape made the flyovers perfect for layering in an urban ambience for film. After hearing the helicopters groan overhead once, Max had an ORTF kit ready to capture them the next time they passed.
A consistent location doesn’t need to create boring sounds. Instead, predictability creates a reliable environment that eases technical challenges, and makes it easy to cultivate surprising sounds. Max noted: “you put the recorder out there and get what you can”.
7. Use Time to Your Advantage
Another valuable tip: let the recorder run. Storage is cheap. Audio recorder batteries last for hours. Often rare and valuable effects emerge if you let the recorder run long enough.
In preparation for Pole’s upcoming Trees and Wind sound library, Niklas placed an arrangement of microphones around trees, on the trunk, and up in the branches and then let the recorder run, sometimes overnight. As luck would have it, distant ambient aircraft soared overhead, including a cool, droning helicopter passing by. While the leaf rustles and branch creaks were the goal of the session, the planes, jets, and helicopters were perfect sweeteners for exterior film scenes. They eventually became The Ambient Aircraft Library.
The lesson? Don’t be too quick to stop the recorder, especially between takes. It’s best not to constantly stop and start and stop recordings.
After all, leaving the recorder rolling doesn’t hurt. The waveform display in editing apps helps spot sounds even in extended recordings. What’s more, long form recordings help sync multi-track sessions easier, anyway.
8. Create a Strip Track
It’s a good habit when mastering sound effects: create a strip track to save any cool incidental sounds you find while editing.
A strip track is an additional track created to supplement your main tracks. When you find cool birdsong while preparing for your car recordings, or a distant thunder rumble during your drone session, split it out from your main recordings. Don’t delete it! Drag it down to your strip track. You can use it to store your outtakes, set the clips aside, and save them for later.
Using Unexpected Sound Effects
Most unexpected cool sound effects are one-off recordings. While these incidental field recordings may not fit with the main sounds you’re capturing at the moment, over time these may grow into a significant collection of sounds.
Pole’s Aircraft Ambient Library began this way. The majority of aircraft were gathered from outtakes from our upcoming Trees and Wind Library. While the team expected some aircraft during those prolonged recordings, the helicopters and soaring aircraft were a welcome surprise. At another time, Max had gathered many patrolling police helicopters over the years. Earlier, the team had captured outtakes of other aircraft when recording WWII airplanes in California. While any one recording didn’t have enough weight for a full library, with a combination of time and a buildup of content, the tracks gradually revealed potential for an interesting collection.
While reviewing the tracks, the Pole team found a blend of high-altitude jets, planes, and helicopters with a deep, open perspective. The atmospheric tracks would be a perfect fit as background soundscapes for film projects. The idea was to offer atmospheric ambiences to add spice to ambiences with suburban and city planes and helicopters. (You can check out the library here.)
Of course, surprising sound recordings don’t need to be gathered into a sound library to become valuable. It’s a good habit to set these lucky sound effects aside in a special “outtakes” or “strip effects” folder so you can drop the clips into your projects later.
However you decide to use these unexpected, cool sound effects, use the tips in this post to prepare for the unexpected, to seize opportunity, and to gather and use cool sound effects in your projects.