One of my favorite parts of the compositional process of many of my pieces is taking field recordings. I enjoy taking my Zoom H4n with its windscreen and a pair of headphones, and going out to record sounds. I then have a library full of different timbres, attacks, durations, and sources of audio that I can edit in Logic and MetaSynth. Here are some tips I have for taking the best field recordings you can:
- Ensure your headphone level is not too low. If your level is too low, you will not be able to separate external sounds from what is actually being recorded. You also won’t know in what sonic depth and quality you are capturing your sources. Of course, don’t flirt with tinnitus, but it’s better to have it a bit louder than a bit too soft.
- Monitor all sounds that you are recording, especially for hidden sounds that could make editing troublesome. For example, the noise of nearby roads, airplanes flying overhead, the sound of your headphone wires or hands hitting the recorder, and any sudden loud percussive sounds in the environment, can all make editing audio unbearable because of the amount of editing out one has to do.
- Ensure that your mic/recording levels are high enough to capture your source in depth, but not too high so as to capture buzz, noise, outside/non-source sounds, and ambience that you don’t want. Any of those hidden sounds listed in item 2 can be mitigated by lowering your mic level, in most cases. Still, mic levels that require a lot of raising can lack depth and quality.
- Record in a really high quality format. I prefer 24 bit/44.1khz (the industry standard), because I can capture great quality audio even if it takes up a lot of space.
- Related to point 4, invest in high-quality, high-capacity storage. I have a 32 gigabyte SD card that I use in my Zoom, but I also have a few 2GB ones for one-off use. This allows me to have great quality audio, with quick loading into my computer, and never worry about space.
- Carry extra batteries. You never know how much extra time you may need, nor how much juice you will actually use. I don’t trust the battery life charts listed online, especially when using phantom power (for recording with external condenser microphones). I had one concert recording nearly lost because of running out of battery power, and I have learned my lesson from that scare.
- Use your windscreen. If you don’t use a windscreen for outdoor or busy/chaotic environments, your recording session may be dead on arrival. Don’t let the distortion caused by wind be the dominant thing you record. My Zoom came with a windscreen that has proven to be very effective, even though it appears to be a very basic windscreen.
- Capture your sound sources from many angles. If you are using a stereo recorder, ensure that you have the right/left channels (panning) in balance, so that you don’t have to edit the levels of each channel when you edit. Besides this, different angles and distance/closeness to the source will produce widely different results, many of which may be surprising, but likely compositionally useful or (at the very least) inspiring.
- Don’t worry about taking too many recordings. It is much better to have many files, takes, and near-identical recordings, so that you can choose the cream of the crop, than having to settle for the lesser of two evils (or worse yet, to have to go back out to record better samples).
- Similarly to item, 9, think about how you could use each source, and seek out other sources that draw your inspiration and could be useful to your work. Even if you don’t use all the samples in near-future compositions, record interesting and artistically useful files. If you are fortunate enough to be able to record unique and once-in-a-long-time/special circumstance (or location) audio, take that opportunity to add it to your sound library. Consider, too, that taking recordings at different days, times, and seasons may yield different compositional uses. For example, I have found amazing, chaotic birdsong to be abundant right before dawn.
- Compile a sound library on your computer, that is easily accessible and well-organized. You will likely need to draw upon the same sound for many projects, and having a place you can go to for quick and easy access to your files is indispensable.
- Treat audio recording as if you are writing music right then and there. Every recording should be thought of artistically. Everything should have a sense of purpose, phrasing, dynamics, timbre, orchestration, texture, rhythm, line, and function. Don’t just record; create art in the moment. Make art in real time during your recording process. Improvise, compose, create.
These are what come to mind right now, but I have many more cards up my sleeve that may surface in future posts.