Monday, August 8, 2011

Field Recordings, Part 1

Not a lot to report at the moment. I've been engaged in the tedious work of cleaning up the backlog of field recordings made over the spring and summer so that they're ready for use in the Tales Audio Drama, music, etc... So I thought I'd write a post about what that involves, what kind of sounds I've been collecting, and how I go about it.

I've made my own field recordings and collected 'found sounds' for years now, mainly for use in music. I started out capturing them with a mini-cassette recorder, which I still have floating around the studio somewhere - it's good for achieving a phone-like effect on spoken word samples. Eventually, though, I saw the need for stepping up the quality, so I switched to a Sony MZ-NH700 minidisc recorder. This served me well for many years, but many a recording was ruined by the sound of the motor on the thing, which kicked-in every few minutes to write data to the disc.

Now there are a host of pocket-sized digital recorders available that offer 16 to 24 bit stereo recording with no moving parts, and after much deliberation I settled on the Zoom H1. I've had it since the beginning of the year, and have found it to be invaluable. I use it with a specialised 'wind-screen' outdoors, and also have a custom-made hydrophone I use with it for underwater recordings.

I take the Zoom with me pretty much everywhere. My job as a renovator gives me access to some interesting places, such as industrial buildings, and I live in a semi-rural environment with plenty of hiking trails. Unfortunately said trails are not far from mill yards, the main highway, and the train station, so there's an ever-present layer of noise pollution in the background at varying degrees. Most of this can be scrubbed out, or at least dampened - something I'll cover in Part 2. But certain sounds are particularly stubborn. I've learned to avoid making any recordings if a lawnmower can be heard, for example. Another trick is finding natural noise dampeners, such as a hill or bank between you and the unwanted noise.

On my hikes, once or twice a week, I keep in mind some of the sounds I need for my production and make use of what I find at hand. I needed the sound of trees being destroyed, for instance, and was able to find several trees ranging from saplings to much larger ones that had blown over or fallen from the weight of last year's snow. These could be easily lifted and let drop to achieve the effect.

As well as these kinds of engineered sounds, I've recorded the likes of streams, birdsong, and squirrels. I've recorded extensive metallic sounds in a junk-yard in the middle of the woods (this was a very lucky find!), and rock and gravel noises in two different quarries. On one occasion I was even caught in a thunderstorm with the Zoom to hand. Bliss!

The one problem with this undertaking is that sounds are relatively easy to capture; they pile up, a bit like digital photographs, in no time at all. But editing and archiving them is a long and drawn-out process. I'll take you through the editing stage in Part 2.

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