5 Useful Tips for Creative Urban Field Recording

This article was is written by myself, but was originally posted on A Sound Effect here :

5 Useful Tips for Creative Urban Field Recording

In this article, I wish to share my approach on urban field recording. It consists of some tips and pointers I have come to learn and put into practice when doing field recording in urban environments. They are not based on practical or technical knowledge, but are rather meant to ignite creative thought processes. You could argue that the following tips are not limited to urban soundscapes and can very well be applied to any sort of field recording, but what I would like to convey here is how the sounds we find in a city can be incredibly revealing about a space we think we know extensively, and that listening and paying attention to those sounds may very well shine a new light on our surroundings.

When going out recording in the city, one quickly realises how noisy it can get, and how homogeneous it can sometimes feel in terms of soundscape. Urban recording is rarely about capturing bird songs or other quiet events – the loudness and ubiquity of other elements such as traffic noise can make that quite difficult. So although it is possible to focus on those soft sounding occurrences, it can be a challenge. If you embrace that fact though, it is still possible to make the most of it – for instance I think most cities have their own sonic personality, which can be very interesting to capture. As the recordist, it’s about listening to your surroundings and find a perspective which you feel can communicate this sonic personality. And that brings me to my first tip, which takes the form of a question to ask yourself about your subject when hunting for sounds:

What makes it unique?

How does this city’s soundscape sound different than any other, what do you hear in this place that you wouldn’t hear anywhere else? What gives it its special vibe? I found that Amsterdam was an excellent example of this atypical urban sonic personality: its soundscape is persistently composed of an amalgam of bicycles, trams, cars, motorbikes, and boats! You won’t find a similar composition of sounds in just any city in the world.

If you compare this Amsterdam recording with the following, which was made in Montreal, you can quickly hear how different those two spaces sound:

But if sometimes traffic and general city ambiences are good things to record in various places and from various perspectives, if only for the sake of building diverse libraries, I believe there is so much more to the urban soundscape than what shows on the surface. And to be honest, a unique soundscape doesn’t necessarily make it interesting. Which brings me to my second tip:

What makes it interesting?

The quality of being interesting may not have anything to do with the fact that it is a city recording or with how it was recorded. Interesting has to do with how you feel when you listen to that sound, and what is the emotion it transmits. Does it arouse your curiosity or catch your attention? Does it make you discover anything new? Is it suggesting something you haven’t considered before? Is it making you think about the subject in a different way? Is it simply enjoyable to listen to? Or rather uncomfortable? Compelling? Intriguing? Disgusting? Engaging? Typical or atypical? Surprising? Challenging? Impressive? Etc, etc.

In an urban context, especially if it is your own city, you may be almost desensitised to the specific sonic personality and uniqueness around you – you’ve been exposed to it for so long that it might sound only moderately interesting to you. When I realise that this is the case for me and that the most predominant elements of the soundscape in my immediate surroundings don’t present much of an interest, this is what I ask myself:

Is there anything hidden?

Is there anything else? Is there anything I can reveal about this environment that is not obvious to the ears or eyes? Are there any sounds here that I may not be able to listen to with naked ears? Is there anything I can uncover about this space that is here yet we forget about it or maybe even don’t know about it? Can I represent this space in a way that will make its inhabitants rediscover it? Can I present this space through a different angle that would make one think differently about it, or if not differently, then at least acknowledge it and possibly re-connect with it? I find that revealing those elements of our environments can be a way to reconsider what we sometimes take for granted.

More than the mere rediscovery, it’s about acknowledging that these sounds, these vibrations in the air (and in other elements), they do exist, even if they are not obvious to our human ears, or if we are a priori indifferent to them, whether it’s because they are masked by other noise or because they resonate in a way that we are not sensitive to. Even though they interact with our environment in a way that we may be blind (or deaf) to, they may still have an impact on it. It’s kind of like the tree in the forest – if it falls and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? The sounds I am interested in capturing and revealing in our urban environments, they interact with our surroundings, or are manifestations of our surroundings (and ourselves) interacting with them, without us realising it. Maybe thinking about those events can make people think similarly about other elements of our environment that are taken for granted, but are equally important to acknowledge. So put simply, when hunting for sounds in an urban environment, in which so many of us are immersed everyday, I ask myself: how can I make people think about their surroundings?

Example 1 – Contact microphones on a fence under the rain

Example 2 – Electromagnetic microphone on a car dashboard

And this brings me to my next tip:

How best can you capture it?

In order to reveal the hidden, some thinking outside the box may be required. If you wish to use conventional air microphones, you might want to consider unconventional techniques, which will themselves highly depend on your subject. For instance, mics such as the small DPA 4060s are so tiny that they can fit in many places and offer a very different perspective on sounding objects than what we are used to. What if you hung a pair of these down a sewer pipe? What if you stuck them in a car engine? What if you squeezed them in some tiny crack of a wall in your house when it is raining? What if you hid them inside a sculpture and captured how the air moves through it? What if you used them as contact mics so that you capture both the vibrations in the air as well as the ones that resonate through the surfaces?

Similarly, if you would first think of recording a stereo ambience, consider using a directional mic instead, and get a focused perspective on something very specific within the environment. Maybe come back at different times of day (or even different seasons!) to reveal sounds that may exist only under certain conditions. Or rather place various microphones in different spots to get a custom multichannel recording, composing a unique soundscape of what you believe are the most relevant elements in it. Let your subjectivity shine through as the recordist. Involve space and time in the recording and give it a sense of place – situate it within a context.

Air microphones are one way to capture sounds, but what you might realise is that they may simply not be the solution to reveal the hidden, since they capture the same variations of pressure in the air as our eardrums do. Here are a few examples of unconventional microphones that can help you capture and represent your environment differently:

Contact microphones on a flagpole:

Electromagnetic microphone on an eclectic line:

Hydrophone in a park’s lake:

Train recorded with VLF receiver (recorded by Philip Eriksson):

Some fantastic work from Jez Riley French also involves geophones and ultrasonics (headphones or conventional speakers are required for the geophone aspects):

Kettles Yard Piano Room

Gallery Three

Voyage Ultrasons

My point here is that these microphones are tools that can help you interpret or reinterpret your environment, and present it through different angles. The ways the tools are used determine how interesting the results are, not the tools themselves. Once you realise the options you have, it can even become overwhelming to start thinking about all that exists in your surroundings which you had never thought of before! Here are a few more examples which hopefully help to illustrate my point :

Contact microphones on an antenna under the rain:

Contact microphones set up on a metal bridge structure:

More electromagnetic recordings from Jez Riley French:

And finally more from geophone and ultrasonics examples from Jez Riley French can be found here.

This brings me to my last tip:

What are you trying to represent?

What my previous tips and examples have tried to show, is that the job of the recordist is more than simply pressing record. There is a lot of subjectivity involved in field recording. How it manifests is for instance through the choice of subject, the recording methods and tools, the emphasis and focus, even the length of the recording, etc. All those decisions are made according to the recordist’s intuition, artistic preferences and inclinations.

So what are you trying to share? What are you trying to tell the listener? Knowing this will determine the answer to most of the questions above – once your intention is clear, the where, how, and when are only technicalities. In other words, the recordist’s subjectivity is ultimately what will make the recording interesting.

Happy field recording!

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