Field Recording Workshop#1

notes for my undergraduate workshop

Who am I?

My name is Lloyd Barrett.  I have for over a decade composed and improvised sound art and audiovisual works.

A key element to my work is the use and manipulation of field recordings.

Recording location sounds in Newcastle, Australia as part of my Electrofringe 2007 collaboration with Paul Forbes Mitchell.

What is Field Recording?

The term “field recording” was originally used to refer to location ethnomusicology, a combination of anthropology and ethnography that included the recording for preservation of songs and dances from different cultures.

Frances Densmore and Alan Lomax are two noted Ethnomusicologists who respectively brought the recordings of Native Americans and early 19th Century blues and appalachian folk singers to popular attention.  Without recordists like them it is unlikely we would be listening to “Rock ‘n Roll” today.

The use of “field recording” in modern parlance is often interchangeable with “phonography” – and refers to the use of microphones to record environmental sounds outside the studio confines.

Some Notable Field Recordists


Chris Watson is a recordist for the BBC Natural History unit as well as a composer and original member of Cabaret Voltaire and The Hafler Trio

Hildegarde Westerkamp is a German/Canadian electro-acoustic composer and founding member of the World Forum on Acoustic Ecology.

Aaron Ximm is a field recordist with a highly diverse collection of recordings including some excellent binaural travelogues.

Artists who frequently use field recordings in their work

BJ Nilsen / Hazard manipulates natural recordings into drones and electro-acoustic compositions.  He has also worked with Chris Watson.

Lawrence English constructs compositions using field recordings and drones as well as curating work for his Room40 label that often features phonographic works.

Francisco Lopez is prolific in his release of compositions sourced originally from field recordings.  He mixes his work live and will often require the audience to wear blindfolds in order that they better concentrate on the aural as opposed to the visual.

Wired Lab Adventure

In 2009 I was invited to The Wired Lab for a workshop with Chris Watson.

Wired Lab Adventure from Secret Killer Of Names on Vimeo.

Chris Watson talking at the Wired Lab 2009

Watson’s – 3 elements


Regardless of whether it is for a composed work for CD or a commissioned piece of foley, Chris Watson prioritises 3 elements for the sonic composition:

1. atmospheres – sounds of a place

  • 2/3 mins
  • minimal dynamic range
  • keep at right amplitude for playback (usually very quiet)
  • good for layering on top of – it is the foundation
  •  move the mics away to get a broader scope
  • omnidirectional x 2
  • process of composition starts with placement

2. habitats

  • for highly located sound – closer to the focus
  • more direct less reflective
  • bad for reverberent acoustic environs – better for outdoors
  • crossed xy or gun mic’s

3. featured sounds

  •  specific moments
  • signal to ambient noise ratio is important
  • mobility required
  • gun good to ensure no handling noise

 R. Murray Schafer

Watson’s 3 elements correlate nicely to the taxonomy for analysing acoustic environments outlined by R.Murray Schafer in his influential book “The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World”.  This is a key text informing the Acoustic Ecology movement and the World Soundscape Project that included Barry Truax in it’s membership.

3 Components of the Soundscape

  1. Keynote as a musical term refers to the key or tonality of a particular composition. In soundscape studies it refers to a ubiquitous and prevailing sound, usually in the background of the individual’s perception, to which all other sounds in the soundscape are related.
  2. Signals, a term borrowed from communication theory, are foreground sounds, listened to consciously, often encoding certain messages or information.
  3. Soundmarks, analogous to landmarks, are unique sound objects, specific to a certain place.


To understand the best approach to creating field recordings it is important to listen to some great examples and to the sounds of the environment around you.  In both cases you need to find a comfortable safe space, close your eyes, breathe normally and focus on what you hear.

It is good to start with pure field recordings before you move to composed works.  Pretty much anything by Chris Watson or Aaron Ximm is recommended as well as the original material from the World Soundscape Project.


 How to make a field recording

The best gear can set you back thousands of dollars depending on how accurately you want to capture the environment.  I’m listing what I think is of primary importance first.

1.  a portable recording device

By portable it needs to have battery power as you will not be plugging into mains.  I use a Zoom H4n but you could even consider using an iPhone or similar smart phone that has recording ability.  Janek Schaefer posted a voice-activated dictaphone to himself to create the piece ‘Recorded Delivery’

2. microphones

A uni-directional boom or shotgun mic is important for getting the featured sounds or signals.  Condensor microphones are more sensitive but require phantom power, though some have battery compartments built in.

An x/y stereo microphone pair can be used for habitat and locational sound.  The quality and build of the microphones generally correlate to how sensitive they are and what radius of sound they will pick up.

Using a windscreen will be very important as condensor microphones are sensitive to vibration.  For this reason the use of a shotgun attachment or tripod reduce handling noise.

3. headphones

Closed headphones are preferable but the main thing is that you need to be able to monitor sound with high gain from your recorder so that you can identify individual sounds more easily.

4. an interesting environment

Listen to your environment and try to identify keynote / signals / soundmarks or atmospheres / habitats / featured sounds.  If this is difficult, you may have picked an environment that is sonically busy and will be a challenge to adequately record.

That’s pretty much it

There are a variety of different types of microphone and different approaches but once you have the basic gear it is up to you to capture and experiment.  Don’t forget to copy the sounds from the portable recorder so you can manipulate them later.

In the next installment I will discuss different approaches to using this material you have recorded.

In the meantime if you need more advice check these links:

Beginners Guide to Field Recording



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