one-minute vacation
recording in the field

Broadly speaking, I still do not know much about making field recordings. I can't advise journalists, naturalists, musicologists, or anthropologists on how to make the recordings their work or interests require.

I only know how to do what I do.

Listen to the recordings on this site. If you're interested in what I have to say about process, read on.

These are the things I think about.


Things to consider when recording in the field  

0. tools


Don't worry about your gear. Especially if you suffer from gear envy, as I do.

I'll reiterate the cliché: it's what you do with what you have. Most good recordings are a result of hard work or good luck, not having just the right piece of equipment. For the recordist in the field with no specific goal in mind, serendipity is more important than sample rate. In many cases simply showing up makes the difference.

Many of my most striking recordings suffer from occasional clipping, poor mic positioning, or incidental noise. Many of the flaws that ruin recordings that would have been great have nothing to do with my equipment choice (or budget). Some of my favorite work was made by people with crappy tape recorders and cheap monophonic microphones. You get the point.

When my gear is inappropriate for a particular goal, I reconsider my metrics. A lot of excellent work is being done with simple or crude tools.

Be equanimous about the limitations of your gear. No equipment would capture it all.

No recording will equal the moment. So be thankful for the moment itself. Be there first.

1. simplicity and complexity  

Simple sounds are often rich in detail.

A single sound presented over time, even looped, opens itself layer by layer.

Composing with recordings, I find simple sounds and soundscapes more useful than busy ones. It is difficult to layer sounds that are themselves multilayered.

Yet I continue to record complex soundscapes. Busy environments are often immediately emotive. Certain properties seem to emerge only from complexity: crossing rhythms, serendipitous harmony, rich stereo fields.

I often find it difficult to record complexity well. In the absence of visual cues, it is surprisingly difficult to make sense of layered sounds or discern individual sounds within a complex texture.

Perceived simplicity and complexity are most often a consequence of proximity to, and your position relative to, your subject(s). Other factors aside, the more one sound source dominates your recording, the simpler it will seem.

2. motion and action  

Moving the microphone while recording profoundly affects the listener's relationship to a recording.

I usually make still recordings. When the perceived 'point of view' is constant, the listener assumes an omniscient, third-person, even clinical detachment. This is the de facto relationship to recordings most people are familiar with: it frees them to engage, or not engage, with a particular space.

Some environments have properties that are best emphasized or revealed when the point of view is motionless, e.g., the echo in this recording of people shouting and swimming amidst karst cliffs.

Because I use head-worn microphones, I have spent a lot of time sitting still. Personally, I find these moments of stillness of immeasurable valuable: they change the way I perceive the environment.

Moving a microphone implies narrative.

Recordings made while moving or acting (walking, biking, typing) challenges the listener to identify with the recording. Recordings made while acting have narrative momentum.

Especially when people listen with headphones, such recordings offer an opportunity to enter into an experience. This is described as 'immersion.'

Play with motion. Dance. Bike. Crawl. Spin. I'm slowly amassing a collection of recordings made while standing in place and slowly spinning; the result I hear could not be created in the studio.


3. engagement


We humans are single-mindedly visual.

We rarely explore the acoustic properites of objects and environments, and almost never classify the world according to sound. I can think of no auditory metaphors analogous to an idiom such as 'point of view.'

Yet most objects, when manipulated, make sounds as characteristic as their shape. A new morphology of the world might be made, organizing all things by their sound(s).

Most places have acoustic signatures: we can easily tell a stairwell from a field, from a canyon, from a concert hall. We can tell one of those things from another.

Familiar places are made familiar by their characteristic sounds (often by what Schafer dubbed soundmarks). I know my porch from all others by the wind in our eucalyptus and my city by her fog horns.

Engage objects and spaces to search out their acoustic identifies. There are a lot of things eager to sing.

4. presence

Closely intwined to the ideas of motion and engagement is the idea of presence.

I define presence as the degree to which my agency, as recordist, is apparent. The degree to which I, personally, am distinct from the listener's projected self. (If I play bamboo like an instrument, it is impossible for a listener, even one listening with headphones to a binaural recording, to forget that I am there, not them.)

I appear in my recordings, and I disappear.

In most of them, I strive to vanish. I leave room for my hand to show (or not) during composition.

It is impossible in many situations to vanish. Many environments — especially human social ones — are inevitably altered by my presence. Often the best I can do is obscure the fact that I am recording by using stealthy equipment.

Sometimes there is no choice but to act. My wife has rung a hundred bells for me.

Sometimes acting makes the recording.

Yet in the end I am mostly interested in documenting, not in making. The choice is between two opposing kinds of truth. (But there is no such thing as transparent documentary.)

5. space and time  

I record with stereo microphones. I recommend them.

Not that I haven't heard many excellent monophonic recordings, and I am aware that in many situations such would best isolate specific aspects of the soundscape. Perhaps I work in stereo since I am more interested in totality (subject and its context) than detail (subject alone).

If you record in stereo, consider your position and orientation.

Seek to maximize the drama of moving or separated sound sources. If two events create a rhythm, get between them. The interaction of different subjects is often itself your best subject.

I usually try to maximize the presence of the space I am in. If reflections create an echo, I try to find a place where it is obvious.

Exaggerate foreground-background distinctions. Too much in the middle is just a mess. (I said that above in a different way.)

When in doubt err on the side of proximity. I've attained unlikely postures, received unflattering looks, and sufferd minor injuries getting close to sound sources. It's been worth it.

Consider documenting the same subject at different times of day. It worked for Monet.

6. diversity  

The more ways in which a day's (a week's, a trip's, a life's)
recordings differ, the more satisfied I am.

I try to vary my subject, of course, but also to vary scale, proximity, location (interior versus exterior), motion, time of day … everything discussed here.

If you record all subjects the same way, your recordings will have a uniformity apparent only when you hear someone else's. I learned this the hard way.

A good exercise is to make audio studies of the same subject using as wildly different strategies as you can. Then find the commonalities and vary those.

When traveling I strive to notice what is unique. I have many similar recordings I thought would differ more than they do.

Unless you get lucky, markets and rowboats are markets and rowboats, no matter where they're recorded.

7. quantity and quality  

I make a lot of bad recordings. So I make a lot of recordings.

Many a crappy photograph was saved, by careful cropping.

All my best recordings were never made.

The worst recording is still better than none at all. I don't regret any of the times I've paused to make a recording. At worst, I end up with a bad or boring recording.

I regret the innumerable times I haven't for one stupid reason or another.

There are no good reasons to not record, only ethical and practical ones.

Many of my best recordings are good because of unexpected or serendipitous events.

Blank media (especially with minidisc) is cheap. Opportunity and luck are priceless. The cutting room floor is a bottomless ocean.

Always record for at least five minutes.

Don't be afraid to record for a very long time. As soon as you press stop something amazing will happen.

Never tell yourself you'll come back to record something. Do it now.

Always go back to record something. You shall not pass that way again.

Don't be afraid to inconvenience any companions. Sometimes you can find a way to pay them back.

8. listen  

Listen to your recordings.

I have learned to listen to my recording the same day I made them. There is no other way to find out if what I am doing is worthwhile (especially since I don't 'monitor' while recording). Listening is its own reward. As I write this, I am listening.

I never manage to capture what I hear in the moment. I never hear in the moment what I manage to capture. To know what I mean you must listen to your recordings.

Headphones reveal detail in your recordings. You cannot invest too much in headphones (unless you're taking money from your microphones).

Never erase a recording (again: blanks are cheap). No matter how crappy a recording is, a year or a decade later, you will be amazed, and grateful, you have it.

Sometimes you're not recording what you think you are. Sometimes what's important in a recordings changes over time.

9. document  

Track when, where, and what you record.

Write down what you've recorded right away. If you're using minidisc, write on the disk itself.

If you do not intend to use your recordings in a completely unedited context, record yourself describing your context as you begin each recording. (I sometimes 'perform' by DJing with my source recordings.)

Develop and use a simple, concise key for flagging recordings of interest directly on your track lists, so they're easy to find years later. I place a star beside outstanding recordings.

Consider using a GPS to identify the exact location of every recording. Someday that's going to be useful (the Freesound project is already integrating geotagging).

10. share  

Play recordings for people, right after you have recorded them (or a shared environment). This is a gift you are privileged to give.

Always keep your headphones with you.

I usually ask people to use headphones when they listen to my recordings. It forces them to attend to the recorded world.

Consider carrying a cassette recorder with you to make copies of your recordings with. Buskers and other musicians are usually grateful when you give back to them what they gave to you. I regret not doing this from the beginning.

Alternately seek out options for burning CDs for people. This is becoming an increasingly possible as there are CD burners in every internet café.

If you can, make your recordings available to other people. Many, many people have written me to thank me for the recordings on this site. There's space for your recordings I believe at

11. prepare  

Be not half-assed, as my friend Jeff's bumper sticker says.

Invest in the best gear you can possibly afford, and more blank media than you need.

You can never have too many batteries or blanks. Carry extras with you always. I suffered much learning this lesson.

Take rechargeable batteries and use them whenever you can. Single-use atteries are nasty and opportunities to recycle them few.

Take disposable batteries and use gear that will accept them. Even when I carry an international-ready recharger, I may not always able to use it.

If you're not recording on a fungible archival medium, back up every day.

Always cover yourself with travel insurance. Over the years I've received back more than I've paid. Literally.

If you can afford it, take a spare recorder for good measure — take spare (if lesser) microphones. You can afford it.

12. care  

Protect your gear from the elements. Keep your gear in ziplock bags at all times. Dust is as bad as water.

If you are traveling, invest in an indestructible, watertight, lightweight case. It's the best deal you'll ever get. I swear by Pelican cases. Others use Otter boxes or Storm cases. Whichever: use one.

Remove batteries from gear that's in transit or storage. It might save you, some electronic devices (not all) can suffer getting wet but only if they are completely without power. You don't want your gear coming on and running itself down. And batteries corrode eventually.

Traveling, I carry my gear with me at all times if I can. It's usually safest there — and when I need it, there is never time to go back to my room.

Clean, and avoid touching, the connectors (plugs) of your microphones. Small amounts of corrosion introduce large amounts of noise, specifically when the plug rotates in the connector while recording.


Sonic Studios DSM in WHB