Outstanding in our field

The Listening Field


Standing in a field with a microphone – beginning field recording.

Chris Watson, a legend of field recording

Where do I start?

Are you, like me, are fascinated by the idea of field recording? Are you an artist, or a writer, or a film maker, wanting to add outdoor audio recording skill to your repertoire? Are you a birdwatcher, and want to extend you interest by recording the multitudes of birdsongs you encounter? Maybe you’re a steam train enthusiast, and would like to enjoy to the sound of a 4-6-6-4 Challenger passing though your living room in glorious stereo. Or perhaps you just want to bring home the ambience of the local park.

Field recording is many things to many people, but like almost everything in the world, getting good at it is all about practice. Practice in the sense of doing something repeatedly, and practice in the sense of creative practice, professional practice and even life practice.

The best way to do it is to do it. Get out there as soon as you can and start recording.

That’s all very well, but I need the right equipment.

Yes you do, in the long run, and I’ll be looking at that in great detail in future posts. But to start with, use whatever equipment you have to hand. Just your phone will do. It will have some kind of memo taking app on it. And your earpieces for monitoring the recording – headphones are better if you have them.

Phones, tablets, cassette recorders, microphones acquired for some other purpose, old socks and pillows, broomsticks – all can be harnessed to the task of beginning field recording. The quality of your recordings is about so much more than the equipment you use. So even if you order the finest high end recorders and mics before you start, your initial recordings are likely to be far from perfect.

For example

I happen have an iRig microphone. It’s a condenser microphone best used for speech and vocals, or at a push recording musical instruments. It connects to my phone and works with the iRig recorder app. It is fine for podcasters, but far from ideal for field recording. I combined it with an iPhone 4 (!) to make my first recordings. The quality of the outcome had much more to do with where I was standing, the overall sound in the vacinity, my recording levels, the wind and other environmental conditions, than the quality of my equipment.

iRig Microphone

If you don’t want to use your phone you can start out with a handy digital recorder such as the Zoom H1n, (around $140 on Amazon), or an old Zoom H1 from eBay at half the price.  (The good thing is there is always a demand for used recorders, so if you’ve looked after it and want to upgrade you can easily sell your old one.)

Of course there is not one correct order to do these things in, no one’s going to stop you spending a couple or grand before you even step outdoors. But it’s a good idea to use what you’ve got, get a feel for what you are doing, work out what else you need, and build up slowly as you go along.

What will I record?

Many will know exactly what they want to record. You might be longing to capture the elusive strains of a nightingale on the wing, our the stirring hissing and shunting of a steam engine creaking into action. For others, we’re not so sure, and though it might seem like a stupid question “I’m interested in recording but I don’t know what to record!”  it is nothing to be concerned about. Get outside and enjoy the sound of the traffic, document the dog down the street barking. Or stay inside and switch on the microphone, get the benefit of the ambience of your office or factory (careful what you do with stuff, some workplaces frown on workers documenting them!). The great thing about a portable recorder is you can carry it with you, and if you encounter an interesting soundscape you can capture it on the fly. Why not make an audio document of your journey to work.

The most important piece of equipment…

…is a notebook. I mean obviously a recording device is more essential, but a notebook will make the difference between dabbling and doing it right. Whenever you make a recording write down as much as you can. The equipment you use, the recording levels, the time, the location, how the equipment is set up – are you standing holding a microphone or is it set up otherwise? –  the weather conditions. The more information you have, the better you can improve the next recording. Over time you can develop a shorthand note taking system to get these things done quickly. One day you’ll have a row of notebooks documenting your adventures in field recording.  Or you can do on your phone. The main thing is to keep a record of what you record…

Beginning field recording

Press play and record.


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