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Why Field Recording is an Essential Skill for Sound Designers

Against all odds, a single tree stood alone in the Sahara Desert for hundreds of years.

The tree of Ténéré was the sole survivor of the transition the Sahara made from a lush forest to the inhospitable dry swath we know today. Because it was the only notable thing for miles, travelers and merchants used it as a landmark to ensure they were going in the right direction. For an area as dangerous as the Sahara, this was absolutely necessary.

The Tree of Ténéré

And as sound designers, our equivalently-necessary skill is that of field recording. Whether we want to work in video games, animation, film, or even produce beats, being able to record the world around us allows us to have a never-ending fountain of great sounds at our disposal. It's easily one of the most essential skills we can have.

Let's cover what field recording even is, first

There is a little confusion around this term, after all. Simply put, field recording is the act of getting any sort of audio recording in some sort of non-studio, uncontrolled environment.

Maybe you're recording a bunch of bulldozers at a construction site, are recording your dog barking at your neighbor's objectively-less-cute dog, or are even sneaking into your local toxic ooze lab to get some roiling and bubbling sounds.

All of those sorts of scenarios (and many more) fall into the category of field recording. But why would we even want to bother with recording the world around us anyway?

To put it simply, field recording gets us uniqueness and familiarity

When we record our own sounds (whatever they may be), they're going to be unique, no matter what. Instead of always reaching for the same dog bark from a sound library that everyone else is using, you'll be able to use one that no one else has. When we have thousands of these unique recordings, our work starts to develop its own style that separates it from the pack.

Not only that, but because we recorded these sounds ourselves, we know and remember what they sound like. If we download a library of 100 dog barks, we simply just don't have any sort of familiarity with them. But when we record our own stuff, we instinctively remember what our recordings are, and can reach for them much quicker.

If we are looking for a dog bark, for example, we can try 100s of pre-made library sounds before we stumble into the right one, or we can think "oh yeah, I recorded my dog just the other day making the perfect sound" and pull it up immediately. Still, though, how do we even start getting into this practice?

Thankfully, starting is quite simple

If you have a microphone (yes, even your laptop or phone counts), then you're ready to go. Sure, you can get portable recorders (the Tascam DR-05X is the one I recommend most for beginners) when you're feeling more prepared, but the practice of acquiring sounds is what matters most.

Anytime you encounter an interesting sound, whether in your home or out and about, record it. Record the sound of that babbling brook, or that weird walk button at the intersection, or the sounds of your neighborhood when it's all quiet in the morning.

Don't worry about capsule-angles, microphone placement, etc. etc. just yet. Just get the sound. Providing you're not violating and rules, or someone's privacy, whatever you're interested in is a valid thing to be recorded.

Because field recording is all about being in an uncontrolled environment, we do want to think of good times to be recording, however.

The "when" can matter almost as much as the "what"

If we're recording an intersection at 5AM, for example, that will sound radically different than it would at 5PM. A Monday night would sound different than a Friday night, and on and on.

When recording sounds around my home, for example, I generally prefer to get my recording done early in the morning. That way, I can make sure the sounds of my neighbors and any outdoor traffic don't pollute anything I'm recording.

You'll want to make these considerations as well when you start getting more into this process. Still, even if you've carved out some time in your schedule for "when", you still might be curious about the "where."

And we can record in so many different places

It's kind of like photography: you don't want to invade privacy, break laws, and be a nuisance, but other than that, you can record in countless different spaces.

Whether recording in your home, around your block, or even taking the bus all the way to its last stop to get something really remote, everything is fair game. I personally like to find unpopular hiking trails to get nature sounds, underpasses to get weird echoes of traffic going by, and train tracks to get, well, trains.

Maybe you'll want to get the sounds of a lot of creaking metal, for example. In those cases, a local construction site might be perfect. Heck, you can even record yourself gently kicking a dumpster if that's what it takes. Your field recording journey will probably take you to some strange, and/or very fun places throughout your career.

"But Akash, you frothy chocolate whey protein shake" you ask "do I need to record all my own material?"

Definitely not. Sound libraries exist for a reason, and they're used by practically everybody - from the beginning sound designer, all the way to the most advanced. While, yes, it's a good idea to start building your library and to source your own stuff where you can, there will be plenty of sounds that are just too difficult for many people to get: such as guns, exotic animals, vehicles, etc.

Depending on the project, you may rely heavily on library sounds, or you may create everything yourself. Most of your projects will fall somewhere in between.

Many sound libraries are created by recordists who spend all day every day recording sounds. They have tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, years of experience, and have done tons of hard work of tagging and editing these files for us. It'd be way too time consuming to never ever use them.

So, let's go over what we covered today

  1. Field recording is the act of recording sounds in any sort of uncontrolled non-studio environment

  2. Recording our own sounds brings uniqueness to our library, and also, because we're recording these sounds ourselves, this brings us familiarity with what we have in our stash

  3. Even recording sounds with your phone or laptop can yield some great results. If you'd like a great beginner field recorder, then go for the Tascam DR-05X

  4. Thinking of when we're going to record is almost as important as what we're going to record. Our surroundings will likely sound quite different depending on the time of day

  5. It's totally okay to use a mixture of both our own sounds and pre-made library sounds on our projects

Just like the tree of Ténéré was necessary for travelers across the Sahara

The act of recording our own sounds is a necessary skill for us sound designers. We'll likely end up recording far more sounds than we'll ever need to use in our careers, but it's always good to have a flush library!

And sometimes, breaking in to, and advancing in the field of game audio feels as lonely as being a tree in the Sahara

Which is why I created two free game audio courses and the largest game audio community in the world for you.

If you’d like to learn how to up your audio skills, learn how to price your work, get paid, and find work in the game industry, and get access to advanced sound design and business courses before anyone else, then sign up for my newsletter here.


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