Ten top simple field recording tips

We’ve had a few emails from people who’d love to get involved with the project but haven’t tried field recording before or don’t know how to approach it. While it’s not exactly rocket science to get a serviceable sound recording even with a mobile phone, you can of course get as technical as you want to with microphones, editing and processing technology. Here, though, are ten very basic tips for beginners that I found really helpful when starting out taking location recordings:

1. Don’t forget to press record!

Many recording devices require two clicks of the record button to start recording. The first simply puts the device into ‘ready to record’ mode, the second actually starts the recording. Make sure you’re definitely recording! This is the number 1 schoolboy error, and we’ve all done it.

2. Wind sounds are your worst enemies – avoid at all costs.

You might think that’s only a gentle breeze, and it can’t possibly do anything to your recording, but IT WILL. Even a light wind sounds like someone’s ripped your mic in half, and will render your recording unusable. Use wind shields, use shelter, avoid wind at all costs.

3. Verbal ID every take and rename your files something useful – this will save you loads of time later.

At the beginning or end of each take, just say where you are, when it is and what you’re recording. When you come to sift through dozens of recordings you’ve made weeks later, you’ll be thankful it’s much easier to find that one take you thought was a beauty, instead of sifting through loads of similarly-named filenames.

4. Always monitor with your headphones on while recording anything.

You don’t hear what your microphone/recorder is hearing, so you MUST wear headphones when recording anything, to identify things like wind sound, see if your recording levels are set up OK, and also to help you identify interesting details in the sound environment that you might want to focus on more.

5. Go for high quality

Always record in WAV (uncompressed audio) format, in stereo. You can always reduce the file size later, but you can’t increase the quality of a source recording if you’ve originally captured it as a low-quality mono MP3.

6. Get some over-the-ear headphones

In-ear headphones like iPod headphones don’t cut it – there’s so much bleed of external sound into your ears that you can’t monitor properly with them.

7. Watch your recording levels

It’s better to have your recording levels set slightly too low than too high – one sudden increase in volume in the sound environment and you’ll find your sound clipping, and digital distortion is impossible to get rid of and will ruin your recording. If the sound is a bit too quiet, you can always boost it in editing later on. Err on the side of caution with recording levels.

8. Stay clear of the microphone

Don’t move towards, tap or click the mic, or knock the surface your audio recorder is on. Any knock or vibration can affect the sound. Clothing and jewellery can also make intrusive and unwanted additions to your sound.

9. Record more, not less

When you’re recording and listening through headphones, 30 seconds can seem like an awfully long time, but it isn’t really. Always record for a minute more than you think you need to at the time, to give yourself more raw material to work with. If you need to clip out 30 seconds because of a wind sound you didn’t notice at the time, you’ll be glad of the extra wiggle room. And if you ever find yourself thinking ‘should I record this sound or not?’, record it! It’s better to delete unwanted recordings later than to miss out on that one magic moment because ‘record’ wasn’t pressed.

10. Back up your recordings. Always.

As soon as you can, download and back up. If you’re on a multi-day trip, download and back up every night.

Hope that’s helpful!

About Cities and Memory

Stuart Fowkes is the creator and curator of Cities and Memory, producing a large number of the source field recordings and reimagined 'memory' versions himself, as well as curating the project as a whole.

6 comments on “Ten top simple field recording tips

  1. Can I add – Get as close to the sound source as possible and as far away from your microphone as you can!
    Set your microphone up and then use as much cable as you can to get away from it – that way you can avoid the sound of heavy breathing, sniffing, coughing and worse!

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