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What makes a field recording special? (part two)

What makes a field recording special? (part two)
9th December 2015 Cities and Memory

In part one of this feature, we heard from 15 field recordists around the world, who shared with us their favourite ever recorded sounds.

Here, we take a closer look at what they told us and (somewhat unscientifically) attempt to draw some conclusions about the factors that lift an everyday field recording up to the level of a sound you might remember forever.

It’s also a companion piece to our feature from last year: The top 5 things you need to make a great field recording.

1. Access & rarity

 

“It was a real privilege to be led into the flock like this and I heard things I could never hear on my own. Sheep will always run away from strangers, so the meeting was a real gift” – Felicity Ford

The bascule chamber at Tower Bridge

The bascule chamber at Tower Bridge

Several artists mentioned that their favourite field recording came as result of them getting access to a place – and a sound – that they wouldn’t ordinarily have been able to access. Ian Rawes explored a bascule chamber behind the scenes at Tower Bridge, while Robert van Riel found himself in the processing hall at a fish auction.

This sense of rarity and exclusivity of a sound is highly sought after. Not only is it true that if you have to work for something you’re likely to treasure it more, but also for a field recordist it’s important to capture sounds that are far from ‘another’ street or nature recording.

2. A personal recording

 

“My favourite field recordings might be the ones I made with my daughter when she was small, toddling around the room, with only a few words in her repertoire, one of which was ‘Mummy’, a sound that filled me with many emotions.” – Cathy Lane

Another common thread, of course, is sounds that are personal to the recordist. If the location, the experience or the sound are charged with emotion and somehow connected to your life, it’s likely that recording will stand head and shoulders above most of the others. Cathy’s example here is the most striking and dramatic, coming as it does from her own family, but elsewhere Jase Warner also talks about his ‘beautiful and happy’ memories of his recording, and my own piece from Venice has a personal resonance too.

The challenge with more personal recordings, of course, is then to ensure that they’re also interesting and meaningful for a listener with no emotional connection to them, or even that they can somehow transfer a little of that emotion over to a neutral listener.

3.Serendipity

 

“I chanced upon the situation, the latter of which I suppose is the essence of field recording: capturing unexpected moments.” – Jase Warner

Field recording in Hamburg

Field recording in Hamburg

I think Jase nails it here – the very essence of field recording can be found in moments of serendipity, when an event or a sound comes almost from nowhere and overwhelms the recordist. The sound simply ‘happens’.

In our roundup, Kamen Nedev evocatively describes a moment with “the rain, wind, and thunder all around me, and the windchimes swinging in the wind right above my head.”

Of course, as any field recordist will tell you, everyone also has their own story about a time when a moment like this arrived when they were without a recorder, or weren’t recording, or their recorder failed…(!)

4. Technical accomplishment

 

“Recordings of F1 car races are quite rare… So actually capturing them and recording them cleanly was a challenge I had set for myself, and was thrilled to have achieved it.” – Paul Virostek

Or, capturing exactly what you set out to record.

For many field recordists, the technical challenge of getting the perfect, definitive recording is what gets them out of bed in the morning (often very early in the morning too!).

The right mics, the right recorder, the right conditions and the perfect setup – all these and more lead to the holy grail of making the definitive, technical recording.

Alongside this technical perfection, there’s also the knowledge that you’ve set out to capture a particular sound, and you’ve achieved that aim perfectly – basically, the opposite of the point about serendipity above.

As Dan Tapper describes his piece in Iceland, “I felt that there was a clarity of sound that I wanted to capture – very crisp and clear. From dry seaweed on the coastline that crackled underfoot, how banging stones together created clear tones, the arctic terns that mobbed me for recording too close to their nests.”

5. Natural sounds

 

“The slug is so slow and quiet that it’s almost impossible to record in the field… I was very lucky to notice that the sand glued on its ‘foot’ continued to crunch subtly as it was moving.” – Stephane Marin

The Great Geysir in Iceland

The Great Geysir in Iceland

The sounds of nature are among the most common and the most sought-after field recordings – indeed, nature recordists are a distinct subset of sound recordists more broadly and have their own supportive networks.

But everyday birdsong and dog barking aside, for our recordists there’s something extra special about recording an unusual or hard-to-find sound from the natural world.

Stephane Marin tells us about his rare recording of the silent, slow slug, while Emmanuel Martinez discovered a mysterious crustacean beneath his boat in Mexico. Fabio R. Lattuca found his joy in the sounds of Lo Zingaro, Sicily’s beautiful nature reserve.

These sounds can be a massive challenge to find and to record, and are among the world’s most beautiful, so it’s little surprise to find that nature recordings are so highly regarded.

6. The sounds of people

 

“When walking around a city I love coming across live music wafting from windows.  It’s one of my favourite ever sound experiences. When in Prague I struck gold in this respect, coming across a music conservatory first, and then a dance class with a tap dance class in full swing.” – La Cosa Preziosa

The sounds of people and of communities are part of the fabric of life, almost regardless of where you are on the planet – and it’s how people interact with one another and their surroundings that can give you the strongest sense of place.

My own recording of St. Mark’s Square in Venice fizzes with life – of tourists, of locals, of cafes brimming with activity – while La Cosa Preziosa, as she describes above, goes looking for the sounds of music and life drifting from the windows in cities.

It’s often the sounds of people that define a place – and can lead to some of the most definitive field recordings.

7. Telling a story

 

“[The sound] contains a story about life in St. Mark’s Square, and is an immersive experience like standing in one of the world’s most famous squares yourself. It moves, it progresses, and it saves the best for last.” – Stuart Fowkes

A really great field recording can tell a story on its own, with little need for further explanation. If a sound moves, progresses and develops over its duration, bringing you new information and experiences as it proceeds, it’s a more satisfying sonic experience and is more likely to stay with you for longer.

8. Sometimes you just know

 

“Something prickled along my spine as I heard the deep, descending note early in the recording. This was going to be different.” – Ian Rawes

Hamburg's Old Elbtunnel

Hamburg’s Old Elbtunnel

Sometimes it takes years of recording experience, and sometimes it’s instinctive – but there are occasions when you immediately just know that the recording you’ve just made (or even more excitingly, are just about to make) will be special.

So there we are – eight ideas drawn from personal recollections by field recordists.

But what else makes a field recording special? We’d love to hear your thoughts, so please leave them in the comments below!

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