Skip links

What makes a field recording special? (part one)

Recording in St. Mark's Square
Recording in St. Mark’s Square

Over years of field recording, we’ve often pondered the question ‘what makes a field recording special?’ Just what is it that elevates one recording from the everyday to something that makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck?

In this two-part series, we ask fifteen notable field recordists from all over the world to tell us about their personal favourite field recording and what makes it stand out for them. In the second part, we’ll draw some conclusions from what they told us. Here we go – prepare for some amazing sounds, from beautiful nature to roaring machinery.

Read part two – eight things that make a field recording special

Felicity Ford – Knitsonik (UK)

  • Sheep farm – Kentmere, UK
  • Recorded with a FOSTEX FR-2LE and an Audio Technica BP4029 stereo condenser microphone.

“My favourite field recording was made in Kentmere on a sheep farm with Margaret Black, who is a shepherd. Her mother before her was a shepherd, and so is her daughter. I visited the farm on a rainy day in January.

“We talked about Rough Fell sheep, the breed that the Black family have always farmed. We spoke of shearing and of the calendar of events in the lives of shepherds, and the dreadful fall in the prices for wool. Rough Fells are very large sheep with nice broad dark faces and a long, coarse kempy fleece that was once very sought after by the Italian mattress industry.

“After our chat Margaret invited me to travel up onto the fell on her quad bike to meet the show flock belonging to her daughter – Amy Black. Pedigree flocks that are taken to shows and suchlike are very personable and used to human beings, so as we went up the trail towards the sheep the flock crowded around us in a big ‘baa’-ing cloud.

“I loved making this recording for many reasons. Firstly, I really enjoyed meeting these fantastic women and their sheep. Secondly, 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 and impossible without collaborating with a shepherd.

“Thirdly, I feel that in the textures of the recording – the wind, the rough grinding of the sheep’s teeth, the throaty baas, the wind, the banging gates and the mud – you can really understand the necessary toughness of the Rough Fell wool… its hardness and strength make sense when you hear the context in which it grows.

“I love the recording and it always reminds me of a very happy time touring around Cumbria interviewing shepherds and recording sheep, and deepening my respect for the work involved in raising wool from the landscape.”

Stuart Fowkes, Cities and Memory (UK)

  • Piazza life and campanile bells – Piazza San Marco, Venice
  • Recorded with a Zoom H4N

“Venice has always been the spiritual home of Cities and Memory – it’s one of our most frequently-visited locations, it’s a unique sonic (as well as visual) experience, and the project even takes its name from Invisible Cities, a book that holds Venice at its very core.

“So for me, this recording is not just clean and exciting to listen to, but full of personal charge and importance.

“As to the recording itself, it contains a story about life in St. Mark’s Square, and is an immersive experience like standing right there in one of the world’s most famous squares yourself. It moves, it progresses, and it saves the best for last.

“We begin outside one of the piazza’s famous cafes, with an outdoor jazz band entertaining the customers. You can hear the vibrancy and buzz of the location, and even children playing, running around and enjoying the freedom of the open space.

“You can make out different languages – the square is a real Tower of Babel due to levels of tourism – and the clink of coffee cups. But then the bells ring – and what bells!

“They echo on all sides of the huge space, completely enveloping the listener, dominating the soundscape and rendering everything else quiet. I distinctly recall making this recording, with the hairs standing up on the back of my neck throughout the last two minutes. A breathtaking experience, some of which I hope comes across in the recording.”

La Cosa Preziosa (Ireland)

  • Street soundscape – Prague, Czech Republic

“I wouldn’t be able to say what’s my absolute favourite field recording from a qualitative point of view, because it all depends how they serve my purpose in the creation of a soundscape.  I may have a pristine recording, which I can’t really place for creative purposes, then it’s really no use to me.  So to answer your question I’m picking one of my favourite field recordings from a purely personal taste point of view.

“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.  Somehow, they both matched the rhythm of the city as I was feeling it that particular morning.”

Cathy Lane (UK)

“Hmmm  – favourite field recordings  – the avocets, gentle breeze distant sea and space of the Baleshare causeway, Outer Hebrides September 2008?  Ouirgane, Morrocco 2005 when the call to prayer from 4 separate mosques seemed to reach me slightly out of phase from the north, east, south and west?

“I think actually it was a small room in Dalston, London in 1993. At the risk of sounding mawkish or sentimental my favorite 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.

“I was overwhelmed with having a baby and with caring for her and my compositional work and PhD in electroacoustic composition was on hold.  My perspectives had temporarily shrunk and like many composers before and after I resorted to using what was around me.

“The recordings found their way into a composed work, ‘Nesting Stones’ by 1996 and the way I used them reflected many of my ambivalent feelings about motherhood. In 1998 ‘Nesting Stones’ was featured on Unknown Public Issue 8: Sensuality Essence And Nonsense and as a result was chosen as one of The Wire magazines “100 Records That Set The World On Fire (While No One Was Listening)” along with works such classics as Steve Reich’s ‘Come Out’, Alvin Lucier’s ‘I Am Sitting In A Room’ and Glenn Gould’s ‘The Solitude Trilogy’ as well as works by Louis & Bebe Barron, Youssou N’Dour, William S. Burroughs, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra and Herbie Hancock.

“Stockhausen’s Gesang Der Junglinge features the voice of a near-infant boy. Nesting Stones doesn’t seem so different: a mix of musique concrete and electronic treatment, featuring the cry of Lane’s own child Mia. What’s so striking is how insipid and even cowardly Stockhausen’s pioneering work suddenly seems, how carefully the young Darmstadt modernist (who had just become a father) distances himself from any of his own feelings about child-as-sound (above all, imposing some irrelevant biblical material on the work).

Mia’s yowling, by contrast, is looped and treated until its primal empathic pull (she’s calling “Mama”) folds into maddening repetition, strain and ugliness. Even as the sound mutates into gurgles and chuckles – everything we’re programmed to respond positively to – the baby manifests as parasite, as cancerous scrawl, as chaotic insistent thing. A simple idea, on the face of it far from new, and yet – in this age of child abuse panic and false memory syndrome – far more powerful, daring and revelatory than almost any Electronica or concrete I can think of.”
– The Wire #175, September 1998

“It definitely didn’t set the world on fire but 20 years later I can only look back with positive thoughts and pleasure.”

Fabio R. Lattuca – VacuaMoenia (Italy)

  • Natural soundscape – Riserva dello Zingaro, Sicily
  • Recorded with a Zoom H2N.

“I love it because represents a clear and quiet summer night in a really amazing place in Sicily, the Riserva dello Zingaro.

“Here, nature lives far from the human presence and the sounds are like a hi-fi composition in which every signal made by the insects, animals, birds and plants can be listened to and read.”

Stéphane Marin – Espaces Sonores (France)

  • Slug coming back from a fresh bath at the river – Parc Régional des Pyrénées Ariégeoises, Ariège, France
  • Recorded with Sound Device 552 + Jez Contact C Series.

“The slug is so slow and quiet that it’s almost impossible to record in the field.

“Here, it is ‘running’ on the sand. When it climbed onto my contact mic – which I put in its path like an obstacle – I was very lucky to notice that the sand glued on its ‘foot’ continued to crunch subtly as it was moving.

“By the way, the slug symbolises ‘degrowth’ – it invites us to slow down and listen…”

Emmanuel Galvan Martinez (Mexico)

  • Subaquatic creatures No. 1 (some kind of crustacean) – Chunyaxché Lagoon, Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, Muyil, Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico.
  • Recorded with a Jez Riley Series D Hydrophone. recorded on a Zoom H5.

“What I love about it are several things: In terms of sound, I love its texture and rhythm.

“It was made late night in a lagoon, from a boat. I did not expect to capture anything interesting but much to my surprise it sounded like some sort of crustaceous was hitting my hydrophone as if it was trying to figure out what it was (I imagined so, at least).

“A bit of background: that night, was the last night of our inaugural Biosphere Soundscapes residency in Mexico. Personally, it meant the culmination of a year’s hard work. Also, the prior ten days had been exhausting but very rewarding.

“I have to say, I was too tired to have any expectations so, when I started listening to this subaquatic creature, it was simply fascinating and a very nice touch to close the night and the residency’s activities.”

Kamen Nedev (Spain)

  • Windchimes, rain, wind, thunderstorm – Cerezo de Arriba, Spain
  • Recorded with Soundman OKM II Classic Studio binaural mics into a Sony PCM-M10.

“I was spending July 2012 at Cerezo de Arriba, a small village near Segovia, Spain, just on the other side of Madrid’s Sierra. It was  the plain, but close to the mountains, in fact, the ski resorts were clearly visible from the front porch of the large country house where we were staying. The country house was very comfortable, except for the wind chimes that our hosts had hung over the main entrance door, which would ring every time someone entered or left the building, driving me crazy.”

“One evening, we got a summer thunderstorm, something our hosts seemed to be accustomed to, but which looked (and sounded) really dramatic as it loomed over the village from up in the mountains.

“I didn’t think twice, left my friends in the living room, donned my binaurals and rushed out to the porch. The rain was heavy, dousing my clothes even though I stayed at the porch, not venturing any further.

“This is where this field recording was made. The rain, wind, and thunder all around me, and the windchimes swinging in the wind right above my head. It’s not the kind of field recording I normally go for, but the end result was rather dramatic, with wide dynamics, and seems to be a favourite on my SoundCloud page.”

Ian Rawes – London Sound Survey, UK

  • Tower Bridge – London
  • Recorded with a Fostex FR2LE and a Audio Technica BP4025 microphone.

“I don’t have a single favourite recording but this is one of them. It was made in 2012 inside a part of Tower Bridge which is normally hidden from public view, called a bascule chamber. It’s where the one of the road section’s counterweights descends as the bridge is raised.

“The recording was made from a gantry as the counterweight was slowly lowered. The first attempt had to be abandoned as the engineer accompanying me couldn’t keep still, so I left the mic and recorder unattended for the second attempt. I only heard the results when I got home.

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

“What was eventually revealed over the course of seven or eight minutes was a complete mechanical composition, with tones and structure, all of it unintended. To my ears it has something of the grandeur and indifference of the city itself.

“The recording formed the basis for a composition by Iain Chambers, which was performed by the Docklands Sinfonia inside the bascule chamber in 2015, thus completing the circle from its genesis in 2012.”

Tim Shaw

“Going through folders upon folders of field recordings trying to find a favourite is a daunting task. I eventually decided to go for a recent recording, with the experience still fresh in my mind. I made this when visiting Pixsel festival in Bergen, Norway last week. John Bowers and I were commissioned by the festival to create an exploratory artwork which involved going out into the field and collecting material from the surrounding area.

“The idea was to then transmit this process live into the gallery / installation space we were occupying. Everything was transmitted back; our walking, our audio explorations, our mistakes and our conversations via a web stream. I have been calling this nature of work Transmit/Receive.

“This process kind of resituated the act of field recording for me. Usually, you go out, find a good space, experiment with different microphone positions, get it all ready and then press the record button. With the Transmit/Receive method the whole recording process becomes a performance.

“You perform when carrying the equipment, setting stuff up, taking it down, how you navigate an environment etc. With the setup I have it is also possible to mix and layer different microphones and other listening devices live.

“Here is a small section of one of our journeys, it is recorded from a small pier on the peninsular of Nordnes in Bergen. Using two DPA microphones and a DIY hydrophone I managed to collect sounds from above and below the water.

“The hydrophone, due to lack of cable shielding, also picks up various electromagnetic interferences, I like this as it adds another sound signature from the place. Towards the end of the recording you can hear my shufflings as I try to avoid getting splashed by the waves as a boat comes past.”

Dan Tapper, UK

  • Boiling stream – Great Geysir, Iceland
  • Recorded with a Zoom H4N with homemade binaural microphones.

“I visited Iceland for a few days whilst traveling between Boston and London – there is something about Iceland that seems to capture artists interest whether they’ve been or not, I’ve always been interested in the scenery and the music so I was excited to have the chance to do some field recording trips there.

“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.

“The recording I have chosen is a boiling stream emerging from the ground, recorded near the Great Geysir in Iceland. I was able to step onto a rock and use it as a sort of platform to record really near to the streams surface without getting burnt.

“The heat was substantial so I only spent a brief period recording in this position. I really like this recording for a number of reasons – it captures the clarity of sound I associate with my time in Iceland, by venturing a little way from the main tourist spots I was able to get a recording without interference from a crowd.

“I was also traveling with a danish friend I met at the hostel where I was staying, he wasn’t too sure what I was doing banging rocks together and stepping into boiling streams to record and he would often talk while I was recording. Rather than detracting from the recording this has added an extra element for me that links it to a time and a place.”

Andreas Usenbenz, Germany

  • Fridge – Ulm, Germany
  • Recorded with a Sound Devices 702T using two DPA 4060 microphones

“When I was installing my Sound Installation “Rauschen“ at the Griesbad Gallerie in Ulm, Germany, I recognised this old refridgerator, which was making a huge humming noise.

“I thought it was a very unique sound, and recorded it through a glass bottle. I mounted my two DPA 4060s inside the bottle in slightly different positions and recorded them with my Sound Devices 702T.”

Robert van Riel, Haarlem, Netherlands

  • Processing hall at a fish auction – IJmuiden, the Netherlands
  • Recorded with a Sony PCM M-10.

“The track is recorded in a processing hall of the fish auction at IJmuiden. It is a hall where plastic crates, coming off fishing boats, are emptied, fish is selected and sometimes manually processed (gutted mainly) and stored before the auction starts.

“This track is a favorite for a couple of reasons. Most important for me was the discovery of sounds.

“I have never been in such a place before. I was asked to go there by a friend who wanted to do some sort of art project and he wanted someone to record interviews  and sounds of the area. Unfortunately, nothing ever came of it.

“But the invitation yielded me access to a building I would never enter otherwise. The discovery of a large group of men working really hard a 5.15 in the morning, generating a multitude of sounds, really inspired me to do more of this sort of field recording.

“The recording itself never ceases to amaze me, because of the depth of the sound, and the difference distance makes to a recorded sound. All the plastic crates are of the same material, but the way they are tossed and the location where they are tossed, makes for a nice soundscape.

Paul Virostek, Creative Field Recording

  • Canadian Grand Prix – Montreal, Canada
  • Recorded with a Sony PCM-D100 and Rycote furry.

“I have many favourite field recordings, but my current favourite are my recordings of an F1 race at the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, Canada.

“Recordings of F1 car races are quite rare. Recording these cars and their complex character was something I had wanted to do for a long time. So actually capturing them and recording them cleanly was a challenge I had set for myself, and was thrilled to have achieved it.

“More than that, I wanted to depict the feeling of being at a motorsports event via sound. Thousands of people attend the Grand Prix and watch the cars whip by all weekend. There isn’t much to see, since the cars pass by in fractions of a second. However, feeling the power of the cars, mostly through sound, is exciting, and one of the main reasons fans attend.

“I wanted to capture that. I love these recordings because they depict the power and emotion of the cars in snarling decelerations and whining passes by. It evokes the feeling of the festival, memories of attending, and the shared enjoyment of the event with the other people there.”

Jase Warner, UK

  • Military band playing – Arsenale, Venice, Italy
  • Recorded with a Zoom H2N.

“Out of all the field recordings that I have taken since I started doing so some 2 years ago, this is the one that I go back to most often.

“I was visiting the Biennale in Venice in 2013. It was a bright, warm and sunny day, and my girlfriend, her brother and I were strolling through an outdoor part of one of the exhibitions. We stumbled upon a grassy verge and sat down while a military band settled themselves into a small boat on the water just ahead of us. I took my Zoom recorder out, put my headphones on and started recording, curious to see what would unfold.

“The first forty seconds of the recording consist of background noise: people chatting, footsteps, the crunch of gravel, birds squawking and although this is somewhat subjective, to my mind, the hum of sunshine and blue skies. At this point the military band begin their song, as their vessel eases them across the water.

“The music that they play is beautiful and sad; my memories of this recording are beautiful and happy, though perhaps happy is a little vague, peaceful might be a more specific word. In short, the juxtaposition interests me, and even more so in that I chanced upon the situation, the latter of which I suppose is the essence of field recording: capturing unexpected moments.”