Field recording

What is field recording?

Field recording can be defined as the art and practice of recording the sounds of the world, and it’s a central part of everything about Cities and Memory. There are many other ways to view the practice of field recording, but in all cases it will comprise making audio recordings outside the confines of a studio and out “on location”, whether that’s the sounds of natural environment or urban spaces.

In our view, field recording is a form of creative, active and intensive listening to the world around us.

Our global sound map features field recordings from more than 120 countries and territories all over the world, with more than 6,000 sounds on the map – and it helps to demonstrate some of the many different purposes and roles that field recording can play in our lives.

Field recording at a nature reserve in Oxford, UK.
1. Sound recording as documentary and preservation

There is an important aspect of documentary and preservation around field recording, capturing for posterity the sounds of our world as those sounds are in danger of disappearing forever. 

This was one important aspect, for instance, of our project Obsolete Sounds, which collected everything from the clank and buzz of old technology like modems and disc drives to disappearing cultural practices. Similarly, the project Shortwave Transmissions shares an incredible archive of shortwave radio recordings, some of which are eyewitness accounts of major moments in history, and presents those sounds back to the listener.Obsolete Sounds - a collection of disappearing and endangered sounds

2. Using sound to capture how we live now

Field recording can also capture vital snapshots of the present – in fact, just as a photograph is about freezing a particular image, a recording is about preserving fragments of time and tiny pieces of history every time we press the “record” button. 

For instance, our project Protest and Politics was not just the first collection of the sounds of protest and social activism, but it was also a way to use sound to preserve very particular moments in time – from protests against Trump and Brexit to commentary on climate change, race, the economy and much more. Similarly, we created the world’s biggest collection of the sounds of the Covid-19 lockdowns in the #StayHomeSounds project, which used sound to document how the sounds of practically the entire world shifted and changed during the pandemic lockdowns. Much of the media coverage from this project focused on how field recording was an important statement of record of how the entire world was living at that time.

3. Using sound to raise awareness of issues

The practice of field recording can also be a powerful way of making a statement about a specific issue. A great example of this is our Polar Sounds project, which took recordings from the Arctic and Antarctic collected painstakingly over many months, and used those recordings to reframe how people might think about human impact on animals in the polar environments. 

Migration Sounds - sounds of the world's migration, settlement and diaspora communitiesOur Migration Sounds project uses recordings of migration, settlement, home and diaspora communities (and the stories behind those sounds) to cast a new light on conversations around migration, and is a great example of how field recording can be used not just to help us listen differently, but to help us think differently about an issue. Elsewhere, our Well-Being Cities project, presented at the C40 Cities conference in Buenos Aires, used sounds to spotlight what sustainability might mean in urban environments.

4. Appreciating the beauty of recorded sound

And of course, field recording has a real and genuine beauty all of its own – with the growing popularity of ambient music and the ASMR phenomenon, more and more people are turning to field recordings as a way to destress from the modern world. 

Our Music for Sleep project tapped into exactly this, using recordings specifically designed to induce rest and relaxation, like waves, birdsong, forest soundscapes or even humming machinery to help people channel sleep.

Cities and Memory creator Stuart Fowkes field recording on the London Underground. Credit: Ben Standall/AFP.
Cities and Memory creator Stuart Fowkes field recording on the London Underground. Credit: Ben Standall/AFP.

Exploring the different types of field recording

Many of our field recordings are collected together on our Types of Sound page, in which we present recordings categorised into themed playlists, including the sounds of nature like birdsong, the sounds of insects and animals, the sounds of the Earth like wind, water and storms, through to the enormous range of human-made sounds like city soundscapes, industrial sounds, music, bells, prayer, song and protest. 

Some of the commonest soundscapes are encapsulated in our global projects too. The sounds of nature are collected together in Sounding Nature, and specific natural sounds from the most famous national park in the world can be found in our Yellowstone collection. 

Urban soundscapes and street recording are captured in the Future Cities project, and we drill down into the sounds of trains, airports and metros in the Until We Travel selection. The sounds of churches, temples, bells and prayer are some of the most beautiful in the world, and hundreds of these can be listened to in Sacred Spaces.

Field recording resources

Over the years, we’ve created several guides to recording and sound – here we collect them all for you to explore.

Perspectives on field recording

What makes a recording special? 15 recordists tell us about their favourite ever recording

Eight things that make a recording special – eight factors that lift a recording from good to great

The noise made by peoplean essay on anthropophony (human-generated sound), and the role sound recording can play in sonic preservation

Why Venice is the best city for field recording a love letter to Venice as a haven for sound recordists

Field recording tips for beginners 

The top 5 things you need to make a great recording – Think about these five questions before you hit ‘record’ for the first time

Ten top simple field recording tips – ten essential tips for beginners (and as a refresher for experts too)

Field recording resources

The essential field recording & sound books – our collection of the best reads on sound, recording, and other sonic inspiration

The best field recording albumsan inspiring collection of albums based on or using field recordings as a source material

The top ten sound maps our collection of some of the internet’s best sound maps 

Field recording and Cities and Memory

Cities and Memory founder Stuart Fowkes field recording in Moscow, Russia

Stuart Fowkes

Cities and Memory creator

Stuart Fowkes is the creator of Cities and Memory, and has been a highly experienced field recordist for two decades, recording sounds all over the world, hundreds of which can be heard on our global sound map. 

He has delivered extensive training on field recording, as well as delivering presentations on sound and recording at events and conferences across Europe.

Field recording in New York City.
Field recording by the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City.